God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating Words That Mean More Than One Thing

Frequently a Hebrew or Greek word will, in the eyes of English speakers, “mean more than one thing.”

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

There are two ways for this to happen. The first is when there are really two foreign words, similar to the situation with “bank” in English (both a financial institution and the side of a river); that’s not what I have in mind here. The trickier case is when the foreign word only has one meaning, but that meaning is more general than any English word, so it takes two (or more) English words to cover the same semantic territory as the one foreign word. This is depicted graphically to the right.

A simple example might be eitz in Hebrew, which means both “tree” and “wood” in English. It’s not that eitz means more than one thing. Rather, the Hebrew term is more encompassing than any English word. So we say that it “means more than one thing,” but really we just have a mismatch between English and Hebrew. (When the situation is reversed, we again generally resort to English-centric terminology, and say that the foreign language has two words “for the same thing.”)

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

I see three possible translation scenarios, depicted to the left. In the first two, context makes it clear how to translate the foreign word into English. These two cases are usually easy for the translator, and it’s generally only a linguistic curiosity that the foreign language has but one word for the two English ones. Continuing our example, the “eitz of knowing good and evil” is a “tree,” while the eitz of which the ark was built is “wood.”

But sometimes the usage of the foreign word spans both English words, and this is always a true dilemma for the translator. Neither English word suffices as a translation. We don’t see this with eitz, but lots of other words come to mind.

One example seems to be sarx in Greek (as was discussed extensively about a month ago by Peter Kirk, Clayboy, Mark Goodacre, Jason Staples and others, and again in passing yesterday by T. C. Robinson). It’s not exactly that sarx means more than one thing. Rather, its meaning includes “body” in English, but it is broader than that English word. When sarx is used for “body” or “flesh” (say, in Leviticus 13:24), it’s easy to find an English translation. But when it includes “body” and other important denotations as well, a good translation is elusive.

I think another set of examples comes from gender words. The Greek adelphos, for example, includes the English “brother,” but also what we might awkwardly call “co-member of society.” Again, the word doesn’t have more than one meaning, just more than one good translation, depending on context.

What other important words like this present themselves?


October 22, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , ,


  1. Is there a word that doesn’t mean more than one thing?

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | October 22, 2009

    • I think sometimes the match between English and Hebrew/Greek is so close that the different meanings are barely relevant for translation.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 22, 2009

      • הבין‬ / υπονοώ / understand

        Comment by J. K. Gayle | October 24, 2009

  2. A related issue is the problem of double entendres, which are nearly impossible to adequately translate. “Anothen” in John 3 comes to mind—is it better to translate “again,” so Nicodemus’ misunderstanding makes sense or “from above” so Jesus’ meaning better comes across (but the pun and Nicodemus’ misunderstanding are lost). Double entendres and puns take this problem to a whole different level.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 22, 2009

    • Exactly.

      And word games like this are important — more important than many people in the scientific era would like to think. For example, I believe that “you are what you eat” became popular because it’s a pun in German: Mann ist [is] was Mann isst [eats].

      Comment by Joel H. | October 22, 2009

  3. Here is a link to Jason’s site. The link in the article is broken.


    Comment by bob mutch | August 14, 2010

    • Thanks, Bob, for the updated link.

      Comment by Joel H. | August 22, 2010

  4. […] God Didn’t Say That: Translating Words That Mean More Than One Thing […]

    Pingback by Sarx And The NIV Translation Sinful Nature | August 23, 2010

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