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 | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

On Translations for Children

Karyn Traphagen notes that Dr. Ellen Frankel has some thoughts about making the Bible PG for children. (Dr. Frankel authored the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible.)

Seeing this reminded of something I saw some time ago in a “children’s prayerbook” along the lines of “Like wine, the sabbath is sweet.” The problem is that children think wine is disgusting, so I doubt that comparing the sabbath to wine is really a good way to reach children.

Then I got to wondering more generally if translations need to be tailored to children, and I think the answer is at least partially “yes,” because children speak a different dialect of English. (The translation issues are in addition to any content changes, such as perhaps removing rape.)

At the most basic level, children have a different vocabulary and syntax than adults. Just as the British and American versions of some translations differ according to the two dialects, shouldn’t a children’s version take into account how children use language?

Similarly, some biblical metaphors are completely opaque to children. For example, the common image among the Prophets of a “barren women” is beyond the understanding of young children, but the point may not be.

On the other hand, I see at least four drawbacks to children’s translations:

1. Children may come to think that their children’s version is the Only True Version of the Bible, and then, as adults, refuse to use any other. This would leave them with a permanently pediatric view of the Bible.

2. More generally, children may never learn that the Bible is suitable for adults.

3. Parents — many of whom read the Bible primarily with their children — may find reinforcement for their preconceived notions that the Bible is childish.

4. As a practical matter, translating for children is difficult. A bad translation is probably worse than no translation.

So I wonder: should we create children’s translations of the Bible?

October 20, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 9 Comments

On Psalm 137: A Romp On The Banks of Babylon’s Rivers

Polycarp has posted the God’s Word translation of Psalm 137, along with the NASV and NLT for comparison. I’m glad he did, because it’s always a treat to revisit Psalm 137. (I won’t copy his translation chart here, so you might want to open his page for comparison while you read this.)

I posted a while ago about the impressive nature of the guide the translators of God’s Word wrote, even as I voiced my concern that the translation might not live up to its promise.

With Psalm 137 we see more evidence that practice is harder than theory.

The first verse of Psalm 137 starts with the Hebrew al naharot bavel, and the second follows up with al aravim b’tocha. Notice the repetition of “al.” While I’ve yet to find a translation that captures this, it’s still disappointing.

More disappointing is the continued insistence on the awkward “rivers of Babylon.” Robert Alter gets this right with his “Babylon’s streams”: “By Babylon’s streams//there we sat, oh we wept,//when we recalled Zion.” I’m less concerned about “streams” versus “rivers” than I am with the “X of Y” phrasing, which frequently should be “Y’s X.”

However, Alter’s reason for choosing “streams” is interesting. He says in a footnote that:

naharot generally means “rivers,” but because the more probable reference is to the network of canals that connected the Tigris and the Euphrates, “streams” is a preferable translation here.

I’m note sure. If the word means “rivers” in Hebrew but was nonetheless used for streams, why can’t we do the same thing in English, and use the word “river” for streams? On the other hand, maybe Alter’s point is that the Hebrew is ambiguous, but in English we have to choose.

The next line variously refers to “poplars” or “willows,” and while clearly the matter is important to many translators (the ESV, NAB, NRSV, and probably others have a footnote), I must admit that I have no idea what a poplar is. However, the Hebrew word is aravim, which also means both “evenings” and “Arabians.” I wonder if the word didn’t form a pun in the line, “on the aravim in it, we hung up our harps.” If so, “weeping willows” is probably a good translation, even if the trees were poplars.

I’m surprised to see italics for “They said” in verse 3. The idea of italicizing words that “aren’t in the original” is usually a terrible one, but I have to admit that in verse 5 it’s pretty convenient. The issue in verse 5 is that the Hebrew reads “may my right forget.” It’s very common in Hebrew to find “right” for “right hand,” so: “may my right hand forget.” But forget what? Again, Alter explains the issue perfectly:

[footnote] 5. may my right hand wither. The Masoretic text reads “may my right hand forget [tishkah].” This is problematic because there is no evidence elsewhere for an intransitive use of the verb “to forget” — hence the strategy of desperation of the King James Version in adding, in italics, an object to the verb, “its cunning.” But a simple reversal of consonants yields tikhhash, “wither.”

God’s Word goes with, “let my right hand forget how to play the lyre” (original italics).

Most translations miss the key word play in verses 3-4. The Babylonians (“they”) demand, “sing to us from a song of Zion [shir tzion]” and the Israelites (“we”) reply, “how can we a song of Adonai [shir Adonai]….” “They” think it’s just a nationalistic song “of Zion,” but “we” know that it’s God’s song. Surprisingly, the NLT doesn’t do too badly in this regard with “one of those songs of Jerusalem” and “the songs of the Lord.” (But so much else the NLT rendition here is wrong.)

As for verses 8-9 and the horribly gruesome image of smashing children against rocks, I would hope that we’ve missed something, but the “children” in verse 9 seem to be “child[ren] of Babylon” that we see in verse 8 with the Hebrew bat bavel, “daughter of Babylon.”

October 20, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 4 Comments

On the Word breishit

Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent article about Genesis has brought the debate about the word breishit to the fore again.

Some people don’t like the traditional understanding — “In the beginning” — because the Hebrew word is, literally, “in a beginning” or “in the beginning of.” (Simon Holloway recently provided a little more detail.)

Accordingly, some translations (such as the JPS) prefer, “When God began to create,” reading the Hebrew literally as “in the beginning of God’s creating.” Other commentators use this grammatical tidbit to argue against creation ex nihilo in Genesis.

But I think the reasoning is flawed.

We frequently see what we might call determiner mismatches in translation. That is, it’s common to find that one language requires a determiner (“the,” say) where another disallows it. For example, American English requires “the” in the phrase, “his illness put him in the hospital” while the British equivalent is “…in hospital.” Similarly, many dialects of Portuguese require a determiner before proper names (e.g., “the Paulo” instead of just “Paulo”).

In Genesis 5:2 we read that Enoch walked with ha-elohim, literally, “the God,” but every English translation I know renders the Hebrew simply as “God.”

In Deuteronomy 11:12, we find the phrase meireishit hashanah v’ad acharit shana, literally, “from the beginning of the year to an end of a year,” yet, again, the meaning is clear and translators seem content to correctly render the phrase as “the end….”

It seems to me that using English rules of grammar to understand the lack of a determiner in breshit is no different than using American rules of grammar to (mis)understand the British phrase “in hospital.”

October 18, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Translation Challenge: Psalm 17:8

The text of Psalm 17:8 brilliantly combines two Hebrew expressions, pairing both their meaning and their underlying semantic basis: shomreini k’ishun bat-ayin//b’tzel k’nafecha tastireini, that is, “guard-me like-a-dark-spot of daughter-of-eye//in-the-shadow of your-wings hide-me.”

The first expression is “keep me like the pupil of your eye,” almost universally rendered, “keep me like the apple of your eye.” (The only version I know of that translates ishun literally is the NJB: “Guard me as the pupil of an eye.”).

The second expression is, “hide me in the shadow of your wings,” and, again, translations show very little variation.

But the brilliant part of Psalm 17:8 is the juxtaposition of ishun (“dark spot”) with tzel (“shadow”), a trick every translation misses.

What we would need to complement “apple of your eye” in the same way is another expression involving fruit.

Any suggestions for a good translation of Psalm 17:8?

(Extra points if you preserve the chiasmus, and triple extra points if you can figure out what bat ayin means.)

October 16, 2009 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Man is Everywhere (And So is Woman)

In a comment on A. Admin’s post about Bill Mounce, Mark Baker-Wright takes Dr. Mounce to task for writing (originally here):

Have you noticed the new advertisement for the Prius: “Harmony Between Man, Nature And Machine.” I’ll bet Toyota would be glad to sell to women.

Dr. Mounce is using the point to support his claim that:

[T]hankfully “humankind” never occurs in the NIV/TNIV. What an ugly word! But “mankind” continues to be used as a generic term in English, as does “man.” I know there are people who disagree with this point, but the fact that it is used generically over and over again cannot truly be debated; the evidence is everywhere.

What we have here is confusion on at least two levels:

1. Different people have different dialects. This should be obvious — particularly in light of the heated debate people have about this very issue in their own language — but it seems that this point is frequently forgotten or ignored. It’s perfectly possible (and seems to be true) that one person would hear “man” or “men” and think “people,” while another person would hear “male adult people.”

So even when “there are people who disagree,” both sides can be right for their own dialects.

2. Words mean different things in different contexts. It’s perfectly possoble — and, again, seems to be true — that in English “man versus nature” has more of a general feel than “man versus woman.”

Mounce even gives us an example from his own dialect. He writes, “I know there are people who disagree.” Why didn’t he write, “I know there are men who disagree”? Because in that situation, it would seem, “men” doesn’t mean “people.”

October 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Review: Professor Ellen van Wolde on bara in Genesis

Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent paper on Genesis has captured significant attention for claiming that the Hebrew bara ought to be translated as “divided.” That is:

Met andere woorden, onze conclusie is dat het woord bara niet ‘scheppen’, maar ‘scheiden’ betekent.

I’ve already pointed out why I don’t think she can be correct, but I did so with the caveat that I hadn’t read her work. A reader pointed me to a PDF of her paper, so now, having read it, I’m able to offer this brief review. (I think I’ve got it right. It’s not so easy for me to read Dutch.)

The Evidence

Van Wolde’s evidence that bara means “separate,” not “create,” is this:

1. Creation in Genesis comes about only in one of two ways: Jussive speech (as in, “let there be light”), or with the verb asah. She writes:

Telkens wanneer iets nieuws wordt gemaakt in Genesis 1, staat dat aangegeven op een van de volgende twee manieren. 1. “God zei” gevolgd door een directe rede met een werkwoord in de aanvoegende wijs of iussivus […] 2. Zeven keren gebruikt de verteller het werkwoord asa “maken” om het scheppen van God van iets nieuws te beschrijven: God maakte het uitspansel….

2. In Genesis 1:1, the verb bara applies to two direct objects, both of which are definite, and therefore known. (“Het werkwoord drukt een type handeling uit die God uitvoert met betrekking tot twee directe lijdende voorwerpen, de hemel en de aarde….”)

3. We learn from verses 6-7 and 9-10 that the creation story is, at least in part, about transformation of the uniform water into four regions: water above the sky, water in the sky, water below the sky, and dry land. (“De handeling zelf transformeert deze uniforme watermassa in ten minste vier ruimtelijke domeinen: water boven het hemelgewelf, water onder het hemelgewelf, terwijl het water onder het hemelgewelf verder wordt verdeeld in droog land en zeeen.”)

4. Other ANE texts refer to creation stories that feature separation at the beginning.

5. In Genesis 1:21 we find the verb bara for the taninim, which are not mentioned in the previous verse or in the following verse, so the verb bara in Genesis 1:21 refers to separating the taninim from the other animals.

6. In verses 26-27 we first find asah used in reference to the plural “us” and “gods,” then, in verse 27, bara only refers to “him” (God). Further, asah in verse 26 matches up with d’mut and tzelem, “image and likeness” (beeld and gelijkenis), while bara in 27 only has tzelem. Van Wolde uses these facts to posit that verse 27 refers to (a) separating man from the plural god-man construct; and (b) then separating man from woman.

7. Van Wolde points to the word toldot in Genesis 2:4, using its etymology to suggest that it complements bara. Genesis 2:4 for her is about “begetting” and “separating.” (“Aldus blijkt dat vers 2,4a het hele verhaal evalueert en afsluit: het maken of tot stand brengen (‘schepping’) wordt weergegeven door het begrip verwekken of voortbrengen (toledot) en het scheiden wordt weergegeven door het woord bara.”)

8. Van Wolde points to other words (asah and kana) that mean “create.”

9. Van Wolde suggests that the present participle of bara is never used to mean “creator.” (“Een vierde toetssteen voor de hypothese is het opvallende feit dat in de Hebreeuwse bijbel het abstracte woord schepper nooit wordt uitgedrukt door het tegenwoordig deelwoord van bara.”)

10. Isaiah 45:7 reads, “[God] yotzers light and borehs darkness, osehs peace and borehs evil.” Van Wolde points out the theological problem with a text that ascribes the creation of darkness and evil to God, and further suggests that, in part because the words come in pairs, the verb here, too, means “separate.”

My Evaluation

I still don’t think Professor Van Wolde is correct.

Van Wolde’s “evidence” in (1) above is essentially her conclusion. If one assumes that God’s acts of creation are only described in terms of speech acts or with the verb asah, of course it follows that bara doesn’t refer to acts of creation. But (1) is what she’s trying to show, and by assuming it at the beginning she starts off weakly.

I think (2) and (3) are vague, and compatible with too many hypotheses to be helpful.

I think (4) may be interesting, but probably not directly relevant.

Points (5) and (6) also appear vague to me.

Point (7) seems to rely too closely on the etymology of toldot.

Point (8) seems irrelevant, because the same logic could show that asah doesn’t mean “create,” because kanah does.

I may have misunderstood the Dutch that I summarized as point (9), because it doesn’t seem to be accurate. Isaiah 40:28, for example, reads, “Adonai is the boreh of the ends of the earth.”

Finally, (10) is the same sort of reasoning as (2), the theology notwithstanding.

So in the end, Van Wolde’s argument boils down to two arguments: (A) the verb bara is sometimes applied to pairs; and (B) other verbs mean “create.” And her article doesn’t address the numerous other uses of bara where it seems that only “create” is possible.

So I’m not convinced.

October 15, 2009 Posted by | article review, translation practice | , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Sometimes Bible Translation is a Piece of Cake

Can I use “Bible translation is a piece of cake” to mean that Bible translation is sweet (like cake), but only part of a larger, complete object? English speakers know that the answer is “no.”

The reason it doesn’t work is that “a piece of cake” is an idiom in English, and its meaning doesn’t come from the meaning of the words that comprise it. (For non-English speakers: the phrase means “easy.”) But what would happen if I had to translate something from a language in which “piece of cake” wasn’t an idiom, but — in the case of my translation — a metaphor? Clearly I couldn’t use “piece of cake” in my translation, because the idiomatic meaning would overpower any metaphoric meaning.

I think the same thing has happened over time with some English translations that otherwise would work. For example, “dust and ashes” (though it misses the assonance of the Hebrew) was — I believe — a nice metaphor in the English of the KJV, just as it was probably a nice metaphor in Genesis and Job. But now it’s a common expression. Does that destroy the power of the translation?

What about “daily bread,” also (I think) once a metaphor, now a widespread idiom?

Or what about “salt of the earth,” which is now an idiom that probably doesn’t mean what alas tes ges did?

I’m not sure what can be done, but it seems as though phrases in very successful Bible translations end up becoming idioms, and then because they are idioms, they are no longer successful translations.

October 14, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Q&A: trei asar – The Twelve Prophets

Another question from the About page:

The Twelve Prophets . I find it strange that the abbreviation for these books is given as תרי עשר

Why are the 12 called 10? Please could you say more about the grammar of this phrase. Thanks

The word תרי (trei) is actually Aramaic for “two,” so תרי עשר (trei asar) is “twelve.”

The prefix is most commonly known in Modern Hebrew from the word tresar, “dozen,” though unlike its English equivalent, tresar is formal.

October 13, 2009 Posted by | Q&A | , | 1 Comment

Translation Challenge: Psalm 2:2

Psalm 2:2 exhibits particularly clever structure, with meanings that form chiasmus and word combinations that pattern in straight parallelism.

The Hebrew reads: yityats’vu malchei erets//v’roznim nosdu yachdav. Yityatsvu means the about same thing as nosdu yachdav, and malchei eretz is like roznim. That’s the chiasmus. But equally, each line has three words, and both times the first words stand alone while the 2nd and 3rd form a pair.

Obviously, the KJV “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together” preserves none of this.

Can anyone think of a translation that captures the structure and meaning and beauty of the original?

October 13, 2009 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , , | 8 Comments