God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Doublets Are Part And Parcel of Bible Translation

Even though “part” means roughly the same thing as “portion,” and “parcel” means “division,” “part and parcel” cannot equally be phrased, “portion and division.”

Yet when I read many Bible translations, I feel like exactly that sort of error has taken place.

The phrase “Tohu and vohu” in Genesis receives lots of attention, because the common “without form and void” misses the assonance completely. “Dust and ashes” for the Hebrew “efer and afar” was originally just as bad, and even though it’s common now, it still misses the assonance of the original.

More widespread and less commonly noticed are pairs created by parallel structure, as, for example in Job 38:36 (I’ve mentioned this before) where two pairs become, respectively, “wisdom/understanding” (not too bad) and “inward parts/mind” (hmm?).

Isaiah 1:2 demonstrates the same common pattern with the doubly parallel words shim’u/ha’azinu and shamayim/eretz. The second pair is “heaven(s)/earth” (again, not too bad) but the first is often the dubious “hear” and “give ear.” (“Listen” is better.)

Psalm 95 works the same way, with n’ran’na/nari’a and adonai/tzur yis’einu, which typically become “sing/make a joyful noise” or “sing/cry out” and “Lord/rock of our salvation.”

And so it goes.

I’m not casting blame here — it’s hard enough to translate one ancient word poetically, let alone two — but I sometimes wonder if translators even try.

October 13, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments

The Dubious Value of Multiple Bible Translations

The question of the value of consulting multiple translations comes up from time to time (recently here, for example). But beyond flagging passages where a reader might want to investigate a bit more, I’m not entirely sure what the value is. As the chart to the right depicts (click on it to enlarge it), multiple translations can easily cluster around a meaning which is wrong.

One easy way for this to happen is when translators base their work on older wrong translations. They might do this directly by consulting the older translations, or indirectly by looking up words in a lexicon that in turn is based on an older translation.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | using Bible translations | , , | 7 Comments

Follow-Up on God’s Word

Polycarp has begun a more detailed look at the God’s Word translation, starting with Romans 5:1-11. Take a look.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions | , , | Leave a comment

It Doesn’t Matter the Condition of the Grammar

I think back to a radio spot for lechayim, an “auto donation program” (that is, a program for donating your car, not for donating yourself). The announcer in the ad tells listeners that if they donate their car to lechayim they will get a tax deduction, and furthermore, “it doesn’t matter the condition of the car!”

It’s pretty clear that the text was written by someone who speaks Yiddish.

Somehow the ad was written, edited, produced, and aired without anyone noticing that it makes no sense except to a small subset of English speakers.

This sounds like many Bible translations I’ve encountered.

I think the ad can teach us about three ways that some Bible translations go astray:

1. People doing the translations speak another language — Yiddish in the case of the ad, Hebrew/Greek in the case of Bible translation — and this knowledge shifts their internal grammar of their native language. They start to think that “it doesn’t matter the condition…” (in the case of the ad), or, say, “I spoke unto him saying…” (in the case of Bible translation) is English.

2. People evaluating the translations become so familiar with the flawed English that they, too, start to think it’s grammatical.

3. Context is often powerful enough to override — or, at least, significantly mask — ungrammaticality.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 1 Comment

The Mighty Merism

Doug Chaplin has a post about to alpha kai to o[mega], “the alpha and the omega.” This poetic device is technically called a merism — though Doug, being wiser than I, avoids putting “merism” in the title of his post, presumably not wanting to scare readers away before they start reading.

(“Young and old” is an example of a merism in English. The phrase means young, old, and everyone in between.)

The various translations of the merism to alpha kai to omega demonstrate some of the trade-offs of translation.

It seems to me that the elements of the original Greek perhaps worth preserving in translation are: (1) the merism; (2) the alphabetic nature of the imagery; (3) the ease of understanding; and (4) the actual letters alpha and omega.

I was surprised by the Latin Vulgate: A et W principium et finis. It starts with “A and W,” which is like saying in English “from A to O.” “W” — I didn’t even know it was part of the Latin alphabet — is certainly not the last letter of the Latin alphabet. This is probably why the translators had to add “beginning and end” by way of clarification. So they preserved (1) with their addition, (2) by using letters, (3) by the combination, and came pretty close to (4). It therefore seems like a good translation, but I don’t like it.

The KJV and others follow the Vulgate’s text (adding “the beginning and the ending”), but citing the Greek letters alpha and omega instead of transliterating them, missing the mark on (3) a little but coming closer to (4).

The Message goes for “A to Z,” slightly missing (1), because the merism would be “A and Z,” not “A to Z.” (But then again, “A and Z” isn’t an expression in English. Was the Greek phrase common?) The Message captures (2) and (3), but completely misses (4).

TEV translates, “the first and the last,” missing (2) and therefore also (4), which, of the criteria, do seem to be the least important.

The rest of the translations tend toward “Alpha and Omega,” which surely misses (3), and requires a bit of education to accomplish (2) and even more to capture (1).

Does anyone have information about translations into languages that don’t have alphabets?

October 11, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 1 Comment

Professor Ellen van Wolde and bara in Genesis

The Dutch Trouw has an article about Professor Ellen van Wolde’s notion that:

Zo stuitte ze op de openingsverzen van het bijbelboek waarop ze ooit promoveerde. Preciezer: Op het werkwoord bara. Dat betekent volgens iedereen ‘scheppen’, maar voor Van Wolde voldeed die vertaling niet meer. “Het klópte gewoon niet.” Bij het werkwoord was God het onderwerp (God schiep…), gevolgd door ‘steeds twee of meer lijdende voorwerpen’. Waarom schiep God niet één ding of dier, maar steeds meerdere? Omdat, stelde Van Wolde vast, God niet schiep, maar scheidde. De aarde van de hemel, het land van de zee, de zeemonsters van de vogels en het gekrioel op de grond. [Emphasis added.]

That is, according to Van Wolde, bara means “separated,” not “created.” Her evidence is that the verb applies to more than one thing at a time: “heaven” and “earth,” for example, which she takes as “separated heaven from earth.”

I don’t see it.

There’s enormous evidence from elsewhere that bara means “create,” not “separate.” And even though Genesis starts out by things that are created in pairs or groups, we don’t have to look far to see counterexamples: The first part of Genesis 1:27 (“God barad adam“), Genesis 5:1 (similar), Isaiah 43:1 (“…Adonai, who barad you…”), Malachi 2:10 (“[we are all the same because] one God barad us”), Amos 4:13 ([the one who “forms the mountains and baras the wind”), Ezekiel 21:35 (“in the place where you were barad … I will judge you”), etc. Even her own example from Genesis 1:21 (“sea monsters,” and “birds”) seems barely to fit her thesis.

And for that matter, there is a verb “separate” (hivdil) in the creation story.

I wouldn’t want my own work judged from a newspaper account of it, but in this case we all have the lexical data. It’s true that bara sometimes applies to more than one thing. But even without the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I think it would be an unwarranted leap to therefore assume that the verb means “separate.”

[UPDATE: For more, see here, here, and here.]

[UPDATE 2: I’ve put together a short review of Dr. Van Wolde’s paper.]

October 9, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 12 Comments

A Note About God’s Word

Polycarp has some comments about the God’s Word translation, where he quotes a text that refers readers to a PDF called “A Guide to GOD’’S WORD Translation: Translating the Bible according to the Principles of Closest Natural Equivalence.” It’s an impressive document. Take a look.

Unfortunately, the translation doesn’t always seem to rise the promise of its principles.

It claims to be a fully new translation, yet it seems to mirror some other versions pretty closely. Just for example, Psalm 98:4 is generally difficult to translate because of its four “singing”-like verbs: hari’u, pitschu, ran’nu, and zameru. The first one starts the verse, and the last three appear one after the other at the end. Rather than simply conjoin all three verbs, the ESV, for example, goes with, “break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” Similarly, God’s Word offers, “Break out into joyful singing, and make music.” The similarities of syntax and word choice (“break forth”/”break out” and “joyous song”/”joyful singing”) seem unlikely in a translation that didn’t rely on other English versions.

And for that matter, the rendition of the line — “Shout happily to the LORD, all the earth.//Break out into joyful singing, and make music” — doesn’t seem to rise to the level of poetry.

Still, most translations do no better, and in light of the obviously well-informed thought that went into designing the translation, I think God’s Word deserves closer attention.

October 8, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments

Hebrew Grammar Quirks

Still following up on what Pete Enns said:

Second, I would be prepared at how Hebrew does not “behave itself,” i.e., how grammars necessarily abstract the language almost to the point where a fair amount of what you’ve been learning doesn’t correspond to the actual biblical text.

More than once I have encountered this sort of surprise at the biblical text. So I’m curious, what sorts of quirks of Hebrew grammar have people encountered that seem to run contrary to what they learned about Hebrew?

October 8, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | Leave a comment

The Grammar Can’t Be Wrong

In an interview with Karyn Traphagen, Pete Enns says:

Second, I would be prepared at how Hebrew does not “behave itself,” i.e., how grammars necessarily abstract the language almost to the point where a fair amount of what you’ve been learning doesn’t correspond to the actual biblical text.

While a printed grammar of a language can be (and frequently is) wrong, the underlying grammar of the language is always right. That is, there are rules by which all languages operate, and one task of the linguist is to discover those rules. In this regard modern linguistics, beginning last century, has been particularly helpful. (Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct is a great introduction.)

So if people are working from books that don’t match up with the language they’re studying, I think it’s time to stop blaming the language and start blaming the books.

October 8, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , | 2 Comments

Morning Buck

From my backyard….

Morning Buck

מלאה הארץ קנינך

October 7, 2009 Posted by | Off Topic | | Leave a comment