God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating and Improving the Bible

Joel Berkowitz (in Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage) writes of the hubris of Yiddish theaters that promoted Yiddish productions of Shakespeare that were “translated and improved.”*

Though we mock it now, I often think I see the same thing in Bible translations, in two related ways:

1. “Translators” want to make the general flavor of the text into something it never was, frequently either overly formal (NKJV, for example) or overly informal (GNB / TEV).

2. “Translators” want to explain not just what the text says, but what it “means.” Sometimes this takes the flavor of theological interpretation. Other times it comes from a desire to make an opaque text simple.

The second issue came up recently in a comment by Peter Kirk, who correctly points out that expanding on bara in Genesis 1:1 to specify details of creation that are absent from the original text “go[es] beyond what is necessary for translation […] into theological speculation.”

One criticism of translating sarx as “sinful nature” is that is, too, is a “translation and an improvement” in that it fills in details on which the original text is silent. (Another criticism is that it’s not what the text meant. But my point here is that even if it is what the text meant, it might not be the right translation.)

Similarly, it seems to me that “translators” who take gender-specific texts and make them generic are “translating and improving.” For that matter, taking a generic text and making it gendered is a mistake, though I think this reverse pattern usually happens by error — because the translators don’t understand gender in the original language as well as they think they do — not by design.

A case in point is “ancestors.” Let’s assume I’m right that the Hebrew avot means “ancestors.” How, then, should we translate “to your avot, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 1:9)? Even though the ancestors listed are all male, and even if the biblical culture was such that only the men counted (I don’t think it was — but let’s assume), I still don’t think “ancestors” should be changed to “fathers.”

A more radical case makes the reasoning clearer. If patir refers to God, I think it should still be translated as either “father” or “parent,” not as “God.”

The reason I put scare quotes around “translators” so many times here is that in my opinion translation is incompatible with deciding a priori what the content or style of the translation should be. You can (try to) improve the text, or you can translate it, but you can’t do both.

(*) By the way, though the “translated and improved” slogan is widely cited, I’ve been unable to confirm it. If you have a photo of the original, I’ll be most grateful to see it.


November 3, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright | November 4, 2009

  2. […] On the other hand, there are times when the content of what we want to translate is complex, and here I think translators have to resist the temptation to “translate and improve.” […]

    Pingback by Being Clear on Being Clear « God Didn't Say That | January 29, 2010

  3. It finally dawned on me with great clarity that the sarx/pneuma dichotomy that characterizes Paul is the very same one as Moses described when he said the God made man out of dirt and then breathed into him the breath of life.

    /pnonton zohs


    Some object to Paul being so negative about the human body while Moses was so positive about it, but clearly Paul sees the body as seriously problematic:

    Gal 5:17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

    Or as he says so explicitly here:

    Rom 7:24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 15, 2010

  4. […] So the English word “Jews” and the Greek word ioudaioi are similarly vague, making “Jews” exactly the right translation. Anything more is to make the mistake of “translating and improving.” […]

    Pingback by Which Jews Opposed Jesus? « God Didn't Say That | November 21, 2010

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