God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

It’s often pointed out that actually knowing more than one language is helpful for intuiting how translation works. But I think many of the same intuitions can come from thinking about just one language. Here are two examples from English:

1. Jim West recently wrote that “Bob Cargill has penned” something. What role does “pen” play in that phrase? In a language that can’t make nouns into verbs the way English does, should the translation be the equivalent of “wrote with a pen” or just “wrote”? What about “dialed [a phone]”? What about “top of the hour” for a society that has no physical clocks (or just digital ones!)?

Jim qualified his opening line: “Bob Cargill has penned (I know, it’s an anachronism since he typed and didn’t pen at all)….” In that broader context, is “pen” a crucial element of the phrase that needs to be translated?

2. “Sofa” and “couch” mean almost exactly the same thing. But a “couch potato” isn’t a “sofa potato.” (For non-English speakers: A “couch potato” is someone who’s lazy, especially someone who lazes on a couch or sofa, and especially someone who does so to watch television.) What goes wrong if “sofa” and “couch” get mixed up? How can we know when the two words are interchangeable and when they’re not?

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , | Comments Off on Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Clayboy has a short post in which he describes an experiment he ran. He told an audience, “I like to ask my fellow men to stand.” Only the men stood.

This is pretty convincing evidence that, at least where he was, “men” doesn’t mean “men and women.”

I wonder if there is any context in which the women would have stood, too.

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | 9 Comments

Is a Book Report a Translation?

I recently criticized The Message for adding “all you see, all you don’t see” to its rendering of Genesis 1:1. Dannii responded:

If you think the Hebrew refers to the totally of God’s creative work, both the earth, the heaven(s), the underworld, the physical, the metaphysical, the spiritual, the holy and the demonic, then The Message conveys that quite well.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t make The Message a good translation. It makes it a nice elucidation (perhaps), or a nice commentary (perhaps), but I don’t think that explaining what the text refers to is the job of the translation.

This is not the only case of disagreement about how to use the word “translation.”

There’s a movement underfoot to create a “conservative translation” of the Bible. (The program has been widely mocked, but it’s for real, and a lot of serious people are involved.)

Similarly, a common theme among Bible translators is to decide a priori how complex the English should be. In the same thread in which I mentioned The Message, Dannii noted (correctly in my opinion) that that version is “is written in a low, conversational register” which “obscures the differences in genre and register between books and passages,” to which Peter Kirk added (also correctly in my opinion) that “most other English Bible translations are written in a consistently formal and high level register, marked all the more by the presence of obsolescent words and syntax,” so they do the same.

At issue, I think, is two different ways people use the word “translation.” When I use it, I mean an English rendition that as closely as possible captures the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic of the original.

Some people use the same word “translation” to mean any English publication that is based (closely enough?) on the original. So I would say that The Message is a paraphrase, not a translation, while they would say that it is translation that’s a paraphrase. Similarly, a conservatized or simplified or archaicized volume that means sort of what the Bible does might be, for them, a “translation.”

It’s not up to me to tell people how to use words, so they are free to keep using “translation” however they like. But I think it’s important to keep the difference clear.

I also wonder how close the English has to be to be called a “translation” even under the broader use of the word.

Can a book report be a translation?

November 12, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , | 9 Comments

Q&A: What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?

From the about page comes this important question:

I am currently trying to find a good Bible translation to read and study from. What would you recommend and could you point me to any good articles/books/resources which could help me make this decision? Thanks!

It’s hard to imagine a reply that won’t get someone really angry with me, but I’ll still give it a shot.

My short answer is this: start with the New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”) or the New American Bible (“NAB”). Both are widely available, and in my opinion generally unsurpassed in accuracy (though each also has its own drawbacks).

The longer answer begins with some background. There are essentially four different kinds of English Bibles available today:

1. Paraphrases. These are like “English books based on the original Hebrew/Greek Bible,” sometimes only coming as close as a movie based on a book. The most common are The Message and The Living Bible. These tend to be written in colloquial, even chatty English, and are easy to read. But even though they are so accessible, I generally don’t recommend them, because they hide much of the original beauty and complexity of the Bible.

2. Word for Word Translations. I could equally call these “partial translations.” They take the words of the original Bible and try to reproduce each one in English. As a matter of translation, this is usually a really bad idea. But as a matter of religion (particularly for Jews) there are some good reasons to do this, so these partial translations of the Bible are more popular than they otherwise would be. The most common word-for-word translation is the English Standard Version (“ESV”). I don’t generally recommend publications that take this approach because they tend to create the wrong impression that the Bible was archaic or even incomprehensible.

3. Full Translations. These are Bibles that try to produce a true English equivalent of the text of the Bible, which is what you probably want. The most common are the New International Version (“NIV”), and the NRSV and NAB that I’ve already mentioned.

4. Outdated Full Translations. These are much older English translations, so they translate the Bible into English we no longer use. There’s no good theoretical reason to read one of these Bibles, but there’s a good practical reason. The King James Version (“KJV”) and the New King James Version (“NKJV”) are examples of this approach, and they are the most widely cited English Bible translations. When most people think of “what the Bible says,” they think of the KJV.

The reason I give all of this background is that at first glance each of (1), (2), and (4) seems to be appealing — for ease of reading, apparent fidelity to the text, and apparent authenticity — but they are each mostly misleading in this regard.

However, which Bible you ultimately want depends on what you want to do with it. If you belong to a religious community that has already chosen a translation, you probably want to stick with what your community has chosen; similarly, most translations reflect not only what the Bible originally meant but also what subsequent religious thinkers said that it meant. If you just want a general sense of what the Bible stories in Genesis or the Gospels are about, a paraphrase is the quickest path. The word-for-word translations frequently “sound like the Bible,” which can be comforting.

Regarding resources for deciding, the Better Bibles Blog has a wealth of helpful information and discussion. And lots of books explain the different Bible versions, but mostly with not enough insight into how translation works. Still, you might want to look at Philip Comfort’s Essential Guide to Bible Versions or Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation.

Finally, I would suggest that more important than a good translation is a good teacher to work with. Even a perfect translation (and none exists) would only be a starting point.

November 10, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 49 Comments

Review: Sin: A History

Sin: A History. By Gary A. Anderson. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Pp. xv, 272. $30.00.)

The Lord’s Prayer — says Gary A. Anderson in Sin: A History — can be understood only in the light of the changing metaphors for sin. So too the practice of almsgiving, as well as important parts of Isaiah, Leviticus, and much more. That’s because all of them depend on different views of sin. Unfortunately, Dr. Anderson notes, “[i]n English, sin has become tethered […] to the word forgive” and that “ubiquitous rendering […] fails to reveal the major dialectal shifts that occurred in biblical language over time” (p.4). In other words, as he repeatedly claims, “sin has a history.”

In his well-researched and pleasantly easy-to-read book, Anderson identifies three different images of sin: first, as a weight to be borne; second, as a stain to be washed away; and third, as a debt to be repaid. In Part One, he traces the transition from the first (sin as weight) to the third (sin as debt). In Parts Two and Three he covers some consequences of the shift, including the now central notion of salvation by works.

Anderson’s initial arguments are largely linguistic, because, as he points out (p. 13), “[h]ow we talk about sin […] influences what will do do about it” (his emphasis). He takes language seriously, and (with few exceptions) presents an accurate picture of how language and metaphor work.

In Chapter 2, Anderson turns to sin in the First Temple period. The most common noun for “sin” in the OT is avon (which he spells `awon — but I’ll stick to easier to read transliterations here), and although three verbs are used in connection with OT “sin,” the idiom “to bear [the weight of]” (nasa), “predominates over its nearest competitor by over six to one” (p. 17). Hebrew speakers during the First Temple period compared “sin” to “weight.” Anderson notes that this imagery is especially and unfortunately lacking from most English translations, so many people who read the Bible remain unaware of this prevalent image. Anderson’s detailed account of sin in the OT is clear, compelling, and fascinating.

Chapter 3 addresses the Second Temple period — some parts of the OT, including Second Isaiah and Daniel. By this time, Anderson claims, another image has taken over, that of sin as debt. He further notes that “the explanation is not difficult to pinpoint: the influence of Aramaic” (p. 27). Here Anderson is on shakier linguistic ground. He runs the risk of having confused simultaneity with cause. But even so, his account of the final outcome is as clear here as it was in Chapter 2.

Particularly convincing is his summary of Aramaic Targum translations of some Hebrew Bible passages on page 28. In Leviticus, the Hebrew “bear the weight of his sin [nasa avono]” becomes the Aramaic “assumes a debt [y’kabel choveh]” (Lev. 5:1). The Hebrew cheto nasa (also “bear the weight of his sin”) in Lev. 24:15 similarly becomes y’kabel choveh in Aramaic. Furthermore, the Hebrew verb “to sin” in Lev. 5:1, techeta, becomes “to be indebted” or “to be obligated” (techov) in Aramaic.

Uncontent to stop there, Anderson provides a detailed analysis of Aramaic financial terms, and shows how they are systematically mapped into the domain of sin.

The stage is thus set for Parts Two and Three of Anderson’s work, which detail the role of sin-as-debt in a variety of biblical, extra-biblical and post-biblical settings.

Anderson starts with Second Isaiah and some late additions to Leviticus, highlighting passages like “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that the debt owed for her iniquity has been satisfied” (Isaiah 40:2) that evidence the early equation of sin with debt.

Anderson takes the reader through Daniel and then early rabbinic and Christian sources, again making a clear and cogent argument: sin is debt. Furthermore, sin can therefore incur interest and cause default.

For the prophets, exile was the interest on the debt.

The ancient punishment for default was slavery, which explains, for example, Isaiah 50:1: “…and which of My creditors was it//to whom I sold you off?// You were sold off for your sins” (NJPS translation, which Anderson uses; p. 48). Similarly, Romans and central passages from 2 Colossians make sense only in this paradigm: “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (Romans 7:14) and “Christ erased the bond of indebtedness that stood against us” (2 Col. 2:14).

Indeed, “forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) makes sense only in the broader context of sin as debt, a fact reflected in the Peshitta (the Aramaic Bible), where Anderson translates the Aramaic verb for “forgive” as “to wavie one’s right [to collect]” and the noun specifically as “debt” (p. 111).

In Part Three, Anderson turns to a final aspect of debt: it can be countered by payments. We should not be surprised to find that the same becomes true of sin.

For example, Anderson cites a well known passage from the Talmud (middle of the 1st millennium AD) — now part of the traditional daily Jewish liturgy — that some good deeds “accrue interest in this world, while the principal remains for the world to come” (my translation; p. 175). Similarly, St. Augustine (also the middle of the 1st millennium) observed: “Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest in mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give earth and gain heaven” (p. 164).

Is is this context, Anderson claims, that created the notion of salvation by works and that made almsgiving so central. Both are ways of countering the indebtedness of sin.

In his final chapter, Anderson addresses “Why God Became Man,” citing and adding to St. Anselm of Canterbury’s 11th-century Cur deus homo (Why God Became Man). Anderson writes, “In developing [St. Anselm’s] argument, he provides an account of the sin of Adam and the great debt this sin occasioned. The metaphor of sin as a debt, as a result, informs every page of this book” (p. 189).

Anderson’s work is cogent, innovative, clear, and a model of popular scholarship. Anyone interested in the role of sin will gain from reading Sin: A History, as will those who want to learn more about language, metaphor, and the beautiful complexity of biblical theology. For this we are all in Anderon’s debt.

November 9, 2009 Posted by | book review, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How Can I Quote the Bible if They Keep Changing the Translation?

Buses in Israel have the following written over the priority seating reserved for the elderly: mipnei seivah takum. Though the first two words sound esoteric to adult Israeli speakers and are often incomprehensible to children, the line is, in my opinion, a beautiful nod to the holiness code of Leviticus: “Stand before the elderly.”

Unfortunately, even if we wanted to (and even if it were legal), we couldn’t do the same thing in the U.S., because everyone has a different (often bad) translation. The KJV “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head,” would prompt more than a few laughs but it wouldn’t do the job. The ESV, “you shall stand up before the gray head” is only a little better. (Why aren’t these heads attached to bodies?) The NAB “stand up in the presence of the aged” is much better, but those who grew up with the KJV might not even recognize it as Leviticus.

Relatedly, I was recently at a Jewish funeral. Some 1,000 people came to mourn, and there were no prayer books, bibles, or printed guides of any sort available. “Please join me in reciting Psalm 23,” the rabbi nonetheless instructed. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” the whole group responded, basically quoting the NKJV. This even though most people in the room had been studying from a different translation (the 1984 NJPS) for over 20 years. That translation renders the Psalm “…I lack nothing.”

I understand that proponents of the ESV try to keep “the Bible” from changing precisely because of issues like these, but it’s worth keeping in mind that neither the (N)KJV nor the ESV would help with the buses.

It seems as though, in many cases, we have to choose accuracy or standardization; we can’t have both, even though they both have merit.

And unfortunately, beyond lamenting the situation (or foolishly suggesting that everyone should learn Hebrew and Greek), I can’t think of a solution.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Clayboy on the Difficulty of Consistency in Translation

Clayboy has an excellent post on the difficulty of translating phrases consistently across the OT and the NT. Take a look.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | Comments Off on Clayboy on the Difficulty of Consistency in Translation

On Contractions

The issue of contractions in English translations has come up again recently, so I thought a look at how contractions work in English might be a good idea.

Spoken English

Spoken languages tend to obey a general rule that less is more, or, more specifically, the shortest form possible is generally the only grammatical form. So if there are two forms, one short and one long, a speaker needs a reason to use the longer one.

For example:

– Where’s Bill?

– I saw him yesterday.

In my dialect, there are two ways to pronounce “him,” namely, him and im. The only natural way to say “I saw him yesterday” is to contract “saw him” into “saw’im.” The “less is more” rule is why “saw him” sounds unnatural.

However the shorter form can’t be used when it’s conjoined. (I’ll explain why below.) So:

– Where are Bill and Mary?

– I saw him and her yesterday.

There’s no way to change “saw him and her” into *”saw’im and’er.” It’s just not Enlgish.

Similarly, “I am” can only be pronounced “I’m” in most circumstances in English, but, again, there are cases where “I’m” is impossible. (For example, *”he’s taller than I’m.”)


The shorter words “‘im,” “‘er,” “‘m,” etc. are clitics, a term more familiar to students of Romance languages than of English. But English has them too. And, in fact, like all clitics, they obey three general rules:

1. They can’t be conjoined (combined with “and,” “or,” etc.).

2. They can’t be emphasized or contrasted.

3. They need something to latch on to.

Rule (1) is what goes wrong with *”I saw’im and’er.” Rule (3) is why *”He’s taller than I’m” is so terrible in English. And Rule (2) prevents “Oh, Bill? I saw him sneaking into the cookie jar” from becoming *”…I saw‘im…”

(Some dialects of British English have a full word “im” which isn’t a clitic but rather the word “him” with a silent “h.” That’s different from (to) the clitic.)

Other impossible examples in English include *”he’s and always will be king” (Rule 1), *”he wasn’t known back then but he’s now” (Rule 2), and *”I know what you’re.”

Written English

Native speakers are often unaware of their own speech patterns, which may be why, for a long time, contracted spoken forms were written out in full. About 500 years ago, though, English printers starting using the apostrophe to indicate “missing letters,” which is to say, letters which might be written in a word but which are not pronounced (including, perhaps, the missing “e” in the now-defunct genitive ending “-es,” which may be why the “‘s” is used for possession today).

With some exceptions (“‘s” of possession, “o’clock,” etc.) the apostrophe came to be associated with speech, and then informality. For this reason it was frowned upon in early 20th century writing.

But English writing — at least in America — has seen a general trend toward informality. The word “whom” is practically dead. (Though even Fowler, many years ago, advised rewriting a sentence that called for “whom.”) The informal “preposition at the end of a sentence” used to be a sign of poor written English; now it’s common (e.g., “to whom are you speaking?” vs. “who are you talking to?”) And so forth.

Along with this trend, apostrophes and contractions have returned to written English.

So the use of the apostrophe is really a matter of spelling. When the words are read aloud, most people will pronounce “I will” as “I’ll” no matter how it’s spelled, just like they will pronounce “donut” (“doughnut”) the same way regardless of the spelling.

But because of it’s association with informality, the apostrophe is also a subtle yet powerful clue about the general nature of the text.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 7 Comments

What Reading Level is “Magi”?

I’ve only just glanced at the new CEB translation of Matthew (available on-line here), so I’ll have more organized and thorough thoughts soon, but as I was paging through it, I saw this:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judah during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. [2:1]

This surprised me, because one of the goals of the CEB is to provide a translation in elementary English. The preface notes:

The CEB is presented at an average 7th grade reading level, with most books (e.g., Matthew) scoring in the 6th grade range. [Emphasis in original.]

So I have to wonder: Is an irregular plural of a rare word compatible with the goals of the CEB? What were the other considerations that made more common English translations undesirable here? Wouldn’t “maguses” work just as well (or as poorly)? Should “magi” (or maybe even the Greek magoses?) be italicized, to give readers a clue that it’s not an English word (which for most people it isn’t)?

While we’re at it, I also have to wonder if the point is “magi came from the east,” or “magi from the east came….” I tend to think it’s the latter, that is, that “from the east” describes where the people were from, not where they were coming from.

(And by the way, I think the version on-line is still a draft. For example, still in verse 2:1 ioudaia is translated “Judah” — perhaps having been confused with ioudas — even though in 2:5 it’s the more common “Judea.”)

[Update: More more about the CEB is available on BBB here.]

November 5, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Simple Yes or No Won’t Do, Will It?

Yes or NoWhat could be easier than translating “yes” (nai) and “no” (ou)?

Actually, “yes” and “no” are sometimes tricky, because they work differently in different languages.

In particular, negative questions are a common source of trouble. For example, in response to “do you want ice cream?” the answer “no” indicates no desire for ice cream, and “yes” indicates the opposite, a desire for ice cream. But in response to the negative question “you don’t want ice cream?” the answer “no” still indicates no desire for ice cream, while “yes” is a bizarre, ambiguous response among adult speakers. Similarly:

John: “You’re not flying to England?”

Mary: “Yes.”

leaves open both the possibiliy that Mary is flying to England and the possibility that she is not.

In Japanese, the situation is reversed. The answer hai (“yes”) to a positive question means “yes, I do,” but in response to a negative question it means, “yes, you are right that I do not.” So someone who does not want ice cream will respond to “you don’t want ice cream?” in Japanese with hai. (You can see how negotiating Toyota Land Rover import agreements could get tricky.)

It seems that Greek works like English, with “no” confirming a negative question. But “yes” in Greek negates a negative quesion, rather than leaving it ambiguous.

This is a problem in translating Matthew 17:25. In Matthew 17:24, Peter is asked, “does your teacher not pay taxes?” The answer should be “yes, he does,” in English. But the KJV, ESV, and NAB (surprisingly) go with just “yes,” mimicking the Greek but not answering the question in English.

(French has three words with which to answer questions: non, which means “no”; oui, for “yes” in response to positive questions; and si for “yes” in response to negative questions. But only some of the French versions go with si here.)

So, unfortunately, many translations leave the question unanswered here.

November 4, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments