God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Short-Circuit Translations

The God’s Word (“GW”) translation of Luke 2:1-7 (which Wayne Leman recently posted) and The Message‘s rendition of Proverbs 14:15 (tweeted by Rick Warren) highlight a common translation trap that I’d like to call translation short-circuits. What I mean is when a translation short-circuits the original text and tries to jump right to the point.

Example 1: Proverbs 14:15 (The Message).

The original Hebrew of Proverbs 14:15 contrasts peti and arum. It’s hard to know the exact nuances of those words, but I think the NRSV’s choice of “simple” and “clever” is pretty close: “The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.” The message is that foolish people believe everything they hear, while clever people understand things in their own way.

As it happens, we have a word in English to describe people who believe everything they’re told: “gullible.” So another way to understand Proverbs 14:15 is that being prudent is the opposite of being gullible. And I suppose one reasonable way to translate Proverbs 14:15 would be, “the simple are gullible….”

However, The Message short-circuits the text and jumps to the following translation: “The gullible believe anything they’re told….” It seems to me that this translation has taken a line that has a point (foolish people are gullible) and turned it in to a meaningless tautology (gullible people are gullible). I think what led to this mistake was a desire to use the translation not just to translate but also to explain.

Example 2: Luke 2:3 (God’s Word).

Luke 2:3 is fairly straightforward: “Everyone went to be registered, each to their own town.” The Greek for “each to their own town” is ekastos eis eautou polin. (I’ve translated it in the plural to preserve what I believe is a gender inclusive original.)

However, God’s Word translates: “All the people went to register in the cities where their ancestors had lived” (my emphasis). Where did they get the notion that “his city” or “their cities” means “where their ancestors had lived”?

The answer comes from Luke 2:4, in which Joseph chooses to go to “David’s city” of Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from David.

I suppose the GW translators realized that, in this particular case, “his city” for Joseph was “his ancestor’s city.” Even if they’re right, though, they’ve created a short-circuit translation. The original text has complexity and richness — Why did Joseph think that Bethlehem was “his city”? Did Mary’s presence there (Luke 2:5) have anything to do with his choice? What counts as one’s city? Etc. The translation has none of these.

There’s also a question of whether the translators in this case are even right. I suspect that they’re not. I don’t think that Bethlehem was “where Joseph’s ancestor [David] lived.” David lived in Jerusalem. But for me the accuracy of the short-circuit isn’t the point so much as the misplaced goal of short-circuiting the text in the first place.


I think that short-circuit translations are particularly tempting because they seem to be adding accuracy or clarity to a text. Short-circuit translations are often easier to understand than the original text they bypass.

But short circuits run the double risk of outright error (as I think we see in GW’s rendition of Luke 2) and of dumbing down the text (as in The Message‘s tautology where a lesson once was).

And even if the short circuit is accurate, it is still a mistranslation cleverly masquerading as the real thing.

What other short-circuit translations can you find?

[This is the first of what I hope will be a series of weekly posts on common translation traps. I’ll try to post the next one next Monday.]

December 28, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Q&A: Girl Nations and Boy Nations

From the About comes this great question:

I have a question about the gender of nations. It seems like nations can be referred with both masculine and feminine pronouns. Is there any significance with this change? For example, Moab is “he” in Isa 16:12, Israel is “he” in Jer 2:14; 50:17 but “herself” in Jer 3:11, and Babylon is “she” in Jer 50:29, just to name a few.

What a fascinating observation for those of us who love language.

Gender, as we know, is more complex than Language 101 classes would suggest (I have some particularly vexing examples here), and it’s not unheard of for words to allow two genders.

For example, the Modern Hebrew shemesh, “sun,” is generally feminine but in poetry can be masculine. In this case, the agreement choice even has implications for the translator, because masculine agreement is a sign of poetic register.

On the other hand, multiple gender agreement is fairly rare. So when we see dual agreement with so many nation-words (“Moab,” “Damascus,” “Egypt,” “Israel,” and others) we have to assume that this is more than coincidence.

To get a sense of the issue we need only look at Isaiah 17:1. There, damesek (“Damascus”) is first masculine, then feminine: hinei damesek musar [masculine] mei’ir v’hayta [feminine] m’i hapala, that is, “Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a pile of rubble.” “Will cease” is masculine and “will become” is feminine.

Another example is mitzrayim (“Egypt”). In Exodus 12:33 the word for the nation takes a feminine verb, in Psalm 105:38 (sometimes numbered 104:38), a masculine one.

Exodus 14:25 expands the data set a bit, because Egypt is personified as “I,” not “we”: vayomer mitzrayim anusa…, “Egypt said, ‘I will….’,” though every translation I know of, including the LXX, renders this as “we will…” Going back to Exodus 12:33, we see that even though mitzrayim takes a feminine singular verb at first, the continuation of the verse is masculine plural.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy way to gather all of the verbs that have a particular subject. So for now this is more like a “Q and not really A,” because I don’t have an answer yet.

(As a guess, this is a case of conflicting agreement considerations. For example, in English, “either he or I will be in jail” is perfectly grammatical. But it’s not so easy to put that sentence into the present. “Either he or I am in jail?” No. “Either he or I is in jail?” Also no. “Either he or I are in jail?” A little better. I suspect that, similarly, in Hebrew there were reasons for nations to be masculine and feminine, singular and plural. But without more data, it’s hard to form a more concrete conclusion.)

Can someone provide a complete or nearly complete set of the verbs for, let’s say, “Israel,” “Moab,” “Egypt” and “Damascus”?

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Q&A: Who is bowing down in Psalm 97:7?

From the About page comes this question:

The NET Bible does not render imperatives in Psalm 97:7, while others do. Their footnote is helpful, but not enough for me to opine on which is right. What light can you shed on this?

The phrase here is hishtachavu lo kol elohim. The last three words mean, “to-him all gods.” As chance would have it, though, the verb that starts the phrase could be either an imperative plural or a third personal past plural form. (Except for 2nd person masculine singular future and 3rd person feminine singular future, this doesn’t happen a lot in Hebrew. Usually the role of a Hebrew verb is clear from its form.) For example, in Psalm 96:9, the word hishtachavu is imperative; in Jeremiah 8:2, 3rd-person past.

Furthermore, the word order is ambiguous because — unlike English — the post-verbal phrase in Hebrew can be a subject of any sort.

Finally, even context doesn’t help here.

So the Hebrew means either “all the gods bowed down to [God]” or “all you gods, bow down to [God].”

We do get a clue from the LXX — which translates hishtachavu as an imperative here — but the LXX is generally very unreliable when it comes to disambiguating Hebrew.

So in Psalm 97:7 we have that rare instance of a truly ambiguous text.

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Power of the Footnote

T. C. Robinson reminds us how important footnotes are.

Footnotes are generally used for three purposes:

1. To offer additional information, such as a source the text might be quoting, or a similar passage.

2. To let the reader know that the translator is not sure what the original means.

3. To let the reader know that even though the original meaning is clear, the translator is not sure how to express that meaning in English.

Footnotes like (1) seem helpful, but only in some contexts. Sometimes too much information can detract from the power of a passage, and I can understand why some readers might not want these extra-information footnotes.

I think that a careful translator will let the reader know how much faith to have in a particular rendering, so footnotes like (2) can be very important. If the Greek or Hebrew really is inscrutable, I think the translator has an obligation to let the reader know. Still, sometimes the footnotes offer alternative meanings without giving the reader any further guidance. (I have a particularly egregious example here.) I’m not sure how helpful these are, particularly as some lay readers may want to make do with the experts’ best guess.

But I think a translation without footnotes like (3) is deceptive. If the translator knows what the original means, and knows that there’s no way to express it fully in English, why wouldn’t the translator use a footnote to make the full meaning clear?

Robinson suggests in a response to a comment that, “Some translations are so committed to a particular rendering that they don’t even want to consider an alternative rendering.” That would reduce the need for category (2) footnotes, but not category (3). Surely every translator must encounter Hebrew and Greek that can’t be nicely coerced into English.

What do you think? Is there a situation when you’d prefer not to have any footnotes?

December 22, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 4 Comments

When the Bible Quotes Itself

John Hobbins writes in favor of “retaining the standard ‘x and y’ collocation ‘God and men'” in I Samuel 2:26 and Luke 2:52, because it is an example of “standard literary English.”

I think “peace on earth and good will toward men,” — another example that John mentions — is now a perfect example of what I call the Bible quoting itself.

Even though Luke 2:14 was original prose when it was written, precisely because it has become such a common phrase in English now, it’s hard to read “good will toward men” without seeing first a Bible quotation, and only second whatever it might actually mean. (Luke 2:14 has been highlighted recently by Jim West, by Clayboy, on BBB and in a slew of other places.)

This translation dilemma is not unique to the Bible. Shakespeare, too, has been facetiously criticized because he just “strung together a bunch of well known quotations.” A reader who reads Shakespeare for the first time may now read a “well known quotation” where Shakespeare penned original words.

Similarly, “dust and ashes” is now an English expression, whereas it was novel Hebrew once. Like “good will toward men,” it’s hard to read “dust and ashes” and actually see the words that make up the phrase.

I think this is a translation problem, because it’s usually a mistake to translate a novel thought with a well-known expression. More importantly, it’s surely a mistake to translate a phrase that was intended literally with a phrase that can only be understood figuratively. As an example of the latter, what we would do if a foreign text referred to “driving me up a wall” and really meant “driving up a wall”? The seemingly obvious text would be completely wrong if “driving up a wall” wasn’t an idiom in the original language.

Similarly, “dust and ashes” wasn’t an idiom in the OT, nor (as I understand it) was “good will toward men” in the NT.

But in many cases like these we seem to have little choice.

As it happens, though, we have a great alternative for Luke 2:14. And that’s getting rid of the word “men,” which I don’t think is what Luke meant. The original point was “people,” male and female alike.

The debate over gender and language has been fierce and on-going, but I think this example is particularly instructive.

In favor of keeping “men”: Even though “men” may not usually be the right word to express anthropoi, it would be a shame to destroy such a well-known quotation. (I have some thoughts about quoting the Bible when the translation keeps changing here.)

In favor of changing “men”: Not only is “men” the wrong word to express anthropoi, but even if it were accurate, we want to avoid a familiar phrase in translating an original one.

In other words, sometimes “that’s the traditional way of translating it” or “it’s a well known phrase” may mean precisely that it has to be changed.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Too Much Emphasis

It seems that the default explanation for an unknown grammatical feature is to assume, often wrongly, that it is “emphatic.” Here are four examples, three from Hebrew (skip to them: one, two, three) and one from Greek (skip to it here).

The Examples

The Infix Nun

From time to time, a nun will appear between a verb and its pronominal objective ending. For example, in Psalm 72:15, we find y’varachenhu. Breaking down the verb form, we find the prefix y’- representing third-person singular future; the verb varach, “bless”; and the suffix -hu for “him.” So far, the verb means “he will bless him.” But there’s also an added -en- in the middle. That’s the infixed nun, commonly called the “nun emphatic.”

Because nuns are frequently replaced by a dagesh in Biblical Hebrew, it is more common to find the “nun emphatic” represented by nothing more than a dagesh. Probably the best known example is in the Priestly Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26. The last verb of Numbers 6:25 is vichuneka, with a dagesh in the final kaf representing the “nun empahtic” that dropped out.

But there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that this nun has emphatic force.

The Infinitive Absolute

A much more common Hebrew construction is the “infinitive absolute” in conjunction with a conjugated verb form. For example, in Genesis 2:17 we find mot tamut, which the KJV notes in a footnote is literally “dying thou shalt die.” Based on the (wrong) assumption that this doubling of verb forms is emphatic, the KJV translates “thou shalt surely die” here. (As it happens, this Hebraism is preserved in the LXX thanatu apothaneisthe, “by death die.”)

But not only is there no evidence that this construction is emphatic, there is evidence that it is not. In Genesis 3:4 the snake tries to convince the women to eat from the forbidden tree; he (it?) reassures her that lo mot t’mutun. Obviously this doesn’t mean “you will not surely die.” It just means “you will not die.”

The Lengthened Imperative

Frequently a verb form will have two imperatives: a shorter one, essentially the future without the prefix, and a longer one with an additional heh at the end. For example, from titen (“you will give”) we have both ten in Genesis 14:21 and t’nah in Genesis 30:26. Some grammars, such a Gesenius (wrongly, in my opinion), suggest that the latter is “give!” Again, there’s no evidence for an emphatic reading in these verb forms. (The forms are also not limited to the imperative, as we see in the continuation of Genesis 30:26, with elecha for elech.)

The Greek Emphatic Pronouns

The forth example comes from Greek, which has two sets of 1st- and 2nd-person pronouns. For example, “my” is either mou or emou. The latter form is called “emphatic” because it is widely assumed to convey particular emphasis. Once again, though, there is nothing to suggest that the longer forms are necessarily more emphatic than the shorter ones. (Bill Mounce has a post — also available here — where he similarly notes that sometimes the “emphatic forms […] are significant, but when they are objects of prepositions, evidently not.” In other words, he notes a case where the “emphatic” forms are not emphatic.)


What all four of these cases have in common is that the supposedly emphatic forms are longer than the ordinary ones. I think there has been a general if misguided assumption that longer words are more emphatic that shorter ones. At one level, it seems reasonable. And there are even times when it’s true (I give some examples here). But it’s not a general principal.

I think we have to rethink all of these “emphatic” forms with an eye toward figuring out what they really represent.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Translate But Don’t Editorialize

We just saw a case of an attempt to translate the pragmatics of a text instead of the text itself.

In general, a text will have a variety of implications, morals, allusions, etc. I think that a good translation of the text will match the original with a translation that has similar implications, morals, allusions, and so forth. Sometimes, however, translators are tempted to focus on one aspect of the text; then they translate that aspect instead of the text. The chart at the right depicts the two approaches.

For example, the “golden rule” is explained in Matthew 7:12 as outos gar estin o nomos kai oi profitai, “for this is the law and the prophets.” Ignoring for the moment what exactly “the law and the prophets” is (probably the Jewish Canon at the time), we still find translation variations for outos gar estin. For example (with my emphasis):

  • this is…. (ESV, NAB)
  • this sums up…. (NIV)
  • this is a summary of…. (NLT)
  • this is the meaning of…. (NCV)
  • this is what [the Law and the Prophets] are all about…. (CEV)
  • add up [God’s Law and Prophets] and this is what you get. (The Message)

I think that the NIV, NLT, NCV, CEV, and The Message get it wrong. Each of those versions translated something related to the text instead of the text itself.

Presumably, the translators for some of these versions decided that it’s just not true that the Law “is” the Golden Rule, but if so, what they missed is that it’s equally (un)true in Greek as it is in translation.

Perhaps the point of the passage is that the golden rule sums up the Law and the Prophets, but again, even if that’s true, “sums up” doesn’t seem like the right translation, because I don’t think it’s the job of the translation to jump from the text to its point for us.

By focusing on the point, or the moral, or the message, of the text, translators disguise their interpretation as translation. (This is, by the way, what I think Dr. Leland Ryken dislikes so much about the translations he criticizes, and I think in this regard he is correct to protest.)

It seems to me that when the lines between commentary and translation are blurred, it does a disservice to both.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

On Translating Pragmatics

A well-known example in linguistics describes a group of people sitting a living room that has become chilly because a window has been left open. “It’s cold in here,” one person says, by which he means, “please close the window.” The second meaning is the pragmatic meaning in this case.

The issue is important for translation because many people — wrongly, in my opinion — try to translate the pragmatic meaning. We just saw an example from Bill Mounce (criticized by me here, by Steve Runge, Mike Aubrey and others). He took the text of the beatitudes and tried to turn their point into a translation.

Both English and ancient Greek allow a pragmatic generalization toward exclusivity. In English, “First Class customers on Delta airlines get dinner” can reasonably be interpreted to mean “only First Class customers…,” just as the Greek “the merciful … shall obtain mercy” can reasonably be interpreted to mean “only the merciful….” But precisely because the pragmatics work the same way in English and Greek, they shouldn’t be translated, any more than “it’s cold in here” should be translated into, say, Spanish, as “please close the window.”

When God answered Job in Job 38 with the words, “where were you when I established the earth?” I think the point was, “what makes you think you can understand suffering?” But that doesn’t mean that the point is the translation.

There are times when a translation has to reflect pragmatics. But I think that what’s conveyed by inference or allusion in one language ought to be similarly conveyed by inference or allusion in translation. Anything less diminishes the beauty and power of the original.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 2 Comments

Please take those quotation marks off your interpretation

Rick Warren tweeted:

To see consumerism on steroids, come here to Tokyo. “Life is not measured by how much one owns.” Luke 12:15

But neither Luke nor Jesus said that. Rick Warren did. (To be fair, so did the New Century Version translation.) The original Greek reads, “life is not estin…,” and estin just means “is.” So the phrase means, “life isn’t how much one owns.” (The meaning of the verb is not generally a disputed point.)

The translators of the NCV, though, decided to interpret Luke by adding the word “measured.” Maybe they’re right, maybe not, but either way, it seems to me that the quotation marks have to go.

I suppose there’s a theoretical sense in which quotation marks never belong around a translation (unless it’s the translation that’s being quoted). What was said in Greek can’t literally be directly quoted in English. But as a matter of practicality, most people know the difference between what someone said and what someone implied. And only the former gets quotation marks.

“Wherefore art thou Romeo?” It’s a quotation. The subtext is, “why aren’t you someone I can marry? Why are you Romeo?” But to put quotations around my interpretation is simply to misquote and mislead. Even if I’m right, I’m wrong if I claim: Shakespeare wrote, “Why can’t I marry you?”

Similarly, even if Jesus meant that “life isn’t measured…” to put quotation marks around what he meant is to misquote and mislead.

I think we see the same sort of thing in Bill Mounce’s claim today that “the nuance of autos is […] they alone” in the beatitudes in Matthew. (His post appears here, too.) Dr. Mounce’s point is that, for example, in saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs [autin] is the kingdom of heaven”:

Jesus is not saying that the poor in spirit, among others, are blessed. He is saying that they and they alone will inherit the kingdom.

Probably. But when Dr. Mounce adds:

[T]he fact of the matter is that this is what the Greek text says. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs, and theirs alone, is the kingdom of God.”

he is confusing what the text means and what the speaker (may have) implied. The Greek is no more or less ambiguous than the English, “…theirs is the kingdom of God” (though I might quibble about the English grammar.) And by putting quotation marks around his (probably correct) interpretation, it seems to me that Dr. Mounce is misquoting and misleading.

There’s an important place for interpretation. But I think part of its value lies in being distinguished from translation.

So, please — Pastor Warren, Dr. Mounce, and so many others — take those quotation marks off of your interpretations.

December 14, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Who is the King of Kings?

If for no other reason, the phrase “king of kings and lord of lords” is famous because it’s in Handel’s Messiah.

We first find “king of kings” in the OT, where the appellation is used for Pagan rulers: Artaxerxes in Ezra (where “king of kings” is the Aramaic melech malchaya) and Nebuchadnezzar in Ezekiel and Daniel (in Hebrew and Aramaic, respectively). The Babylonian rulers were “kings of kings,” reflecting their desire to rise above other, lower kings. (Based on this, Jewish custom would later call God melech malchei ha-m’lachim, “king of the kings of kings,” the final salvo of one-upmanship emphasizing God’s power over the “kings of kings.”)

In the NT, the phrases “king of kings” and “lord of lords” each have two Greek equivalents, a fact that is hidden by all of the English translations that I know of.

In Revelation we find phrases that are structurally similar to “king of kings” and “lord of lords,” basileus basileon and kurios kurion, respectively. The first is the same Greek phrase that we find in the LXX in Ezra, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

But in I Timothy 6:15 we find the less-expected basileus ton basileuonton — similar to “ruler of the rulings” — and kurios ton kurieuonton (“lord of the lordings,” as it were).

The difference is particularly surprising in light of the otherwise similar phrasing in I Timothy 6:15-16 and Daniel 2:37, including the fact that timi — variously “honor” or “glory” — is ascribed to the “kings of kings” in both places.

Is the different Greek wording for “king of kings” in I Timothy an irrelevant detail, best hidden (as it currently is) by translations? Or should translations let the English reader see that the wording in I Timothy is different than what we find elsewhere?

December 14, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , | 1 Comment