God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On the Blocking Effect

Daniel 12:7 refers to a man who “swore by chei ha-olam,” commonly translated as something like “the one who lives forever.”

Some years ago, I had a to translate a similar phrase in the Jewish liturgy, chei ha-olamim, which many prayer books wrongly render, “life of the universe.” It was the last line in the volume I was working on, and after sitting for some 8 hours going over the translation with Dr. Marc Brettler, in our fatigue induced giddiness he and I wrote a short footnote about that phrase:

That is, one who lives forever. (“Eternal liver” is clearly wrong.)

(The translation appears in Vol. 3 of My People’s Prayer Book.)

The reason “eternal liver” can’t mean “one who lives forever” is that the anatomical word “liver” blocks the otherwise expected meaning of the word. Normally, “verber” can be used to mean “one who verbs,” but not in this case. The specialized meaning blocks the general meaning. (This is one kind of blocking effect.)

It seems to me that many of the questions on BBB are about more subtle cases of the blocking effect. For example, Wayne recently asked what the word “confess” means, “as you ordinarily use the word.” His question is part of a larger theme: translators sometimes use words in ways that other speakers of English do not.

Frequently, I think that the translators believe a word could mean what they want it to, but they don’t realize that the blocking effect prevents their intending meaning. Similarly but conversely, I think translators sometime know a technical meaning for a word, and that meaning blocks the more usual meaning in their minds.

For instance, I can imagine using “liver” enough in the right context that it would start to seem like it can mean “one who lives.” For example, I might write a story about “the living and the dying, and, in particular one brave dyer who loves a liver….” Eventually it would start to sound okay, and I might even use it in a translation, to disastrous effect.

So I think that understanding the blocking effect is important for understanding one way that things can go wrong in translation.

What other examples of technical words blocking more common meanings can you think of?


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


  1. Here’s a set of homophones that seem to be confusing:
    If your control is to reign over your mount properly, you must rein in your horse, lest the rain and thunder scare her into throwing you!

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 3, 2009

  2. Bible translation use of the English word “flesh”. If we hear it long enough, as I did growing up, we get the intended meaning, even though it’s not the meaning that most other English speakers have for “flesh.”

    To be “in” someone has become what theologians call a theological concept, even though no native English speakers that I know of would never speak of being “in” someone except possibly of a surgeon commenting on his work, “OK, now I in him.”

    The most common “in” phrases in English Bibles (and copied in literal translations in languages that have cognates with English “in” such as Spanish “en”) are “in God” and “in Christ”. Why don’t we try to translate the meaning of the Greek “en” to English? Some Bible translations do, but they are dismissed by theological purists.

    Of course there are plenty of beautiful Hebrew idioms which are literally translated to English and many have become part of English language usage, or at least have in the past, such as “He found favor in her eyes”.

    There are those who continue to insist that English Bibles should retain the Hebraism of “know” to refer to sexual intercourse, even though no native English speakers uses no that way normally, except in the linguistically marked expression “carnal knowledge”.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | December 4, 2009

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