God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Babies, Fetuses, Stomachs, and Wombs

At Hebrew and Greek Reader, the question is asked whether the NLT’s rendering of Ecclesiastes 11:5 is politically motivated. The issue is the image of …ka’atzamim b’veten ha-m’lei’ah, that is, “like etzems in the beten.” The NLT’s rending is:

…a tiny baby [etzem] growing in its motherÂ’’s womb [beten]

(I’m ignoring maleh here, because it’s not relevant to my current point.)

Every translation I know renders beten here as “womb.” But the same Hebrew word (in Proverbs 13:25, for instance) is clearly “stomach,” because it’s associated with food. And we know from Judges 3:21 that men have a beten, too. Even though we have two words in modern English — “womb” and “stomach” — is seems that Hebrew had just one, which we might translate “belly.”

The translator’s question here is whether the translation should reflect the ancient world view or the modern one. The good news with beten is that not much rides on the decision. It makes little difference whether it is the mother’s “womb” or “belly” that is the seat of pregnancy.

Exactly what is in the beten, on the other hand, is enormously important. Is it a “fetus”? An “embryo” (NJB)? “Bones” (KJV)? A “human frame” (NAB)? Is it a baby (NLT)?

The theoretical issue in this second case is almost the same as the first: does the translator use a modern term (“fetus” or “embryo”) or an ancient one? But, unlike with beten, the implications of the theoretical approach to translation end up with much more widespread consequences.

December 4, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments