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 mother’’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 | , , , ,


  1. >>>…does the translator use a modern term (“fetus” or “embryo”) or an ancient one?

    I’m of the opinion that one should always strive to reproduce the viewpoint of the author, rather than reinterpret the words. I strongly disapprove of translators replacing “heart” with “mind,” for example. Paul said that you “believe with your heart” because that was all of the anatomy he was taught. Jesus likewise believed that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts.” It is deceptive to clean up the anatomy in order to perpetuate that myth that the text is “without error of science or anything else.”

    His point here seems to be that one should not delay a good deed until the circumstances are ideal. As the birth process is hidden activity of God, so also is his action in causing seeds to germinate and grow. Sow often and liberally any time of year, “in season, out of season” and leave the results up to God’s handiwork. You have no idea which will prosper because “it is God that gives the increase.”

    As Paul said:

    2Ti 4:2 Preach the word; ***be instant in season, out of season***; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.

    1Co 3:7 So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.

    Paul seems to upend Moses’ sowing and reaping principle with regards to grasses and corpses:

    1 Cor 15:
    36 Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die:
    37 And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:
    38 But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.

    Paul sees each as a unique creative act by God. The old dies. God creates a new one.

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 4, 2009

    • I’m of the opinion that one should always strive to reproduce the viewpoint of the author, rather than reinterpret the words.

      I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy with the phrase “reinterpret the words.”

      My question is how best to reproduce the viewpoint of the author. In this case, we might say that “in the womb” is the author’s viewpoint, because the author had in mind the usual place that fetuses grow. Or we might say that “in the belly” is better, because the author thought that food and fetuses were in the same place.(*)

      More likely, the author thought both that food and fetuses were in the same place and that that place was where these bones were. If so, is seem to me that the translation can only convey part of the author’s viewpoint, so the translator has to choose which part is more important.

      (*) I don’t mean that the ancient Israelites didn’t know that (1) women had wombs; (2) both men and women had stomachs; and (3) it was in women’s wombs that gestations took place. What I mean is that they didn’t (usually?) bother to distinguish the stomach from the womb.

      By comparison, we might think of the English word “lung,” which means both “left lung” and “right lung.” We all know that the two are not the same (and anyone who’s studied anatomy knows that they are in fact very different — the right lung has an extra lobe), but we don’t normally care about the difference. By contrast, I’m told that ancient Egyptian doctors would specialize not just in pulmonology but in left pulmonology or right pulmonology.

      “English lung” may be like “Hebrew beten,” and there might be instances where clarification is necessary just to avoid a linguistic gaff. (I have another example here.)

      Comment by Joel H. | December 6, 2009

  2. But, doesn’t locking up the language in the literalism of 2000 plus years ago lock up the meaning as well? (I ask to the above comment)

    I think that to use an across the board rule might not be the best, but I think that depending upon the context or use, a modern word is not out of bounds?

    Comment by Joel | December 6, 2009

    • In one sense, all translation into English is translation into modern terms. After all, every English word is a modern one.

      So I think the question is how modern we want to be, and under which circumstances.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 6, 2009

  3. […] God Sit on a Chair or a Throne? In my last post I asked whether we should use modern terms like “womb” and “stomach” to […]

    Pingback by Did God Sit on a Chair or a Throne? « God Didn't Say That | December 6, 2009

  4. This probably isn’t really a “yes/no” question – more like, “it depends.” And either way you go, you’ll probably lose something.

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 6, 2009

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