God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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