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.

Lessons

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.]

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December 28, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Stephen Carlson has an outstanding article coming out soon about the Luke 2 bit; suffice it to say that the “God’s Word” translation looks even worse after reading Carlson’s article.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 28, 2009 | Reply


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