God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Morning Coyote

From my backyard this morning…


Coyote (probably hunting deer)

…a majestic sight.


January 11, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | | Comments Off on Morning Coyote

Allah and the Type-Token Distinction

As has been widely reported recently, Malaysians are grappling with how to say “god.”

The issue is that the word most Malay speakers use, allah, refers not only to “god” in general but in particular to what we call “Allah” in English, that is, the Muslim god of that name. (For the blow-by-blow, start here for background, then see here for a recent court ruling reversing an original decision and allowing anyone to use the word allah. And see here for a report of massive violence against churches for using the word allah in Christian contexts. See also here for the court’s suspension of its reversal of its original ban.)

The problem essentially stems from type-token conflation, and not for the first time.

Essentially, there is a category (“type”) that in English we usually spell with the lower-case-g word “god,” and for which we can equally use the word “deity.”

In addition to the category, there is what the category contains (“tokens”). One example of such a token is what we usually write with the upper-case-G word “God” in English.

The distinction is usually pretty clear. For example, the type “Greek god” contains the tokens “Zeus” and “Athena,” among others.

But monotheism involves a type that has exactly one token, so it’s pretty easy to use the type and token interchangeably. We do this in English when we talk about “praying to God.” Translations even stumble sometimes, prefering the upper-case-G “God” where the lower-case version makes more sense, as in “our God” for “our god.”

We see the same interchangeability in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. The word elohim is used both for the God of the Hebrews and for any other god. And the Greek theos, represents variously “God” or “god” (or “goddess”).

Similarly, the word allah (before Islam merely one Arabian god of many) is now the Muslim name for “God” as well as the type “god.”

If nothing else, I think we see here that a solid theoretical framework, while essential for translation, is only part of the story. (I don’t think the end to the crisis in Malaysia is a campaign explaining the nature of type-token conflation.)

And I wonder if the authors of the Bible similarly debated the words elohim and theos.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics | , , | 3 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Seductive Translations

Some readers want clarity (as in The Message or the CEV) in a Bible translation. Others want loftiness (NKJV), or even near incoherence (KJV). Others yet opt for chattiness (Good News). And so forth.

I think what these approaches to translation and others like them have in common is that they put the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather than looking at the Bible and seeing what its text is like, readers opt instead for a translation that adheres to their own sense of attractiveness.

This is why comments on this blog, BBB, and others often run along the lines of: “I prefer that translation because it sounds better / is more meaningful / is more spiritual / resonates / reminds me of my childhood / sounds biblical.”

These seem like worthy goals. For example, isn’t a spiritual translation of the Bible better than a non-spiritual one?

I don’t think so, or, at least, not necessarily.

I think, rather, that chasing attractive Bible translations is similar to falling prey to other forms of seduction: the superficial qualities of beauty or what-not mask the fundamental drawbacks.

It seems to me that the value of a translation lies primarily in its fidelity to the original. After all, this is what distinguishes translation from creative writing.

In this regard, translation can be likened to photography. By example, we might consider two photos of war carnage, one that shows the violence of war in all its ugliness, the other than has been manipulated to appear beautiful. Simply as a shot for hanging in the living room, the aesthetic photo is probably a better choice. But as a representation of what happened, the ugly photo has the upper hand. Those who want to understand war would have to be careful not to let the false depiction mislead them.

Similarly, choosing a translation only because of the qualities of the writing — rather than taking into account accuracy — is to decide what the Bible should be rather than to discover it.

For example, Steve Runge recently wrote about redundancy and, in particular, the NET’s decision to remove it from Deuteronomy 9:25. The NET explains in a footnote there that “The Hebrew text includes ‘when I prostrated myself.’ Since this is redundant, it has been left untranslated.'” As it happens, I don’t think this is a case of redundancy in the Hebrew, but my point here is not the nature of the Hebrew but rather the brazen NET footnote that seems to suggest: “We didn’t like the original, so we’re giving you something better.” The redundancy-free translation is seductive, but is it accurate?

We also see from the NET footnote that it’s not just lay readers who chase seductive translations. It’s official translators, too. The NET, in this case, doesn’t want redundancy. The ESV — which seemingly has nothing in common with the NET — wants formality. But this, too, is a form of seduction. What good is formality if the original is not similarly formal?

Bibles are created, sold, purchased, and read in a consumer-driven world of personal choice. Marketers have known for a long time that seduction sells. Is it possible that it sells Bibles, too?

January 11, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments