God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Israel, Modern Hebrew, and Bible Translation

As always, I’ve returned from my week in Israel recharged and renewed. Also, as always, my visit has given me a lot to think about regarding translation.

Modern Languages

I believe that looking at modern languages can help us understand the nature of translation because it’s easier to know what modern languages mean, so it’s easier to know if we’ve got the right translation. So even though Modern Hebrew doesn’t directly help us understand Biblical Hebrew (or, obviously, Greek), understanding how to translate Modern Hebrew may help us figure out how to translate ancient languages better.

In this regard I’m lucky. My parents took me to Israel early enough in my life that I speak Israeli Hebrew fluently, so I generally know not just the meaning but also the exact nuance of a Hebrew phrase, and I can conduct field work just by listening.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some observations and questions.


1. There are two phrases in Hebrew, s’de t’ufa and n’mal t’ufa, and they mean roughly “air field” and “air port,” respectively. But it’s the former term that is in general use in spoken Hebrew, while the latter carries a flavor of formality. Should s’de t’ufa be translated into English as “airfield” or “airport”?

2. There’s a phrase in Hebrew pachot o yoter, literally, “less or more.” As nearly as I can tell, it’s exactly the same as the English “more or less.’ Does the reversed word order affect translation?

3. There’s a device in Israel called a “disk on key,” which Israelis pronounce DEESkonki, thinking they are speaking English. Is “disk on key” the right translation? (We call it a “flash drive” here in the U.S.)

4. I have a friend who lectures at Haifa University. As is common in Israel, the undergraduates call him by his first name. Should a translation of the class similarly use his first name in English? Will that give the wrong impression that the students are behaving rudely or not showing proper respect?

5. If you don’t know someone’s name in Israel, you can address them with the role they play: nahag, (“driver”), for example, to talk to the bus driver (we do this in English, too), but also yeled (“boy”) to talk to a boy. Should yeled be translated as the English “boy,” or do other connotations of the word make that impossible? (Russian works the same way in this regard. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a club in Kiev. An eleven-year-old girl was helping serve from behind the bar. A nine-year old came up to order a soda, and addressed the older child as “little girl.”)

6. The weather while I was in Israel ranged from the 50’s to the 70’s (that’s about 10 to 25 Celsius). A day in the low 60’s was called kar, literally “cold.” To me it was “warm.” Should the cultural differences regarding winter temperatures come into play when translating kar?

7. Similar to (4), Haifa was about an hour from where I was staying in Israel. People there called that rachok, literally “far.” To me it was close. Again, should translation reflect cultural differences?

8. The official Israeli news broadcasts are in a markedly different dialect of Hebrew than almost anything else in the country, adhering to rules of Biblical Hebrew (really Tiberian Masoretic Hebrew) that are otherwise all but dead in the modern language. Should the drastic differences in dialect be conveyed in translation? How might that be accomplished?

9. Quoting the Hebrew of the Bible has a certain elegance in Israel. Should those quotations be translated into English as quotations of an English translation of the Bible? If so, which translation? If not, perhaps something analogous, like Shakespeare?

10. Some English expletives have been borrowed into Hebrew, along the way losing much of their force. For example, two words that I’ll transliterate as sheet and fuk are acceptable in most social settings; they even appear in widespread print advertisements. Should those English-words-in-Hebrew be translated back into English as what they started off as, or as something more moderate, like “darn”?

Meta Questions

A. How should a translator study Modern Hebrew to make informed translation choices in these cases?

B. What non-linguistic issues (culture? sociology?) are important for the translator to appreciate?

C. How would various Bible translation strategies (e.g., those of, say, the NIV, ESV, and The Message) address these questions?

D. What other implications do these differences between English and Hebrew (and between the U.S. and Israel) have for Bible translation?


January 13, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , ,


  1. >>>…Again, should translation reflect cultural differences?…

    I am of the opinion that there is an intrinsic necessity for explanation of a text, whether it be the existence of a variant, the presence of an idiom, evident cultural difference or allusion. There is *no way* to fix it all in translation. My personal preference is to render text as formally equivalent as possible and do the explanation via footnotes, and provide necessary additions within the text via [brackets]. For this reason, I favor the KJV, Anchor Bible and NET Bibles. However, any translation, practicing whatever approach to translation is useful, as long as the original text is not obscured. The reader should be allowed to “see” the primary source text behind the translation, one way or another.

    That is the view from here….

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 13, 2010

    • The reader should be allowed to “see” the primary source text behind the translation, one way or another.

      So what would you do with pachot o yoter? Would you simply translate it as “more or less”? “Less or more”? Or would you include a footnote? (I would just go with “more or less.”)

      What about the “airport”/”airfield” issue? (I would go with “airport.”)

      Comment by Joel H. | January 13, 2010

      • For a modern audience with a utilitarian need for information, I would go with the word in the target language that would communicate to them what they need to know. If you told an American cab driver to take you to the airfield, they would need a footnote to know that you meant the airport, but if you said airport, they would not care that in your language you would say air “field.”

        But for those who take great pains to understand every “iota and tittle” of the ancient world and the scriptures, I would want to at least be alerted to the fact that a translation decision was made on the basis of a cultural/linguistic difference of relative formality of similar terms. So, translate either way, but let me know the source text and the reason for the formal difference in the target text, via a footnote.

        I know, I’m a tough audience! That’s why I love the Anchor series, and the NET Bible, and am frustrated by reading strictly in translation.

        Eschew obfuscation!

        Comment by WoundedEgo | January 13, 2010

      • “More or less” is “mas o menos” equivalent to “Less or more.” Might some enterprising scholar posit that Jews were given to negativity by putting “less” before “more?” Is the glass “half-empty” for the Jews?!

        I’m joking, but I do feel nervous about letting any *formal* element slide by without examination, because “the devil is in the details!”

        Comment by WoundedEgo | January 13, 2010

  2. Wow. That’s a nice bunch of questions.

    In response to number eight, have you read Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. I greatly enjoyed his attempt at rendering archaic/formal Spanish forms with equivalent English terms, including the thee/thou pronouns, etc. I don’t know if his approach would be of any direct help to Biblical translations, but I think Hemingway’s approach to translation is worth looking at.

    Comment by Mitchell Powell | January 13, 2010

  3. If this is how borrowing works today – what could we say about how it worked 2500 years ago and over a 1000 year period? We would have to be inventive to find ‘the good word’ especially when we are likely to miss slight impoliteness – like the accusation of windbag in Job 15:1 as suggested by Clines. “Should one who is wise answer windy knowledge and fill his belly with the east wind?”

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 13, 2010

    • Ya gotta love the KJV for this gem:

      Job 19:17 My breath is strange to my wife, though I intreated for the children’s sake of mine own body.

      “Having eaten a plate of garlic-marinated oysters before returning home, my breath is *strange* to my wife!

      And how does this involve the children??!

      Comment by WoundedEgo | January 13, 2010

  4. I would say that for 6 and 7 (and probably 4 and 5 as well), the culture should not be taken into account in the translation; if anything, it belongs in the notes. However, for all the others, I would definitely be less “literal” and more accurate in communicating the intended meaning.

    As for 8 and 9, they’re tough, but I would go with not trying too hard to communicate the different registers. A formal/informal difference wouldn’t be out of order, but trying too hard only hinders communication.

    Comment by John | January 13, 2010

  5. Japan has a rich history of borrowing English words and seriously changing the semantic domains of the loanwords. An example would be arrururu, which apparently comes from “aluminum” and can be used for the rim of one’s tires, among other things.

    Watching anime with subtitles is a fascinating way to study how translation works in practice.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 13, 2010

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