Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Parts of Speech
Perhaps because understanding parts of speech is so central to learning a foreign language, translators often try to preserve parts of speech when they translate.
But I think this is a mistake.
We know from modern languages that parts of speech often have to change in translation, and I think we see cases where more flexibility would benefit Bible translations, too.
As usual, we use modern languages to help us understand how translation works, and then apply the lessons to translating ancient languages.
The French for “I’m hungry” is j’ai faim, or, perhaps more to the point, the English for j’ai faim is “I’m hungry.” This generally undisputed point is relevant because j’ai faim starts off with “I have” (j’ai) followed by a noun which we can roughly translate as “hunger.” Certainly this pronoun-verb-noun combination has to become a pronoun-verb-adjective one in English. Anything else is simply to misunderstand the French or to misrepresent it in English.
Specifically, the awkward “I have hunger” is an inaccurate translation. Even though it makes (a little) sense in English, the French is a common expression while “I have hunger” in English is certainly not.
Other examples don’t work at all in English.
For instance, the French j’ai sommeil means “I’m tired” or “I’m sleepy,” but preserving the parts of speech results in the absurd “I have sleepiness.”
The Modern Hebrew kar li means “I’m cold,” even though the Hebrew is an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase. “Cold to me” and “there is cold to me” are clearly the wrong translations.
The German wie geht’s Ihnen? means “how are you?” It’s an interrogative-verb-pronoun-pronoun combination. The literal “how goes it to you?” is wrong. English demands interrogative-verb-pronoun.
Another common misunderstanding is that the grammar of a different language — say, French — reflects a fundamentally different way of thinking about the world. So some people naively think that because the literal equivalent of “I have sleepiness” is grammatical in French, the French notion of being tired differs from the English one.
But we can see that this approach is flawed because alongside the French j’ai sommeil we find je suis fatige, literally, “I am tired.” In other words, both expressions — the English-grammar variety and the French-grammar variety — exist side by side in French.
What we see instead is that parts of speech can change within a language without changing the meaning, and that parts of speech sometimes have to change as part of a successful translation.
Another Modern Example
Modern Hebrew has few adverbs, so aderverbiness (if you’ll pardon the word) is often expressed through a combination of b’ofen (“in a manner”) or b’derech (“in a way”) followed by an adjective. For example, “I explained it clearly” in Hebrew becomes …b’ofen barur, “…in a clear manner.” “Superficially” is b’ofen shitchi, “in a superficial manner.”
Here we find a greater temptation to mimic the Hebrew parts of speech, because “in a clear manner” and “in a superficial manner” sound like English. But even though they are grammatical, they are still the wrong English to translate the Hebrew.
Two Biblical Examples
A perfect example of the need to think beyond parts of speech comes from the Greek kata, commonly glossed as “according to” or “as.”
In Mark 4:10 and Luke 9:18 we find the phrase kata monas, literally “as alone,” but every translation I know of renders that phrase with the adverb “alone.”
The very similar Greek kata idian (usually kat’ idian) highlights the issue. The word idian is pretty close to the English “self.” So kata idian could be “by himself,” and this is how the ESV translates the phrase in Matthew 14:13. The KJV gives us “apart” and the NIV translates “privately.” As it happens, “by himself” is grammatical English, but — as we’ve seen — the fact that it so closely matches the Greek doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best translation.
In Romans 2:2 we find kata alitheian, which the KJV translates literally as “according to truth”: “But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.” Some other translations recognize that “according to truth” is not English, and offer instead “rightly” (ESV), “is true” (NAB), “is based on truth” (NIV), “justly,” (NJB), etc.
In Romans 11:21, kata fusin — “according to nature” — is almost always translated “natural,” as in the NRSV: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” Yet three verses later, most translations go with “by nature” for the same phrase.
These issues are particularly important when it comes to kata sarka, “according to sarx.” I’m not going to revisit the complex issue of sarx here. My point is more simply that even if the NIV translators are right that the word means “sinful nature,” they still may be wrong in translating, “according to the sinful nature.” Perhaps “in sin” is better, or “sinful,” etc.
The verb katergazomai means “do,” but that doesn’t mean that we need to translate it as a verb every time.
Philippians 2:12 gives us: sotirian katergazomai, “work out salvation,” (KJV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, NIV, etc.). But maybe a verb is called for here. What about katergazomeni thanaton in Romans 7:13? It’s usually translated along the lines of “working/producing/causing death.” Again, a verb seems the better choice (though there are other considerations, like the word play with egeneto thanatos earlier in the verse).
What we see is that the slavish preservation of parts of speech tends to create awkward, inaccurate translations.
What other examples can you think of?