God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.

Modern 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?


January 18, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , ,


  1. The one I always like to use is James 1:22. I believe the NIV is correct with “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” However, certain translations go with something more like “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” The participles are translated more “literally”, but the style of the sentence is lost.

    Comment by John | January 19, 2010

  2. I don’t disagree with your thesis – but there are times when I think meaning is lost when sounds-like structure is ignored. One I happened to be looking at today is the repeated use of prepositions in Hebrew related to ‘face’ usually translated as before or in the presence of etc. In 2 Kings 5 these words play a sounds-like structural role in the story (vv 1-3, 15-16, 23, 27). And there are other ways to express ‘before’ in Hebrew. Sometimes such word similarities just get lost in translation – but sometimes a little awkward English illustrates an envelope or ring structure that need not be lost.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 19, 2010

    • And I don’t disagree with your comment.

      Repetition and other forms of word play can be important parts of a text, and not translating them is usually a mistake. But the repetition can be preserved even if the parts of speech are not. For example, a repetition of nouns could become a repetition of verbs, or vice versa.

      Luke 17:23 is a great example. The repetition of idou is usually captured in English by repeating the word “see” or “look.” For example (for idou ekei i idou ode) the NRSV has, “‘Look there!’ or “Look here!'” — a basic translation that goes back to the KJV’s “See here or see there.” (Surprisingly, though, the translations don’t capture the similar repetition two verses earlier.)

      Comment by Joel H. | January 19, 2010

  3. I am inclined to agree with Bob here, although it all comes down to whether you are hoping for your English translation to supplant the text or to serve as a commentary upon it. I like my translations, when I am reading them for their own sake, to be reasonably dynamic. Not as dynamic as the NIV, but perhaps more like the Jerusalem Bible. Most of the time, however, I prefer reading scripture in Hebrew and I’ll keep alongside me a slavishly literal version like the NRSV for its exegetical value.

    Comment by Simon Holloway | January 19, 2010

  4. I always thought the NJB was more dynamic than NIV. In any case, I find NIV the most balanced between form and function for a primary translation. (I don’t have an NRSV.)

    Comment by John | January 19, 2010

  5. I’m not to sure about using “Wie geht es Ihnen?” as an example. While the most common English equivalent is “How are you?” it would be perfectly acceptable colloquial (British) English to say “How goes it with you?” which is a fairly word for word translation of the German into a slightly different register) taking “with” as an indirect object marker for the pronoun.

    Comment by Doug Chaplin | January 19, 2010

    • But (1) that’s British English and (2) that’s a coincidence. It’s not accurate because it’s literal; it’s accurate despite the fact that it happens to be literal.

      Comment by John | January 19, 2010

      • Still a bad example

        Comment by Doug Chaplin | January 20, 2010

  6. Subtitled anime shows (subbed by fans instead of professional translators) tend to slavishly translate ano, which seems to be a genderless demonstrative pronoun, as “this/that person.” It would be far better English to say “he,” “she,” or “they” (since it can be plural or singular).

    In reading through Mark 1-4, I found a plethora of examples of things that should not be translated slavishly. I also found a few occurrences of Mark translating slavishly, such as 2:16’s use of hoti and the kai beginning most sentences.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 19, 2010

  7. I’ve been breaking my teeth on this rock hard chestnut for quite a while.

    Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit [“the breath”]: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    “poor” is an adjective, and “the breath” are dative.

    BDAG supplies this:

    ③ lacking in spiritual worth, fig. ext. of 1 (Tat. 6, 2 of humans ὁ μὲν πτωχός [in contrast to God]) οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι Mt 5:3 (cp. 1QM 14:7 עַנְוֵי רוּחַ; s. πνεῦμα 3b and Goodsp., Probs. 16f;; EBest, NTS 7, ’60/61, 255–58; SLégasse, NTS 8, ’61/62, 336–45 (Qumran); HBraun, Qumran u. d. NT I, ’66, 13; LKeck, The Poor among the Saints in Jewish Christianity and Qumran, ZNW 57, ’66, 54–78; add. lit. Betz, SM 111). The ‘messenger’ of the church at Laodicea, who says of himself πλούσιός εἰμι καὶ πεπλούτηκα, is termed πτωχός Rv 3:17. In 1 Cl 15:6, Ps 11:6 is quoted w. ref. to the situation in the Corinthian church.
    Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. “Based on Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wr̲terbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frhüchristlichen [sic] Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English editions by W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker.” (3rd ed.) (Page 896). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    I find another lexical entry more appealing than that one:

    ② pert. to being thrust on divine resources, poor. At times the ref. is not only to the unfavorable circumstances of these people from an economic point of view; the thought is also that since they are oppressed and disillusioned they are in special need of God’s help, and may be expected to receive it shortly (cp. Od. 6, 207f πρὸς γὰρ Διός εἰσιν ἅπαντες ξεῖνοί τε πτωχοί τε=all strangers and needy persons are wards of Zeus; LXX; HBruppacher, D. Beurteilung d. Armut im AT 1924; WSattler, D. Anawim im Zeitalter Jes. Chr.: Jülicher Festschr. 1927, 1–15; A Meyer, D. Rätsel des Jk 1930, 146ff; HBirkeland, ˓Ani u. ˓anāw in den Psalmen ’33; LMarshall, Challenge of NT Ethics ’47, 76f; KSchubert, The Dead Sea Community ’59, 85–88; 137–39; AGelin, The Poor of Yahweh, ’64; FDanker, The Literary Unity of Mk 14:1–25: JBL 85, ’66, 467–72; s. πλοῦτος 1). The gospel is preached to them (Is 61:1) Mt 11:5; Lk 4:18; 7:22; 1 Cl 52:2 (Ps 68:33); Pol 2:3 (εἶπεν ὁ κύριος διδάσκων).
    Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. “Based on Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wr̲terbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frhüchristlichen [sic] Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English editions by W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker.” (3rd ed.) (Page 896). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Since it is an adjective and a substantive, I guess it is “the poor ones.”

    But I’m thinking it has verbal overtones of “begging.”

    “How well off are those who are beggars for the breath [of God], because the kingdom from the sky is theirs.”

    Implied in their being “beggars” are:

    * they don’t have the breath
    * they know that they don’t have the breath
    * they have a real and felt need for the breath
    * they beg for the breath
    * they receive the breath

    They are not “of a poor person’s mindset” (which I think is the usual reading), but actively needing and begging.

    Your ideas of not being overly constrained by “parts of speech,” I believe, helped me get a better handle on this.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 23, 2010

  8. […] I’ve already pointed out, mimicking parts of speech when translating generally has very little merit. So there’s no […]

    Pingback by Love is what love does: on 1 Corinthians 13 « God Didn't Say That | June 27, 2010

  9. […] I think “futility” (NJB and JPS) also misses the mark, because “futility” is not potentially attractive. Similarly, “meaningless” in the NIV also seems wrong — though the NIV is correct in not limiting its search to nouns (as I discuss here). […]

    Pingback by Q&A: Why is Everything Vanity in Ecclesiastes? « God Didn't Say That | October 28, 2010

  10. Hevel referring to Able…the birth…he took our breath away.

    Comment by cory | March 11, 2017

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