God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Being Clear on Being Clear

A post by David Frank on BBB has got me thinking about clarity in Bible translation.

I think there are at least two kinds of clarity, and two times when we don’t want clarity.

Clarity of Language

The most basic kind is clarity of expression in the target language — in our case, the English translation of the original Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic). An ordinery Hebrew or Greek sentence should up as an ordinary English one.

This is a fairly basic concept in translation, so it’s surprising how many popular translations get this wrong.

At the top of the list of offenders here is the KJV, not because of any particular fault on the part of the translators but because English has changed in the past 400 years. For example, a clear Greek sentence like pote ode gegonas (John 6:25) becomes “when camest thou hither?” in the KJV instead of “when did you get here” (NIV). Even the NRSV ends up with “when did you come here,” which is not as clear as the original.

David Frank’s point (I think) is that the NRSV is therefore both less clear and less accurate than the NIV. There are those who claim that the NRSV is more accurate because the English “came” is closer to the Greek gegonas, but most translators (including myself) disagree, because the Greek gegonas is clear and colloquial in context, and the English “when did you come here” is not.

Clarity of Content

On the other hand, there are times when the content of what we want to translate is complex, and here I think translators have to resist the temptation to “translate and improve.”

Some examples will demonstrate. We can start with English.

English Examples

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” While the langauge is perfectly clear, the content of Dickens’ opening line is anything but, and I think it would be a mistake to “translate” this as “the times were ambiguous,” or “the times were perceived differently by different people” or (this is Dickens’ point in the opening paragraph), “the times were seen only in superlatives.”

Yet many Bible translations — in their pursuit of clarity — do just this sort of thing to the Bible. And, frequently, the same translations that are good at providing clarity of language are bad at preserving complexity of content, and vice versa.

As a result, readers of the Bible in English sometimes have to put up with the inaccuracy of bad writing in English (no clarity of language) or the inaccuracy of over-simplification (too much clarity of context).

Again the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities can be helpful.

Adherents to one school of thought focus (wrongly, in my opinion) too closely on the grammar in an attempt to achieve accuracy. It’s as though in translating Dickens they made sure to preserve the words for “of” in “best of times” and “worst of times,” even though many languages express the same partitive concept though other grammatical means. So the resulting translations out of English would sound like “it was the times’ best and it was the times’ worst.” This is the lack of clarity that typifies many Bible translations and that David Frank opposes.

Adherents to another school of thought (again, wrongly in my opinion) go too far in seeking clarity. They would end up with “the times were ambiguous” in their translation of Dickens.

A Biblical Example

Examples from the Bible include John 1:1. The text itself is simple (“in the beginning was the word”), but the concepts are complex.

Fortunately, in this case even a literal translation into English is pretty clear, so almost every translation achieves clarity of language. But some translations — again, in pursuit of clarity — destroy the nuanced complexity of the line. For example, the CEV translates, “In the beginning was the one//who is called the Word.” Well, maybe “the word” refers to “the one who is called the Word,” but even though the CEV is easier to understand than most other versions, I don’t think it’s more accurate. The NLT — “In the beginning the Word already existed” — similarly oversimplifies by adding “already.” (The choice of “existed” is more complicated.)


A more complex example comes from Job 40:2.

The ESV’s translation here is nearly incomprehensible: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (No clarity of language.) The Message seems barely related to the original Hebrew: “Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges?” The NAB is somewhere in the middle: “Will we have arguing with the Almighty by the critic? Let him who would correct God give answer!”

Here I think we don’t want a clear translation (like The Message), because the original is not clear; it is complex poetry. But neither do we want a convoluted translation (like the ESV), because the original is not convoluted and awkward; it’s poetic.

So here — and in many similar cases of poetry or otherwise lofty langauge — it seems to me that any sort of clarity is inaccurate.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that any unclear translation is accurate. (I’m reminded of the story of a parent in a one-on-one meeting with his child’s principal. “It’s true,” explains the principal, “that many geniuses exhibit erratic behavior. But that doesn’t mean that your child’s erratic behavior is a sign of genius.”)

What we want in a translation is the same sort of poetically complex lack of clarity that we find in the original. To the best of my knowledge, there is no translation that offers this.

Awkward Writing

Another case where we might not want a clear translation is when the original is actually convoluted. Normally this happens when the text is corrupt, as for example in the book of Samuel. We know from the LXX and the DSS that some portions of Samuel have been lost. So the standard text of the OT contains portions in Samuel that are actually unintelligible in Hebrew. Should the English translation mirror the unintelligibility?

The most accurate translation, it seems to me, would do just that, but here I can see a case for letting clarity trump accuracy.

Clarity, Again

So I think that clarity is a good goal when the original is clear, and I agree with David Frank that frequently when translators think they are sacrificing clarity for accuracy they in fact miss both.

But equally I think that we have to be careful not to superimpose clarity on a text that is — for various reasons — not always clear.


January 29, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , ,


  1. I could argue that in John 6:25 NIV is more literal than NRSV. After all, ginomai is not a verb of motion and so (according to literalist thinking) cannot literally be rendered “come”, whereas “get”, in its intransitive sense, is a reasonable literal rendering of this verb usually translated “become”.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | January 29, 2010

  2. Natural English word order would be:

    “The word was [present] at [The] Beginning.”

    “The Beginning” is implied by the usage of EN ARKH, here and in Genesis 1. It is as if John said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you have your Septuagint with you today, please turn to page 1…” “The Beginning” is the name of the first scroll of the Torah, more or less. “Bereshit”

    Conversely, there is no reason to capitalize “word” since “utterance” is not a proper noun.

    The utterance he is going to refer to, of course, is the “let there be…” statements in the making of the sky and land.

    John is explaining who the “us” is, in “let us make man to look like us…” It was his utterance, through which everything was made (that was made, not the pre-existent stuff).

    So my translation would be:

    “The word was present at The Beginning. The word was with God, and the word was divine utterance. This is who was with God in The Beginning.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 29, 2010

  3. Thanks again for an entertaining post. My rendering of Job 40.2 is this

    will he who contends with the Sufficient be the mentor?
    God’s referee – let him answer

    mentor is concordant with my other uses of this term in the poem. Referee is not concordant: The word in exactly this form occurs only here and in 9:33 where I also used referee. In the 13 other places in other forms I have used reprove, reproof, prove (13 times). Edwin Good raises the question of whether the poem implies that there is a third party who could mediate. Job refuses initially the role of referee but eventually is the one who mediates for his comforters. I think I have mentioned Ticciati’s book on Job before – Job and the disruption of identity. I see in Job the intimation of the need for the role of mediator – she takes this up as only a good theologian can. I enjoyed her book immensely.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 30, 2010

    • I’m not so happy with “let him answer.” At least in my dialect of English, it’s not poetic, just odd. (Though you are of course not alone in that rendition.)

      Comment by Joel H. | January 31, 2010

  4. Joel, your genius example made me laugh.

    Your newest book – what’s the listed price going to be?

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 30, 2010

    • I think the list price will be $26, though we expect on-line retailers to sell it for under $20, probably between $17 and $18.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 31, 2010

      • I’ll be glad to buy a copy when I have the funds.

        Comment by Gary Simmons | January 31, 2010

  5. Gary: Thanks for your support. I have a book tour timed to coincide with the launch of the book, and then another in March. If you happen to be in Alabama, Tennessee, or the NYC area at the right times, please stop by and introduce yourself.

    Comment by Joel H. | February 1, 2010

    • Please let me know if/when you come to North Alabama, or Chattanooga, Tennessee.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 1, 2010

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.