God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Forgetting Your Own Grammar

Mark 15:9 demonstrates how translation can make people forget their own grammar.

A curiosity of English generally prevents anything from appearing between a verb an its object. This is why “I saw yesterday Bill” is such an awkward sentence in English. (It’s fine in French, Modern and Biblical Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages.)

Yet for the Greek apoluso umin ton basilea tou Ioudaion the KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NJB, and NRSV all have some variant of, “[do you want me to] release for you the King of the Jews,” putting the phrase “for you” (sometimes “to you”) right between the verb and the object.

Simple English grammar demands, “…release the King of the Jews for you.”

I suppose what we see is a result of translators’ (unfortunate) desire to mimic the Greek word order combined with something about Bible translation that makes people temporarily forget what they ordinarily know instinctively.

The lesson this week is simple: When you write an English translation, try to write it in English.

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February 1, 2010 - Posted by | grammar, Translation Traps | , , , , ,

14 Comments »

  1. […] problem is the same: some translators stop when they have a grammatical translation (though see my last post — sometimes they stop sooner), even though it might not be the right grammatical […]

    Pingback by “God is an Online Forum” « God Didn't Say That | February 1, 2010 | Reply

  2. >>>The lesson this week is simple: When you write an English translation, try to write it in English.

    Excellent mantra.

    But isn’t “Release to you the king” an indirect object? Or is it not, because it has a preposition?

    Thanks.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 1, 2010 | Reply

    • I think Joel’s point is that there shouldn’t be an indirect object between the verb (release) and the direct object (king).

      However, with the dative of advantage (if I could steal that Greek term), we do use it in English as V-IO-DO sometimes: “I’m going to make you a sandwich,” for instance.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  3. I certainly know this tangle

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  4. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that that construction is called an indirect object:

    http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000018.htm

    I think it started out as bad grammar, but they gave it a name, so now it is legit.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  5. I just don’t the rules about a preposition with a direct object… “I gave to John a cookie” sounds pretty bad, but “I gave John a cookie” is, these days, completely acceptable.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  6. I think the general rule in English where there is a direct and an indirect object is that by preference the lighter (shorter) of the two goes first, and the heavier (longer) follows it. The same rule applies with objects together with some other kinds of light adjunct, e.g. “on it” in “he put on it a very long heavy object”. So if “for you” is an indirect object or equivalent, “release for you the King of the Jews” is correct, and “release the King of the Jews for you” is less correct, at least unless there is some non-default focus or emphasis in the sentence.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | February 2, 2010 | Reply

    • I’ve never heard of any kind of “weighting” being associated with the word order in English. Are you referring to Greek word order?

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 2, 2010 | Reply

      • No, I am referring to English grammar, although not as it is usually taught in schools.

        Comment by Peter Kirk | February 2, 2010

  7. But isn’t “Release to you the king” an indirect object? Or is it not, because it has a preposition?

    Wow. This set off quite a debate….

    Thought it’s a digression, let’s get a few things straight.

    Gary is right that my point was about putting something between the verb “release” and the (direct) object “the king,” which is, as I say, generally ungrammatical in English.

    Indirect objects in English are usually expressed in one of two ways, either with a preposition after the direct object or without a preposition before the direct object. For example, “Chris” is the indirect object in both “I gave Chris a message” and “I gave a message to Chris.”

    The preposition-less indirect object comes about through what is called “dative shift,” and only some verbs allow it. For example, even though “give” and “donate” mean the same sort of thing, and even though “I gave the hospital a television” is grammatical, it’s ungrammatical in English to say, “I donated the hospital a television.”

    Peter is right that lighter words tend to come first. This is why, “I gave the local hospital it” doesn’t sound as good as “I gave it to the local hospital.”

    Additionally, new information tends to come later in a sentence. (This is not just in English — it seems to be universal.) So if Chris ends up with your book, the answer to “who did you give the book to” is “I gave the book to Chris,” while the answer to “what did you give Chris” is “I gave Chris the book.” Notice the different word orders, with the answer to the question each time coming at the end.

    Most of this has little to do with the prohibition in English against putting something between the verb and its object, though the weight considerations that Peter mention come into play.

    For example, in Revelation 3:18 we find, “therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire” (NRSV). Normally “from me” shouldn’t appear between “buy” and the object, but because the object is so heavy (“gold refined by fire”) it’s better than it otherwise would be, though it’s still awkward. (The NLT has a nice solution here: “I advise you to buy gold from me — gold that has been purified by fire.”)

    But all of this seems like a digression to me (though obviously nothing says “fun” on a Tuesday morning more than a discussion of syntax, phonological weight, and conversational information theory). The reason it seems like a digression is that, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews” just doesn’t sound like English to me.

    Do other speakers not agree?

    For example, do these sound right: “Do you want me to write for you the article?” “Do you want me to replace for you the light bulb?” “Do you want me to correct for you the spelling?” These all sound terrible to my ear.

    I’m surprised at the level of disagreement here.

    Comment by Joel H. | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  8. >>>…For example, “Chris” is the indirect object in both “I gave Chris a message” and “I gave a message to Chris.”…

    Actually, in the second example, “Chris” is the “object of the preposition.”

    >>>I’m surprised at the level of disagreement here.

    “Iron sharpens iron…”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  9. But “the king of the Jews” is not only weightier but also the new information and the focus of the question. It is not a matter of “should I release the king of the Jews for you or for someone else?”, but “should I release for you the king of the Jews or someone else?” Note how this is made explicit in the parallel in Matthew 27:17, where the choice of Barabbas is offered. Your “release the King of the Jews for you” sounds banal, suitable for reading in a monotone. The translations’ “release for you the King of the Jews” (for once) gets the information structure correct and puts the sentence stress and the focus in the right place.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | February 2, 2010 | Reply

    • ISTM that we are a contaminated audience. What sounds emphasized or not by word order might be different for us because we might be hearing it under the influence of Greek word order rules. I’m serious. I am not aware of any such principle in English syntax, and I wouldn’t count on it for a general audience.

      The emphases, implicit in Greek word order *are* important, and tragically absent from English translations, but ISTM that a more explicit emphasis is needed than choosing an indirect object over an object of a preposition. I’m a big fan of *visual* indicators of emphasis, personally.

      I think field testing would be required on a case by case basis for the more subtle word order matters suggested.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  10. The reason it seems like a digression is that, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews” just doesn’t sound like English to me.

    Do other speakers not agree?

    For example, do these sound right: “Do you want me to write for you the article?” “Do you want me to replace for you the light bulb?” “Do you want me to correct for you the spelling?” These all sound terrible to my ear.

    They’re definitely all English, though maybe uncommon forms in your idiolect.

    I think what you’re getting at with those last three examples is that the preposition phrase is an adjunct and is placed awkwardly. But that’s very different from true ditransitive verbs.

    “Release to you the king” doesn’t have an indirect object, it has an adjunct.

    Additionally, new information tends to come later in a sentence. (This is not just in English — it seems to be universal.)

    Not so, in many Australian languages there is a strong preference for new information to come first. Most of these are nonconfigurational btw.

    Comment by Dannii Willis | February 5, 2010 | Reply


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