God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What do you call water you can drink?

Exodus 15:22-26 deals with drinking water. The People of Israel come to Marah (the name of a place, but the word also means “bitter”) and when they find that the water there is undrinkable, Moses throws a log into the water and it becomes drinkable. It’s a fairly simple concept (thought a complex trick), yet the KJV, ESV, NIV, NJB, NRSV, and JPS translations all translate “drinkable water” here as “sweet water.”

That’s because the Hebrew word here is matok. In Hebrew — as in English — “sweet” and “salty” are generally opposites, and in Hebrew the paradigm extends to water. But unlike Hebrew, in (most dialects of) English the opposite of “salt water” is not “sweet water” but rather “fresh water,” or perhaps “drinkable water” or even “potable water.”

The same contrast in James 3:11 is variously rendered “sweet/bitter” (KJV), “fresh/salt” (ESV), “fresh/bitter” (NLT), “fresh/brackish” (NRSV) or “pure/brackish” (NAB). (I’ve never used the word “brackish” in my life, though I remember hearing the word when I took a boat tour of the Everglades. Apparently it’s a mixture of seawater and fresh lake water.)

All of this complexity is introduced for what is essentially a very simple contrast, with common English words to describe it: fresh water and salt water.

It seems to me that the only reason to prefer “sweet” in Exodus is to maintain the literary contrast between the name of the place (“Marah,” which means “bitter”) and the water, which becomes sweet.

Do you think it’s worth it? Is “sweet” acceptible for “fresh”/”potable”/”drinkable”?

What about in James 3:11. Is “brackish” called for? I don’t see what’s wrong with “fresh/salt.”



February 2, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Another “water” issue is “living” water, which I understand is “flowing” water, yes?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 3, 2010

  2. My guess is that you don’t live near a desert and never spent any time in your youth reading cowboy stories set in the Wild West.

    I suspect that the “bitter water” was alkaline water. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkali_lake.

    Nowadays there are health fads for alkali water, but the cowboys and settlers assumed it was unsafe for either man or beast to drink it, and I assume that the Israelites felt the same.

    The opposite would indeed be fresh water.

    Comment by Lee Gold | December 18, 2012

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