God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Hebrew Bible is Rated “R”

Thanks to Haviv Rettig Gur for noticing that an iTunes version of the Hebrew Bible is rated “17+” because of “Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes.”

Hebrew Bible rated 17+ on iTunes

Hebrew Bible rated 17+ on iTunes

I guess this is in keeping with my springtime focus here on Song of Solomon.


March 31, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | 7 Comments

Gazelles, Stags, and Other Romantic Images

This final line of Song of Solomon, reprising a phrase that appears twice earlier, references two animals which the female heroine tells her male hero to be like as he leaves.

The most common translation of these animals is “gazelle” and “young stag,” as in the NRSV “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!” (A “stag” is an adult male deer.)



In English, calling a man a “gazelle” sounds very different than calling him a “stag.” The word “gazelle” generally represents speed and grace, while “stag” is generally more overtly sexual, as reinforced by the phrase “stag party” (bachelor party). Does the common translation, which combines these images, capture the point of the Hebrew? Or did the Hebrew words refer to other qualities?

The NLT prefers “young deer” over “young stag,” perhaps thinking that both animals in Hebrew were meant to convey speed and grace.

The Message goes in a slightly different direction with, “Run to me, dear lover.//Come like a gazelle.//Leap like a wild stag//on the spice mountains,” adding the words “leap” and “wild” (though I think all stags are wild, because deer can’t be tamed), and then joining them in a way that I find incongruous.

Marcia Falk (in her The Song of Songs) — perhaps recognizing that the imagery of “stag” in English is inconsistent with the point of the Hebrew — renders the line, “Go—//go now, my love,//be quick//as a gazelle//on the fragrant hills.”

My own guess is that both animals were meant to allude to physical motion, so “stag” doesn’t work in English.

I also think that this demonstrates an important facet of translation: words convey more than their literal meanings, and sometimes — as in the poetry here — the associations of a translation are more important than its literal accuracy.

March 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon

In keeping with the spirit of spring, here’s another post on the Song of Solomon, this time addressing how hard it is to translate the romantic imagery there.

Here are two translation challenges:

Fragrant Oils

Verse 1:3 is supposed to express the physical beauty of the male hero of Song of Solomon, but translations like “your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out;” (NRSV) or “Your name spoken is a spreading perfume — that is why the maidens love you” (NAB) seem neither particularly poetic nor to mirror the Hebrew.
Continue reading

March 25, 2010 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 17 Comments

My Sister, My Bride

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman on Bible Translation:

With some reluctance — and with renewed appreciation for people who spend their professional lives in front of a camera — I’m posting this short video excerpt in which I discuss what can go wrong in Bible translation.

March 24, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, video | , , , , | 6 Comments

Walking the Fine Line of Translation

Thanks to Naomi of Storahtelling for pointing out this ancient (mid-first-millennium AD) thought about translation, from the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 49a):

Rabbi Judah said: One who translates a verse according to its form is a liar; and one who adds anything commits blasphemy and sacrilege.

(my translation from the Aramaic)

Plus ça change…

March 24, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 1 Comment

Unicorns, Dragons, and Other Animals You Meet in the Bible

The KJV translation of the OT mentions unicorns nine times and dragons over 30 times — translations that go back to the LXX, which features the monokeros (“one-horn”) and the drakon. The Hebrew words behind these animals — r’em and tanin, respectively — are more obscure. But the real question, in seems to me, is whether we are talking about actual animals or not.

In his entertaining and informative book Sacred Monsters, Natan Slifkin suggests that the monokeros may have been a rhinoceros, which, apparently, was not unknown to the translators who gave us the LXX. King Ptolomy, who commissioned that translation, apparently had one on display (p. 46 of Sacred Monsters, citing older sources.) And it seems that the Greek physician Ctesias described the rhinoceros as a “wild ass” with “a horn,” in the 5th century BC, so there’s precedent for the mistake; Marco Polo offered a similar description.

However, Slifkin doesn’t think that the r’em was a unicorn or a rhinoceros, and, in fact, he doesn’t think that it had only one horn, because of the reference in Deuteronomy 33:17 to “the horns of the r’em.” (The LXX doesn’t have this problem because it refers to “the horns of the monokeroses. Similarly, the KJV fudges with “the horns of unicorns,” noting with delightfully quaint grammar that the original Hebrew reads, “an unicorn.”)

The Greek drakon and the Hebrew tanin have popped up recently on Dr. Claude Mariottini’s blog (here) and, a while back, on my own (here). It’s complicated to compare the Hebrew tanin, the Greek drakon, and the KJV “dragon” and other translations (including “whale”) because there is some disagreement about the original text, as I describe here.

Furthermore, sometimes the Greek drakon and KJV “dragon” are translations of a different Hebrew word altogether: livyathan, commonly “leviathan” in English.

Dr. Mariottini notes in a response to a question to his post that, “The use of ‘dragon’ by the KJV [for tanin, rendered in the LXX as drakon] is not correct. There were no dragons in ancient Israel.”

His statement is interesting because there are no dragons at all: not in ancient Israel, but also not in ancient Greece, King James’ England, or 21st century America. I think his point, though, may be that ancient Israel didn’t even have the myth of dragons, in stark contrast to some other cultures, including our modern one.

The myth of mermaids and mermen may be older. Some people think the description of Dagon in I Samuel 5:4 refers to an idol of a fish-person. The Hebrew word dag means fish, and -on is a suffix in Hebrew that can mean “like.” The text reports that Dagon’s “head” and “two hands were cut off,” with “only the dagon” left. Perhaps the point was, “of that fish-person … only the fish-part was left.” (Other scholars connect dagon to dagan, “grain.”)

The prophet Ezekiel had no name for the creatures he saw. According to his description, they looked like a person, but with four faces (human, lion-like, ox-like, and eagle-like, each pointing in a different direction), four wings, straight legs, calf-like feet, and human hands. But I don’t think these were real in the same sense that, say, horses are.

There are dragons in Revelation, too, including the one that ends Chapter 12. Chapter 13 begins with a ten-horned, seven-headed beast. Like Ezekiel’s creatures, I don’t believe that the animal in Chapter 13 is supposed to be something that exists in this world. But what about the dragon in Chapter 12?

More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.

Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translation wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.

On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.

If they were mythic, though, who’s to say that “dragon” back then had the same impact as “dragon” now (something I address briefly here)? For that matter, even if they were real, maybe “serpent” or what-not represents something today that it didn’t in the past.

But — and there’s nothing you can do but sit back and wait for the word-play to assault you — that a different kettle of fish.

March 23, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments

Who By Fire, Who By Water

Who by File, Who by Water

Who by Fire, Who by Water

I’m pleased to announce that my latest translation goes on sale today in Who by Fire, Who by Water. The book is about Un’taneh Tokef — a medieval poem now widely used in the High Holiday liturgy — and in addition to my translation and commentary, it contains 41 short essays by “contributors who span three continents and all major Jewish denominations.”

It’s not directly related to Bible translation, but it does offer an example of how I go about translating. (I also have an essay in the book: “How was Your Flight?”)

March 22, 2010 Posted by | announcements, Off Topic | 1 Comment

Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?

Is homosexuality a sin?Who says homosexuality is a sin? The NLT does, right there in its “translation” to Leviticus 18:22: “Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin.”

But that’s not what the Hebrew says, and I’ve put the word “translation” in scare quotes because I think that what the NLT has here is an interpretation, not a translation.

The Hebrew in Leviticus — as is widely known — is more complicated. The first part of the verse is in commandment form. The NRSV’s rendition is fairly good: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” The second part augments the first with the explanation that, “it is an abomination.”


Although the phrasing is odd to modern ears, the Hebrew almost certainly referred to men having sex with men. The NLT’s substitution of “homosexuality” is wrong for at least two reasons. Their English refers equally to men and women, while the Hebrew doesn’t address what women do. And their English refers to a wider variety of acts and attitudes than the Hebrew. But even so, I think “homosexuality” for a translation here is close enough to be considered okay for what the NLT is trying to do.


But when the NLT introduces the word “sin” for the Hebrew to’evah, I think it has left the realm of translation behind, replacing it with their understanding of modern dogma.

The Hebrew word to’evah occurs often enough that it’s not hard to figure out what it means. For example, in Genesis 43:32, the Egyptians don’t eat with the Hebrews because it is a to’evah for the Egyptians. Similarly, “every shepherd” is a to’evah to the Egyptians according to Genesis 46:34. Deuteronomy 14:3 helps us out further: “Do not eat any to’evah”; from context the to’evah is unkosher animals. Proverbs 21:27 teaches that the sacrifice of the wicked is a to’evah. In the moving lament in Psalm 88, verse 9 (also numbered verse 8, and in the LXX numbered Psalm 87:9) includes the woe that God has made the author a to’evah to his acquaintances.

All of this evidence — and more — points in the direction of “undesirable thing” for to’evah. The standard translation “abomination” is probably mostly right. (I sometimes wonder if “taboo” was included in the meaning.)

And it seems that the authors of the NLT knew this. In the very similar text of Leviticus 20:13, also about a man having sex with another man, the NLT translates the resulting to’evah as “detestable act.”

Leviticus 18:22 is politically and religiously charged. It seems to me that a translation that masks the original text — presenting an interpretation as though it were the original — is a disservice to everyone.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 75 Comments

Q&A: Who Are You(rselves)?

Anthony asks on the About page:

I have a question about Heb 3:13. When it says “exhort yourselves,” is the Greek literally saying “you all exhort each other” or “you all exhort your own selves,” supporting Galatians 6:4? Would the expression in question be parakaleite eautous?

Yes, that is the Greek, and it’s a great question.

Let’s ignore the nuances of what parakaleo means (“exhort”? “encourage”? “comfort”? etc.) and focus on eautou. It turns out that the word can be both reciprocal (“each other” in English) and reflexive (“oneself”).

For example, we find the word in Colossians 3:13: “[{3:12} As God’s chosen ones … wear clothes of … patience,] {3:13} putting up with each other [allilon] and forgiving each other [eautois] if you have a complaint against another [tis pros tina — ‘one against another’].” There eautou is pretty clearly reciprocal: the exhortation is “forgive each other,” not “forgive yourselves.” The fact that eautou appears in parallel with allilon and tis…tis — both of which are reciprocal — reinforces the reciprocal reading for eautou. (I understand that there’s a rumor that allilon is always reciprocal and eautou never is. That doesn’t seem right.)

So we see pretty clearly that eautou can be reciprocal.

Equally, eautou can be reflexive. James 1:22 reads, “Be doers of the word, not just listeners deceiving yourselves [eautous].” Romans 6 points in the same direction: “{6:11} so consider yourselves [eautous] dead to sin but alive to God… {6:13}…completely present yourselves eautous to God…”

One of the the things that makes this question interesting is that grammar won’t help us with Hebrews 3:13, because eautous there might mean either “yourselves” or “each other.” In this regard Greek didn’t make a distinction. (At least NT Greek didn’t.)

As a general matter, we expect this sort of pronominal ambiguity. It’s a little like, “please speak to myself…” in English, which I find ungrammatical (because the reflexive pronoun is used where an ordinary one should be), but I know other dialects accept it. Similarly, “they love their mother” (the standard example in linguistics) is ambiguous as to whether “they each love their own mother” or “they all love their collective mother.”

I think eautou is likewise ambiguous.

And while the specific lesson here is about that pronoun, more generally I think we see that linguistics can only go so far when it comes to understanding the Bible.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | Comments Off on Q&A: Who Are You(rselves)?

Top Translation Traps: Myopic Translations

Sometimes it seems that translators look too closely at individual words, only asking “how do I say this ancient word in English?” rather than asking “how do I translate this text into English?” I think this flawed approach comes in part from ignorance, but also from the religious tradition that each word has meaning. So this is one way in which scientific translation can sometimes diverge from religious interpretation.

Getting it Right


As a simple example of a good translation that comes from looking beyond individual words, we can consider Numbers 24:5, which is about Jacob’s tents (“your tents, Jacob”). The first Hebrew word in that verse, ma, means “what” and the second word (tovu) means “were good.” But it’s wrong to translate “what good were your tents, Jacob?” Every translation that I know of gets this right with “how good are your tents…”

This is a case where a word normally has one translation (“what,” in our example) but certain circumstances call for another (“how,” here).


Matthew 1:18 is similar. It’s the first of several times we find the Greek phrase en gastri, “in the womb”: “Mary was found to be en gastri….” But it doesn’t mean that Mary was in the womb, because the next Greek word is echousa, “holding.” “Holding in the womb” is Greek for “pregnant,” or — as used to be common — “with child.”*

Again most translations get this right, correctly realizing that even though the Greek words for “in” and “womb” appear in the original, the English words “in” and “womb” have no place in the translation. To try to form a sentence with “in” and “womb” would be overly myopic, focusing too closely on the words and not on how they work together.

This phrase-level issue is pretty close to internal structure, which I discussed last week.

Getting in Wrong


One of the clearest ways in which translations are myopic is when it comes to light verbs like the Greek poieo. Acts 2:22 is a perfect example both of the problem and the difficulty of getting it right. There, God poieos three kinds of things: dunamis, teras, and simeion.

Translations such as (NRSV) “deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did…” seem to ignore basic English grammar. We don’t say “do deeds of power” in English, or “do signs.” What seems to have happened is this: The translators looked at each word in isolation, myopically asking, “how do we say dunamis?” or, “how do we say poieo?” Once they had answers, they crammed them together.

Using “work” for poieo — as in the NAB, “mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked…” — doesn’t seem much better. “Working mighty deeds” similarly isn’t English.

We do have grammatical ways to express the same thing in English: “God’s wonders,” for example, or “God’s signs,” instead of “the wonders that God did/worked.” (I’m purposely ignoring dunamis for now.)

But the whole sentence makes that approach difficult, because “God poieod the three kinds of wonders through Jesus of Nazareth. Continuing the pattern we just tried, we would get “God’s wonders through Jesus,” but I don’t think that’s right, because the original Greek refers to how the wonders were performed, not what kind of wonders they were.

So we might try, “performed wonders,” which is at least grammatical in English. But we’ll run into trouble with “performed works,” which doesn’t make much sense, and we don’t have a translation for dunamis here.

Still, even without a successful translation (any ideas?) I think the concepts are clear. What we need here is the equivalent of “how” instead of “what” for ma, that is, a way of expressing in English what the Greek expresses very clearly. What we don’t want is what most translations offer: a translation that looks at each Greek word in isolation, renders it in English, and then hopes that those English words will make sense when put together.


Finally, to round things out, we can consider the Hebrew phrase eitz hasadeh. The words mean “tree of the field” (and this is how most translations render the phrase), but the phrase probably means “fruit tree.”


The lessons are clear, and, unfortunately, they invite a cliché in summary: Translators who focus myopically on the words risk missing the forest and seeing only trees.

[Posted at 33,000 feet on my way back from teaching in New Orleans.]

(*) UPDATE: J.K Gayle has posted some background on the Greek phrase “(holding) in the womb.”

March 15, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , | 3 Comments