God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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 | , , , , , ,


  1. Hay que tener cuidado… I once got thrown off of a list for referring to a translation as “myopic”!

    Comment by WoundedEgo | March 15, 2010

  2. Degrees of myopia are acceptable depending on the function of the various phrases. I am as you might have guessed not a fan of natural English. The sequence of words used provides focus, context, emphasis, and so on. And the writer might even have had a change of heart right in the middle of writing so the grammar might have an awkward twist in the original. Let it be so.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 16, 2010

  3. […] up on some thoughts about myopic translations, here’s one way in particular that a translation can focus too closely on the words and not […]

    Pingback by Top Translation Traps: Missing the Point « God Didn't Say That | April 22, 2010

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