God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Clear, Cogent, and Wrong

I frequently hear support for a translation philosophy that is in favor of only changing the original “as much as necessary” or of keeping the formal structure of the original “as far as possible” (to quote the introduction to the ESV). But I think that approach is fundamentally misguided.

The first three words of the Bible demonstrate. In Hebrew, they are breishit (“in the beginning”), bara (“created”), and elohim (“God”).

The most direct mapping from Hebrew to English would therefore be, “In the beginning created God [the heavens and the earth].” But that’s not grammatical English. So translators change the text to, “In the beginning God created…”

Unfortunately, they stop there, reasoning (wrongly in my opinion) that a translation of the Bible that means something in English necessarily means the same thing in English as the original.

In our example, the reasoning is this: Putting the verb before the subject in English is bad because it’s not grammatical in English. So far, so good. But the next bit of reasoning is that putting “in the beginning” first is accurate merely because it’s grammatical. The question “does it mean the same thing?” rarely gets asked. And in this case, the answer is “no.” Putting something at the start of a Hebrew sentence does not always mean the same thing as putting something at the start of an English sentence.

In fact, a better translation would be, “it was in the beginning that God created…,” because the first line of Genesis answers the question “when?” not “what?”

More importantly, the reasoning that leads to “in the beginning…” is, I think, faulty. We should not be asking only “is the English grammatical?” but also “does it mean the same thing as the original?”

April 29, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 7 Comments

What Wine and Wineskins can Teach Us about Text and Context

Bill Mounce notes (also here) that Classical Greek had two words for “new”: neos and kainos.

We see them both in Matthew 9:17 (as well as Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:37), where Jesus relates that people “pour new wine into new wineskins” (NIV). The problem is that this translation (along with the NLT, CEV, and others) wrongly makes it sound as if it is the newsness of the skins that makes them suitable for the new wine. That is, the translation seems to suggest that the wine and the skin should match.

But the Greek uses neos for the wine and kainos for the skins. So in Greek, the wine doesn’t match the skin. Rather, there are two kinds of skins (palaios and kainos) and the question is which is better for wine that is neos.

In other words, the original question is “should neos wine go in to kainos or palaios skins?” Some translations prejudice the issue by asking instead, “should new wine go in to new or old skins.”

Simply as a description of the skin, I’m not sure that “fresh wineskin” — the other common option, from the KJV, NAB, NRSV, etc. — is better than “new.” (This might because I get my wine from bottles, so in truth I’m not really sure what this wineskin [askos] is, and what a fresh one looks like.) But in the context of Matthew 9:17, I think it’s more important to convey the point of the lesson than to describe the exact quality of the skin.

I also think that this is a perfect demonstration of why translating each word is not enough to create a good translation.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Henry Neufeld on Bible Translation

Henry Neufeld (of Energion Publications) has posted some thoughts on Bible translation. I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s worth taking a look at for another way of approaching Bible translation.

In particular, this jumped out at me:

There are wrong translations, but there are many partially right translations.

The rest is here.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , | Leave a comment

The Problem with Forever

Ancient Hebrew divided “forever” into two parts: forever in the past, and forever in the future. Hebrew used the preposition “from” (mi-) to indicate the former, and “to” (l’-) for the latter.

So Hebrew has three words. “Eternity” is olam. “From the beginning of time up to now” is mei-olam. And “from now to the end of time” is l’olam. Variations include ad olam (“until olam”) and la’ad, both of which mean the same thing as l’olam.

English has a convenient word “forever” that encompasses all time, but we don’t have the equivalent of l’olam or mei’olam. This creates a translation challenge when those two Hebrew words are juxtaposed as a poetic way of indicating “all of eternity.”

One example out of a great many comes from Psalm 90 (which recently popped up here and here). The end of verse 2 in Hebrew reads, “and mei-olam [eternity up to now] ad olam [eternity starting now] you are God.” The point is fairly simple: “You have always been God and you will always be God.”

But the KJV offers the barely coherent, “from everlasting to everlasting.” Here I have to wonder if the translators were even aware of the role that “from,” “to,” and “everlasting” played in Hebrew.

More surprisingly, modern translations generally keep this odd phrasing. The NRSV, NIV, and ESV mimic the KJV here. The NAB offers the equally odd “from eternity to eternity.”

The NLT (which I generally don’t like because of its inaccuracies) has an interesting solution: “you are God, without beginning or end.” I still don’t think the NLT’s translation here is accurate, but it’s certainly better than the others, in that at least it expresses the correct general thought.

The Message (which I usually find to be even less accurate than the NLT) also has an interesting option: “from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘kingdom come’ — you are God.” The story-like “once upon a time” and the theologically-laden “kingdom come” grate on my ear, but at least the English means something akin to the point of the Hebrew.

I think this is a perfect demonstration of what I called slavery to parts of speech. In this case, I think the two prepositional phrases “from everlasting” and “to everlasting” should be translated as past-tense and future-tense verbs, respectively.

So: “you always were and always will be God.”

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Missing the Point

[Between six appearances in four cities and then having to buy a new car, I haven’t been in front of a computer in nearly two weeks. So I’m playing catch-up, starting with a much-delayed installment of “translation traps.”]

Following 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 closely enough on the text.

This is a typical translation of a (Modern) Hebrew text into English:

Rain was falling, it was cold and wet. We sat at home, we looked out toward the street.
I sat with Tali. It was very cold. I said, “What a shame. We can’t do anything.”
[I’m] not allowed to go out and play ball. It’s just cold and wet and [I’m] not allowed. [I’m] not allowed.”
We kept sitting. Just, just, just, just [sitting]. It was the most boring [thing] in the world.
And then something moved. Bump. Wow, what a bump. We were so shocked.
We looked, and then he made his way in. We looked, and we saw, a mischievous cat.

For reference, here’s the original Hebrew, with word-for-word translations:







But the English translation above, even though at first glance it may seem pretty good, is wrong in almost every regard. Can you figure out what happened?

Continue reading

April 22, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: How Mistranslation Created Divorce in the Bible

From the About page comes this response to something I wrote in And God Said:

On p. 155 of And God Said you claim that “there is no divorce in the Bible.”


Two great questions follow. I’ll take them in reverse order:

The Case of Two Husbands

Also, you speculate that perhaps the Bible would call both an ex-wife and a current wife, “his wife” but this is not true, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we see “former wife.”

I presume you mean “former husband,” and here we find a true translation gaff.

The KJV, ESV, NAB, NLT, and others translate “former husband” for ba’al rishon. But “former” in English usually implies “no longer,” whereas the Hebrew rishon just means “first.” For example, when Esau is born before Jacob, he is called the rishon. Genesis 26:1 mentions a famine, and then clarifies, “not the first [rishon] famine,” but rather a new famine. This doesn’t mean or imply that the first famine is no longer or famine. Similarly, ba’ala harishon doesn’t “her husband who is no longer her husband,” but rather, “her first husband.”

(There’s a related use of “former” in English that’s the opposite of “latter” and that just means “first.” For example: “Consider two people, the former a senator and the latter a judge….”)

By comparision, we might look at “ex-wife” in English. A man in his third marriage can have two ex-wives. Even if we call them “the former ex-wife” and “the latter ex-wife,” both remain his ex-wives, and the clearer way to refer to them in English is “his first ex-wife” and “his second ex-wife.”

The NIV gets rishon right with “first,” but then errs and translates shilach as “divorced” instead of the more accurate “sent away.”

The NJB’s combination of “first husband” and “repudiated her” isn’t bad, except for the fact that the Hebrew shilach is a common verb while the English “repudiate” is not.

The NRSV’s translation is pretty accurate here: “…her first husband, who sent her away…”

So here we see Hebrew that just talks about two husbands, while the English, with the word “former,” wrongly suggests that one of them is no longer a husband.

The alleged divorce only takes place in translation.
Continue reading

April 9, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Interview on Bible translation with Al Kresta

Yesterday I had the treat to talk to Al Kresta about Bible translation on his nationally syndicated “Kresta in the Afternoon.” You can find the audio here.

April 8, 2010 Posted by | announcements, audio | , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?

The Greek aetos is usually translated “vulture” in Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37, but “eagle” in Revelation 4:7, 8:13, and 12:14. Why?

The answer has to do with how words — for animals, in this case — are used metaphorically.

In English a “vulture” is different than an “eagle” — and we also have hawks, falcons, turkey vultures (“buzzards”), eagle owls, and more — but beyond the zoological differences, the two words also represent very different qualities: a vulture is usually bad, while an eagle is usually good.

“Eyes like an eagle” refers to someone who has the good fortune of seeing well, as does “eyes like a hawk.” “Eyes like a vulture,” though not a common expression, to me indicates something nefarious.

“Waiting around like vultures,” too, refers to something untoward. “Waiting around like eagles” — again, not a common expression — to me is neutral or positive.

To “soar like an eagle” is a good thing, while “to soar like a vulture” — even though vultures and eagles soar almost exactly the same way — is bad.

I think that all of this is important because it highlights an important fact about how language works: the associations of a word extend beyond the literal meaning of the word.

In Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37, the aetos birds gather around (dead) bodies. That’s what “vultures” stereotypically do in English.

Revelation 4:7, which matches Ezekiel 1:10, mentions a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle. It’s hard to know if, in that context, aetos was supposed to be positive (soaring like an eagle, for example) or negative (perhaps like an ox that gores). But certainly to the extent that the four animals are used to represent the four evangelists, and, in particular, to the extent that John is an aetos, only “eagle” works in English. (Question: Do you think we should we let that later interpretation influence our translation decision?)

In the OT, aetos is used for nesher. We find the word in Isaiah 40:31, for example, where it is clearly positive: people who wait for God are compared to eagles.

In Exodus we see the well-known image of “wings of Eagles,” upon which God lifted up the Israelites. There “wings of vultures” certainly doesn’t work in English.

In Habakkuk 1:8, though, nesher (and aetos) are used as a predatory image: The Chaldeans “fly like a nesher, quick to devour.” Though most translations go with “eagle” here, I think “vulture” is better.

(Micah 1:6 is interesting, too, because it uses the phrase, bald “like the eagle.” Eagles aren’t bald — not even the bald eagle — but vultures are.)

Deuteronomy 14:12-18 and Leviticus 11:13-19 both contain lists of birds that are not to be eaten. Though it’s almost impossible now to know what each word represented there, we do see evidence of an advanced ornithological taxonomy.

But I think that the zoology here is irrelevant. In most of these cases, the difference between an “eagle” and a “vulture” is a question not for bird experts, but more generally for English speakers.



Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

April 8, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

All in All Not Much of a Conversation

All in All

Dannii at BBB has a post about “all in all” as a translation for panta en pasin in 1 Corinthians 15:28. The full verse is (NRSV):

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

I think this is an excellent demonstration both of what can go wrong in Bible translation and how hard it can be to talk about Bible-translation issues.

Dannii read “all in all” and “almost made the mistake of thinking the Bible taught pantheism.” Therefore, for Dannii, the NLT’s “[God] will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere” is “a much better translation.”

In a comment, Marshall Massey replies that, “Personally, I’d rather have a mechanically literal translation of this verse than a translation ‘corrected’ to fit someone’s preconceived notions of what the Bible can and cannot teach. If a verse appears to teach pantheism, then let the readers wrestle with that fact!”

Another comment agrees: “Others are saying it better than me, but I’ll weigh in against this theological filtering.”

Gary Simmons then suggests that modern audiences are “less capable of interpretation” than Paul’s audience and “[i]f our audience is less capable of working through interpretation, then clarity becomes a prominent issue.” So a translator has to take obscure Greek and clarify it in translation.

Peter Kirk notes that “all in all” isn’t a literal translation at all, because “it misses the significant fact that in Greek both ‘all’s are plural, and the first is neuter, whereas the second could be any gender.”

John Hobbins then raises the issue of consistency: “It also makes sense to translate a neologism [such as panta en pasin] in the same way across all of its occurrences,” suggesting that the “ESV among recent translations is the way to go. It’s as simple as that.”

Four Conversations

At this point, we have four conversations going on:

1. What did the Greek mean?

2. How do we judge the success of a translation?

3. Which English best applies the right answer to (2) to the right answer to (1)?

4. Which published translation best represents the right answer to (3)?

(J.K. Gayle rightly notes three of these, in a different order: “1. the Greek; 2. the English; and 3. what translation means and does.”)

I think one common source of frustration is when people appear to be engaged in dialog but in fact they are having different conversations.

For example, Marshall pits literal translations against translations that are corrected. For him, this is a conversation about the second question: he prefers accuracy over emended theology. But for me, this is a combination of the 1st question and the 3rd. I agree that accuracy is important, but I don’t think that “all in all” accurately represents the Greek. So even though I disagree with Marshall’s conclusion that “all in all” is a good translation, fundamentally, at least on this, I agree with him.

Dannii seems primarily to address the third question, without first having answered the first and the second (but with the caveat: “I won’t say the NLT is necessarily correct, but at least they tried.”).

Peter is apparently addressing question 3 (“is this really a literal translation?”), though I don’t believe that he is in favor of literal translations in the first place.

Gary’s point concerns the second question.

John seems to address the second and fourth questions. I agree with John that consistency is important, though I disagree that the ESV achieves it. The same Greek phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 12:6, but there the ESV translates, “all in everyone.” (I don’t know of any translation that offers consistency here.)


I think this expanded view of what’s going on is important for two reasons:

1. This is typical of how Bible translations are debated.

2. When we aren’t clear about which question we’re addressing, fundamental agreement (e.g., “a translation should be accurate”) ends up looking like disagreement.

April 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 9 Comments