God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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:

geshem
rain
yarad
fell
haya
it-was
kar
cold
v’ratov.
and-wet.
yashavnu
we-sat
babayit,
in-the-house
hibatnu
we-looked
lar’chov
to-the-street


yashavti
I-sat
im
with
tali.
Tali.
haya
it-was
nora
awfully
kar.
cold.
amarti:
I-said
chaval,
too-bad
i
not
efshar
possible
shum
any
davar
thing


asur
it-is-forbidden
li
to-me
latzeit
to-go-out
l’sachek
to-play
b’chadur.
in-a-ball.
rak
just
kar
it-is-cold
v’ratov
and-wet
v’asur
and-it-is-forbidden
v’asur
and-it-is-forbidden


himshachnu
we-kept
lashevet.
to-sit.
stam,
just
stam,
just
stam,
just
stam.
just
zeh
it
haya
was
hachi
the-most
m’sha’amem
boring
ba’olam.
in-the-world


v’az
and-then
mashehu
something
zaz.
moved.
trach.
bump
ach,
wow
eizeh
what
trach.
bump
nivhalnu
we-were-shocked
kol
all
kach.
so


hibatnu,
we-looked
v’az
and-then
hu
he
nichnas
entered
lo
to-him
mimul.
from-acrosss
hibatnu
we-looked
ra’inu,
we-saw
chatul
cat
ta’alul.
mischievous


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?

The Hebrew is actually itself a translation of an English passage. Here’s the original English:

The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day.
I sat there with Sally. We sat there, we two. And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!”
Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all.
So all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit. And we did not like it. Not one little bit.
And then something went Bump. How that bump made us jump.
We looked! Then we saw him step in on the mat! We looked! And we saw him! The Cat in the Hat.

The issue here is that a text does more than simply convey information, and I think a translation should capture as many aspects of a text as possible.

Poetry is one extreme case. In our modern example here, the Hebrew translation is successful, because like the original Dr. Seuss, it is in rhyming tetrameter. But the English rendition of the Hebrew fails because it captures none of the original beauty.

Unfortunately, most translations of biblical poetry make this exact mistake. What starts off as lyric language ends up barely-coherent.

Psalm 92 is but one example out of many. Verse 11 (also numbered 10) refers to shemen ra’anan, usually translated “fresh (ra’anan) oil (shemen).” The image of ra’anan returns in the last verse (number 15 or 14) as the second of two adjectives that describe righteous people as trees. But there the word is translated “flourishing” (KJV), “sturdy” (NAB), “green” (NIV, ESV, and NLT), and “full of sap” (NRSV). All of these translations destroy the poetic progression in the Psalm. (The error is by chance mitigated in the NIV, which uses “fresh” in the last verse for a different word.)

The word repetition isn’t the only poetic problem here. The imagery at the end of Psalm 92 is that righteous people, like trees, will flourish (verse 13 or 14). And like trees, they will do well in old age. The last verse in Hebrew poetically describes two desirable qualities of old age. While both the KJV (“fat and flourishing”) and the NRSV (“green and full of sap”) do okay regarding the meaning of the text, neither rendition is particularly poetic.

Some time ago, We saw some similar examples. There I pointed out that the phrase “part and parcel” cannot equally be rendered “portion and division,” because the latter destroys the alliteration.

More generally, words do more than contribute meaning to a text. And I think that a translation that only looks at the meaning of each word will miss some of the most important qualities of the text.

What other examples can you think of?

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

4 Comments »

  1. ISTM that most translations so studiously avoid the idea that the Song of Solomon isn’t about Jesus, but rather about erotic love that their translations are hopelessly stilted, and emptied of all vitality.

    But sometimes nothing works because of the lack of imagination on the part of the reader. The words are all there, but the meaning is completely lost on the reader because they have never experienced the deafening thunder, and the earth shaking vibration of the passing by of a huge number of chariots and powerful horses as Pharaoh certainly would have had:

    Song of Solomon 6:12 Or ever I was aware, my soul made me like the chariots of Amminadib.

    What’s she saying? She’s saying that she suddenly was overcome by an orgasm so powerful that it was a wonder that she didn’t chip her teeth!

    Apparently, Johnny “The Wad” Holmes had nothing on Solomon, who was “hung like an apple tree!”:

    Song 2:
    3 ¶ As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
    4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

    He wears her out with his pounding love-making, such that she calls out for fructose:

    5 Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love [exhausted by love-making].
    6 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me [“I’m Your Handy Man”].

    My point is that it is amazing that translations of this erotic novella are so blah as to allow readers to completely miss what it is saying. As your post suggests, they miss the forest for the trees. A sailor, reading this book, should blush.

    Instead, congregations sing “He brought me out to his banqueting table, his banner over me is love” with no comprehension that this is about a sex act – fellatio, specifically being referred to.

    Perhaps Puritan translators are in cahoots with the government?:

    http://www.theonion.com/video/congress-announces-plan-to-hide-nations-porn-from,17243/

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. I remember you once teaching about the difficult of translating names. “Washington Street” would have connotations to an American that it wouldn’t have to a foreigner. Washington was/is a General, a founding father, a philanderer, an opponent of political parties, a symbol of money, etc.

    To “perfectly” translate “Washington Street,” you’d first have to figure out which associations with “Washington” were intended by the author (as if that were possible to be sure of), and then find a figure who represented all of those traits in the target culture (and, this assumes that there is a perfect correlation between language and society/culture, which clearly isn’t always true – allusions in Spain and Mexico are wildly different). Yikes!

    So, many translations would instead actually transliterate a name like that (“Rahov Vashingtoon”), rather than attempting to translate it. Which would likely succeed in capturing only the LEAST important part of the original – the sounds!

    See – I was listening in class…

    Comment by Jason Rosenberg | April 23, 2010 | Reply

  3. I’m reminded of a Proverbs paraphrase a friend of mine published a while back. I’m not qualified to speak to the accuracy of the translation, but the main point of it was to capture the text in “heroic couplets” to convey a sense of the original that is often lost in modern translation.

    It can still be found at Amazon.com (I get nothing if anyone buys one of these).

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright | April 23, 2010 | Reply

    • Mark,

      Can you post (here or elsewhere) an example of one of his paraphrases?

      Comment by Joel H. | April 23, 2010 | Reply


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