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