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?”

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April 29, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. “the first line of Genesis answers the question ‘when?’ not ‘what?'”

    That is an interesting take… do you derive that from the fact that בראשית is placed at the front of the sentence? I don’t completely understand who asked the question “when” and why that is the question they would ask. I would have thought that the book of Genesis as a whole intended rather to answer the questions of “who is the God of the Hebrews?”, “how did he get involved in a relationship with them?”, and “how did they end up in Egypt?”. In my mind, it would stand to reason that the question of “who” is being answered in this first verse.

    Also, what do you think of Rashi’s interpretation, which makes the entire two first verses into a dependent clause leading into the main verb ויאמר in verse 3?

    Comment by Aaron | April 29, 2010 | Reply

    • Yes, the position of breishit at the beginning of the sentence is key.

      The verse is answering an unasked question. What I mean is that the verse primarily provides information about “when,” not about “what.”

      Information Theory is helpful here. Every sentence has assumed information and new information. To get a sense of the difference, compare the following two short dialogs in English:

      1. – Who did you give the ball to?
        – I gave the ball to Chris.

      2. – What did you give Chris?
        – I gave Chris the ball.

      In this case, English speakers automatically know to change the word order of the answer to put the part of the sentence that answers the question at the end. The answer is the “new information.”

      New/assumed information applies even without a specific question. It’s not always easy to see in English, but it’s sometimes clearer in other languages.

      In this case, the Hebrew sentence assumes that it was God who created the heavens and the earth (who else could have done it?). The new information is when this happened.

      As for Rashi, I think his explanation in this case is interesting, but I don’t think it reflects what the Hebrew originally meant.

      Comment by Joel H. | April 30, 2010 | Reply

      • I guess I still don’t understand why that would be the implied question. You ask rhetorically “who else could have done it?” In our place and culture, the answer seems obvious, but at the time the Torah was given, polytheism was dominant in the world. It seems to me that the point of the creation narrative was to establish that there was one God that created all things, rather than a pantheon or hierarchy of gods, each with their given domain.

        You say “the new information is when this happened,” but when else would it have been? Besides, “in the beginning” fails to answer the question of when, since it is completely relative. (The beginning of what?)

        I appreciate the explanation of Information Theory. That makes sense. But in a case like this, where we are dealing with the very first verse in the Bible, wouldn’t it be justified to provide a clause with a little setting and context before getting to the point of the sentence, or does the new information have to be in the very first word?

        Comment by Aaron | April 30, 2010

  2. I’ve been meaning to ask, does Hebrew word order signal emphasis, similar to Koine?

    I’m not qualified to comment much on Hebrew stuff, since I don’t know the language, so I will limit my comments here to what I see from the structure of the account.

    Hamilton, in the Word commentary series, says that part of the structure of Genesis is to begin each section with the “these are the generations of…” kind of “titles,” and that Gen 1:1 might be a variation on one of these.

    (Gen 2:4) These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,

    (Gen 5:1) This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;

    (Gen 6:9) These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.

    (Gen 10:1) Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.

    (Gen 10:32) These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.

    (Gen 11:10) These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:

    (Gen 11:27) Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot.

    (Gen 25:12) Now these are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s handmaid, bare unto Abraham:

    (Gen 25:13) And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam,

    (Gen 25:19) And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begat Isaac:

    (Gen 36:1) Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom.

    (Gen 36:9) And these are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in mount Seir:

    (Gen 37:2) These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.

    I don’t know.

    What I find is compelling when I read the account is that verses 1 and 2 stand apart from the “fiat, appraisal, fiat, appraisal” patter that follows.

    Since this is setting the stage for what follows, I’m inclined to read it “setting the stage” and showing what it was like before he began his work:

    * the dry land was not yet formed
    * the skies had not been made
    * there was nothing but bottomless water, darkness and fierce wind

    What would Hebrew require added, if anything, for it to read:

    “Before God made the skies and the dry land, the dry land lacked form and was unpopulated, and a fierce wind was blowing over the bottomless waters.”

    Could it be that “Before” is implied, instead of “In the beginning”?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 29, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] Focus, and Biblical Hebrew Word Order The importance of word order in Biblical Hebrew recently came up regarding Genesis 1:1, and in particular how we know that that verse answers the question […]

    Pingback by First Things First: Stress, Focus, and Biblical Hebrew Word Order « God Didn't Say That | May 5, 2010 | Reply

  4. Aaron:

    I didn’t forget your questions. I’ve prepared a longer post that, I hope, answers some of them: First Things First: Stress, Focus, and Biblical Hebrew Word Order.

    My rhetorical question “who else could have done it?” was meant to be quoting the authors, not us modern readers.

    And regarding the fact that “in the beginning” doesn’t fully answer the question “when?” I think I agree, and we might ask why the text gives us this potentially non-answer answer. But it seems to me that we can’t even ask the question until we correctly understand the text.

    Comment by Joel H. | May 5, 2010 | Reply

  5. Just a bold assertion. Nobody’s asking any question. You are mixing eisegesis with translation. You believe (in your head only) that somebody is asking ‘when’. And that is what is called exposition and has nothing to do with translation. No matter how boldly you assert that it doesnt make it any more true.

    Comment by jamie | June 22, 2010 | Reply


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