God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

When the Liturgy and the Bible No Longer Match

I got a great question during a lecture I gave last week in Washington, DC: Quotations from the Bible frequently appear in prayers. What should we do when a better understanding of the Bible’s text forces a new translation that no longer matches the prayers?

For example, in And God Said I argue against the translation “The Lord is my shepherd” for Psalm 23. (The reasons why are involved and not really relevant here.) The questioner in Washington agreed that “shepherd” is the wrong word. But he was troubled, because my lecture followed a worship service, and Psalm 23 had been part of the service. “Do we have to change our prayers, now, too?”

The problem stems from potentially conflicting goals. I think a translation of the Bible should be accurate. But for liturgy, I think accuracy should be subservient to prayerfulness. What good is an accurate translation at a prayer service if it doesn’t make for good prayer?

This is a particularly vexing problem in strong liturgical traditions — the Catholic Church and most Jewish traditions, for example — but I think it applies to anyone who wants some degree of correspondence between prayer and Scripture.

So what do you think: When a better understanding of the Bible creates a non-prayerful translation, what should we do?

May 28, 2010 Posted by | translation applications, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Mimicry

One of the most non-intuitive aspects of translation is that mimicry can lead the translator astray.

For example, it stands to reason that an adverb at the beginning of Hebrew sentence should be translated into English by an adverb at the beginning of a sentence; and, similarly, that an adverb at the end in Hebrew should be rendered as a final adverb in English.

But the reasoning is flawed. This is why the translation of the Hebrew word breishit (“in the beginning”), may not belong at the start of Genesis 1:1.

Modern Languages

As usual, we can look at modern languages to get a sense of the situation. This time, we’ll look at word order in modern Russian and modern Hebrew.

Spoken colloquial Russian allows considerable word-order variation. In fact, in the Russian equivalent of “Yesterday John saw Sarah” (v’chera Ivan videl Saru), all 24 logically possible word orders are grammatical. By contrast, the written language is more restrictive in Russian, generally requiring something close to what we allow in English.

Modern Hebrew also allows more word-order variation than English. But in Hebrew, it’s the written language that is more flexible than the spoken one. So in written Hebrew, again all 24 logically possible word orders are grammatical, but the spoken language is more restrictive.

The naive way to translate Russian into Hebrew is to preserve the word order. After all, the Russian word order is always grammatical in Hebrew (in this example). But mimicking the word order sometimes take colloquial Russian and turns it into formal Hebrew.

This demonstrates what can go wrong when translators mimic instead of translating.


Rather than merely mimicking the original word-order, translators need to look at what the word order in Hebrew or Greek does, and then try to do the same thing in English. More generally, I think this lesson applies not just to word order but also to other aspects of grammar.


Perhaps the most mimicry-based translation is Dr. Everett Fox’s (and this is the problem I have with his work). To take an example that just came up in a discussion on BBB, we can look at part of his rendering of Genesis 22. In verse 2, he translates the Hebrew y’chidcha as “your only-one.” Presumably the hyphenated “only-one” is supposed to mimic the one-word Hebrew yachid. But in (partially) mimicking the number of words, Fox has taken ordinary Hebrew and turned it into bizarre English.

Fox’s “started-early” (verse 3) for the one Hebrew word hishkim makes the same mistake.

Dr. Robert Alter’s rendition of Psalm 104 — which he discusses in the introduction to his generally excellent The Book of Psalms — makes the same mistake. He gives us, “grandeur and glory You don,” which is barely English. He wants to preserve what he calls syntactic fronting. The problem is that the resulting English is bizarre in a way that the Hebrew never was.

A third example comes from Matthew 6:11. The common “give us this day our daily bread” mimics the Greek word order rather than translating it. It is well known that putting full phrases between the verb and its object in English is an odd word order. So “this day” doesn’t belong between “give us” and “our daily bread.” (Also “daily bread” might be wrong, but that’s for another time.)

I don’t know if this strange word order comes from the Greek (which reads: “our daily bread give us today”) or just from the KJV (which was written in a dialect that allowed for more word-order freedom). Either way, the right way to translate the Greek is to use English word order: “Give us our daily bread today” (again, if “daily bread” is right.)

May 28, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , | 8 Comments

The Ten Commandments Aren’t Commandments

The Ten Commandments — listed in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5 — aren’t called commandments in the original Hebrew or in the Greek LXX.

In Hebrew, they are d’varim in Exodus 20, either “things” or “words.” (This dual use of d’varim is a bit like “things” in English — I can own ten things or tell you ten things.)

To the best of my knowledge, of the major translations only the NAB renders the Hebrew as “commandments” in Exodus 20.

For that matter, the number “10” doesn’t come from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, but rather from Exodus 34:28 and two other places in Deuteronomy. There, the KJV and other translations (NIV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, and others) translate “ten d’varim” as “ten commandments,” sometimes capitalizing the phrase and sometimes with a note that the Hebrew doesn’t say “commandments.”

(Later Jewish tradition would replace d’varim with dibrot, which also doesn’t mean “commandments.”)

Two questions come to mind: Should we keep calling these the “ten commandments” even though that doesn’t seem to be what they are in the Bible? And is the NAB justified in its translation decision?

May 18, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Growing Old and Fat in God’s Courtyard

Psalm 92:12 begins a series of verses that compare the righteous to trees: the people, like Palm trees, will blossom and flourish. They will be planted in God’s courtyard. And they will grow old and fat.

What’s going on is this: In antiquity, most people didn’t get enough calories to live. Today (in the U.S. and other “modern” Western countries) many people struggle to cut down their caloric intake. In the days of the Psalms, by contrast, people struggled to get enough. Old age in particular was a challenge, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to die prematurely because they couldn’t get enough to eat.

The lucky ones, though, did have enough food.

So “fat” back then was the opposite of “scrawny.” Or to look at the matter another way, “healthy and fit” is now represented by “thin,” but it used to pair with “fat.”

How, then, should we translate Psalm 92:14? It reads: the righteous shall bear fruit in old age, being dashen (fat) and ra’anan (fresh). Certainly, “they will bear fruit in old age, being fat and fresh” doesn’t have the right ring to it.

Current Translations

The KJV’s “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” is perhaps literally accurate, but it misses the changing role of “fat.”

The ESV’s “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” might work with trees, but it doesn’t seem to extend felicitously to people — “full of sap” hardly sounds like a desirable trait for the elderly.

The NIV’s “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” seems to suffer from another problem. “Green” in English is usually a metaphor for “inexperienced.” When I read “fresh and green,” I don’t think of the elderly but rather new-comers just starting out.

The NLT goes with, “Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”

The CEV offers “They will be like trees that stay healthy and fruitful, even when they are old.” That at least makes sense and seems positive, though it seems to miss the poetic impact of the original.

The Message‘s “lithe and green, virile still in old age” may be the point, though by spelling out “virile” instead of using imagery, it similarly strays significantly from the original. I also don’t think that trees are “virile.”


I think this is a clear example of the need to look beyond the literal meaning of words — “fat,” in this case — and see how they function metaphorically.

The Challenge

How would you translate Psalm 92:12-14?

May 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

First Things First: Stress, 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 “when?”

Here’s some more information and some additional examples.

An English Diversion

In English, stressing different words changes the implications of a sentence.

For example:

Example 1.

  1. This is my friend.
  2. This is my friend.
  3. This is my friend.

Sentence 1.1 is neutral, and might be used simply to introduce someone.

But 1.2 has addition implications, and it doesn’t make sense as a neutral introduction. But it does make sense in more narrow contexts. For example, it could answer the question, “whose friend is this?” And it makes sense if, because of context, there is already a sense that this is someone else’s friend. In both scenarios — specifically answering a question and clarifying an unasked question — it’s convenient to say that 1.2 “answers the question: whose friend this is?”

Example 1.3 cannot be used to answer the question “whose friend is this?” (Try it: -“Whose friend is this?” -“This is my friend.”) But it can be used if it’s already clear that this person has a relationship to me, but the nature of that relationship is not yet established. And, again, this could be in response to a specific question (e.g, “and how do you know each other?”), an implication, or some other context that causes the speaker to highlight the nature of the relationship.

One particularly interesting consequence of this is that stressing a word sets up alternative scenarios in the mind of the hearer. When I say, “this is my friend,” an English speaker automatically considers other possibilities: this is my enemy; this is my lover; etc.

Example 2.
1. We have landed in LGA. (This is the safe statement.)
2. We have landed in LGA. (This is risky.)

This is why “airplanese” stresses the words that are normally unstressed in English. For example, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport.” This phrasing only sets up one other possibility in the mind of English speakers who hear the sentence: “we have not landed in LaGuardia airport.” But the more usual sentence, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport” makes people consider other undesirable possibilities, like “we have crashed into LaGuardia airport.”

Example 3.
1. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is the safe answer.)
2. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is incriminating.)

Similarly, a witness at a murder trial might be asked, “how did you kill Mary?” The safe answer is “I killed Mary with a knife.” The dangerous answer is, “I killed Mary with a knife,” because that response assumes other pairs of people and weapons to which “I killed” might apply. Just changing the sentential stress is tantamount to admitting to additional murders.


Biblical Hebrew uses the pre-verbal sentence-initial position much the way we use sentential stress in English. This is how we know that Genesis 1:1 answers the question “when?” not “what?” or “who?” — the first word is breishit, “in the beginning.” A spoken-English translation of Genesis 1:1 might be “God created heaven and Earth in the beginning.”

Further Examples

Another example comes from Genesis 3:16-17. The first words of Genesis 3:16 are el ha-isha amar, “to the-woman [God] said.” This deviation from normal word order, like Example 3, has the effect of focusing “the woman,” as if to say, “this is what God told the woman.” The Hebrew reader naturally wonders, “okay. And what did God tell the man?” Genesis 3:17 answers that question, using the word order ul’adam amar…, “and-to-Adam [God] said…” — that is, “and God told Adam…”

We see the same thing in Genesis 45:22. The verse has two parts. The first begins, “to all [of the brothers] [Joseph] gave….” and the second one, “to Benjamin [Joseph] gave…” The point is to contrast Benjamin with the other brothers.

Hosea 5:7 reads badonai bagadu ki vanim zarim yaldu, “God they-betrayed when/for children alien they-bore.” Again, the point is expressed in English with stress: “they betrayed God by fathering illegitimate children.” Hosea is emphasizing the connection between human action and the divine.

All of these nuances come to light when we take Hebrew word order into account.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Another Chance to Win a Signed Copy of My Latest Book

Here’s another chance to win a free, signed copy of my latest book, And God Said.

From blog.AndGodSaid.com:

In honor of the three-month anniversary of And God Said (already in its second printing!), we’re giving away another free copy signed by the author.

To enter, visit the “Sweepstakes” tab of And God Said’s Facebook page. (And while you’re there, why not become a fan?)

You can also enter via Twitter.

A winner will be drawn from all eligible entries on Tuesday, May 18.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | announcements, Off Topic | , | 1 Comment