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 | , , , ,


  1. Change the prayer.

    But I am not that liturgical anyway.

    Comment by Don Johnson | May 28, 2010

  2. Learn to pray in the original language. 🙂

    Comment by Aaron | May 28, 2010

    • This works better in Jewish contexts, of course, where the liturgy and original are (usually) in the same language.

      Praying in Greek doesn’t work so well for the Roman Catholic Church.

      Does anyone know how they address this issue in the Greek Orthodox Church?

      Comment by Joel H. | May 30, 2010

  3. I am liturgical, and I think our prayers should track the Scriptures as best we can.

    That being said, a prayer that is based on Scripture but restated or reformed to allow for clarity or prayerfulness is not a problem. Our prayers and understanding of Scripture should inform and shape our faith.

    † lex orandi lex credendi

    Comment by Br. James Patrick | May 28, 2010

  4. “The Lord is my shepherd” may not be a good translation, but does that make it a bad prayer? I think we can keep the old prayers while we wait for a future poet to write new beautiful prayers with our more accurate translations.

    Comment by Dannii Willis | May 30, 2010

  5. If “shepherd” is an inaccurate translation, then what does one do with Psalm 80:1? And isn’t it more “accurate” to call Psalm 80 a “prayer” than it is to call Psalm 23 a prayer?

    Isn’t the Catholic version of the opening line of Psalm 23 be “Dominus regit me”? Grammatically but not lexically, doesn’t the Latin mirror the Greek: “κύριος ποιμαίνει με”?

    Is the Greek translation (with the verbal ποιμαίνει, implying “The Lord shepherds me”) really such a bad translation for the Greek Orthodox church, in liturgy?

    And for a liturgical prayer, are these lines from the Greek translation of Psalm 80 really so bad, inaccurate to the Hebrew? And isn’t God being prayed to as a shepherd of sheep in Hebrew and in Greek and in Latin in Psalm 80?

    רֹעֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל הַאֲזִינָה
    נֹהֵג כַּצֹּאן יֹוסֵף

    ὁ ποιμαίνων τὸν Ισραηλ πρόσχες
    ὁ ὁδηγῶν ὡσεὶ πρόβατα τὸν Ιωσηφ

    Qui regis Israel, intende:
    qui deducis velut ovem Ioseph.

    And doesn’t that Greek (is it really so inaccurate?) make space for later Hebraic-Greek translations and writings such as the following? Do they not echo the prayers, the liturgy, the allusions to heroes (even shepherds) of the vulnerable (even sheep)?

    Ἐγώ εἰμι
    ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός·
    ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς
    τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ τίθησιν
    ὑπὲρ τῶν προβάτων. – John 10:11

    Ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου – John 21:16

    Ἦτε γὰρ ὡς πρόβατα πλανώμενοι ἀλλὰ ἐπεστράφητε νῦν ἐπὶ τὸν ποιμένα καὶ ἐπίσκοπον τῶν ψυχῶν ὑμῶν. – I Peter 2:25

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | June 2, 2010

  6. Would that someone would critique the English “translation” of the Latin for the new edition of the Roman Missal as Dr. Hoffman has critiqued English translation of Biblical Hebrew!!

    Comment by Rachel | June 8, 2010

    • I have a few thoughts on the Missal here.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 8, 2010

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