God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Dependence on the Dictionary

The Dictionary

The dictionary can be double edged sword, used either to understand or wielded to confuse.

In another forum, a KJVO proponent defended the KJV translation “the voice of the turtle” (for the Hebrew kol ha-tor) as accurately representing a bird call in Song of Songs. His reasoning was that “turtledove” is listed as one of the (archaic) meanings for “turtle,” so “voice of the turtle,” he says, means, “voice of the dove.”

I think this approach is as common as it is misguided.

It usually goes something like this:

The Process

1. An existing English translation is up for discussion. (In this case, “voice of the turtle.”)

2. The most natural understanding of the translation doesn’t match what the original Greek or Hebrew means. (To English speakers, “turtle” sounds like an animal that crawls, not one that flies.)

3. An obscure, archaic, or otherwise non-contextually appropriate meaning for one of the English words is found. That meaning matches the meaning of the Hebrew. (“Turtledove.”)

4. The translation is defended as being right. (KJVO forever.)

The Trap

The fundamental mistake here is thinking that one can arbitrarily decide which dictionary definition of a word will apply in a sentence. More generally, the mistake is thinking that the dictionary controls the language it is supposed to describe.

In the case of “turtle,” even though one of the dictionary definitions is a bird, there is nothing in the phrase “voice of the turtle is heard” that would make an English speaker think of a bird, or even think to look up the word “turtle” in the dictionary. The translation is wrong because English speakers will not find the archaic definition that might otherwise make the translation right.

I think part of the confusion comes from those who already know what the original means. In this case, people who already know that kol ha-tor means “voice of the dove,” might correctly understand the English. And they might therefore not realize how wrong the English translation is.

This type of flawed reasoning is particularly suited to defending the KJV in those instances where the KJV’s English uses to be correct but is now archaic, because frequently the archaic meanings will still be in the dictionary. (The KJVO proponent also defended “let” as meaning “prevent” because not only is it an archaic meaning, it’s also still used technically in tennis to mean something similar to “prevent.”)

Other Examples

The same or similar reasoning applies to more modern translation, too.

For example, in a discussion on BBB of “meteoric,” reference was made to the “dictionary definition” of “meteoric rise,” in this case to attack a translation.

When I complained that the combination of “children … crib” in Isaiah makes me think of children and cribs (rather than a place for keeping an animal’s food), a reader chastised me and pointed to a dictionary definition of “crib” as “a bin or granary for storing grains.”

In yet another discussion on BBB, in a vaguely similar way, reference was made to the dictionary definition of “clap [one’s hands],” even though I think all English speakers know what it means to “clap.”

All of these (and more — what can you think of?) rely on the dictionary as if it could change what a text means.


I think the dictionary should be used by native speakers who really don’t know what a word means (“warp” and “woof” come to mind), rather than to try to make a word mean something it does not.


June 14, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , ,


  1. A proper dictionary, like the OED, provides examples of usage, so there is no reason to doubt it. You are welcome to apply your own judgment instead, but most people have holes in their English vocabulary — even for common words, such as crib.

    Comment by Joey | June 14, 2010

  2. Another great post; I’ll need to watch my own discussions. Overall, I sometimes despair as to how we ever communicate anything.

    For example, to me (and 10s millions of other English speakers), a turtle is something which swims, rather than something that crawls. And that is even after a fair amount of Shakespeare at school (where turtle most often does mean a bird).

    Comment by Peter Parslow | June 15, 2010

  3. English has evolved. Words take on multiple meanings, or mean totally different from what they used to mean. Forgive me for using such a term, but the word “ass” for the most part used to represent a donkey. And technically it still does. But, most people today will use “donkey” instead because the meaning of the “ass” is now generally used as a body part or as an insulting term. I would say that God wants us to read and understand his word clearly…not having to reach for a dictionary all the time. This is why I think the KJV only position is more harmful to the Christina faith.

    Comment by Ryan | June 23, 2010

  4. This is a little harsh on the KJVO person. As a Brit in possession of a fair education, the phrase “the voice of the turtle” puts me in mind of a bird, rather than a reptile. So, I’m not sure your point 2 is really as solid as it may appear, especially as the SoS is poetry, not science. FWIW, whilst I don’t find the KJVO philosophy persuasive or helpful, I don’t think this example is robust enough to make the point. Yes, the English usage has changed over time, but whether the KJV is accurate must be determined by reference to the usage 400 years ago, not now.

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Brits who made the KJV, may have been known and been influenced by European languages. For example, Tortora, Tórtola, Tourterelle and their antecedents are and would have been familiar words to use describing doves/pigeons.

    That said, I don’t think that the bird referred to is necessarily the one that in the 21st century we call the turtle dove. It might be the laughing dove, whose call is a bit more warm and melodic than the turtle dove, which seems to me (I’m no expert) somewhat more flat and doleful. Also, some tourist/birdspotting companies use the prospect of seeing and hearing laughing doves in Israel during the spring as a selling point. On the other hand, it might even be something that these days is extinct.

    Comment by Chris Tolley | June 30, 2010

  5. I think “the voice of the turtle-dove” is clearer than the KJV’s “the voice of the turtle.” But this is a very minor point; a modicum of thoughtful interpretation should clear up whatever question is elicited by the KJV’s rendering of SoS 2:12:

    The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of the singing of birds is come,
    and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

    The KJV-translators tried, by inserting the italicized words “of birds,” to convey the point that birds are the subject. When one considers the poetic parallelism of the passage and when one notices that the subject is the singing of birds in line B, and the subject is the voice of the turtle in line C, it should be clear that the turtle is a bird, not a reptile. (Besides, reptile turtles don’t sing, except in Wonderland.)

    If Bible-readers resorted to the context, there might be a little less need to resort to dictionaries. What you called “The most natural understanding of the translation” *isn’t* natural if one grasps the poetic parallelism in the verse.

    It’s true that “there is nothing in the phrase “voice of the turtle is heard” that would make an English speaker think of a bird.” However, put 2:12a in the equation — instead of presenting only 2:12b as if that is the only thing the reader sees — and there IS something that would make an English speaker thing of a bird: an explicit reference to the singing of birds!

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    Comment by James Snapp, Jr. | July 30, 2010

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