God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Microcosm of Bible Translation: Amos 5:15

[This is the first in what I hope will become an occasional series about the details of actual translation: methods, decisions that have to be made, compromises, etc.]

Amos 15:5

The first part of Amos 15:5 reads (NRSV), “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;” What goes in to that translation? What does the translation miss? What other options might be better?

As we go through, I’ve italicized questions that the translator needs to answer. I offer my answers to some of them toward the end.

Words

We start with the words, most of which are straightforward:

sin’u
hate
ra
bad/evil
v-ehevu
and love
tov
good
v-hatzigu
and place/put in place
va-sha’ar
in/at the gate
mishpat
justice/judgement

There are details of the words which are not conveyed in these English glosses.

Imperatives

The verbs (“hate,” “love,” and “put in place”) are plural imperatives. We don’t have plurals like this in English, but there are ways of expressing the same point if we want: “all of you, hate…,” for example. (The LXX‘s “we hated” and “we loved” doesn’t match the Hebrew here.)

Is the nuance of the verb forms important to convey in translation?

Evil

There are at least two reasonable translations for ra: “bad” and “evil.” The Hebrew is the common opposite of “good” (tov), so “bad” seems like the better choice. Unfortunately, while “good” and “evil” in English function both as adjectives and nouns, “bad” is only an adjective. “Hate bad” isn’t English. The KJV ops for “hate the bad” to preserve the pair “good/bad.” Modern translations almost all go with “hate evil.”

Is the substitution of “evil” for “bad” warranted? Or should the translator find a way of making the more accurate “bad” work in English?

Love

There are lots of ways of loving. Clearly, one doesn’t love a spouse the same way one loves what is good. Perhaps for this reason, the CEV goes with “choose good.” (In a similar vein, the Greek agapao is frequently glossed along the lines “love, primarily of Christian love.”)

Should the translation reflect how “love” (ahav) is used here?

Establish

The verb I gloss as “[put in] place” is usually used for people and physical things. In Genesis, “present” is often a good translation. In Deuteronomy 28:56, the verb is used for “set” in the phrase “set the sole of her foot on the ground.” In Judges 6:37, it’s used for “set” in the phrase “set the wool fleece” on the ground.

Is “establish” too grandiose here?

The NIV offers “maintain justice” here. But the broader context of the passage makes it clear that justice was lacking and that it had to be restored. (The LXX gives us “restore.”)

Should the translation of “establish” include the context here?

Gate

For me, the issue of “gate” is one of the most interesting. The “gate” (sha’ar) here is a city gate, but when I think of “gate” in English, I think of the gate of a fence. (Similarly, the famous phrase from Deuteronomy 6:9, “write them … on your gates” deals with the entrances to cities.) Maybe “city gate” is better?

More importantly, the gate in antiquity was a gathering spot, not merely a portal. In modernity, the “city square” serves the same purpose. (So does the watercooler, I guess, but not really.)

One purpose of gathering at the gate was justice. This is probably why the NIV goes with “courts” here instead of “gate.” The English translation that puts “justice” in the “gate” seems to put it in an odd spot, whereas originally the Hebrew put it right where it normally was.

Does “gate” in English correctly convey the Hebrew? Should the translation focus on the physical location of the gate or on its purpose? Is the translation successful if readers have to know details of ancient society to understand it?

Justice

The Hebrew mishpat is variously “judgement,” “justice,” “rule,” “law,” “sentence,” and more.

Does “mishpat” have to be translated uniformly throughout the Bible? What nuance is implied here? Should the translation indicate the nuances?

Poetry

Beyond the choice of words, the Hebrew is poetic.

The phrase starts with classic parallelism, juxtaposing two pairs of opposites: “hate/love” and “bad/good.” The previous verse also puts “good” and “bad” together, though there “good” comes first. (Surprisingly, the KJV translates “good/evil” in verse 14 but “the good/the bad” for the same Hebrew in verse 15.)

Then a new element, “justice,” is introduced. Stylistically the third clause is similar to the first two, but in terms of content it’s very different. (This has the effect of emphasizing “justice.”)

The object of the verb comes last in all three cases (“bad,” “good,” and “justice”). Should the English translation preserve this poetic device? Is it possible?

The NLT, correctly noting that “evil” is more commonly used as a noun than “good,” translates, “hate evil and love what is good.” Should the English translation preserve the single-verb-single-noun pattern for the first two clauses?

Reading Between the Lines

The connection between “justice” and the first two pairs is (purposely?) left vague. Should the translation fill in the details of the connection here? For example, The Message and God’s Word translations offer “then” instead of just “and.”

Noting that gates used to be where justice was administered and that courts now serve that function, the NIV, God’s Word and others translate “gates” as “courts.” The Message goes with “public square” in the phrase “work it out in the public square.” The NLT offers, “remodel your courts into true halls of justice.”

Other translations explain what happens with justice. For example, the NJB translates, “let justice reign.”

Should a translation explain the text in these kinds of ways?

English Grammar

Maybe it’s because of all of this hidden complexity that modern translations sometimes ignore English grammar. One immediate question is whether one meets “in the gate” or “at the gate” in English. (For me, “I’ll meet you at Jaffa gate in Jerusalem” is better than “I’ll meet in you Jaffa gate in Jerusalem.” I suspect this will be dialectal. Does anyone prefer “in” here?)

The NIV, NJB, and others forget about simple English punctuation. The NIV drops the first “and” (“Hate evil, love good;”), for example. Is there any reason not to use correct English grammar?

Summary and Answers

Summary

We’ve seen that the original text refers to hating what is bad, loving what is good, and (re)establishing justice in the place where justice was usually administered, that is, the city gate.

The text addresses people collectively.

The text is poetic and pithy. It consists of three clauses, the third standing out because it’s a little longer than the first two.

My Answers

I think it’s nice to convey singular/plural nuances in imperative verbs, but not necessary, primarily because ancient Hebrew uses both singular and plural for addressing a group. This doesn’t seem to be a big deal, and there’s no easy way to do it in English anyway.

I think that “evil” for ra is going too far. I see a statement about ordinary, daily life in the original. We use “bad” for that in English, I think, not “evil.”

I think that the English “love” covers roughly the same areas of meaning as the Hebrew ahav. It’s a mistake to try to spell out in English what the original did not spell out in Hebrew, so “love,” though broad, is right.

I think “establish” is not too bad for the Hebrew, and I can’t think of anything better. “Set up” might work, too, depending on the other lexical choices.

The issue of “gate” is, for me, the hardest. “Justice” in modernity has nothing to do with “gates,” and, in fact, this passage in Hebrew is not about gates except to the degree that gates are the locus of justice. It’s like “restore justice to the courts” in English. The focus there isn’t “courts” but rather “justice.”

On the other hand, gates come up frequently in the Bible, so changing the word only here seems problematic. Just for example, the Hebrew in this passage matches Deuteronomy 6:9. If we change “gate” to “court” here we destroy the connection.

As for “gate” or “city gate,” I think “city gate” is more accurate, but the accuracy is irrelevant, because either way we end up with an odd place for justice. People who know about the role of ancient city gates will know what “gates” means, and those who don’t won’t find “city gates” to be particularly helpful.

I think the poetry is important, and, in particular, the translation should preserve the grammatical connection among the three phrases. I don’t think the translation necessarily has to use verb-noun each time, though; another repeated pattern would serve just as well.

I do not think that it’s the job of the translation to fill in details that are not in the text. I think that’s where commentary comes in.

And I think writing an English translation according to the rules of English grammar is important.

Translations

So one reasonable translation is:

“Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just among you.”

I’ve use the “what is…” construction to give all three clauses the same pattern, yet not force myself to use “evil.” I’m pretty happy with everything up to “among you.” Though I still think “among you” is better than “at the gate,” I’m left wondering if there is a better solution. I also worry that the sentence might be read as referring to “what is just among you.”

Another reasonable translation leaves out “gate” altogether. Perhaps every English translation is more misleading that not translating the word: “Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just.”

Or, to revert to “evil,” we might try: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice among you.” While “evil” sounds stronger in English, it may be stronger than what the Hebrew represented.

What do you think?

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July 1, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. I don’t like the idea of leaving out “gate” because although it “justice” is the focus, “gate” also serves a purpose. It helps place justice in an organized and civil court system. I think it helps clarify that this instruction is not directed to individuals but to the society as a whole. This is important to me because many people seem to have a faulty impression that justice in ancient Israel was meted out by vigilantes.

    I think it is appropriate to translate it as “court.”

    Comment by Aaron | July 1, 2010 | Reply

  2. I think gate has to stay too – and fewer words if possible. You have outlined the detailed translation questions with accuracy – very nice summary. And there are a host of different ones for every verse!

    In this case, with gates being a synecdoche, it might be OK to have a footnote – but consider also psalm 127 – footnotes everywhere.

    So I would go with “hate evil love good and establish justice at the gate” – obviously what you do here, you must have matched in the prior verse.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | July 1, 2010 | Reply

  3. At least in current usage, “the bad” is a perfectly good noun (you take the bad along with the good). So, if you keep the shortened ending (which I like – it doesn’t leave out any meaningful content, I think), you get the very tight: “Hate the bad and love the good, and establish what is just.”

    Comment by Jason Rosenberg | July 1, 2010 | Reply

  4. Alternately, using a more general category for gate: i.e. “place” could yield the translation of:

    “Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just in its place.”

    One issue that you haven’t discussed, which might be informative is the idea that a gate by its essence is a place that is traversed. Does the idea of justice get value from the idea of coming and going ?

    Comment by David Whitten | July 20, 2010 | Reply

  5. How about:

    “Hate evil, love good, and publicly establish justice”

    ?

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  6. “Is the nuance of the verb forms important to convey in translation?” Yes, if the resulting English is not clunky. If I recall my German correctly, I believe it has plural imperatives. I’ll need to go look this up in a German Bible to compare (oh boy, imagine the can of worms if your translation discussion were to expand to other languages).

    “Does ‘mishpat’ have to be translated uniformly throughout the Bible? What nuance is implied here? Should the translation indicate the nuances?” Well, English words typically have multiple meanings depending on context, so I would think that attempting to match the nuance of the word in the context of the passage would be important. Of course, you’ll always run afoul of someone screaming about interpretation or doctrine no matter what you do.

    “Should the translation of ‘establish’ include the context here?” Context should always be a serious consideration.

    “Should a translation explain the text in these kinds of ways?” One of the reasons I am fascinated with amplified Bibles or the NET Bible is the depth of commentary about why a specific word or phrase was used in the translation, what possible alternatives exist, and a reasonable amount of contextual detail (with links to more in-depth detail if the translation is also on the internet). I strongly encourage the idea that translators should pick the best word possible, but also explain that choice and the alternatives. Of course, if your agenda/doctrine/dogma demands a specific interpretation, then I guess this would not be a popular idea.

    “Is there any reason not to use correct English grammar?” I’ve heard it said that one or more of the gospels were written in grammatically lousy Greek. So I guess the decision would be to simply do a literal translation, try to mimic the bad grammar in English, or interpret it using correct English grammar. But in grammatically correct English, you might get the meaning across correctly while losing all the colloquial flavor and nuances.

    Comment by Jason Engel | July 18, 2012 | Reply

  7. –Gate(way) or door(way) are probably always going to be a significant element in a passage spiritual text which uses such a term. This is certainly true of the Bible. To revise such a term to “justice” or “court,” because of some analysis of the more literal level of meaning in the text is a serious error.

    –I cannot see more than a tiny fraction of the spiritual meaning in Amos chapter 5, but it clearly is spiritual allegory, as is most of the Bible. Many allegorical terms and phrases are there.

    –In Amos 5:15, the gate in question seems to be that point in “mind” where (a certain kind of) choice is made. It seems to be saying establish a habit or pattern of choosing the good, there, in that gate. Choosing or discriminating between right and wrong, or good and evil, or whatever terms you want to use, could also be called judging. “Judging” might be somewhat less of an error than “justice,” but clearly keeping the original “gate” is the superior option if you don’t want to risk destroying the passage’s spiritual meaning.

    –The kind of thinking that would consider leaving “gate” out of the translation is the reason that, despite a few flaws, the KJV remains the best English translation of the Bible.

    –Not everyone can see spiritual things and if you can’t see spiritual things, you wont recognize them in allegory or metaphor. No one should be criticized for not seeing the spiritual meaning of a text, but I think we should make some effort to keep them from harming that meaning.

    –An intelligent, well schooled Bible scholar, dedicated to producing the best translation he can, can probably do a very good job, even if he has no grasp of the spiritual meaning of the text. But if he is willing to leave out key terms like “gate,” we are better off without his efforts.

    –Spiritual writing by its nature is highly distilled. Almost every name and term is significant, or it would have been distilled out. Nothing good results when the spirituality unawakened change key terms.

    –Spiritual meaning by its nature applies to an individual on the spiritual path, to a single mind. If the meaning you are looking at applies to a group, a nation, a people, a church, etc, it is quite likely you are only seeing the literal or surface meaning.

    Comment by Caleb J. | August 18, 2012 | Reply


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