God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Always Pick On The Correct Idiom

A classic bit of self-contradictory writing advice goes back to William Safire in the 1970s: “Always pick on the correct idiom.” In English, “pick on” means to annoy, and the right phrasing here is “pick” (which means “choose”).

What makes his example work is that the meaning of “pick on” doesn’t come from the meanings of “pick” and “on.” More generally, phrases, like words, are not the sum of their parts. (I have more here.)

Thinking otherwise is a widespread error in translation. This gaff usually comes up in the context of word-for-word translations that make no sense. In other words, sometimes the words of the original Hebrew or Greek suggest nonsense in English, and that nonsense becomes the accepted translation.

But sometimes the words of the Hebrew or Greek suggest an idiom in English. In those cases, rather than a nonsensical translation, we find a translation that is idiomatic but wrong. This sort of wrong translation is particularly difficult for lay readers to detect because — unlike the nonsense translations — there is no red flag.

What got me thinking about this is a translation in the CEB — highlighted by Wayne in a recent post — that reads, “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up…” (Hebrews 12:1, Wayne’s emphasis).

The English expression “throw off any extra baggage” is without doubt more idiomatic than, for example, than the ESV: “let us also lay aside every weight.”

In English, “baggage” metaphorically means “emotional background,” and “extra baggage” (or “excess baggage”) means “destructive emotional background.” So the CEB’s English means “let us try to rid ourselves of our destructive emotional background and get rid of sin.” The image is that sin is like destructive emotional background.

Unfortunately, this is not what Hebrews 12:1 means. The image there is not of complicating emotions, but rather more directly of a weight that makes it difficult to proceed quickly. Indeed, the second half of Hebrews 12:1 refers to “the race that is set before us.” By shedding the “weight,” we are are better able to “run the race.”

Furthermore, “sin” itself was seen as a weight, a burden to be borne. (For more, take a look at Anderson’s wonderful book Sin: A History, or start with my review.)

So the imagery in Hebrews 12:1 is of better enduring a race without weights such as sin. By contrast, the imagery in the CEB translation is of discarding destructive emotions.

To look at it another way, it seems to me that Hebrews 12:1 is about a better way of going where we are already headed, while the CEB’s translation is about going in a different direction.

More generally, I think it’s important to note that an idiomatic English phrase that copies the original Hebrew or Greek words is just as likely to be wrong as a non-idiomatic one.

What other examples of this sort of error have you noticed?


September 22, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , ,


  1. […] But that doesn’t mean that the fix is simply to simplify these translations. Just as an idiomatic translation can be wrong, so too can a simple […]

    Pingback by Making the Bible Clearer Than Ever « God Didn't Say That | September 29, 2010

  2. Sorry, Joel, I didn’t read ‘baggage’ at first as necessarily meaning ’emotional baggage’.

    I took it to mean any excess weight that could be discarded to facilitate progress.

    So, from my point of view, you argument here falters somewhat.

    Steve L

    Comment by sl4wp | March 17, 2012

  3. But ask any long distance thru-hiker and they will tell you extra physical weight carried usually corresponds to emotional weight. What we carry physically relates to what we anticipate or fear emotionally. So therefore baggage=baggage

    Comment by Div Student | September 19, 2017

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