God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

More on Bible Gateway’s new “Pespectives in Translation” Blog

Bible Gateway’s new Perspectives in Translation blog, a joint project with The Gospel Coalition, went live last week with the question “What Makes a Translation Accurate?”

So far, six answers to the question appear on the blog.

Unfortunately, reading the posts feels — at least to me — like joining a debate in the middle. And the conversation is largely a familiar one: which is better, formal or dynamic equivalence? As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think that’s a useful way to frame a discussion about Bible translation.

For example, James M. Hamilton, Jr., starts in an interesting direction: What makes a translation accurate is “[i]ts ability to preserve the way that later biblical authors evoke earlier Scripture.” (Surprisingly, he adds by way of elaboration that Moses was the oldest author of the Bible, even though there’s no historical evidence to support a Moses who authored any part of the Bible. To me, this seems like an odd mix of science and myth.)

But after an intriguing opening, Dr. Hamilton returns to familiar ground:

There is, of course, a spectrum of opinion about how best to translate. Those who present a dynamic equivalent may “accurately” communicate the meaning of a particular passage in the language into which the Bible is being translated. But what if the translator did not see a subtle connection the biblical author made to an earlier passage of Scripture?…

At the end he states: “Because the influence of earlier Scripture is so often determinative for the meaning of later Scripture, I prefer more literal translations.”

Similarly, after a general opening (“A translation is accurate if it is able to communicate the thought of the original into another language”), Tremper Longman III defends thought-for-thought translations against an attack that, while common in Bible-translation literature, wasn’t part of the original question:

Languages do not line up with one another in a word-for-word manner, so word-for-word translations are not as accurate as thought-for-thought translations. Of course, this means that the translator will have to make exegetical judgments about the meaning of a passage, but this is of the nature of all translation. Translations are commentaries…

Likewise, Denny Burk starts with a sweeping opening (“A translation is accurate when it faithfully renders the intended meaning of the biblical author into a receptor language”) and then specifically notes the nature of the now-familiar debate:

Biblical scholars differ over what approach to translation best achieves this goal. Those who favor a dynamic or functional equivalence approach argue for thought-for-thought translation. Those who favor a formal equivalence approach argue for word-for-word translation.

These give a flavor of the answers, which sadly seem to offer little new insight, instead treading on familiar (and, in my opinion, unhelpful) old ground.

The six answers on the blog are from Tremper Longman III, professor of biblical studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA; E. Ray Clendenen, associate editor of the HCSB; James M. Hamilton, Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY; Robert Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO; George H. Guthrie, professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN; and Denny Burk, associate professor of New Testament and dean of Boyce College. Most of these people have also played roles in contributing to published Bible translations.

All of the contributors are men. I don’t usually find myself offended by gender imbalances, because I recognize that sometimes the most qualified people will by happenstance be all of the same gender. But I have to say that seeing six men and no women to represent diversity of opinion strikes me as too narrowly focused.

So in this regard, too, the site seems a little behind the times.

I was also surprised not to see BBB acknowledged in any way.

And Bible Gateway is still working out the technical kinks in the site. The posts are displayed three to a page, but, confusingly, the navigation links offer the reader only “previous posts” versus “older posts.” And from the individual post pages, I could find no way to move from one posting to the next or previous one. Also, when I tried to login to post a comment (yes — you need to create an account with Bible Gateway to join the discussion), I got an error message that “something went wrong.” [Update: Logging in seems to be fixed.]

It’s encouraging to have the combined resources of Bible Gateway and The Gospel Coalition invested in a blog on English Bible translation.

I hope that as the blog matures it will live up to its potential.

October 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, blog review, translation theory | , , , , | 7 Comments

Q&A: On Sisters and Wives

From the About page comes this follow-up question from a presentation I recently gave:

Thanks for your presentation for the ARC — You mentioned the use of achoti in Song of Songs meaning more than “my sister,” but better translated as “my equal.” How do you understand Abraham’s turning to Sarah and telling her to tell the Egyptians that she is “…his sister, so that things will go well for him”?

The issue is the Hebrew word achot, literally “sister,” which forms half of the famous line from Song of Songs, “my sister, my bride” or “my sister, my spouse.” (I bring this up briefly in an on-line video.)

In And God Said I devote the better part of a chapter to achot, starting with the (obvious) point that “my sister, my spouse” isn’t incest. My conclusion is that kinship terms such as achot were used not just for family relationships but also for power structure. For instance, av (“father”) indicated “more powerful.”

The key point is that achot in Song of Songs specifically indicates “a woman who is equal” to the man.

In English, of course, “sister” doesn’t convey this important concept. But “equal” does. In many dialects, so does “partner.” (But for some, “partner” in this context means primarily “same-sex partner.”)

But this extended use of kinship terms doesn’t mean that the words weren’t also used for family relationships. So achot can also be a literal sister.

And this is what we find starting in Genesis 12:13. Abraham has Sarai pretend to be his (flesh-and-blood) sister. His reasoning, we read, is that Pharaoh will want her because she’s so beautiful, so Pharaoh will befriend her brother but dislike or even kill her husband.

The plot — played out again starting in Genesis 20:2 — is interesting and, to modern readers, sometimes disturbing. But the text is pretty clear. In both cases, Abraham’s wife pretends to be his sister.

October 29, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Bible Gateway Unveils “Perspectives in Translation” Blog

Bible Gateway is one of the top destinations for different translations of the Bible. It has also announced that the widely-anticipated updated NIV translation (the so-called “2011” edition) will first be available on its website. So its new Perspectives in Translation blog, a joint project with The Gospel Coalition, is sure to receive attention.

The first posts just went live: a Welcome note, a question about “What Makes a Translation Accurate?,” and three answers (here, here, and here).

I’ll have more to say about the content soon. For now, take a look.

October 29, 2010 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Q&A: Why is Everything Vanity in Ecclesiastes?

From the About page comes this great question:

This may be more of a philosophical/historical question than a linguistic one, but how would you render the word usually given as “vanity” in Ecclesiastes?

Abstract nouns are notoriously difficult to track even within a language — “nobility” now is not what it was — but how would you render it given a all the time and ink in the world.

I was told recently that it should be given as either “wind” or “nothing,” but that was merely a rumour.

Hevel in Ecclesiastes

The Hebrew word is hevel, and it’s important for understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes, because that book begins: “Hevel of hevels, says Kohelet, hevel of hevels. Everything is hevel.”

On the reasonable assumption that the pattern “X of Xs” is meant to convey intensity, Ecclesiastes begins along the lines of “The utmost hevel, says Kohelet, the utmost hevel. Everything is hevel.”

Although this context lets us know how central the word is to the book of Ecclesiastes, it does nothing to narrow down what the word means. So we look elsewhere.

Hevel in Other Contexts

The poetic text of Deuteronomy 32:21 uses the word hevel in parallel with lo el, “non-god.” This doesn’t tell us exactly what the word means — the other words in parallel there mean roughly “jealous” (matching “non-god”) and “anger” (matching hevel), and those two are not synonymous — but the context does tell us that hevel is something negative, like non-god.
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October 28, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , | 26 Comments

On Style

Different communities have different styles of conveying information. I think this is particularly important for understanding and translating the Bible.

I recently posted some thoughts about prophecies (and why they don’t “come true” in the NT). Along the way, the idea of a proof text came up.

In particular, I claimed that one style of NT prose consists of quoting part of the OT not for the truth value of the quotation, but rather just for the sake of using the words of the OT — even if those words are taken out of context. (Examples appear in the original post.)

By comparison, we also have unique styles now. Here are three of them:
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October 25, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?

What happens to prophecies in the New Testament?

The obvious answer is that they come true, but I think a more careful look shows otherwise.

Matthew 1:18-22 / Isaiah 7:14

As an example of a prophecy apparently coming true, we might consider the first chapter of Matthew. The text starting around Matthew 1:18 deals with the virgin birth of Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy of virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14. The text even reads (Matthew 1:22; NRSV), “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

John 19:24 / Psalm 22:18

Similarly, according to John 19:24, the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ tunic to fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 22:18, “…and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Matthew 27:35 has the same account, but not all manuscripts have the direct reference to Psalms there.)

Fulfillment of Prophecy

Both of these seem to be cases of prophecies coming true.

But the Greek word in each case is plirow. And while “fulfill” is one common translation of that verb, I don’t think it’s accurate.
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October 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

History Repeats Itself with Esther, Hadassah, Myrtle, and Stuxnet

According to the New York Times, Stuxnet, a computer worm aimed at slowing Iran’s race for nuclear weapons, contains an important file called myrtus.

According to Esther 2:7, Esther, who played an important part in defending the Jews against the Persians, also went by the name hadasah, which is the feminine form of hadas.

Both the Hebrew hadas and the Latin myrtus mean “myrtle.”

Iran — which is where the ancient story of Esther was set — has followed its older incarnation of Persia in declaring its intention to destroy the Jews. And now it seems that someone is taking the parallel further, using a modern-day Hadassah to preemptively attack the modern would-be attackers of the Jews.

I’m suspicious of the suggestion in the Times that the use of the word “myrtus” points to Israel, or that “myrtus” is deliberate misdirection toward Israel, but I have to say: This virtual reincarnation of Esther in her starring role strikes me as pretty literate, creative, and (the gravity of the situation notwithstanding) even a little bit cool.

[Update: Lots more about the virus in today’s (Jan 16, 2011) New York Times: “Israel Tests on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay.”]

October 1, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | , , , , , | 1 Comment