God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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:

Rhyming. Even rational people are more likely to believe what rhymes. (I discuss this in And God Said.) For example, “a stitch in time saves nine” sounds like it’s probably true. Even though most people don’t know what it means, it (almost) rhymes, and that’s enough. The phrase means that if a garment needs stitching because it’s falling apart, a stitch before it’s too late will save more stitches later. More generally, the point is that doing something before it’s too late will save work.

It’s clear to modern people who hear the phrase that “nine” was chosen only because it (almost) rhymes with “time.” The point is not that procrastination creates a nine-fold increase in work. Nor is the point that life is like sewing. Modern listeners and readers usually have little difficulty knowing which parts of a rhyme are relevant and what’s incidental.

Why is “a stitch in time saves nine” more convincing than just, “procrastination creates more work”?

Word Play. More general than rhyming is word play. For example, in the current New York State gubernatorial race, one candidate tried to convince voters not to vote for Andrew Cuomo. Why not? Because we’re sick of the “status Cuomo.” Here the word play on “status quo” makes the slogan work. And again, modern readers and listeners know that the problem isn’t Cuomo’s name. His name is just part of the word play.

Why is the slogan “status Cuomo” effective?

Analogy. Our third example is what might be called general analogy. For example, if I want to convince you not to give up until you succeed, I might quote Josh Billings, who said that the usefulness of a postage stamp consists in its “ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.”

Why is Billings’ quotation more convincing than just “don’t give up”?

The answer to all three italicized questions is that rhetorical style is important.

Equally, though, different communities recognize different rhetorical styles.

In the OT, parallelism was important. In the NT, proof texts were important. (Obviously, these are only two out of many stylistic elements in the Bible.)

Parallelism and especially proof-text argumentation are difficult to understand and translate because they are so foreign to modern readers. But they are fundamentally the same as rhyming, word play, and modern analogy. They are ways of writing well.

Unfortunately, because we no longer write that way, modern readers tend to miss the point of these ancient styles, often reading the wrong things into them.

Billings obviously didn’t mean that people, like stamps, should be purchased and canceled. But that kind of creative misunderstanding is what we often see with proof texts in the Bible.

Questions: Is style similar to vocabulary and grammar? And if so, should ancient styles be translated into modern styles, just as ancient vocabulary and grammar are translated? If not, is there a better way to help modern readers understand ancient styles?


October 25, 2010 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , ,


  1. I don’t have a comment, but it is a great subject, so I’m subscribing…

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. I think style is as important as vocabulary and grammar. If it at all possible the translations should reflect style. Reading Tanach should give the taste of scriptures along with the teachings. Notes, Pshat and Drash, are important to understanding the reasons for certain translations. Engaging with holy text ought to be in the nature of study rather than in the nature of just reading. Dumbing translation down too much risks losing “the baby with the bathwater”.
    Leshalom, Y

    Comment by Yitz Zlotnik | October 27, 2010 | Reply

    • When we translate vocabulary, the question is “what is the English word for this ancient word?”

      Do you think we should ask the same question about style: “What is the modern English style that corresponds to this ancient style?” Do you think translations commonly do this?

      Comment by Joel H. | October 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. I just finished Anchor Bible commentary on Ruth (by Campbell, Jr) and was impressed with how the author identified the style of the author, and then used that to confirm or deny various possible readings. I recommend the book for its effective analysis of style.

    Some of the stylistic elements he identified are:

    * diligent use of inclusios
    * effective use of synonyms
    * linking passages with repetition of a word or idea
    * establishing rhythm and pacing
    * using a higher register to give a sense of age to older characters

    There are many other observations in this book. He also pointed out stylistic similarity with other scrolls, showing how the author employed the style of one author rather than that of another. For example, some genealogies list the lines ala Luke, others ala Matthew, other ala Chronicles, etc.

    I read a book on style some years ago. I remember that it pointed out how the fourth gospel often begins a new paragraph, or thought, with a KAI that is not intended to tie the current thought with the previous thought, but rather suggests a new thought. Since Paul doesn’t use that approach, you have to read that stuff differently.

    I should mention one of my half baked observations. Some people tell a joke with great honesty and integrity. They say, “I want to tell you a joke. A guy is riding on a plane…” whereas I always cast it into first person when I can, for comedic affect… “I was riding on a plane, once, when…” Those who don’t know me might think I really had the experience, but those who know me know that I’m just being comedic. This may throw some light on Paul’s personification of sin:

    Rom 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual [breath based]: but I am carnal [flesh/body based], ***sold under sin***.

    Did someone sell Paul into slavery? Is sin a slave trading person? Paul seems to think so. But just maybe he’s expecting his hearers to parse out the anthropomorphisms.

    This is a deep and complex subject, possibly “better caught than taught.” But it deserves consideration.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 27, 2010 | Reply

    • Following up on my question to Yitz:

      When we translate vocabulary, the question is “what is the English word for this ancient word?”

      Do you think we should ask the same question about style: “What is the modern English style that corresponds to this ancient style?” Do you think translations commonly do this?

      Do you think that, for example, “effective use of synonyms” is the same in Greek or Hebrew as it is in English?

      Comment by Joel H. | October 28, 2010 | Reply

      • Rhyme, meter and alliteration are hard to carry forward from one language to another, but I think the synonyms, chiasm (and other forms of parallelism) work pretty well.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | October 28, 2010

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