God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Year in Review (2010)

As we mark the end of 2010, here are the top ten most-viewed posts from the past 12 months at God Didn’t Say That:

    1. Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?

    2. Gender in the Updated NIV

    3. Q&A: What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?

    4. Q&A: How Mistranslation Created Divorce in the Bible

    5. What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?

    6. Which Jews Opposed Jesus?

    7. Q&A: The Original Baptism

    8. Review: Professor Ellen van Wolde on bara in Genesis

    9. On James 2:23-24: Why Faith Without Works is Dead

    10. Review: Sin: A History

    Of these, three (on the best Bible to study from, on Ellen Van Wolde’s work on bara, and on Gary A. Anderson’s Sin: A History) were written last year, and I suppose their continuing popularity reflects the centrality of their themes. (And once again, if you haven’t read Dr. Anderson’s book yet, now’s the time. It’s that good.)

    Similarly, only two top-ten posts are from the final quarter of this year, and both (“Gender in the Updated NIV” and “Which Jews Opposed Jesus?“) are about the new NIV translation, reflecting that version’s importance.

    At the other end of the spectrum is “What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?” I had fun writing it, but I don’t think it breaks new ground in any way. Maybe it was popular because I threw in some bird photos I took. Or maybe people found it searching on-line for something else.

    2010 also saw the publication, in February, of my And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. I’m happy to report that the book, now in its second printing, has generally been received very positively.

    Though my speaking schedule has sometimes made it difficult to post regularly, I hope to continue to address broad theoretical issues in 2011, as well as to focus on specific translation examples. (If you have suggestions, add them to the About page.)

    And as always, I look forward to the many thoughtful and enlightening comments that readers submit.

    Happy 2011.

    December 31, 2010 Posted by | meta | , , , | 2 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Too Much Information

Translators frequently have information at their disposal that doesn’t come directly from the text they are translating.

Though it’s often tempting, it is nonetheless almost always a mistake to add the additional information into the translation.

For example, if a mystery novel starts, “a man was walking by the beach,” the translator should not change it to, “Mr. Smith was walking by the beach,” even if it later turns out that Mr. Smith was the man.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment begins with odin molodoi chelovek, “a young man.” The reader soon learns that the young man used to be a student. But it would surely be a mistake for a translator to render the Russian as “former student” instead of “man,” even though the guy happens to have been a student.

This sort of mistake comes up frequently in Bible translation.

Four Examples

People / Men — Anthropos

We just saw one clear case at Bible Gateway‘s new translation blog, regarding the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 (“and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people [anthropoi] who will be able to teach others as well,” NRSV). The question there is whether the translation for anthropoi should be “people” or “men.”

Ray Van Neste’s answer notes that the leadership position referred to in 2 Timothy 2:1-7 “has been forbidden to women in [verse 12 of] 1 Timothy 2.” Based on this, Dr. Van Neste seems to claim that anthropoi should be translated “men.”

But even if he is right about who the anthropoi are, his reasoning is flawed. Just because the people are men doesn’t mean that anthropoi means “men,” or that “men” is the right translation, any more than “young student” is the right translation for the “young man” in Crime and Punishment.

Hebrews 5:1 works the same way. There, high priests are selected from among anthropoi. I suppose they were probably men, but that doesn’t mean the translation should say “men” where the original is broader: “people.”

Similarly, I suppose the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 were also followers of Christ. Should we therefore translate “reliable Christians” for pistoi anthropoi? Of course not. To translate “Christians” is to add information that comes from other parts of the text. To translate “men” is to make the same mistake.

People / Slaves — Nephesh

Another example came up in a comment to a discussion about nephesh in Genesis 12:5 on BBB: “Abram took … the persons [nepheshes] whom they had acquired in Haran…” (NRSV). Yancy Smith points out that some versions translate nephesh as “slave,” rather than “person,” because the nepheshes there are “acquired.”

But again, the reasoning (of the TEV and others) is flawed. Even if the people are slaves, there is a difference between “acquiring people” and “acquiring slaves.” The Hebrew has the former, and so should the translation.

The Son of God / Christ

A third example comes from Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (NRSV). The “Son of God” is, of course, “Christ,” also translated as “Messiah.” We see the identity, for example, in Matthew 26:63: “tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (NRSV). But that doesn’t mean that we can translate Mark 1:1 as “Jesus Christ, the Messiah.”

Dry Bones

Our final example for now comes from the “dry bone” prophesy in Ezekiel, who is told in verse 37:4: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (NRSV). In verses 37:9 and 37:11, the reader learns that these bones are the “slain” “house of Israel.” It’s a brilliant progression, and it would be destroyed by translating “bones” as “slain of the house of Israel” in 37:4.


It seems to me that, wherever possible, translators should translate the text of the Bible without destroying the nuances of the original. And often, providing too much information makes a translation less accurate.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , | 10 Comments