God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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 | , , , , , ,


  1. I agree in principle, although sometimes it is useful to supply helpful info via bracketed text, and footnotes.

    Also, isn’t ADELPHOI, as in Spanish, the plural of both “men” and of mixed company? If so, wouldn’t context dictate that one or the other is intended and a stand be warranted?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | December 19, 2010

  2. Adelphoi can refer to a group of all female humans, a group of all male humans, and more commonly, a group of mixed gender (the default assumption). So people is clearly the correct translation.

    So I agree.

    What I like to see is where brackets are used to identify when words are added. I do this in my teachings, for example, which I translation some texts that are challenging.

    Comment by Don Johnson | December 19, 2010

    • I agree. Brackets and especially footnotes can be helpful, not just for adding words but in general for elucidating part of a text.

      I also think it’s important to make a clear distinction between the text and the elucidation of it. (A Jewish custom holds that when Bible text and commentary are on the same page, the commentary has to be in a different font.)

      Comment by Joel H. | December 20, 2010

  3. >>>What I like to see is where brackets are used to identify when words are added…

    Yes, the KJV was a bit “prescient” in using italics. They favored a highly literal rendering, used italics and eventually sported footnotes. I find the NET Bible to be equally scrupulous, and think it a praiseworthy effort.

    The Anchor Bible is likewise commendable, but, because it is in 1990’s print only, rather obscure.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | December 19, 2010

    • The KJV’s use of italics — while perhaps theoretically the same as modern footnotes — is in practice quite different. The KJV used italics for an essential part of translation: rewording the source language into the target. Footnotes, on the other hand, are usually for information that’s not in the original, and in particular for information about the translation.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 20, 2010

  4. This is right on target – the TMI issue can destroy drama and also the possibility of hearing. It’s like people using too many adjectives too. TMA.

    A related problem is confusing cause for effect. So in psalm 3 those who trouble me may well be enemies but to translate them as enemies is to miss the point. So the Vulgate Jehova quam multi sunt hostes mei is not a good move.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | December 19, 2010

  5. Good, as usual, Joel. And you avoid the ivory tower trap (TMI?!) of using academic terminology which isn’t necessary.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | December 19, 2010

  6. Thanks, Bob and Wayne.

    Comment by Joel H. | December 20, 2010

  7. This post is not very helpful. I can see in narrative where sometimes withholding information is helpful for the development of the plot/for narratival purposes, but the translator is always wanting to convey meaning and not terms. Terms are not equivalent from Greek to English, so when anthropos for existence can mean both males and people in general, then each case must be translated according to context. Son of God might well be translated Christ in some instances (cf. Jn 1.49), but often there may be a double entendre at play (especially in John’s Gospel), so once again context is determinative. Wooden translations can be helpful for study but they fail to best convey the meaning, which ought to be the intent of the translator to the extent that he (or she–I still think that even our culture can use the masculine for the universal, e.g., “hey, guys,” as an aside) can confidently support their claims.

    Comment by John | December 23, 2010

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