God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How old was the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14?

It has long been known that the KJV translation “virgin” for the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14 is inaccurate, and many modern translations opt instead for “young woman” or at least a footnote along those lines. The NRSV, for example, translates: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” And though the NIV 2011 translates “virgin,” it also offers the footnote “or young woman.”

But how old was this “young woman”? Was she really young? Younger than whom?

In this case, the Hebrew word here — alma — probably referred to what we would now call a teenager. (The Greek translation in the Septuagint, parthenos, probably did mean “virgin,” but the Greek here is widely regarded as a translation mistake.)


“Teenager” is the wrong translation, though. For one thing, in antiquity there were no teenagers as we think of them now, because people generally only lived until about age 40. As I explain in And God Said:

Accordingly, people didn’t have time as they do now to spend their first decade as care-free children, then find themselves in their teen years, explore the world as twenty-somethings and settle down as thirty-somethings. They’d be dead before they ever really started living.

Rather, people [in antiquity] were “children” and then they were “adults.” (And then they were dead.)

For another thing, “a pregnant teenager” in English carries connotations that the Hebrew did not. (Also, we don’t have a word in English for a “female teenager.”)

Young Women

So what about “young woman” as a translation?

There’s an old adage in linguistics that even a big mouse is smaller than a small elephant. In our current case, we want to keep in mind that “young” is relative, too.

As I personally use the phrase, “young woman” usually applies to a woman in her 20s or even older. By this reckoning, “young woman,” at least in my dialect, is — surprisingly — too old for alma.

There’s also another aspect to consider. Did alma refer to age, or to stage in life? I think it’s the latter, and I think the stage in life was the one at which a woman normally got married.

In other words, Isaiah 7:14 is about a woman getting pregnant just at the age one might expect. Does “young woman” in English convey that? I don’t think so, both because it may convey the wrong chronological age, and because it emphasizes “young” in a way that the Hebrew does not.

Accordingly, I think “woman” is a better translation: “A pregnant woman will give birth to a son, and call him Immanuel.”

January 31, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 13 Comments

Win a Free, Signed Copy of And God Said

Until January 31, you have another chance to win a free, singed copy of my And God Said.

From the book’s blog:

We’re giving away a free copy of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, signed by the author.

For the best chances of winning, enter the sweepstakes via Twitter. You can also enter from the book’s Facebook page (and while you’re there, you can become a fan), or directly.

A winner will be chosen at random from all eligible entries shortly after Monday, January 31. So hurry!

January 25, 2011 Posted by | announcements, Off Topic | , | Comments Off on Win a Free, Signed Copy of And God Said

Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Form

Zondervan has a chart (reproduced immediately below at right) suggesting that effectively conveying both the form and meaning of the original Biblical documents is the best way to reflect the original reading experience.

Zondervan Translation Chart

I disagree, and I think that Zondervan’s approach represents a common and fundamental misunderstanding about how form works.

Form and Meaning

For one thing, form contributes to meaning. So I think it’s a mistake to put “form” and “meaning” on separate axes, as though a translator can convey one without impacting the other.

We see a very basic example in English. “John sees Mary” does not mean the same thing as “Mary sees John.” The form — in this case, the order of the words — contributes to the meaning.

By contrast, word order works differently in Greek. So in Acts 10:38, we find “Jesus of Nazareth anointed God” — “Iesoun … echrisen o theos” — but it very clearly means “God anointed Jesus.” In Greek, grammatical changes to the words themselves (“case endings,” as in the change from iesous to iesoun, for example) sometimes do the same thing as word order in English.

So in this case, we see that capturing the form means missing the meaning, and vice versa.

Acts 10:38 demonstrates the point particularly clearly, but the grammar there is not exceptional. Rather, mirroring the form of the Bible in English often means sacrificing the meaning, because form works differently in Hebrew, Greek, and English.

I have more examples in my post on mimicry.

Form and Flavor

I suspect that people often have “flavor” in mind when they think of “form.” Flavor (which I call “affect” in And God Said) includes the difference between formal and informal language, between funny and serious, etc.

In English, “God, no one has seen” is either particularly formal, or, for some speakers, ungrammatical. But I think everyone can understand that it means the same thing as “No one has seen God.” The difference between the first version (“God, no one has seen”) and the second is a matter of flavor.

And, like meaning, this difference in flavor is conveyed by the word order.

But in Greek, “God no one has seen” — theon oudeis eoraken — is not formal in the same way. That’s why John 1:18 (theon [God] oudeis [no one] eoraken [has seen]) is translated “no one has ever seen God” as opposed to “God no one has ever seen.” To translate “God, no one has seen” is to misunderstand how Greek and English work.

As with meaning, we see that form contributes to flavor, but it not the same as flavor. More generally, in order to capture the flavor, a translator often has to sacrifice the form.

The Inherent Value of Form

Translation Chart: Slavery to Form

Once we see that conveying the form doesn’t help with the meaning or with the flavor, I think we see that conveying the form is only helpful for actually studying the original languages of the Bible, not for conveying the original reading experience.

So my version of Zondervan’s chart (at left) notes that a good translation conveys both the meaning and flavor of the original, and further notes that slavery to form makes it difficult to do either one well.

January 18, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps, using Bible translations | , , , , , | 5 Comments

On the King James Version

The BBC News Magazine has an interesting, accurate, and balanced piece on the KJV out today, called “King James Bible: How it changed the way we speak.”

Based largely on works by David Crystal (Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language) and Alister McGrath (In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible), the article quantifies and explains the impact of the KJV on English, along the way describing the nature of the KJV.

From the middle of the article:

Perhaps the most intriguing reason for the impact of the King James Bible is that it ignored what today would be considered essentials for good translation.

Read the article

January 17, 2011 Posted by | article review, translation practice, translation theory | , , , | Comments Off on On the King James Version

Tennessee Courthouse Displays Translation Mistake in Ten Commandments

As the debate about public displays of the Ten Commandments heats up again (also via the AP), this time in Mountain City in Johnson County, Tennessee, I think it’s worth remembering that most people are fighting over an inaccurate translation of the Ten Commandments.

In particular, the original Hebrew of the sixth commandment (fifth for Catholics and some others) applies only to illegal killing, so “thou shalt not kill” is overly broad, that is, wrong.

The sixth commandment does not address legal killing such as the death penalty. (As I explain in great detail in Chapter 7 of And God Said, we know this from looking at how the original Hebrew verb in the Ten Commandments is used elsewhere. But most modern translators know that “kill” is wrong, and therefore go with “murder” here. Though that translation is too narrow, it is better than “kill.”)

It’s true that “kill” is a common mistranslation, going back at least to the KJV, but it is nonetheless wrong.

The Johnson County case is particularly interesting because (my emphasis):

The display itself claims that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. Accompanying it is a pamphlet written by local clergy that contends U.S. law springs from biblical morality and insists that the United States was founded on Christian principles. (source)

If the point of the Johnson County display is to reflect biblical morality, shouldn’t the best scholarship be used?

Does the fact that the Johnson County display is promoting a specific interpretation of the Bible, rather than the Bible itself, make a difference to the case?

And while we’re at it (and I hope I don’t regret asking), what do you think: Should displays of the Ten Commandments be allowed in public?

[Update: The Tomahawk has more details here.]

January 13, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Translation Challenge: Joseph, Pharaoh, and the Servants’ Heads

The Joseph narrative is brilliantly written in a way that few translations capture. One example comes when Joseph, having been thrown in jail, is asked to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaohs’ servants — the butler and the baker — who have also been imprisoned.

First comes the butler, and Joseph has good news for him: “Pharaoh … will restore you to your position” (Genesis 40:13).

For the baker, the news is not so good: “Pharaoh … will hang you on a tree” (Genesis 40:19).

The key text, though, lies in the parts I just left out.

In the case of the butler, the Hebrew is, literally, “Pharaoh will lift up your head…,” which, in Hebrew, was a common expression indicating something good. For example, in Jeremiah 52:31 Evilmerodach (that’s the guy’s name) “lifted up the head” of King Jehoiachin, and “brought him forth out of prison.”

In the case of the baker, Joseph starts with the same exact phrase: “Pharaoh will lift up your head…” but then Joseph adds, “off of you!”

We can almost see the scene playing out. Joseph has already given good news to one servant. The other waits anxiously for Joseph’s verdict. Joseph starts speaking, and things seem to be looking up. “Pharaoh will lift up your head… — so far so good! — “…

…off of you and hang you on a tree.” Oops.

The obvious question is how to capture this exceptional dialogue in English. (In And God Said, I note that “Pharaoh wants you hanging around the court” almost works for both servants.)

Certainly the English “lift up your head” doesn’t work for the butler. That’s not an expression in English (though that doesn’t stop most translations from using that flawed wording). But alternatives like the CEV’s “the king will pardon you” don’t seem to offer any hope of preserving the word play.

Can anyone come up with a good way to translate these two lines?

January 13, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , | 8 Comments