God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.]

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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