God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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 | , , , , ,


  1. I would not disagree with you on the potential unimportance of form with respect to word order. A poet has to have a good reason for reversing the normal order of words. And I don’t know what Zondervan means by form. ‘Formal equivalence’ from a grammatical point of view may be important sometimes.

    But – form as in the repetition of words for effect, for framing, or for word games. This is a very important part of the intent of the poem. Sin is repeated 7 times in Psalm 51 – this is good to notice. But good also is the hidden centre of each of three cells in that psalm. The cells are defined by repeating words. The first cell is strongly defined by 4 concentric circles. The second two cells are less obvious. But at the centre of each is God’s righteousness. I think that is a serious requirement for understanding.

    Hebrew poetry is full of such framing on a large and small scale. Job for example is framed by Leviathan and the eyelids of dawn – fluttering of course.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 18, 2011

    • I agree that repetition of words can influence flavor (and meaning), but I don’t think that that means the translator should blindly copy that repetition.

      For example, the Joseph narrative has Joseph “dreaming a dream” (Genesis 37:5, for instance). However, in Hebrew it’s perfectly normal to include the object in the verb (“dream a dream”) while in English we prefer hollow verbs like “have” (“have a dream”). So I think “have a dream” is the better translation.

      It seems to me that the essential question is whether the source and target languages work the same way regarding form. When they work they same way, it makes sense to copy the form. But when they don’t work the same way, it makes no sense to do so.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 19, 2011

  2. […] Hoffman’s bible translation blog is always well worth a read. He has a very helpful post on a very common confusion between form and […]

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  3. Are you concerned that “original reading experience” might obscure that the fact that some of the Bible’s books might have been written to be read aloud and others were transcriptions of orations? That is, such a phrase reinforce our normal but erroneous view that these documents were written with the view that we would be reading them individually on our Kindles, as it were, in a quiet devotion mode as opposed to the circumstances in which the words were originally spoken.

    Comment by Mike Gantt | January 23, 2011

  4. […] I realize that many think that more formal (or literal) translations are better. Of course, books have been written on that, but this just deals with form and grammar. To me copying the grammar of the original languages and trying to squeeze it into English, except for when they don’t, makes for some awkward reading for some of us. I prefer English as opposed to Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic English. Half of you who are into translations will disagree with this. I felt ‘literal is better’ when I read the NRSV for three years–a great translation–so I understand (in a non-expert way) where everyone is coming from. Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Form « God Didn’t Say That […]

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