God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Grammar

As with words, it makes intuitive sense that a translation should convey the grammar of the original.

“Translating the words and grammar separately doesn’t work. They have to be translated together.”

But, again, our intuition leads us astray.

Here’s an example of what can go wrong if we try to mimic the grammar of one language when we translate it into another.

English and French

With rare exception, adjectives in English come before the nouns they modify. So in English we have “the good man,” not “the man good.” For this reason, when the Greek mneuma (“spirit”) and agion (“holy”) are combined to form the Greek mneuma agion, the English translation is not “spirit holy” but rather “holy spirit.”
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April 27, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

On Literal Bible Translations and Holy Language

Doug “Clayboy” Chaplin has an interesting post about literal Bible translations. Among other things, he says:

There seems to me — behind the so-called “formal equivalence” emphasis on source language syntax something of a hankering for a sacred language. By sacred I mean, in this context, especially appropriate for or capable of being a vehicle of divine revelation.

Read the whole thing: “Seeking a truly literal Bible translation.”

April 24, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Words

It makes intuitive sense that a translation should preserve the meaning of each word.

But in this case, our intuition leads us astray, which is why I’m not a fan of so-called “literal,” “essentially literal,” or “formal equivalence” translations.

Here’s an example that will make clear what goes wrong.

There’s a German verb blaumachen. Though the Germans write it as one word, we can look at the two parts: blau (“blue”) and machen (“to make” or “to do”).

The obvious translation of blaumachen is not “to blue make” — because that’s not English — but “to make blue” or “to do blue.” Both of these translations fit into the “literal” Bible translation camp: ESV, KJV, etc.

We can go one step further and note that neither “to make blue” nor “to do blue” is an English phrase, while “to be blue” most certainly is. So we might translate “to be blue” (which — for non-native speakers — means “to be sad”). That translation fits into the “make the English understandable” camp: CEB, NLT, etc.

We can go one step further yet and, trying to write better or more vivid prose, translate, “to lament.” This is what The Message might do.

But all of these are wrong, for a very simple reason. “To make blue” (blaumachen) in German means “to skip school.”
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April 22, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Why the Debate between Formal Equivalence and Functional Equivalence is Deceptive

The debate between “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence” has come up again at BBB, this time in the comment thread to a post about David Ker’s The Bible Wasn’t Written To You. (It’s a free e-book. Take a look.)

Dannii started the debate with a reference to his post “In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax.”

John Hobbins countered that “mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is […] a reasonable default strategy.”

That is, essentially, the crux of the debate: whether or not the grammatical details of the original should be mimicked in translation or not. The formal equivalence camp thinks yes. Functional-equivalence translators disagree.

My take is that mimicking the grammar is as foolish as mimicking the sounds. We don’t translate the Greek ho (which means “the”) as “hoe” just to mimick the sounds. And we shouldn’t translate, say, a passive verb in Greek or Hebrew as a passive one in English just to mimic the grammar. Failure to realize this basic point, it seems to me, is to misunderstand what translation is.

So why is this basic theoretical point nonetheless so hard to grasp?

I think part of the answer lies in the practice of Bible translation. By and large, published English versions of the Bible are either formally equivalent or flawed in other ways, so the debate ends up, in practice, pitting formal equivalence not against functional equivalence but instead against other kinds of mistranslations.

The non-formally equivalent CEB can help us understand how this plays out.

Among that translation’s aims is that it should be written at a 7th-grade reading level. But I think that that goal is a mistake, because the Bible is not written at a 7th-grade reading level, so from the outset, the CEB has made a decision to abandon accuracy in some regards. And as part of pursuing that goal, the CEB’s editors make other mistakes. For instance, the CEB recasts Hebrews 12:1, turning it into a statement about going in a different direction in life, while the original is about going unburdened in the same direction.

Similarly, from the CEB translation comparison, we see that Genesis 2:7 now reads, “the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land” instead of the NRSV, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (their italics, to highlight the comparison). But the original doesn’t have any notion of “fertile,” and “topsoil” is almost certainly wrong for what should be “dust.”

My point is not to pick on the CEB, but rather to use it to highlight what I think goes wrong in the formal equivalence versus functional equivalence debate.

The formal equivalence crowd looks at the kinds of mistakes we just saw in the CEB, and, rightly in my opinion, notes that these versions miss essential aspects of the original. Then they compare, say, the NRSV renditions of these verses. The NRSV correctly has “lay aside every weight” in Hebrews 12:1. It correctly has “dust” in Genesis 2:7. And it doesn’t introduce the notion of “fertile” there.

In these cases, the NRSV is more accurate that the CEB. But I don’t think that the NRSV’s accuracy here comes from its philosophy. Rather, I think it comes, in this case, in spite of its philosophy.

After all, it’s this same philosophy that leads the NRSV to translate Mark 12:18 as, “The Sadducees … asked him a question, saying:” even though we don’t “say” questions in English; we ask them. The NRSV makes the same mistake in Genesis 44:19.

The supporters of functional equivalence use mistakes like these in the NRSV to attack formal equivalence.

And what follows is a debate where both sides are right — because both the CEB and the NRSV have mistakes — but where neither side is really talking about translation theory. They are talking about practice.

So instead of asking which version is better, I think the right questions are:

1. Can functional-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?

2. Can formal-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?

April 21, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Life and a Little Liturgy: Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, has a blog!

I’m thrilled to announce that my father, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., has just started a blog: Life and a Little Liturgy. The author of three dozen books, Rabbi Hoffman — “Dad,” to me — is a preeminent Jewish liturgist (it’s a niche market, I know, but he’s got it cornered) and leading modern Jewish philosopher. Here’s part of his latest post:

I do not usually admit this right off the bat — it is definitely a conversation stopper — but here it is: I am a liturgist. “Liturgy” is a common enough word among Christians, but it does not flow trippingly off Jewish tongues, and I am not only Jewish but a rabbi to boot. The word comes from the Greek, leitourgia, “public service,” which is how Greek civilization thought of service to the gods. The Jewish equivalent is the Temple cult of antiquity — in Hebrew, avodah, which meant the same thing, the work of serving God. That eventually morphed into what people do in church and synagogue. Christians call it liturgy; Jews call it “services.”
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April 15, 2011 Posted by | announcements, Off Topic | , | Comments Off on Life and a Little Liturgy: Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, has a blog!

“Judge Not” And Preserving Poetry

Judge Not

“Judge not…” Most people are familiar with this famous verse from Matthew 7:1 (and the similar Luke 6:37), and know that the full line runs along the lines of “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV).

The content of the line is pretty easy to understand, but the poetry is very hard to convey in English, as evidenced by the wide variety of translations: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (NAB), “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (NIV), “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (NRSV), etc.

The Greek of Matthew 7:1

The Greek is a pithy five-word admonition: mi krinete ina mi krithite. The word mi means “not,” krinete means “judge,” ina means “so that,” and krithite means “be judged.” In addition to its brevity, the Greek offers a certain symmetry. The word ina sits nicely in the middle, with the two similar-sounding phrases mi krinete and mi krithite on either side. Except for the -ne- in the first part and the -thi- in the second, both sides are identical.

On Poetry and Symmetry

Similar in English is “you are what you eat,” where “what” fits nicely between the similar “you are” and “you eat.” (The original comes from German, where “are” and “eat” are both pronounced ist, so the similarity is even more pronounced: man ist vas man isst.)

Also similar in nature, if not in detail, is the English “no pain, no gain.” The phrase is successful because of the symmetry, and because “pain” and “gain” rhyme. This is why the phrase “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much” is unlikely to catch on as a training motto among athletes, even though it means the same thing as “no pain, no gain.”

Yet most translations of Matthew 7:1 are like “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much.” The translations miss the poetry.

Some people may dismiss the value of the poetry, but I disagree. I think that poetic phrasing is important. This is why so many of our proverbs either rhyme or otherwise “sound well” (as Mark Twain would say): “A stitch in time saves nine,” “no rhyme or reason,” “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” and many, many more. And even if the poetry isn’t as important as I think, it’s still part of the original. It seems to me that a good translation should convey it.

On Grammaticality

Furthermore, also like my poor paraphrase of “no pain, no gain,” translations of Matthew 7:1 tend to sound stilted and awkward. “Judge not,” for example, is no longer standard English. (Compare, “comment not that you be not flamed.”)

And I don’t think that “judge” without an object is particularly successful in English. At least in my dialect, “I saw the modern art paintings, and I couldn’t help but judge” doesn’t work as well as “…couldn’t help but judge them.” I understand why translators want to force the English construction “do not judge.” They want to make the first part sound like the second part, “do not be judged.” But their decision comes at the expense of English grammar. In English (unlike in Greek), the most common phrasing is “do not judge something,” as in “do not judge others” or “do not judge people.”

Again, not everyone thinks that a translation into Modern English has to be in Modern English (at the risk of prejudicing the issue), but I do.

Translating Matthew 7:1

So where does that leave us?

We need a translation that means “do not judge (other) people, so that you will not be judged.” It should be symmetrical, with the first and second parts sounding similar. It should be pithy. And it should be grammatical in English.

In general, I’m unwilling to compromise on grammaticality in English, at least when the original is grammatical (in the original language), and I’m unwilling to compromise on meaning. When it comes to poetry, I think poetic texts should be translated poetically, but the details of the poetry can differ. So in this case, I think the symmetry is important, but I think — if something has to go — we can do without the pithiness.

So the best I can come up with is this: “Do not judge others, so that others do not judge you.”

What do you think? And can you come up with something even closer to the original?

April 15, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 24 Comments

What to do with significant Bible mistranslations?

In a comment on Dr. Claude Mariottini’s excellent blog, a reader named Daniel asks: “Since we have cleared up centuries of inferior translating, and presumably inferior application, now we should do …?”

It’s an excellent question.

Normally when we find a better way of doing things, we move on: “Out with the old and in with the new.” But as I frequently point out when I present to communities, “out with the old and in with the new” is not a phrase commonly heard in seminary.

At first glance, part of the problem concerns passages that are so familiar that everyone knows them. But it seems to me that if a biblical passage was new and innovative, it’s actually a mistake to translate it as a familiar quotation. (This kind of thinking quickly leads to the irony of the first time that “there’s nothing new under the sun” was penned, and other dilemmas that are a little too close to Eastern philosophy for my rational mind.)

More generally, though, we expect a certain amount of familiarity in a Bible translation. This makes it hard to change familiar but wrong translations.

I think that the first part of answering Daniel’s question is whether we should keep a familiar but wrong translation. If not, we have a lot more work to do deciding how to fix things. But if we’re going to keep things the same, we at least have a final answer.

So here are three examples of the problem, which, in my mind, represent three different kinds of issues:

1. The last commandment is more accurately translated “do not take,” not “do not covet.”

2. The word “shepherd” in Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) is a mistranslation that hides the original image of might and power.

3. The opening line of Genesis is better translated as “It was in the beginning that God created…”

Should we “correct” these in future Bible translations? Keep them the same? Something else?

What do you think?

April 6, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 17 Comments