God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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?

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April 6, 2011 - Posted by | translation theory | , , ,

17 Comments »

  1. I would definitely like to see them translated as accurately as possible, particularly if it changes the potential interpretation/meaning of the text.

    Comment by Pamela | April 6, 2011 | Reply

    • Pamela: How will you feel when Psalm 23 doesn’t have a shepherd in it any more?

      Comment by Joel H. | April 6, 2011 | Reply

      • I think to say that using the word “shepherd” is a “mistranslation” is incorrect. It might be a poor translation, or a translation that lends itself to be misunderstood, but not a mistranslation. Understanding that difference, I think, is key to solving the “what to do about significant Bible mistranslations?” I think one of the jobs of any Christian is to seek to understand as much of the context of a passage as possible. Though you make a good point as to why “shepherd” should often be translated with another word, if you did so you would lose the contextual understanding of how shepherds were regarded by ancient Hebrews. The connections between how David was a literal shepherd and how Jesus is our figurative shepherd would be lost.

        Essentially you must translate three meanings: 1. What was said. 2. What was meant. 3. Why what was said means what was meant (grammatical contextual information). That is no easy task, and sometimes you must leave it up to the reader to discover one or two of those things on their own. Usually translations focus on one of the first two (as is the case with your example of the word “shepherd”), while leaving the third up to the reader to figure out on their own. You would prefer to focus on what a shepherd meant to a Hebrew. I think that is fine, but I would still prefer that it was translated “shepherd” because I am able to find out on my own what it meant to ancient Hebrews, and the word “shepherd” matches with the poetic imagery of the rest of the chapter. If you wanted to add some adjectives before shepherd to get the idea across (e.g. strong shepherd, protecting shepherd, etc.), that is fine as well. But you are choosing to go a specific route and force the word “shepherd” into your specific interpretation of it, eliminating some of the other meaning that the word might possess on its own. Essentially I think you are delving into the realm of what Bible handbook or a study guide are meant for (or part of the job of pastors, for that matter).

        If I were translating, my thought would be, “what is the most important idea being portrayed here in this exact line?” Maybe the overall meaning of “shepherd” in Psalm 23 is that God is a strong protector, but that is already accomplished through the following verses. Thus changing “shepherd” into some other word or phrase adds nothing to the passage, but detracts from the poetic theme.

        Essentially what I am saying is, sometimes it is a mistranslation, but often times it is just lesser interpretation. Interpreting meaning is not the primary job of a translator, translating is. Interpretation is important, but I always feel that providing a translation that is most accurate to the original words written is most important. There are times when a meaning must be conveyed over a translation because it simply doesn’t translate in a form that makes sense. That is understandable. But we should be cautious not to accidentally EMPHASIZE a thought or idea over the directly translated word in an attempt to interpret it for the reader. In the end it is up to the reader to discover and apply the extra-Biblical contexts, not the translator.

        Comment by Doug S. | July 13, 2016

  2. I say let’s get an accurate translation despite the pain of it. Someone will surely shout “Fool and knave! Leave the old reading!”, but such is life.

    Comment by SethH | April 6, 2011 | Reply

    • Seth: As I just asked Pamela, how will you feel when Psalm 23 doesn’t have a shepherd in it any more?

      Comment by Joel H. | April 6, 2011 | Reply

      • Do you cover this in your book? I just got it from Amazon and it’s on my soon to be read list.

        But in general I’m in favor of might and power. I like a manly Bible.

        Comment by SethH | April 6, 2011

      • I devote the better part of a chapter to a discussion of why “shepherd” in Psalm 23 is wrong.

        But I don’t really address the broader question of how to balance that information with other criteria of a successful published Bible translation.

        Enjoy the book!

        Comment by Joel H. | April 6, 2011

  3. Translate correctly and put the old translation in a footnote with an explanation why it is wrong. That’s for those of us who are familar with the Torah.

    As time goes on, fewer and fewer people have personally read even the KJV. They know what they’ve been told it says. If they are given a good translation to start out with, they will gladly insist that their translation is correct.

    Comment by Marian | April 6, 2011 | Reply

  4. From the peanut gallery here (whatever that means)–one problem is that publishers won’t want to change these verses because when people look at them when deciding which Bible to purchase, they’ll think they ‘did it wrong’.

    I read someone at the Gospel Coalition say that we should leave Ps 23 alone as far as “the valley of the shadow of death”. So even people in the know won’t like this, much less the layperson.

    I’m all for being correct though FWIW.
    Jeff

    Comment by Scripture Zealot | April 6, 2011 | Reply

    • I wonder if the Bible publishers are worried that readers will think the translations are wrong, or just unfamiliar.

      Enjoy the peanuts.

      Comment by Joel H. | April 7, 2011 | Reply

  5. I think it’s important to have translations that are as accurate as possible. Where a major change is made from more familiar versions it’s helpful to have footnote explanations.

    Comment by Nancy Wallace | April 7, 2011 | Reply

  6. It’s interesting. The consensus here so far seems to be that we should adopt new and better translations, no matter how difficult the transition.

    Yet in two discussions of chamad (“covet,” but not really) — via my blog posting “The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting” and my video about chamad — there seems to be significant resistance to changing the familiar translation.

    Comment by Joel H. | April 7, 2011 | Reply

    • Joel, is epithumeo likewise mistranslated, or was that simply a poor translation choice on the part of the LXX translation team?

      Comment by Gary Simmons | April 7, 2011 | Reply

  7. […] we do about that, though, is a harder question. As I explore here (“What to do with significant Bible mistranslations?“), sometimes our familiar […]

    Pingback by The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think (or: Don’t Mess with the Shepherds) « God Didn't Say That | October 21, 2011 | Reply

  8. With the “shepherd” example: this is currently being discussed as a problem having a binary solution and I think that presents a false choice. Leave it as “shepherd” or change it to something other than shepherd are not the only solutions. If the issue is that people do not understand “shepherd” accurately at the current time then the solution is to educate people what shepherd meant at the time it was written (as you are doing here on your blog). There are many ways this can be achieved. Leaving it as “shepherd”* with the addition of a *footnote which notes something along the lines of *”shepherds were considered fierce, mighty, independent men who lived off the land and protected the flock from all threats, both human and wild animal in nature” seems to me an easy option. The word used is shepherd. It is our understanding of that word that needs to change, not the word itself.

    Comment by Kane called Brent | October 21, 2011 | Reply

  9. I would write: “The Lord is my shepherd (protector), I shall not want…”. The role of the shepherd, the noble, the king was to protect the people and to guide them in the correct ways of their community. Further, while kings and nobles weren’t always very good to the weakest among the group, the shepherd was; his job was to protect the entire flock. In American culture the cowboy comes closest to the imagery.
    I’ve long wondered if the sheik of the ancient past was ever referred to as a shepherd.

    Comment by Leaf | January 5, 2013 | Reply

  10. I say do the best and most honestly, contextually sensitive translation you can and let the fur fly. For words or concepts that are difficult to translate clearly, add a sidenote with some discussion about why you chose what you did and why. Cite how others tried to translate the same passage and why you chose your phrasing. Try to get more than one source text for the material as different bibles over time seem to have different passages. But most of all, be honest in the effort and open about the translation approach and willing to debate alternatives. Put it out there to stand or fall on its own merit. I think it will be fascinating.

    Comment by Kevin | March 4, 2013 | Reply


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