God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.”

The translation issue here is that “blue” in English and “blue” in German convey different sets of concepts. In English, the word represents sorrow, while in German, truancy. In English we have “be blue,” “feel blue,” “the blues,” etc. (For non-native speakers, those mean “to be sad,” “to feel sad,” and “sorrow.” The last one is also a kind a music.) By contrast, in German we have not only blaumachen but also a “blue letter,” which is the letter the principal sends home to the parents of a child who skips school.

In other words, what looks like a “closer reading of the German text” — “to make blue” — is really just a misreading of the German text.

I think this pattern applies more generally. Frequently, what looks like a close reading of the Bible is just a misreading of it.


April 22, 2011 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , ,


  1. I call this “missing an idiom” which is very possible in reading text from almost 2000 years ago or more.

    Comment by Don | April 22, 2011

  2. It’s more than missing an idiom. It’s also determining the word by its usage. Maybe they got caned for skipping school so the blue was the colour of the backside. (Typical old school thing). I wrote a rather silly post on discovering the meaning of complete in the psalms – by substituting sock for complete. But much can be deduced by the verbs used and the parallels in Hebrew poetry for a frequently used word. But not for those marid haphaxes.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | April 22, 2011

  3. Not to dispute the point at all, but I believe blaumachen more generally means “to skip work” or “to not work”. Nowadays, meaning without a particular excuse, so in UK we might say “to pull a sickie”

    Comment by Peter Parslow | April 23, 2011

    • Maybe. I’ve seen reports of this on the Internet, but I don’t speak German well enough to know and I haven’t been able to find a native German speaker to confirm one way or the other. (It wouldn’t surprise me if blaumachen started off referring to school, and then, as people got older, gradually became applied to work as well: My father and I were both invited to teach at a conference in England last December. Writing about it, I said that we “played hooky twice” to visit Warwick Castle and Coventry Cathedral. I knew that “hooky” wasn’t quite the right word, but it also wasn’t completely wrong.)

      Comment by Joel H. | April 24, 2011

  4. This brings to mind a specific example, to cite three versions of it:

    Mat 6:22 (KJV) The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be *single*, thy whole body shall be full of light.
    Mat 6:22 (NIV) The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are *healthy*, your whole body will be full of light.
    Mat 6:22 (NASB) The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is *clear*, your whole body will be full of light.

    Describing the eye, I seriously wonder which word is the correct translation as opposed to representing a mere interpretation. This would really depend on whether Jesus intended to convey the thought of a ‘singular’ eye (with implications for a healthy eye) or merely the thought of a ‘healthy’ eye that, in the original language, the 1st century audience would have had no trouble in discerning.

    Comment by Robert Kan | April 23, 2011

    • If the eye is the lamp of the (inner) body, then that means the inside of the body is filled with “light” (a metaphor?) that comes from the eye. But the source of the light being shined by the eye into the body is the outside world. So, would this thought more accurately mean that what we choose to look at (or listen to) is what goes into and fills our inner body (or our soul, intellect, spirit, heart, etc)? If all we look at and listen to all day long are dark/negative things, then that is what we are shining into body. So, if the KJV, NIV, & NASB are giving a fairly literal word-for-word translation here, and if (BIG if) my interpretation is right, then what would be an accurate translation of the concept being presented?

      Comment by Jason Engel | May 1, 2015

  5. Don and Bob:

    I think there’s more than an idiom at work here, because the German blau in general refers to missing school, while the English “blue” refers to sorrow. Even though blau means “blue,” the two words are part of very different networks of metaphor.

    Most words are like this, which is why word-for-word translation — in spite of its intuitive appeal (and, perhaps, other merit) — is so misleading.

    We find the same dilemma translating the Hebrew sha’ar (“gate,” but not really) or chet (“sin,” but not really), or the Greek sarx (“flesh,” but not really) or pilrow (“fulfill,” but not really), just to name a few.

    Comment by Joel H. | April 24, 2011

  6. I see that the basic problem is one where one culture has a cluster of meanings for a word that is different than another culture. And when we are discussing 2000 year old texts or older, the problem is that the clusters may not even be close. And when I used the term “missing the idiom” I meant it in an extended sense of including metaphors and not just idiomatic use.

    Comment by Don | April 25, 2011

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