God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Value of a Word for Word Translation

All of my training and experience has taught me that a word-for-word translation is a siren. It has superficial appeal in that intuitively it seems to bring a reader closer to a foreign text, but, in fact, it misconveys the original text.

Still, I also believe that it’s important to understand both sides of a debate. So what might the value of a word-for-word translation of the Bible be?

The best answer I can think of is this: if the importance of the Bible lies in the actual words and not in what those words do — meaning, poetry, etc. — then a word-for-word translation is better than a translation that captures the meaning and poetry and so forth.

I have always tacitly assumed that the primary point of the Bible’s narrative text was to convey meaning, the point of the poetry to be poetic, and so forth. But that may not be so.

In fact, the evidence we have from antiquity is that the words were more important than what they meant. This is why, for example, the NT frequently quotes the words of the OT out of context. (The early-first-millennium collection of Jewish writing known as the Midrash does the same thing.) Modern readers sometimes see this approach as deceptive, but ancient readers would probably be baffled by our modern insistence on quoting meaning instead of quoting words.

So it’s not a crazy idea to suggest that the words themselves are what’s important.

What other value can you find for a word-for-word translation?


May 18, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 53 Comments

Making the Bible Sound Like the Bible

David Frank at BBB asks if a translation has to sound like a translation. Not surprisingly when it comes to the Bible, two answers emerged: “yes,” and “no.”

David’s point was that a translation into English should sound like English.

Bob MacDonald seems to counter that the foreignness is part of the text and a translation that isn’t foreign has destroyed that aspect of the text. Also apparently in rebuttal, Theophrastus claimed that the text of the Bible is qualitatively different than other texts

Wayne Leman focused the issue, noting that the content can sound foreign (Levirate marriage, wave offerings, praying for the dead, temple prostitution, etc.) even if the language sounds like English.

I think part of what’s going on here is that poor Bible translations have created a false image of the Bible, and many people are reluctant to give up that false image because, for them, the image of the Bible has become the Bible itself. In other words, they want the Bible to sound like what they think the Bible sounds like.

An example I use frequently is “God spoke unto Moses, saying…” That’s not English. Furthermore, it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew leimor here — which became “speaking” in translation — functions the same way our modern quotation marks do. So the translation should read, “God said to Moses, `…'”

But for people who grew up hearing “God spoke unto Moses, saying,” that’s what the Bible sounds like. They heard that (poor) translation frequently, internalized it, and then came to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that the Bible is foreign and strange in exactly the way that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” is.

So any attempt to retranslate the Bible into better English, for them, destroys part of what the Bible is.

At its extreme, this gives us the KJV-Only movement. For people who adhere to that philosophy, the archaic language of the KVJ — “spake,” “verily,” “holpen,” etc. — is the Bible, and for them, modern translations destroy what the Bible is.

But I think that this perceived foreignness is an artifact of poor translation and a misunderstanding of how language works. That is, the foreignness of the Bible that some people want to capture in translation is really just the foreignness of previous translations, not of the Bible itself.

Making matters much worse, many of the people who decide to become Bible translators do so because of their love for the Bible, a love they gained as they grew up with bad translations. So Bible translators (a) start to think that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” actually is English; and (b) want to produce a translation that preserves their childhood understanding of what the Bible is.

This situation strikes me as doubly lamentable. Not only have poor translations hidden the original beauty of the Bible, they have prevented people from taking the steps to find it.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 11 Comments

What is the Dust of the Ground from which Man is Formed?

Genesis 2:7, according to the KJV, has the creation of man “from the dust of the ground.” But why “dust”?

The Hebrew here is afar, and it doesn’t seem to mean “dust.”

From Genesis 2:7, we know that it’s something on the ground, but we don’t know what. “Dust” is a possibility, just from this verse, but — again, just from this verse — so is “grass,” “rocks,” “lichen,” “mud,” etc. So we look further.

Genesis 13:16 helps us a little. There we read that Abram’s descendants will be like the afar on the earth, so that if the afar can be counted, so can Abram’s descendants. So afar can’t mean “mud” or “clay.” It seems to refer to particles of some sort.

Genesis 18:27 is helpful in a different way. There we see afar used as a metaphor of humility. (The full phrase is “afar and efer.” I’ve explained elsewhere that the English “dust and ashes” doesn’t do justice to the repetition of sounds in afar and efer:Doublets Are Part And Parcel of Bible Translation.”) I Samuel 2:8 emphasizes the connotation of lowliness: God “raises the poor from afar, lifts up the needy from the trash.” And the vivid imagery of Isaiah repeatedly uses afar to represent humility.

But next we look at Genesis 26:15, which explains that the Philistines had filled Abram’s wells with afar. And here we see the problem with “dust” for afar, because one would use “dirt,” not “dust,” to plug up a well. (And, indeed, the KJV goes with “earth” here for afar.)

The basic problem is this: “Dust” in English refers specifically to particularly fine-grained particles, of earth or otherwise. “Dirt,” by contrast, is just what’s on the ground, and we seem to be talking about dirt here.

In Numbers 5:17, the priest is instructed to take afar form the floor of the Tabernacle, so again afar seems to be “dirt,” not “dust” Dust would have been swept away as part of regular cleaning (I presume).

In Greek for afar we usually find gi, a word that pretty clearly means “land,” both in the sense of “dirt” and of “country.” So in addition to its use as the substance that filled the wells, we read that Jacob lived in the gi of his ancestors, the gi of Canaan (Genesis 37:1). The Greek gi also means “(the entire) Earth,” a usage we find, for instance, in Genesis 6:11.

So far we have yet to see any indication that afar is particularly fine-grained, so we see no support for “dust.” We do see “fine as afar” in Deuteronomy 9:21, but there the fineness is in reference to the golden calf. “As fine as dirt” works as well as “as fine as dust.” (Though if the calf was made of gold, I’m not clear how it was burned into dust or ash or whatnot. Why didn’t it melt? But I guess that’s for another time.)

And in II Samuel 16:13, we see that afar can be flung along with rocks, again arguing for “dirt” and not “dust.”

Similarly, afar is a common image in Job, and there the word is frequently translated “earth.”

But “dirt” or “earth” isn’t quite right, either, because afar isn’t limited to what’s on the ground. In Leviticus 14:41, concerning a contaminated house, scraping a house produces afar — perhaps “debris,” in English. It’s probably not “dust” because the afar can be collected and poured out outside the city. (You won’t find “dust” in most English translations here, so if you’re not reading the Hebrew, it’s hard to know that it’s the same word.)

But then in the very next verse, “other stones” and “other afar” are supposed to be used to rebuild the house. (I don’t know of any English translation that uses “dust” here.) Is this just poetic symmetry? (Leviticus 14:40 refers to stones, so both “stones” and afar in 14:42 might refer to that which was discarded.) Or does afar also metonymically refer to “plaster,” made from earth and water? This latter possibility is consistent with Leviticus 14:45, where houses seem to be made of “wood, stones, and afar.” Or, perhaps, is the idea here that new stones, wood, and dirt are supposed to gathered, and then worked in the way that stones, wood and dirt usually are?

Also moving away from “dirt” for afar is Numbers 19:17, where we see that afar is the result of burning a sacrificial animal. Most translations have “ashes” here, not “dust.”

So afar seems to refer generally to any granular material, and in particular to the granular material on the surface of the earth. Additionally, it symbolizes humility. In English, we usually call that “dirt.”

So I think Genesis 2:7 should read, “The Lord God formed man from the dirt of the ground.”

May 6, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The King James Version (KJV): The Fool’s-Gold Standard of Bible Translation

In 2008, as I was writing And God Said, I described the King James Version (KJV) as the “fool’s-gold standard” of English Bible translation. That was approximately 397 years after the watershed publication of the KJV, hardly a date worth noticing.

KJV Cover

KJV Cover

But today the KJV turns 400, and with that anniversary has come renewed world-wide attention to what certainly ranks as one of the most important and influential translations of the Bible ever. But some of the celebration is misplaced.

It’s not that I don’t like the KJV. I do. It’s often poetic in ways that modern translations are not. And I recognize all it has done both for English speakers who are serious about their faith and more widely. Dr. Alister McGrath is correct when he writes in his In The Beginning that the “King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians.”

Equally, I appreciate the dedication and hard work that went into the KJV, as Dr. Leland Ryken passionately conveys in his Understanding English Bible Translation: “[f]or people who have multiple English Bibles on their shelves, it is important to be reminded that the vernacular Bible [the KJV] was begotten in blood.”

Yet for all its merits, the King James Version is monumentally inaccurate, masking the Bible’s original text. There are two reasons for the errors.

The first is that English has changed in 400 years, so even where the KJV used to be accurate, frequently now it no longer is. (My video-quiz about the English in the KJV — Do You Speak KJV? — illustrates this point.)

The second reason is that the KJV was written several hundred years before the advent of modern translation theory, linguistics, and, in general, science. Just as advances like carbon dating and satellite imagery help us know more about antiquity now than people did 400 years ago (even though they were a little closer to the original events), we also know more about ancient Hebrew and Greek now than they did 400 years ago. In fact, we know much more, both about the ancient languages and about how to convey them in translation.

Bunting Clover-Leaf Map

Bunting Clover-Leaf Map

Like Heinrich Bunting’s famous 16th-century “clover-leaf map” of the world that adorns my office wall (the map puts the holy city of Jerusalem right in the middle, surrounded by three leaves: Europe, Asia, and Africa), the KJV translation is of enormous value historically, politically, sentimentally, and perhaps in other ways. But also like Bunting’s map, the KJV is, in the end, not very accurate.

And those who would navigate the Bible solely with this 400-year-old translation journey in perils.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | editorial, translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , , , , | 15 Comments