God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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