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 | , , , , ,


  1. I am all for clarity, so I prefer your “God said to Moses” over the alternatives. But there is also the possibility of a false clarity, as we are talking about different cultures from today. A famous one is kephale when used as a metaphor. It means head but what did it possibly mean back when and we need to not just force our 21st century meaning and this is typical.

    Comment by Don Johnson | May 9, 2011

    • I think the translation should be plain and simple when the original is. In this case, leimor (“saying”) was the usual way to indicate direct quotation in Hebrew, so I think the translation should take advantage of the usual English way of indicating direction quotation.

      Continuing the analogy, I understand that in France they use angled brackets to indicate quotation, <> (“like this”).

      I think it would be a mistake to mimic the French quotation system in American publications, and it would be a similar mistake to think that there is something exotic about a particular example of French prose because of how it uses the angled brackets.

      Similarly, English has capital and lower-case letters, while Modern Hebrew does not. (Neither did ancient Hebrew.) But that doesn’t mean that English translated into Hebrew should have two kinds of letters. And it doesn’t mean that single-case English prose is like single-case Hebrew prose.

      On the other hand, this difference does make it very hard to convey the uniqueness of E. E. Cummings.

      More generally, it seems to me that when the original is extraordinary in some fashion, the translation should be extraordinary in the same way. I think it’s the bit about “in the same way” that gets most people mixed up.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 9, 2011

      • While I agree with you in principle, Dr. Hoffman, I still have concerns about translations that are clear, yet seem to underrate the register of high-register texts (such as Hebrews, Luke-Acts, or perhaps Isaiah) because people in our culture today seldom use a high register.

        The question is: does this count as foreign content, or foreign grammar? At first glance, it seems to be both. Your thoughts?

        Comment by Gary Simmons | May 13, 2011

    • Re:
      “On the other hand, this difference [Hebrew’s lack of an upper-lower-case distinction] does make it very hard to convey the uniqueness of E. E. Cummings” — if I wanted to translate E. E. Cummings into Hebrew, I would do it in a font resembling modern Hebrew cursive.

      Comment by kategladstone | October 30, 2016

  2. Hey Joel – all this theory gives me a pain. I spent the morning translating Jonah 1 – and there are weak spots in it because I am unduly literal but not for the reason you give. Reasons trip from our fingers too quickly. My doggerel linked from the post gives a hint of where I think this book will take me.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 9, 2011

  3. Well said, Joel, and, as usual written clearly and concisely.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | May 9, 2011

    • Thank you, Wayne.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 9, 2011

  4. Yes, if you read or hear something over and over again, it tends to become one’s standard of ‘normal’, irrespective of whether it is regarded as correct English or not by another. I like to think of the KJV as a ‘dialect’, not necessarily incorrect but possessing different historical, social and ‘religious’ characteristics. Barring all the stupid mistakes in the KJV, if the structure of language is continually subject to change over time, is it not purely arbitrary as to what one considers ‘acceptable’ language?

    Rather, primary attention should be focused on conveying the correct meaning and ‘impact’, as a matter of priority. What a translation essentially means to the reader is, of course, what it also meant to the translators (because that is how they understood it and hence translated it). To put it another way, in so far as the translators knew what a particular construction meant, unless they were ambiguous, this is the only thing it could ever mean to the reader.

    Conclusion: Unless the fundamental meaning is correct, we have no hope of interpreting.

    Comment by Robert Kan | May 10, 2011

  5. […] Bible translation continues to attract debate and controversy. Joel Hoffman offered a good contribution on making the Bible sound like the Bible. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Best: from translating the Bible to living digitally | May 15, 2011

  6. […] Making the Bible Sound Like the Bible […]

    Pingback by Nothing But Net | Scripture Zealot | May 20, 2011

  7. The KJV had a certain majesty for NT texts, especially the Gospels. The KJV tranlsation of certain OT books was plodding and inpenetrable, though.


    Comment by clericus17fp0glx | June 4, 2011

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.