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 | , , ,


  1. The scriptures are full of what someone termed “intertexuality” and for those of us who are *lateral* thinkers, that’s what we need.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | May 18, 2011 | Reply

    • I think intertextuality — specifically, texts that are connected because they use the same word or words — can usually be preserved in a meaning-based translation, too.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] Joel Hoffman makes an interesting point about the interest ancient interpreters (both Jewish and Christian) had in the exact words of Scripture, often at the expense of what those words mean in context: 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. […]

    Pingback by Words over Meaning? | Dr. Platypus | May 18, 2011 | Reply

  3. The reading I have done this morning is Compromising Redemption, a book retelling the story of Ruth. It’s brilliant and it underscores how vital it is not to compromise the laconic brevity of the text. Basically it is a set of character studies on the theme- if you marry a Moabite you will die. So what else would we expect?

    Word for word is a caution against importing meaning into the text. What we have is a lattice through which we beni elohim peer and judge with or without accusation.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 18, 2011 | Reply

  4. Before reading your book (and blog), I’d always assumed word-for-word would be better, because I’d be getting less “commentary” from a translator, and it was therefore on me to determine what the words meant. So I needed to know something about Hebrew and Greek colloquialism and metaphor. But that’s a pretty tall order.

    At this point I’m liking your approach with preserving meaning as much as possible, and I can always look at an interlinear if I want to.

    Comment by SethH | May 18, 2011 | Reply

  5. I struggle with the above as well. When studying Torah it is important to study the words and also the meanings. That is why notes are vital. The issues of idioms are good examples. In Parashat B’Har, verses Leviticus 25:25, 28 are fascinating. It is important to know what the idioms mean but it is also interesting to know what words were used to express ideas.Some of the members of our Torah Study Group bring in interlinear translations that purport to give word for word translations. Some of the time they do and other times they just give the meaning of idioms like “regular” translations do. I like Robert Alter’s work.
    Leshalom, Y

    Comment by Yitz Zlotnik | May 18, 2011 | Reply

    • Idioms are particularly tricky.

      I think it can be interesting to see what they are made up of, but I also think they are particularly easy to misinterpret. One of the most common traps I’ve seen is reading too much meaning into idioms based on their parts.

      For example, Modern (Israeli) Hebrew has an idiom “to strip off the leg” (pashat et haregel). I think it might be interesting to look at the etymology of the phrase, but it’s a mistake to assume that, when combined, they have anything to do with stripping or legs. The combination just means “went bankrupt” — no more, and no less.

      Similarly, when word-for-word translations can show the inner workings of idioms, but I think the question still remains: Of what value is that?

      Comment by Joel H. | May 19, 2011 | Reply

  6. direct translation, E. A. Gutt and others, does not reduce the SL text to propositions (E.A. Nida) and then “transform” (a spin on Chomsky 1957) these propositions into “surface structure” in the tarkget language. Direct translation views the SL text as a stimulus that launches an inferential process, and the target language text should attempt to match that inferential process in the target language/culture. The notion that the meaning is in the code and the meaning can be transformed into another code in a different language/culture is fraught with insurmountable difficulties. Direct translation my in at times look like word for word translation but it operates on a completely different set of principles.

    Comment by C. Stirling Bartholomew | May 18, 2011 | Reply

  7. The most obvious answer to your question: translation based on presumed “meaning” (rather than “words”) leaves the *interpretation* of said “meaning” to the translator alone. Thus, the original word-based sense of Scripture is filtered through the thought processes and concepts of the translator. The translator is not only translating words, he is determining sense (doctrinal, rather than linguistic, interpretation). This is not what I want in my Bible reading.

    Comment by Daniel Jackson | May 18, 2011 | Reply

    • It seems like the unstated second half of what you suggest is that a word-for-word translation, stripped of the interpretation of the translator, lets readers find the sense of the text themselves. And I don’t think I agree.

      I think that anyone with enough knowledge of Greek or Hebrew to determine the sense directly from the words knows enough of the ancient language so as not to need a translation in the first place. Furthermore, I think that word-for-word translations mislead non-experts in this regard. People who rely on the word-for-word translations think they are getting closer to the meaning, when in fact they are being deceived.

      So I think that if the only goal is to find the sense of the text, a word-for-word translation in the wrong approach. (I think that some of the more popular alternatives — the NLT, for example, or The Message — are also the wrong way to go.)

      Comment by Joel H. | May 19, 2011 | Reply

  8. My only response to #7 is a mantra one of my exegesis professors taught me long ago, and which has served me well in these discussions:

    ALL translation is interpretation.

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright | May 18, 2011 | Reply

    • This is true, but I think it’s also misleading.

      I think of it as similar to camera lenses. As a matter of practice, all lenses are imperfect, and they all have some distortion. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good lenses and bad lenses. And some lenses, though imperfect, are still so good that noting the technical deficiencies isn’t usually all that helpful.

      Likewise, even if no translation is devoid of interpretation, that doesn’t mean that some translations aren’t so close to being accurate that their imperfections are irrelevant.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 19, 2011 | Reply

  9. I understand that. However, dynamic/functional equivalence is a very active form of interpretation that I simply don’t need in my primary reading copy. If you are translating words, you are interpreting the meaning of words. But if you are changing the meaning of whole phrases for “understanding,” you are dumbing down the reader and obscuring the possibility of alternative interpretations of the WORDS themselves.

    Comment by Daniel Jackson | May 18, 2011 | Reply

  10. Yes idioms are tricky but that is what makes trying to find out exactly what Torah meant to say so fascinating. Knowing the what the words used mean gives the challenge as above but also gives us glimpses into the life and values of the time. For example the word yad, hand, is frequently used. Sometimes for its literal meaning and sometimes as part of an idiom. Also the panah, face, is often use as above plus many words are built upon it. Similarly the use of aynaim, eyes. From this one can gather that various body parts were important during biblical/redacting times,in helping people express themselves. It would be of interest if other languages/societies do similar things or do they find other ways of expressing their thoughts? I think it is “cool” to be able to get a glimpse into the thought processes of our forefathers.
    Leshalom, Y
    PS I just noticed how I used “cool” above. This tells me something about my life here in the USA. Also the terms “hot” and “lukewarm” as above.

    Comment by Yitz Zlotnik | May 19, 2011 | Reply

  11. One might want to ask: how long does it take to establish communications across the centuries to the poet and the culture that wrote the poem? It takes time – and word-for-word is part of the journey. One is going to miss things. It is not only the word-for-worder or phrase-for-phraser that misses things. The paraphraser misses things too.

    I came across several translations of psalm 1 recently while discussing the impact of the pair of structuring words ci-im – some translations into English ()e.g. the Anglican BAS) leave the first one out. KJV just has it as ‘But’. Then a translation I saw had ‘But’ for the first and a circumlocution including the phrase ‘in contrast’ for the second. The Hebrew is clearly a special poetic construction. Pairs of ci-im are relatively rare – I found about 3 in the TNK. This one is unique in the Psalter. So I repeat – it’s not a matter of what it means – it’s a matter of what it does. These are a pair of pillars at the commencement of a set of poems. What will you do with them?

    ‘But’ is inadequate. That could have been accomplished by a vav. Obviously there is something more here. Why do translators ignore them? (Sometimes for bad reasons like pluralizing for political correctness.) At least a word-for-worder will not completely miss the construction. Even if the translation is only a stage on the journey.

    FWIW, I originally had ‘in this case’ for both, now I have switched to ‘in contrast’ for both (independently of the translation I saw noted above – stimulated by Boaz Shoshan whom I met a few days ago at UVIC.) My translation is here. I do letter for letter and turn by turn and hope for help.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 19, 2011 | Reply

    • BOB!! Awesome, AWESOME, job on the psalm!

      I haven’t seen a more enlightening analysis on a passage in millennia.


      Comment by WoundedEgo | May 19, 2011 | Reply

      • Thank you for your kudos – You encourage me. I am cheered – as the first verse of the psalm says I should be.

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 19, 2011

  12. It was in the 8th grade that I first became acquainted with teachers who insisted that we look for deeper meanings in the books we were assigned. There followed essay upon essay dealing with allegory, symbolism, etc.

    I hated it.

    A few years ago I began translating Biblical Hebrew (word-for-word — I was new to it, after all) and quickly learned that divining the reason of the text, the deeper meanings, is more an art than a science and, therefore, so much more satisfying.

    I find myself thinking back to those school days when we were required to think about the significance of “Moby Dick” or “The Grapes of Wrath“, or some such. I really wish now that I had paid more attention to the ‘art’ of divining meaning in a text — English or otherwise.

    Great question, informative responses, thanks.



    Comment by Michael | May 21, 2011 | Reply

  13. […] perennial topic on the bible blogs is a question of translation. Joel Hoffman posed a very interesting (and unusual) question about word for word […]

    Pingback by Sunday Best: from the deuterocanon to Stephen Hawking | May 22, 2011 | Reply

  14. I don’t think it’s so much the question of the value of a word-for-word translation, as much as what one believes those words represent. For those of us who believe that it was God himself who inspired the actual words (and not just the thoughts), then a word-for-word translation is probably most highly valued.

    Therefore, as has been mentioned, we may appreciate the peril of potentially underestimating the ‘inspirational’ value of the words.

    What about the notion of ‘grammatically’ word-for-word as the goal for capturing the intention of the original texts? After all, what else is one supposed to do with all those idioms, metaphors and phrases that had no other pertinent non-biblical usage? Or do you see that as a contradiction of terms?

    Comment by Robert Kan | May 23, 2011 | Reply

    • When you write, “[we] believe that it was God himself who inspired the actual words (and not just the thoughts)…” [my emphasis], I think you put your finger on the seductive temptation of a word-for-word translation. You seem to suggest that what you find in a word-for-word translation is “the words” and “the thoughts.” But I think what you get is the words instead of the thoughts.

      (I also recognize that pitting words against “thoughts” is part of the modern Bible debate, and that you’re playing off of the translations that claim to be “thought for thought.” I think that “thoughts” are only part of what the text contains. In the case of poetry and good rhetoric, thoughts may not even be the most important part.)

      “What about the notion of ‘grammatically’ word-for-word as the goal”

      I think a translation should be grammatical when the original is, but I don’t think that grammaticality is enough to demonstrate that a translation is successful. In other words, there are lots of grammatical translations of a text that are nonetheless wrong. Frequently, a word-for-word translation, too, is grammatical but wrong.

      I do think, though, that (unfortunately) the most mainstream Bible translations aim for just this. They want a word for word translation that strays only enough to make it grammatical.

      But I think that the strategy is flawed.

      To see what can go wrong, we can compare “he works hard” and “he hardly works.” They both have almost the same words. They’re both grammatical. And to a non-English speaker, they appear to mean the same thing. But they don’t. (The first refers to exerting effort at work, while the second is the opposite, barely working.) I think that word for word translations allow one of these phrases to substitute for another.

      An even clearer example comes from Modern Hebrew. The phrase, tach’neh eifo she’lo timtza chanaya is literally “park where that-not you-will-find parking.” The question is what to do with the word lo (“not”). The correct English translation is “park wherever you find a spot.” The “grammatical word-for-word translation” strategy would give us the wrong “park wherever you don’t find a spot.”

      And this brings me back to the original question: What value is there in “park wherever you don’t find a spot” as a translation?

      Comment by Joel H. | May 23, 2011 | Reply

      • So what’s going on in the mind of the modern Hebrew? Park where you find no one else parking? It’s like the French n’importe ou. anywhere. (it doesn’t matter where’)

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 23, 2011

      • The lo (“no”) adds roughly the same thing as the “any” in “anywhere.”

        We have two options in English: “Park where you find a spot” and “park anywhere you find a spot.” The Hebrew version with lo is more clearly the second one, though the Hebrew version without lo is better than the first Englisgh sentence.

        (The Hebrew version with lo is also limited to spoken Hebrew. You wouldn’t find it in formal writing.)

        Comment by Joel H. | May 23, 2011

      • At the very least, the value lies in exposing the assumptions we make when we communicate.

        English thinking: “park wherever you find a spot [available]”

        Hebrew thinking: “park wherever you don’t find a spot [occupied]”

        Perhaps what we really need is an ‘amplified’ version (not The Amplified Version) to enlighten as well as clarify the original text. I would prefer this approach for the purpose of linguistic appreciation.

        Comment by Robert Kan | May 23, 2011

      • Now I’m a bit confused. Is the “lo” here functioning as “not” or as something else, given your previous comment?

        Comment by Robert Kan | May 24, 2011

  15. I think Joel has made me understand meaning – though I hate to put it first in the list, I have to have it as a target of translation. The translator has to know what the words could mean and has to chose the emphasis, meaning, and clout of the verse. So how do you know what the verse means?

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 23, 2011 | Reply

    • That, of course, is the question.

      There are basically two kinds of information that come into play:

      1. Language-internal data.

      2. General linguistics.

      For example, if you want to know what an ancient Greek sentence means, it helps to know ancient Greek. This part almost goes without saying.

      But it also helps to know about languages in general, because ancient Greek is one.

      It is, in particular, this second kind of information that was unavailable to translators before last century.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 23, 2011 | Reply

      • Thanks Joel, but I think the problem goes deeper than linguistics. Though I am no expert here, I do know some experts, and I don’t think it’s possible to get around the catch-22 of the impact of ‘what we believe’ when we decide how a translation should read. We impose our meaning on the text, whether it be of mercy, or of punishment, of deserving or of grace, of who God should be or how God should behave or what a human motivation is or not, or whether there is a divine right of kings or an elect nation or an elect people or those who are in and those who are out or a moral principle or whatever. The fact that meaning is imposed causes all sorts of problems for those who are unaware of it and in turn impose their own mean onto the translated text.

        So why not give up? Mostly we are not even aware of our own biases. After all it’s only an old bunch of books. So I ask – what if our imposition is the problem we have to deal with? Does the text itself teach us not to impose? If it did, is this the wisdom of the compilers, writers, and canon formers? Like everyone who translates, I don’t know all the answers nor am I aware of all my own biases – I have listed some of them on my blogs at various times – too many to list here. My main bias is to find and make transparent the work of the Spirit of God in the created order on behalf of humanity and all creation. I might as well have been an ecologist and an atheist – but I’m not. And after all, I don’t think I translate word-for-word exactly. It is really impossible. I note that I just keep on translating because is an intriguing puzzle and a lot of fun.

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 23, 2011

  16. Robert:

    At the very least, the value lies in exposing the assumptions we make when we communicate.

    English thinking: “park wherever you find a spot [available]”

    Hebrew thinking: “park wherever you don’t find a spot [occupied]”

    This is a reasonable conclusion, but as a Hebrew speaker, I can tell you that it’s not accurate. In spite of superficial appearances, there is nothing more negative about the Hebrew than the English.

    Perhaps a better example is tach’ne aifo she’lo tir’tzeh, “park where you don’t want,” which actually means “park wherever you want.”

    Comment by Joel H. | May 24, 2011 | Reply

    • I think you are replying to Robert here – not ‘Bob’. I got the negative polarity of English any by recognizing my own mother tongue. This example makes English quite close to Hebrew thinking. Recognizing and using one’s own mother-tongue is also a critical aspect of translation. I think translators also form the mother-tongue for the future if they prove influential.

      Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 24, 2011 | Reply

      • Yes, Bob, I meant “Robert,” not “Bob.” (But here I mean “Bob.”)

        Your suggestion that English is close to “Hebrew thinking” raises a whole new issue: To what extent is thinking guided by language? And in our current context, to what extent does lexical choice indicate thinking?

        Comment by Joel H. | May 25, 2011

    • To what extent is thinking guided by language? – a very tough question. It’s part of what I was getting at with the image of lattice (alluding to the Song of course) that I used above. My feeling is that translation should avoid ‘explanation’ as if what we are ‘thinking’ when we translate is the required ‘thought’ in the one who reads. At our Bible study on Ruth, in a very brief moment between hearing the buzz of my mobile and answering the call that I knew was from the hospital, someone asked me – “what were these texts written for?” I had the temerity to respond “to get us in touch with God”. (Neither a long distance nor an emergency call).

      Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 25, 2011 | Reply

      • Bob, this is completely tangential, but I don’t get many opps to share this arcane info…

        According to “The Wisdom of Solomon”, a good girl doesn’t have lattice on her house, by which a stranger might interact with her. Likewise Proverbs:

        Pro 7:6 For she looks from a window out of her house into the streets, at one whom she may see of the senseless ones, a young man void of understanding,

        She should be in a completely sealed off room to keep her and passersby honest. In the song, Solomon is a Peeping Tom:

        Son 2:9 My kinsman is like a roe or a young hart on the mountains of Baethel: behold, he is behind our wall, looking through the windows, peeping through the lattices.

        Deut provides a law to prevent falling off a terrace that is wrapped in only lattice:

        Deu 22:8 If thou shouldest build a new house, then shalt thou make a parapet to thy house; so thou shalt not bring blood-guiltiness upon thy house, if one should in any wise fall from it.

        Like this:

        2Ki 1:2 And Ochozias fell through the lattice that was in his upper chamber in Samaria and was sick; and he sent messengers, and said to them, Go and enquire of Baal fly, the god of Accaron, whether I shall recover of this my sickness. And they went to enquire of him.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | May 25, 2011

  17. Now I’m a bit confused. Is the “lo” here functioning as “not” or as something else, given your previous comment?

    Something else.

    Almost always, the Hebrew lo is the same as the English “no(t).” But there are some blatant differences, and this is one.

    This is also a case of how linguistics can help make sense of an otherwise confusing situation.

    On the face of it, it seems absurd to think that lo tir’tzeh (“not you-want”) could mean “you want.”

    But two facts about language help.

    1. Words don’t always appear next to what they modify. The clearest example I can think of is “a good cup of coffee,” which is really about good coffee, not a good cup.

    2. There’s a close relationship between “any” and “no(t).” They are both “negative polarity” items. This is why the opposite of “I saw someone” isn’t “I didn’t see someone” but rather “I didn’t see anyone.” Similarly, the opposite of “someone saw me” is “no one saw me.” One negative uses “no,” the other, “any.”

    Combined, these two results from linguistics help us understand why it’s not so strange that the negative polarity word lo in Hebrew would end up as “any” in English, and in a different place.

    Comment by Joel H. | May 24, 2011 | Reply

    • Thank you Joel. This is *really* fascinating.

      Comment by Robert Kan | May 24, 2011 | Reply

  18. Well, this is a really idiosyncratic answer to your initial question (is there any value to word-for-word) – but I found them useful as a student when I was trying to learn Hebrew/translation, myself.

    Like I said, idiosyncratic, but useful nonetheless!

    Comment by Jason Rosenberg | May 24, 2011 | Reply

    • Jason,

      I actually think this is the best reasons to use a word-for-word translation.

      Modern computer programs like Bibleworks go one step further. You can see a word’s translation(s) by moving the mouse over it.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 25, 2011 | Reply

  19. Joel, after all your careful analysis, I would still consider this philosophy as being word-for-word since it strives to capture the identity and functionality of the original words. You have clearly demonstrated that, as a matter of fact, the same word can do different things in a given language depending on what is being expressed. So we understand now that, in general, there is no point in translating a particular word just for the sake of the word itself because exceptions to the rule can and do exist.

    I find this linguistic observation absolutely intriguing: such a basic word as ‘not’ in Hebrew can be used in entirely different modes of thought, to mean ‘not’ or ‘any’. My naive impression is that there are not enough words in Hebrew to express thought, and so certain words can be shifted around to mean different things.

    Can we now say that the word-for-word approach should imply both grammatical and functional accuracy? If translators can achieve this as a first-level task, I don’t see how the strategy can be flawed.

    Comment by Robert Kan | May 25, 2011 | Reply

    • I don’t think it’s what most people would call word-for-word. As I’ve seen the term used, “word-for-word” attempts to capture each foreign word with its equivalent in English.

      By contrast, what I advocate for translation (though I didn’t invent the approach) is certainly capturing what each of the foreign words does. But I recognize that: sometimes the best way to do so is with English grammar; the foreign words work in concert, so looking at the words in isolation is likely to be misleading; sometimes the foreign grammar demands not grammar but vocabulary in English.

      (I devote most of Chapter 3 of And God Said to a detailed analysis of how this works in practice regarding Bible translation.)

      I find this linguistic observation absolutely intriguing: such a basic word as ‘not’ in Hebrew can be used in entirely different modes of thought, to mean ‘not’ or ‘any’. My naive impression is that there are not enough words in Hebrew to express thought, and so certain words can be shifted around to mean different things.

      One could look at it the other way around, too: We have two words in English, “no(t)” and “any,” that express the same thought: negative polarity.

      And sometimes the situation with English/Hebrew is reversed. Just for instance, we have a word in English, “know,” that has two representations in Hebrew: one is for knowing people, the other for knowing facts. (Many languages work this way.)

      More generally, while my example is specifically about Hebrew, the overall point is not. As much as languages are fundamentally the same, their details differ.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 25, 2011 | Reply

      • To know people and to know facts still come across as the same mode of thought.

        But in translating Hebrew to English:
        1. Park ‘not’ where you want, as against
        2. Park ‘any’ where you want

        These statements come across to me as different modes of thought, conveying the opposite sense to what you’d expect.

        How strange!

        Comment by Robert Kan | May 25, 2011

      • I think that knowing people and knowing facts seem like the same mode of thought to you because you speak English, and we use the same word for both.

        As another example, consider “romance” and “allegiance.” Most people think that even if they sometimes overlap, they are very different.

        Yet those same people tend to think that “love” expresses one general concept, so “love your spouse” and “love your country” are pretty close. This is in spite of the fact that loving a spouse has to do with romance, while loving a country, with allegiance.

        More generally, people’s intuitions about their own language tend to be unreliable.

        Comment by Joel H. | May 26, 2011

      • I guess what seems so strange to me is that the negative polarity word ‘lo’ is used to express an idea (‘park wherever you want’) that conveys no negative polarity.

        Out of curiosity, what would the same Hebrew sentence mean in English if the ‘lo’ was missing?

        “tach’ne aifo she tir’tzeh”

        Comment by Robert Kan | May 26, 2011

  20. How would you best translate the following English sentence into modern Greek? How in modern Hebrew?

    “All of my training and experience has taught me that a word-for-word translation is a siren.”

    Would it be so bad to render “siren” as σειρήνα? Or is your English word a translation, a transliteration, from the Greek? Is Israeli songwriter Ivri Lider wrong to make “siren” the transliterated סירנה? Wouldn’t Shaul Tchernichovsky himself like that, and didn’t he also make similar word-for-word translations?

    Could you possibly reduce “word-for-word translation” to something less wordy than λέξη προς λέξη μετάφραση? I have actually read this phrase in modern Hebrew:

    תרגום מילה במילה


    Is this phrase such a bad word-for-word translation of your English “word-for-word translation”? Aren’t the words





    Comment by J. K. Gayle | May 25, 2011 | Reply

    • I didn’t mean than any particular translation with an apparent word-for-word structure is necessarily wrong, so mila b’mila is fine for “word for word.”

      My point was that as a strategy, word-for-word translation has a deceiving superficial appeal.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 26, 2011 | Reply

      • My point was that as a strategy, word-for-word translation has a deceiving superficial appeal.

        Well, it’s a good point. And I thought your opening sentence was just brilliant, especially the clause, “a word-for-word translation is a siren.” Maybe you didn’t mean this, but siren is already a translation, a transliteration, of a word. It’s the transliteration of a word, for a word. The import of that fact is that siren, as you use it, is not σειρην as the Greeks, most notably in the Odyssey and in the Iliad, used it early. That early Greek use for the creatures called “sirens” did find its way into English, as transliterations, as early as the 1300s. But your more metaphorical use of the same word, it would seem, didn’t appear in English until the days of Shakespeare. For that metaphorical use, the OED uses a simile in the definition to make the connections back to Homer: “One who, or that which, sings sweetly, charms, allures, or deceives, like the Sirens.” (And Ivri Lider makes it Hebrew סירנה to use it in your metaphorical sense too; though Tchernichovsky uses the same letters to render Homer in non-metaphorical albeit in epic poetical ways).

        So my point now is not that the etymology and appropriation of one particular word are traceable (they are). But I’m fascinated that you would use the word when making your point. And later, to me, you clarify your intent for “siren”: “a deceiving superficial appeal.”

        What seems important with respect to translation is this: the word itself functions, almost from the start, as a translation. In other words, Homer himself actually used “siren” metaphorically, translationally. The eight uses of the Proper Noun Σειρην in the Odyssey, for example, derive directly from the non-metaphorical uses of the common noun σειρην for “rope” or “cord” or “binding” (as in 22.175 and 22.192). Word for word. As far as I know, no translator of Homer into English has ever named the Sirens, Ropes. But a translator could do so, with good reason. Your English word “siren” cannot mean “rope” very easily. But really Homer’s Σειρην also means σειρην; “Cord” also means “cord”; and in the context of Homer’s story, these also mean something with a binding, “deceiving superficial appeal.” This is how you use the word.

        Comment by J. K. Gayle | May 26, 2011

  21. What is the best translational strategy for Judges 12:5-6? Most English language translators have chosen the not the word for word strategy. Rather, going for the larger meaning (not for the meaning of the words), the translator strategy reduces to a sound for sound strategy:

    “Shibboleth” / “Sibboleth”

    What we lose by the sounds-only translation that goes for some narrative meaning is what the Hebrew word שִׁבֹּלֶת means to some of the early readers of the story. We lose the humor in the story because we don’t get the words, just ostensibly the intent of the joke. That the Ephramites were lousy speakers of Hebrew and that this cost them their lives.

    Quite literally, Hebrew word שִׁבֹּלֶת that must be understood for the story to work best is an ambiguous word that can mean either “corn stalk or grain waves” or “water flood or stream.”

    And a word-for-word translational strategy really gains much here. We see this strategy with the LXX. The Jews in Alexandria Egypt (i.e., the Alexandrian Greek empire) translating their Hebrew word into their Greek (in the Septuagint, “Judges A” AND “Judges B”) make the Hebrew mean either σύνθημα or στάχυς [sun-thema OR stachys].

    The first Greek word is just a signal to the reader who seems to know the story well. It means something like a “theme together” or an “inside joke” (or a “password” — which is how translator Philip E. Satterthwaite moves the Greek into English in the New English Translation of the Septuagint).

    The second Greek word, in this context, is sometimes translated into English as “Stachys.” And that’s exactly how English translator Sir Lancelot Brenton translates it while Satterthwaite clarifies the word to mean “Ear-of-Corn”. (The Greek word στάχυς, of course, is ambiguous. Greek readers know it means “ear of corn” but it also is used for the “lower part of the abdomen.”)

    But my point is that the word-for-word strategy in translation finds more meaning, opens up more funny, playful meanings that are in the Hebrew. An English translator of the Hebrew who just tries to show the effect of the sounds on the outsider Ephramites does something terrible. That translator, in effect, just makes an outsider out of his/ her English readers. The Jews using Greek words to translate their Hebrew words, on the other hand, allow their Greek readers to be in on the inside joke.

    Doesn’t the word-for-word strategy here find more in translation than the concept-for-concept strategy does?

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | May 26, 2011 | Reply

    • I don’t understand why you consider this word-for-word strategy. Word-for-word would be translating shibboleth “grain stalk”, no matter what the context. Translating the Hebrew word into σύνθημα is not word-for-word translation. (I think you’re misusing ambiguous here; many words have multiple literal meanings, but in practice native speakers have problems with few of them; “we’re harvesting squash” is not ambiguous to English speakers.)

      Comment by David | October 2, 2011 | Reply

  22. Daniel Jackson said:

    If you are translating words, you are interpreting the meaning of words. But if you are changing the meaning of whole phrases for “understanding,” you are dumbing down the reader and obscuring the possibility of alternative interpretations of the WORDS themselves.

    1. If you are interpreting the meaning of words without considering how they are used in combination with each other, you will get the meaning wrong.

    2. As the range of sense between words in two languages will never correspond completely, all “word-for-word” translations also obscure alternative interpretations of the source words. A translation must make a choice of what word to use. The only way to get around that would be not to use a translation, but instead to use software which can bring up a full list of every sense of every word in the text. But why stop there, you might as well bring up every article from the TDOT/TDNT as well!

    Comment by Dannii | May 26, 2011 | Reply

  23. […] (I could have written “the value of a paraphrase as a translation.”) Still, as with word for word translations, I think it’s worth while to understand both sides of this […]

    Pingback by The Value of a Paraphrase instead of a Translation « God Didn't Say That | June 1, 2011 | Reply

  24. The fact that “evidence we have from antiquity is that the words were more important than what they meant”, is interesting and important, but far from definitive. People have always tended to venerate sacred text or consider it magic. The question is whether God intended that people find the words more important than what they mean. If God is a God who reveals himself, and if he spoke in the common language and arranged for everyone to hear in their own language at Pentecost, then perhaps he meant for his words to be understood more than venerated. Also, the quoting in the NT of OT texts “out of context” may simply reflect a different cultural understanding of causality, not a respect for the words themselves.

    Comment by Ed Lauber | August 2, 2011 | Reply

  25. […] translations that linguistic approaches are missing?” (I try to answer that question here: “the value of a word for word […]

    Pingback by Accuracy versus Readability: another false choice in Bible translation « God Didn't Say That | September 30, 2011 | Reply

  26. I was studying French and had expanded my vocabulary pretty well with readers so I bought a French popular magazine to practice. I could make no sense of it, even with a dictionary. I knew what all the words meant, and pretty much grasped the grammar, but couldn’t piece together meaningful thoughts. So I bought one of those huge thirty dollar dictionaries that lists the idioms below the meanings. Well, all of a sudden it all made sense! They were not speaking English in French words, but French in French phrases! I could understand them!

    Now you don’t have to buy the big dictionary. Go to wordreference.com instead. They list the idioms below the meanings.

    Also, when Paul uses the word ERGON (“works”) he means “the religious activities of the law” but when James uses the word, he means “action”. If one presumes that they use the words in the same way, one is hopelessly confused.

    Having said that, I find the whole discussion borders a bit on a false dillemma, with extreme positions actually being the most disasterous. You know, like those who value Windows and see no value in Apple or Linux, those who value Apple and see no value in Windows, etc. That position is infantile. It is sufficient to point out that, as Joel has said, the words, the grammar and the syntax are not the only units of communcation in language and are insufficient for conveying meaning and facilitating understanding.

    Comment by bibleshockers | October 2, 2011 | Reply

  27. […] from? The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting Making Jesus the “Human One” The Value of a Word for Word Translation Gender in the Updated NIV Who are you calling a virgin? So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s […]

    Pingback by The Year in Review (2011) « God Didn't Say That | January 1, 2012 | Reply

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