God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating Mistakes in the Text

From time to time, we have what seem to be mistakes in the traditional text of the Bible, frequently the results of apparent errors on the part of a scribe. How should these be translated?

Here are three examples.

Leviticus 20:10 (dittography)

In Leviticus 20:10, we find the phrase “a man who commits adultery with the wife of” repeated, almost certainly inadvertently. So the Hebrew text reads, literally:

a man who commits adultery with the wife of
a man who commits adultery with the wife of
his neighbor:
[in that case the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.]

Three translation options seem to present themselves:

1. Translate the text as it is, repetition and all.

2. “Fix” the text by ignoring the repetition.

3. “Fix” the text by making sense of the repetition.

Most translations take the second route. The ESV, NRSV, and The Message, for example, translate the repeated phrase only once. (The ESV and NRSV note the Hebrew duplication in a footnote.)

I don’t know of any version that follows the first strategy exactly, but the KJV comes pretty close: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” If we disregard the italics, the duplicated phrases are almost identical. But even so, the KJV doesn’t reproduce the effect of having the same phrase twice.

The remaining translations try to make sense of the duplication, much as the KJV did. For instance, the NIV gives us, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — …,” as if the second phrase is an explanation of the first.

The merits of Option 2 are pretty clear: Just because a scribe made a mistake doesn’t mean we should introduce a mistake into English.

I can understand Option 1 as well: We should translate the text, not emend it.

But it’s hard for me to understand why Option 3 is a good idea. Rather, it seems like a mistake born of misunderstanding the nature of the original text.

Deuteronomy 31:1 (parablepsis)

We find a different challenge in Deuteronomy 31:1. That verse starts in Hebrew, “Moses went [vayelech] and spoke…” The problem is that Moses didn’t go anywhere. In fact, it’s pretty clear that he’s exactly where he was in the previous verse.

It seems that the original text was not “Moses went” but rather “Moses finished.” While those two verbs seem unrelated in English, in Hebrew the first (without vowels) is V-Y-L-K, while the second is V-Y-K-L. Except for the order of the final two letters, they’re the same. Furthermore, we find V-Y-K-L (“finished”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls (“DSS”), and the Septuagint translates sunteleo, “finished.”

Again, we have three basic options: translate the text as is, ignore the mistake, or make sense of the mistake.

The KJV, among others, takes the first approach. (This is hardly surprising. Until the discovery of the DSS, it wasn’t clear that this was a mistake. Many people thought the Septuagint had it wrong. And, in fact, I suppose it’s possible that the Septuagint and DSS are both wrong.)

Other translations, such as the NAB and NRSV, simply translate “finished” here, as though the Hebrew read V-Y-K-L.

And other translations yet try to reconcile the text, with such options as, “So Moses continued to speak” (ESV).

Again, I understand the first two approaches better than the third.

Psalm 93:4 (haplography)

A third example comes from the poetry in Psalm 93:4. The Hebrew is, literally, “more than the sounds of much water mighty sea-breakers mighty on high is Adonai” — which doesn’t make much sense.

The Hebrew grammar here is complicated, but three basic points will help: The Hebrew letter mem (“M”) is used at the end of a word to indicate plurals. It is used at the beginning of a word to indicate nouns. And, also at the beginning of a word, it means “more than.”

So the plural of “mighty” (adir) is adirim. The word “breaker” starts with a mem: mishbar. And the first word of Psalm 93:4, mikolot comes from mi- (“more than”) plus kolot (“sounds”).

Accordingly, the way to say “mightier than sea-breakers,” if “mightier” is plural, is adirim mi-mish’b’rei yam, or, without vowels or spaces, A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M. However, the traditional text gives us A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M.

In short, if we add a third mem (back?) into the text, we get the much more sensible, “God is mightier than the sound of the water, mightier than the sea breakers.”

Here, every translation I know adopts what we’ve been calling the second strategy, fixing the text by ignoring the mistake.

Summary and Questions

Even though these three — and other — scribal errors are in principal the same, we find that translations deal with them differently.

1. Do you think a translation should fix erroneous text? If so, when?

2. When a translation does fix the text, should it also indicate what the uncorrected text means?

3. What value might there be to printing the uncorrected Hebrew (or Greek) next to the corrected English?

June 22, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Back from London and Amsterdam

London Reflection

London Reflection

I’ve just returned from an exhilarating if exhausting round of teaching in London and Amsterdam. I posted periodic travel updates on the official And God Said blog, so that’s the place to look for details.

Of particular interest are The Eurostar Biathlon, about my adventures trying to get back to London from Amsterdam in time to teach; Limmud Netherlands, which includes a short description of what it was like teaching about Bible translation to a group of non-native English speakers in Amsterdam; and London, which has some photos of Hampton Court Palace (where the KJV was commissioned), among others. More photos are on my Flickr page.

Now that I’m back in New York, I’ll be able once again to devote attention to this site. So look for regularly scheduled programming to resume soon.

Dutch Scenery Zipping By

Dutch Scenery Zipping By

June 21, 2011 Posted by | meta | , , , , | 1 Comment

Off to London and Amsterdam

I’m off to teach for a bit in London and Amsterdam, so unfortunately I may not have time to update this blog for the next little while.

If you live in one of those cities, I hope you’ll drop by one of the classes I’m offering. I’ll also try to post about my travels from time to time on the main And God Said blog.

June 6, 2011 Posted by | meta | 1 Comment

The Value of a Paraphrase instead of a Translation

Paraphrases like The Message and the NLT are regularly among the best Bible editions sold in the U.S. What is their merit?

Just the title of this post shows you where I stand based on training an experience. A paraphrase is not the same as a translation. (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 debate.

I can think of two ways a paraphrase might be valuable.

First, a paraphrase might be a nice “Bible-like” thing to read, sort of like a movie based on a book. The movie isn’t the same as the book, and everyone agrees that reading the book will give a better sense of the book than any movie, but the movies can still be fun, or informative, or what not. Similarly, a paraphrase, though not the Bible, might have spiritual worth.

I hold this first position, but I don’t think it’s how the paraphrase publishers intend their work. Rather, I think they believe that their work is more accurate — in some sense — than (other) translations.

And this brings us to the second way a paraphrase might have value.

Most translators agree that words are more important than letters even though letters form the words, because it’s the words that convey meaning. Equally, the words themselves combine to create phrases. Failure to recognize either of these basic tenets is to misunderstand how language works.

But what if the Bible is different than other kinds of writing in that the point of all those clauses (or sentences, or verses) doesn’t depend on the smaller units?

For example, what if the only point of a particular passage is to bolster belief in God? If so, the translation may not need to preserve all of the literary nuances of the original. Even if the original is poetic, for instance, perhaps the poetry is irrelevant, just as the individual letters of a word are meaningless by themselves.

A concrete example will demonstrate. In describing Matthew 12:9-14 (“The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma“), I wrote that a good translation should “convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.” But what if the rhetorical style and the irony are as irrelevant as the letters that make up a word? What if the point of the passage (let’s say) is simply to reinforce a difference of opinion between Jesus and the Pharisees?

Similarly, what if the point of Psalm 23 is simply to explain that God uses might to bring about tranquility? If so, “shepherd” and “still waters” and “staff” and so forth don’t need to be in the translation.

I don’t subscribe to this second approach, but I do think that it’s an intriguing possibility.

What do you think?

And can you suggest other reasons to prefer a paraphrase?

June 1, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , | 16 Comments