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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. My thought is that one can do either, as long as the fix is noted in a footnote or something. This is the approach taken in my favorite translation, “The Anchor Bible.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | June 22, 2011

  2. I like having my Jerusalem Bible around for quirky passages. It often uses the LXX for clarification as well.

    Leviticus 20:10 (JB) keeps the repetition:
    “The man who commits adultery with a married woman:
    The man who commits adultery with the neighbour’s wife must die, he and his accomplice.”

    Deut. 31:1 (JB) ignores the LXX version and does something similar to the ESV:
    “Moses proceeded to address these words to the whole of Israel…”

    Psalm 93:4 (JB) strives to maintain the poetry of the text. A footnote notes the literal Hebrew meaning (“more majestic than”) and that a correction has been made.
    “greater than the voice of ocean,
    transcending the waves of the sea,
    Yahweh reigns transcendent in the heights.”

    (I have to say , I really respect these translators. Psalms never sounded so good in English.)


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

    In the translation profession, the goal is always to produce a clear and understandable text for the reader, so errors should be fixed. However, because of the special demands placed on biblical translation, I would always include a footnote.

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

    Yes, as noted in my answer to (1).

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

    Not much. Somebody who is fixated on every letter and word of the original should just be reading it in the original.

    Comment by Paul D. | June 22, 2011

  3. Nice intro to TC. There are so many examples, the ‘errors’ serve to show us how precious this text has been to so many people. I love the point that Fishbane makes about the MN in the text of psalm 61:8 חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת מַן יִנְצְרֻהוּ
    and my little joke on it from January here

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | June 22, 2011

  4. […] blog “God Didn’t Say That” has a useful discussion of three types of errors that occur in Biblical […]

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  5. What about the role of critical texts? In the NT these problems would usually be “fixed” (with abundant footnotes) in the Greek text itself. Why not for the Hebrew?

    Comment by Dannii | June 24, 2011

    • Such a simple question. Such a complicated answer.

      I think there are at least two factors that come into play.

      1. It’s much harder to get a sense of the original Hebrew than it is for the Greek. The oldest actual copy of the Hebrew Bible only goes back about 1,000 years, while the original predates that by at least 1,000 years. So there’s a 1,000-plus-year gap that’s very hard to bridge. (I address a lot of this in my In the Beginning.) And even the 1,000-year old copy has significant competitors that disagree about the text.

      2. Probably more importantly, there’s a tradition in Judaism — as I frequently phrase it — that “the deader you are the smarter you are.” In other words, scholarship doesn’t trump tradition in Judaism. So returning to Deuteronomy 31:1, even though it’s all but certain that the text “Moses went” is a scribal error, Jews do not change the text (back) to the original “Moses finished.” It’s in the Torah (Pentateuch), after all, and the Jewish position is that the Torah as it is now will never change.

      Even 1,000 years, when the “official” text was being recorded, scribes noticed what looked like errors. But even back then they didn’t change the text. Rather, they noted their corrections in the margins, leaving the wrong text as it was.

      More generally — and painting the picture with a broad brush — the Christian approach is usually to find the text that comes closest to what it was 2,000 years ago, while the Jewish approach is to use the text that tradition has handed down.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 24, 2011

      • >>>“the deader you are the smarter you are”

        !! That’s a funny way of putting it!!

        Comment by WoundedEgo | June 24, 2011

      • I can understand those two positions, but it doesn’t explain why Christian scholars and translators don’t use a critical text. As I understand it, the BHS is a sort of critical text, but it’s really a critical edition of the MT. The text is pure MT, while the notes discuss other variations. I’m wondering why there isn’t a critical edition where the text itself is critical, being sourced from the MT, the DSS and back translations from the LXX. Why isn’t there an edition where the MT is sometimes in the footnotes rather than the text? Or is there, but it’s just not popular?

        Comment by Dannii | June 24, 2011

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

    Yes, but only if (a) the translator is certain the text is in error and (b) the correction requires no guessing.

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

    See #1. If the requirements above are met, an explanatory footnote should be included.

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

    It would be of enormous value to readers who understood Biblical Hebrew (or Greek). It would be confusing, disconcerting, or both for most other folks, I would guess.



    Comment by mtp1032 | June 28, 2011

  7. In the first example, the Hebrew is not an exact repeat; literally, it reads “a man who commits adultery with the wife of a man; a man who commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor…”

    While I agree it could be a scribal error, when I read this in the Hebrew it just seemed like poetic repetition to me.

    Comment by jonkatz | June 30, 2011

  8. […] and a mid-month round up of his own. He also offered observations by Joel Hoffman, who insists that G0d Didn’t Say That, on translating mistakes in the text. On matters relating to the Septuagint Brian D of LXXI […]

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  9. Whenever I work out a difficult verse, I like to check either the Esperanto version or the Cherokee versin. Since there is no Cherokee OT, I’ll stick with the Esperanto version. 🙂 Zamenhof was a native Hebrew speaker, and I trust his translation. For Ps 93:4, the xlation from the Esperanto says:
    “More than the sound of a torrent of water, than the mighty waves of the sea, mighty is the Everlasting on high”
    How’d he do?

    Comment by Ant Writes | July 4, 2011

  10. Hmm..for the Leviticus text, The Esperanto has: Kaj se iu adultis kun edzinigita virino, se iu adultis kun la edzino de sia proksimulo, estu mortigitaj la adultinto kaj la adultintino
    And if somebody commits adultery with a married woman, if somebody commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, kill the adulterer and the adulteress.
    He wrote it as if he was enhancing what was previously said. It’s been years since my Hebrew classes, but doesn’t repetition imply bold face, like “I really mean this”?

    Comment by Ant Writes | July 4, 2011

  11. […] forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, […]

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