God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Where did Jesus come from? (Or: Is your father the father of you?)

One of the most common expressions in Bible translations is a variation on the theme “daughter of so-and-so,” “father of so-and-so,” etc.

For example, in Genesis 11:29, we learn that Milcah was the daughter of “Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah” (NRSV, along with most others). Even the new CEB, which prides itself on using ordinary English, gives us “Haran, father of both Milcah and Iscah.” (The NLT “does the genealogical math” for us: “Milcah had a sister named Iscah.”)

But it seems to me that the way we translate Genesis 11:29 into English is, “Haran, Milcah and Iscah’s father.” Somehow, standard English grammar disappears from most translations.

This is how the start of the New Testament (Matthew 1:2) almost always becomes, in English, “Abraham was the father of Isaac.” (Other variations try to use an English verb for the Greek one: “Abraham fathered Isaac” [NJB] or the archaic “Abraham begat Isaac.”)

But again, the way we say that in English is “Abraham was Isaac’s father.” The grammar gets tricky a few words later — “Jacob was Judah and his brothers’ father” is a tad awkward — but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to abandon common English.

I understand that there’s a formal dialect of English that prefers “father of Isaac,” but I don’t that “Isaac’s father” is overly colloquial.

So I think the list should read:

Abraham was Isaac’s father,
Isaac, Jacob’s father,
Jacob, Judah and his brothers’ father,
Judah, Perez and Zerah’s father, with Tamar,
Perez, Hezron’s father,
Hezron, Ram’s father,
Ram, Amminadab’s father,
Amminadab, Nahshon’s father,
Nahshon, Salmon’s father,
Salmon, Boaz’s father, with Rahab,
Boaz, Obed’s father, with Ruth,
Obed, Jesse’s father,
and Jesse, King David’s father.

What do you think? Is there some merit to the standard phrasing that I’m missing?

January 26, 2012 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 12 Comments

What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate? (Trying again.)

My last attempt to see how people understand the accuracy of their Bible translations didn’t work. I got a lot of responses, but not one answer to the basic question.

So I’m trying again, with a poll:

Please feel free to comment after you’ve answered the poll.

January 20, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , | 9 Comments

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 3, “Heart and Soul”

In two previous postings (here and here) I show how “Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul” — from Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 — actually refers to two specific aspects of being human: the intangible (levav in Hebrew or kardia in Greek) and the tangible (nefesh in Hebrew or psuche in Greek). Essentially, the words translated as “heart” and “soul” are like the computer terms “software” and “hardware,” but for people.

So “heart” in English is inaccurate as a translation, because it refers only to emotion, while the original includes intellect. And “soul” in English is even worse, because it suggests intangible qualities, but the original specifically referred to tangible things like the flesh, blood, and breath.

While we don’t have convenient words in English to express these “software” and “hardware” aspects in people, we are lucky that we have a pair of words that does. The English pair, like levav/nefesh or kardia/psuche, refers to the combination of these two concepts. And that pair is “mind and body.”

Normally the word “mind” in English indicates intellect to the exclusion of emotion, and normally “body” tends to focus on flesh rather than blood or breath. But taken together they assume broader meanings.

We see these broader meanings, for example, in the “mind-body connection,” which refers to the fact that both how we feel and what we think are connected to more physical matters. For instance, it’s becoming clear that losing a loved one can increase the risk of heart attack. That’s the mind-body connection. Taking deep breaths can help mitigate agony. That’s also the mind-body connection. And so forth.

So I would translate the first two parts of Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, as “love the Lord your God with all your mind and body…”

January 18, 2012 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate?

I’ve just returned from a three-day festival of learning in Kerhonkson, NY, where I spoke about, among other things, Bible translation.

Right at the end I was asked a great question, which I repeating here: What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate?

We all know that there is no Bible translation that’s 100% accurate. So:

1. Which Bible translation do you prefer?

2. How much of it do you think is accurate?

3. Why?

I’m looking forward to reading your responses.

January 18, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , | 18 Comments

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 2, “Soul”

A while ago I explained why I don’t think “heart” is an accurate translation in “Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul,” from Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. The reason was that the original referred to both emotion and intellect, while “heart” in English is generally only the former.

I think that “soul” is an even worse translation. Here’s why.

“Soul” in English

there are two parts to being human, our internal processes and our physical stuff”

Most people don’t agree on what exactly a “soul” is in English. For some, it’s what lives on after death. For others, it has more to do with lifeforce. Nonetheless, most people do agree on certain aspects: the soul is intangible, for example, and there’s something mystical or unworldly about it. And in this regard, it’s worthwhile to point out that even those who don’t think people have souls know what “soul” means. (I’m reminded of J.-E. Renan: O Seigneur, s’il y a un Seigneur ; sauvez mon ame, si j’ai une ame – “O Lord, if there is a Lord, save my soul, if I have a soul.”) So in spite of disagreement about some things, “soul” does have a core meaning common to most English speakers.

We do have a few expressions in English that veer off in other directions, most notably the metonymic use of “soul” for “person,” as in, “17 souls were lost at sea.” (Also, it’s been widely observed that “bless her soul” in certain dialects really just means, “I’m about to say something nasty about her.”) But these are exceptions. The “soul” in English is intangible, amorphous, and perhaps eternal.

“Soul” in the Bible

Hebrew

The English “soul” is supposed to translate the Hebrew word nefesh (also commonly spelled nephesh) but the Hebrew nefesh isn’t at all what we would call a “soul.”

The first sign that things have gone wrong comes from Leviticus. In 7:18, for example, we see that the nefesh does the eating. We see the same thing in 7:27, which warns about any nefesh that eats blood. Certainly it’s the body, not the soul, in English that does the eating and drinking. But in Hebrew it’s the nefesh.

Additionally, we read in Leviticus 17:11 that “the nefesh of flesh is in the blood … it is blood that atones for the nefesh.” Though opinions differ about where the soul in English might be located, it’s pretty clearly not in the blood. Yet that’s exactly where the nefesh lies in Hebrew. Furthermore, we actually see a close connection here between nefesh and blood.

Leviticus 24:17-18 gives us more information. There, we read that anyone who wounds the nefesh of a person will be put to death, and anyone who wounds the nefesh of an animal will pay for it, “a nefesh for a nefesh.” These passages are clearly not about what we would call “souls” in English. They are about the physical body.

The parallelism in Psalm 63:1 (“my nefesh thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,” NRSV) helps us further. There nefesh is in parallel with basar, “flesh.” So in addition to having something to do with the blood, we learn specifially that nefesh is related to the flesh.

Finally, in I Kings 17:19-22, we learn that the nefesh is related to the “breath.” Elijah revives a dead boy by laying him down (17:19), stretching himself over the boy (17:21) and then the nefesh “of the child came into him again, and he revived” (NRSV). The passage is almost certainly about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. (Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, also knew how to perform mouth-to-mouth, as we read in II Kings 4:8, where Elisha puts his mouth on the mouth of a dead child to revive him.)

So the nefesh is related to the blood, to the flesh, and — we now see — to the breath.

In short, nefesh was the tangible aspects of life, that is, everything that could be touched: the blood, the flesh, and the physical breath. This is why “soul” is such a disasterous translation for nefesh. “Soul” in English is precisely that which is intangible, while nefesh is the opposite.

Greek

The situation in Greek — where we find psuche (also commonly transliterated psyche) for the Hebrew nefesh — is more complicated.

Like its Hebrew counterpart, the Greek psuche can refer to the physical aspects of life. In Matthew 6:25, for example, the psuche does the eating and drinking. But in Matthew 10:28, we see psuche used in contrast to the phsycial body.

So the Greek word is used both in the Hebrew sense of nefesh and in the English sense of “soul.” (Actually, the English word is probably used in the Greek sense, but it works out the same.) Still, we can be fairly certain that in the context of kardia (“heart,” but not really), psuche in Greek matches what nefesh means in Hebrew, both because the quote is from Hebrew, and for a more fundamental reason:

“Love with All Your Heart and Soul”

We’ve already seen that the word translated as “heart” really refers to emotions and intellect together. Now we see that the word translated as “soul” refers to the physical aspects of life.

Taken together, they form a nice pair: the first word refers to the intangible aspects of being human, and the second word to the tangible aspects. The concepts are just like software (“heart”) and hardware (“soul”) for computers, but applied to people. We don’t have words like these in English, but I think it’s fascinating that they did in antiquity, as if to say that there are two parts to being human, our internal processes and our physical stuff.

The commandment is to love God with both.

[Update: The third part in this series is here.]

January 11, 2012 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

The Year in Review (2011)

With 2012 now upon us, here are the ten posts from 2011 that were most popular at God Didn’t Say That:


  1. Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?
  2. Adultery in Matthew 5:32
  3. What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?
  4. Q&A: What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?
  5. The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting
  6. Making Jesus the “Human One”
  7. The Value of a Word for Word Translation
  8. Gender in the Updated NIV
  9. Who are you calling a virgin?
  10. So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer

As with last year, the results reflect a combination of interest in social issues, as reflected in my post about homosexuality and mistranslation, which again earned the top spot, and my post about adultery; news-making events in Bible translation, such as the release of the CEB; and people searching for other things, which is why my post about eagles and vultures received so many hits, presumably among people who really wanted to know the different between an eagle and vulture.

Also worthy of mention are my two Huffington Post articles: “Five Ways Your Bible Translation Distorts the Original Meaning of the Text” and “Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation,” which (as nearly as I can estimate) received more hits than anything on my blog, perhaps propelled by my TEDx video about Bible translation.

Between speaking and other projects, I haven’t had as much time for this blog as I’d like, and I’m way behind in addressing the questions on the About page. But the thoughtful comments and discussions here always conspire to bring me back, and I’m looking forward to another year.

Happy 2012.

January 1, 2012 Posted by | meta | , , , , | 2 Comments