God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Sometimes the right word is the wrong word to use when translating the Bible

I imagine translating from some language into English, and the original text has to do with a bunch of people sitting around a room admiring a fancy new door. The obvious translation of what happens next is, “the host showed his guests the door.”

  1. The problem, though, is that “show the door” in English means “ask to leave.” Is “showed his guests the door” still the right translation?

  2. Equally, in England, to “table a motion” at a meeting means to decide to vote on it, while in the U.S. those same words mean to decide not to vote on it. If a British essay says, “he wanted to table to the motion,” is that how an American translation should read?

  3. In Japan, the word for “yes” is sometimes to used in polite situations to mean “no.” In these situations, should the translator render the Japanese hai (“yes”) as “yes” or as “no” in English?

  4. In Arabic, ahalan comes from the word for “family,” but it means “welcome.” Does the English rendition of that Arabic word have to include the word “family”?

  5. In China, the “dragon” is a symbol of beneficent, graceful, royal power. If a Chinese story says that, “her grandfather was always the dragon in her life,” should the English translation use the word “dragon,” even though “dragon” in English conveys a whole different set of images?

These cases are all examples of how the right word can convey the wrong thing, sometimes because English has a specific meaning for what could be a general phrase (1); sometimes because both the foreign language and English have specific meanings, and they don’t match (2); sometimes because the meaning of the foreign word changes depending on context in ways that the English word doesn’t (3); sometimes because the foreign language assigns imagery to a word but English doesn’t (4); and sometimes because the foreign language assigns imagery to a word but English has different imagery (5).

What these have in common is that they all strike me as cases where the English translation must avoid the literal words of the foreign language.

Similar cases in Bible translation keep popping up:

  1. Most recently, regarding the translation of the Greek for “son” in Arabic, because Arabic might use the word “son” for different imagery than Greek did.

  2. Regarding “heart” in Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27 (levav and kardia), because the Hebrew and Greek words conveyed different things than the English does.

  3. Regarding shepherds, and, in particular Psalm 23, because in Hebrew shepherds were fierce, regal, and romantic, while the same is not true in English.

among many others.

The more general lesson, it seems to me, is that translating the words can mean mistranslating the text.


February 20, 2012 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 15 Comments

What September 11 Might Have in Common with Translating the Trinity

I imagine a novel written in a remote location, far from western culture. It’s about the last ten days of summer and the nearing autumn. So they call the book the equivalent of “What Happened on September 11” in their local language.

My question is this. Should the American version of the book be called, What Happened on September 11?

I don’t think so, because even though September 11 is ten days before the end of summer in English, too, the phrase “September 11” has local overtones — the terrorist attacks, the wars that followed, etc. — that override the simple meaning of the phrase.

This is one way that a good translation of the words can be a bad translation of the text.

What this has to do with the Trinity is that the claim has surfaced that in Arabic, “father” and “son” wrongly imply sex, so they’re not good translations for what we know in English as the Father and the Son.

Facts to support this claim about Arabic (and other languages of the Middle East) have been frustratingly difficult to come by, but even the theoretical issue, it seems to me, has been misunderstood.

Some people have claimed that getting rid of “Son” in Arabic is pandering, or wrongly changing the Bible to placate an audience, or giving up on theology, etc. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe “son” in Arabic is like “September 11” in English. It has a plain meaning, but it also has overtones that destroy the original point of the text.

Other people have claimed simply that the job of the translator is to translate the words. In spite of the hugely intuitive appeal of such an approach, it doesn’t work very well, because sometimes the words convey the wrong thing.

So even before we get a good factual answer about Arabic, I think it’s important to understand the fundamental point that it’s certainly possible for the literal equivalent of “son” and “father” to be the wrong way to translate the Trinity.

February 9, 2012 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 25 Comments

Why There Might Be No Father or Son in the Trinity in Arabic

The issue of removing “father” and “son” from Arabic Bible translations has arisen again (in The New American, for example, and Christian Today, among many others), including a petition to put the Father and the Son back into the Trinity, after decisions by Wycliffe Bible Translators, Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and Frontiers to replace the traditional “father” and “son” with other words in Arabic.

“The real question is whether the Arabic words imply sex more than their Greek counterparts do.”

The reasoning behind not using “father” and “son” in Arabic is that (according to some) those Arabic words wrongly imply sex. The SIL has an explantion that defends using words other than “father” and “son”:

There are some cases in which it can be shown that a word-for-word translation of these familial terms would communicate an incorrect meaning (i.e. that God had physical, sexual relations with Mary, mother of Jesus; not only does this communicate obvious wrong meaning, but can also give readers the impression that the translation is corrupt).

As I see it, we once again have two issues, a theoretical one and a factual one:

The Theory

The basic theoretical issue is pretty simple, though not always appreciated: Sometimes a word-for-word translation detracts from the meaning of the original text. This is true for marginal words such as colors as well as for central words like “father” and “son.”

To look at it differently, everyone agrees that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is not exactly the same as the relationship between, say, Bruce Sr. and Bruce Jr. Rather, the relationship is like that of a father and a son in only some ways. If the Arabic words for “father” and “son” don’t match up with those ways, then the translator has to find other Arabic words that do.

The Facts

The factual question is whether the Arabic words for “father” and “son” differ so much from the Greek that they are inaccurate.

But there’s an important nuance, and here is where the published discussions that I’ve seen seem lacking.

The question is not whether “father” and “son” in Arabic imply sex. Of course they do. But they also do so in Greek (and English, for that matter). The real question is whether the Arabic words imply sex more than their Greek counterparts do, or whether these Arabic words are less flexible in their imagery than the Greek. And I have yet to find anyone address, let alone answer, this key question.

So, if you’re an Arabic expert, please weigh in on this specific question:

Do the Arabic words for “father” and “son” imply sex in ways that the original Greek did not? What evidence do you have for this position?

[Update: Others who have written about this topic include: Archbishop Cranmer, Eddie Arthur, and Wayne Leman.]

[Update 2: This issue remains solidly in the news and a matter of debate. For example, “Stop Supporting Wycliffe’s Current Bible Translations For Muslims, PCA Advises Churches.” (June 26, 2012)]

February 3, 2012 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 14 Comments