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