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 | , , , ,


  1. We can probably never understand the Bible probably because of the time gap of centuries. On the same note, try to figure out what some modern songs (Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin) mean by just context and mythos involved. And we’re not separated in time but by thirty years or so.

    Comment by lostresearchers | February 20, 2012

  2. I think that translating words literally in this example is ok. The trick is (and always has been) to understand culture and how the original audience would have heard the story.

    The problem is that too many people read the bible and impose their own world into the text. To me this is a fatal flaw. For centuries people could only study the bible in large groups because not everybody had a copy and also because they couldn’t read it. It was beneficial because if someone were to misinterpret the text, there was always someone who could correct them and teach about culture, language, audience etc. I don’t believe private study of the bible should be done by anyone without a considerable amount of training in the text and I partially blame the gross misinterpretation world wide on this problem.

    To sum up, literal translations are ok but they require culture contextual study.

    Comment by Josh Gould | February 20, 2012

  3. Ahlan, not ahalan, means “welcome” or “hello” in Arabic. The word for tent in Arabic is “kheema.”

    Comment by Omar Orestes | February 20, 2012

    • Thank you, Omar. I meant “family,” and I’ve corrected the text now. (The Arabic ahl has a cognate in Hebrew, ohel, which means “tent.” Somewhere on the Jerusalem Post website I have an article about these words, but now that they’ve reorganized the site, I can’t find it.)

      As for the spelling, I try to use transliteration here that makes it easiest for non-speakers to pronounce the foreign words, though in this case my understanding is that it also depends where you are.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 20, 2012

  4. I don’t think we communicate to each other in any language primarily through single words. So I agree with Joel that neither should be translate word-by-word. Yes, the cultural context is important. But it doesn’t always tell us what an author’s intended meaning is. Joel’s first example illustrates that well. Both possible meanings of “He showed them the door,” are true in the same cultural context. Culture doesn’t help us figure out the intended meaning. When we know what an author most likely meant (and we very often do in the Bible based on good biblical scholarship for thousands of years), we should not translate in a way that introduces different meanings from that of the original text.

    We should, I think, translate larger meaning units of language than words (or even the smaller units of morphemes, for that matter). I think we should translate to as close to original language meaning “chunks” as possible. I think study of language shows that people typically communicate their thought “chunks” in sizes of clauses. If that is true, then I suggest we should translate from no less than clause-level meaning, and even that needs to pay attention to important meaning that is inter-clausal or of even larger pieces of language.

    Thanks for another good post, Joel. I admire your pedagogy.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | February 21, 2012

  5. Hi, Joel,

    My mom was a professional translator so I know very well how hard and how thankless job translation is. After spending endless hours with issues like you described, some smart alec will tell you how better he would translate it himself if he actually did anything. I can just imagine how difficult translating Bible could be, where every verse has thousand years of thinking behind it, and in the same time readers are much more passionate about the content than in case of some cookbook or a detective story.

    Having said that I have to say that you seem to be kind of repetitive in this blog. I feel like reading the basic message “translating the words can mean mistranslating the text” on your blog the hundredth time already. It feels like selling some cheap detergent now, “just follow my way of translating and it is easy; white on your shirts will be whiter than ever!” Why I cannot remember reading here about the other side?

    I mean, when did you mentioned mistranslations (IMHO much more common) of those who instead of the translating the text were pushing to their readers their own ideology? And not in some deeply philosophical meaning of the word (I am ABD in PhD program of sociology, so I know about and I accept a lot of the constructivist criticism of scientism). I mean all those cases were translator tried to push down to readers his own thoughts about Virgin Mary, gifts of Holy Spirit (on both sides of the debate), or the Sacrifice of Jesus, to name just most famous ones. I am thinking about my friend who was reading yet another Biblical translation (this time to my native Czech language) where the translator was obviously very unhappy with the original text and felt need to make it better. He put down his Bible and shaken his head in unbelief “Don’t they fear the Lord at all?”

    I would just say that every translation is hard and there are no cheap solutions to it.

    Comment by Matěj Cepl | February 22, 2012

  6. You might enjoy reading the Concordant Literal versions of both Old and New Testaments (if you have not already done so — http://www.concordant.org). Over the past 40 years, I’ve enjoyed studying the scriptures using the Concordant versions, keyword concordance, commentary, and other tools as well, because, taken together, I’m able to form a well-rounded and as proper a picture of what God really said as possible. The concordant method of translation refreshingly faithful to the original languages and, while not always easy to navigate for the casual reader, it challenges “old world” paradigms and stimulates new ones, which one expects to be aligned with the Lord’s intent.

    As to misunderstanding because of cultural differences, may I suggest that the onus is on the reader to discern meaning based on original context rather than have one handed to him/her; i.e., what did the Apostle Paul mean, or what did Jesus mean at the time He spoke to the people to whom He spoke, according to their understanding then? This is why lexicons can be invaluable — indeed, essential tools. Commentaries may be helpful too, but they are, after all, someone’s opinion…maybe correct, maybe not.

    Finally, we must at all times be relying on the Holy Spirit, “which will be guiding [us] into all the truth.” Otherwise, we’re apt to run off into empty, intellectual exercises.

    Every week, we tackle issues like this in a live, interactive study via teleconference, called, “Light Up The Scriptures” (dot com). You’re welcome to join the discussion.

    Comment by Tom | March 1, 2012

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tom.

      As to misunderstanding because of cultural differences, may I suggest that the onus is on the reader to discern meaning based on original context rather than have one handed to him/her;

      Sometimes, perhaps, but I also think it’s the translator’s job to choose the right word. If the Bible has a word that means “combination of emotion and intellect,” for example, I think it’s just a mistranslation to choose an English word that means “emotion but not intellect.” The cultural choice to use the anatomical word for “heart” for these two different concepts is, in this case, perhaps interesting but hardly relevant.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 2, 2012

      • Absolutely agree. Again, that’s why the Concordant Literal is my study version of choice. Once the nearest modern equivalent was found for a particular Greek word, that’s how the word is rendered everywhere it appears. Makes for uncommon accuracy.

        Comment by Tom | March 2, 2012

  7. There is no doubt that there is so much emphasis these days on the importance of understanding the original culture and how the first audience would have “heard” the message. I find all of this to be somewhat carried out in ignorance, because most people today want to diminish the apparent impact of the original text, rather than to have it confirmed by the context. But, as a matter of fact, reading about how the first listeners reacted to what they heard gives us readers today a fair indication of the impact and severity those words had when they were uttered in original context. In most cases, the reaction of the original listeners, which is recorded for our “benefit”, actually amplifies the original message. That is, the overall context of scripture that includes, not only what Jesus said, but also how his listeners reacted, serves to work against our tendencies and emotional biases.

    Matthew 19 contains two well known examples. Look at how his disciples reacted when Jesus spoke about divorce and remarriage. Also, further on, look at the disciples’ reaction when Jesus compared a rich man entering God’s kingdom with a camel going through the eye of a needle – “they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?”. You don’t really need to know what a “needle” was in those days, or a camel for that matter, to appreciate the point that Jesus made.

    People are mistaken if they think that cultural contextual study is going to favor their emotional biases so as to lessen the impact of the text.

    Comment by Robert Kan | March 2, 2012

    • Sorry, but could you elaborate on your last sentence. It kind of gets lost in the wordiness.

      Comment by George M | August 16, 2012

      • In general, I think there are two approaches to “disagreeing” with Scripture (disregarding translation issues). One is to challenge the authority/credibility of the author. The other is to “delude” yourself into thinking that you do agree with the author, but that the text doesn’t actually mean what it says in its own right. In this approach we try to change the author’s meaning by appealing to a certain reference point (one that favors our emotional inclination), and then we justify our approach using terminology like contextual cultural analysis. Not that contextual cultural analysis is wrong in itself, but it ought not to be misused.

        Comment by Robert Kan | August 17, 2012

      • Robert,

        We’ve strayed considerably from translation (as you correctly note), but I think you’ve raised an important point, and done so succinctly.

        For example, it’s clear that Leviticus 18:22 frowns on male homosexual behavior. You’ve identified two ways to reconcile this with gay marriage:

        1. Lev. 18:22 isn’t relevant/important/etc. any more (challenge the authority).

        2. Lev. didn’t really refer to male homosexual behavior (ignore the original meaning).

        To this, I would add a third, which is really a special case of the first:

        3. Other parts of the Bible contradict this, so “following the Bible” means choosing to ignore Lev. 18:22.

        I also agree that it’s helpful for people to be clear on what they’re doing, and which path they’re following.

        As it happens, I think that (2) has been more common throughout the past 2,000 years than most people appreciate, so I think there’s more legitimacy to it than your tone suggests, but still, we can’t even have the discussion if we confuse the two approaches.

        Thanks for your comments.

        Comment by Joel H. | August 17, 2012

      • Yes, get the meaning right, and then the translation. Reconciling passages is a secondary issue in my opinion.

        Comment by Robert Kan | August 17, 2012

  8. Ah, my favorite discussion: Translation of the Bible.

    From all that I have read I conclude that nobody REALLY knows if the Bible (or for that matter any book) has been translated from one language to another with the same intent in meaning. Even forgetting translations, how about what actually was said? If scribes were writing words down on parchment did they properly put down what the person actually said or did they alter it? WE DON”T KNOW.

    Now, the more interesting part is “do you follow the teachings recorded in the Bible? I boil it down to one thing OBEY! If Adam and Eve had obeyed God would there be a need for the Bible? Putting that aside because we don’t know look at the history in the old testament. It is filled with people who disobeyed God’s commands and got into trouble. On the other hand Mary and Joseph obeyed God and a new chapter in history was started with the birth of Jesus (wow, look what happens when you obey).

    I do not have the education as some of the other people in the above posts. BUT, after taking time to read the Bible. I mean really read it, study the passages and ask God to make meaning out them for me I have come to the above conclusion.

    Comment by Charles McDermott | August 31, 2014

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