God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Similar Words Lead Bible Translators Astray

“Nuclear families” have nothing to do with “nuclear energy,” in spite of the word “nuclear” in both phrases.

Most people know that two unrelated words can look the same: the “bank” in “river bank” and in “money bank,” for example. Such words usually mean completely different things.

It’s less commonly appreciated that closely related words can also mean completely different things. In this case, the “nuclear” in “nuclear family” and in “nuclear energy” comes directly from the word “nucleus.” But even so, knowing what “nuclear families” are doesn’t help understand the phrase “nuclear energy.” (This kind of mistake is so common that “nuclear magnetic resonance imaging,” which measures the interaction between magnetic fields and atomic nuclei, was renamed just “magnetic resonance imaging” because “nuclear” falsely suggested that the process had something to do with radioactivity.)

This basic fact about languages has important implications for Bible translation.

One example comes from the Hebrew word hikriv, which means both “draw near” and “sacrifice.” It’s possible that these two meanings, as with “nuclear” in English,” have common ancestry. But that doesn’t mean that the two meanings are related. Nonetheless, it’s a common mistake to assume that “sacrifices” in the Bible had more to do with “drawing near” than the English translation suggests. They did not.

A second example is the Greek work sarx, literally “flesh,” but — as is widely known and often discussed — the word meant something different for Paul than it did for the authors of, say, Genesis.

If identical words can mean different things, certainly related words can, too. Yet many Bible translators ignore this fact.

An example comes from the two related words chamad and nechmad in Hebrew. They are both from the root Ch.M.D. The initial “n” in Hebrew essentially marks passive voice. And the vowel differences are a direct result of the lengths of the words. So it looks like chamad and nechmad should be related just like any other active/passive pair.

But they are not. The verb nechmad means “desirable” while the active verb chamad means “take.” This confusion led to a mistranslation of the last commandment, which should read “do not take,” not “do not covet.” (I have lots more here: “The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting” and in this video: “Thou shalt not covet?.)

Returning to the English “nuclear,” it would be a mistake to try to use “nuclear energy” to understand what “nuclear family” means, and it would almost always be a mistake for a translator from English to another language to try to use the same foreign word for “nuclear” in both cases.

Similarly, it seems to me, the Bible translation challenge in this regard is twofold: First, to differentiate between similar or even identical words, so that the meaning of one doesn’t wrongly shade the meaning of the other. And secondly, only to try to use identical English words for identical Hebrew or Greek ones when the original words mean the same thing.

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October 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 6 Comments

If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would You?

In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”

Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?

I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.

My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.

Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.

As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so 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, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.

(As part of my travels, I commonly present to interfaith audiences, and, by and large, the Christians are bewildered by this Jewish approach, while the Jews often think it’s self evident.)

Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.

All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?

October 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What’s This Abomination in Leviticus? (And How Context Can Help)

Leviticus 18:22 describes a man having sex with another man as a to’evah, commonly translated as “abomination.” But as we saw a few months ago, the Hebrew to’evah had to do with cultural norms, not absolute right and wrong (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? [Or: Why Couldn’t the Egyptians Eat with the Hebrews?]“).

Does this mean that Leviticus 18:22 is about preferences and not morality? Not necessarily.

I’ve frequently explained that the best way to figure out what a word means is to look at the different contexts in which it’s used. (This is how we figured out what to’evah means, for example.) There’s another kind of context, too: the particular environment in which a word is used. And it’s just as important.

In the case of Leviticus 18, we find a string of phrases that all have the same form: “Do not do X. It is a Y.”

In Leviticus 18:22, X is “a man having sex with another man” and Y is to’evah.

Five verses earlier, in Leviticus 18:17, X is “marrying a woman and her daughters or granddaughters,” and Y is zimah. While the nuances of zimah are difficult to discern, the word is clearly negative — “depravity,” according to the NSRV, “shame” in the NAB, and “wickedness” in the KJV.

In Leviticus 18:23, X is bestiality and Y is tevel, another negative word whose nuances are elusive. (The NRSV has “perversion,” the NAB “abhorrent,” and the KJV “confusion.”)

Leviticus 20 is similar, both in terms of the context and the pattern, though the details differ. (Tevel is used for a man who has sex with his daughter-in-law, among other differences.)

In fact, we see this kind of thing frequently. It’s common to find nearly synonymous words compared and contrasted in biblical Hebrew, though it occurs more often in poetry than in prose. In these cases of parallelism, what’s usually important is not the nuances of each word, but rather their combined effect.

For instance, Isaiah 1:2 reads, “Hear, O heavens, and listen O earth…” (NRSV). The point there is not the differences between hearing and listening, or why the heavens hear but the earth listens. Instead, the passage uses the two words to emphasize a single concept.

Similarly, Leviticus 18 and 20 seem to be to lists of forbidden activities, and focusing on the nuances of to’evah (or zimah or tevel) seems like the wrong way to understand the passages.

So even though (as we saw) to’evah, by itself, indicates something unacceptable to local custom, I still think the right way to understand the original intention of Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 is that they were meant to prohibit male homosexual sex. (What we do with this information, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is of course complicated.)

I also think this is just one example of a more general pattern. We can’t understand the Bible without knowing what the words mean, but, equally, knowing what the words mean is just the first step.

October 3, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 10 Comments