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.


October 26, 2012 - Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , ,


  1. Joel,

    I read your book. It was excellent and a contribution to the field. Thanks for writing it. I want to ask you about three (at least for now!) of what I say are gross mistranslations of the Tanak. All have tremendous weight in the gospel story of the New Testament:

    Psalm 41:9
    Zechariah 12:10
    Zechariah 13:7

    Psalm 41:9 is only correctly translated to English in the Douay-Rheims version: “For even the man of peace, in whom I trusted, *hath greatly supplanted me*.” The others have “lifted his heel against me”, which I assume is the literal Hebrew for the idiomatic Douay-Rheims. The difference is monumental. In the gospel Betrayal scenario, the literal is used to bolster a sacrificial betrayal, whereas the hidden meaning of the pericope is one of succession: “greatly replaced me”.

    Zechariah 12:10 is completely wrong everywhere I have seen it in English. It should read, mystically, “They will look upon *ME* whom they have pierced through TO”. It has very deep mystic, or ‘gnostic’, implications of inner visionary experience by the practitioner.

    And Zechariah 13:7, the most important of all three mistranslations, should read: “Arise, O sword of my Shepherd, within the one who is my companion, says the Lord of hosts. Strike, *O Shepherd*, that the sheep may be *shattered*.” This is obviously not the way most have heard it. The Shepherd strikes (accusative case can be ‘a sign of emphasis on new subject’ — Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, page 85) *the devotee* within in meditation, to purify him (Zech. 13:8-9). This isn’t the Shepherd being struck — as the poetry demands a repeat of the first part of the verse (O sword”/”O Shepherd”, see Zech.11:1-2), and the theology is all wrong with a ‘sacrificed’ Master of the flock, since this ‘good’ shepherd has been ‘raised up’ by the Lord himself (Zech.11:16) to resolve the chapters 10-14 good shepherd/bad shepherd passage.

    The trouble is that bible scholars haven’t a clue about Mysticism and so read things in an incorrect orthodox way (see http://www.RSSB.org). It has been this way since the first century.

    I can provide a list of online Scribd.com volumes for background, and my own tome on this, as well.

    Thanks for any comment on the above.
    -Robert Wahler

    Comment by Robert Wahler | October 26, 2012

  2. The Italian novelist and bible student claims, in his latest book “and he said” in French “Et il dit”, that it should be “do not covet” for two reasons:
    the first being the practice whereby landowner will leave after harvesting some grains behind for others to TAKE with no blame whatsoever, and the second being that coveting is the opposite of admiring without desire to take, which he claims is the real meaning of the commandment: admire your neighbor’S property but do not covet it and certainly not to the point of taking it illegally.

    Comment by maurice amiel | October 26, 2012

  3. David,

    Be careful with your translations before doing battle with a “Ph.D.” like Joel. Be sure you have it right. The one you used (Complete Jewish Bible, I believe you said — the comment isn’t visible here as one replies to your comment) is wrong on Matthew 6:22. The Greek is ‘haplous’ for “single” — not sound, or whole, as it is literally ‘without folds’ or ‘simple’, as in “unified”, and the like: http://biblesuite.com/greek/573.htm
    This passage has nothing at all to do with seeing and coveting. It has to do with seeing clearly *within onesel* with THE MIND, the “mind’s eye” or “third eye”. This concept is very, very well-known in Eastern Mysticism, but alas, not in the West (maybe the West Coast!).

    Many translations have it correctly, but not the NIV and RSV, or your Jewish one. The KJV, the ASV, the Darby, Douay-Rheims, Webster’s and ESV all have “eye is single” or similar. The single eye they mean in Matthew is also mentioned in several other places like the single eye of Balaam in Numbers 24:3, and the words to wear as frontlets ‘between your eyes’ in Deuterononmy 11:18. This is the mystic inner vision of ‘higher mind’ and the ‘hearing’ of the “words” or Word of the Lord in that place (or ‘right ear’ like Malchus in the Betrayal scenario of the gospels).

    –Bob Wahler

    Comment by Robert Wahler | October 28, 2012

  4. […] words usually mean completely different things,” warns Joel Hoffman when noting how “How Similar Words Lead Bible Translators Astray.“  The word “bank,” he says, in “river bank” is not the same word […]

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  5. […] did?” Joel M. Hoffman, at his blog God Didn’t Say That, did manage to say just “How Similar Words Lead Bible Translators Astray.” . And Joel Hoffman asks Daniel B. Wallace: “If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would […]

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  6. The part “-bank” in riverbank and moneybank *do* mean the same thing, which is funny. 🙂

    They do not necessarily have the same origin but possibly. In old Nordic: backe(slope), bank(bank) and bänk(bench) are similar. They describe various forms of the earth that one can sit on, usually formed by rivers in ice-age, so they were obviously river banks. Now as we learned to make furniture from wood, the bench was devised, mimicing the natural bank. The Swedish Etymological Wordbook (Svensk etymologisk ordbok) derives the monetary institution “bank” from banco and banca, probably from German bank and so identical to bench; actually exchanger’s bench.

    However nowadays, as a consequence of the words being spelled and pronounced the same, the word “bank” seems to have taken on an abstract meaning defined as: a location of vast quantities of something that may be needed in case of emergency.

    Financial bank: A location of vast amounts of money that you may need when you buy a house or have to repair your car.

    Riverbank: A location of vast amounts of sand that will be needed to keep the river from flooding the nearby town in case of heavy rains.

    Can this be used to predict the meaning of the word “bank” when it is used in other contexts?
    Sometimes yes: The bank in a game is a storage location for vast amounts of counters or virtual money.
    Sometimes no: It would be more useful to know about the connection to backe(slope) in order to understand what an airplane does when it banks.

    I believe the point is we should look for abstract meanings whenever the concrete meaning does not make perfect sense, and we should not feel guilty of bias in doing so because there frequently is one.

    Comment by sestir | September 4, 2013

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