God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original Languages

One of the commonly suggested solutions for overcoming bad Bible translations is to “learn Hebrew and Greek” and “read the Bible in the original.”

While there are many good reasons to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek, I don’t think that better insight into the original meaning of the Bible is one of them.

This came up most recently in Dr. Bill Mounce’s latest post in his weekly “Mondays with Mounce” column about Bible translation: “A Translation Conundrum – 1 Tim 2:9 (Monday with Mounce 165).” There he addresses the Greek phrase en plegmasin, commonly “with braided hair” (ESV, NIV, etc.), but “with elaborate hairstyles” in the NIV2011 and “by the way they fix their hair” in the NLT.

Dr. Mounce explains that braided hair was one way of “enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church.” Accordingly, just to translate “braided hair” leaves the modern reader wrongly thinking that there is something inherently undesirable about braided hair, when the point is really what that braided hair represented.

He concludes that this is “a good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew….”

I disagree.

In this particular case, what’s needed to understand the passage is not only a knowledge of the Greek language but a detailed understanding of Greek fashion (though, in fact, I think the fuller context of the verse makes the meaning pretty clear: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” [NRSV]).

This sort of issue is exactly what an amateur or even advanced Greek student would get wrong. Armed with a knowledge of Greek, such a student would look at the word plegma, discern that it means “woven,” and proudly announce that the NIV2011 got it wrong.

More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.

What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.

I still think there’s value to learning Hebrew and Greek. I see it as akin to going to a museum to see an artifact versus just reading about it. It brings people closer to the original in very powerful ways.

Additionally, both Jewish and Christian traditions hold that there’s inherent value to the original words, even beyond their meaning.

So, absolutely, learn Hebrew and Greek. But I think it’s a good idea to keep professional translations handy, too.

November 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 15 Comments

The Case of Mistaken Piercing in Zechariah 12:10 and John 19:37

A question on the About page concerns what appears to be a misquotation of Zechariah 12:10 in John 19:37:

Why does John, in John 19:37 CHANGE Zechariah 12:10 from “they shall look upon ME whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for HIM” to only: “they shall look upon HIM whom they have pierced”?

It’s a great question with an important lesson behind it.

It’s hard to find an accurate printed translation of Zechariah 12:10, both because the verse is so theologically charged and because the Hebrew is complex.

The NRSV translates, “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one* whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (my emphasis).

The footnote for “look on the one” in the NRSV advises that the Hebrew means “look on me.” This is the crux of the issue, because John 19:37 is clear: “And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.'”

The question is why John appears to misquote Zechariah. (Another good question is why so many translations hide this fact.)

The answer actually comes from John 19:36, where the important technical word plirow introduces two OT quotations. The first is “none of his bones shall be broken” (perhaps a rephrasing of Psalm 34:20 [aka 34:21 aka 33:21]). The second is our verse.

I’ve pointed out before (here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?“) that, in spite of common translations, plirow doesn’t mean “fulfill.” Rather, that Greek verb introduces something called a “proof text” — which, despite the name, has nothing to do with what we would now call “proof.”

In this case, the proof text is a passage from the OT that matches the new text in the NT. (In the case of Jewish texts from the same time period, the proof text is also from the OT, but the new texts are usually prayers or something called “midrash,” and they are often introduced by Hebrew that means “as is written,” “as is said,” etc.)

The point of a proof text is to lend textual support to a new idea, but not in the scientific way that we now think of as “proof.” The support indicated by plirow has to do with the text itself, not what it means. That’s why I translate plirow as “match.”

Here, the point is that John 19:37 matches Zechariah 12:10. Both have to do with piercing. The details of the original meaning — who gets pierced, under what circumstances, etc. — are irrelevant.

This is a surprising way for most modern, scientific readers to look at text, but it was the norm in the period of time that gave us the NT. So the question is not “why did John misquote Zechariah?” but rather “How does John’s text match Zechariah’s?” And the answer, of course, is that they match quite closely. (I have more examples of this kind of matching in my longer explanation of pilrow, including perhaps the most famous: the non-virgin/virgin of Isaiah/Matthew.)

There’s one final interesting detail, and here we return to Hebrew grammar.

The Hebrew word for “upon me” is eilai, spelled Aleph-Lamed-Yud. That common word also spells the poetic word elei, which means just “upon.” So even though the text of Zechariah is clearly, “look upon me, whom they have pierced” it could be purposely misread as “look upon the one they have pierced.” (A similar kind of word play in English might turn “atonement” into “at-one-ment.”)

This is what originally made the text of John here so compelling: It takes an OT quotation and reinterprets it to apply to a new context.

Unfortunately, translations that change Zechariah to match John hide the ingenuity of the text, and make it all but impossible for English readers to understand how the NT quotes the OT.

November 20, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments

Recovering the Erotic Poetry of Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon is replete with erotic poetry, but if you only read the translations, you’d never know it.

Phrases like “my beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (1:13, NRSV) and “my beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi” (1:14, NRSV) demonstrate the problem, as these translations are neither poetic nor erotic. They are barely even coherent.

I see three kinds of problems.

First, we have the fairly common Bible-translation gaffe of mimicking the original too closely.

In the two previous examples, the problem is the grammar. The construction “my beloved is to me…” (and the similar “my beloved is for me…,” from the NAB) is grammatical but awkward in English. In Hebrew, though, the same word order is fluid and poetic.

A translator can perhaps get away with turning straightforward language into a clumsy translation when it comes to prose, but certainly not with poetry. The translations end up sounding more like a parody of courtship than the real thing.

Similarly, the translations miss the poetic impact of the Hebrew grammar. This is the second problem.

Again looking at these two examples, we see that the Hebrew phrases for “bag of myrrh” and “cluster of henna blossoms” start the sentences, thereby emphasizing them in a way that the English misses.

It’s a subtle but important difference, similar to the difference in English between, “blue skies please me//dark clouds depress me” and “I like blue skies//I dislike dark clouds.” The first one (like the original Hebrew in Song of Solomon) emphasizes the poetry; the second one (like the translations) sounds mundane.

The biggest challenge comes from the imagery. That’s the third problem.

A “bag of myrrh” and a “cluster of henna blossoms” just aren’t romantic in English-speaking cultures. The NAB’s “sachet of myrrh” is only marginally better. (I’ve mentioned similar problems before, for example: “Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon.”)

The solution to the first two problems is easy in theory, if not practice: don’t mimic the grammar but instead capture the poetic impact.

The solution to the actual imagery is more difficult. In principle, the goal is to do in English what the original does in Hebrew. But what did “sack of myrrh” convey, and is there anything like it in English? I doubt it.

Here’s what the poet Marcia Falk does with these two lines in her The Song of Songs:

Between my breasts he’ll lie —
   Sachet of spices,
Spray of blossoms plucked
   From the oasis.

What she’s done is take the irrelevant “myrrh” and translate it as “spices,” just as “henna blossoms” becomes just “blossoms,” and “En-gedi” becomes “oasis.” (Though I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, I think En-gedi is a spring, not an oasis, but “blossoms … spring” would suggest the season, which may be why Dr. Falk chose “oasis.”)

It’s poetic, but is it a translation?

There’s room for debate. She thinks the Hebrew means “he will lie,” not “it will lie.” Fair enough. Her translation omits “my lover” (wrongly “my beloved” in the NRSV and NAB); this seems more problematic to me. She changes the word order to create what (I assume) she thinks is better poetry. For me, this is also a mistake.

So, starting with Dr. Falk’s work, I might suggest:

Sachet of spices,
   my lover between my breasts.
Spray of blossoms,
   my lover in the oasis vineyards.

(What do you think?)

I still wonder, though. Was there something important about “myrrh” that we’re missing? Or if not, maybe we should pick a specific spice in English. (“Sachet of cinnamon”? “Cluster of cloves”?) Is alliteration a reasonable way to make the English text poetic, even though the Hebrew text is poetic in different ways? And if we’re going down the path of alliteration, maybe we should opt for “bouquet of blossoms.” I wonder in particular about “vineyards,” which in Song of Solomon may be overtly sexual.

With all of this mind, how would you translate these two lines?

November 14, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Reflections on Hurricane Sandy

The Aftermath of Hurricane "Frankenstorm" Sandy

The Aftermath of Hurricane “Frankenstorm” Sandy

On my personal blog, I have a few thoughts about what it was like when Hurricane Sandy roared through, as well as some photos and a short video:

The wind howling. The power and phones out. The trees arching precariously, some throwing their branches against my house, others crashing to the ground. The sun setting low behind dark, overcast skies.

Astonishingly, that was the calm before the storm, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Keep reading.

I’ll be back to blogging once I get power and Internet back.

November 5, 2012 Posted by | Off Topic | , , | Leave a comment