God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Modernity and Accuracy: Another False Dichotomy

Bible translation seems plagued by a few myths that won’t let go. One of them was recently repeated by Dr. Eugene Merrill in the Christian Post when he said that “if you want a more contemporary […] translation, you’re going to have to give up some accuracy.”

I don’t think it’s true.

Dr. Merrill was explaining the infamous “literal (or word-for-word)” versus “dynamic equivalent (or thought-for-thought)” styles of translation, as the article calls them. But even though there are two broadly different kinds of published Bible versions, that doesn’t mean that there are two equally good ways to convey the ancient text, or that the tradeoff is between modern rendition and accuracy.

Rather the most accurate translation is often also a modern rendition. Just to pick one example (which I explain further in my recent Huffington Post piece on the importance of context), the stiff and word-for-word “God spoke unto Moses saying” is neither modern nor accurate. A better translation, with English punctuation doing the job of some of the Hebrew words, is: “God said to Moses, `…'” And that’s both modern and accurate.

It does seem true that a modern translation and a less accurate word-for-word one say different things — sometimes in terms of basic content, and more often in terms of nuance. I think that some people mistake bad translations for the original meaning, and then lament modern translations that don’t match the older, less accurate ones.

For instance, “God spoke unto Moses saying” has a certain odd tone to it. Some people, I fear, worry that my modern alternative doesn’t convey that odd tone. And, of course, they’re right. But then they make an erroneous leap and conclude that my translation strays from the original, when it’s actually the familiar translation that doesn’t do justice to the source.

Dr. Merrill’s example in the article is b’nai yisrael. He explains that the traditional “sons of Israel” could mislead modern readers into thinking that the phase only refers to males. But the more modern “people of Israel,” accord to Dr. Merrill, also falls short because it strays from the literal, masculine meaning of the word b’nai.

But the reasoning here is flawed. If b’nai refers to both men and women — which everyone agrees that it does — then it what sense does it literally refer only to men? It’s only the older translation, “sons of Israel,” that potentially excludes the women.

So this doesn’t strike me as a choice between modernity and accuracy, but, instead, a modern, accurate option and an older, less accurate one.

To consider an English-only example, one possible way to explain “commuter train” is “a train from the suburbs to a main city.” A possible objection could be that that explanation fails to indicate that “commute” literally means “to change,” and, more specifically, “to change one kind of payment into another,” as in, for example, “combining individual fares into one fare.” The original “commuter trains” were trains in the 19th century from the New York City suburbs in which the full fare was commuted to entice riders.

While I find this sort of background fascinating, I don’t think that it’s necessary for understanding what a 21st century commuter train is. In fact, it’s a mistake to think that a commuter train must be one in which the fare is commuted.

Similarly, I don’t think that knowing the grammatical details of the Hebrew b’nai is necessary for understanding the text in which it is used, and, also similarly, a translation that gets bogged down in those details does a disservice to the original.

It seems to me that this kind of false tradeoff is representative of Bible translation more generally.

And more generally yet, I think that this persistent myth, which pits accuracy against modernity, contributes to Bible translations that are neither accurate nor modern.


January 23, 2013 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Joel, I love your work and I agree with you 99 percent of the time. But I think we should be encouraging people to learn Hebrew grammar, not discouraging them. You explain things so well. Go for “b’nai”, and tell a little about s’mikhut, I say!

    Comment by Natasha Shabat | January 23, 2013

  2. […] schreibt über wörtliche und dynamische Bibelübersetzugen und kommt zu dem Schluß: Die Frage ist nicht […]

    Pingback by Netzfunde Donnerstag, 24. Januar 2013 | Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott | January 23, 2013

  3. Quite a thoughtful comment, Joel. Thank you.

    Perhaps you can address a similar problem in the future concerning the idea that “conservative,” i.e. conserving the past, does injustice to the idea of translation. I’ve often noted what seems (at least to me) to be a worship of the past, as if everything was better in the past and everything today is degeneration of all that has ever been good.

    I could use the example of slavery as a progressive change that has improved the world, but I think a more important example would be the movement to enfranchise women into the public realm. Granting women the right to vote was opposed on Biblical grounds, among other reasons. Even today, we have fundamentalist denominations enforcing silence upon women congregants, in the name of Biblical authority. I am thankful that one result of modern thought is the recognition of women as human beings, as opposed to God-cursed chattel.

    Comment by Colleen Harper | January 26, 2013

  4. What I find interesting about b’nai yisrael is that the standard Bible of the old-fashioned (American Christian) crowd, the King James, generally just goes ahead and translates the phrase as “children of Israel.” So, at least on this very particular issue, the gender-neutral choice is over four hundred years old.

    Just for fun, I tracked down an online copy of Tyndale’s (1534) translation of Genesis, and searched at the appropriate spot in Genesis 32:32. Lo and behold, Tyndall called the b’nai yisrael ‘the childern of Israell.’

    Comment by biblicalsausage | December 12, 2016

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.