God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating the Bible into a Language Whose Values you Hate?

Kate asks a fascinating question about translating the Bible into the language of an cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon that grammatically classifies non-tribe members as “edible”:

Linguist/philosopher Steven Pinker and other researchers inform us that the language of one Amazonian tribe, the Wari, grammatically classifies nouns as either “edible objects” or “inedible objects” — with the category of “edible objects” including all non-Wari human beings, while the category of “inedible objects” includes the Wari themselves. […]

The Bible translation conundrum which this situation creates is, plainly, this: How does one translate the Bible into Wari? […]

How, then, should the Bible be translated into a language whose very grammar endorses cannibalism of outsiders?

There are really two potential issues here.

The first concerns the grammatical details of Wari: What kind of marking is this? In particular, is it pro-forma (like “feminine” and “masculine” in, say, Greek) or is it semantic? If it’s pro-forma, then there’s no problem. (One way to test — are there any Wari speakers reading this? — is with a sentence like, “We can’t eat this meat because…” If “meat” in that sentence still takes the edible marking, as I suspect it would, then the marking is simply a matter of grammar, not of meaning.)

However, if the marking really only applies to things that can eaten, and if, in addition, it must be applied to foreigners, then we have a second issue: What do we do if we don’t like the values expressed by a language?

Wari (if our information is correct) isn’t the only language that might present this dilemma. What about a language that classifies women as children, for example? What about cultures in which a father takes the name of his firstborn child, but only if that child is a boy? And so on.

With Wari, the obvious temptation is to create a translation in which, say, Paul is neither edible nor a member of the Wari tribe. But that, apparently, would be ungrammatical, and, I think, representative of a common but hugely misguided approach to Bible translation: trying to convey more than we can. (This is, again, assuming our information about Wari is right.)

By analogy, we can imagine a language that divides nouns into “human” and “inanimate,” the way English does with “who” versus “that”: “This is the person who changed my life” versus “this is the idea that changed my life.” Hebrew doesn’t differentiate in this way. The question is what to do with “God.” Is God a person or an inanimate object? Hebrew doesn’t force the choice, but English does. Most translators opt for “who” here, not even noticing the way their choice narrows the meaning of the Hebrew. We could go with “that.” We could not, however, make up a new work in this context to convey are disapproval about the dichotomy in English.

Similarly, I think the way to translate the Bible into a language like Wari is to bite the bullet and use the “edible” marking, as the native speakers do, for anyone who’s not part of the tribe. It’s not just that our job, as translators, is not to judge (though I understand that, in practice, most people doing this kind of work are doing it precisely to judge those people and to change their ways.) Even more, we have no choice.

Such an interesting question. Thanks.


April 24, 2017 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , ,


  1. The only grammatical description of Wari I could find says that it doesn’t have classifiers at all… But I would be very surprised if it had some grammatical marking for “edible” that is purely semantic, as you suggest with the inedible meat example. Features like gender, animacy, humanness and the like typically become grammaticalized so that they no longer imply, entail or presuppose that specific semantics. For example, when a Russian says “I saw the deceased” (the latter word is grammatically animate in Russian) and you point out that he implies that the deceased is alive, he would think you’re crazy!

    Comment by asyapereltsvaig | April 24, 2017

  2. Both the article and the comment make very good points — re the comment, I would add that this still,leaves us with the question of what to do in languages where problematic grammatical particle, or whatever, has NOT (or hasn’t yet) its meaning semantically “bleached out” by lexicalization. For instance, I am told (I admit I don’t know how accurately) that in Tibetan the word for “woman” is a still-transparent compound of the word for “inferior/lowly” and the word for “born”: in other words, that to say “woman” in Tibetan Is to say “born lowly/born inferior” and that this is clear to everyone who speaks the language.
    On another matter, mentioned by Dr. Hoffman as he probes these issues: the English restriction of “that”-as-a-relative-pronoun to inanimate entities has not always been part of all varieties and eras of the English language: where/when I grew up (Brooklyn, New York: 1960s/1970s), it was — and still is — entirely normal to say things like “The man that you saw is my cousin.”
    Similarly, in English before and during the 17th century (note that this includes the Early Modern English of the King James Version), both “that” and “which” could be — and very often WERE — used as relative pronouns for human beings and even for God. Here’s a KJV example: “Our Father, which art in Heaven”: Matthew 6:9
    The differences between Early Modern English and present-day English on this point have unforeseen consequences — not only for the translator (as is ably revealed in Dr. Hoffman’s excellent video “Do You Speak KJV”?), but for pastors and teachers and congregants: whenever people who are reading/preaching from a translation that they consider authoritative (even uniquely inspired) notice, sooner or later, that it contains what they’ve been trained to regard as “bad grammar” or even “substandard English” here and there.
    True story: some years ago, I briefly knew a woman who taught English for a living. “Margaret,” as I’ll call her, had never read the Bible all the way through; her (rather sketchy) knowledge of it was through its reputation and by ear, and had come to her through popular culture and occasional church sermons when she went to someone’s christening or wedding (at churches which used more recent translations, such as the NKJV or the NIV or the ESV or the NASB). When she finally decided to read the Bible for herself, the counterman in the Christian bookstore said that the best and “truly inspired” Bible was the KJV, and advised her to begin with the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew: turning to that page for her, as a sort of sample before she bought. The minute she reached “Our Father, which … “, she screamed at the counterman that his store was obviously selling defective, low-quality Bibles — “trying to pass off misprints as real Scripture” — because, she said, /1/ whenever she’d been to church, this same prayer had been “Our Father, who art” (not “which art”) and /2/ “which” for a person was abominably poor English, “grammatically impossible and derogatory” (I was it hear in the store, and heard this, with other opinions of the same kind: e.g., “I wouldn’t tolerate this crap from a student in my fourth-grade English class, so how can it possibly be in the Bible, of all places?!”
    This would be funny if there weren’t some groups of Christians who are actually deciding that our Bibles have all been systematically and secretly tampered with, because of this very usage and because of other bits of Early Modern English that they don’t remember hearing in church/seeing on TV, but that they do bump into whenever they read the KJV or various other translations:
    not just bits of grammar that look like sub-standard English today but that were correct 500 years ago (“that” where we expect “who” — sometimes “we be” where we expect “we are,” as in 2 Corinthians 1:6),
    but also (and conversely) words and phrases in the KJV that a modern audience is used to hearing differently (e.g., “Judge not, that yes be not judged” in Matthew 7:1, which is almost always heard/remembered/quoted from the pulpit as “Judge not, lest you be not judged” even in KJV-Only churches, because — in some churches, to my personal knowledge, a pastor who has just announced “Let us read from the King James Version” but who realizes that this involves a word or phrase that his audience will reject as “bad grammar/just nonsense” will discreetly change certain words and phrases as he reads aloud. (Common substitutions, for instance, include those made for the KJV’s “to us-ward” in 2 Peter 3:9: the pastor sees this in his KJV, but he says it as “to us” or “toward us” … and, if the parishioners look it up in their KJVs at home later on, they note that what they see isn’t what the pastor said in their (often) KJV-only church, so they decide that something must be wrong with their own copy of the KJV … then, as they check more copies, they see that ALL of these copies have the “error,” and they decide (seriously, according to the doctrine of the groups that are going by this theory) that ultra-sophisticated secret government quantum technologies have been used to alter the Bible by even somehow GOING BACK IN TIME to do it
    One can easily find the increasing number of groups/people involved in this/ search “Bible changes” on the Net — and on YouTube, where one of the most vocal and prolific leaders of this odd movement (YouTube channel called “EXTOL YESHUA ALWAYS” has over 600 [!] videos on this stuff. That particular leader, called Kat Christian (there are others: almost all of whom profess to be KJV-only people simply trying to “restore” the KJV from “corruption”) also spreads her word by Twitter, with links to her videos and more: https://mobile.twitter.com/search?q=Kat+christian+eya and https://mobile.twitter.com/search?q=Biblechanges
    It won’t surprise you that these people/movements also use (as “proof” of their notions) the fact that KJV spelling is often different from present-day spelling (e.g., “asswaged” where present-day English has “assuaged” in Genesis 8:1 and Job 16:6) — they regard the “bad spelling,” along with the “bad grammar and gibberish vocabulary,” as “smoking gun” evidence that the KJV has been messed Edith, because they don’t recall the KJV being like that.
    Other “evidences” that they tout as “smoking guns” include the numerous times that the KJV uses a word which they incorrectly regard as “too recent/too American/too leftist/too colloquial/too filthy/too ” to have existed in the KJV era or in the Biblical era. (Examples here include the KJV’s various uses of the words “corn / stuff / bank / band / police / tavern / Palestine / Italy / dung / piss / president ” among literally hundreds of others that, well, they just don’t think could have been there!
    (This whole matter of words touches on a complaint of theirs that I just haven’t space to cover here: these people ALSO regard as “smoking gun” evidence that the KJV js being supernaturally/governmentally messed with, the fact that many Biblical names exist on more than one spelling, are applied to more than one person [e.g., not all occurrences of the name “Jesus” in the NT refer to the best-known person of that name), or are simply unusual/unknown to Joe Average American: for example, these “Bible change”-fearers teach that the names of Isaiah’s two sons (Shear-yashub and Mahershalalhashbaz) simply cannot be real, and must therefore be replacing some lost/excised originals. (Often, these folks go further and say that these, and other unfamiliar Hebrew names “sound Arabic” and therefore “must be Arabic” and “must have been inserted to nudge people into accepting Islam as valid, or into merging Christianity and Islam.” Likewise, there are words/phrases/verses — or even whole chapters, which will be rejected as being too compatible with Islam or with Catholicism or with Buddhism … or as being too INcompatible with other chapters: e.g. the aforementioned Kat Christian rejects almost all of Genesis 1 because most of it contradicts people’s remembrances of the Genesis creation story, since what people remember of the Genesis creation story is almost entirely from Genesis 2 … and her whole theory is that, if most people who think they’re familiar with the abibke don’t remember something being in the Bible, well, it isn’t there, because the of the Bible verses she DOES believe are real include the ones one about God writing his word on the heart, or it being hidden in the heart (no time to look them up right now, as I have a meeting coming up) … so, as she sees it, if something was really and truly in the Bible, then God would make sure that true Christians remembered it!
    Some of the people involved in the folly of this “Bible changes” movement are actually (they claim) “restoring [they say] the true Bible” by downloading KJV textfiles and changing whatever they are sure can’t be right (literally thousands of verses, by this time), then giving/selling copies of “the restored Bible” to their followers. (More and more of these amateur redactors — or not-so-amateur: about half are clergy, usually Pentecostal or Nazarene or Independent Baptist — say that the Holy Spirit personally tells them what to change and how, or at least tells them that their changes are correct.) Alongside these appalled Bible-patchers (as I think of them), there is also a contingent that’s even MORE appalled, because they think “the corruption” has gone SO FAR that the Bible cannot be restored at all: they advise their flock to simply stop using a written Bible at all, and to simply go by whatever bits of the Bible they happen to remember from anywhere! (One such pastor will be discussed, with a link to one of his videotaped sermons on YouTube, further down)
    Perhaps the craziest part of all this is that many of these “restoration” alterations go far beyond just changing the language, but edges far into altering the actual content of the text. For instance, one change that’s universally accepted by all of these “Bible change/restoring Gid’s Holy Word” folks is in Isaiah 11:6. Where all Bibles (KJV and others, clear back to the original manuscripts) have a wolf in this verse (dwelling with the lamb), the “Bible changes” believers are unanimously sure that this cannot be & that it can never have been: they know that they always remember this verse as “The lion shall lie down with the lamb,” so they are sure that this has to be correct, and that anything with “wolf” is a tampering and a corruption:many of them go further, and claim that the intent of this claimed “corruption” was to replace a symbolically noble and Godly animal (the lion) with a symbolically scary and evil animal (the wolf) … those who’ve noticed that inserting “lion” creates a huge awkwardness (because the same verse DOES already have “lion” later on, as another member of this group of Messianically peacefully coexisting beasts) generally “fix” that problem, too: by changing the second lion to a bear. (Often, what they present as the “real, lost, now restored” verse at this point is simply — verbatim! — a verse from the Tommy Dorsey/Elvis Presley song “Peace in the Valley,” so I presume that this is their textual source, consciously or otherwise, for the emendation.)
    At the link below, you can see a disturbing video of a churchsermon by a pastor who’d been preaching (from memory) about “the lion lying down with the lamb” in that verse for years, likely decades, before one day when he actually finally NOTICED (among other things) that in the Bible, what is written there (the frost animal in the verse) is “wolf” and not “lion” (He also gets upset, in the same sermon, because he had recently
    finally noticed that the KJV has “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer — which he finds theologically and/or otherwise unacceptable and unbelievable — where he and his church had been saying “trespasses” all these years!)His response on camera, like the response of certain unfortunate others in his position, is NOT to say: “Uh-oh, I was wrong; this should teach us all to READ our Bibles and to NOT go by pop-culture and fallible human memories as a basis for knowing what’s in the Bible?” — oh, no, he says (outright and explictly and in so many words) that, if Christians’ common memories and common consensus about the Bible disagree with what’s written there, then the common memories and the popular consensus are right — are God’s word — and the written Word must be discarded because it just disagree with the “true” Bible memories that are trustworthy because Christians have in their hearts (!) … Don’t believe me? Here’s the link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=h7m3zad6QIg
    Conceivably, someone might say: “Oh, this is a small matter because the point of the verse remains unchanged — The just of the verse is that creditors will become good friends with their former pray, and this would have been unchanged even if popular memory had turned it into ‘The cat will lie down with the mouse.’ ” The problem is that the folks who patch and trim the Bible to fit their memories are dealing with more than zoology — e.g. a universal alteration among them is to remove/alter the word “grace” whenever it is used in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 6:8, KJV: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD”) on the theological premise that grace was non-existent in Old Testament times. (Here is a typical video on that matter)
    Dare I suggest that the “favorite” missionary/translator problem — that of “reaching the unreached people groups” — May be a much smaller problem then reaching people who are wrongly certain they know what’s in the Bible … and who are so smugly certain on this matter, that even if you give them a Bible they will change it to match what they are already sure is in the Bible instead?

    Comment by kategladstone | April 25, 2017

    • Dictation error: What came out as “The just of the verse is that creditors will become good friends with their former pray” should of course have been “The gist of the verse is that predators will become good friends with their former prey”

      Comment by kategladstone | April 25, 2017

      • Oh, and here is that link to the video claiming that “Noah cannot POSSIBLY have found grace in the eyes of the Lord, because grace ismexclusively NEW Teatament and CHRSTIAN, which Noah wasn’t … ” — https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mObg3Lqtqro (the author of the video claims that the KJV is the right Bible, but that we no longer have the actual KJV because it myst have somehow been messed with, because it says things that most people don’t recollect and/or don’t find digestible …. )

        Comment by kategladstone | April 25, 2017

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