God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Do All Men Experience Pain in Childbirth?

If we’re not careful, our Bible translations will wrongly alienate 51% of the English-speaking population, and perhaps offend even more. The issue (which has been addressed frequently — recently by me here and here, by Clayboy, Bill Mounce, and many others) is whether (orwhen) the English word “men” includes both men and women.

In my dialect, the answer is almost never. When I read or hear “men,” the word excludes women.

I’m told by people like Bill Mounce that in other dialects “men” is perfectly inclusive. So I have a question to the speakers of these dialects. Does “men” include the “women” here:

All men experience pain in childbirth.

More specifically, which (if any) of these make sense and mean what they clearly should?

1. All men experience pain in childbirth — women directly and their husbands vicariously.

2. Unlike the animals, all men experience pain in childbirth.

3. Unlike the gods, all men experience pain in childbirth.

4. Because they ate from the wrong tree, God punished men with pain in childbirth.

5a. In a rare alliance in the battle between man and machine, machines help men endure the pain of childbirth.

5b. In a rare alliance in the battle between man and machine, machine helps man endure the pain of childbirth.

6. Man experiences pain in childbirth both vicariously and directly.

7a. Unlike the animals, man experiences pain in childbirth.

7b. Unlike the gods, man experiences pain in childbirth.

What do you think?


December 7, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 12 Comments

Behold! Little words mean a lot more than you might think.

It turns out that “um” means something in English, and we can learn about translation by looking at that short word.

The following hypothetical conversation between a shopper and a sales associate at a book store demonstrates:

Shopper: “Where can I find a complete bilingual text of Aristotle?”

Clerk: “Aristotle who?”

Shopper: “Um, the Greek philosopher?”

The last line, in colloquial American English, does two things. The last three words answer the question. But the first word, “um,” demonstrates disdain. The shopper is mocking the sales associate for his or her ignorance. (Incidentally, this happened to me at Barnes and Noble a couple of years ago. The staffer at the customer service desk didn’t know who Aristotle was. I did my best to hide my disappointment in our school system.)

This short word “um” demonstrates an important way words can work in language: they can add a flavor or nuance to a conversation. And as a guess, most English speakers are unable to articulate how “um” works in their native language, so we also see how complex and subtle these nuance-words can be.

I’m almost sure that na in Hebrew was such a word, and that “please” or “pray” don’t convey the same thing in English.

I think hinei in Hebrew and idou in Greek also contributed primariliy to the tone of a sentence, in a way that is not captured by “behold,” “see,” “see here,” and so forth.

So here’s a challenge: What do you think hinei and/or idou contributed?

December 2, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Q&A: Is Greek Different Than All Other Languages?

Also from the about page:

Is it true that in Greek they didn’t have multiple words that meant the same thing or one word that meant multiple things? More clearly — that every word had only one meaning and each thing/idea had only one word for it. Thanks!

Thanks for the question, which I think is important for two reasons, not just because of the details of the question but also for the more general implication.

The short answer is no. There is no truth to the idea that there was a one-to-one match between Greek words and meanings/things/ideas.

More generally, I think it’s a common error to view Greek as fundamentally different than other languages. Ancient Greek is a human language like any other, and what’s true of languages in general is also true of Greek in particular. This is one reason that the linguistics revolution of the last century is so exciting for Bible scholarship and translation in particular. Even without looking at Greek, we know a lot about the language. Of course, this is not to say that Greek doesn’t have to be studied in detail, but linguistics guides what we look for, because we already have a sense of what’s possible and what’s not.

In this case, no language has the one-to-one mapping you mention, so in particular Greek does not.

November 29, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, Q&A, translation theory | , , , , | 2 Comments

Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

It’s often pointed out that actually knowing more than one language is helpful for intuiting how translation works. But I think many of the same intuitions can come from thinking about just one language. Here are two examples from English:

1. Jim West recently wrote that “Bob Cargill has penned” something. What role does “pen” play in that phrase? In a language that can’t make nouns into verbs the way English does, should the translation be the equivalent of “wrote with a pen” or just “wrote”? What about “dialed [a phone]”? What about “top of the hour” for a society that has no physical clocks (or just digital ones!)?

Jim qualified his opening line: “Bob Cargill has penned (I know, it’s an anachronism since he typed and didn’t pen at all)….” In that broader context, is “pen” a crucial element of the phrase that needs to be translated?

2. “Sofa” and “couch” mean almost exactly the same thing. But a “couch potato” isn’t a “sofa potato.” (For non-English speakers: A “couch potato” is someone who’s lazy, especially someone who lazes on a couch or sofa, and especially someone who does so to watch television.) What goes wrong if “sofa” and “couch” get mixed up? How can we know when the two words are interchangeable and when they’re not?

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , | Comments Off on Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Clayboy has a short post in which he describes an experiment he ran. He told an audience, “I like to ask my fellow men to stand.” Only the men stood.

This is pretty convincing evidence that, at least where he was, “men” doesn’t mean “men and women.”

I wonder if there is any context in which the women would have stood, too.

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | 9 Comments

On Contractions

The issue of contractions in English translations has come up again recently, so I thought a look at how contractions work in English might be a good idea.

Spoken English

Spoken languages tend to obey a general rule that less is more, or, more specifically, the shortest form possible is generally the only grammatical form. So if there are two forms, one short and one long, a speaker needs a reason to use the longer one.

For example:

– Where’s Bill?

– I saw him yesterday.

In my dialect, there are two ways to pronounce “him,” namely, him and im. The only natural way to say “I saw him yesterday” is to contract “saw him” into “saw’im.” The “less is more” rule is why “saw him” sounds unnatural.

However the shorter form can’t be used when it’s conjoined. (I’ll explain why below.) So:

– Where are Bill and Mary?

– I saw him and her yesterday.

There’s no way to change “saw him and her” into *”saw’im and’er.” It’s just not Enlgish.

Similarly, “I am” can only be pronounced “I’m” in most circumstances in English, but, again, there are cases where “I’m” is impossible. (For example, *”he’s taller than I’m.”)


The shorter words “‘im,” “‘er,” “‘m,” etc. are clitics, a term more familiar to students of Romance languages than of English. But English has them too. And, in fact, like all clitics, they obey three general rules:

1. They can’t be conjoined (combined with “and,” “or,” etc.).

2. They can’t be emphasized or contrasted.

3. They need something to latch on to.

Rule (1) is what goes wrong with *”I saw’im and’er.” Rule (3) is why *”He’s taller than I’m” is so terrible in English. And Rule (2) prevents “Oh, Bill? I saw him sneaking into the cookie jar” from becoming *”…I saw‘im…”

(Some dialects of British English have a full word “im” which isn’t a clitic but rather the word “him” with a silent “h.” That’s different from (to) the clitic.)

Other impossible examples in English include *”he’s and always will be king” (Rule 1), *”he wasn’t known back then but he’s now” (Rule 2), and *”I know what you’re.”

Written English

Native speakers are often unaware of their own speech patterns, which may be why, for a long time, contracted spoken forms were written out in full. About 500 years ago, though, English printers starting using the apostrophe to indicate “missing letters,” which is to say, letters which might be written in a word but which are not pronounced (including, perhaps, the missing “e” in the now-defunct genitive ending “-es,” which may be why the “‘s” is used for possession today).

With some exceptions (“‘s” of possession, “o’clock,” etc.) the apostrophe came to be associated with speech, and then informality. For this reason it was frowned upon in early 20th century writing.

But English writing — at least in America — has seen a general trend toward informality. The word “whom” is practically dead. (Though even Fowler, many years ago, advised rewriting a sentence that called for “whom.”) The informal “preposition at the end of a sentence” used to be a sign of poor written English; now it’s common (e.g., “to whom are you speaking?” vs. “who are you talking to?”) And so forth.

Along with this trend, apostrophes and contractions have returned to written English.

So the use of the apostrophe is really a matter of spelling. When the words are read aloud, most people will pronounce “I will” as “I’ll” no matter how it’s spelled, just like they will pronounce “donut” (“doughnut”) the same way regardless of the spelling.

But because of it’s association with informality, the apostrophe is also a subtle yet powerful clue about the general nature of the text.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 7 Comments

On Metaphorical Dissonance

George Lakoff (in More than Cool Reason) points out that metaphors are conceptual, not merely linguistic. Then he has an example of how metaphors might differ, and what the consequences would be.

I think it’s helpful to keep these issues firmly in mind as we translate across cultures.

Here’s what Lakoff has to say:

1. One metaphor for us is “argument is war”:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies[….] Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war[….] It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. (p. 4)

2. Cultures could (and do) differ:

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending[….] Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently […] and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all. (pp. 4-5)

October 29, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 1 Comment

On Idioms and Metaphors

In More than Cool Reason, George Lakoff writes:

Metaphors are so commonplace we often fail to notice them. Take the way we ordinarily talk about death. The euphemism “He passed away” is not an arbitrary one. When someone dies, we don’t say “He drank a glass of milk” or “He had an idea” or “He upholstered his couch.” Instead we say things like “He’s gone,” “He’s left us,” “He’s no longer with us,” “He’s passed on,” “He’s been taken from us,” [etc.]

What Dr. Lakoff doesn’t write is that we also say “He kicked the bucket.”

And here we see the difference between metaphoric language and idiom. Metaphoric language reflects an underlying metaphor. (A metaphor, Lakoff insists, is a pattern of thought, not the words used to express it. In the case of death, our metaphoric approach is of “conceiving of birth, life and death” as “arrival,” “being present here” and “departure.”) By contrast, idioms are conveniently thought of as multi-word words, and they do not reflect any underlying thought process.

Two related properties of idioms make them easy to identify (if you speak the language). First, they cannot be passivized. (“The bucket was kicked by him” doesn’t mean “he died.”) Secondly, parts of idioms can’t be replaced by synonyms. (“He kicked the pail” doesn’t mean “he died.”)

The distinction is really important, because I think that metaphors should be preserved (if possible) in translation, while idioms should be replaced. We see a great, if difficult, test case in Amos 4:6, which I’ll turn to next.

October 26, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 5 Comments

Man is Everywhere (And So is Woman)

In a comment on A. Admin’s post about Bill Mounce, Mark Baker-Wright takes Dr. Mounce to task for writing (originally here):

Have you noticed the new advertisement for the Prius: “Harmony Between Man, Nature And Machine.” I’ll bet Toyota would be glad to sell to women.

Dr. Mounce is using the point to support his claim that:

[T]hankfully “humankind” never occurs in the NIV/TNIV. What an ugly word! But “mankind” continues to be used as a generic term in English, as does “man.” I know there are people who disagree with this point, but the fact that it is used generically over and over again cannot truly be debated; the evidence is everywhere.

What we have here is confusion on at least two levels:

1. Different people have different dialects. This should be obvious — particularly in light of the heated debate people have about this very issue in their own language — but it seems that this point is frequently forgotten or ignored. It’s perfectly possible (and seems to be true) that one person would hear “man” or “men” and think “people,” while another person would hear “male adult people.”

So even when “there are people who disagree,” both sides can be right for their own dialects.

2. Words mean different things in different contexts. It’s perfectly possoble — and, again, seems to be true — that in English “man versus nature” has more of a general feel than “man versus woman.”

Mounce even gives us an example from his own dialect. He writes, “I know there are people who disagree.” Why didn’t he write, “I know there are men who disagree”? Because in that situation, it would seem, “men” doesn’t mean “people.”

October 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , , | 9 Comments

It Doesn’t Matter the Condition of the Grammar

I think back to a radio spot for lechayim, an “auto donation program” (that is, a program for donating your car, not for donating yourself). The announcer in the ad tells listeners that if they donate their car to lechayim they will get a tax deduction, and furthermore, “it doesn’t matter the condition of the car!”

It’s pretty clear that the text was written by someone who speaks Yiddish.

Somehow the ad was written, edited, produced, and aired without anyone noticing that it makes no sense except to a small subset of English speakers.

This sounds like many Bible translations I’ve encountered.

I think the ad can teach us about three ways that some Bible translations go astray:

1. People doing the translations speak another language — Yiddish in the case of the ad, Hebrew/Greek in the case of Bible translation — and this knowledge shifts their internal grammar of their native language. They start to think that “it doesn’t matter the condition…” (in the case of the ad), or, say, “I spoke unto him saying…” (in the case of Bible translation) is English.

2. People evaluating the translations become so familiar with the flawed English that they, too, start to think it’s grammatical.

3. Context is often powerful enough to override — or, at least, significantly mask — ungrammaticality.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 1 Comment