God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Isaiah Translation Challenge: Verse 1

This is the first verse of the “Isaiah Translation Challenge.” Post your translations, questions, and thoughts as comments.

The Text

Here’s a rough literal translation of Isaiah 54:1:

Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth.//
Shout joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached.//
For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.//
— says the Lord//


Isaiah 54:1 opens with two words in stark contrast: A command to “rejoice” followed immediately by “barren woman.” Rejoicing — perhaps “shouting for joy” — represents one extreme of the emotional spectrum, while “barren woman” embodies the other. In antiquity, there was perhaps no greater sorrow than to be barren. So even though Isaiah opens with a command — “rejoice, O barren woman” — he also practically assaults the reader with a question, namely, “what reason could the most dismayed member of society have to celebrate?”

Then Isaiah drives home the point in typical poetic fashion. He adds “who has not given birth” to modify “barren woman.” Though redundant, that phrase emphasizes the barren woman’s pain. Next — again in typical biblical poetic fashion — Isaiah repeats his theme with different words: “Shout for joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached [with childbirth].”

Having twice commanded the barren, childless woman to be happy, Isaiah explains why: For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.”

Verse 1 ends by attributing the poetry to God.

The Poetry

Because Hebrew is a gendered language, Isaiah can use feminine language where in English we need the word “woman,” so Isaiah’s command “rejoice” includes the information that he is addressing a girl or a woman. Additionally, adjectives in Hebrew can refer to people (similar to the way we say “an American,” which means “an American person”). So for the English “barren woman,” Isaiah only needs one word, the feminine adjective “barren.” Isaiah is thus able to express, “rejoice, O barren woman” with only two words.

Continuing the economy of language, Isaiah omits “who” in the clause “who has not given birth,” using only the two words “not birthed.” (This is not common biblical Hebrew, but neither is it unattested.)

So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”

Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.

Isaiah next takes advantage of Hebrew’s flexible word order. Instead of addressing the “children of the desolate woman” first, he says, “for more numerous are the children of the desolate woman than the children of the married woman.” And, again because of the gendered nature of Hebrew, Isaiah makes do with far fewer words: “for more-numerous children-of desolate than-children-of married.” (Complex details of Hebrew let Isaiah do away with the words “more” and “of” completely.)

Finally, as in our English, Isaiah puts “the Lord” after the verb “says,” so that God comes last in the verse.

In terms of the words, we don’t know the exact nuances of the words for “rejoice,” “celebrate,” etc. We do know that the imperative in the first line (“rejoice”) is the verbal form of the noun (“joy”) in the second. And our verb “ached” is probably more generally “was ill.”

In terms of imagery, the text starts with a specific woman and her pain in the first two phrases and then progresses to a general situation in the third, as if to say: “you, a specific unhappy person, should be happy, because people like you will be happy.”

Published Translations

The NRSV gives us, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.”

This obviously fails in many ways. The archaic “O” is out of place. “Barren” and “bear” sound similar in a way that the Hebrew akarah (“barren”) and yalada (“bore”) do not. The English phrase has twice as many words as the Hebrew. The next line is unclear until the very last word, which tells the reader that the line is about a woman. And the line contains more than twice the number of words as the Hebrew. Additionally, “shout” doesn’t seem like a happy word. The English phrase “the children of X will be more than the children of Y” borders on the ungrammatical. “Her that is married” is hardly poetic.

The NAB is similarly problematic: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.”

It takes the NAB six words to introduce the two-word contrast between “rejoice” and “barren.” The translation misses the connection between “rejoice” and “joy,” by using the unrelated “raise a glad cry” and “jubilant song.” “Were not in labor” isn’t quite the point; it’s not just that the woman wasn’t in labor but rather that she’s never been in labor. The phrase “deserted wife” has no founding in the original Hebrew, which just refers to a female who is desolate, not necessarily a wife.

The Message — a version I seldom cite here — starts off with promise, but deteriorates rapidly into vapid prose: “`Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing woman.’ GOD says so!”

The Words

For those who want, here are the Hebrew words of the original. Translations are after the slash. Comments are in (parentheses). English words needed to make sense of the Hebrew are in [braces].

roNI/Rejoice (feminine imperative) akaRA/barren woman [who has] lo/not yaLAda/given birth

pitzCHI/Shout (feminine imperative) riNAH/joy v-tzahaLI/and-celebrate [the one who has] lo/not CHAlah/been ill.

ki/for [more] raBIM/numerous [are] b’nai/children-of shomeiMAH/desolate (feminine) mi-b’nai/than-children-of v’uLAH/married (or “espoused”)

aMAR/said (or says) adoNAI/the Lord.


1. Does the English translation need to mirror the economy of language in the Hebrew?

2. Does the English translation need to preserve the parallel endings “not given birth” in the first line and “not ached” in the second? Does it have to preserve the subtle distinction between the two, noted above?

3. Does barrenness today represent what it used to? If not, is there a better way to express Isaiah’s contrast between rejoicing and sorrow?

Your Translation

So there it is. Post questions or your translation as a comment.

February 2, 2015 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , , | 24 Comments

The Isaiah Translation Challenge is Here

In the fall I promised an “Isaiah translation challenge” — a collective approach to understanding and translating the exquisite poetry of Isaiah 54. I’m pleased to announce that it’s here.

My next post is a detailed analysis of the text of Isaiah 54:1, written with an eye toward guiding poets and translators. I hope you’ll post your translation attempts in the comments there. (To help people focus on the original text, the comments will not appear right away.)

If you have a blog of your own, I’ll be grateful if you help spread the word so we can reach as many translators and poets as possible.

I’m looking forward to seeing the various translations!

February 2, 2015 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , | 3 Comments

Coming Soon: The Isaiah Translation Challenge

Translators and poets, get ready!

Now that I’ve submitted my second book manuscript to St. Martin’s Press, I’m looking forward to spending more time here. As part of my return, in the next little while I’m going to announce a project to translate Isaiah 54 collectively. Some of the most moving words ever penned, in my opinion, translations unfortunately run from banal to barely intelligible.

So get ready. Take a look at the text. Start studying the words. Familiarize yourself with the imagery. And think about the best way to convey Isaiah’s message in English.

I’ll post details here soon.

October 7, 2014 Posted by | announcements, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 13 Comments

Translation Challenge on Men, Women, and People: Who is an anthropos?

In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”

My answers are as follows:

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: person
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.

(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.

September 24, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

In Christ, In Love, In Translation

Being “in Christ” (en christo) is one of Paul’s central themes. Romans 8:1 is a good example: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). But it’s a tricky phrase.

The Greek work en, like its English translation “in,” is what linguists call a “light” preposition, that is, one that usually has little or no meaning on its own. Prepositions (“in,” “on,” “about,” “with” etc.) are notoriously idiosyncratic, and so are light words, so it’s not surprising that the light preposition en is difficult to translate correctly.

Some examples in English help demonstrate the range of issues with light prepositions. There’s air “in an airplane,” but the people breathing that air are “on the plane,” not in it. English speakers disagree about whether one stands “in” or “on” line. Prepositions like “in,” “for,” etc. are sometimes optional: “He’s lived (in) more places than I know,” “I’ve been working here (for) three years,” etc. Books are written “on” a computer but “with” pencil and paper. Friends can talk “to” each other or “with” each other, but they can’t chat “to” each other, only “with.”

In some of those examples, we see a single meaning that requires different prepositions in different contexts. The reverse is also common: a single preposition can express different meanings. The “in” of “in love” doesn’t have anything to do with the “in” of “in translation,” for instance.

Obviously, the details are different in other languages. In Modern Hebrew, unlike in English, books are written “in” a computer and also “in” paper and pencil.

Equally obviously, for speakers of Modern Hebrew and English, it’s a mistake to translate the “in” of “in a computer” literally from Hebrew into English. Rather than “in a computer,” English demands “on a computer.”

More generally, the way to translate prepositions (like everything, really) is to determine what the preposition means in one language, and then find a way of expressing the same thing in another.

And this is the crux of the problem with Romans 8:1, and all of the other places we find “in Christ,” because that phrase in English doesn’t mean anything. (Some people might think it means something, but only because they already have a sense of what Paul meant.) We might compare, for instance, “citizens of the U.S. should be in the President.” It’s impossible to agree or disagree, because it doesn’t mean anything.

Translators already know that the Greek en doesn’t have to be “in” in English. In I Cor 4:21, we find, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with [en]a stick, or with [en] love…?” (NRSV, my emphasis). English demands “with a stick” instead of the nonsensical “in a stick.” The translation “in love” is more tempting for en agape, because it does mean something in English, but it doesn’t mean the right thing. Almost all translations get this line right. Translators do their job and find the right preposition in English.

But when it comes to “in Christ,” translations mimic the Greek instead of translating it.

Sometimes no obvious choice for en presents itself, but often English simply demands “with.”

Knowing what you do about the overall meaning of the text, how would you translate Romans 8:1?

February 26, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why There Might Be No Father or Son in the Trinity in Arabic

The issue of removing “father” and “son” from Arabic Bible translations has arisen again (in The New American, for example, and Christian Today, among many others), including a petition to put the Father and the Son back into the Trinity, after decisions by Wycliffe Bible Translators, Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and Frontiers to replace the traditional “father” and “son” with other words in Arabic.

“The real question is whether the Arabic words imply sex more than their Greek counterparts do.”

The reasoning behind not using “father” and “son” in Arabic is that (according to some) those Arabic words wrongly imply sex. The SIL has an explantion that defends using words other than “father” and “son”:

There are some cases in which it can be shown that a word-for-word translation of these familial terms would communicate an incorrect meaning (i.e. that God had physical, sexual relations with Mary, mother of Jesus; not only does this communicate obvious wrong meaning, but can also give readers the impression that the translation is corrupt).

As I see it, we once again have two issues, a theoretical one and a factual one:

The Theory

The basic theoretical issue is pretty simple, though not always appreciated: Sometimes a word-for-word translation detracts from the meaning of the original text. This is true for marginal words such as colors as well as for central words like “father” and “son.”

To look at it differently, everyone agrees that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is not exactly the same as the relationship between, say, Bruce Sr. and Bruce Jr. Rather, the relationship is like that of a father and a son in only some ways. If the Arabic words for “father” and “son” don’t match up with those ways, then the translator has to find other Arabic words that do.

The Facts

The factual question is whether the Arabic words for “father” and “son” differ so much from the Greek that they are inaccurate.

But there’s an important nuance, and here is where the published discussions that I’ve seen seem lacking.

The question is not whether “father” and “son” in Arabic imply sex. Of course they do. But they also do so in Greek (and English, for that matter). The real question is whether the Arabic words imply sex more than their Greek counterparts do, or whether these Arabic words are less flexible in their imagery than the Greek. And I have yet to find anyone address, let alone answer, this key question.

So, if you’re an Arabic expert, please weigh in on this specific question:

Do the Arabic words for “father” and “son” imply sex in ways that the original Greek did not? What evidence do you have for this position?

[Update: Others who have written about this topic include: Archbishop Cranmer, Eddie Arthur, and Wayne Leman.]

[Update 2: This issue remains solidly in the news and a matter of debate. For example, “Stop Supporting Wycliffe’s Current Bible Translations For Muslims, PCA Advises Churches.” (June 26, 2012)]

February 3, 2012 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 14 Comments

Translation Challenge: “With” and “For” in Isaiah 54:7

Isaiah 54:7 — part of the incredibly uplifting poetry of Isaiah 54 — has two parallel phrases, both starting with the Hebrew b-. First we find b- attached to rega (“moment”), and then next attached to rachamim (“mercy” or “love” or “compassion”). The effect is to underscore the contrast between God abandoning for a moment and taking back in mercy.

Yet every translation I know destroys the parallel structure, as, for example, the NRSV: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (my emphasis). In other words, for b’rega the translations have “for [a moment],” but “with [compassion]” for “b’rachamim.”

It’s true that the Hebrew prefix b- can mean both “for” and “with,” among many other possibilities. (It’s a bit like the ablative case — an observation which is likely to help only the people who already knew that.) But here, the whole point is to contrast two phrases that start the same way. So while the translations get the general point of the line, they butcher the poetic effect.

The contrast is further underscored through the Hebrew modifiers katon (“small”) after rega and gadol (“big”) after rachamim. (This is the “brief” and “great” in the NRSV translation.)

So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a way to express Isaiah’s thoughts here while also keeping the important poetic structure? (My best shot is in the comments.)

November 7, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 14 Comments

The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think (or: Don’t Mess with the Shepherds)

“The Lord is my shepherd.” This line from Psalm 23 is among the most famous images from the Bible. But as I describe in And God Said, for most people the English words hide the ancient imagery.


To get started, here’s a question: which actor would you cast as a typical shepherd?

When I think of a shepherd, I think of a scrawny man dressed in rags who spends more time with sheep than with people. In term of imagery, I might say, “as lonely as a shepherd,” or “as meager as a shepherd,” or “as ill-dressed as a shepherd.” (If you’re reading this and you are a shepherd, please forgive me!) So in terms of an actor, I think I’d pick Woody Allen. (And Mr. Allen, if you’re reading this, please forgive me; I still love your movies.)

But we see a completely different set of images in the Bible. Shepherds were fierce, regal, and romantic. Back then, one might have said, “as brave as a shepherd,” “as strong as a shepherd,” or “or sexy as a shepherd.”

So even though the Hebrew in Psalm 23 is ro’eh, and even though ro’eh literally means “shepherd,” I don’t think “The Lord is my shepherd” is a very good translation.


For example, Exodus 2:16-20 describes the Midian priest’s seven daughters who are drawing water for their father’s flock when a group of shepherds comes to menace them. Moses proves his amazing capabilities by defending the women against the shepherds. The daughters even say, “[Moses] saved us from the shepherds.” Nowadays, that’s a laughable image. But in the Bible, shepherds were fierce, and Moses demonstrated great worthiness by standing up to them. (In another clash with modern sensibilities, the high priest thanks Moses by giving him a daughter to marry.)

Continue reading

October 21, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

“Judge Not” And Preserving Poetry

Judge Not

“Judge not…” Most people are familiar with this famous verse from Matthew 7:1 (and the similar Luke 6:37), and know that the full line runs along the lines of “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV).

The content of the line is pretty easy to understand, but the poetry is very hard to convey in English, as evidenced by the wide variety of translations: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (NAB), “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (NIV), “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (NRSV), etc.

The Greek of Matthew 7:1

The Greek is a pithy five-word admonition: mi krinete ina mi krithite. The word mi means “not,” krinete means “judge,” ina means “so that,” and krithite means “be judged.” In addition to its brevity, the Greek offers a certain symmetry. The word ina sits nicely in the middle, with the two similar-sounding phrases mi krinete and mi krithite on either side. Except for the -ne- in the first part and the -thi- in the second, both sides are identical.

On Poetry and Symmetry

Similar in English is “you are what you eat,” where “what” fits nicely between the similar “you are” and “you eat.” (The original comes from German, where “are” and “eat” are both pronounced ist, so the similarity is even more pronounced: man ist vas man isst.)

Also similar in nature, if not in detail, is the English “no pain, no gain.” The phrase is successful because of the symmetry, and because “pain” and “gain” rhyme. This is why the phrase “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much” is unlikely to catch on as a training motto among athletes, even though it means the same thing as “no pain, no gain.”

Yet most translations of Matthew 7:1 are like “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much.” The translations miss the poetry.

Some people may dismiss the value of the poetry, but I disagree. I think that poetic phrasing is important. This is why so many of our proverbs either rhyme or otherwise “sound well” (as Mark Twain would say): “A stitch in time saves nine,” “no rhyme or reason,” “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” and many, many more. And even if the poetry isn’t as important as I think, it’s still part of the original. It seems to me that a good translation should convey it.

On Grammaticality

Furthermore, also like my poor paraphrase of “no pain, no gain,” translations of Matthew 7:1 tend to sound stilted and awkward. “Judge not,” for example, is no longer standard English. (Compare, “comment not that you be not flamed.”)

And I don’t think that “judge” without an object is particularly successful in English. At least in my dialect, “I saw the modern art paintings, and I couldn’t help but judge” doesn’t work as well as “…couldn’t help but judge them.” I understand why translators want to force the English construction “do not judge.” They want to make the first part sound like the second part, “do not be judged.” But their decision comes at the expense of English grammar. In English (unlike in Greek), the most common phrasing is “do not judge something,” as in “do not judge others” or “do not judge people.”

Again, not everyone thinks that a translation into Modern English has to be in Modern English (at the risk of prejudicing the issue), but I do.

Translating Matthew 7:1

So where does that leave us?

We need a translation that means “do not judge (other) people, so that you will not be judged.” It should be symmetrical, with the first and second parts sounding similar. It should be pithy. And it should be grammatical in English.

In general, I’m unwilling to compromise on grammaticality in English, at least when the original is grammatical (in the original language), and I’m unwilling to compromise on meaning. When it comes to poetry, I think poetic texts should be translated poetically, but the details of the poetry can differ. So in this case, I think the symmetry is important, but I think — if something has to go — we can do without the pithiness.

So the best I can come up with is this: “Do not judge others, so that others do not judge you.”

What do you think? And can you come up with something even closer to the original?

April 15, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 24 Comments

Translation Challenge: Snow and Ice in Psalm 147

With much of the U.S. buried under snow and ice (myself included), I thought I’d turn to the end of Psalm 147.

Winter Wonderland Window

Winter Wonderland Window

The NRSV translates Psalm 147:15-18 as follows:

[15] He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. [16] He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. [17] He hurls down hail like crumbs — who can stand before his cold? [18] He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.

While that translation captures the general meaning of the text, it misses the beautiful word plays and poetry of the original.

Verse 16 is particularly poetic, so we start there. Here’s a word by word translation, with some of the Hebrew words:

He gives snow like wool [katzemer]; frost [k’for] like ash [ka’efer] he scatters [y’fazer].

And here’s the same thing with some capital letters and color highlighting to illustrate the assonance.

He gives snow like wool [KatzemeR]; frost [KFoR] like ash [Ka’eFeR] he scatters [y’FazeR].

In particular, notice the progression from K’FoR (“frost”) to Ka’eFeR (“like dust”) in the middle of the verse:

Translation Challenge #1: Can you think of a way of preserving the triple similarity of sounds in k’for and ka’efer? What about the double similarities in the other words?

Now that you know the kinds of things to look for, here’s Verse 15:

He sends out [ha-sholei’ach] his command [imrato] to the earth [aretz]; swiftly [ad-m’heira] runs [yarutz] his word [d’varo].

This time, we see iMRato in the first half of the verse followed by M’heiRa in the second, and eReTZ followed by yaRuTZ.

Similarly, in Verse 17:

He hurls down hail [KaR’chO] like crumbs — who can stand before his cold [KaRatO]?

Translation Challenge #2: Can you think of a way of preserving these sound repetitions?

In addition to the sound repetition, we find a repeating theme. Here are the first words of each of these four lines:

15: ha-sholei’ach (“He sends” — or “the one who sends”)
16: ha-notein (“He gives” — or “the who who gives”)
17: mashlich (“He hurls” — or “hurling”)
18: yishlach (“He sends” — or “he will send”)

Three of these — in Verses 15, 16, and 18 — come from the same or a similar-sopunding three-letter root in Hebrew: Sh.L.Ch. (The final sound is similar but different, a fact that my transliteration scheme hides.) So all three are related in much the way that “writ” “writing” and “writer” are in English. But none of the four is the same word.

Translation Challenge #3: Can you think of a translation that preserves the way these four lines begin?

As you work on these four lines, notice too the chiasm: The first line refers to God’s command and word, while the second follows up with snow and frost. Then the third and fourth lines repeat the pattern in reverse order. The third line refers to ice and cold, while the fourth returns to God’s word, augmenting it with wind.

So, Translation Challenge #4: Can you translate all four lines?

February 2, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 5 Comments