God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: Joseph, Pharaoh, and the Servants’ Heads

The Joseph narrative is brilliantly written in a way that few translations capture. One example comes when Joseph, having been thrown in jail, is asked to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaohs’ servants — the butler and the baker — who have also been imprisoned.

First comes the butler, and Joseph has good news for him: “Pharaoh … will restore you to your position” (Genesis 40:13).

For the baker, the news is not so good: “Pharaoh … will hang you on a tree” (Genesis 40:19).

The key text, though, lies in the parts I just left out.

In the case of the butler, the Hebrew is, literally, “Pharaoh will lift up your head…,” which, in Hebrew, was a common expression indicating something good. For example, in Jeremiah 52:31 Evilmerodach (that’s the guy’s name) “lifted up the head” of King Jehoiachin, and “brought him forth out of prison.”

In the case of the baker, Joseph starts with the same exact phrase: “Pharaoh will lift up your head…” but then Joseph adds, “off of you!”

We can almost see the scene playing out. Joseph has already given good news to one servant. The other waits anxiously for Joseph’s verdict. Joseph starts speaking, and things seem to be looking up. “Pharaoh will lift up your head… — so far so good! — “…

…off of you and hang you on a tree.” Oops.

The obvious question is how to capture this exceptional dialogue in English. (In And God Said, I note that “Pharaoh wants you hanging around the court” almost works for both servants.)

Certainly the English “lift up your head” doesn’t work for the butler. That’s not an expression in English (though that doesn’t stop most translations from using that flawed wording). But alternatives like the CEV’s “the king will pardon you” don’t seem to offer any hope of preserving the word play.

Can anyone come up with a good way to translate these two lines?

January 13, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , | 8 Comments

Love is What Love Does: On 1 Corinthians 13

The first 13 verses of 1 Corinthians 13 form an extended poetic passage about love. As with all stylistic prose, this text is difficult to translate well.

In particular, verses 4-7 present a challenge to the translator, because in those verses “love” is personified through 15 Greek verbs that describe what love does. (As an aside: it’s tempting to capitalize “Love” here: “…verbs that describe what Love does.”)

As I’ve already pointed out, mimicking parts of speech when translating generally has very little merit. So there’s no particular reason to translate a Greek verb as an English verb, rather than, say, an English adjective, or something else.

Most translations take the first Greek verb, in 13:4 — makrothumeo — and render it as the adjectival “is patient” rather than, for example, the now stilted “suffereth long” of the KJV. By itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. And, in fact, I can’t think of a good modern English verb that means “to be patient.”

But other Greek verbs in the series do end up as verbs in English. Most translations opt for “rejoices” for chairo and sugchairo in verse 13:6, for example.

The problem is that the English mixture of verbs and adjectives destroys the pattern of the original, and, along with the pattern, much of the powerful impact of the original.

Here are approximations of the 15 concepts expressed as verbs in the original:

  1. makrothumeo – be patient
  2. christeuomai – be kind
  3. zilow – be jealous
  4. perpereuomai – brag
  5. fusiow – be arrogant
  6. aschimoneo – behave improperly
  7. ziteo ta eautis – be self-centered
  8. paroxunomai – be irritable
  9. logizomai to kakon – bear a grudge
  10. chairo [epi ti adikia] – rejoice [because of evil]
  11. sugchairo [ti alitheia] – rejoice [because of the truth]
  12. stego – endure
  13. pisteuo – believe
  14. elpizo – hope
  15. upomeno – endure

Can you think of 15 verbs or 15 adjectives to express these 15 concepts?

June 27, 2010 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , | 5 Comments

Translation Challenge: The Truth Will Set You Free

John 8:32 — “the truth will set you free” (i alitheia eleutherosei umas) — is one of the most well known lines in the Bible.

The key words are pretty easy to translate. The Greek alitheia is “truth” and eleutherow is the verb “to free.” So even thought we might prefer “the truth will free you,” the usual translation seems just fine.

But what the translation doesn’t capture is the similarity of sound between the two key words: aLiTHeia and eLeuTHerosei. (The -sei at the end is part of the verbal declension of eleutherow.)

John 8:32 is the second half of a thought that starts in 8:31. The usual renderings of 8:31 suggest more confusion regarding translation: “…if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” (NRSV); “…if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (NIV); or “…if you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples” (NAB). The difficult word to translate in this context is meno.

I think we again find an important clue in the forms of the words. The conjugated form of meno (“continue,” “hold,” “remain,” or more generally “live”) is meinite, and the word for “disciples” is mathitai.

Taken in isolation, the similarity of forms hardly seems noteworthy (MeiniTe and MathiTai). But in conjunction with 8:32, I think we find two pairs of similar words.

So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a way of capturing that important effect in English?

June 9, 2010 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , | 10 Comments

Growing Old and Fat in God’s Courtyard

Psalm 92:12 begins a series of verses that compare the righteous to trees: the people, like Palm trees, will blossom and flourish. They will be planted in God’s courtyard. And they will grow old and fat.

What’s going on is this: In antiquity, most people didn’t get enough calories to live. Today (in the U.S. and other “modern” Western countries) many people struggle to cut down their caloric intake. In the days of the Psalms, by contrast, people struggled to get enough. Old age in particular was a challenge, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to die prematurely because they couldn’t get enough to eat.

The lucky ones, though, did have enough food.

So “fat” back then was the opposite of “scrawny.” Or to look at the matter another way, “healthy and fit” is now represented by “thin,” but it used to pair with “fat.”

How, then, should we translate Psalm 92:14? It reads: the righteous shall bear fruit in old age, being dashen (fat) and ra’anan (fresh). Certainly, “they will bear fruit in old age, being fat and fresh” doesn’t have the right ring to it.

Current Translations

The KJV’s “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” is perhaps literally accurate, but it misses the changing role of “fat.”

The ESV’s “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” might work with trees, but it doesn’t seem to extend felicitously to people — “full of sap” hardly sounds like a desirable trait for the elderly.

The NIV’s “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” seems to suffer from another problem. “Green” in English is usually a metaphor for “inexperienced.” When I read “fresh and green,” I don’t think of the elderly but rather new-comers just starting out.

The NLT goes with, “Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”

The CEV offers “They will be like trees that stay healthy and fruitful, even when they are old.” That at least makes sense and seems positive, though it seems to miss the poetic impact of the original.

The Message‘s “lithe and green, virile still in old age” may be the point, though by spelling out “virile” instead of using imagery, it similarly strays significantly from the original. I also don’t think that trees are “virile.”


I think this is a clear example of the need to look beyond the literal meaning of words — “fat,” in this case — and see how they function metaphorically.

The Challenge

How would you translate Psalm 92:12-14?

May 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon

In keeping with the spirit of spring, here’s another post on the Song of Solomon, this time addressing how hard it is to translate the romantic imagery there.

Here are two translation challenges:

Fragrant Oils

Verse 1:3 is supposed to express the physical beauty of the male hero of Song of Solomon, but translations like “your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out;” (NRSV) or “Your name spoken is a spreading perfume — that is why the maidens love you” (NAB) seem neither particularly poetic nor to mirror the Hebrew.
Continue reading

March 25, 2010 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 17 Comments

Translation Challenge: Isaiah 28:16

My last post was in response to a question about the final verb in Isaiah 18:26. In my opinion, the really beautiful poetry in that verse lies in the verbal repetition in the middle.

Here’s a guide to the Hebrew:

lachen ko amar adonai YHWH
so thus said Adonai God
hin’ni yisad b’tzion aven
I founded in Zion a stone
even bochan pinat yikrat musad musad
a stone trial corner precious foundation founded
hama’amin lo yachish
the believer not will hurry

We have a phrase of introduction (“therefore thus says the Lord GOD”, NRSV) and one of conclusion (“One who trusts will not panic,” NRSV).

In the middle we have the word “stone” repeated, appearing first at the end of a phrase, then again to start the next one. The effect is like, “…I put stones, stones that will….” It reminds me of great oratory, with each phrase building on the previous one. But it’s hard to do in English.

The NRSV, for example, destroys the pattern by using “a foundation stone” to end the first phrase, and then “a tested stone” to start the next. The ESV seems to be trying to mimic the effect with its stilted, “I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone,” for the first part, but then it, too, opts for “a tested stone…” for the next part, missing the repetition. Most other translations are similar. (JPS’s “stone by stone” seems neither here nor there to me. It doesn’t preserve the poetry or the original meaning.)

The LXX also misses the wordplay — though it should be easier in Greek than in English because of the freer word order allowed in that language — but the Vulgate gets it: ego mittam in fundamentis Sion lapidem, lapidem probatum…. (“I put in the foundation of Zion a stone, a stone of testing….”)

Then we have another repetition, this time of the sounds musad, first as a noun, then as a verb. In English, “foundation” can’t be verbal, so the closest we can come is “founding the foundation,” but “found” doesn’t mean what we need it to. A clearer English example would be “established the establishment,” but this time “establishment” doesn’t mean what we need it to.

Again the Vulgate comes pretty close, with …in fundamento fundatum…. Again the LXX misses the wordplay.

Incidentally, it is not at all clear what the phrase means, partly because the masculine musad (“founded”) doesn’t seem to have a masculine antecedent. (With a tiny change, we can move the second musad into the final phrase, duplicating the trick of starting a phrase with the word that ended in the previous one. In that case, we would have “…a foundation. The foundation of the believer will not hurry.” But for now let’s stick with the text we have.)

So here’s the challenge: Who can find a translation that contains two pairs of repeated words, like the original?

January 14, 2010 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , | 9 Comments

Translation Challenge: Psalm 17:8

The text of Psalm 17:8 brilliantly combines two Hebrew expressions, pairing both their meaning and their underlying semantic basis: shomreini k’ishun bat-ayin//b’tzel k’nafecha tastireini, that is, “guard-me like-a-dark-spot of daughter-of-eye//in-the-shadow of your-wings hide-me.”

The first expression is “keep me like the pupil of your eye,” almost universally rendered, “keep me like the apple of your eye.” (The only version I know of that translates ishun literally is the NJB: “Guard me as the pupil of an eye.”).

The second expression is, “hide me in the shadow of your wings,” and, again, translations show very little variation.

But the brilliant part of Psalm 17:8 is the juxtaposition of ishun (“dark spot”) with tzel (“shadow”), a trick every translation misses.

What we would need to complement “apple of your eye” in the same way is another expression involving fruit.

Any suggestions for a good translation of Psalm 17:8?

(Extra points if you preserve the chiasmus, and triple extra points if you can figure out what bat ayin means.)

October 16, 2009 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Translation Challenge: Psalm 2:2

Psalm 2:2 exhibits particularly clever structure, with meanings that form chiasmus and word combinations that pattern in straight parallelism.

The Hebrew reads: yityats’vu malchei erets//v’roznim nosdu yachdav. Yityatsvu means the about same thing as nosdu yachdav, and malchei eretz is like roznim. That’s the chiasmus. But equally, each line has three words, and both times the first words stand alone while the 2nd and 3rd form a pair.

Obviously, the KJV “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together” preserves none of this.

Can anyone think of a translation that captures the structure and meaning and beauty of the original?

October 13, 2009 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , , | 8 Comments