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 | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Genesis 2:18 and Homosexuality

Genesis 2:18 sets the stage for (one account of) Eve’s creation. God declares that “it is not good for the man to be alone,” which is why God decides to make, as the NRSV translates, a “helper suitable for him”: Eve.

Because Adam and Eve are the paradigmatic married couple in the Bible — and more generally, because we are all Adam and Eve — one interpretation of this arrangement in Genesis is that men should only marry women and women men.

Buttressing this claim is an often-cited alternative translation for the Hebrew word k’negdo. While the NRSV renders this as “suitable,” some others focus on the root of the word, neged, and translate the word as “opposite” or “complementing.” If so, Eve’s purpose was to be different than Adam. More generally, a man’s spouse is supposed to be different than him, that is, a woman.

As it happens, k’negdo doesn’t mean “different than him.” It means “matching.” One way to match things is pairing things that are opposite, but certainly it’s not the only way. In spite of this nuance, however, the complementarian interpretation of Genesis is reasonable.

But it’s not the only reasonable interpretation.

It’s just as reasonable to focus on the point of Eve’s creation, namely, that Adam shouldn’t be alone. More generally, people shouldn’t be alone. If it then turns out — as certainly seems to be the case — that some men can only find partnership with other men and that some women can only find partnership with other women, then Genesis 2 might not only allow homosexual marriage but, in fact, demand it.

In other words, one way of looking at Genesis 2 is that people should behave like Adam and Eve, a man marrying a woman and woman marrying a man. Another equally valid way is that people should behave like Adam and Eve, finding a partner so they are not alone.

March 14, 2016 Posted by | biblical interpretation, translation practice, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 13 Comments

What’s This Leaping in Luke 1:41?

According to the NRSV translation of Luke 1:41, Elizabeth’s “child leaped in her womb.”

The Greek here for “womb” (koilia) means “belly” or “stomach.” It’s the same word used of the snake in Genesis, for instance, which is punished to walk on its belly. Because snakes don’t have wombs, contexts like this show us that the Greek word is more general than “womb.” But “womb” is still a reasonable translation. And certainly we know that the “child” was in the womb, not some other part of Elizabeth’s anatomy, even if the original text was less clear.

The “child” here (brefos) probably refers literally to what we might now call an infant. But, like the (well accepted) shift from “stomach” to “womb,” I think we should translate this as “fetus.” Even if I’m wrong, though, I don’t think this word has much to do with the status of a fetus, for reasons I’ve already pointed out — in particular, the general way in which words are disconnected from the time at which they apply. (This is why the “child” in a woman’s womb in Leviticus similarly doesn’t tell us about the status of a fetus.)

What about the leaping? What was this child or infant or fetus doing?

The Greek is skirtao, and here we find a surprise. That Greek verb is used elsewhere almost entirely in two (related?) contexts: figuratively, and of fetuses.

In Genesis 25:22, Rebekka’s twin children “struggled together within her.” That’s skirtao.

In Psalm 114 (verses 4 and 6), mountains “skip”; in Wisdom 17:19, animals whose running is invisible “leap”; in Malachi 3:20, those who revere God’s name shall “leap” like calves; in Jeremiah, plunderers “frisk about” like a cow; and in Luke 6:23, God’s chosen should rejoice and “leap for joy.” All of those are skirtao in Greek. (Joel 1:17 uses the verb, too, but in a translation that doesn’t accord perfectly with the original text.)

So it looks like “leap” is only one possible translation, and probably not even the best. Perhaps “moved in the way that fetuses do” would be better. Or maybe “leaped for joy” in the same metaphoric sense of the English phrase, which indicates joy but not necessarily actual leaping.

One thing is certain, though. If we go with the NRSV translation of “leap,” we must understand the language figuratively. While fetuses can shift, kick, and otherwise move, actual physical leaping is beyond their ability.

September 24, 2015 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

How Not To Talk About Homosexuality in Romans 1

A New York Times article yesterday titled “Christians Debate Verses From Bible on Homosexuality” presents, among other things, two views of what Paul says about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27. Unfortunately, both positions depend on translation inaccuracies.

Romans 1:26-27

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Caleb Kaltenbach, the lead pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA, claims: “The word that Paul uses for `natural’ is not referring to what is natural to a specific person, but rather what is natural in light of God’s intent for the sexual design of humanity.” In other words, he says, no one can be naturally homosexual.

Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, counters: “While Paul labels same-sex behavior `unnatural,’ he uses the same word to criticize long hair in men in 1 Corinthians 11:14, which most Christians read as a synonym for `unconventional.'” That is, it’s not that homosexuality is unnatural, but rather, like hair styles, a matter of conventionality.

I can’t find linguistic support for either view.

As issue is the Greek word fusis (“nature”) and its adjectival cousin fusikos (“natural”). According to Romans 1:26, “women exchanged natural [fusikos] intercourse for that which is against nature [fusis].” Pastor Kaltenbach thinks this refers not an individual’s nature but rather to a universal divine intent. Mr. Vines thinks this refers to conventionality.

Galatians 2:15 suggests that Pastor Kaltenbach is wrong about the word fusis. There, Paul writes that “we are Jews by nature [fusis]” even though (2:16) “we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” Recognizing the obvious role of fusis in this passage, most translations render the text “we are Jews by birth.” In this case, fusis means precisely “that which is natural for a specific person,” namely, the person born a Jew. If Pastor Kaltenbach were right, Galatians 2:15 would mean that the new Christians were going against “what is natural in light of God’s intent for … humanity.”

We see that, contrary to Pastor Kaltenbach’s claim, fusis can in fact refer to what is natural to a specific person.

Turing to Mr. Vines’s position, 1 Corinthians 11:14 does use the word fusis, in the context of men growing their hair long, but the long hair isn’t against nature. Rather, the long hair is “degrading,” a quality conveyed by a different Greek word, atimia. (In other contexts, atimia ranges in meaning from “disgraceful” to “ordinary.” Romans 1:26 uses this word to describe some lusts as “shameful.”) That is, the role of “nature” here is not to describe the long hair. Rather, it’s “nature” that teaches that men’s long hair is atimia. It’s not quite true, in other words, that “Paul uses the same word [fusis] to criticize long hair in men.”

We see that even though Romans 1:26-27 shares vocabulary with 1 Corinthians 11:14, the long hair on men in 1 Corinthians is not parallel with the unnatural intercourse in Romans 1.

More generally, the linguistic nuances in Romans 1 offer little insight into whether Paul was speaking out against homosexuality. All we really know is that Paul was of the belief that there are two kids of sex, natural and unnatural. He doesn’t say whether homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, admits of both categories.

June 9, 2015 Posted by | translation applications, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

Translating The Purpose of the Words?

As I recently explained on my blog for “The Unabridged Bible” (“Why did they Build the Tower of Babel?“), the Tower of Babel was waterproofed, the goal being to protect the people against a future flood from God.

The text even says so: “And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar” (Genesis 11:3, NRSV). But if you’re not an expert in ancient materials science you don’t know that bitumen was an ancient waterproofing substance.

So here’s the question: An ancient reader of the text would have known the role of bitumen, and the waterproofing is central to the narrative. Should the translation therefore help modern readers follow along? Perhaps the line should read, “They had brick for stone, and waterproofing bitumen for mortar.”

What do you think?

October 29, 2014 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , | 13 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

Was Haman Hanged or Impaled in the Book of Esther?

Haman-Manuscript-HangingWith attention focused on the Book of Esther as the Jewish holiday of Purim approaches, I decided to take a quick break from building “The Unabridged Bible” to address the violent details of the antagonist’s death in the story, because they are interesting in their own right, and are also a prefect demonstration of the two-fold challenge of Bible translation.

The issue is this: As part of the battle between Mordecai (the hero) and Haman (the villain), Haman plans Mordecai’s death in a particular fashion, but in the end the instrument of death is turned on Haman himself.

According to the NRSV, Haman’s wife suggested (verse 5:14) that “a gallows fifty cubits [seventy-five feet] high be made … to have Mordecai hanged on it.” But the JPS translation offers instead, “Let a stake be put up … to have Mordecai impaled on it.” Verse 7:10 details the plot reversal: the King’s men either “hanged Haman on the gallows” (NRSV) or “impaled Haman on the stake” (JPS).

So which is it? Was it a gallows or stake? And was Haman hanged or impaled?

There are two questions here, as there always are with matters of translation. The first is what the original Hebrew means. The second is how best to say that in English.

The Hebrew verb is talah, which means “to hang.” And the Hebrew noun is eitz, “tree” or “wood.” So it looks straightforward. It was a tall piece of wood, and what they did to Haman was hang him on it.

Surprisingly, though, the way to say that in English is not “hang Haman,” because even though the verb “hang” in general encompasses a wide variety of acts, it has a very narrow meaning in English in connection to killing someone: putting the person’s head through a loop of rope and hanging the rope, not the person, from some horizontal structure. (Imagine a comic. The caption is “she told me to hang the wash.” The drawing shows shirts in a noose.)

In other words, “Haman was hanged from a gallows” means that a vertical post was constructed to support a horizontal crossbar; a noose was hung from that crossbar; and Haman was suspended by the neck from that noose. There is almost no chance that this is what the text intended. (This specialized meaning of “hang” used to have its own past tense: “hanged,” as opposed to “hung.” Most people don’t preserve that distinction any more.)

But if not in stereotypical western-movie fashion, how was Haman suspended from the wooden post? Here, unfortunately, we don’t have a clear answer. One reasonable possibility is that he was impaled by the post. Another is that he was crucified in some fashion. We don’t know for sure. (The evidence comes in part from Greek translations, and in part from other Greek writing about the capital punishment practices of the Medes.)

So what do we do about a translation? “Hanged on a gallows” is clearly wrong. It wasn’t a gallows as we think of it, and he wasn’t hanged. “Impaled on a stake” might be right. Certainly “stake” is better than “gallows.” But “impaled” adds a detail that might not be right, and, even if it is, goes beyond what the text actually tells us.

My suggestion, then, is “they hung Haman on the stake.” At least to my ear, this conveys the original image of Haman being attached in some direct manner to a tall piece of wood from which he hung.

What do you think?

March 11, 2014 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Translating an Ancient Hebrew Prayer of Thanks from the Dead Sea Scrolls

As I’ve said, I’m devoting most of my energy for the next little while to “The Unabridged Bible,” which will gradually start officially rolling out soon.

In the meantime, readers here may enjoy my translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls on that site because of my copious translation notes, and because the passages frequently quote the Bible.

Here’s part of one I added today, from 1QH, the scroll of “thanksgiving hymns”:

I offer thanks to you2 Lord, for your eye stood guard3 over me and you saved my soul4 from the zeal of those who spread lies, and from the community of those who seek rumors. You redeemed5 this downtrodden one6 whom they conspired to finish off7 by pouring out his blood on account of his service to you. It failed because they did not know that my steps come from you.8 They made me a mockery9

Keep reading…

January 13, 2014 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , | 1 Comment

Q&A: Is the Virgin Birth a Mistranslation?

From the About page comes this question:

I saw a teaser on the History Channel about a Bible show coming up. They said that the Virgin Birth is a translation mistake. Is this really true?

AlmahThe short answer is no, it’s not true. The longer and more interesting answer is that a mistranslation does come into play, but only indirectly.

The Bible show is “Bible Secrets Revealed.” (Incidentally, I’ll be in it. More on that later.) And I presume this is the teaser Brian saw: Bible Secrets Revealed: Sneak Peek. About 20 seconds in (not counting the annoying ad), Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou repeats a claim she’s made to the BBC in the past: “The idea the Jesus must have been born of a virgin is essentially a mistranslation.” But it’s not.

The text displayed as Dr. Stavrakopoulou speaks is Isaiah 7:14, which originally referred to a young woman even though it is often wrongly translated as “a virgin shall conceive.” The mistranslation as “virgin” dates back to the Greek version of the Bible known as the Septuagint, which renders the Hebrew alma (“young woman”) there as parthenos (“virgin”). It’s not the only place the Septuagint makes this and similar mistakes. But because Matthew (1:23) highlights the Greek here, this mistranslation is well known.
Continue reading

November 3, 2013 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

What did God Really Create in the Beginning?

What did God create in the beginning?

The usual answer is as obvious as it is wrong: “heaven and earth.”

The problem is that the Hebrew for the first word here means “sky,” not “heaven.” In English, the birds, clouds, rain, etc. are all in the sky, not in heaven. Heaven, by contrast, is, depending on one’s theology, either where good people go when they die or where all people go when they die.

A translation variation, “heavens,” is a little better, but only to the extent that that Biblish word has entered the mainstream. People don’t talk about “cloudy heavens” when it’s overcast. They talk about a cloudy sky.

We see the Hebrew word, shamayim, ten times in the first chapter of Genesis.

The final four times the word is where birds are, which is obviously the “sky” in English, not “heaven” or “heavens.”

Four times the word appears in connection with the Hebrew raki’a, which is usually translated into English as “firmament” — though, again, that’s a word whose use is almost entirely confined to translations of Genesis; the NRSV’s “dome” isn’t a bad alternative. The raki’a is the ancient conception of the sky, which is why the Hebrew raki’a is God’s name for the shamayim, in one place, just like “day” is God’s name for “light.”

In one case, the shamayim is the place under which the water of the ocean is gathered — again, “sky” in English.

And that leaves Genesis 1:1, where God creates the shamayim. (If you’re counting along, it seems like we now have eleven instances, not ten, but only because one of them appears in two lists — in connection with raki’a and in connection with birds.)

Elsewhere in the Bible (Deut. 11:17, e.g.), a lack of rain results when the shamayim gets stopped up. The shamayim is where the stars are (Gen. 26:4). And so forth. All of these are “sky” in English.

So it seems to me that Genesis 1:1 should talk about the “the sky and the land” or “the sky and the earth.”

The only possible reason I can think of not to go with this clear translation is that the Hebrew pair shamayim and eretz is used metaphorically (as a merism) to represent all of creation. (This is presumably why the ISV goes with “universe” here. But in turning the pair “sky/earth” into the one word “universe,” the ISV destroys the dualism that underlies the creation story.)

So what do you think? Is there any reason to keep the common translation “heaven(s)”?

October 9, 2013 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , | 12 Comments