God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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

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

More on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Suzanne McCarthy brings up the issue, again, of whether the Greek word anthropos is exclusively masculine (“man”) or gender neutral (“person”).

The short answer is that it is both.

We’ve been through this before, but the Greek framework of gender really is difficult for speakers of languages like English to grasp in the abstract, so here are some English examples that will help make things clearer.

The first example is the English word “day,” which has two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “24-hour period.” There are seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, stores are open for 24 hours a day, etc. The second is “part of a day.” Some pharmacies are open day and night, night follows day, days get shorter in winter, etc.

The second example is “luck,” which again was two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “good fortune.” The phrase “with any luck” means “with good fortune.” The second meaning is more general, “fortune of any sort.” That’s why people can have good luck or bad luck, and why “I can’t believe his luck” applies equally to lucky people and unlucky people.

The third example is “child,” which yet again has two meanings: “young human” and “any human with a parent.” So we have the phrase, “men, women, and children,” but also “adult children of aging parents.”

This final case is particularly interesting, because every person has a parent (even if the parents are dead: “children continue to mourn their parents’ death for years”). Just looking at the two definitions, it would seem that “child” in the sense of “someone’s offspring of any age” is a pretty silly word to have. How would it be different than “person”?

The answer is that “child” in this broader sense is only used in connection with parents. “Here comes a child” almost always refers only to a juvenile. But “parents and children” is ambiguous.

The case of “day” shows us a pattern that is similar in some ways, different in others. It’s different in that “day” is completely ambiguous. In my dialect, at least, if a store is “open all day,” I don’t know if it’s open at night or not. But it’s similar in that the phrase “day and night” is entirely clear.

One important lesson we learn from all of this is that words often have one meaning when they are used alone, and a separate meaning when they are used in distinction to something else. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the various meanings can seem confusing, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Nonetheless, native speakers usually find the words entirely clear.

Not surprisingly, the Greek anthropos works just like these words.

By itself, it usually means “person.” John 16:21 is a pretty clear example: “a woman in labor suffers pain, but when her child is born she doesn’t remember her pain on account of her joy at having brought a person [anthropos] into the world.” To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks that this only refers to male children.

On the other hand, anthropos also contrasts with female-gender words like thugater (“daughter”), e.g. in Matthew 10:35; gune (“woman”), e.g., in Matthew 19:3; etc. Looking at the second instance, it’s clear that “an anthropos leaves his father and mother and joins his wife” refers only to men taking wives, not women. I don’t think anyone believes otherwise.

These examples point in a very clear linguistic direction. The Greek word anthropos — like many gendered words in gendered languages and like many other words in other languages — has more than one meaning.

In this context — and I think this was Suzanne’s point in her posting — it’s common to observe (as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does here) that “in the New Testament, when this term [anthropos] is used for specific individuals, it always refers to males” (their emphasis).

Maybe. But it does not follow from this (potential) fact that anthropos cannot refer to a specific woman. And they even provide the evidence, in their next paragraph: “The list of specific men of which anthropos is used is quite long […] as distinct from the three times Christ refers to a woman (gune) in a parable.”

The lopsided nature of the text here — that is, the very fact that our data set includes a long list of men and only three women — warns us not to draw general conclusions about the word. If we enlarge the data set, to include, for instance, Suzanne’s example from Herodotus’ Histories (1.60), we do find anthropos used in regard to a specific woman.

Two additional points seem in order:

First, I gather from the CBMW piece that some people are trying to use the linguistic qualities of the word anthropos to determine Jesus’ gender. This doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Again from the CBMW piece: “That Jesus is an anthropos means first of all that he is a human being; but it also means that he is a male human being.” I don’t think so.

Secondly, I frequently read claims like, “Jewish women [in Jesus’ day] were kept in subjection and sometimes even in seclusion” (from Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, quoted in the CBMW piece). Again, I don’t think so. Salome Alexandra ruled Judaea as queen for about a decade shortly before Jesus’ time. This was a hardly a culture that universally denied power to women.

At any rate, and in summary, lots of words have a variety of interrelated, sometimes contradictory meanings that are determined in part by context. The Greek anthropos is no different. Sometimes its meaning most closely overlaps with “man,” sometimes with “person,” sometimes with “human.” But picking and choosing examples without taking into account how language works will almost always lead to a conclusion that is as convincing as it is wrong.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 59 Comments

On Biblical Masculinity and Femininity

Gender roles are a hot topic, so it should come as no surprise that people are looking to the Bible for guidance.

Biblical-Masculinity-FemininityOver the summer, Larry Crabb published his Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. Explaining it to Christianity Today, he says:

Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it.

Unfortunately, Dr. Crabb makes fundamental factual and methodological errors here.

Factually, the Hebrew neqebah (“female”) comes from the root for “pierce,” not “open to receive.” Though the common translation of neqebah as “pierced” is probably not as accurate as “hollow,” the point is the same: the Hebrew neqebah describes the female sex organ.

More importantly, zakar (“male”) comes from a multifaceted root that does not simply mean “remember.” Rather, the root is connected more broadly to referring to something that is not physically present. One way of doing this is to remember something from the past, but there are many others. In Exodus 3:15, for instance, the root gives us zeker as a synonym for “name,” because a name is one way of referring to something that is not physically present. Another way is to point, and it may be this meaning that gives us the Hebrew zakar.

If so, the Hebrew word for “male” comes from the pointing organ and the word for “female” from the hollow organ.

But whatever the case, the methodological errors make the factual evidence irrelevant, because words do not get their meaning from their etymology. As I explain in And God Said, this is one of the most basic tenets of language, and also one of the most common Bible translation traps.

Just for example, a “building” in English comes from the verb to “build,” but that doesn’t mean that we primarily think of buildings in terms of how they are built, just as the word’s etymology doesn’t preclude the possibility of a building being something we occupy. Another English example is the pair of words “grammar” and “glamour,” which share an etymology even though most people don’t think of grammar as glamorous.

Similarly, the etymologies of the Hebrew words for “male” and “female” — memory and reception, or piercing and pierced, or pointing and hollow — are irrelevant to their meaning. So they do nothing to help answer Dr. Crabb’s question of “what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine.”

It seems to me that what Dr. Crabb has done is take his own notions of what men and women should be and, through flawed linguistics, put them in the mouth of God.

September 17, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Money, Honor, and Bible Translation

It’s well known that the Greek word for “honor” (timi, often spelled timē) also means “price.” This is why timi is used to translate both the Hebrew kavod (“honor”) and the Hebrew m’chir (“price”). It’s also why timi in Matthew 27:6 is translated as “price,” while in Hebrews 2:7, it’s “honor.” Indeed, lexicons often have two entries for the Greek timi, as though the word means two different things.

But that modern analysis isn’t really right.

It’s not quite true that the word timi has two meanings. Rather, “honor” and “price” were considered the same sort of thing in Greek culture, and they were both timi.

As with many cross-cultural, cross-linguistic matters, this claim at first sounds absurd to English speakers, for whom “honor” and “price” have nothing in common, and, in fact, are in a sense nearly opposites. “Price” has to do with mundane matters like money, while “honor” operates on a different plane. (Yet even in English we both “pay a price” and “pay honor.”)

The background that created these two aspects of timi — which we call “honor” and “price” in English — is both fascinating and complicated. For now, we can note that “honor” was a general measure of a person’s value, while a “price” was a measure of a thing’s value, and, sadly, also of a person’s value, as a result of slavery. (If you’re really interested, start with Richard Seaford’s Money and the Early Greek Mind.)

The basic similarity of “honor” and “price” — both a measure of value — is essential if we want to understand the biblical passages that refer to timi.

To start, we find the word in Romans 13:7: “Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor [timi] to whom honor [timi]is due” (NRSV). But the translation is misleading.

The English rendition makes it seem as though Paul is talking first about one kind of thing (taxes and revenue), then about another (respect and honor). But just as “taxes” and “revenue” are in the same category in English, all four words were similar in Greek. Paul is only talking about one kind of thing here.

This is, of course, a huge translation dilemma. How do we translate timi in such a way as to include the general notion of “honor” but also make it clear that we’re talking about the same kind of thing as “price”? (Any suggestions?)

I Corinthians 6:20 is even more difficult: “For you were bought with a price [timi]; therefore glorify God in your body” (NRSV). The Greek connection between “price” (timi) and “glorify” (from doxa, “glory”) was obvious, because the Greek timi was a near synonym for doxa — just as the English “honor” and “glory” are related. But “price” and “glory” in English have nothing in common. The NRSV translation destroys the linguistic argument. Again, it’s a translation dilemma. (Perhaps: “A price was paid for you, therefore pay God glory with your body.”)

Even Matthew 22:21, the famous “Render under Caesar…,” makes more sense in the correct cultural context. As the NRSV has it: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The original question is regarding taxes. But recognizing that taxes and money are just like honor and glory, we can read between the lines: the emperor gets the emperor’s timi, and God gets God’s.

More generally, we have a problem with more than just Romans 13:7, I Corinthians 6:20, and other passages in which timi connects wealth and merit. Any time we read “honor” for timi, we are missing part of the message, because the very notion of “honor” for us is not what it was for the Greeks. Greek “honor” included an element of finance. Similarly, whenever we read “price” for timi, we are missing the inherent connection to honor and glory.

I can’t think of a clean translation solution (any suggestions?), but understanding the issues is always an important first step. And at least in most egregious instances, we can try to pay careful attention to what our translations miss.

May 13, 2013 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Once Upon a Time in Bible Translation

Earlier this week I posted a piece on the Huffington Post about different biblical writing styles. In particular, I claim that the exaggerated ages in Genesis served to notify the ancient reader that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally.

In other words, there are at least two different kinds of stories in the Bible: those meant as history and those not meant as history. Furthermore, the different kinds of stories were written differently.

(The quick summary is this: The OT has three parts, detailing: the world, the people Israel, and life in Jerusalem. Only in the third do the characters tend to live biologically reasonable lives. Furthermore, historians generally agree that only the third is historically accurate. This suggests that the ancient authors used large, symbolic ages to mark non-historical stories. I have more in Chapter 8 of And God Said.)

If I’m right — and with almost 4,000 comments on my Huffington Post piece, it’s clear that not everyone thinks I am — an obvious question presents itself: Should we translate these stories differently?

Sometimes the answer to “should we?” in Bible translation is “yes, but we can’t.” In this case, though, we’re lucky, because in English we have a simple, widely accepted way to mark non-historical stories: “Once upon a time.”

Should we, then, translate Genesis 6:9 as, “Once upon a time, there lived a righteous man named Noah…”? Should Genesis 11:1 read, “Once upon a time, the whole earth had one language…”?

What do you think?

March 8, 2013 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 32 Comments

Modernity and Accuracy: Another False Dichotomy

Bible translation seems plagued by a few myths that won’t let go. One of them was recently repeated by Dr. Eugene Merrill in the Christian Post when he said that “if you want a more contemporary […] translation, you’re going to have to give up some accuracy.”

I don’t think it’s true.

Dr. Merrill was explaining the infamous “literal (or word-for-word)” versus “dynamic equivalent (or thought-for-thought)” styles of translation, as the article calls them. But even though there are two broadly different kinds of published Bible versions, that doesn’t mean that there are two equally good ways to convey the ancient text, or that the tradeoff is between modern rendition and accuracy.

Rather the most accurate translation is often also a modern rendition. Just to pick one example (which I explain further in my recent Huffington Post piece on the importance of context), the stiff and word-for-word “God spoke unto Moses saying” is neither modern nor accurate. A better translation, with English punctuation doing the job of some of the Hebrew words, is: “God said to Moses, `…'” And that’s both modern and accurate.

It does seem true that a modern translation and a less accurate word-for-word one say different things — sometimes in terms of basic content, and more often in terms of nuance. I think that some people mistake bad translations for the original meaning, and then lament modern translations that don’t match the older, less accurate ones.

For instance, “God spoke unto Moses saying” has a certain odd tone to it. Some people, I fear, worry that my modern alternative doesn’t convey that odd tone. And, of course, they’re right. But then they make an erroneous leap and conclude that my translation strays from the original, when it’s actually the familiar translation that doesn’t do justice to the source.

Dr. Merrill’s example in the article is b’nai yisrael. He explains that the traditional “sons of Israel” could mislead modern readers into thinking that the phase only refers to males. But the more modern “people of Israel,” accord to Dr. Merrill, also falls short because it strays from the literal, masculine meaning of the word b’nai.

But the reasoning here is flawed. If b’nai refers to both men and women — which everyone agrees that it does — then it what sense does it literally refer only to men? It’s only the older translation, “sons of Israel,” that potentially excludes the women.

So this doesn’t strike me as a choice between modernity and accuracy, but, instead, a modern, accurate option and an older, less accurate one.

To consider an English-only example, one possible way to explain “commuter train” is “a train from the suburbs to a main city.” A possible objection could be that that explanation fails to indicate that “commute” literally means “to change,” and, more specifically, “to change one kind of payment into another,” as in, for example, “combining individual fares into one fare.” The original “commuter trains” were trains in the 19th century from the New York City suburbs in which the full fare was commuted to entice riders.

While I find this sort of background fascinating, I don’t think that it’s necessary for understanding what a 21st century commuter train is. In fact, it’s a mistake to think that a commuter train must be one in which the fare is commuted.

Similarly, I don’t think that knowing the grammatical details of the Hebrew b’nai is necessary for understanding the text in which it is used, and, also similarly, a translation that gets bogged down in those details does a disservice to the original.

It seems to me that this kind of false tradeoff is representative of Bible translation more generally.

And more generally yet, I think that this persistent myth, which pits accuracy against modernity, contributes to Bible translations that are neither accurate nor modern.

January 23, 2013 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original Languages

One of the commonly suggested solutions for overcoming bad Bible translations is to “learn Hebrew and Greek” and “read the Bible in the original.”

While there are many good reasons to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek, I don’t think that better insight into the original meaning of the Bible is one of them.

This came up most recently in Dr. Bill Mounce’s latest post in his weekly “Mondays with Mounce” column about Bible translation: “A Translation Conundrum – 1 Tim 2:9 (Monday with Mounce 165).” There he addresses the Greek phrase en plegmasin, commonly “with braided hair” (ESV, NIV, etc.), but “with elaborate hairstyles” in the NIV2011 and “by the way they fix their hair” in the NLT.

Dr. Mounce explains that braided hair was one way of “enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church.” Accordingly, just to translate “braided hair” leaves the modern reader wrongly thinking that there is something inherently undesirable about braided hair, when the point is really what that braided hair represented.

He concludes that this is “a good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew….”

I disagree.

In this particular case, what’s needed to understand the passage is not only a knowledge of the Greek language but a detailed understanding of Greek fashion (though, in fact, I think the fuller context of the verse makes the meaning pretty clear: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” [NRSV]).

This sort of issue is exactly what an amateur or even advanced Greek student would get wrong. Armed with a knowledge of Greek, such a student would look at the word plegma, discern that it means “woven,” and proudly announce that the NIV2011 got it wrong.

More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.

What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.

I still think there’s value to learning Hebrew and Greek. I see it as akin to going to a museum to see an artifact versus just reading about it. It brings people closer to the original in very powerful ways.

Additionally, both Jewish and Christian traditions hold that there’s inherent value to the original words, even beyond their meaning.

So, absolutely, learn Hebrew and Greek. But I think it’s a good idea to keep professional translations handy, too.

November 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 15 Comments