God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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

Recovering the Erotic Poetry of Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon is replete with erotic poetry, but if you only read the translations, you’d never know it.

Phrases like “my beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (1:13, NRSV) and “my beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi” (1:14, NRSV) demonstrate the problem, as these translations are neither poetic nor erotic. They are barely even coherent.

I see three kinds of problems.

First, we have the fairly common Bible-translation gaffe of mimicking the original too closely.

In the two previous examples, the problem is the grammar. The construction “my beloved is to me…” (and the similar “my beloved is for me…,” from the NAB) is grammatical but awkward in English. In Hebrew, though, the same word order is fluid and poetic.

A translator can perhaps get away with turning straightforward language into a clumsy translation when it comes to prose, but certainly not with poetry. The translations end up sounding more like a parody of courtship than the real thing.

Similarly, the translations miss the poetic impact of the Hebrew grammar. This is the second problem.

Again looking at these two examples, we see that the Hebrew phrases for “bag of myrrh” and “cluster of henna blossoms” start the sentences, thereby emphasizing them in a way that the English misses.

It’s a subtle but important difference, similar to the difference in English between, “blue skies please me//dark clouds depress me” and “I like blue skies//I dislike dark clouds.” The first one (like the original Hebrew in Song of Solomon) emphasizes the poetry; the second one (like the translations) sounds mundane.

The biggest challenge comes from the imagery. That’s the third problem.

A “bag of myrrh” and a “cluster of henna blossoms” just aren’t romantic in English-speaking cultures. The NAB’s “sachet of myrrh” is only marginally better. (I’ve mentioned similar problems before, for example: “Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon.”)

The solution to the first two problems is easy in theory, if not practice: don’t mimic the grammar but instead capture the poetic impact.

The solution to the actual imagery is more difficult. In principle, the goal is to do in English what the original does in Hebrew. But what did “sack of myrrh” convey, and is there anything like it in English? I doubt it.

Here’s what the poet Marcia Falk does with these two lines in her The Song of Songs:

Between my breasts he’ll lie —
   Sachet of spices,
Spray of blossoms plucked
   From the oasis.

What she’s done is take the irrelevant “myrrh” and translate it as “spices,” just as “henna blossoms” becomes just “blossoms,” and “En-gedi” becomes “oasis.” (Though I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, I think En-gedi is a spring, not an oasis, but “blossoms … spring” would suggest the season, which may be why Dr. Falk chose “oasis.”)

It’s poetic, but is it a translation?

There’s room for debate. She thinks the Hebrew means “he will lie,” not “it will lie.” Fair enough. Her translation omits “my lover” (wrongly “my beloved” in the NRSV and NAB); this seems more problematic to me. She changes the word order to create what (I assume) she thinks is better poetry. For me, this is also a mistake.

So, starting with Dr. Falk’s work, I might suggest:

Sachet of spices,
   my lover between my breasts.
Spray of blossoms,
   my lover in the oasis vineyards.

(What do you think?)

I still wonder, though. Was there something important about “myrrh” that we’re missing? Or if not, maybe we should pick a specific spice in English. (“Sachet of cinnamon”? “Cluster of cloves”?) Is alliteration a reasonable way to make the English text poetic, even though the Hebrew text is poetic in different ways? And if we’re going down the path of alliteration, maybe we should opt for “bouquet of blossoms.” I wonder in particular about “vineyards,” which in Song of Solomon may be overtly sexual.

With all of this mind, how would you translate these two lines?

November 14, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

How Similar Words Lead Bible Translators Astray

“Nuclear families” have nothing to do with “nuclear energy,” in spite of the word “nuclear” in both phrases.

Most people know that two unrelated words can look the same: the “bank” in “river bank” and in “money bank,” for example. Such words usually mean completely different things.

It’s less commonly appreciated that closely related words can also mean completely different things. In this case, the “nuclear” in “nuclear family” and in “nuclear energy” comes directly from the word “nucleus.” But even so, knowing what “nuclear families” are doesn’t help understand the phrase “nuclear energy.” (This kind of mistake is so common that “nuclear magnetic resonance imaging,” which measures the interaction between magnetic fields and atomic nuclei, was renamed just “magnetic resonance imaging” because “nuclear” falsely suggested that the process had something to do with radioactivity.)

This basic fact about languages has important implications for Bible translation.

One example comes from the Hebrew word hikriv, which means both “draw near” and “sacrifice.” It’s possible that these two meanings, as with “nuclear” in English,” have common ancestry. But that doesn’t mean that the two meanings are related. Nonetheless, it’s a common mistake to assume that “sacrifices” in the Bible had more to do with “drawing near” than the English translation suggests. They did not.

A second example is the Greek work sarx, literally “flesh,” but — as is widely known and often discussed — the word meant something different for Paul than it did for the authors of, say, Genesis.

If identical words can mean different things, certainly related words can, too. Yet many Bible translators ignore this fact.

An example comes from the two related words chamad and nechmad in Hebrew. They are both from the root Ch.M.D. The initial “n” in Hebrew essentially marks passive voice. And the vowel differences are a direct result of the lengths of the words. So it looks like chamad and nechmad should be related just like any other active/passive pair.

But they are not. The verb nechmad means “desirable” while the active verb chamad means “take.” This confusion led to a mistranslation of the last commandment, which should read “do not take,” not “do not covet.” (I have lots more here: “The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting” and in this video: “Thou shalt not covet?.)

Returning to the English “nuclear,” it would be a mistake to try to use “nuclear energy” to understand what “nuclear family” means, and it would almost always be a mistake for a translator from English to another language to try to use the same foreign word for “nuclear” in both cases.

Similarly, it seems to me, the Bible translation challenge in this regard is twofold: First, to differentiate between similar or even identical words, so that the meaning of one doesn’t wrongly shade the meaning of the other. And secondly, only to try to use identical English words for identical Hebrew or Greek ones when the original words mean the same thing.

October 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why Most Bible Translations are So Bad (And Why the Next Generation Should Care)

This past July I had the pleasure of presenting at a TEDx conference in East Hampton, the broad theme of which was “The Next Generation.”

So I offered an 18-minute segment on Bible translation, on what so often goes wrong with translations, and on how to avoid the common mistakes. I couched these topics in the broader theme of why the Bible is important for the next generation.

The edited version of my presentation is available here and on YouTube:

After watching it, you’ll be able to answer these questions:

  1. Why is the King James Version (“KJV”) so important for understanding Bible translation today?
  2. What are the three most common ways of understanding ancient languages?
  3. Why don’t those ways work? How do we know? And what are some consequences?
  4. What is a better approach? Again, how do we know?
  5. Why are the Ten Commandments still uniquely relevant?
  6. What does all of this have to do with supermarkets?

I’ve touched on many of these themes in individual blog posts here, and I go through all of them (except for the supermarkets) in And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, but here’s a compact and relatively complete introduction. Enjoy!

And then take a look at the other presentations.

I also want to express my thanks to Left of Frame Pictures for producing the videos.

September 14, 2011 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps, video | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Form

Zondervan has a chart (reproduced immediately below at right) suggesting that effectively conveying both the form and meaning of the original Biblical documents is the best way to reflect the original reading experience.

Zondervan Translation Chart

I disagree, and I think that Zondervan’s approach represents a common and fundamental misunderstanding about how form works.

Form and Meaning

For one thing, form contributes to meaning. So I think it’s a mistake to put “form” and “meaning” on separate axes, as though a translator can convey one without impacting the other.

We see a very basic example in English. “John sees Mary” does not mean the same thing as “Mary sees John.” The form — in this case, the order of the words — contributes to the meaning.

By contrast, word order works differently in Greek. So in Acts 10:38, we find “Jesus of Nazareth anointed God” — “Iesoun … echrisen o theos” — but it very clearly means “God anointed Jesus.” In Greek, grammatical changes to the words themselves (“case endings,” as in the change from iesous to iesoun, for example) sometimes do the same thing as word order in English.

So in this case, we see that capturing the form means missing the meaning, and vice versa.

Acts 10:38 demonstrates the point particularly clearly, but the grammar there is not exceptional. Rather, mirroring the form of the Bible in English often means sacrificing the meaning, because form works differently in Hebrew, Greek, and English.

I have more examples in my post on mimicry.

Form and Flavor

I suspect that people often have “flavor” in mind when they think of “form.” Flavor (which I call “affect” in And God Said) includes the difference between formal and informal language, between funny and serious, etc.

In English, “God, no one has seen” is either particularly formal, or, for some speakers, ungrammatical. But I think everyone can understand that it means the same thing as “No one has seen God.” The difference between the first version (“God, no one has seen”) and the second is a matter of flavor.

And, like meaning, this difference in flavor is conveyed by the word order.

But in Greek, “God no one has seen” — theon oudeis eoraken — is not formal in the same way. That’s why John 1:18 (theon [God] oudeis [no one] eoraken [has seen]) is translated “no one has ever seen God” as opposed to “God no one has ever seen.” To translate “God, no one has seen” is to misunderstand how Greek and English work.

As with meaning, we see that form contributes to flavor, but it not the same as flavor. More generally, in order to capture the flavor, a translator often has to sacrifice the form.

The Inherent Value of Form

Translation Chart: Slavery to Form

Once we see that conveying the form doesn’t help with the meaning or with the flavor, I think we see that conveying the form is only helpful for actually studying the original languages of the Bible, not for conveying the original reading experience.

So my version of Zondervan’s chart (at left) notes that a good translation conveys both the meaning and flavor of the original, and further notes that slavery to form makes it difficult to do either one well.

January 18, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps, using Bible translations | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Too Much Information

Translators frequently have information at their disposal that doesn’t come directly from the text they are translating.

Though it’s often tempting, it is nonetheless almost always a mistake to add the additional information into the translation.

For example, if a mystery novel starts, “a man was walking by the beach,” the translator should not change it to, “Mr. Smith was walking by the beach,” even if it later turns out that Mr. Smith was the man.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment begins with odin molodoi chelovek, “a young man.” The reader soon learns that the young man used to be a student. But it would surely be a mistake for a translator to render the Russian as “former student” instead of “man,” even though the guy happens to have been a student.

This sort of mistake comes up frequently in Bible translation.

Four Examples

People / Men — Anthropos

We just saw one clear case at Bible Gateway‘s new translation blog, regarding the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 (“and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people [anthropoi] who will be able to teach others as well,” NRSV). The question there is whether the translation for anthropoi should be “people” or “men.”

Ray Van Neste’s answer notes that the leadership position referred to in 2 Timothy 2:1-7 “has been forbidden to women in [verse 12 of] 1 Timothy 2.” Based on this, Dr. Van Neste seems to claim that anthropoi should be translated “men.”

But even if he is right about who the anthropoi are, his reasoning is flawed. Just because the people are men doesn’t mean that anthropoi means “men,” or that “men” is the right translation, any more than “young student” is the right translation for the “young man” in Crime and Punishment.

Hebrews 5:1 works the same way. There, high priests are selected from among anthropoi. I suppose they were probably men, but that doesn’t mean the translation should say “men” where the original is broader: “people.”

Similarly, I suppose the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 were also followers of Christ. Should we therefore translate “reliable Christians” for pistoi anthropoi? Of course not. To translate “Christians” is to add information that comes from other parts of the text. To translate “men” is to make the same mistake.

People / Slaves — Nephesh

Another example came up in a comment to a discussion about nephesh in Genesis 12:5 on BBB: “Abram took … the persons [nepheshes] whom they had acquired in Haran…” (NRSV). Yancy Smith points out that some versions translate nephesh as “slave,” rather than “person,” because the nepheshes there are “acquired.”

But again, the reasoning (of the TEV and others) is flawed. Even if the people are slaves, there is a difference between “acquiring people” and “acquiring slaves.” The Hebrew has the former, and so should the translation.

The Son of God / Christ

A third example comes from Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (NRSV). The “Son of God” is, of course, “Christ,” also translated as “Messiah.” We see the identity, for example, in Matthew 26:63: “tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (NRSV). But that doesn’t mean that we can translate Mark 1:1 as “Jesus Christ, the Messiah.”

Dry Bones

Our final example for now comes from the “dry bone” prophesy in Ezekiel, who is told in verse 37:4: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (NRSV). In verses 37:9 and 37:11, the reader learns that these bones are the “slain” “house of Israel.” It’s a brilliant progression, and it would be destroyed by translating “bones” as “slain of the house of Israel” in 37:4.


It seems to me that, wherever possible, translators should translate the text of the Bible without destroying the nuances of the original. And often, providing too much information makes a translation less accurate.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Dependence on the Dictionary

The Dictionary

The dictionary can be double edged sword, used either to understand or wielded to confuse.

In another forum, a KJVO proponent defended the KJV translation “the voice of the turtle” (for the Hebrew kol ha-tor) as accurately representing a bird call in Song of Songs. His reasoning was that “turtledove” is listed as one of the (archaic) meanings for “turtle,” so “voice of the turtle,” he says, means, “voice of the dove.”

I think this approach is as common as it is misguided.

It usually goes something like this:
Continue reading

June 14, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Mimicry

One of the most non-intuitive aspects of translation is that mimicry can lead the translator astray.

For example, it stands to reason that an adverb at the beginning of Hebrew sentence should be translated into English by an adverb at the beginning of a sentence; and, similarly, that an adverb at the end in Hebrew should be rendered as a final adverb in English.

But the reasoning is flawed. This is why the translation of the Hebrew word breishit (“in the beginning”), may not belong at the start of Genesis 1:1.

Modern Languages

As usual, we can look at modern languages to get a sense of the situation. This time, we’ll look at word order in modern Russian and modern Hebrew.

Spoken colloquial Russian allows considerable word-order variation. In fact, in the Russian equivalent of “Yesterday John saw Sarah” (v’chera Ivan videl Saru), all 24 logically possible word orders are grammatical. By contrast, the written language is more restrictive in Russian, generally requiring something close to what we allow in English.

Modern Hebrew also allows more word-order variation than English. But in Hebrew, it’s the written language that is more flexible than the spoken one. So in written Hebrew, again all 24 logically possible word orders are grammatical, but the spoken language is more restrictive.

The naive way to translate Russian into Hebrew is to preserve the word order. After all, the Russian word order is always grammatical in Hebrew (in this example). But mimicking the word order sometimes take colloquial Russian and turns it into formal Hebrew.

This demonstrates what can go wrong when translators mimic instead of translating.


Rather than merely mimicking the original word-order, translators need to look at what the word order in Hebrew or Greek does, and then try to do the same thing in English. More generally, I think this lesson applies not just to word order but also to other aspects of grammar.


Perhaps the most mimicry-based translation is Dr. Everett Fox’s (and this is the problem I have with his work). To take an example that just came up in a discussion on BBB, we can look at part of his rendering of Genesis 22. In verse 2, he translates the Hebrew y’chidcha as “your only-one.” Presumably the hyphenated “only-one” is supposed to mimic the one-word Hebrew yachid. But in (partially) mimicking the number of words, Fox has taken ordinary Hebrew and turned it into bizarre English.

Fox’s “started-early” (verse 3) for the one Hebrew word hishkim makes the same mistake.

Dr. Robert Alter’s rendition of Psalm 104 — which he discusses in the introduction to his generally excellent The Book of Psalms — makes the same mistake. He gives us, “grandeur and glory You don,” which is barely English. He wants to preserve what he calls syntactic fronting. The problem is that the resulting English is bizarre in a way that the Hebrew never was.

A third example comes from Matthew 6:11. The common “give us this day our daily bread” mimics the Greek word order rather than translating it. It is well known that putting full phrases between the verb and its object in English is an odd word order. So “this day” doesn’t belong between “give us” and “our daily bread.” (Also “daily bread” might be wrong, but that’s for another time.)

I don’t know if this strange word order comes from the Greek (which reads: “our daily bread give us today”) or just from the KJV (which was written in a dialect that allowed for more word-order freedom). Either way, the right way to translate the Greek is to use English word order: “Give us our daily bread today” (again, if “daily bread” is right.)

May 28, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , | 8 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Missing the Point

[Between six appearances in four cities and then having to buy a new car, I haven’t been in front of a computer in nearly two weeks. So I’m playing catch-up, starting with a much-delayed installment of “translation traps.”]

Following up on some thoughts about myopic translations, here’s one way in particular that a translation can focus too closely on the words and not closely enough on the text.

This is a typical translation of a (Modern) Hebrew text into English:

Rain was falling, it was cold and wet. We sat at home, we looked out toward the street.
I sat with Tali. It was very cold. I said, “What a shame. We can’t do anything.”
[I’m] not allowed to go out and play ball. It’s just cold and wet and [I’m] not allowed. [I’m] not allowed.”
We kept sitting. Just, just, just, just [sitting]. It was the most boring [thing] in the world.
And then something moved. Bump. Wow, what a bump. We were so shocked.
We looked, and then he made his way in. We looked, and we saw, a mischievous cat.

For reference, here’s the original Hebrew, with word-for-word translations:







But the English translation above, even though at first glance it may seem pretty good, is wrong in almost every regard. Can you figure out what happened?

Continue reading

April 22, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Myopic Translations

Sometimes it seems that translators look too closely at individual words, only asking “how do I say this ancient word in English?” rather than asking “how do I translate this text into English?” I think this flawed approach comes in part from ignorance, but also from the religious tradition that each word has meaning. So this is one way in which scientific translation can sometimes diverge from religious interpretation.

Getting it Right


As a simple example of a good translation that comes from looking beyond individual words, we can consider Numbers 24:5, which is about Jacob’s tents (“your tents, Jacob”). The first Hebrew word in that verse, ma, means “what” and the second word (tovu) means “were good.” But it’s wrong to translate “what good were your tents, Jacob?” Every translation that I know of gets this right with “how good are your tents…”

This is a case where a word normally has one translation (“what,” in our example) but certain circumstances call for another (“how,” here).


Matthew 1:18 is similar. It’s the first of several times we find the Greek phrase en gastri, “in the womb”: “Mary was found to be en gastri….” But it doesn’t mean that Mary was in the womb, because the next Greek word is echousa, “holding.” “Holding in the womb” is Greek for “pregnant,” or — as used to be common — “with child.”*

Again most translations get this right, correctly realizing that even though the Greek words for “in” and “womb” appear in the original, the English words “in” and “womb” have no place in the translation. To try to form a sentence with “in” and “womb” would be overly myopic, focusing too closely on the words and not on how they work together.

This phrase-level issue is pretty close to internal structure, which I discussed last week.

Getting in Wrong


One of the clearest ways in which translations are myopic is when it comes to light verbs like the Greek poieo. Acts 2:22 is a perfect example both of the problem and the difficulty of getting it right. There, God poieos three kinds of things: dunamis, teras, and simeion.

Translations such as (NRSV) “deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did…” seem to ignore basic English grammar. We don’t say “do deeds of power” in English, or “do signs.” What seems to have happened is this: The translators looked at each word in isolation, myopically asking, “how do we say dunamis?” or, “how do we say poieo?” Once they had answers, they crammed them together.

Using “work” for poieo — as in the NAB, “mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked…” — doesn’t seem much better. “Working mighty deeds” similarly isn’t English.

We do have grammatical ways to express the same thing in English: “God’s wonders,” for example, or “God’s signs,” instead of “the wonders that God did/worked.” (I’m purposely ignoring dunamis for now.)

But the whole sentence makes that approach difficult, because “God poieod the three kinds of wonders through Jesus of Nazareth. Continuing the pattern we just tried, we would get “God’s wonders through Jesus,” but I don’t think that’s right, because the original Greek refers to how the wonders were performed, not what kind of wonders they were.

So we might try, “performed wonders,” which is at least grammatical in English. But we’ll run into trouble with “performed works,” which doesn’t make much sense, and we don’t have a translation for dunamis here.

Still, even without a successful translation (any ideas?) I think the concepts are clear. What we need here is the equivalent of “how” instead of “what” for ma, that is, a way of expressing in English what the Greek expresses very clearly. What we don’t want is what most translations offer: a translation that looks at each Greek word in isolation, renders it in English, and then hopes that those English words will make sense when put together.


Finally, to round things out, we can consider the Hebrew phrase eitz hasadeh. The words mean “tree of the field” (and this is how most translations render the phrase), but the phrase probably means “fruit tree.”


The lessons are clear, and, unfortunately, they invite a cliché in summary: Translators who focus myopically on the words risk missing the forest and seeing only trees.

[Posted at 33,000 feet on my way back from teaching in New Orleans.]

(*) UPDATE: J.K Gayle has posted some background on the Greek phrase “(holding) in the womb.”

March 15, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , | 3 Comments