God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Relying on Structure

Perhaps the biggest translation mistake I’ve seen is relying too closely on word-internal structure to figure out what words mean. We saw this last week with toldot and in a comment regarding etymology.

I call this the trap “word-internal structure” (even though it applies to phrases, too).

English

As usual, we can look at modern languages to see how poorly internal structure reveals the meaning of a word.

Two examples from my recent And God Said include “hostile,” which doesn’t mean “like a host,” even though the pattern of “infant” and “infantile” would suggest otherwise; and “patently,” which means “obviously” even though a patent by definition must be non-obvious. We see that even with something so simple as adding “-ly” to a word, we can’t rely on structure to tell us what a word means.

Phrases

Also from And God Said comes this example about phrases:

A more detailed example highlights the issue. English has a verb “pick” and two words “on” and “up” that can be added to verbs. “Pick” (as in “pick a lock”) means, “open stealthily without a key.” “Up” means “away from gravity” and “on” means “touching and located in the direction of open space.” (All of these definitions are approximate. That isn’t the point here.) This knowledge, however, doesn’t explain why “pick on” means “annoy,” “pick up” means “increase” (as in, “pick up the tempo”), and “pick up on” means “discern.”

This demonstrates the important fact that phrases, like words, don’t always get their meanings from their parts. (Another favorite example is “drive-through window.”)

Hebrew

We’ve already seen one clear case where internal structure leads us astray. The internal structure of the Hebrew word toldot suggests that it specifically has to do with “birth,” or maybe “generations” or “descendants.” But we saw that it does not.

Another example comes from the Hebrew phrase “spy after” in Numbers 15:39. The verb there is tur, which means “spy” or “explore.” And the preposition is acharei, “after.” But — just as with “pick up” and “pick on” — it’s a mistake to assume that we can understand the phrase just by knowing its parts. In this case, the phrase occurs nowhere else, so we’re stuck with a problem. The full sentence — important enough in Judaism to be included in the m’zuzah that adorns doorways and the t’fillin that serve as ritual prayer objects — is this: “this will be your tassel. When you see them, you will remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them. Do not ??? your heart and your eyes, after which you lust.”

(Two notes are in order: “heart” is misleading here, as is “lust.” Also, t’fillin enjoys the utterly useless English translation “phylacteries.”)

Translations for the literal “spy after” include “follow after” (ESV), which I don’t think is even an expression in English; “[go] wantonly astray after” (NAB); “going after the lusts of” (NIV); and “follow” (NRSV). Except for the NRSV, all of these translations (wrongly, in my opinion) insist on putting the word “after” in the translation. (The LXX gives us diastrafisesthe opiso, while the Vulgate has the single word sequantur, from sequor, “to follow.”)

Hebrew word-internal structure is complicated, and — depending on personal constitution — either immensely enjoyable or the ultimate barrier to learning Hebrew. Either way, it’s hard to ignore Hebrew’s rich word-internal structure, but sometimes translation demands that we do.

By way of further example, we can consider the Modern Hebrew word m’sukan. It is the passive of the active m’saken. The active means “endanger.” So word-internal structure points us to “endangered” for a translation of the passive. But that’s wrong. The word means “endangering.” In other words, the passive means almost the same thing as the active. “Dangerous” is the usual translation.

Greek

When I discussed energeo (responding to discussions by J.R. Daniel Kirk and on BBB — then BBB followed up, as did T.C. Robinson), one comment noted that I “miss[ed] the distinction between the active in Matthew 14:2, Galatians 3:5 etc. and the middle or passive in Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16.” I think we see from the discussion here that, while the active/passive/middle distinction is not to be ignored, neither can we rely on it to tell us what words mean. It’s possible (as we just saw in Modern Hebrew) for a passive form not simply to indicate the passive of what the active form indicates.

Lessons

It seems to me that two lessons are important.

First, word-internal structure, while sometimes helpful and often fun, is an unreliable way to figure out what a word means.

Secondly, phrases are just like individual words in this regard.

So when we look at a word or a phrase, I think it’s important not just to look at its formal structure.

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Why the True Meaning isn’t the True Meaning

Last month, Bill Mounce, C. Michael Patton, and Clayboy all alluded to the issue of etymology, which is surely one of the biggest translation traps (and important enough that I devote considerable attention to it in my And God Said).

Etymology is really fun. Tracing a word’s winding history, seeing how meanings mutated, and learning about the legacy of long-dead meanings are engaging and entertaining ways to delve deeper into language. This is probably why people look to etymology to figure out what a word means, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work.

English

As usual, we can start with some English examples to get a sense of things.

For example, people like to say that “commit” means to bundle your fate together with another’s, because, after all, “commit” comes from Latin that means “to put together.” It’s a lovely poetic thought (or not), but it’s not what “commit” means.

Similarly, “glamour” and “grammar” share an etymology, but that doesn’t mean that grammar is necessarily glamorous.

A third example comes from the English verb “to table,” which reflects the notion of sitting around a table at a meeting. But in America, “to table a motion” is to put the motion on the table where it won’t be seen until later; that is, it means “not to vote on.” By contrast, in England the phrase means to put the motion on the table in front of everyone, that is, “to vote on.” These two opposite meanings come from the same etymological source.

Hebrew and Greek

Hebrew and Greek work the same way as English in this regard, but still, at least one example seems in order. The root d.b.r gives us the words for davar (“thing”) and d’vorah (“bee”). The root may have originally been used for “speak,” and from there words based on it branched out, meaning (in the case of davar) “that which is spoken about” and (in the case of d’vorah) something that makes a buzzing sound not unlike speech.

But this doesn’t mean that bees in Hebrew are any different than in English. They don’t have a closer connection to speech than in English, for example. More generally, the perhaps interesting etymology does not tell us what the words mean.

Lessons

The lesson is pretty clear: Don’t use etymology to figure out what a word means.

Finally (and this too is from And God Said), we can note that “in a lovely bit of irony that demonstrates our point, the word ‘etymology’ comes from the Greek for “true meaning.”

So the “true meaning” isn’t the meaning at all.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , | 15 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Forgetting Your Own Grammar

Mark 15:9 demonstrates how translation can make people forget their own grammar.

A curiosity of English generally prevents anything from appearing between a verb an its object. This is why “I saw yesterday Bill” is such an awkward sentence in English. (It’s fine in French, Modern and Biblical Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages.)

Yet for the Greek apoluso umin ton basilea tou Ioudaion the KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NJB, and NRSV all have some variant of, “[do you want me to] release for you the King of the Jews,” putting the phrase “for you” (sometimes “to you”) right between the verb and the object.

Simple English grammar demands, “…release the King of the Jews for you.”

I suppose what we see is a result of translators’ (unfortunate) desire to mimic the Greek word order combined with something about Bible translation that makes people temporarily forget what they ordinarily know instinctively.

The lesson this week is simple: When you write an English translation, try to write it in English.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 14 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Pretending Some Words Don’t Exist

The KJV popularized the tradition of using italics to mark the English words of a translation that are not actually in the original Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic) of the Bible.

But I think this typographic custom creates the false impression that translation words come in two varieties, with the first kind supposedly representing words that are really in the original, and the second (italicized) those that are not.

For example, Revelation 1:1 in the KJV reads, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ…; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” The thinking was that the Greek doesn’t have a word for “it” here, and that this fact is important to a reader of the passage in English.

As it happens, the Greek in Revelation 1:1 also doesn’t have a word for “he” here, but my point is not that the KJV did a bad job of applying the italics (though I think that it did), but rather that it’s a bad idea in general, because it propagates two wrong notions.

What does “only implied” mean?

First, it gives the impression that there are two kinds of words in a translation, some “really” in the original, some only implied by the original. But I think that all of the English words are “only implied” by the original. After all, the original contains no English words.
Continue reading

January 26, 2010 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , | 11 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Parts of Speech

Perhaps because understanding parts of speech is so central to learning a foreign language, translators often try to preserve parts of speech when they translate.

But I think this is a mistake.

We know from modern languages that parts of speech often have to change in translation, and I think we see cases where more flexibility would benefit Bible translations, too.

As usual, we use modern languages to help us understand how translation works, and then apply the lessons to translating ancient languages.

Modern Languages

The French for “I’m hungry” is j’ai faim, or, perhaps more to the point, the English for j’ai faim is “I’m hungry.” This generally undisputed point is relevant because j’ai faim starts off with “I have” (j’ai) followed by a noun which we can roughly translate as “hunger.” Certainly this pronoun-verb-noun combination has to become a pronoun-verb-adjective one in English. Anything else is simply to misunderstand the French or to misrepresent it in English.

Specifically, the awkward “I have hunger” is an inaccurate translation. Even though it makes (a little) sense in English, the French is a common expression while “I have hunger” in English is certainly not.

Other examples don’t work at all in English.

For instance, the French j’ai sommeil means “I’m tired” or “I’m sleepy,” but preserving the parts of speech results in the absurd “I have sleepiness.”

The Modern Hebrew kar li means “I’m cold,” even though the Hebrew is an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase. “Cold to me” and “there is cold to me” are clearly the wrong translations.

The German wie geht’s Ihnen? means “how are you?” It’s an interrogative-verb-pronoun-pronoun combination. The literal “how goes it to you?” is wrong. English demands interrogative-verb-pronoun.

Another common misunderstanding is that the grammar of a different language — say, French — reflects a fundamentally different way of thinking about the world. So some people naively think that because the literal equivalent of “I have sleepiness” is grammatical in French, the French notion of being tired differs from the English one.

But we can see that this approach is flawed because alongside the French j’ai sommeil we find je suis fatige, literally, “I am tired.” In other words, both expressions — the English-grammar variety and the French-grammar variety — exist side by side in French.

What we see instead is that parts of speech can change within a language without changing the meaning, and that parts of speech sometimes have to change as part of a successful translation.

Another Modern Example

Modern Hebrew has few adverbs, so aderverbiness (if you’ll pardon the word) is often expressed through a combination of b’ofen (“in a manner”) or b’derech (“in a way”) followed by an adjective. For example, “I explained it clearly” in Hebrew becomes …b’ofen barur, “…in a clear manner.” “Superficially” is b’ofen shitchi, “in a superficial manner.”

Here we find a greater temptation to mimic the Hebrew parts of speech, because “in a clear manner” and “in a superficial manner” sound like English. But even though they are grammatical, they are still the wrong English to translate the Hebrew.

Two Biblical Examples

Kata

A perfect example of the need to think beyond parts of speech comes from the Greek kata, commonly glossed as “according to” or “as.”

In Mark 4:10 and Luke 9:18 we find the phrase kata monas, literally “as alone,” but every translation I know of renders that phrase with the adverb “alone.”

The very similar Greek kata idian (usually kat’ idian) highlights the issue. The word idian is pretty close to the English “self.” So kata idian could be “by himself,” and this is how the ESV translates the phrase in Matthew 14:13. The KJV gives us “apart” and the NIV translates “privately.” As it happens, “by himself” is grammatical English, but — as we’ve seen — the fact that it so closely matches the Greek doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best translation.

In Romans 2:2 we find kata alitheian, which the KJV translates literally as “according to truth”: “But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.” Some other translations recognize that “according to truth” is not English, and offer instead “rightly” (ESV), “is true” (NAB), “is based on truth” (NIV), “justly,” (NJB), etc.

In Romans 11:21, kata fusin — “according to nature” — is almost always translated “natural,” as in the NRSV: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” Yet three verses later, most translations go with “by nature” for the same phrase.

These issues are particularly important when it comes to kata sarka, “according to sarx.” I’m not going to revisit the complex issue of sarx here. My point is more simply that even if the NIV translators are right that the word means “sinful nature,” they still may be wrong in translating, “according to the sinful nature.” Perhaps “in sin” is better, or “sinful,” etc.

Katergazomai

The verb katergazomai means “do,” but that doesn’t mean that we need to translate it as a verb every time.

Philippians 2:12 gives us: sotirian katergazomai, “work out salvation,” (KJV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, NIV, etc.). But maybe a verb is called for here. What about katergazomeni thanaton in Romans 7:13? It’s usually translated along the lines of “working/producing/causing death.” Again, a verb seems the better choice (though there are other considerations, like the word play with egeneto thanatos earlier in the verse).

Lessons

What we see is that the slavish preservation of parts of speech tends to create awkward, inaccurate translations.

What other examples can you think of?

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Seductive Translations

Some readers want clarity (as in The Message or the CEV) in a Bible translation. Others want loftiness (NKJV), or even near incoherence (KJV). Others yet opt for chattiness (Good News). And so forth.

I think what these approaches to translation and others like them have in common is that they put the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather than looking at the Bible and seeing what its text is like, readers opt instead for a translation that adheres to their own sense of attractiveness.

This is why comments on this blog, BBB, and others often run along the lines of: “I prefer that translation because it sounds better / is more meaningful / is more spiritual / resonates / reminds me of my childhood / sounds biblical.”

These seem like worthy goals. For example, isn’t a spiritual translation of the Bible better than a non-spiritual one?

I don’t think so, or, at least, not necessarily.

I think, rather, that chasing attractive Bible translations is similar to falling prey to other forms of seduction: the superficial qualities of beauty or what-not mask the fundamental drawbacks.

It seems to me that the value of a translation lies primarily in its fidelity to the original. After all, this is what distinguishes translation from creative writing.

In this regard, translation can be likened to photography. By example, we might consider two photos of war carnage, one that shows the violence of war in all its ugliness, the other than has been manipulated to appear beautiful. Simply as a shot for hanging in the living room, the aesthetic photo is probably a better choice. But as a representation of what happened, the ugly photo has the upper hand. Those who want to understand war would have to be careful not to let the false depiction mislead them.

Similarly, choosing a translation only because of the qualities of the writing — rather than taking into account accuracy — is to decide what the Bible should be rather than to discover it.

For example, Steve Runge recently wrote about redundancy and, in particular, the NET’s decision to remove it from Deuteronomy 9:25. The NET explains in a footnote there that “The Hebrew text includes ‘when I prostrated myself.’ Since this is redundant, it has been left untranslated.'” As it happens, I don’t think this is a case of redundancy in the Hebrew, but my point here is not the nature of the Hebrew but rather the brazen NET footnote that seems to suggest: “We didn’t like the original, so we’re giving you something better.” The redundancy-free translation is seductive, but is it accurate?

We also see from the NET footnote that it’s not just lay readers who chase seductive translations. It’s official translators, too. The NET, in this case, doesn’t want redundancy. The ESV — which seemingly has nothing in common with the NET — wants formality. But this, too, is a form of seduction. What good is formality if the original is not similarly formal?

Bibles are created, sold, purchased, and read in a consumer-driven world of personal choice. Marketers have known for a long time that seduction sells. Is it possible that it sells Bibles, too?

January 11, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Short-Circuit Translations

The God’s Word (“GW”) translation of Luke 2:1-7 (which Wayne Leman recently posted) and The Message‘s rendition of Proverbs 14:15 (tweeted by Rick Warren) highlight a common translation trap that I’d like to call translation short-circuits. What I mean is when a translation short-circuits the original text and tries to jump right to the point.

Example 1: Proverbs 14:15 (The Message).

The original Hebrew of Proverbs 14:15 contrasts peti and arum. It’s hard to know the exact nuances of those words, but I think the NRSV’s choice of “simple” and “clever” is pretty close: “The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.” The message is that foolish people believe everything they hear, while clever people understand things in their own way.

As it happens, we have a word in English to describe people who believe everything they’re told: “gullible.” So another way to understand Proverbs 14:15 is that being prudent is the opposite of being gullible. And I suppose one reasonable way to translate Proverbs 14:15 would be, “the simple are gullible….”

However, The Message short-circuits the text and jumps to the following translation: “The gullible believe anything they’re told….” It seems to me that this translation has taken a line that has a point (foolish people are gullible) and turned it in to a meaningless tautology (gullible people are gullible). I think what led to this mistake was a desire to use the translation not just to translate but also to explain.

Example 2: Luke 2:3 (God’s Word).

Luke 2:3 is fairly straightforward: “Everyone went to be registered, each to their own town.” The Greek for “each to their own town” is ekastos eis eautou polin. (I’ve translated it in the plural to preserve what I believe is a gender inclusive original.)

However, God’s Word translates: “All the people went to register in the cities where their ancestors had lived” (my emphasis). Where did they get the notion that “his city” or “their cities” means “where their ancestors had lived”?

The answer comes from Luke 2:4, in which Joseph chooses to go to “David’s city” of Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from David.

I suppose the GW translators realized that, in this particular case, “his city” for Joseph was “his ancestor’s city.” Even if they’re right, though, they’ve created a short-circuit translation. The original text has complexity and richness — Why did Joseph think that Bethlehem was “his city”? Did Mary’s presence there (Luke 2:5) have anything to do with his choice? What counts as one’s city? Etc. The translation has none of these.

There’s also a question of whether the translators in this case are even right. I suspect that they’re not. I don’t think that Bethlehem was “where Joseph’s ancestor [David] lived.” David lived in Jerusalem. But for me the accuracy of the short-circuit isn’t the point so much as the misplaced goal of short-circuiting the text in the first place.

Lessons

I think that short-circuit translations are particularly tempting because they seem to be adding accuracy or clarity to a text. Short-circuit translations are often easier to understand than the original text they bypass.

But short circuits run the double risk of outright error (as I think we see in GW’s rendition of Luke 2) and of dumbing down the text (as in The Message‘s tautology where a lesson once was).

And even if the short circuit is accurate, it is still a mistranslation cleverly masquerading as the real thing.

What other short-circuit translations can you find?

[This is the first of what I hope will be a series of weekly posts on common translation traps. I’ll try to post the next one next Monday.]

December 28, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments