God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Sometimes “Believing the Bible” Means Believing That a Story in it Didn’t Happen

Some stories in the Bible were meant to be history, others fiction. But modernity has obscured the original distinction between the two kinds of biblical writing, depriving readers of the depth of the text.

One way to understand the difference between history and fiction in the Bible is through the Old Testament’s natural division into three parts:

  • The world and its nature (Adam to Terah).
  • The Israelites and their purpose (Abraham to Moses).
  • The Kingdom of Israel and life in Jerusalem (roughly from King David onward).

Even a cursory look reveals a clear and significant pattern.

In the first section, characters live many hundreds of years, and in the second, well into their second century. Only in the third section do biblical figures tend to live biologically reasonable lives.

For example, Adam, in the first section, lives to the symbolic age of 930, and Noah lives even twenty years longer than that. Abraham, from the second section, lives to be 175, his son Issac to 180, and Jacob “dies young” at the age of 147. But the lifespans from King David onward, in the third section, are in line with generally accepted human biology.

Furthermore, historians mostly agree that only the third section represents actual history.

The reasonable ages in the third section of the Bible, and, in particular, the wildly exaggerated ages in the first, suggest that the authors of the Old Testament intended only the third part as history. Underscoring this crucial difference, some of the lifespans in the first two sections are so absurd as to defy literal interpretation. These hugely advanced ages are central clues about the point of the stories. Continue reading


March 15, 2016 Posted by | biblical interpretation, Uncategorized | , , , , | 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

Is a Book Report a Translation?

I recently criticized The Message for adding “all you see, all you don’t see” to its rendering of Genesis 1:1. Dannii responded:

If you think the Hebrew refers to the totally of God’s creative work, both the earth, the heaven(s), the underworld, the physical, the metaphysical, the spiritual, the holy and the demonic, then The Message conveys that quite well.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t make The Message a good translation. It makes it a nice elucidation (perhaps), or a nice commentary (perhaps), but I don’t think that explaining what the text refers to is the job of the translation.

This is not the only case of disagreement about how to use the word “translation.”

There’s a movement underfoot to create a “conservative translation” of the Bible. (The program has been widely mocked, but it’s for real, and a lot of serious people are involved.)

Similarly, a common theme among Bible translators is to decide a priori how complex the English should be. In the same thread in which I mentioned The Message, Dannii noted (correctly in my opinion) that that version is “is written in a low, conversational register” which “obscures the differences in genre and register between books and passages,” to which Peter Kirk added (also correctly in my opinion) that “most other English Bible translations are written in a consistently formal and high level register, marked all the more by the presence of obsolescent words and syntax,” so they do the same.

At issue, I think, is two different ways people use the word “translation.” When I use it, I mean an English rendition that as closely as possible captures the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic of the original.

Some people use the same word “translation” to mean any English publication that is based (closely enough?) on the original. So I would say that The Message is a paraphrase, not a translation, while they would say that it is translation that’s a paraphrase. Similarly, a conservatized or simplified or archaicized volume that means sort of what the Bible does might be, for them, a “translation.”

It’s not up to me to tell people how to use words, so they are free to keep using “translation” however they like. But I think it’s important to keep the difference clear.

I also wonder how close the English has to be to be called a “translation” even under the broader use of the word.

Can a book report be a translation?

November 12, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , | 9 Comments

A Simple Yes or No Won’t Do, Will It?

Yes or NoWhat could be easier than translating “yes” (nai) and “no” (ou)?

Actually, “yes” and “no” are sometimes tricky, because they work differently in different languages.

In particular, negative questions are a common source of trouble. For example, in response to “do you want ice cream?” the answer “no” indicates no desire for ice cream, and “yes” indicates the opposite, a desire for ice cream. But in response to the negative question “you don’t want ice cream?” the answer “no” still indicates no desire for ice cream, while “yes” is a bizarre, ambiguous response among adult speakers. Similarly:

John: “You’re not flying to England?”

Mary: “Yes.”

leaves open both the possibiliy that Mary is flying to England and the possibility that she is not.

In Japanese, the situation is reversed. The answer hai (“yes”) to a positive question means “yes, I do,” but in response to a negative question it means, “yes, you are right that I do not.” So someone who does not want ice cream will respond to “you don’t want ice cream?” in Japanese with hai. (You can see how negotiating Toyota Land Rover import agreements could get tricky.)

It seems that Greek works like English, with “no” confirming a negative question. But “yes” in Greek negates a negative quesion, rather than leaving it ambiguous.

This is a problem in translating Matthew 17:25. In Matthew 17:24, Peter is asked, “does your teacher not pay taxes?” The answer should be “yes, he does,” in English. But the KJV, ESV, and NAB (surprisingly) go with just “yes,” mimicking the Greek but not answering the question in English.

(French has three words with which to answer questions: non, which means “no”; oui, for “yes” in response to positive questions; and si for “yes” in response to negative questions. But only some of the French versions go with si here.)

So, unfortunately, many translations leave the question unanswered here.

November 4, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

On Translations for Poor Readers

Not long ago, I asked about the merit of tailoring translations to children. When I starting reading about the new CEB translation, and in particular that “[t]he new Bible translation would be pitched at 7th-8th grade reading level (compare 11th-12th grade reading level for the NRSV),” I started thinking about what children’s translations and poor-readers’ translations have in common.

Clearly some of the issues are different: Unlike children, adults with poor reading skills may still be able to understand the adult topics of the Bible. (Barrenness was one example I gave regarding children.) Reading skills may or may not correlate with aural comprehension. And so forth.

But in many ways the two questions are alike. Should poor readers be given the impression that it doesn’t take much to understand the Bible? Is there merit to teaching people that they will understand the Bible better if they learn to read better? Can the messages of the Bible be accurately conveyed in 7th-grade-level writing?

Does the Bible have an inherent reading level? (I think it must — though I think it varies from passage to passage.) And if so, isn’t the reading level of an accurate translation already determined by the original text?

November 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Translating Terms of Art

The English phrase “term of art” is nicely self-referential, because it is one. A “term of art” is a term — a word or a phrase — that is used technically in a narrow context. It usually has nothing to do with “art,” except in the now antiquated sense in which “law,” “science,” etc. are all “arts.”

In addition to their specific meanings, terms of art are generally frozen phrases. So, for example, “art term” doesn’t mean at all what “term of art” means (even though “art work” is a lot like “work of art”).

Terms of art create a double translation challenge (as, really, does everything that is to be translated). They have to be identified and understood, let’s say in Greek, and then rendered accurately in translation, say, in English.

As is frequently the case, an example from modern languages may help demonstrate the point. (I’ll use American English and Israeli Hebrew only because I happen to speak those two languages.) In English we have a phrase “third party,” as in, for example, “third party liability insurance.” In Hebrew, that’s called tzad gimel, literally, “side gimel,” (gimel is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet.)

(The “third party” is someone injured by the insured who is not a party to the insurance contract. The insured is the “first party” and the insurer is the “second party.”)

Translating tzad gimel into American English requires knowing something about the insurance industries in Israel and the U.S., in addition to a familiarity with the terms of art in the two languages.

These facts also mean that the Hebrew tzad should usually be translated “side,” but in certain narrow contexts, the only right translation is “party.”

In fact, tzad gimel is an easy case because English has a matching term of art.

What happens when the target language doesn’t have anything that matches the original?

I think that sarx and simeion are two good examples.

November 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , | 4 Comments