God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating and Improving the Bible

Joel Berkowitz (in Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage) writes of the hubris of Yiddish theaters that promoted Yiddish productions of Shakespeare that were “translated and improved.”*

Though we mock it now, I often think I see the same thing in Bible translations, in two related ways:

1. “Translators” want to make the general flavor of the text into something it never was, frequently either overly formal (NKJV, for example) or overly informal (GNB / TEV).

2. “Translators” want to explain not just what the text says, but what it “means.” Sometimes this takes the flavor of theological interpretation. Other times it comes from a desire to make an opaque text simple.

The second issue came up recently in a comment by Peter Kirk, who correctly points out that expanding on bara in Genesis 1:1 to specify details of creation that are absent from the original text “go[es] beyond what is necessary for translation […] into theological speculation.”

One criticism of translating sarx as “sinful nature” is that is, too, is a “translation and an improvement” in that it fills in details on which the original text is silent. (Another criticism is that it’s not what the text meant. But my point here is that even if it is what the text meant, it might not be the right translation.)

Similarly, it seems to me that “translators” who take gender-specific texts and make them generic are “translating and improving.” For that matter, taking a generic text and making it gendered is a mistake, though I think this reverse pattern usually happens by error — because the translators don’t understand gender in the original language as well as they think they do — not by design.

A case in point is “ancestors.” Let’s assume I’m right that the Hebrew avot means “ancestors.” How, then, should we translate “to your avot, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 1:9)? Even though the ancestors listed are all male, and even if the biblical culture was such that only the men counted (I don’t think it was — but let’s assume), I still don’t think “ancestors” should be changed to “fathers.”

A more radical case makes the reasoning clearer. If patir refers to God, I think it should still be translated as either “father” or “parent,” not as “God.”

The reason I put scare quotes around “translators” so many times here is that in my opinion translation is incompatible with deciding a priori what the content or style of the translation should be. You can (try to) improve the text, or you can translate it, but you can’t do both.

(*) By the way, though the “translated and improved” slogan is widely cited, I’ve been unable to confirm it. If you have a photo of the original, I’ll be most grateful to see it.

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November 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Gender in Modern Hebrew – An Example

I think it might be informative to look at how av (usually translated “father”) and its plural, avot, work in Modern Hebrew. Even though we can’t directly conclude anything about ancient Hebrew or Greek from Modern Hebrew, we can learn more about how gender — at least potentially — works in human language.

In no particular order, here are some facts about av and avot in Modern Hebrew:


  • When people talk about their literal father, one word they use is av.* (When they talk about their mother, one word is em.)
  • The word av is grammatically masculine.
  • The plural avot is grammatically masculine, even though it ends in -ot which is often reserved for feminine plurals.
  • When Lucy, the “first human,” was discovered, she was called av kadmon in Hebrew, literally “original av.”
  • When people talk about how “fathers” are different than “mothers,” the words they use are avot and imahot (the plural of em).
  • The Hebrew for “old-age home” is bet avot, literally, “house of avot.” (The phrase applies equally to men and women.)
  • When people talk about their “ancestors,” the word they use is avot. (Again, the phrase does not have specifically male connotations.)

It seems to me that if a theory of gender and language doesn’t allow for the possabilites above, it’s probably inaccurate, or, at least, incomplete, so we shouldn’t use that theory to try to understand ancient languages.

(*) In addition to av, there’s a less formal word aba in Hebrew. The two words approximate the difference between “father” and “dad.”

September 9, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 1 Comment