Kate asks a fascinating question about translating the Bible into the language of an cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon that grammatically classifies non-tribe members as “edible”:
Linguist/philosopher Steven Pinker and other researchers inform us that the language of one Amazonian tribe, the Wari, grammatically classifies nouns as either “edible objects” or “inedible objects” — with the category of “edible objects” including all non-Wari human beings, while the category of “inedible objects” includes the Wari themselves. […]
The Bible translation conundrum which this situation creates is, plainly, this: How does one translate the Bible into Wari? […]
How, then, should the Bible be translated into a language whose very grammar endorses cannibalism of outsiders?
There are really two potential issues here.
The first concerns the grammatical details of Wari: What kind of marking is this? In particular, is it pro-forma (like “feminine” and “masculine” in, say, Greek) or is it semantic? If it’s pro-forma, then there’s no problem. (One way to test — are there any Wari speakers reading this? — is with a sentence like, “We can’t eat this meat because…” If “meat” in that sentence still takes the edible marking, as I suspect it would, then the marking is simply a matter of grammar, not of meaning.)
However, if the marking really only applies to things that can eaten, and if, in addition, it must be applied to foreigners, then we have a second issue: What do we do if we don’t like the values expressed by a language?
Wari (if our information is correct) isn’t the only language that might present this dilemma. What about a language that classifies women as children, for example? What about cultures in which a father takes the name of his firstborn child, but only if that child is a boy? And so on.
With Wari, the obvious temptation is to create a translation in which, say, Paul is neither edible nor a member of the Wari tribe. But that, apparently, would be ungrammatical, and, I think, representative of a common but hugely misguided approach to Bible translation: trying to convey more than we can. (This is, again, assuming our information about Wari is right.)
By analogy, we can imagine a language that divides nouns into “human” and “inanimate,” the way English does with “who” versus “that”: “This is the person who changed my life” versus “this is the idea that changed my life.” Hebrew doesn’t differentiate in this way. The question is what to do with “God.” Is God a person or an inanimate object? Hebrew doesn’t force the choice, but English does. Most translators opt for “who” here, not even noticing the way their choice narrows the meaning of the Hebrew. We could go with “that.” We could not, however, make up a new work in this context to convey are disapproval about the dichotomy in English.
Similarly, I think the way to translate the Bible into a language like Wari is to bite the bullet and use the “edible” marking, as the native speakers do, for anyone who’s not part of the tribe. It’s not just that our job, as translators, is not to judge (though I understand that, in practice, most people doing this kind of work are doing it precisely to judge those people and to change their ways.) Even more, we have no choice.
Such an interesting question. Thanks.
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.
My latest book — The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings — goes on sale today!
Here’s the cover copy:
The Bible Doesn’t Say That explores what the Bible meant before it was misinterpreted over the past 2,000 years.
Acclaimed translator and biblical scholar Dr. Joel M. Hoffman walks the reader through dozens of mistranslations, misconceptions, and other misunderstandings about the Bible. In forty short, straightforward chapters, he covers morality, life-style, theology, and biblical imagery, including:
• The Bible doesn’t call homosexuality a sin, and it doesn’t advocate for the one-man-one-woman model of the family that has been dubbed “biblical.”
• The Bible’s famous “beat their swords into plowshares” is matched by the militaristic, “beat your plowshares into swords.”
• The often-cited New Testament quotation “God so loved the world” is a mistranslation, as are the titles “Son of Man” and “Son of God.”
• The Ten Commandments don’t prohibit killing or coveting.
What does the Bible say about violence? About the Rapture? About keeping kosher? About marriage and divorce? Hoffman provides answers to all of these and more, succinctly explaining how so many pivotal biblical answers came to be misunderstood.
I’m excited about this latest work, and look forward to discussing it here.
According to the NRSV translation of Luke 1:41, Elizabeth’s “child leaped in her womb.”
The Greek here for “womb” (koilia) means “belly” or “stomach.” It’s the same word used of the snake in Genesis, for instance, which is punished to walk on its belly. Because snakes don’t have wombs, contexts like this show us that the Greek word is more general than “womb.” But “womb” is still a reasonable translation. And certainly we know that the “child” was in the womb, not some other part of Elizabeth’s anatomy, even if the original text was less clear.
The “child” here (brefos) probably refers literally to what we might now call an infant. But, like the (well accepted) shift from “stomach” to “womb,” I think we should translate this as “fetus.” Even if I’m wrong, though, I don’t think this word has much to do with the status of a fetus, for reasons I’ve already pointed out — in particular, the general way in which words are disconnected from the time at which they apply. (This is why the “child” in a woman’s womb in Leviticus similarly doesn’t tell us about the status of a fetus.)
What about the leaping? What was this child or infant or fetus doing?
The Greek is skirtao, and here we find a surprise. That Greek verb is used elsewhere almost entirely in two (related?) contexts: figuratively, and of fetuses.
In Genesis 25:22, Rebekka’s twin children “struggled together within her.” That’s skirtao.
In Psalm 114 (verses 4 and 6), mountains “skip”; in Wisdom 17:19, animals whose running is invisible “leap”; in Malachi 3:20, those who revere God’s name shall “leap” like calves; in Jeremiah, plunderers “frisk about” like a cow; and in Luke 6:23, God’s chosen should rejoice and “leap for joy.” All of those are skirtao in Greek. (Joel 1:17 uses the verb, too, but in a translation that doesn’t accord perfectly with the original text.)
So it looks like “leap” is only one possible translation, and probably not even the best. Perhaps “moved in the way that fetuses do” would be better. Or maybe “leaped for joy” in the same metaphoric sense of the English phrase, which indicates joy but not necessarily actual leaping.
One thing is certain, though. If we go with the NRSV translation of “leap,” we must understand the language figuratively. While fetuses can shift, kick, and otherwise move, actual physical leaping is beyond their ability.
Perhaps most relevant to the Bible’s view on abortion is Exodus 21:22, which is in fact relevant for two reasons.
According to the NRSV the text proclaims:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.
That is, someone who causes a woman to miscarry has to pay a fine.
But we’re not sure “miscarriage” is the right translation here. The NIV thinks this is about a woman who “gives birth prematurely” as a result of being hit.
This is a huge difference. Either the text is about causing an early birth or about causing a woman to lose her fetus.
The text literally refers to the fetus “leaving” the woman, without specifying the condition of the fetus, which is why it’s hard to know just from looking at the words which translation is right. (And the word for “fetus” is yeled, a fact I address below.)
If the NIV is right, then this passage doesn’t speak to abortions at all. But if, as seems likely, the NRSV is right, then Exodus 21:22 addresses what happens when someone causes a woman to miscarry, that is, causes an abortion. And the answer is that the person pays monetary damages.
Because the Bible specifically forbids monetary damages in the case of murder (in Numbers), we learn from this that, in the eyes of the Bible, a fetus is not a person.
In fact, this is a passage about fairness and lex talionis. In general, the biblical principle of justice is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.” But what happens if a man causes a woman to lose her fetus? The principle would dictate that he should lose his fetus, but he obviously hasn’t got one. This text, it seems, explains what to do instead. And the answer is that he has to pay monetary damages.
There’s another confusing aspect of the text, and that’s the clause “and yet no further harm follows.” Exodus 21:23-25 considers what happens if, by contrast, there is damage:
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Some people think that the “damage” refers to the fetus, and, in particular, that the “life for life” clause indicates that the fetus is a life. But this doesn’t seem likely, because of the follow-up. In particular, “tooth for tooth” doesn’t seem to be a provision that could reasonably be applied to a prematurely born child. Infants don’t have teeth.
More likely, this is about further damage that occurs to the woman. That is, just to be clear, the text says, the monetary damage is only for the fetus, not for any other damage that the woman may incur.
This text is relevant for a second reason: Some people suggest that the phrasing of the text tells us about the status of a fetus. In particular, the text refers to a woman’s yeled that leaves her. And yeled means “child” (generally as opposed to adult, like the English “youngster”).
If — some people claim — the fetus is already a yeled, then a fetus must be a human.
But this reasoning is flawed. To see how, we can look at similar passages, such as Genesis 25:22, in which the newly pregnant Rebecca worries because her twin children struggled within her. God tells her that, “Two nations are in your womb.” Surely this doesn’t mean that a fetus is a nation.
Rather, we commonly disconnect a word from the time at which it applies. The “nations” in Rebecca’s womb are “future nations,” just as a fetus is a “future child.” Similarly, in English, we might speak of a parent who loved his daughter even before she was conceived, but that doesn’t mean that a plan to have a child is a daughter.
So we see two things in Exodus 21:
- The text does not tell us that a fetus is a child, in spite of the Hebrew word yeled.
- The text tells us that causing a miscarriage is different than killing (if the passage is about miscarriages) or it tells us nothing about causing a miscarriage.
So people who cite Exodus 21 as prohibiting abortions have misunderstood the text.
Equally, people who cite Exodus 21 as permitting abortions have misunderstood the text, because Exodus 21 is about what happens by accident, not about what people do on purpose or what a woman does to or for herself.
At most, then, we learn from Exodus 21 that a fetus is not the same a human.
A New York Times article yesterday titled “Christians Debate Verses From Bible on Homosexuality” presents, among other things, two views of what Paul says about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27. Unfortunately, both positions depend on translation inaccuracies.
Caleb Kaltenbach, the lead pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA, claims: “The word that Paul uses for `natural’ is not referring to what is natural to a specific person, but rather what is natural in light of God’s intent for the sexual design of humanity.” In other words, he says, no one can be naturally homosexual.
Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, counters: “While Paul labels same-sex behavior `unnatural,’ he uses the same word to criticize long hair in men in 1 Corinthians 11:14, which most Christians read as a synonym for `unconventional.'” That is, it’s not that homosexuality is unnatural, but rather, like hair styles, a matter of conventionality.
I can’t find linguistic support for either view.
As issue is the Greek word fusis (“nature”) and its adjectival cousin fusikos (“natural”). According to Romans 1:26, “women exchanged natural [fusikos] intercourse for that which is against nature [fusis].” Pastor Kaltenbach thinks this refers not an individual’s nature but rather to a universal divine intent. Mr. Vines thinks this refers to conventionality.
Galatians 2:15 suggests that Pastor Kaltenbach is wrong about the word fusis. There, Paul writes that “we are Jews by nature [fusis]” even though (2:16) “we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” Recognizing the obvious role of fusis in this passage, most translations render the text “we are Jews by birth.” In this case, fusis means precisely “that which is natural for a specific person,” namely, the person born a Jew. If Pastor Kaltenbach were right, Galatians 2:15 would mean that the new Christians were going against “what is natural in light of God’s intent for … humanity.”
We see that, contrary to Pastor Kaltenbach’s claim, fusis can in fact refer to what is natural to a specific person.
Turing to Mr. Vines’s position, 1 Corinthians 11:14 does use the word fusis, in the context of men growing their hair long, but the long hair isn’t against nature. Rather, the long hair is “degrading,” a quality conveyed by a different Greek word, atimia. (In other contexts, atimia ranges in meaning from “disgraceful” to “ordinary.” Romans 1:26 uses this word to describe some lusts as “shameful.”) That is, the role of “nature” here is not to describe the long hair. Rather, it’s “nature” that teaches that men’s long hair is atimia. It’s not quite true, in other words, that “Paul uses the same word [fusis] to criticize long hair in men.”
We see that even though Romans 1:26-27 shares vocabulary with 1 Corinthians 11:14, the long hair on men in 1 Corinthians is not parallel with the unnatural intercourse in Romans 1.
More generally, the linguistic nuances in Romans 1 offer little insight into whether Paul was speaking out against homosexuality. All we really know is that Paul was of the belief that there are two kids of sex, natural and unnatural. He doesn’t say whether homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, admits of both categories.
This is the first verse of the “Isaiah Translation Challenge.” Post your translations, questions, and thoughts as comments.
Here’s a rough literal translation of Isaiah 54:1:
Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth.//
Shout joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached.//
For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.//
— says the Lord//
Isaiah 54:1 opens with two words in stark contrast: A command to “rejoice” followed immediately by “barren woman.” Rejoicing — perhaps “shouting for joy” — represents one extreme of the emotional spectrum, while “barren woman” embodies the other. In antiquity, there was perhaps no greater sorrow than to be barren. So even though Isaiah opens with a command — “rejoice, O barren woman” — he also practically assaults the reader with a question, namely, “what reason could the most dismayed member of society have to celebrate?”
Then Isaiah drives home the point in typical poetic fashion. He adds “who has not given birth” to modify “barren woman.” Though redundant, that phrase emphasizes the barren woman’s pain. Next — again in typical biblical poetic fashion — Isaiah repeats his theme with different words: “Shout for joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached [with childbirth].”
Having twice commanded the barren, childless woman to be happy, Isaiah explains why: For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.”
Verse 1 ends by attributing the poetry to God.
Because Hebrew is a gendered language, Isaiah can use feminine language where in English we need the word “woman,” so Isaiah’s command “rejoice” includes the information that he is addressing a girl or a woman. Additionally, adjectives in Hebrew can refer to people (similar to the way we say “an American,” which means “an American person”). So for the English “barren woman,” Isaiah only needs one word, the feminine adjective “barren.” Isaiah is thus able to express, “rejoice, O barren woman” with only two words.
Continuing the economy of language, Isaiah omits “who” in the clause “who has not given birth,” using only the two words “not birthed.” (This is not common biblical Hebrew, but neither is it unattested.)
So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”
Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.
Isaiah next takes advantage of Hebrew’s flexible word order. Instead of addressing the “children of the desolate woman” first, he says, “for more numerous are the children of the desolate woman than the children of the married woman.” And, again because of the gendered nature of Hebrew, Isaiah makes do with far fewer words: “for more-numerous children-of desolate than-children-of married.” (Complex details of Hebrew let Isaiah do away with the words “more” and “of” completely.)
Finally, as in our English, Isaiah puts “the Lord” after the verb “says,” so that God comes last in the verse.
In terms of the words, we don’t know the exact nuances of the words for “rejoice,” “celebrate,” etc. We do know that the imperative in the first line (“rejoice”) is the verbal form of the noun (“joy”) in the second. And our verb “ached” is probably more generally “was ill.”
In terms of imagery, the text starts with a specific woman and her pain in the first two phrases and then progresses to a general situation in the third, as if to say: “you, a specific unhappy person, should be happy, because people like you will be happy.”
The NRSV gives us, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.”
This obviously fails in many ways. The archaic “O” is out of place. “Barren” and “bear” sound similar in a way that the Hebrew akarah (“barren”) and yalada (“bore”) do not. The English phrase has twice as many words as the Hebrew. The next line is unclear until the very last word, which tells the reader that the line is about a woman. And the line contains more than twice the number of words as the Hebrew. Additionally, “shout” doesn’t seem like a happy word. The English phrase “the children of X will be more than the children of Y” borders on the ungrammatical. “Her that is married” is hardly poetic.
The NAB is similarly problematic: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.”
It takes the NAB six words to introduce the two-word contrast between “rejoice” and “barren.” The translation misses the connection between “rejoice” and “joy,” by using the unrelated “raise a glad cry” and “jubilant song.” “Were not in labor” isn’t quite the point; it’s not just that the woman wasn’t in labor but rather that she’s never been in labor. The phrase “deserted wife” has no founding in the original Hebrew, which just refers to a female who is desolate, not necessarily a wife.
The Message — a version I seldom cite here — starts off with promise, but deteriorates rapidly into vapid prose: “`Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing woman.’ GOD says so!”
For those who want, here are the Hebrew words of the original. Translations are after the slash. Comments are in (parentheses). English words needed to make sense of the Hebrew are in [braces].
roNI/Rejoice (feminine imperative) akaRA/barren woman [who has] lo/not yaLAda/given birth
pitzCHI/Shout (feminine imperative) riNAH/joy v-tzahaLI/and-celebrate [the one who has] lo/not CHAlah/been ill.
ki/for [more] raBIM/numerous [are] b’nai/children-of shomeiMAH/desolate (feminine) mi-b’nai/than-children-of v’uLAH/married (or “espoused”)
aMAR/said (or says) adoNAI/the Lord.
1. Does the English translation need to mirror the economy of language in the Hebrew?
2. Does the English translation need to preserve the parallel endings “not given birth” in the first line and “not ached” in the second? Does it have to preserve the subtle distinction between the two, noted above?
3. Does barrenness today represent what it used to? If not, is there a better way to express Isaiah’s contrast between rejoicing and sorrow?
So there it is. Post questions or your translation as a comment.
In the fall I promised an “Isaiah translation challenge” — a collective approach to understanding and translating the exquisite poetry of Isaiah 54. I’m pleased to announce that it’s here.
My next post is a detailed analysis of the text of Isaiah 54:1, written with an eye toward guiding poets and translators. I hope you’ll post your translation attempts in the comments there. (To help people focus on the original text, the comments will not appear right away.)
If you have a blog of your own, I’ll be grateful if you help spread the word so we can reach as many translators and poets as possible.
I’m looking forward to seeing the various translations!
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?