God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original Languages

One of the commonly suggested solutions for overcoming bad Bible translations is to “learn Hebrew and Greek” and “read the Bible in the original.”

While there are many good reasons to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek, I don’t think that better insight into the original meaning of the Bible is one of them.

This came up most recently in Dr. Bill Mounce’s latest post in his weekly “Mondays with Mounce” column about Bible translation: “A Translation Conundrum – 1 Tim 2:9 (Monday with Mounce 165).” There he addresses the Greek phrase en plegmasin, commonly “with braided hair” (ESV, NIV, etc.), but “with elaborate hairstyles” in the NIV2011 and “by the way they fix their hair” in the NLT.

Dr. Mounce explains that braided hair was one way of “enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church.” Accordingly, just to translate “braided hair” leaves the modern reader wrongly thinking that there is something inherently undesirable about braided hair, when the point is really what that braided hair represented.

He concludes that this is “a good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew….”

I disagree.

In this particular case, what’s needed to understand the passage is not only a knowledge of the Greek language but a detailed understanding of Greek fashion (though, in fact, I think the fuller context of the verse makes the meaning pretty clear: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” [NRSV]).

This sort of issue is exactly what an amateur or even advanced Greek student would get wrong. Armed with a knowledge of Greek, such a student would look at the word plegma, discern that it means “woven,” and proudly announce that the NIV2011 got it wrong.

More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.

What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.

I still think there’s value to learning Hebrew and Greek. I see it as akin to going to a museum to see an artifact versus just reading about it. It brings people closer to the original in very powerful ways.

Additionally, both Jewish and Christian traditions hold that there’s inherent value to the original words, even beyond their meaning.

So, absolutely, learn Hebrew and Greek. But I think it’s a good idea to keep professional translations handy, too.


November 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 15 Comments

Making Sense Isn’t Enough

In a widely-quoted post earlier this week on Koinonia, Bill Mounce delineates six “translation procedures”:

1. Concordance. [Translate the Greek consistently into English.]

2. One for one. Prefer a single word translation for one Greek word.

3. Less interpretive.

4. Euphony.

5. Must make some sense. But wait! There’s more! (Sounds like a Greek infomercial.) [The translation shouldn’t sound “weird.”]

6. Open to misunderstanding. [The translation shouldn’t be misleading.]

It took me a while to put my finger on what was bothering me, but I’ve figured it out. It’s his number (5). Essentially, for him, steps (1)-(4) are the translation process, and (5)-(6) are checks to see if the translation is successful. That is (as I understand it), Dr. Mounce takes the Greek and finds English that (as much as possible — a caveat he includes) is consistent (as per [1]) in its non-interpretive (3) word-for-word (2) rendering of Greek into similar-sounding (4) English.

As Mounce knows, the process sometimes yields results that don’t make sense in English. When that happens, Mounce’s procedure is to find similar English that does make sense.

But I think the reasoning is flawed, because the English translation has to do more than just make sense. It has to reflect the original. To put it another way, the right translation has to make sense, but there are lots of renditions that make sense that are not the right translation.

The very fact that steps (1)-(4) can produce English that doesn’t make sense tells me that his process is unreliable.

I suppose that Mounce’s reply would be that of course the English has to reflect the original, and in finding English that makes sense he also finds English that reflects the original. But if so what he’s really saying is that he can and does bypass steps (1)-(4). So either way, I don’t see the value of (1)-(4).

By the way, his post is also available on his blog.

Take a look and let me know what you think.

October 30, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 1 Comment

Man is Everywhere (And So is Woman)

In a comment on A. Admin’s post about Bill Mounce, Mark Baker-Wright takes Dr. Mounce to task for writing (originally here):

Have you noticed the new advertisement for the Prius: “Harmony Between Man, Nature And Machine.” I’ll bet Toyota would be glad to sell to women.

Dr. Mounce is using the point to support his claim that:

[T]hankfully “humankind” never occurs in the NIV/TNIV. What an ugly word! But “mankind” continues to be used as a generic term in English, as does “man.” I know there are people who disagree with this point, but the fact that it is used generically over and over again cannot truly be debated; the evidence is everywhere.

What we have here is confusion on at least two levels:

1. Different people have different dialects. This should be obvious — particularly in light of the heated debate people have about this very issue in their own language — but it seems that this point is frequently forgotten or ignored. It’s perfectly possible (and seems to be true) that one person would hear “man” or “men” and think “people,” while another person would hear “male adult people.”

So even when “there are people who disagree,” both sides can be right for their own dialects.

2. Words mean different things in different contexts. It’s perfectly possoble — and, again, seems to be true — that in English “man versus nature” has more of a general feel than “man versus woman.”

Mounce even gives us an example from his own dialect. He writes, “I know there are people who disagree.” Why didn’t he write, “I know there are men who disagree”? Because in that situation, it would seem, “men” doesn’t mean “people.”

October 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , , | 9 Comments