God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted: Hosea’s Children

The prophet Hosea, we read, has three children, named yizrael, lo-ruchama, and lo-ammi in Hebrew, but in Greek their names are Yezrael, Ouk-Ileimeni, and Ou-Laos-Mou. What’s going on? Normally Greek names are simple transliterations of the Hebrew sounds.

The answer is that the second two Hebrew names are actually phrases that mean “not loved” and “not my people,” respectively. The Greek translates the meaning of the words, rather than preserving the sounds. Ouk-Ileimeni means “not-loved” and Ou-Laos-Mou means “not-people-mine.” The first name, Jezreel in English, is taken from the disaster at the Jezreel valley — vaguely similar would be living in New Orleans and calling your daughter “Katrina” — and because that’s a place, not just a word, the Greek transliterates the sounds.

English translations, though, usually ignore what the words mean, as in the NRSV’s Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi. The CEB and others take a different route, with Jezreel, No Compassion, and Not My People.

Some translations walk a middle ground, as in the latest NIV, which gives us, “Lo-Ruhamah (which means ‘not loved’)” and “Lo-Ammi (which means ‘not my people’),” explaining things for the English reader.

Though this is perhaps the most extreme example of names that are words or phrases, it’s not the only one. The famous passage in Isaiah 7:14 has a kid whose name is emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When the name appears in Isaiah, it remains untranslated in English, though many versions provide a footnote with an explanation of the name. But when Matthew (in 1:23) cites the verse, he adds, “…which translates as ‘God is with us.'”

What should we do with these names in English translations? Certainly a story about “Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi” paints a markedly different picture than one about, say, “Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted.” Does it do the narrative justice if we strip it of the jarring names “Unloved” and “Unwanted”?

Is turning “Jezreel” into “Disaster” going too far? What about a translation that calls yizrael “Gettysburg,” which, like the Valley of Jezreel, was the site of bloodshed? Should we respect the fact that Hosea has one kid named after a place and two with phrases for names?

And what about Emmanuel? If we translate lo-ruchamma as “Unloved,” shouldn’t Emmanuel be “God-Is-With-Us?”

What do you think? How would you translate Hosea’s kids, Isaiah 7:14, and Matthew 1:23?


May 9, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Where did Jesus come from? (Or: Is your father the father of you?)

One of the most common expressions in Bible translations is a variation on the theme “daughter of so-and-so,” “father of so-and-so,” etc.

For example, in Genesis 11:29, we learn that Milcah was the daughter of “Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah” (NRSV, along with most others). Even the new CEB, which prides itself on using ordinary English, gives us “Haran, father of both Milcah and Iscah.” (The NLT “does the genealogical math” for us: “Milcah had a sister named Iscah.”)

But it seems to me that the way we translate Genesis 11:29 into English is, “Haran, Milcah and Iscah’s father.” Somehow, standard English grammar disappears from most translations.

This is how the start of the New Testament (Matthew 1:2) almost always becomes, in English, “Abraham was the father of Isaac.” (Other variations try to use an English verb for the Greek one: “Abraham fathered Isaac” [NJB] or the archaic “Abraham begat Isaac.”)

But again, the way we say that in English is “Abraham was Isaac’s father.” The grammar gets tricky a few words later — “Jacob was Judah and his brothers’ father” is a tad awkward — but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to abandon common English.

I understand that there’s a formal dialect of English that prefers “father of Isaac,” but I don’t that “Isaac’s father” is overly colloquial.

So I think the list should read:

Abraham was Isaac’s father,
Isaac, Jacob’s father,
Jacob, Judah and his brothers’ father,
Judah, Perez and Zerah’s father, with Tamar,
Perez, Hezron’s father,
Hezron, Ram’s father,
Ram, Amminadab’s father,
Amminadab, Nahshon’s father,
Nahshon, Salmon’s father,
Salmon, Boaz’s father, with Rahab,
Boaz, Obed’s father, with Ruth,
Obed, Jesse’s father,
and Jesse, King David’s father.

What do you think? Is there some merit to the standard phrasing that I’m missing?

January 26, 2012 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Bible Translations Make News in 2011

According to the Religion Newswriters Association, Bible translation stories were among the top 10 religion stories of 2011.

The RNA singled out three events that contributed to the prominence of Bible translations in the news this past year:

  • Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. There’s no doubt that the King James Version (“KJV”) has had an unprecedented impact on English and on religion, as well as on the practice of Bible translation, though I insist that at this point its value lies less in what it tells us about the original text of the Bible — I did, after all, call it a fool’s gold standard — and more in its historical and cultural role. (For more on why I think the KJV is now inaccurate, take my “Exploring the Bible” video quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“)

  • Criticism of the newest NIV. The NIV was officially published in 2011, but it was released on-line in 2010, which is perhaps why the RNA didn’t single out the publication of the NIV, but rather criticism of the gender decisions in it. Southern Baptists were especially vocal in this regard, and I don’t think this gender debate is going away. (Just a few days ago I was denounced by some Southern Baptists for my translation work, in particular for my suggestion in the Huffington Post that the Song of Solomon advocates equality between men and women.)

  • The completion of the Common English Bible (CEB). The CEB proved hugely popular, even beyond what its publishers expected, though I like it less than many. It’s not a surprise that the translation made news. It was reprinted twice within weeks of its initial run, and has over half a million copies in print. It also made some bold decisions, like changing the traditional “Son of Man” into “human one.”

Though all three of these news items seem to be about Bible translation, I think there’s more going on.

The gender debate, in particular, seems less about translation than about the role of men and women. As I told the AP, I think the NIV is a step backwards in terms of gender accuracy in translation. The loudest complaints this year were that it didn’t take a big enough step backward.

Similarly, I think the admiration (and sometimes reverence) that many people have for the KJV has a lot to do with keeping things the way they were.

And on the other side of the coin, part of the CEB’s appeal is tied up with specifically not keeping things the way they were.

Certainly one common theme here is how we deal with modernity. There seems to be a more specific message behind the stories, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Making Jesus the “Human One”

Though the text of the new Common English Bible (“CEB”) has been circulating for some time, its recent release made headlines (Bob Smietana in The Tennessean, picked up by Cathy Lynn Grossman on her USA Today blog), in part because of the translators’ decision to change the traditional “son of man” into “human one.”

Why did they make the change, and is it a good one?

Son of Man

The traditional “son of man” is a literal translation of the Hebrew ben adam, which is how God frequently calls Ezekiel. We also find it elsewhere in the OT. In these cases, the Greek Septuagint translates the Hebrew literally as uios anthropou.

The English phrase also occurs in the NT, where it is the nearly literal translation of the Greek uios tou anthropou (“son of the man”), common in all four Gospels, and appearing elsewhere.

While the Hebrew phrase seems to refer to any human (even though it’s only actually used of a few humans), the Greek phrase seems to refer specifically to Jesus. For this reason, many translations capitalize it, either “Son of man” or “Son of Man.”

Against “Son of Man”

Perhaps the biggest drawback of these literal translations is that the Hebrew ben and Greek uois indicate “member of” in addition to “son” or “child.” One famous phrase where we see this is b’nai yisrael (b’nai is the plural of ben), commonly “children of Israel” or “sons of Israel,” but really just “Israelites.” Similarly (just for instance), in Matthew 9:15, the phrase commonly translated as “wedding guests” is literally sons of the weddinghall.

Accordingly, ben adam could simply be someone who is an adam, just as uios tou anthropou could be someone who is an anthropos. That is, both phrases might just refer to a person. This is where the CEB gets “human one.” They are right that “son of man” is overly literal and misses part of the point of the original.

Another problem with “son of man” is that it is doubly gendered in a way that the Greek is not. In Greek, both uios and anthropos can refer to women as well as men. So the traditional translation introduces gender while the CEB’s translation does not.

In Favor of “Son of Man”

On the other hand, the term “son” in the NT is hardly a neutral one. It is part of the trinity. And it makes possible the progression from “son of man” to “son of God.”

In terms of the latter, for example, we find Luke 22:69-70:

“…but from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” (NRSV, my emphasis)

In the CEB, this becomes:

“…but from now on, the Human One will be seated on the right side of the power of God.” They all said, “Are you God’s Son, then?” (CEB)

The progression is destroyed.

And in terms of the trinity, we might consider Matthew 12:32: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…” (NRSV), which resonates with Matthew 28:19: “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In the CEB, we find instead: “And whoever speaks a word against the Human One,” which doesn’t match “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the same way.

The Tradeoff

I understand the motivation behind “human one” in the CEB. And I think that in isolation it’s a better translation than the traditional “son of man.” But in the broader context of the full NT, I think the association with “son” is too central to give up, and so the CEB misses more than it captures.

What do you think? Which part of uios tou anthropou (“son of man” / “human one”) is more important, the meaning of the phrase or the associations of “son”?

July 19, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Words

It makes intuitive sense that a translation should preserve the meaning of each word.

But in this case, our intuition leads us astray, which is why I’m not a fan of so-called “literal,” “essentially literal,” or “formal equivalence” translations.

Here’s an example that will make clear what goes wrong.

There’s a German verb blaumachen. Though the Germans write it as one word, we can look at the two parts: blau (“blue”) and machen (“to make” or “to do”).

The obvious translation of blaumachen is not “to blue make” — because that’s not English — but “to make blue” or “to do blue.” Both of these translations fit into the “literal” Bible translation camp: ESV, KJV, etc.

We can go one step further and note that neither “to make blue” nor “to do blue” is an English phrase, while “to be blue” most certainly is. So we might translate “to be blue” (which — for non-native speakers — means “to be sad”). That translation fits into the “make the English understandable” camp: CEB, NLT, etc.

We can go one step further yet and, trying to write better or more vivid prose, translate, “to lament.” This is what The Message might do.

But all of these are wrong, for a very simple reason. “To make blue” (blaumachen) in German means “to skip school.”
Continue reading

April 22, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Why the Debate between Formal Equivalence and Functional Equivalence is Deceptive

The debate between “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence” has come up again at BBB, this time in the comment thread to a post about David Ker’s The Bible Wasn’t Written To You. (It’s a free e-book. Take a look.)

Dannii started the debate with a reference to his post “In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax.”

John Hobbins countered that “mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is […] a reasonable default strategy.”

That is, essentially, the crux of the debate: whether or not the grammatical details of the original should be mimicked in translation or not. The formal equivalence camp thinks yes. Functional-equivalence translators disagree.

My take is that mimicking the grammar is as foolish as mimicking the sounds. We don’t translate the Greek ho (which means “the”) as “hoe” just to mimick the sounds. And we shouldn’t translate, say, a passive verb in Greek or Hebrew as a passive one in English just to mimic the grammar. Failure to realize this basic point, it seems to me, is to misunderstand what translation is.

So why is this basic theoretical point nonetheless so hard to grasp?

I think part of the answer lies in the practice of Bible translation. By and large, published English versions of the Bible are either formally equivalent or flawed in other ways, so the debate ends up, in practice, pitting formal equivalence not against functional equivalence but instead against other kinds of mistranslations.

The non-formally equivalent CEB can help us understand how this plays out.

Among that translation’s aims is that it should be written at a 7th-grade reading level. But I think that that goal is a mistake, because the Bible is not written at a 7th-grade reading level, so from the outset, the CEB has made a decision to abandon accuracy in some regards. And as part of pursuing that goal, the CEB’s editors make other mistakes. For instance, the CEB recasts Hebrews 12:1, turning it into a statement about going in a different direction in life, while the original is about going unburdened in the same direction.

Similarly, from the CEB translation comparison, we see that Genesis 2:7 now reads, “the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land” instead of the NRSV, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (their italics, to highlight the comparison). But the original doesn’t have any notion of “fertile,” and “topsoil” is almost certainly wrong for what should be “dust.”

My point is not to pick on the CEB, but rather to use it to highlight what I think goes wrong in the formal equivalence versus functional equivalence debate.

The formal equivalence crowd looks at the kinds of mistakes we just saw in the CEB, and, rightly in my opinion, notes that these versions miss essential aspects of the original. Then they compare, say, the NRSV renditions of these verses. The NRSV correctly has “lay aside every weight” in Hebrews 12:1. It correctly has “dust” in Genesis 2:7. And it doesn’t introduce the notion of “fertile” there.

In these cases, the NRSV is more accurate that the CEB. But I don’t think that the NRSV’s accuracy here comes from its philosophy. Rather, I think it comes, in this case, in spite of its philosophy.

After all, it’s this same philosophy that leads the NRSV to translate Mark 12:18 as, “The Sadducees … asked him a question, saying:” even though we don’t “say” questions in English; we ask them. The NRSV makes the same mistake in Genesis 44:19.

The supporters of functional equivalence use mistakes like these in the NRSV to attack formal equivalence.

And what follows is a debate where both sides are right — because both the CEB and the NRSV have mistakes — but where neither side is really talking about translation theory. They are talking about practice.

So instead of asking which version is better, I think the right questions are:

1. Can functional-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?

2. Can formal-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?

April 21, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Making the Bible Clearer Than Ever

The CEB blog has an interesting post about reading levels.

In particular, Paul Franklyn claims that “[r]eading measurements are a measure of the writer’s clarity.” The CEB, he claims, aims for a 7th-8th grade reading level not because of their readers’ intelligence, but because the editors of the CEB wanted to create a translation that offers a “smooth, natural, and clear reading experience.” In other words, their goal is not (just) a translation for poor readers, but rather a better translation for all readers.

As with any new translation, two questions present themselves: Is the approach valid, and does the translation succeed in achieving the theoretical goals? If the answer to the first question is “no” — that is, if the goals aren’t desirable in the first place — the second question becomes less interesting.

So the first question for the CEB is this: Do we always want the translation to be simple? My view is that we do not, because I think part of accuracy in translation is conveying the reading level of the original.

I understand that this is exceedingly difficult in practice: How do we determine the level of the original Hebrew and Greek? What counts as the same level in English? If the Hebrew of the OT (or part of it) was aimed at an elite class, do we look to the elite today and similarly write the translation for the elite? Or do we recognize that reading is (probably) more widespread today than it once was, and look to the parallel reading class of today? Is it possible that complex Greek was the norm, and that simple English is (becoming?) the norm? If so, should normal Greek become normal English, or should complex Greek become complex English? And so forth.

But in spite of these obstacles, I think we have a general sense that some parts of the Bible are simple prose, some more complex prose, and some poetry. Some of the text is simple, and some is complex. I think these distinctions — among others — should be preserved, and I think that the goal of a “smooth, natural, and clear” translation makes it harder to capture these variations. In other words, I think parts of the Bible may have been at what we would call a 7th-8th grade reading level, but other parts are more complex. Shouldn’t the translation reflect those differences?

Some translations have (rightly, in my opinion) been criticized for being overly complex, archaic, or even ungrammatical in standard English. But that doesn’t mean that the fix is simply to simplify these translations. Just as an idiomatic translation can be wrong, so too can a simple one.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 5 Comments

Always Pick On The Correct Idiom

A classic bit of self-contradictory writing advice goes back to William Safire in the 1970s: “Always pick on the correct idiom.” In English, “pick on” means to annoy, and the right phrasing here is “pick” (which means “choose”).

What makes his example work is that the meaning of “pick on” doesn’t come from the meanings of “pick” and “on.” More generally, phrases, like words, are not the sum of their parts. (I have more here.)

Thinking otherwise is a widespread error in translation. This gaff usually comes up in the context of word-for-word translations that make no sense. In other words, sometimes the words of the original Hebrew or Greek suggest nonsense in English, and that nonsense becomes the accepted translation.

But sometimes the words of the Hebrew or Greek suggest an idiom in English. In those cases, rather than a nonsensical translation, we find a translation that is idiomatic but wrong. This sort of wrong translation is particularly difficult for lay readers to detect because — unlike the nonsense translations — there is no red flag.

What got me thinking about this is a translation in the CEB — highlighted by Wayne in a recent post — that reads, “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up…” (Hebrews 12:1, Wayne’s emphasis).

The English expression “throw off any extra baggage” is without doubt more idiomatic than, for example, than the ESV: “let us also lay aside every weight.”

In English, “baggage” metaphorically means “emotional background,” and “extra baggage” (or “excess baggage”) means “destructive emotional background.” So the CEB’s English means “let us try to rid ourselves of our destructive emotional background and get rid of sin.” The image is that sin is like destructive emotional background.

Unfortunately, this is not what Hebrews 12:1 means. The image there is not of complicating emotions, but rather more directly of a weight that makes it difficult to proceed quickly. Indeed, the second half of Hebrews 12:1 refers to “the race that is set before us.” By shedding the “weight,” we are are better able to “run the race.”

Furthermore, “sin” itself was seen as a weight, a burden to be borne. (For more, take a look at Anderson’s wonderful book Sin: A History, or start with my review.)

So the imagery in Hebrews 12:1 is of better enduring a race without weights such as sin. By contrast, the imagery in the CEB translation is of discarding destructive emotions.

To look at it another way, it seems to me that Hebrews 12:1 is about a better way of going where we are already headed, while the CEB’s translation is about going in a different direction.

More generally, I think it’s important to note that an idiomatic English phrase that copies the original Hebrew or Greek words is just as likely to be wrong as a non-idiomatic one.

What other examples of this sort of error have you noticed?

September 22, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What Reading Level is “Magi”?

I’ve only just glanced at the new CEB translation of Matthew (available on-line here), so I’ll have more organized and thorough thoughts soon, but as I was paging through it, I saw this:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judah during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. [2:1]

This surprised me, because one of the goals of the CEB is to provide a translation in elementary English. The preface notes:

The CEB is presented at an average 7th grade reading level, with most books (e.g., Matthew) scoring in the 6th grade range. [Emphasis in original.]

So I have to wonder: Is an irregular plural of a rare word compatible with the goals of the CEB? What were the other considerations that made more common English translations undesirable here? Wouldn’t “maguses” work just as well (or as poorly)? Should “magi” (or maybe even the Greek magoses?) be italicized, to give readers a clue that it’s not an English word (which for most people it isn’t)?

While we’re at it, I also have to wonder if the point is “magi came from the east,” or “magi from the east came….” I tend to think it’s the latter, that is, that “from the east” describes where the people were from, not where they were coming from.

(And by the way, I think the version on-line is still a draft. For example, still in verse 2:1 ioudaia is translated “Judah” — perhaps having been confused with ioudas — even though in 2:5 it’s the more common “Judea.”)

[Update: More more about the CEB is available on BBB here.]

November 5, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 7 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