God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Microcosm of Bible Translation: Amos 5:15

[This is the first in what I hope will become an occasional series about the details of actual translation: methods, decisions that have to be made, compromises, etc.]

Amos 15:5

The first part of Amos 15:5 reads (NRSV), “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;” What goes in to that translation? What does the translation miss? What other options might be better?

As we go through, I’ve italicized questions that the translator needs to answer. I offer my answers to some of them toward the end.

Words

We start with the words, most of which are straightforward:

sin’u
hate
ra
bad/evil
v-ehevu
and love
tov
good
v-hatzigu
and place/put in place
va-sha’ar
in/at the gate
mishpat
justice/judgement

There are details of the words which are not conveyed in these English glosses.

Imperatives

The verbs (“hate,” “love,” and “put in place”) are plural imperatives. We don’t have plurals like this in English, but there are ways of expressing the same point if we want: “all of you, hate…,” for example. (The LXX‘s “we hated” and “we loved” doesn’t match the Hebrew here.)

Is the nuance of the verb forms important to convey in translation?

Evil

There are at least two reasonable translations for ra: “bad” and “evil.” The Hebrew is the common opposite of “good” (tov), so “bad” seems like the better choice. Unfortunately, while “good” and “evil” in English function both as adjectives and nouns, “bad” is only an adjective. “Hate bad” isn’t English. The KJV ops for “hate the bad” to preserve the pair “good/bad.” Modern translations almost all go with “hate evil.”

Is the substitution of “evil” for “bad” warranted? Or should the translator find a way of making the more accurate “bad” work in English?

Love

There are lots of ways of loving. Clearly, one doesn’t love a spouse the same way one loves what is good. Perhaps for this reason, the CEV goes with “choose good.” (In a similar vein, the Greek agapao is frequently glossed along the lines “love, primarily of Christian love.”)

Should the translation reflect how “love” (ahav) is used here?

Establish

The verb I gloss as “[put in] place” is usually used for people and physical things. In Genesis, “present” is often a good translation. In Deuteronomy 28:56, the verb is used for “set” in the phrase “set the sole of her foot on the ground.” In Judges 6:37, it’s used for “set” in the phrase “set the wool fleece” on the ground.

Is “establish” too grandiose here?

The NIV offers “maintain justice” here. But the broader context of the passage makes it clear that justice was lacking and that it had to be restored. (The LXX gives us “restore.”)

Should the translation of “establish” include the context here?

Gate

For me, the issue of “gate” is one of the most interesting. The “gate” (sha’ar) here is a city gate, but when I think of “gate” in English, I think of the gate of a fence. (Similarly, the famous phrase from Deuteronomy 6:9, “write them … on your gates” deals with the entrances to cities.) Maybe “city gate” is better?

More importantly, the gate in antiquity was a gathering spot, not merely a portal. In modernity, the “city square” serves the same purpose. (So does the watercooler, I guess, but not really.)

One purpose of gathering at the gate was justice. This is probably why the NIV goes with “courts” here instead of “gate.” The English translation that puts “justice” in the “gate” seems to put it in an odd spot, whereas originally the Hebrew put it right where it normally was.

Does “gate” in English correctly convey the Hebrew? Should the translation focus on the physical location of the gate or on its purpose? Is the translation successful if readers have to know details of ancient society to understand it?

Justice

The Hebrew mishpat is variously “judgement,” “justice,” “rule,” “law,” “sentence,” and more.

Does “mishpat” have to be translated uniformly throughout the Bible? What nuance is implied here? Should the translation indicate the nuances?

Poetry

Beyond the choice of words, the Hebrew is poetic.

The phrase starts with classic parallelism, juxtaposing two pairs of opposites: “hate/love” and “bad/good.” The previous verse also puts “good” and “bad” together, though there “good” comes first. (Surprisingly, the KJV translates “good/evil” in verse 14 but “the good/the bad” for the same Hebrew in verse 15.)

Then a new element, “justice,” is introduced. Stylistically the third clause is similar to the first two, but in terms of content it’s very different. (This has the effect of emphasizing “justice.”)

The object of the verb comes last in all three cases (“bad,” “good,” and “justice”). Should the English translation preserve this poetic device? Is it possible?

The NLT, correctly noting that “evil” is more commonly used as a noun than “good,” translates, “hate evil and love what is good.” Should the English translation preserve the single-verb-single-noun pattern for the first two clauses?

Reading Between the Lines

The connection between “justice” and the first two pairs is (purposely?) left vague. Should the translation fill in the details of the connection here? For example, The Message and God’s Word translations offer “then” instead of just “and.”

Noting that gates used to be where justice was administered and that courts now serve that function, the NIV, God’s Word and others translate “gates” as “courts.” The Message goes with “public square” in the phrase “work it out in the public square.” The NLT offers, “remodel your courts into true halls of justice.”

Other translations explain what happens with justice. For example, the NJB translates, “let justice reign.”

Should a translation explain the text in these kinds of ways?

English Grammar

Maybe it’s because of all of this hidden complexity that modern translations sometimes ignore English grammar. One immediate question is whether one meets “in the gate” or “at the gate” in English. (For me, “I’ll meet you at Jaffa gate in Jerusalem” is better than “I’ll meet in you Jaffa gate in Jerusalem.” I suspect this will be dialectal. Does anyone prefer “in” here?)

The NIV, NJB, and others forget about simple English punctuation. The NIV drops the first “and” (“Hate evil, love good;”), for example. Is there any reason not to use correct English grammar?

Summary and Answers

Summary

We’ve seen that the original text refers to hating what is bad, loving what is good, and (re)establishing justice in the place where justice was usually administered, that is, the city gate.

The text addresses people collectively.

The text is poetic and pithy. It consists of three clauses, the third standing out because it’s a little longer than the first two.

My Answers

I think it’s nice to convey singular/plural nuances in imperative verbs, but not necessary, primarily because ancient Hebrew uses both singular and plural for addressing a group. This doesn’t seem to be a big deal, and there’s no easy way to do it in English anyway.

I think that “evil” for ra is going too far. I see a statement about ordinary, daily life in the original. We use “bad” for that in English, I think, not “evil.”

I think that the English “love” covers roughly the same areas of meaning as the Hebrew ahav. It’s a mistake to try to spell out in English what the original did not spell out in Hebrew, so “love,” though broad, is right.

I think “establish” is not too bad for the Hebrew, and I can’t think of anything better. “Set up” might work, too, depending on the other lexical choices.

The issue of “gate” is, for me, the hardest. “Justice” in modernity has nothing to do with “gates,” and, in fact, this passage in Hebrew is not about gates except to the degree that gates are the locus of justice. It’s like “restore justice to the courts” in English. The focus there isn’t “courts” but rather “justice.”

On the other hand, gates come up frequently in the Bible, so changing the word only here seems problematic. Just for example, the Hebrew in this passage matches Deuteronomy 6:9. If we change “gate” to “court” here we destroy the connection.

As for “gate” or “city gate,” I think “city gate” is more accurate, but the accuracy is irrelevant, because either way we end up with an odd place for justice. People who know about the role of ancient city gates will know what “gates” means, and those who don’t won’t find “city gates” to be particularly helpful.

I think the poetry is important, and, in particular, the translation should preserve the grammatical connection among the three phrases. I don’t think the translation necessarily has to use verb-noun each time, though; another repeated pattern would serve just as well.

I do not think that it’s the job of the translation to fill in details that are not in the text. I think that’s where commentary comes in.

And I think writing an English translation according to the rules of English grammar is important.

Translations

So one reasonable translation is:

“Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just among you.”

I’ve use the “what is…” construction to give all three clauses the same pattern, yet not force myself to use “evil.” I’m pretty happy with everything up to “among you.” Though I still think “among you” is better than “at the gate,” I’m left wondering if there is a better solution. I also worry that the sentence might be read as referring to “what is just among you.”

Another reasonable translation leaves out “gate” altogether. Perhaps every English translation is more misleading that not translating the word: “Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just.”

Or, to revert to “evil,” we might try: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice among you.” While “evil” sounds stronger in English, it may be stronger than what the Hebrew represented.

What do you think?

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

On James 2:23-24: Why Faith Without Works is Dead

James 2:23-24 uses the same root twice to highlight the point that Faith requires Works. But that important rhetorical device — duplication of the root — is lost in most translations. For example (NRSV):

(23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] … (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

That translation, like most others, is ambiguous regarding the exact connection between Abraham’s belief (in James 2:23, which quotes Genesis 15:6) and faith (in James 2:24).

But in Greek, “believed” is pisteuo and “faith” is pistis. The text connects Abraham’s pistis with the general nature of pistis. It’s essentially a grammatical accident that we see a verb in Genesis 15:6 — so also in James 2:23 — and a noun in James 2:24.

Why do translations have such a hard time capturing this basic effect? The KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV all have “Abraham believed” here, instead of the obvious other choice: “Abraham had faith.”

(The NAB’s lapse is particularly surprising. In Genesis itself that translation reads, “put his faith.” The CEV opts for “had faith” in James 2:23, but then goes with “what we believe” in verse 24.)

I also think it’s no small matter that the same root appears twice, a topic I’ll turn to soon.

June 10, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Growing Old and Fat in God’s Courtyard

Psalm 92:12 begins a series of verses that compare the righteous to trees: the people, like Palm trees, will blossom and flourish. They will be planted in God’s courtyard. And they will grow old and fat.

What’s going on is this: In antiquity, most people didn’t get enough calories to live. Today (in the U.S. and other “modern” Western countries) many people struggle to cut down their caloric intake. In the days of the Psalms, by contrast, people struggled to get enough. Old age in particular was a challenge, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to die prematurely because they couldn’t get enough to eat.

The lucky ones, though, did have enough food.

So “fat” back then was the opposite of “scrawny.” Or to look at the matter another way, “healthy and fit” is now represented by “thin,” but it used to pair with “fat.”

How, then, should we translate Psalm 92:14? It reads: the righteous shall bear fruit in old age, being dashen (fat) and ra’anan (fresh). Certainly, “they will bear fruit in old age, being fat and fresh” doesn’t have the right ring to it.

Current Translations

The KJV’s “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” is perhaps literally accurate, but it misses the changing role of “fat.”

The ESV’s “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” might work with trees, but it doesn’t seem to extend felicitously to people — “full of sap” hardly sounds like a desirable trait for the elderly.

The NIV’s “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” seems to suffer from another problem. “Green” in English is usually a metaphor for “inexperienced.” When I read “fresh and green,” I don’t think of the elderly but rather new-comers just starting out.

The NLT goes with, “Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”

The CEV offers “They will be like trees that stay healthy and fruitful, even when they are old.” That at least makes sense and seems positive, though it seems to miss the poetic impact of the original.

The Message‘s “lithe and green, virile still in old age” may be the point, though by spelling out “virile” instead of using imagery, it similarly strays significantly from the original. I also don’t think that trees are “virile.”

Lessons

I think this is a clear example of the need to look beyond the literal meaning of words — “fat,” in this case — and see how they function metaphorically.

The Challenge

How would you translate Psalm 92:12-14?

May 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

What Wine and Wineskins can Teach Us about Text and Context

Bill Mounce notes (also here) that Classical Greek had two words for “new”: neos and kainos.

We see them both in Matthew 9:17 (as well as Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:37), where Jesus relates that people “pour new wine into new wineskins” (NIV). The problem is that this translation (along with the NLT, CEV, and others) wrongly makes it sound as if it is the newsness of the skins that makes them suitable for the new wine. That is, the translation seems to suggest that the wine and the skin should match.

But the Greek uses neos for the wine and kainos for the skins. So in Greek, the wine doesn’t match the skin. Rather, there are two kinds of skins (palaios and kainos) and the question is which is better for wine that is neos.

In other words, the original question is “should neos wine go in to kainos or palaios skins?” Some translations prejudice the issue by asking instead, “should new wine go in to new or old skins.”

Simply as a description of the skin, I’m not sure that “fresh wineskin” — the other common option, from the KJV, NAB, NRSV, etc. — is better than “new.” (This might because I get my wine from bottles, so in truth I’m not really sure what this wineskin [askos] is, and what a fresh one looks like.) But in the context of Matthew 9:17, I think it’s more important to convey the point of the lesson than to describe the exact quality of the skin.

I also think that this is a perfect demonstration of why translating each word is not enough to create a good translation.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

John 3:17 and a Translation That Might Work

I think John 3:17 (like John 3:16) shows us three things: potential traps in translation, typical patterns of some of the common Bible translations, and the importance of paying attention to detail.

The point of John 3:17 is pretty simple (even if the theology is deep): God didn’t send Jesus into the world in order to condemn it, but rather in order for the world to be saved through him.

To me, the line contrasts two possibilities: (1) God sent Jesus to condemn the world; and (2) God sent Jesus for the world to be saved through him. John 3:17 explains that it’s the second one.

And the line presents two aspects of the second possibility: the world will be saved — we can call this (2a) — and, furthermore, the world will be saved through Jesus (2b).

Yet I haven’t found any translation that conveys (1) versus (2a) and (2b) accurately.

The ESV, NRSV, and NAB (and others) translate the second half as, “…in order that the world might be saved through him.” I think that when most English speakers hear “the world might be saved,” they think, “maybe the world will be saved, maybe not.” But that’s not the point of the Greek, or — I don’t think — what the translators wanted their English to mean. In other words, these translations change point (2a). Instead of God sending Jesus so that the world will be saved, these translations have God sending Jesus so that maybe the world will be saved.

I think what happened here is that the translations mimicked the Greek too closely (in this case trying to find an English equivalent of the Greek subjunctive), and what resulted is a translation that’s either misleading or that uses odd syntax. This is typical of the ESV, and to lesser extent of NRSV and NAB.

By contrast, the NLT gives us the straightforward, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” This has the benefit of being easy to understand. And unlike the previous translation, it doesn’t introduce uncertainty where there was none in the original. But the English ends up overly simplistic, and that’s a big drawback.

The part about “though him” is just missing in the NLT. So right off the bat the NLT mis-conveys point (2b).

Furthermore, the Greek doesn’t actually say that “his Son will save the world,” but rather that “the world will be saved.” It’s not the same. The NLT added a new concept (explaining who will save the world) and missed one that’s in the original (the world will be saved through Jesus).

So here the translators strayed too far from the Greek in order to come up with a simple translation. And this is typical of the NLT. It’s easy to understand, but it misses the depth and nuance of the original.

The CEV moves even further away from the original, with: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!” The switch to “the world…its people” makes for better English reading (maybe), but John doesn’t introduce the people until the next verse (3:18). The CEV destroys the progression.

And this is typical of the CEV. In rewriting the English to help make it more readable, it often misconveys the force and sometimes even meaning of the original.l

The Message strays even further yet from the original, giving us: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” In this case, the English has both missed part of the Greek and also added so many new ideas (it was a lot of trouble; the world used to be right; etc.) that I think the English is better considered a commentary than a translation. And this, too, is typical of The Message. It tends to be well written, but it tends not to match up with the original nearly so closely as other translations.

The NIV corrects the ESV’s shortcoming, offering “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This also corrects one of the two problems we saw with the NLT. But the second problem still remains: The NIV tells us who’s doing the saving while the Greek does not.

There are other issues to attend to.

The Greek says merely “the son,” not “his son.” Why not capture this fact in English? (The NRSV gets it right.)

The word “world” appears three times in Greek. Again, why not do the same in English?

The Greek is nicely parallel, with ina krini (“in order to condemn”) starting what I called (1) above, and ina sothi (“in order to be saved”) starting what I called (2) above. The NLT “to condemn it but to save it” captures the parallel structure, but, as we saw, at the expense of the meaning. Is there a way of doing both?

For that matter, “condemn” for krino isn’t quite right, and “world” for kosmos isn’t a perfect fit, either, though in these two cases I don’t think we have anything better.

I would offer: “God didn’t send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order for the world to be saved through him.” It gets everything (I think) except the exact parallel syntax.

Beyond the actual English rendering, I think this teaches us a general lesson about the complexity of translation, and specific lessons about what different versions tend to miss.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer

Scripture Zealot reminds us that the usual translation of John 3:16 is wrong. The Greek there doesn’t mean, “for God so loved the world…,” so the line shouldn’t read (NRSV) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Watch my “Exporing the Bible” video about John 3:16.

The translation used to be right, though, when “so” between a subject and a verb meant “in this manner.” The word “so” is meant to translate the Greek outos, and the point of John 3:16 is that “God loved the world like this….” or “God loved the world in this way….” or “This is how God loved the world.” (Don’t confuse “outos,” meaning “so,” with autos, which means something else.)

The word outos appears hundreds of times in the NT, including in the introduction to what has become known as the Lord’s prayer. Most translations get the word right in Matthew 6:9, as for example, “after this manner” (KJV), which is needlessly awkward but still generally accurate; “in this way” (NRSV); “like this” (ESV); variations on “this is how” (NAB, NIV); etc. (Outos doesn’t appear in the introduction to the “short Lord’s prayer” in Luke.)

So John 3:16 should read along the lines of, “for this is how God loved the world…”

The meaning of John 3:16 is not generally a disputed point.

The authors of the KJV knew what outos meant, but in their 400-year-old dialect (it wasn’t 400 years old then — but it is now), “God so loved…” meant “God loved in this way….”

The translators of the ESV knew it, too, and they even added a footnote to John 3:16: “Or For this is how God loved the world.” I can only guess that they didn’t change the KJV because in this case they valued tradition over accuracy.

The current translations are as wrong as it would be to render Matthew 6:9 as “you should pray this much….” instead of “you should pray this way….”

Other versions also seem to prefer tradition over accuracy when it comes to John 3:16, even when they do not adhere to the KJV translation tradition. The NLT rewrites the line, but their rendition, “For God loved the world so much that….” is a rewrite of the wrong meaning. The Message gets it wrong, too, with “This is how much God loved the world….” So does the CEV: “God loved the people of this world so much….” In other words, these three translations rewrote the wrong meaning to make the wrong meaning more accessible.

This pattern is interesting, and, I think, important for understanding the field of Bible translation. We see that in practice Bible translation is not simply translation applied to the Bible (though many people think that it should be).

Cases like these — where the Greek is easy to understand and generally undisputed — show us that even the most knowledgeable Bible translators can have trouble breaking free from their familiar, if wrong, translations.

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

Haiti and Jeremiah 25:7

Dr. Jim West’s comment that Jeremiah 25 is a good litmus test for translation — and his claim that the NLT doesn’t do badly — directed my attention to the NLT’s translation of Jeremiah 25. In light of some resent claims about the disaster in Haiti, Jeremiah 25:7 in the NLT jumped off the page at me:

“But you would not listen to me,” says the LORD. “You made me furious by worshiping your idols, bringing on yourselves all the disasters you now suffer.

I’ve bolded the part that struck me. The problem is that the Hebrew doesn’t say that. Here’s the original:

“You didn’t listen to me,” v’lo sh’matem eilai
says Adonai, n’um adonai
“so that you angered me” l’ma’an hach’isuni
with the works of your hands b’ma’asei y’deichem
to harm you.” l’ra lachem

The verse follows up on the previous one, in which God warns, “do not pursue other gods and serve them and bow down to them, and do not anger me with the works of your hands, and I will not harm you.” The repetition in verses 25:6 and 25:7 of “anger,” “works of your hands” and “harm” tie the two together.

Verse 25:6 is classic Hebrew parallelism, in which “other gods” from the first part is like “works of your hands” in the second part. These are idols. More interestingly, Jeremiah juxtaposes “pursuing/serving/bowing down to [other gods]” with “angering [God].” So one message of verse 25:6 is that “serving other gods” is like “angering God,” just as “other gods” are like “works of [human] hands.”

It seems to me that at the very least a translation of these two verses should (a) convey the point of the passage, and only the point of the passage; and (b) preserve the connection between the two verses.

The NLT fails (a), because the original verses do not say “bringing on yourselves.” Does the original text imply that the false-god worshippers have brought about their own punishment? Maybe, if you think that failing to heed a warning is the same as bringing something on yourself. But even so, turning an implication of the text into the text is a mistake.

The NLT also misses the connection with the previous verse: “Do not make me angry by worshiping the idols you have made. Then I will not harm you” (Jer 25:6, NLT). The switch from “angry” to “furious” for the same Hebrew word is misleading. The NLT rewrite of 25:6 lacks the parellism of the original, but I think it still conveys the similarity of angering God and worshipping idols.

Other translations do a better with (a), generally sticking to the text and not editorializing, and most stick essentially with the KJV: “[Jer 25:6] And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt. [25:7] Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the LORD; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.” The parallelism in 25:6 is preserved, as is the connection between the two verses, because both have “provoke me to anger,” “works of your hands,” and “hurt.”

On the other hand, “do you no hurt” and “to your own hurt” are barely English.

The ESV changes “hurt” to “harm,” updating the English a bit. The NRSV does the same.

The NAB fixes verse 25:6 with “bring evil upon you,” but then keeps “to your own harm” in the following verse, breaking the connection between the two.

The NIV fixes verse 25:6 with “then I will not harm you” and follows up with “and you have brought harm to yourselves,” again shifting the focus a little.

The CEV correctly preserves the neutrality of the Hebrew in 25:7: “you are the ones who were hurt by what you did,” but in 25:6 that version invents a new premise: “I don’t want to harm you.”

Though there are some interesting translation issues in Jeremiah 25:6-7, it’s among the more straightforward passages, and I’m a little surprised how far some versions stray in translating it.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Being Clear on Being Clear

A post by David Frank on BBB has got me thinking about clarity in Bible translation.

I think there are at least two kinds of clarity, and two times when we don’t want clarity.

Clarity of Language

The most basic kind is clarity of expression in the target language — in our case, the English translation of the original Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic). An ordinery Hebrew or Greek sentence should up as an ordinary English one.

This is a fairly basic concept in translation, so it’s surprising how many popular translations get this wrong.

At the top of the list of offenders here is the KJV, not because of any particular fault on the part of the translators but because English has changed in the past 400 years. For example, a clear Greek sentence like pote ode gegonas (John 6:25) becomes “when camest thou hither?” in the KJV instead of “when did you get here” (NIV). Even the NRSV ends up with “when did you come here,” which is not as clear as the original.

David Frank’s point (I think) is that the NRSV is therefore both less clear and less accurate than the NIV. There are those who claim that the NRSV is more accurate because the English “came” is closer to the Greek gegonas, but most translators (including myself) disagree, because the Greek gegonas is clear and colloquial in context, and the English “when did you come here” is not.

Clarity of Content

On the other hand, there are times when the content of what we want to translate is complex, and here I think translators have to resist the temptation to “translate and improve.”

Some examples will demonstrate. We can start with English.

English Examples

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” While the langauge is perfectly clear, the content of Dickens’ opening line is anything but, and I think it would be a mistake to “translate” this as “the times were ambiguous,” or “the times were perceived differently by different people” or (this is Dickens’ point in the opening paragraph), “the times were seen only in superlatives.”
Continue reading

January 29, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Seductive Translations

Some readers want clarity (as in The Message or the CEV) in a Bible translation. Others want loftiness (NKJV), or even near incoherence (KJV). Others yet opt for chattiness (Good News). And so forth.

I think what these approaches to translation and others like them have in common is that they put the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather than looking at the Bible and seeing what its text is like, readers opt instead for a translation that adheres to their own sense of attractiveness.

This is why comments on this blog, BBB, and others often run along the lines of: “I prefer that translation because it sounds better / is more meaningful / is more spiritual / resonates / reminds me of my childhood / sounds biblical.”

These seem like worthy goals. For example, isn’t a spiritual translation of the Bible better than a non-spiritual one?

I don’t think so, or, at least, not necessarily.

I think, rather, that chasing attractive Bible translations is similar to falling prey to other forms of seduction: the superficial qualities of beauty or what-not mask the fundamental drawbacks.

It seems to me that the value of a translation lies primarily in its fidelity to the original. After all, this is what distinguishes translation from creative writing.

In this regard, translation can be likened to photography. By example, we might consider two photos of war carnage, one that shows the violence of war in all its ugliness, the other than has been manipulated to appear beautiful. Simply as a shot for hanging in the living room, the aesthetic photo is probably a better choice. But as a representation of what happened, the ugly photo has the upper hand. Those who want to understand war would have to be careful not to let the false depiction mislead them.

Similarly, choosing a translation only because of the qualities of the writing — rather than taking into account accuracy — is to decide what the Bible should be rather than to discover it.

For example, Steve Runge recently wrote about redundancy and, in particular, the NET’s decision to remove it from Deuteronomy 9:25. The NET explains in a footnote there that “The Hebrew text includes ‘when I prostrated myself.’ Since this is redundant, it has been left untranslated.'” As it happens, I don’t think this is a case of redundancy in the Hebrew, but my point here is not the nature of the Hebrew but rather the brazen NET footnote that seems to suggest: “We didn’t like the original, so we’re giving you something better.” The redundancy-free translation is seductive, but is it accurate?

We also see from the NET footnote that it’s not just lay readers who chase seductive translations. It’s official translators, too. The NET, in this case, doesn’t want redundancy. The ESV — which seemingly has nothing in common with the NET — wants formality. But this, too, is a form of seduction. What good is formality if the original is not similarly formal?

Bibles are created, sold, purchased, and read in a consumer-driven world of personal choice. Marketers have known for a long time that seduction sells. Is it possible that it sells Bibles, too?

January 11, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Translate But Don’t Editorialize

We just saw a case of an attempt to translate the pragmatics of a text instead of the text itself.

In general, a text will have a variety of implications, morals, allusions, etc. I think that a good translation of the text will match the original with a translation that has similar implications, morals, allusions, and so forth. Sometimes, however, translators are tempted to focus on one aspect of the text; then they translate that aspect instead of the text. The chart at the right depicts the two approaches.

For example, the “golden rule” is explained in Matthew 7:12 as outos gar estin o nomos kai oi profitai, “for this is the law and the prophets.” Ignoring for the moment what exactly “the law and the prophets” is (probably the Jewish Canon at the time), we still find translation variations for outos gar estin. For example (with my emphasis):


  • this is…. (ESV, NAB)
  • this sums up…. (NIV)
  • this is a summary of…. (NLT)
  • this is the meaning of…. (NCV)
  • this is what [the Law and the Prophets] are all about…. (CEV)
  • add up [God’s Law and Prophets] and this is what you get. (The Message)

I think that the NIV, NLT, NCV, CEV, and The Message get it wrong. Each of those versions translated something related to the text instead of the text itself.

Presumably, the translators for some of these versions decided that it’s just not true that the Law “is” the Golden Rule, but if so, what they missed is that it’s equally (un)true in Greek as it is in translation.

Perhaps the point of the passage is that the golden rule sums up the Law and the Prophets, but again, even if that’s true, “sums up” doesn’t seem like the right translation, because I don’t think it’s the job of the translation to jump from the text to its point for us.

By focusing on the point, or the moral, or the message, of the text, translators disguise their interpretation as translation. (This is, by the way, what I think Dr. Leland Ryken dislikes so much about the translations he criticizes, and I think in this regard he is correct to protest.)

It seems to me that when the lines between commentary and translation are blurred, it does a disservice to both.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments