God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Missing the Point

[Between six appearances in four cities and then having to buy a new car, I haven’t been in front of a computer in nearly two weeks. So I’m playing catch-up, starting with a much-delayed installment of “translation traps.”]

Following up on some thoughts about myopic translations, here’s one way in particular that a translation can focus too closely on the words and not closely enough on the text.

This is a typical translation of a (Modern) Hebrew text into English:

Rain was falling, it was cold and wet. We sat at home, we looked out toward the street.
I sat with Tali. It was very cold. I said, “What a shame. We can’t do anything.”
[I’m] not allowed to go out and play ball. It’s just cold and wet and [I’m] not allowed. [I’m] not allowed.”
We kept sitting. Just, just, just, just [sitting]. It was the most boring [thing] in the world.
And then something moved. Bump. Wow, what a bump. We were so shocked.
We looked, and then he made his way in. We looked, and we saw, a mischievous cat.

For reference, here’s the original Hebrew, with word-for-word translations:







But the English translation above, even though at first glance it may seem pretty good, is wrong in almost every regard. Can you figure out what happened?

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April 22, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: How Mistranslation Created Divorce in the Bible

From the About page comes this response to something I wrote in And God Said:

On p. 155 of And God Said you claim that “there is no divorce in the Bible.”


Two great questions follow. I’ll take them in reverse order:

The Case of Two Husbands

Also, you speculate that perhaps the Bible would call both an ex-wife and a current wife, “his wife” but this is not true, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we see “former wife.”

I presume you mean “former husband,” and here we find a true translation gaff.

The KJV, ESV, NAB, NLT, and others translate “former husband” for ba’al rishon. But “former” in English usually implies “no longer,” whereas the Hebrew rishon just means “first.” For example, when Esau is born before Jacob, he is called the rishon. Genesis 26:1 mentions a famine, and then clarifies, “not the first [rishon] famine,” but rather a new famine. This doesn’t mean or imply that the first famine is no longer or famine. Similarly, ba’ala harishon doesn’t “her husband who is no longer her husband,” but rather, “her first husband.”

(There’s a related use of “former” in English that’s the opposite of “latter” and that just means “first.” For example: “Consider two people, the former a senator and the latter a judge….”)

By comparision, we might look at “ex-wife” in English. A man in his third marriage can have two ex-wives. Even if we call them “the former ex-wife” and “the latter ex-wife,” both remain his ex-wives, and the clearer way to refer to them in English is “his first ex-wife” and “his second ex-wife.”

The NIV gets rishon right with “first,” but then errs and translates shilach as “divorced” instead of the more accurate “sent away.”

The NJB’s combination of “first husband” and “repudiated her” isn’t bad, except for the fact that the Hebrew shilach is a common verb while the English “repudiate” is not.

The NRSV’s translation is pretty accurate here: “…her first husband, who sent her away…”

So here we see Hebrew that just talks about two husbands, while the English, with the word “former,” wrongly suggests that one of them is no longer a husband.

The alleged divorce only takes place in translation.
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April 9, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

All in All Not Much of a Conversation

All in All

Dannii at BBB has a post about “all in all” as a translation for panta en pasin in 1 Corinthians 15:28. The full verse is (NRSV):

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

I think this is an excellent demonstration both of what can go wrong in Bible translation and how hard it can be to talk about Bible-translation issues.

Dannii read “all in all” and “almost made the mistake of thinking the Bible taught pantheism.” Therefore, for Dannii, the NLT’s “[God] will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere” is “a much better translation.”

In a comment, Marshall Massey replies that, “Personally, I’d rather have a mechanically literal translation of this verse than a translation ‘corrected’ to fit someone’s preconceived notions of what the Bible can and cannot teach. If a verse appears to teach pantheism, then let the readers wrestle with that fact!”

Another comment agrees: “Others are saying it better than me, but I’ll weigh in against this theological filtering.”

Gary Simmons then suggests that modern audiences are “less capable of interpretation” than Paul’s audience and “[i]f our audience is less capable of working through interpretation, then clarity becomes a prominent issue.” So a translator has to take obscure Greek and clarify it in translation.

Peter Kirk notes that “all in all” isn’t a literal translation at all, because “it misses the significant fact that in Greek both ‘all’s are plural, and the first is neuter, whereas the second could be any gender.”

John Hobbins then raises the issue of consistency: “It also makes sense to translate a neologism [such as panta en pasin] in the same way across all of its occurrences,” suggesting that the “ESV among recent translations is the way to go. It’s as simple as that.”

Four Conversations

At this point, we have four conversations going on:

1. What did the Greek mean?

2. How do we judge the success of a translation?

3. Which English best applies the right answer to (2) to the right answer to (1)?

4. Which published translation best represents the right answer to (3)?

(J.K. Gayle rightly notes three of these, in a different order: “1. the Greek; 2. the English; and 3. what translation means and does.”)

I think one common source of frustration is when people appear to be engaged in dialog but in fact they are having different conversations.

For example, Marshall pits literal translations against translations that are corrected. For him, this is a conversation about the second question: he prefers accuracy over emended theology. But for me, this is a combination of the 1st question and the 3rd. I agree that accuracy is important, but I don’t think that “all in all” accurately represents the Greek. So even though I disagree with Marshall’s conclusion that “all in all” is a good translation, fundamentally, at least on this, I agree with him.

Dannii seems primarily to address the third question, without first having answered the first and the second (but with the caveat: “I won’t say the NLT is necessarily correct, but at least they tried.”).

Peter is apparently addressing question 3 (“is this really a literal translation?”), though I don’t believe that he is in favor of literal translations in the first place.

Gary’s point concerns the second question.

John seems to address the second and fourth questions. I agree with John that consistency is important, though I disagree that the ESV achieves it. The same Greek phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 12:6, but there the ESV translates, “all in everyone.” (I don’t know of any translation that offers consistency here.)


I think this expanded view of what’s going on is important for two reasons:

1. This is typical of how Bible translations are debated.

2. When we aren’t clear about which question we’re addressing, fundamental agreement (e.g., “a translation should be accurate”) ends up looking like disagreement.

April 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Relying on Structure

Perhaps the biggest translation mistake I’ve seen is relying too closely on word-internal structure to figure out what words mean. We saw this last week with toldot and in a comment regarding etymology.

I call this the trap “word-internal structure” (even though it applies to phrases, too).


As usual, we can look at modern languages to see how poorly internal structure reveals the meaning of a word.

Two examples from my recent And God Said include “hostile,” which doesn’t mean “like a host,” even though the pattern of “infant” and “infantile” would suggest otherwise; and “patently,” which means “obviously” even though a patent by definition must be non-obvious. We see that even with something so simple as adding “-ly” to a word, we can’t rely on structure to tell us what a word means.


Also from And God Said comes this example about phrases:

A more detailed example highlights the issue. English has a verb “pick” and two words “on” and “up” that can be added to verbs. “Pick” (as in “pick a lock”) means, “open stealthily without a key.” “Up” means “away from gravity” and “on” means “touching and located in the direction of open space.” (All of these definitions are approximate. That isn’t the point here.) This knowledge, however, doesn’t explain why “pick on” means “annoy,” “pick up” means “increase” (as in, “pick up the tempo”), and “pick up on” means “discern.”

This demonstrates the important fact that phrases, like words, don’t always get their meanings from their parts. (Another favorite example is “drive-through window.”)


We’ve already seen one clear case where internal structure leads us astray. The internal structure of the Hebrew word toldot suggests that it specifically has to do with “birth,” or maybe “generations” or “descendants.” But we saw that it does not.

Another example comes from the Hebrew phrase “spy after” in Numbers 15:39. The verb there is tur, which means “spy” or “explore.” And the preposition is acharei, “after.” But — just as with “pick up” and “pick on” — it’s a mistake to assume that we can understand the phrase just by knowing its parts. In this case, the phrase occurs nowhere else, so we’re stuck with a problem. The full sentence — important enough in Judaism to be included in the m’zuzah that adorns doorways and the t’fillin that serve as ritual prayer objects — is this: “this will be your tassel. When you see them, you will remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them. Do not ??? your heart and your eyes, after which you lust.”

(Two notes are in order: “heart” is misleading here, as is “lust.” Also, t’fillin enjoys the utterly useless English translation “phylacteries.”)

Translations for the literal “spy after” include “follow after” (ESV), which I don’t think is even an expression in English; “[go] wantonly astray after” (NAB); “going after the lusts of” (NIV); and “follow” (NRSV). Except for the NRSV, all of these translations (wrongly, in my opinion) insist on putting the word “after” in the translation. (The LXX gives us diastrafisesthe opiso, while the Vulgate has the single word sequantur, from sequor, “to follow.”)

Hebrew word-internal structure is complicated, and — depending on personal constitution — either immensely enjoyable or the ultimate barrier to learning Hebrew. Either way, it’s hard to ignore Hebrew’s rich word-internal structure, but sometimes translation demands that we do.

By way of further example, we can consider the Modern Hebrew word m’sukan. It is the passive of the active m’saken. The active means “endanger.” So word-internal structure points us to “endangered” for a translation of the passive. But that’s wrong. The word means “endangering.” In other words, the passive means almost the same thing as the active. “Dangerous” is the usual translation.


When I discussed energeo (responding to discussions by J.R. Daniel Kirk and on BBB — then BBB followed up, as did T.C. Robinson), one comment noted that I “miss[ed] the distinction between the active in Matthew 14:2, Galatians 3:5 etc. and the middle or passive in Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16.” I think we see from the discussion here that, while the active/passive/middle distinction is not to be ignored, neither can we rely on it to tell us what words mean. It’s possible (as we just saw in Modern Hebrew) for a passive form not simply to indicate the passive of what the active form indicates.


It seems to me that two lessons are important.

First, word-internal structure, while sometimes helpful and often fun, is an unreliable way to figure out what a word means.

Secondly, phrases are just like individual words in this regard.

So when we look at a word or a phrase, I think it’s important not just to look at its formal structure.

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Here’s the Story of Toldot

From the about page comes a question about the Hebrew word toldot:

I ran across Genesis 6:9 in the TNIV, which says “this is the account of Noah and his family.” I’ve checked the KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, Message, Luther’s translation (1545), the Amplified Bible, the NLT, and the Leningrad Codex for good measure. Only the TNIV and NLT mention his family.

We don’t have a good word for toldot is English (at least, not that I can think of). Though it occurs only about a dozen times in Genesis (and then once in Exodus and once in Ruth) it’s an important word. In a sense, what Genesis is about is toldot.

Unfortunately, the usual translation “generations” is completely wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how to interpret Hebrew. (Specifically, it comes from using word internal structure to figure out what a word means. This is the second time that that translation trap has come up this week. I’ll try to write more about it soon.)

We first encounter the word in Genesis 2:4: “These are the toldot of the heavens and the earth as they were created.” There’s a lot to bicker about in that translation. What follows, though, is what’s widely called “the second account of creation,” so one thing is clear: “generations” makes no sense here. “These are the toldot” introduces the story of creation: heaven, earth, plants, (lack of) rain, etc. There’s nothing about generations there.

Genesis 25:12-13 gives us more information about the word toldot: “These are the toldot of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom the Egyptian Hagar, Sara’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of Ishmael’s children … Nebaioth — Ishmael’s firstborn — Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam…” Because it’s the children of Ishmael that follow the introduction “these are the toldot,” — and because of the (wrong) English translation “generations,” it looks like toldot here is specifically introducing descendants. Indeed, the NAB translates the word here as “descendants.”

But the reasoning is faulty. Just because the descendants come next doesn’t mean that the word means “descendants.”

In Genesis 6:9 we read, “these are the toldot of Noah. Noah was a righteous man in his generation [dorot in Hebrew, not toldot]. Noah walked with God.” It’s not until the next verse that Noah’s children are listed. The toldot seem to include the fact that Noah was righteous.

Genesis 25:19 tells us, “these are the toldot of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was Isaac’s father.” Particularly after the phrase, “Abraham’s son,” the sentence “Abraham was Isaac’s father” stands out. The toldot here seem to include Isaac’s father, not just his children.

More evidence comes from Genesis 37:2: “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father” (ESV — which uses “generations” for toldot here). Here the word toldot includes particularly what happened with Joseph.

The bits of information that come after each person or thing’s toldot have something in common: they are all important for understanding the person or thing. In Genesis 6:9, it’s important to know that “Noah was righteous in his generation” in order to understand Noah. In Genesis 25:19, it’s important to know that Abraham was Isaac’s father; that’s part of who Isaac is. In Genesis 2:4, was follows “the toldot of the heavens and the earth” is important information about their creation. And so forth.

The word toldot seems to introduce something important to know.

It just so happens that descendants were particularly important in the Bible, so frequently the important bit of information regards children.

As for the TNIV’s “account of Noah and his family,” I understand the motivation, but I don’t agree with the translation. The passage is about Noah, even though it mentions his family.

By comparison, we might consider two English sentences: “What you have to know about Bill is that he loves sports” and “what you have to know about Bill and sports is that Bill loves sports.” They’re not the same thing, and to take one and render it as the other seems like a mistake to me.

I think “story” would work pretty well for toldot if the word didn’t have two meanings. “Story” can be “information about” (that’s like toldot) but also “tale.” The first meaning seems pretty good for toldot, but the problem is that the second meaning encroaches. And particularly regarding a text whose nature is a matter of fierce debate — is this is a story? history? fable? myth? etc. — prejudicing the issue with “story” doesn’t seem to work. (Still, some translations use “story” for toldot in places.)

At any rate, I think it’s important not to deflate the force of toldot, which is what I see happening in translations that substitute more specific terms for “toldot” or that over-explain the text.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

What do you call water you can drink?

Exodus 15:22-26 deals with drinking water. The People of Israel come to Marah (the name of a place, but the word also means “bitter”) and when they find that the water there is undrinkable, Moses throws a log into the water and it becomes drinkable. It’s a fairly simple concept (thought a complex trick), yet the KJV, ESV, NIV, NJB, NRSV, and JPS translations all translate “drinkable water” here as “sweet water.”

That’s because the Hebrew word here is matok. In Hebrew — as in English — “sweet” and “salty” are generally opposites, and in Hebrew the paradigm extends to water. But unlike Hebrew, in (most dialects of) English the opposite of “salt water” is not “sweet water” but rather “fresh water,” or perhaps “drinkable water” or even “potable water.”

The same contrast in James 3:11 is variously rendered “sweet/bitter” (KJV), “fresh/salt” (ESV), “fresh/bitter” (NLT), “fresh/brackish” (NRSV) or “pure/brackish” (NAB). (I’ve never used the word “brackish” in my life, though I remember hearing the word when I took a boat tour of the Everglades. Apparently it’s a mixture of seawater and fresh lake water.)

All of this complexity is introduced for what is essentially a very simple contrast, with common English words to describe it: fresh water and salt water.

It seems to me that the only reason to prefer “sweet” in Exodus is to maintain the literary contrast between the name of the place (“Marah,” which means “bitter”) and the water, which becomes sweet.

Do you think it’s worth it? Is “sweet” acceptible for “fresh”/”potable”/”drinkable”?

What about in James 3:11. Is “brackish” called for? I don’t see what’s wrong with “fresh/salt.”


February 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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.”
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January 29, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Parts of Speech

Perhaps because understanding parts of speech is so central to learning a foreign language, translators often try to preserve parts of speech when they translate.

But I think this is a mistake.

We know from modern languages that parts of speech often have to change in translation, and I think we see cases where more flexibility would benefit Bible translations, too.

As usual, we use modern languages to help us understand how translation works, and then apply the lessons to translating ancient languages.

Modern Languages

The French for “I’m hungry” is j’ai faim, or, perhaps more to the point, the English for j’ai faim is “I’m hungry.” This generally undisputed point is relevant because j’ai faim starts off with “I have” (j’ai) followed by a noun which we can roughly translate as “hunger.” Certainly this pronoun-verb-noun combination has to become a pronoun-verb-adjective one in English. Anything else is simply to misunderstand the French or to misrepresent it in English.

Specifically, the awkward “I have hunger” is an inaccurate translation. Even though it makes (a little) sense in English, the French is a common expression while “I have hunger” in English is certainly not.

Other examples don’t work at all in English.

For instance, the French j’ai sommeil means “I’m tired” or “I’m sleepy,” but preserving the parts of speech results in the absurd “I have sleepiness.”

The Modern Hebrew kar li means “I’m cold,” even though the Hebrew is an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase. “Cold to me” and “there is cold to me” are clearly the wrong translations.

The German wie geht’s Ihnen? means “how are you?” It’s an interrogative-verb-pronoun-pronoun combination. The literal “how goes it to you?” is wrong. English demands interrogative-verb-pronoun.

Another common misunderstanding is that the grammar of a different language — say, French — reflects a fundamentally different way of thinking about the world. So some people naively think that because the literal equivalent of “I have sleepiness” is grammatical in French, the French notion of being tired differs from the English one.

But we can see that this approach is flawed because alongside the French j’ai sommeil we find je suis fatige, literally, “I am tired.” In other words, both expressions — the English-grammar variety and the French-grammar variety — exist side by side in French.

What we see instead is that parts of speech can change within a language without changing the meaning, and that parts of speech sometimes have to change as part of a successful translation.

Another Modern Example

Modern Hebrew has few adverbs, so aderverbiness (if you’ll pardon the word) is often expressed through a combination of b’ofen (“in a manner”) or b’derech (“in a way”) followed by an adjective. For example, “I explained it clearly” in Hebrew becomes …b’ofen barur, “…in a clear manner.” “Superficially” is b’ofen shitchi, “in a superficial manner.”

Here we find a greater temptation to mimic the Hebrew parts of speech, because “in a clear manner” and “in a superficial manner” sound like English. But even though they are grammatical, they are still the wrong English to translate the Hebrew.

Two Biblical Examples


A perfect example of the need to think beyond parts of speech comes from the Greek kata, commonly glossed as “according to” or “as.”

In Mark 4:10 and Luke 9:18 we find the phrase kata monas, literally “as alone,” but every translation I know of renders that phrase with the adverb “alone.”

The very similar Greek kata idian (usually kat’ idian) highlights the issue. The word idian is pretty close to the English “self.” So kata idian could be “by himself,” and this is how the ESV translates the phrase in Matthew 14:13. The KJV gives us “apart” and the NIV translates “privately.” As it happens, “by himself” is grammatical English, but — as we’ve seen — the fact that it so closely matches the Greek doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best translation.

In Romans 2:2 we find kata alitheian, which the KJV translates literally as “according to truth”: “But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.” Some other translations recognize that “according to truth” is not English, and offer instead “rightly” (ESV), “is true” (NAB), “is based on truth” (NIV), “justly,” (NJB), etc.

In Romans 11:21, kata fusin — “according to nature” — is almost always translated “natural,” as in the NRSV: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” Yet three verses later, most translations go with “by nature” for the same phrase.

These issues are particularly important when it comes to kata sarka, “according to sarx.” I’m not going to revisit the complex issue of sarx here. My point is more simply that even if the NIV translators are right that the word means “sinful nature,” they still may be wrong in translating, “according to the sinful nature.” Perhaps “in sin” is better, or “sinful,” etc.


The verb katergazomai means “do,” but that doesn’t mean that we need to translate it as a verb every time.

Philippians 2:12 gives us: sotirian katergazomai, “work out salvation,” (KJV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, NIV, etc.). But maybe a verb is called for here. What about katergazomeni thanaton in Romans 7:13? It’s usually translated along the lines of “working/producing/causing death.” Again, a verb seems the better choice (though there are other considerations, like the word play with egeneto thanatos earlier in the verse).


What we see is that the slavish preservation of parts of speech tends to create awkward, inaccurate translations.

What other examples can you think of?

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments