God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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

Translating and Improving the Bible

Joel Berkowitz (in Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage) writes of the hubris of Yiddish theaters that promoted Yiddish productions of Shakespeare that were “translated and improved.”*

Though we mock it now, I often think I see the same thing in Bible translations, in two related ways:

1. “Translators” want to make the general flavor of the text into something it never was, frequently either overly formal (NKJV, for example) or overly informal (GNB / TEV).

2. “Translators” want to explain not just what the text says, but what it “means.” Sometimes this takes the flavor of theological interpretation. Other times it comes from a desire to make an opaque text simple.

The second issue came up recently in a comment by Peter Kirk, who correctly points out that expanding on bara in Genesis 1:1 to specify details of creation that are absent from the original text “go[es] beyond what is necessary for translation […] into theological speculation.”

One criticism of translating sarx as “sinful nature” is that is, too, is a “translation and an improvement” in that it fills in details on which the original text is silent. (Another criticism is that it’s not what the text meant. But my point here is that even if it is what the text meant, it might not be the right translation.)

Similarly, it seems to me that “translators” who take gender-specific texts and make them generic are “translating and improving.” For that matter, taking a generic text and making it gendered is a mistake, though I think this reverse pattern usually happens by error — because the translators don’t understand gender in the original language as well as they think they do — not by design.

A case in point is “ancestors.” Let’s assume I’m right that the Hebrew avot means “ancestors.” How, then, should we translate “to your avot, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 1:9)? Even though the ancestors listed are all male, and even if the biblical culture was such that only the men counted (I don’t think it was — but let’s assume), I still don’t think “ancestors” should be changed to “fathers.”

A more radical case makes the reasoning clearer. If patir refers to God, I think it should still be translated as either “father” or “parent,” not as “God.”

The reason I put scare quotes around “translators” so many times here is that in my opinion translation is incompatible with deciding a priori what the content or style of the translation should be. You can (try to) improve the text, or you can translate it, but you can’t do both.

(*) By the way, though the “translated and improved” slogan is widely cited, I’ve been unable to confirm it. If you have a photo of the original, I’ll be most grateful to see it.

November 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On Translation Strategies: An Exercise

Today’s on-line edition of Le Monde is currently running the headline: Les magasins de jeux vidéo vont-ils disparaître?

How should we translate that into English?


  1. The stores of video games, are they going to disappear (italics a la KJV)
  2. The stores of video games, are they going to disappear? (“essentially literal”)
  3. Video game stores, are they going to disappear? (also “essentially literal”)
  4. Soon there might be no more video game stores. (Good News)
  5. Eek! What if there are no more video game stores? (The Message)
  6. Will video-game stores disappear?
  7. Are video-game stores going to disappear?

October 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , | 10 Comments