God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

God’s Word and Joel 2:11

Thanks to Wayne at BBB for pointing out that the God’s Word translation (GW) has a new website.

One page on the site compares representative passages as translated in GW and other versions.

I noticed Joel 2:11, which GW translates as, “The day of the Lord is extremely terrifying. Who can endure it?” I was disappointed to find the poetry (and one of the words) of the Hebrew missing. Here’s the original:

ki gadol yom YHWH v’norah m’od umi y’chilenu
for great day-of ADONAI and-awe-inspiring very and-who contains-it

The passage is tricky for three reasons:

1. The Hebrew syntax here is important. The first part (ki gadol yom Adonai) is the normal way of saying “the Lord’s day is great.” But the addition of v’nora m’od (“and very awe-inspiring”) after the noun creates a second, intensifying phrase. It’s like, “great is the Lord’s day, and very awe-inspiring,” except that “great is the Lord’s day” is hardly normal English.

2. The word nora (“awful”? “awesome”? “awe-inspiring”? etc.) is hard to translate into English. The original idea is the sort of fearful admiration one might feel toward an encroaching lightning storm.

3. The final word normally means “to contain,” or maybe “to hold in.” The progression in meaning may have been similar to the English “to bear,” which is both “to carry” and “to endure.”

Working backward, GW’s choice of “endure it” is reasonable for (3).

“Terrifying” for norah at least has the benefit that it doesn’t seem worse to me than other reasonable choices.

But what happened to gadol and to the Hebrew syntax? I understand that any translation can accidentally miss a few words — I know I’ve published translations that in retrospect seem wrong to me — but the publishers of GW chose to highlight this verse as an example of their success.

So I’m left wondering what happened here.


March 3, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , | 13 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Short-Circuit Translations

The God’s Word (“GW”) translation of Luke 2:1-7 (which Wayne Leman recently posted) and The Message‘s rendition of Proverbs 14:15 (tweeted by Rick Warren) highlight a common translation trap that I’d like to call translation short-circuits. What I mean is when a translation short-circuits the original text and tries to jump right to the point.

Example 1: Proverbs 14:15 (The Message).

The original Hebrew of Proverbs 14:15 contrasts peti and arum. It’s hard to know the exact nuances of those words, but I think the NRSV’s choice of “simple” and “clever” is pretty close: “The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.” The message is that foolish people believe everything they hear, while clever people understand things in their own way.

As it happens, we have a word in English to describe people who believe everything they’re told: “gullible.” So another way to understand Proverbs 14:15 is that being prudent is the opposite of being gullible. And I suppose one reasonable way to translate Proverbs 14:15 would be, “the simple are gullible….”

However, The Message short-circuits the text and jumps to the following translation: “The gullible believe anything they’re told….” It seems to me that this translation has taken a line that has a point (foolish people are gullible) and turned it in to a meaningless tautology (gullible people are gullible). I think what led to this mistake was a desire to use the translation not just to translate but also to explain.

Example 2: Luke 2:3 (God’s Word).

Luke 2:3 is fairly straightforward: “Everyone went to be registered, each to their own town.” The Greek for “each to their own town” is ekastos eis eautou polin. (I’ve translated it in the plural to preserve what I believe is a gender inclusive original.)

However, God’s Word translates: “All the people went to register in the cities where their ancestors had lived” (my emphasis). Where did they get the notion that “his city” or “their cities” means “where their ancestors had lived”?

The answer comes from Luke 2:4, in which Joseph chooses to go to “David’s city” of Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from David.

I suppose the GW translators realized that, in this particular case, “his city” for Joseph was “his ancestor’s city.” Even if they’re right, though, they’ve created a short-circuit translation. The original text has complexity and richness — Why did Joseph think that Bethlehem was “his city”? Did Mary’s presence there (Luke 2:5) have anything to do with his choice? What counts as one’s city? Etc. The translation has none of these.

There’s also a question of whether the translators in this case are even right. I suspect that they’re not. I don’t think that Bethlehem was “where Joseph’s ancestor [David] lived.” David lived in Jerusalem. But for me the accuracy of the short-circuit isn’t the point so much as the misplaced goal of short-circuiting the text in the first place.


I think that short-circuit translations are particularly tempting because they seem to be adding accuracy or clarity to a text. Short-circuit translations are often easier to understand than the original text they bypass.

But short circuits run the double risk of outright error (as I think we see in GW’s rendition of Luke 2) and of dumbing down the text (as in The Message‘s tautology where a lesson once was).

And even if the short circuit is accurate, it is still a mistranslation cleverly masquerading as the real thing.

What other short-circuit translations can you find?

[This is the first of what I hope will be a series of weekly posts on common translation traps. I’ll try to post the next one next Monday.]

December 28, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On Psalm 137: A Romp On The Banks of Babylon’s Rivers

Polycarp has posted the God’s Word translation of Psalm 137, along with the NASV and NLT for comparison. I’m glad he did, because it’s always a treat to revisit Psalm 137. (I won’t copy his translation chart here, so you might want to open his page for comparison while you read this.)

I posted a while ago about the impressive nature of the guide the translators of God’s Word wrote, even as I voiced my concern that the translation might not live up to its promise.

With Psalm 137 we see more evidence that practice is harder than theory.

The first verse of Psalm 137 starts with the Hebrew al naharot bavel, and the second follows up with al aravim b’tocha. Notice the repetition of “al.” While I’ve yet to find a translation that captures this, it’s still disappointing.

More disappointing is the continued insistence on the awkward “rivers of Babylon.” Robert Alter gets this right with his “Babylon’s streams”: “By Babylon’s streams//there we sat, oh we wept,//when we recalled Zion.” I’m less concerned about “streams” versus “rivers” than I am with the “X of Y” phrasing, which frequently should be “Y’s X.”

However, Alter’s reason for choosing “streams” is interesting. He says in a footnote that:

naharot generally means “rivers,” but because the more probable reference is to the network of canals that connected the Tigris and the Euphrates, “streams” is a preferable translation here.

I’m note sure. If the word means “rivers” in Hebrew but was nonetheless used for streams, why can’t we do the same thing in English, and use the word “river” for streams? On the other hand, maybe Alter’s point is that the Hebrew is ambiguous, but in English we have to choose.

The next line variously refers to “poplars” or “willows,” and while clearly the matter is important to many translators (the ESV, NAB, NRSV, and probably others have a footnote), I must admit that I have no idea what a poplar is. However, the Hebrew word is aravim, which also means both “evenings” and “Arabians.” I wonder if the word didn’t form a pun in the line, “on the aravim in it, we hung up our harps.” If so, “weeping willows” is probably a good translation, even if the trees were poplars.

I’m surprised to see italics for “They said” in verse 3. The idea of italicizing words that “aren’t in the original” is usually a terrible one, but I have to admit that in verse 5 it’s pretty convenient. The issue in verse 5 is that the Hebrew reads “may my right forget.” It’s very common in Hebrew to find “right” for “right hand,” so: “may my right hand forget.” But forget what? Again, Alter explains the issue perfectly:

[footnote] 5. may my right hand wither. The Masoretic text reads “may my right hand forget [tishkah].” This is problematic because there is no evidence elsewhere for an intransitive use of the verb “to forget” — hence the strategy of desperation of the King James Version in adding, in italics, an object to the verb, “its cunning.” But a simple reversal of consonants yields tikhhash, “wither.”

God’s Word goes with, “let my right hand forget how to play the lyre” (original italics).

Most translations miss the key word play in verses 3-4. The Babylonians (“they”) demand, “sing to us from a song of Zion [shir tzion]” and the Israelites (“we”) reply, “how can we a song of Adonai [shir Adonai]….” “They” think it’s just a nationalistic song “of Zion,” but “we” know that it’s God’s song. Surprisingly, the NLT doesn’t do too badly in this regard with “one of those songs of Jerusalem” and “the songs of the Lord.” (But so much else the NLT rendition here is wrong.)

As for verses 8-9 and the horribly gruesome image of smashing children against rocks, I would hope that we’ve missed something, but the “children” in verse 9 seem to be “child[ren] of Babylon” that we see in verse 8 with the Hebrew bat bavel, “daughter of Babylon.”

October 20, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Follow-Up on God’s Word

Polycarp has begun a more detailed look at the God’s Word translation, starting with Romans 5:1-11. Take a look.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions | , , | Comments Off on Follow-Up on God’s Word

A Note About God’s Word

Polycarp has some comments about the God’s Word translation, where he quotes a text that refers readers to a PDF called “A Guide to GOD’’S WORD Translation: Translating the Bible according to the Principles of Closest Natural Equivalence.” It’s an impressive document. Take a look.

Unfortunately, the translation doesn’t always seem to rise the promise of its principles.

It claims to be a fully new translation, yet it seems to mirror some other versions pretty closely. Just for example, Psalm 98:4 is generally difficult to translate because of its four “singing”-like verbs: hari’u, pitschu, ran’nu, and zameru. The first one starts the verse, and the last three appear one after the other at the end. Rather than simply conjoin all three verbs, the ESV, for example, goes with, “break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” Similarly, God’s Word offers, “Break out into joyful singing, and make music.” The similarities of syntax and word choice (“break forth”/”break out” and “joyous song”/”joyful singing”) seem unlikely in a translation that didn’t rely on other English versions.

And for that matter, the rendition of the line — “Shout happily to the LORD, all the earth.//Break out into joyful singing, and make music” — doesn’t seem to rise to the level of poetry.

Still, most translations do no better, and in light of the obviously well-informed thought that went into designing the translation, I think God’s Word deserves closer attention.

October 8, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments