God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

In Christ, In Love, In Translation

Being “in Christ” (en christo) is one of Paul’s central themes. Romans 8:1 is a good example: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). But it’s a tricky phrase.

The Greek work en, like its English translation “in,” is what linguists call a “light” preposition, that is, one that usually has little or no meaning on its own. Prepositions (“in,” “on,” “about,” “with” etc.) are notoriously idiosyncratic, and so are light words, so it’s not surprising that the light preposition en is difficult to translate correctly.

Some examples in English help demonstrate the range of issues with light prepositions. There’s air “in an airplane,” but the people breathing that air are “on the plane,” not in it. English speakers disagree about whether one stands “in” or “on” line. Prepositions like “in,” “for,” etc. are sometimes optional: “He’s lived (in) more places than I know,” “I’ve been working here (for) three years,” etc. Books are written “on” a computer but “with” pencil and paper. Friends can talk “to” each other or “with” each other, but they can’t chat “to” each other, only “with.”

In some of those examples, we see a single meaning that requires different prepositions in different contexts. The reverse is also common: a single preposition can express different meanings. The “in” of “in love” doesn’t have anything to do with the “in” of “in translation,” for instance.

Obviously, the details are different in other languages. In Modern Hebrew, unlike in English, books are written “in” a computer and also “in” paper and pencil.

Equally obviously, for speakers of Modern Hebrew and English, it’s a mistake to translate the “in” of “in a computer” literally from Hebrew into English. Rather than “in a computer,” English demands “on a computer.”

More generally, the way to translate prepositions (like everything, really) is to determine what the preposition means in one language, and then find a way of expressing the same thing in another.

And this is the crux of the problem with Romans 8:1, and all of the other places we find “in Christ,” because that phrase in English doesn’t mean anything. (Some people might think it means something, but only because they already have a sense of what Paul meant.) We might compare, for instance, “citizens of the U.S. should be in the President.” It’s impossible to agree or disagree, because it doesn’t mean anything.

Translators already know that the Greek en doesn’t have to be “in” in English. In I Cor 4:21, we find, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with [en]a stick, or with [en] love…?” (NRSV, my emphasis). English demands “with a stick” instead of the nonsensical “in a stick.” The translation “in love” is more tempting for en agape, because it does mean something in English, but it doesn’t mean the right thing. Almost all translations get this line right. Translators do their job and find the right preposition in English.

But when it comes to “in Christ,” translations mimic the Greek instead of translating it.

Sometimes no obvious choice for en presents itself, but often English simply demands “with.”

Knowing what you do about the overall meaning of the text, how would you translate Romans 8:1?

February 26, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , | 6 Comments

How Words Work Together in the Bible

There is something intuitively appealing about a translation that takes the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible and translates each one into English. But the premise behind such an approach is flawed, because words work together differently in different languages.

Here’s a simple example from Genesis 29:19: vayomer lavan tov titi ota lach mititi ota l’ish acher.

The Hebrew starts off vayomer lavan, which is quite clearly, “Laban said.” What did Laban say?

The next word in Hebrew is also easy: tov means “good.” What is good?

The next word is a bit more complicated, but still uncontroversial. The Hebrew titi is from the verb stem tet (“give”), and it means “my giving.” Then the Hebrew gets easy again: ota is “her” and lach is “to you.” So far we have, “my giving her to you is good” — a translation that is simple and straightforward, but wrong.

Even though that’s what the words mean, it’s not what the phrase means.

What’s going on is, also, uncontroversial. The next phrase in Hebrew is mititi ota l’ish acher, literally “from my giving her to another man.” The key factor here is knowing that Hebrew uses “from” to indicate comparison, or what is technically called “degree.” In English, we usually do this by changing the adjective, either with “more” and “most” or with the suffixes “-er” and “-est.”

For example, in the English “he is happier (than her)” the adjective “happier” expresses a comparison of happiness. Interestingly, it’s possible that “he is not happy,” but he’s still “happier than her.” That’s how degree works.

In Hebrew, the word would be just “happy” in both cases.

English indicates degree by changing the adjective. Hebrew uses “from” elsewhere in the sentence.

When we see mititi (“from my giving”) in the second part of the Hebrew sentence, that’s our clue that this sentence is a comparison. The way we indicate this comparison in English is with “better.” And, of course, that’s what every translation has: “it’s better that I give her to you than to some other man” (NIV).

The point is that Hebrew has one way of indicating degree and English has another. It’s a mistake to translate the words of Hebrew into English. Rather, the goal of the translator, in this case, is to translate the comparison. More generally, the goal of the translator is to figure out what the original words do, and then find a way of doing the same thing in English.

Some people think that the goal of “adding words in English” is just to make what would otherwise be nonsensical (“it is good, my giving her to you, from my giving her to another man”) into something that makes sense. But that’s not quite right. Rather, the goal is to make the English mean the same thing as the Hebrew.

Similarly, some people think that the “from” in the second part of the Hebrew sentence means that “we should translate tov as ‘better.’ ” But, again, that’s not quite right. We’re not translating tov. We’re translating the phrase.

We find another case of the same grammatical issue (degree) in Genesis 4:13: gadol avoni minso, literally, “big my crime from-bear,” with the obvious translation “my crime is too great to bear.” Again, we add the words “too” and “to” not just to make a coherent English sentence, but to make the right coherent English sentence, one that matches the Hebrew.

November 15, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Accuracy versus Personal Preference: a hidden choice in Bible translation

The latest round of reporting on the LifeWay Bible-preference poll addresses the theme of gender-neutral translations, with headlines like, “Study: Bible readers oppose gender-inclusive translations” (from the Associated Baptist Press).

What I find interesting here is that the poll specifically explained that some Greek and Hebrew terms refer to “people in general,” and the question was whether these inclusive terms should be translated as “man” or as “humankind” etc.:

“Bible translators have to make choices regarding gender issues. For example, the original Greek and Hebrew often uses masculine words such as those literally meaning ‘man’ to describe people in general. Some translators think these should be translated literally as ‘man’ while others think they should be translated into gender-inclusive terms such as ‘humankind,’ ‘human being,’ ‘person’ or ‘one.’ Which do you prefer?”

The question was, in my opinion, biased, but not terribly so. Describing the translation of “man” as “literal” but not describing the other terms with any potentially positive attribute seems unbalanced; also, the question suggests that the original can be translated “as `man,'” but “into gender-inclusive terms.” Even so, the question specifically told respondents that the point was to convey “people in general.” And only 12 percent wanted the more accurate choice.

Another way to phrase the poll question, it seems to me, would have been: “Some translators try to tell you what the text of the Bible means while others try to give you a text that you will like. Which do you prefer?” Of course, I have no way of knowing for sure what the results of asking such a question would be, but I find it hard to believe that the same 82 percent that opted for “man” would choose translations that are tailored to personal preference.

So why did so many people prefer the word “man” to express “people in general”?

As with the accuracy versus readability, I think these poll results have more to do with culture than with translation, linguistics, or Bible studies.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 30 Comments

What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Grammar

As with words, it makes intuitive sense that a translation should convey the grammar of the original.

“Translating the words and grammar separately doesn’t work. They have to be translated together.”

But, again, our intuition leads us astray.

Here’s an example of what can go wrong if we try to mimic the grammar of one language when we translate it into another.

English and French

With rare exception, adjectives in English come before the nouns they modify. So in English we have “the good man,” not “the man good.” For this reason, when the Greek mneuma (“spirit”) and agion (“holy”) are combined to form the Greek mneuma agion, the English translation is not “spirit holy” but rather “holy spirit.”
Continue reading

April 27, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Form

Zondervan has a chart (reproduced immediately below at right) suggesting that effectively conveying both the form and meaning of the original Biblical documents is the best way to reflect the original reading experience.

Zondervan Translation Chart

I disagree, and I think that Zondervan’s approach represents a common and fundamental misunderstanding about how form works.

Form and Meaning

For one thing, form contributes to meaning. So I think it’s a mistake to put “form” and “meaning” on separate axes, as though a translator can convey one without impacting the other.

We see a very basic example in English. “John sees Mary” does not mean the same thing as “Mary sees John.” The form — in this case, the order of the words — contributes to the meaning.

By contrast, word order works differently in Greek. So in Acts 10:38, we find “Jesus of Nazareth anointed God” — “Iesoun … echrisen o theos” — but it very clearly means “God anointed Jesus.” In Greek, grammatical changes to the words themselves (“case endings,” as in the change from iesous to iesoun, for example) sometimes do the same thing as word order in English.

So in this case, we see that capturing the form means missing the meaning, and vice versa.

Acts 10:38 demonstrates the point particularly clearly, but the grammar there is not exceptional. Rather, mirroring the form of the Bible in English often means sacrificing the meaning, because form works differently in Hebrew, Greek, and English.

I have more examples in my post on mimicry.

Form and Flavor

I suspect that people often have “flavor” in mind when they think of “form.” Flavor (which I call “affect” in And God Said) includes the difference between formal and informal language, between funny and serious, etc.

In English, “God, no one has seen” is either particularly formal, or, for some speakers, ungrammatical. But I think everyone can understand that it means the same thing as “No one has seen God.” The difference between the first version (“God, no one has seen”) and the second is a matter of flavor.

And, like meaning, this difference in flavor is conveyed by the word order.

But in Greek, “God no one has seen” — theon oudeis eoraken — is not formal in the same way. That’s why John 1:18 (theon [God] oudeis [no one] eoraken [has seen]) is translated “no one has ever seen God” as opposed to “God no one has ever seen.” To translate “God, no one has seen” is to misunderstand how Greek and English work.

As with meaning, we see that form contributes to flavor, but it not the same as flavor. More generally, in order to capture the flavor, a translator often has to sacrifice the form.

The Inherent Value of Form

Translation Chart: Slavery to Form

Once we see that conveying the form doesn’t help with the meaning or with the flavor, I think we see that conveying the form is only helpful for actually studying the original languages of the Bible, not for conveying the original reading experience.

So my version of Zondervan’s chart (at left) notes that a good translation conveys both the meaning and flavor of the original, and further notes that slavery to form makes it difficult to do either one well.

January 18, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps, using Bible translations | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Q&A: Morphology in Ruth 2:10

From the About page:

Still working on he and vav and I came across this pair of words in Ruth vatishtachu artza.

Two questions — why the vav at the end of the first word? And why the he at the end of the second? KJV translates it as if it were hithpael — she bowed herself to the ground.

I’m playing catch-up after a wonderful visit to Israel, so I thought I’d start with a grammar question. (After all, nothing says “fun” like a little morphology.)

The first word is a wonderful combination of all sorts of grammatical processes. It’s the apocopated hitpa’el, future feminine third person singular. The root is Sh.Ch.H, and the shin and the tav metathesize (“switch places”) as expected with sibilants in hitpa’el.

By apocopated (“short”) I mean that the the final heh from the root Sh.Ch.H has dropped off, as final hehs frequently do in the future third-person singular. (Another example is vayavk instead of vayivkeh for “he wept.”)

So we would expect the form to be vatishtachv instead of vatishtachaveh. The extra vowel in the longer form under the chet — the “a” after the “ch” in transliteration — comes to prevent the frequently undesirable condition of a syllable ending with a chet. In the shorter form, however, another stratagy prevents a chet-final syllable. The consonantal vav becomes vocalic. This, too, is a regular part of Hebrew grammar — consider the prefix “and” which can be v’- or u- (among other possibilities) — but grammar books don’t often emphasize the general nature of this process.

So the first word is just “she bowed.” (Perhaps “bowed herself” was English when the KJV was composed, but now that translation is just wrong.)

As for artza, the final heh is directional. The word means “toward the ground.”

So we have metathesis, apocopation, and resyllabification in the first word. And — perhaps refusing to disappear completely — the missing heh from the first word shows up on the second.

January 8, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Q&A | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Q&A: Girl Nations and Boy Nations

From the About comes this great question:

I have a question about the gender of nations. It seems like nations can be referred with both masculine and feminine pronouns. Is there any significance with this change? For example, Moab is “he” in Isa 16:12, Israel is “he” in Jer 2:14; 50:17 but “herself” in Jer 3:11, and Babylon is “she” in Jer 50:29, just to name a few.

What a fascinating observation for those of us who love language.

Gender, as we know, is more complex than Language 101 classes would suggest (I have some particularly vexing examples here), and it’s not unheard of for words to allow two genders.

For example, the Modern Hebrew shemesh, “sun,” is generally feminine but in poetry can be masculine. In this case, the agreement choice even has implications for the translator, because masculine agreement is a sign of poetic register.

On the other hand, multiple gender agreement is fairly rare. So when we see dual agreement with so many nation-words (“Moab,” “Damascus,” “Egypt,” “Israel,” and others) we have to assume that this is more than coincidence.

To get a sense of the issue we need only look at Isaiah 17:1. There, damesek (“Damascus”) is first masculine, then feminine: hinei damesek musar [masculine] mei’ir v’hayta [feminine] m’i hapala, that is, “Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a pile of rubble.” “Will cease” is masculine and “will become” is feminine.

Another example is mitzrayim (“Egypt”). In Exodus 12:33 the word for the nation takes a feminine verb, in Psalm 105:38 (sometimes numbered 104:38), a masculine one.

Exodus 14:25 expands the data set a bit, because Egypt is personified as “I,” not “we”: vayomer mitzrayim anusa…, “Egypt said, ‘I will….’,” though every translation I know of, including the LXX, renders this as “we will…” Going back to Exodus 12:33, we see that even though mitzrayim takes a feminine singular verb at first, the continuation of the verse is masculine plural.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy way to gather all of the verbs that have a particular subject. So for now this is more like a “Q and not really A,” because I don’t have an answer yet.

(As a guess, this is a case of conflicting agreement considerations. For example, in English, “either he or I will be in jail” is perfectly grammatical. But it’s not so easy to put that sentence into the present. “Either he or I am in jail?” No. “Either he or I is in jail?” Also no. “Either he or I are in jail?” A little better. I suspect that, similarly, in Hebrew there were reasons for nations to be masculine and feminine, singular and plural. But without more data, it’s hard to form a more concrete conclusion.)

Can someone provide a complete or nearly complete set of the verbs for, let’s say, “Israel,” “Moab,” “Egypt” and “Damascus”?

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Q&A: Who is bowing down in Psalm 97:7?

From the About page comes this question:

The NET Bible does not render imperatives in Psalm 97:7, while others do. Their footnote is helpful, but not enough for me to opine on which is right. What light can you shed on this?

The phrase here is hishtachavu lo kol elohim. The last three words mean, “to-him all gods.” As chance would have it, though, the verb that starts the phrase could be either an imperative plural or a third personal past plural form. (Except for 2nd person masculine singular future and 3rd person feminine singular future, this doesn’t happen a lot in Hebrew. Usually the role of a Hebrew verb is clear from its form.) For example, in Psalm 96:9, the word hishtachavu is imperative; in Jeremiah 8:2, 3rd-person past.

Furthermore, the word order is ambiguous because — unlike English — the post-verbal phrase in Hebrew can be a subject of any sort.

Finally, even context doesn’t help here.

So the Hebrew means either “all the gods bowed down to [God]” or “all you gods, bow down to [God].”

We do get a clue from the LXX — which translates hishtachavu as an imperative here — but the LXX is generally very unreliable when it comes to disambiguating Hebrew.

So in Psalm 97:7 we have that rare instance of a truly ambiguous text.

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Too Much Emphasis

It seems that the default explanation for an unknown grammatical feature is to assume, often wrongly, that it is “emphatic.” Here are four examples, three from Hebrew (skip to them: one, two, three) and one from Greek (skip to it here).

The Examples

The Infix Nun

From time to time, a nun will appear between a verb and its pronominal objective ending. For example, in Psalm 72:15, we find y’varachenhu. Breaking down the verb form, we find the prefix y’- representing third-person singular future; the verb varach, “bless”; and the suffix -hu for “him.” So far, the verb means “he will bless him.” But there’s also an added -en- in the middle. That’s the infixed nun, commonly called the “nun emphatic.”

Because nuns are frequently replaced by a dagesh in Biblical Hebrew, it is more common to find the “nun emphatic” represented by nothing more than a dagesh. Probably the best known example is in the Priestly Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26. The last verb of Numbers 6:25 is vichuneka, with a dagesh in the final kaf representing the “nun empahtic” that dropped out.

But there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that this nun has emphatic force.

The Infinitive Absolute

A much more common Hebrew construction is the “infinitive absolute” in conjunction with a conjugated verb form. For example, in Genesis 2:17 we find mot tamut, which the KJV notes in a footnote is literally “dying thou shalt die.” Based on the (wrong) assumption that this doubling of verb forms is emphatic, the KJV translates “thou shalt surely die” here. (As it happens, this Hebraism is preserved in the LXX thanatu apothaneisthe, “by death die.”)

But not only is there no evidence that this construction is emphatic, there is evidence that it is not. In Genesis 3:4 the snake tries to convince the women to eat from the forbidden tree; he (it?) reassures her that lo mot t’mutun. Obviously this doesn’t mean “you will not surely die.” It just means “you will not die.”

The Lengthened Imperative

Frequently a verb form will have two imperatives: a shorter one, essentially the future without the prefix, and a longer one with an additional heh at the end. For example, from titen (“you will give”) we have both ten in Genesis 14:21 and t’nah in Genesis 30:26. Some grammars, such a Gesenius (wrongly, in my opinion), suggest that the latter is “give!” Again, there’s no evidence for an emphatic reading in these verb forms. (The forms are also not limited to the imperative, as we see in the continuation of Genesis 30:26, with elecha for elech.)

The Greek Emphatic Pronouns

The forth example comes from Greek, which has two sets of 1st- and 2nd-person pronouns. For example, “my” is either mou or emou. The latter form is called “emphatic” because it is widely assumed to convey particular emphasis. Once again, though, there is nothing to suggest that the longer forms are necessarily more emphatic than the shorter ones. (Bill Mounce has a post — also available here — where he similarly notes that sometimes the “emphatic forms […] are significant, but when they are objects of prepositions, evidently not.” In other words, he notes a case where the “emphatic” forms are not emphatic.)


What all four of these cases have in common is that the supposedly emphatic forms are longer than the ordinary ones. I think there has been a general if misguided assumption that longer words are more emphatic that shorter ones. At one level, it seems reasonable. And there are even times when it’s true (I give some examples here). But it’s not a general principal.

I think we have to rethink all of these “emphatic” forms with an eye toward figuring out what they really represent.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Q&A: Is God’s Son The Son of God?

Another great question from the About page:

I have a question about Matthew 27:54. The centurion and the rest of the detachment set to guard Jesus’ body cried out and said “truly he was the Son of God!” — or is that really what they said?

Since it lacks the articles in Greek, and Latin doesn’t have articles, is it possible that they really said “truly he was the son of a god!”?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

There are two parts to understanding the issue.

The first is how Greek conveys possessives like “God’s.” In Greek, a possessor is marked by the genitive case, similar to the apostrophe “s” in English. So “God” in Greek is theos and “God’s” is theou. This same genitive also plays the role that “of God” does in English. Similarly “Paul” is paulos and “of Paul” and “Paul’s” is paulou.

At first glance, this seems to be Greek 101, but there a very important nuances that hide in the details. To get a sense of them, we can look just at English, and note that there are three expression that look like they should mean the same thing but do not: “Paul’s,” “of Paul,” and “of Paul’s.” Moving to less religiously charged words helps, so we can better compare:

  • I am a friend of Bill. / I am a vice-president of the company.
  • I am the friend of Bill. / I am the vice-president of the company.

  • I am a friend of Bill’s. / I am a vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am the friend of Bill’s. / I am the vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am Bill’s friend. / I am the company’s vice-president.

Some of these sentences are ungrammatical in English (“I am a VP of the company’s”) and some are odd (“I am the friend of Bill”). Proper names work differently that common nouns, which is why “friend of Bill’s” is so much better than “vice-president of the company’s.” Importantly, some of these phrases imply “the”: “I’m the company’s VP” most naturally means that the company has only one VP. In short, we see a lot of complexity, and subtle nuance related to (1) nouns vs. proper names; and (2) definite vs. indefinite readings.

The second part to understanding Matthew 27:54 is even more complex. “God” in Greek is either theos (“god”) or o theos (“the god”). In John 1:1, for example, the word was with o theos but the word was theos.

My guess is that the two ways of saying “God” convey different nuances, but I’ve yet to see a convincing analysis of the pattern, even though there are lots of partial explanations. Until we understand the pattern, though, I think it will be almost impossible to know how the two phrases for God interact with the genitive.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that “[a] son of god” means “one son (among many) of one god (among many),” but that’s just based on our English grammar. The syntactically parallel “[a] son of Moses” is only likely — again based on English grammar — to mean “one son (among many) of (the one and only) Moses.” Yet the English “Moses’ son” might mean “(the one any only) son of (the one and only Moses),” even though the Greek would be the same in the last two cases.

We also have the word order to deal with. In Matthew 27:54 (along with 14:33), we find theou uios, instead of the more common reverse order.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think we can conclude that the Greek means what “a son of a god” would in English. So your interpretation is certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s more (or less) likely than the more common “Son of God.” (I also think that theou uios would have sounded very different in Greek than o uios tou theou [e.g., Matthew 26:63], with two determiners and a different word order — and as a guess, the word order adds more than it seems.)

I do think that we’re missing something important here, and Matthew 27:54 is a valuable clue.

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments