God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge on Men, Women, and People: Who is an anthropos?

In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”

My answers are as follows:

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: person
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?



(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.

(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.

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September 24, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 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: Who Are You(rselves)?

Anthony asks on the About page:

I have a question about Heb 3:13. When it says “exhort yourselves,” is the Greek literally saying “you all exhort each other” or “you all exhort your own selves,” supporting Galatians 6:4? Would the expression in question be parakaleite eautous?

Yes, that is the Greek, and it’s a great question.

Let’s ignore the nuances of what parakaleo means (“exhort”? “encourage”? “comfort”? etc.) and focus on eautou. It turns out that the word can be both reciprocal (“each other” in English) and reflexive (“oneself”).

For example, we find the word in Colossians 3:13: “[{3:12} As God’s chosen ones … wear clothes of … patience,] {3:13} putting up with each other [allilon] and forgiving each other [eautois] if you have a complaint against another [tis pros tina — ‘one against another’].” There eautou is pretty clearly reciprocal: the exhortation is “forgive each other,” not “forgive yourselves.” The fact that eautou appears in parallel with allilon and tis…tis — both of which are reciprocal — reinforces the reciprocal reading for eautou. (I understand that there’s a rumor that allilon is always reciprocal and eautou never is. That doesn’t seem right.)

So we see pretty clearly that eautou can be reciprocal.

Equally, eautou can be reflexive. James 1:22 reads, “Be doers of the word, not just listeners deceiving yourselves [eautous].” Romans 6 points in the same direction: “{6:11} so consider yourselves [eautous] dead to sin but alive to God… {6:13}…completely present yourselves eautous to God…”

One of the the things that makes this question interesting is that grammar won’t help us with Hebrews 3:13, because eautous there might mean either “yourselves” or “each other.” In this regard Greek didn’t make a distinction. (At least NT Greek didn’t.)

As a general matter, we expect this sort of pronominal ambiguity. It’s a little like, “please speak to myself…” in English, which I find ungrammatical (because the reflexive pronoun is used where an ordinary one should be), but I know other dialects accept it. Similarly, “they love their mother” (the standard example in linguistics) is ambiguous as to whether “they each love their own mother” or “they all love their collective mother.”

I think eautou is likewise ambiguous.

And while the specific lesson here is about that pronoun, more generally I think we see that linguistics can only go so far when it comes to understanding the Bible.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.)

Summary

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

How Many Women is One Woman in 1 Timothy 2:12?

Peter Kirk drew my attention to a post by Bill Heroman about I Timothy 2:

If anyone wants us to be perfectly literal about 1 Tim 2:12, we should note, at least as a beginning, that Paul is primarily speaking against one-on-one mentoring, female to male. “I do not allow a woman to teach or to direct a man.” Everything in this statement is entirely singular. [Emphasis in original.]

Bill then asks whether “[t]he male/female intimacy of a one-on-one discipling relationship may be all Paul is really afraid of.”

In other words, Bill suggests that Paul may not be talking about women in general, but rather about one woman teaching one man, in private (and perhaps even the specific instance of that).

It’s a lovely suggestion — and I laud the effort — but I don’t think the grammar supports it.

It’s common to use singular nouns generically, both in English (which is why I might equally write that “it’s common for a singular noun to be used generically”) and in Greek. Furthermore, the tendancy in Greek is to use eis (“one”) to refer specifically to one of something.

For example, in John 11:50 we find, “it is better for eis anthropos to die…,” that is “one person.” Without eis the text would more naturally mean that it is better for people to die. I think that John 11:50 is particualy instructive because the context could make it clear that anthropos means just one person, because “it is better for people to die than for the whole nation to perish” doesn’t make any sense. But the grammar still has to support the context.

So it seems that the way to say, “I do not allow one woman to teach one man” would be to use the word eis twice.

Even so, I have to agree with Peter, who “love[s] the way that blogger Bill Heroman is prepared to think outside the box.”

December 10, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Who is the Most High?

Adjectives without nouns are quirky and idiosyncratic, and understanding them is important for translation.

As an example, in English we have “the Americans” (American people) but not (*)”the Swisses,” or (*)”the Frenches.” We have “the Swiss” (Swiss people) and “the French” (French people), but “the American” can only mean one person.

Other languages work differently. In French, “la suisse” is a Swiss girl or woman, and “les suisses” is more than one of them. In French, “une suisse” (literally, “a swiss”) makes sense, but (*)”a swiss is here” doesn’t work in English.

Moving away from nationalities, we find in biblical Hebrew that plural adjectives are people when they’re masculine, events when they’re feminine. By themselves, the rishonim (literally, “the first [m,pl]”) are “people from long ago” and the rishonot (literally, “the first [f,pl]”) are “events from long ago”; Isaiah 43:9 is an example of the latter.

This range of variation is relevant for understanding upsistos in Greek. As a singular superlative masculine adjective, it works like any other Greek adjective, and it means “the one who is highest.” In Mark 5:7 we see upsistos with a noun, and in Acts 7:48 without one.

But as a plural neuter adjective, it means “heights,” a usage we see in Luke 2:14, for example: doxa en upsistois theo, “glory to God on high.”

I don’t know of any English translation that renders rishonot as “the firsts” in Isaiah 43:9. It just wouldn’t make any sense in English. Translators generally add the noun “things.”

Yet en (tois) upsistois ends up in English as “in the highest” in the KJV, ESV, and NAB. It seems to me that that translation is just wrong. To me, “in the highest” — if it means anything at all in English — is adverbial and it signifies “greatly.” Other translations preserve the superlative degree, giving us “highest heaven” or “highest heavens,” which may or may not be right. On one hand, there was a hierarchy of heavens in Greek thought, so there was a lowest one, middle ones, and a highest one. On the other hand, the phrase seems to be a Hebraicism, but the original Hebrew m’romim is not superlative (or adjectival — it’s a plural noun).

As for upsistos, “the Most High” is multiply problematic as a translation. First — and it’s hard to know what to do with this — being “high” in English doesn’t usually mean what we want it to here. (An old anecdote tells of a teenager who decided to get religious when he was taught that we should strive to be like God and that God is the most high.) Secondly, we don’t use adjectives that way in English. The closest we have is “high one.” Unlike in Greek and Hebrew, “the high” doesn’t make sense in English. Also, the superlative of “high” is “highest,” not “most high.”

And we end up with capitalization problems. Most versions give us “the Most High God” in Mark 5:7 (and Luke 8:28 etc.), which is not how capitalization works in English.

So all in all, translations of en upsistois and upsistos are a mess.

November 20, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment