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.

September 24, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

On Literal Bible Translations and Holy Language

Doug “Clayboy” Chaplin has an interesting post about literal Bible translations. Among other things, he says:

There seems to me — behind the so-called “formal equivalence” emphasis on source language syntax something of a hankering for a sacred language. By sacred I mean, in this context, especially appropriate for or capable of being a vehicle of divine revelation.

Read the whole thing: “Seeking a truly literal Bible translation.”

April 24, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

On Transliterations

Having just butchered several transliterations in a post, I thought this would be a good time for a rambling discussion of transliterations.

Even though it’s no longer technologically difficult to insert Hebrew or Greek into a blog post, I still prefer transliteration, because people who know Hebrew and Greek will be able to read the transliteration (except when I type it wrong — more below), but the reverse is not true.

It seems to me that people who don’t know Hebrew and Greek will have great difficulty following a discussion if some of the words are in letters they can’t read. For example, if I’m writing about shalom (which is on my to-do list), even people who don’t know Hebrew can follow the disucssion, and people who do know Hebrew can also keep up. This is particularly important in posts where the ancient words are key.

The question then becomes which transliteration scheme to use. My general practice is, again, to try to be as inclusive as possible, so I try to write the foreign words in ways that people can read and pronounce.

This is important because it turns out that when people read in their native language — even when they read silently — their brain processes the sounds of the words they’re reading. (There’s an article on this from 2003 in the journal Brain and Language with the great title, “Brain imaging of tongue-twister sentence comprehension: Twisting the tongue and the brain.”) So I try to write the words more or less the way they sound, and I try to avoid technical transliteration schemes.

For example, many people use “Q” for the Greek theta, as for example “MORFH QEOU” in a recent comment for “form of God.” I prefer morfi theou.

But this approach brings up two related issues. First, the pronunciation of both Hebrew and Greek has changed over the millennia, and secondly, no one knows for sure how the ancient languages were pronounced. I use an approximation of our best guess.

A third issue relates to the fact that some of the ancient sounds have no convenient spelling in English.

All of this leads me to the futility of a consistent transliteration scheme, which in the end I think is good news, because it frees me up to be flexible.

For Greek, I generally try to spell out the Greek letters, substituting English combinations for letters we don’t have. So, theos for God, christos for Christ, etc. Unfortunately, this means that there are sometimes more letters in the English transliteration than in the Greek; I sometimes find this confusing. This also means that omicron and omega are both “o,” along with some other Greek distinctions that are lost.

For Hebrew, I have two additional complications. First, I happen to speak the modern language well enough that I frequently slip into spelling the words they way they are pronounced now, which differs from their traditional pronunciations. (On the other hand, the traditional pronunciation goes back only about 1,100 years.) Secondly, I touch type in Hebrew, so I frequently automatically hit the key for the Hebrew letter I want, rather than its transliteration. This brings me to the final challenge.

Spell checkers are marvelous for people like me. (I attended an open classroom grade school, so instead of learning how to spell and add and things like that, I learned to feel good about myself even though I couldn’t do those things.)

But foreign words and spell checkers don’t play nicely together. (For example, try spell checking “Ben-Gurion airport” and you’ll get something mildly vulgar.) Two reasonable approaches are to check each foreign word manually — this is what I usually do — or carefully insert the correct spelling of the foreign word into the dictionary — sometimes I do this.

The drawbacks of the first are that it’s easy to miss spelling mistakes, and even easier to miss inconsistencies in transliteration (“f” vs. “ph,” for example, as in nefesh and nephesh).

The drawback of the second approach is that if the wrong spelling gets into the dictionary, the error shows up consistently in the final copy.

Still, I would have all of these problems and more if I used the original Hebrew/Greek, so I’ll stick with my flexible, non-technical, hopefully useful but sometimes idiosyncratic transliterations for now.


January 22, 2010 Posted by | meta | , , | 10 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

How do You Say Hosanna in English?

The Greek word hosanna appears six times in the NT: three times in Matthew, twice in Mark, and twice in John. The context is each case includes the quotation, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” from Psalm 118:26. Because Psalm 118:25 contains the Hebrew words hoshi’a na, the Greek hosanna is widely (and I think correctly) assumed to be a Greek spelling of those Hebrew words, or perhaps an Aramaic equivalent.

In Psalm 118, hoshi’a means “save,” presumably, “save us.” (The direct object is optional in Hebrew, and can be inferred from context.) And na is a word that’s hard to translate — it may indicate politeness (“please”) or, more likely, formality or elegance.

There’s a persistent rumor that hosanna literally means “save now,” as in the NLT footnote that explains the word this way. But even the NLT translates hoshi’a na as “please save us,” not “save now.” The NAB says hosanna means “(O Lord) grant salvation,” and the NIV’s footnote explains the phrase as “A Hebrew expression meaning ‘Save!’ which became an exclamation of praise.” The rumor about “save now” probably comes from the KJV rendering of Psalm 118, “Save now, I beseech thee…”

In English, hosanna becomes “hosanna,” because the English spelling is taken directly from the Greek, (h)osanna. But the Greek is — again, widely and probably accurately — assumed to be a simplification of the Hebrew. The word should be hoshana, with the “sh” that is consistently lacking from Greek transliterations of Hebrew.

So should we put the “sh” back in to the English? By comparison, what if a French publication took the English “North Carolina” and turned it into norskarolina. Should a transliteration of that transliteration perpetuate the mistake?

For that matter, is transliterating the word the best way to go? And if it is, should “hosanna” be italicized?

Compounding the confusion, in Matthew and Mark “hosanna” appears in a phrase that gets translated as the barely intelligable “hosanna in the highest.” It apparently is supposed to mean “praise God on high.”

I think the case of hosanna is interesting not just in its own right, but also because it highlights the question of how much a translation into English has to be written in English. If we allow the word “hosanna,” and assume that it means “praise God” (but only here) can we use “in the highest” for “(God) on high” (but only here)? Or “man” for “people” (but only here)? Or allow any of the other seemingly wrong translations to be “one time exceptions”?

What do you think?

November 24, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Why Both Kings and Queens Can Be Parents

Grammatical and Real-World Gender, Part II

Earlier, I wrote about the difference between grammatical gender and real-world (or semantic) gender. I noted that the former doesn’t always indicate the latter. For example, personne in French is grammatically feminine but semantically inclusive.

As promised, here’s a little bit about how to tease the two kinds of gender apart.


One good way is to use ellipsis, such as “and so did…” or “and so is….” because ellipsis requires meanings to match up (semantic identity) but not the grammar.

For example:

(1) John went to the party and so did Mary.

It’s clear that the second half of the sentence is short for “Mary went to the party,” even though “and so did Mary went to the party” isn’t grammatical in English. In other words, ellipsis here copies the meaning of “went” but not the grammar of “went.”

Another example comes from:

(2) John loves his mother and so does Mary.

This is ambiguous. Either Mary loves John’s mother, or Mary loves her own mother. This second meaning is particularly interesting for us, because it shows us again that the “and so” ellipsis construction copies meaning and not form. (We also learn that “his” and “her” in English mean the same thing.)

Ellipsis In English

With this in mind, we can compare four sentences:

(3) John is an actor and so is Mary.

(4) John is a parent and so is Mary.

(5) *John is a father and so is Mary.

(6) *John is a king and so is Mary.

The asterisks indicate the ungrammatical sentences.

The examples in (3) and (4) are fine because “actor” and “parent” in English are gender-neutral in the real world. That is, men and women can both be actors and parents, even in the dialects that use the word “actress” for a woman actor.

By contrast, in English, only men can be fathers and kings.

Ellipsis In Other Languages

The reason this is so important is that the pattern in (3)-(6) is the same even in languages that have grammatical gender. For example, in Modern Hebrew:

(3′) John sachkan v’gam Mary [lit.: John actor and-also Mary]

(4′) John horeh v’gam Mary [lit.: John parent and-also Mary]

(5′) *John aba v’gam Mary [lit.: John father and-also Mary]

(6′) *John melech v’gam Mary [lit.: John king and-also Mary]

Just to be clear, (3′) is grammatical in Hebrew even though *Mary sachkan [“Mary actor”] is not, because Hebrew requires Mary sachkanit [“Mary actress”]. In other words, Hebrew has masculine and feminine words for “actor” (sachkan and sachkanit, respectively). Generally, the masculine word is used for men, and the feminine for women. But we see from ellipses that this difference is purely a matter of grammar, not of meaning.

Toward Two Kinds of Gender

The pattern in (3)-(6) and (3′)-(6′) works the same way in modern languages across diverse language groups: German, French, Russian, Arabic, and more. In other words, kings and queens seem to be different in ways that actors and actresses are not, and the difference doesn’t depend on which language is used to express it.

Some languages have masculine and feminine forms for “actor” and “actress,” but even so, ellipsis shows us that the words mean the same thing.

Further investigation shows us that the following kinds of words are the same for men and women: nouns in general, including jobs, positions, functions, roles, etc. By contrast, the following are generally not: royalty (king, queen, and sometimes lower ranks), family roles (father, mother, and sometimes son, daughter, brother, sister), and gender roles (man, women).

A Note on Parenthood

We stop to note that this answers an important question: In languages that have grammatical gender, what’s the difference between “father” and “[male] parent,” or between “mother” and “[female] parent”? The answer is that, like in English, “parent” is the non-gendered word, while “mother” and “father” are the gendered words. In other words, both men and women can be parents, but only men can be fathers, and only women mothers. This fact doesn’t depend on the grammatical gender of any of the words involved. (As chance would have it, “parent” in Modern Hebrew is horeh, and the word is masculine. There is no feminine word “parent.”)

Some Results

Because all languages seem to work the same way in the core cases, we can use the data about modern languages to understand ancient ones. What we expect, and what we find, is that ancient Greek and Hebrew have grammatical gender that only sometimes matches up with real-world gender.

In particular, basileus and melech are specifically a man (“king”), while basilissa and malka are specifically a woman (“queen”). They do not mean “ruler.” Similarly, patros and av are masculine in the real word (semantically) as well as grammatically, and meter and em are feminine. They do not mean “parent.”


It is tempting to extrapolate the pattern we have seen with singular nouns and apply it to plural ones, too, but it’s a mistake — a topic I’ll turn to soon.

September 8, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments