God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating an Ancient Hebrew Prayer of Thanks from the Dead Sea Scrolls

As I’ve said, I’m devoting most of my energy for the next little while to “The Unabridged Bible,” which will gradually start officially rolling out soon.

In the meantime, readers here may enjoy my translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls on that site because of my copious translation notes, and because the passages frequently quote the Bible.

Here’s part of one I added today, from 1QH, the scroll of “thanksgiving hymns”:

I offer thanks to you2 Lord, for your eye stood guard3 over me and you saved my soul4 from the zeal of those who spread lies, and from the community of those who seek rumors. You redeemed5 this downtrodden one6 whom they conspired to finish off7 by pouring out his blood on account of his service to you. It failed because they did not know that my steps come from you.8 They made me a mockery9

Keep reading…

January 13, 2014 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , | 1 Comment

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

God as Reward(er) and Protector in Genesis 15:1

From the About page comes this great question: Does Genesis 15:1 mean “your [Abram’s] reward will be very great” or “I [God] am your great reward”?

The NRSV translates it, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” while the KJV has a different understanding: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”

The issue is the final phrase in Hebrew, which (disregarding tense for a moment), according to the NRSV, means “your reward is good,” while the KJV thinks it means “your good reward.” Together with the first part of the sentence (“I am your shield”), the NRSV version ends up, “I am your shield and your reward is good,” while the KJV is also coherent: “I am your shield, your good reward.”

It turns out that the Hebrew is actually ambiguous.

To understand the text here we need a detour through a handful of related bits of Hebrew grammar. (And, really, what says “fun” more on a Friday morning in early September than a handful of Hebrew grammar?)

First, adjectives in Hebrew generally follow nouns, and there’s no word for “a” or “an.” So, for example, from the Hebrew words yeled (“boy”) and tov (“good”), we get yeled tov, “a good boy.”

Secondly, Hebrew does have a word “the” in the form of the prefix ha-. When it’s used, it gets put on both nouns and adjectives. So “the good boy” in Hebrew is ha-yeled ha-tov, literaly “the-boy the-good.” Furthermore, some phrases (technically called “definites”) behave like they have “the.” One such case is possessives. So “my good boy” in Hebrew is “my-boy the-good” (yaldi ha-tov).

Thirdly, Hebrew almost never uses “to be” in the present tense. So, for example, “I am your shield” in Hebrew is just “I your shield.” (The KJV — foolishly, in my opinion — sometimes uses italics in English to reflect the Hebrew grammar in these cases.)

The combination of the first and third bits create potential ambiguity. While yeled tov can mean “a good boy,” it can also mean “a boy is good.”

As a matter of practice, though, this kind of ambiguity is rare, because of the second bit. Hebrew differentiates between “the good boy” and “the boy is good” by using “the-boy the-good” (ha-yeled ha-tov, as we’ve seen) for the first one, and “the-boy good” (ha-yeled tov) for the second.

Similarly, “your good reward” is “your-reward the-good” in Hebrew (s’char’cha hatov), while “your reward is good” in Hebrew is “your-reward good” (s’char’cha tov). So you might expect that we’d be able to distinguish between “your great reward” and “your reward is great.”

Unfortunately, the word for “great” here is harbeh, and, together with m’od (“very”), it forms the invariant phrase harbeh m’od. Unlike most modifiers, that phrase never takes “the.” So “your reward is very great” in Hebrew is (as we see here in Genesis 1:15) “your-reward very great” (s’char’cha harbeh m’od) but “your very great reward” is the identical Hebrew, because, in this case, the expected “your-reward the-very-great” doesn’t exist.

This means that, as a matter of translating this sentence, the Hebrew is truly ambiguous. So we have to look elsewhere for clues.

One such clue might be the tenses. The first is present tense, and the second — if, as in the NRSV, it is its own clause — is also present tense. So the NRSV has to explain why the sentence doesn’t mean, “I am your shield; your reward is very great.” This seems to point in the direction of the KJV.

On the other hand, tenses are notoriously idiosyncratic, and anyone who’s looked at Hebrew knows that we commonly see one tense in Hebrew and a different one in English.

The commentator Rashi suggests that God is assuaging Abram on two fronts: he will not be punished, and he will be rewarded. So Rashi thinks the line means “don’t fear, Abram, I will be your shield [so you will not be punished] and you will be rewarded.” So Rashi would have sided with the NRSV.

I have some more thoughts, but nothing to convince me solidly one way or the other. (For those who are curious, here’s a list of where the phrase harbeh m’od appears: Genesis 15:1, Genesis 41:49, Deuteronomy 3:5, Joshua 13:1, Joshua 22:8, I Samuel 26:21, II Samuel 8:8, II Samuel 12:2, II Samuel 12:30, I Kings 5:9, I Kings 10:10, I Kings 10;11, II Kings 21:16, I Chronicles 20:2, II Chronicles 14;12, II Chronicles 32:27, Ezra 10:1, Nehemiah 2:2, and Jeremiah 40;12.)

So I’m opening up the question here. Based on context, which translation do you think makes more sense? And why?

September 7, 2012 Posted by | grammar, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 25 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

Translation Challenge: “With” and “For” in Isaiah 54:7

Isaiah 54:7 — part of the incredibly uplifting poetry of Isaiah 54 — has two parallel phrases, both starting with the Hebrew b-. First we find b- attached to rega (“moment”), and then next attached to rachamim (“mercy” or “love” or “compassion”). The effect is to underscore the contrast between God abandoning for a moment and taking back in mercy.

Yet every translation I know destroys the parallel structure, as, for example, the NRSV: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (my emphasis). In other words, for b’rega the translations have “for [a moment],” but “with [compassion]” for “b’rachamim.”

It’s true that the Hebrew prefix b- can mean both “for” and “with,” among many other possibilities. (It’s a bit like the ablative case — an observation which is likely to help only the people who already knew that.) But here, the whole point is to contrast two phrases that start the same way. So while the translations get the general point of the line, they butcher the poetic effect.

The contrast is further underscored through the Hebrew modifiers katon (“small”) after rega and gadol (“big”) after rachamim. (This is the “brief” and “great” in the NRSV translation.)

So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a way to express Isaiah’s thoughts here while also keeping the important poetic structure? (My best shot is in the comments.)

November 7, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 14 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: What’s going on in Genesis 4:7?

And one more from the about page:

Is Genesis 4:7, the first words, halo im-teitiv s’eit, an example of the idiom of a condition with antecedent but no stated consequence? Would the last of the words apply to Cain (as KJV implies) or to Cain’s offering (JPS)?

Genesis 4:7 is clearly poetry, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a little difficult to understand.

The first word, halo, generally introduces a question, but in this case it’s a rhetorical question, perhaps used as an exclamation.

The second and third words, connected by a hyphen, mean “if you do well.” The words are addressed to Cain. These present the condition.

The fourth word means “rise.” It’s the consequence of “if you do well,” and the grammatical form is tenseless and devoid of agreement. (For those who care: it’s an infinitive absolute. The word comes from the root nun.sin.aleph. In the infinitive the nun drops out, and a final tav is appended: laseit. The infinitive absolute consists of the infinitive without the initial l- [“to”], which is how we get s’eit.)

To make sense of s’eit here, we we have to look back to Genesis 4:5–6, where the opposite verb nafal is used idiomatically. In Genesis 4:5, Cain’s “face fell” (nafal) — he was upset or angry — and in the next verse God asks Cain why his “face fell” (again nafal). God’s lesson is that that, if Cain does well, he will (have a face that doesn’t fall but rather that will) rise; and if he doesn’t do well (the continuation of Genesis 4:7), “sin will couch at the door.”

November 29, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 3 Comments