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

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

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

Israel, Modern Hebrew, and Bible Translation

As always, I’ve returned from my week in Israel recharged and renewed. Also, as always, my visit has given me a lot to think about regarding translation.

Modern Languages

I believe that looking at modern languages can help us understand the nature of translation because it’s easier to know what modern languages mean, so it’s easier to know if we’ve got the right translation. So even though Modern Hebrew doesn’t directly help us understand Biblical Hebrew (or, obviously, Greek), understanding how to translate Modern Hebrew may help us figure out how to translate ancient languages better.

In this regard I’m lucky. My parents took me to Israel early enough in my life that I speak Israeli Hebrew fluently, so I generally know not just the meaning but also the exact nuance of a Hebrew phrase, and I can conduct field work just by listening.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some observations and questions.


1. There are two phrases in Hebrew, s’de t’ufa and n’mal t’ufa, and they mean roughly “air field” and “air port,” respectively. But it’s the former term that is in general use in spoken Hebrew, while the latter carries a flavor of formality. Should s’de t’ufa be translated into English as “airfield” or “airport”?

2. There’s a phrase in Hebrew pachot o yoter, literally, “less or more.” As nearly as I can tell, it’s exactly the same as the English “more or less.’ Does the reversed word order affect translation?

3. There’s a device in Israel called a “disk on key,” which Israelis pronounce DEESkonki, thinking they are speaking English. Is “disk on key” the right translation? (We call it a “flash drive” here in the U.S.)

4. I have a friend who lectures at Haifa University. As is common in Israel, the undergraduates call him by his first name. Should a translation of the class similarly use his first name in English? Will that give the wrong impression that the students are behaving rudely or not showing proper respect?

5. If you don’t know someone’s name in Israel, you can address them with the role they play: nahag, (“driver”), for example, to talk to the bus driver (we do this in English, too), but also yeled (“boy”) to talk to a boy. Should yeled be translated as the English “boy,” or do other connotations of the word make that impossible? (Russian works the same way in this regard. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a club in Kiev. An eleven-year-old girl was helping serve from behind the bar. A nine-year old came up to order a soda, and addressed the older child as “little girl.”)

6. The weather while I was in Israel ranged from the 50’s to the 70’s (that’s about 10 to 25 Celsius). A day in the low 60’s was called kar, literally “cold.” To me it was “warm.” Should the cultural differences regarding winter temperatures come into play when translating kar?

7. Similar to (4), Haifa was about an hour from where I was staying in Israel. People there called that rachok, literally “far.” To me it was close. Again, should translation reflect cultural differences?

8. The official Israeli news broadcasts are in a markedly different dialect of Hebrew than almost anything else in the country, adhering to rules of Biblical Hebrew (really Tiberian Masoretic Hebrew) that are otherwise all but dead in the modern language. Should the drastic differences in dialect be conveyed in translation? How might that be accomplished?

9. Quoting the Hebrew of the Bible has a certain elegance in Israel. Should those quotations be translated into English as quotations of an English translation of the Bible? If so, which translation? If not, perhaps something analogous, like Shakespeare?

10. Some English expletives have been borrowed into Hebrew, along the way losing much of their force. For example, two words that I’ll transliterate as sheet and fuk are acceptable in most social settings; they even appear in widespread print advertisements. Should those English-words-in-Hebrew be translated back into English as what they started off as, or as something more moderate, like “darn”?

Meta Questions

A. How should a translator study Modern Hebrew to make informed translation choices in these cases?

B. What non-linguistic issues (culture? sociology?) are important for the translator to appreciate?

C. How would various Bible translation strategies (e.g., those of, say, the NIV, ESV, and The Message) address these questions?

D. What other implications do these differences between English and Hebrew (and between the U.S. and Israel) have for Bible translation?

January 13, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 9 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

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: The Hebrew Suffix -ki

Again from the about page:

What’s going on with the pronominal suffixes in Psalm 103 3-8? I can’t find -ki as a pronominal suffix in any of my grammar books — neither singular nor plural!

Good question.

The suffix -ki (also spelled -chi) is a variant form of -k, and it means “your (sng, f).” We see it in Psalm 103, as you note, and also, e.g., in Psalm 116:19 (b’tocheichi, “within you [Jerusalem]”).

It may have been formed by analogy with the feminine singular future tense, or may be part of a broader pattern in which matres lectionis get added to words for reasons we no longer know (poetic affect, maybe). Other examples include the final heh that is added to some verbs, and, perhaps, the alternation between al and alei.

October 28, 2009 Posted by | grammar, Q&A | , , , | 1 Comment

Hebrew Grammar Quirks

Still following up on what Pete Enns said:

Second, I would be prepared at how Hebrew does not “behave itself,” i.e., how grammars necessarily abstract the language almost to the point where a fair amount of what you’ve been learning doesn’t correspond to the actual biblical text.

More than once I have encountered this sort of surprise at the biblical text. So I’m curious, what sorts of quirks of Hebrew grammar have people encountered that seem to run contrary to what they learned about Hebrew?

October 8, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | Leave a comment