God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

When the Translation Becomes the Text

There seem to be times when the translation of a text becomes the text, at least emotionally, if not rationally.

This creates a translation dilemma, because it’s hard to fix a bad translation that everyone thinks is the original text.

Here are three examples:

  • The “jubilee year,” the 50th year that commemorates the end of seven sets of seven years, is, in Hebrew, the yovel year. The Hebrew word yovel, probably a horn of some sort, has nothing to do with rejoicing or jubilation. But the Latin for yovel is iobileus, which just happens to sound like iubileus, and that word is related to the verb iubilare, “to celebrate.” So we end up with the inaccurate “jubilee year.”

    To change it now (“Year of the Yovel horn”? Or “Year of proclamation”? Or, as in the LXX, “Year of manifestation”?) would make it unfamiliar to the probably millions of readers who know what the “Jubilee year” is. Are we locked in to a bad translation forever?

  • Buber’s famous philosophical book on theology was translated into English as “I and Thou.” But Buber’s point was to emphasize intimacy, and he chose the German “Ich und Du” to contrast with “Ich und Sie,” using the informal, personal, intimate du rather than the formal Sie. (This is like tu vs. vous in French.) So a much more accurate translation would be “Me and You,” because “thou” doesn’t indicate informality in English.

    Again, to retranslate the title now would make it unfamiliar to three generations who already know what “I-thou” represents.

  • The KJV translation “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12) for kol d’mama daka is so well known that the phrase has become a common expression in English. I’m working on a translation of the 1,500-year old liturgical poem Unetaneh Tokef. The poem cites I Kings. I think the phrase is best rendered in English as “thin whisper of a sound.”

    Never mind whether I’m right or not. If I am, and if I translate the English correctly, am I destroying the original effect of quoting I Kings in the poem?

September 9, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

More On Parallel Passages

On Thursday, I posted about the English translations of near-parellel passages in Mark and Matthew. It got me thinking about Chronicles, which frequently quotes other books such as Kings. II Chronicles 6:1-5, for example, seems to be an update (grammatically and in terms of spelling) of I Kings 8:12-16.

In particular, I Kings 8:15 and II Chronicles 6:4 are identical in Hebrew except in spelling and that the former has yado (“his hand”) where the latter has yadav (“his hands”) — and this, too, may originally have been a matter of spelling.

Still, in most translations the English (for identical Hebrew!) doesn’t match, even in the “word by word” translations.

Do you think this is a problem?

Comparison of Translations
(Differences are marked with italics, except for the KJV which is too different for that to be practical.)

I Kings 8:15 II Chronicles 6:4
KJV And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, which spake with his mouth unto David my father, and hath with his hand fulfilled it, saying, And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, who hath with his hands fulfilled that which he spake with his mouth to my father David, saying,
NIV Then he said: “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his own hand has fulfilled what he promised with his own mouth to my father David. For he said, Then he said: “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his hands has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David. For he said,
NRSV He said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his hand* has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David, saying, And he said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his hand* has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David, saying,
NAB He said to them: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his own mouth made a promise to my father David and by his hand has brought it to fulfillment. It was he who said, He said: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his own mouth made a promise to my father David and by his own hands brought it to fulfillment. He said:
NLT “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who has kept the promise he made to my father, David. “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who has kept the promise he made to my father, David. For he told my father,

(*) The English is the same but the Hebrew is different.

September 6, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments