God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Is God a boy god or a girl god in the Bible?

If God is like a nurse, does that mean that God is female?

What got me thinking about things like this is that John Piper’s “desiring God” blog just ran a post called “Our Mother Who Art In Heaven?” The basic point is to affirm that God is a “masculine God” in spite of 26 places where God is described with feminine imagery.

The author, Tony Reinke, starts off as though he wants to examine the implication of those 26 places neutrally: “But one of the immediate objections to [a masculine God] is the simple fact that God sometimes references himself through feminine imagery, and this is certainly true.”

Of course, by phrasing the question as how “God references himself” (my emphasis), Reinke has already prejudiced the issue. Still, it’s an interesting question, and I don’t believe that Reinke, or John Cooper (whose book, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, Reinke cites) have understood how language works in these cases.

Cooper’s point, quoted by Reinke, is that there may be a variety of feminine imagery, such as Numbers 11:12, where God “gives birth” to the People Israel. But even so, there “are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun.”

Most interesting is Reinke’s explanation: “That explains why in Scripture we find many many masculine titles for God: Lord, Father, King, Judge, Savior, Ruler, Warrior, Shepherd, Husband, and even a handful of metaphorical masculine titles like Rock, Fortress, and Shield..

What would make “Rock” a “metaphorical masculine title”? Not that it matters, but the word itself is feminine in Hebrew (at least one of the words, eh-ven) and in Greek (petra). Similarly, what makes “lord,” “savior”, “ruler,” etc. masculine? Certainly nothing intrinsic to the words.

I think that Reinke and Cooper are going about this the wrong way. The gender of the words used to describe or identify God is irrelevant.

Rather — as in so many other instances — I think the key to understanding the language here is knowing how imagery works. After all, even if God is our king, God isn’t a king in the same sense that Harald V of Norway is. Rather, “God is our King” means that God has certain attributes of a king.

For example, here are three attributes once common to most kings:

  1. they reigned with absolute power
  2. they inherited their position
  3. they were men

It seems pretty clear to me that the metaphor of God as king refers to (1). It seems equally clear that it does not refer to (2). The question is whether it refers to (3), and I don’t think that it does. I think that (3) is incidental to the metaphor, like (2).

In other words, even though only men were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is a man or even like a man, just as even though only humans were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is human or like a human. (A similar issue arises with the word “man” itself: “How to be a Biblical Man.”)

There can be no doubt that gender roles in antiquity were more sharply defined than they are today. But I don’t think that this cultural difference gives us the clear answer that God was masculine. Rather, I think we have to see past it in order to understand the intent of the text.


July 6, 2012 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Sometimes the right word is the wrong word to use when translating the Bible

I imagine translating from some language into English, and the original text has to do with a bunch of people sitting around a room admiring a fancy new door. The obvious translation of what happens next is, “the host showed his guests the door.”

  1. The problem, though, is that “show the door” in English means “ask to leave.” Is “showed his guests the door” still the right translation?

  2. Equally, in England, to “table a motion” at a meeting means to decide to vote on it, while in the U.S. those same words mean to decide not to vote on it. If a British essay says, “he wanted to table to the motion,” is that how an American translation should read?

  3. In Japan, the word for “yes” is sometimes to used in polite situations to mean “no.” In these situations, should the translator render the Japanese hai (“yes”) as “yes” or as “no” in English?

  4. In Arabic, ahalan comes from the word for “family,” but it means “welcome.” Does the English rendition of that Arabic word have to include the word “family”?

  5. In China, the “dragon” is a symbol of beneficent, graceful, royal power. If a Chinese story says that, “her grandfather was always the dragon in her life,” should the English translation use the word “dragon,” even though “dragon” in English conveys a whole different set of images?

These cases are all examples of how the right word can convey the wrong thing, sometimes because English has a specific meaning for what could be a general phrase (1); sometimes because both the foreign language and English have specific meanings, and they don’t match (2); sometimes because the meaning of the foreign word changes depending on context in ways that the English word doesn’t (3); sometimes because the foreign language assigns imagery to a word but English doesn’t (4); and sometimes because the foreign language assigns imagery to a word but English has different imagery (5).

What these have in common is that they all strike me as cases where the English translation must avoid the literal words of the foreign language.

Similar cases in Bible translation keep popping up:

  1. Most recently, regarding the translation of the Greek for “son” in Arabic, because Arabic might use the word “son” for different imagery than Greek did.

  2. Regarding “heart” in Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27 (levav and kardia), because the Hebrew and Greek words conveyed different things than the English does.

  3. Regarding shepherds, and, in particular Psalm 23, because in Hebrew shepherds were fierce, regal, and romantic, while the same is not true in English.

among many others.

The more general lesson, it seems to me, is that translating the words can mean mistranslating the text.


February 20, 2012 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 15 Comments

Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

It’s often pointed out that actually knowing more than one language is helpful for intuiting how translation works. But I think many of the same intuitions can come from thinking about just one language. Here are two examples from English:

1. Jim West recently wrote that “Bob Cargill has penned” something. What role does “pen” play in that phrase? In a language that can’t make nouns into verbs the way English does, should the translation be the equivalent of “wrote with a pen” or just “wrote”? What about “dialed [a phone]”? What about “top of the hour” for a society that has no physical clocks (or just digital ones!)?

Jim qualified his opening line: “Bob Cargill has penned (I know, it’s an anachronism since he typed and didn’t pen at all)….” In that broader context, is “pen” a crucial element of the phrase that needs to be translated?

2. “Sofa” and “couch” mean almost exactly the same thing. But a “couch potato” isn’t a “sofa potato.” (For non-English speakers: A “couch potato” is someone who’s lazy, especially someone who lazes on a couch or sofa, and especially someone who does so to watch television.) What goes wrong if “sofa” and “couch” get mixed up? How can we know when the two words are interchangeable and when they’re not?

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , | Comments Off on Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

Fat Is The Old Thin: More On Subjective Imagery

Last week I suggested that imagery can be subjective, varying from culture to culture.

Here’s another example.

In antiquity, for a person to be “fat” was a good thing, the word essentially representing the opposite of “scrawny.”

Every day, modern America produces something like twice the calories that its population needs to thrive, so many Americans face an unprecedented struggle: they take in too many calories for their own good. In ancient Israel, however, people struggled to get enough calories, and only the fortunate succeeded.

This creates a translation dilemma, because calling someone “fat” nowadays is an insult, not a complement as it used to be.

Here are some examples of how “fat” and its how it’s handled in translation:

In Job 36:16, the table “full of fatness” (KJV, ESV, NRSV), is what the NIV calls “choice food.”

The point of Psalm 22:30 is that the healthy and the ill alike should praise God. But the KJV, “All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship…” juxtaposed with “all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him” hardly does the trick. (I assume that “they that go down to the dust” are “sick people.”) The NAB assumes that the Hebrew dishnei (“fat of”) should be yishnei (“sleepers of”), so the first part is “All who sleep in the earth…”; the NAB then adds the note, “Hebrew unclear.” I think the Hebrew is clear once we recognize that “fat” was a sign of health.

The very well known Psalm 23 uses the verbal form of “fat” (dishanta — “you fattened [my head with oil]”) for what is commonly translated “anointed.” The Hebrew thus forms a connection between “anointed” and “cup overflows” that is lacking in English.

Psalm 36:9 describes the benefits of the Temple as “fatness of your house” (KJV), but even the ESV (with the NRSV) turns this into “abundance.”

Psalm 63:6 mentions “fat and rich food” (ESV), which is better than the KJV’s “marrow and fatness.” The NIV offers, “richest of foods.” (The NAB’s poetic, “rich banquet of praise” is nice, but I don’t understand where it comes from.)

The image in Psalm 65:12 of the earth’s bounty is of paths (or perhaps carts) that “drop fatness” (KJV), or — as emended by the ESV, NIV, and NRSV — “overflow with abundance.”

Proverbs 11:25 describes a reward for people who offer (or who are) a blessing. They will be “made fat” (KJV), or “enriched” (NIV, ESV, NRSV).

Proverbs 13:4 is even clearer. While the lazy person “gets nothing,” the diligent one is “made fat” (KJV), or “richly supplied” (ESV), “amply satisfied” (NAB), “fully satisfied” (NIV) or “richly satisfied” (NRSV).

Only the KJV translates “fat” consistently, but in so doing it makes the passages all but impossible to understand. The other translations do a better job of giving the modern reader a sense of what the text meant, but at the expense of the unifying image.

September 13, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fat Is The Old Thin: More On Subjective Imagery

The Subjective Nature of Imagery

In response to my recent post about idioms, and, in particular, the translation “lifted up his eyes,” Bob MacDonald suggests that “Eyes lifted up or eyes downcast are both indicative of the mood of the subject. They seem to me to be inherently material and literal in a good way.”

Whether or not that makes “lifted up his eyes” a good translation, his comment highlights another important issue for translation: Imagery is subjective.

For me, “downcast eyes” are a sign of sorrow. In parts of South America, “downcast eyes” are a sign of respect.

I’m pretty sure it would be a mistake to impose our modern cultural notions on the Bible, so we shouldn’t assume that its authors used imagery exactly the same way we do. But what is a translator to do when the most natural translation of the imagery gives the wrong impression?

September 11, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , | 5 Comments