God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Do you talk this way at home?

I recently observed master teacher and musician Kenny Green telling children about the Jewish month of Adar.

“Once Adar begins, we increase our happiness,” he explained, using the usual terminology. Then he added with a self-mocking grin, “yes, I talk that way at home, too.”

There’s a Hebrew verb hirbah that means generally “to do/have/make a lot.”

For example, in Genesis 3:16, God punishes women by hirbahing their pain in childbirth; the usual translation is “multiply” or “increase,” though it’s not clear that there was originally any pain to be multiplied or increased. I think the point is closer to “you will have severe pain” than to “you will have more pain.”

In Genesis 34:12 we find the imperative in the context of “hirbah to me greatly the dowry and gift — I will give it.” I think the point here is, “no matter how high you make the dowry….”

In Psalm 78(77):38, the verb appears before an expression that probably means “to show restraint,” and there the NRSV translates, “often [God] restrained his anger.”

The core meaning of the verb is what “multiply,” “increase,” “make high,” “frequently,” etc. have in common. We don’t have anything like this in English.

The Rabbis used the verb in expressions like, marbeh tz’daka, marbeh shalom, commonly translated “the more charity, the more peace” or even less felicitously, “the one who increases charity increases peace.” “Charity leads to peace” is the point. (Marbeh is the present tense of hirbah.)

This brings us to the tradition of the month of Adar. “From the time Adar enters, we marbeh in happiness.”

It’s a pretty simply concept. “Adar is the time of happiness.” Or, perhaps more poetically, “Happiness abounds in Adar.” A reasonable translation of the Rabbi’s statement might be, “From the time Adar begins happiness abounds.”

By contrast, the usual translation (“we increase our happiness”) is barely English, and a variation, “we have an increase in our happiness,” seems more reminiscent of a sterile scientific experiment than of joy.

Kenny Green correctly noted that his own customary speech made sense only to people who already knew what he was saying.

More generally, I think Bible translations frequently end up as incomprehensible English, but because some people already know what the translation is supposed to mean, they don’t realize that their translation doesn’t say it.

One easy way to see this is to use the grammar of the translation in a new, secular context.

For example, “once July enters, we increase our free time.” It’s barely English.

Similarly, going back to John 3:16, “I so do my homework…” doesn’t mean “this is how I do my homework.”

I think Kenny’s approach can be a useful guide in translation. After you’ve worked through the ancient vocabulary and grammar, and after you’ve crafted an English rendition that you think captures the original, a reasonable question might be, “do you talk this way at home?”

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February 4, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 9 Comments