God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would You?

In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”

Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?

I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.

My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.

Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.

As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.

(As part of my travels, I commonly present to interfaith audiences, and, by and large, the Christians are bewildered by this Jewish approach, while the Jews often think it’s self evident.)

Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.

All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?

October 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

How Does Your Bible Translation Measure Up?

I just had an interesting conversation with the AP’s Travis Loller about the new(ish) Bible translation The Voice. (Read her article: “New Bible Translation Has Screenplay Format.”) As we were talking, she asked me whether the new translation is better than the King James Version.

I think it’s a fascinating question.

The background is that I told Travis that I believe that The Voice is flawed, and I’ve told her in the past that I also believe that the KJV is flawed. (“The King James Version [KJV]: The Fool’s-Gold Standard of Bible Translation.”)

The Voice is a translation in the style of The Message, designed primarily to be modern, colloquial, and readable. And it has a few added quirks, like its screenplay-like formatting and use of “The Eternal” where most translations have “The Lord.” As with so many other modern Bible translations, I think the implementation falls short of the goals, though it’s not always easy to tell the two apart, because what I see as failed implementation could be my misunderstanding of the goals.

In the end, The Voice ends up related to the original text of the Bible in much the same way that a movie is usually related to the book it’s based on. The Voice contains roughly the same material as the Bible, though with some significant additions and omissions. But the experience of reading The Voice strays far from what the original text created. The Voice is sometimes straightforward where the original is nuanced, for example, and mundane where the original is poetic. And in some places the modern rendition is simply inaccurate.

But here’s where things get interesting, because — especially for modern readers — the experience of reading the KJV also strays far beyond the original. For example, the KJV is now perceived to be uniformly formal or archaic, while the original text of the Bible was often neither. And, like The Voice, the KJV is frequently inaccurate, either because English has changed (take the video-quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“) or because the original translators got it wrong.

So which is better? A translation that oversimplifies the nuances of the Bible (The Voice) or one that over-complicates its accessibility (the KJV)? Which version’s mistakes do less damage to the original? This, really, is what Travis Loller was asking. In many places, I think The Voice comes out ahead.

We can extend the question to other versions. Like The Voice, I think The Message improves on the KJV in places, even as it suffers from significant drawbacks.

Certainly I think my recommended translation, the NRSV, improves greatly on the KJV.

What about the NIV, which I have often criticized? (I’m particularly frustrated with the latest version of the NIV, because the translators seem to have bowed to political pressure to move away from accuracy in some places.) I think that it, too, improves on the KJV.

So what do you think? Is your preferred translation better than the KJV? Why?

July 30, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions | , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Bible Translations Make News in 2011

According to the Religion Newswriters Association, Bible translation stories were among the top 10 religion stories of 2011.

The RNA singled out three events that contributed to the prominence of Bible translations in the news this past year:

  • Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. There’s no doubt that the King James Version (“KJV”) has had an unprecedented impact on English and on religion, as well as on the practice of Bible translation, though I insist that at this point its value lies less in what it tells us about the original text of the Bible — I did, after all, call it a fool’s gold standard — and more in its historical and cultural role. (For more on why I think the KJV is now inaccurate, take my “Exploring the Bible” video quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“)

  • Criticism of the newest NIV. The NIV was officially published in 2011, but it was released on-line in 2010, which is perhaps why the RNA didn’t single out the publication of the NIV, but rather criticism of the gender decisions in it. Southern Baptists were especially vocal in this regard, and I don’t think this gender debate is going away. (Just a few days ago I was denounced by some Southern Baptists for my translation work, in particular for my suggestion in the Huffington Post that the Song of Solomon advocates equality between men and women.)

  • The completion of the Common English Bible (CEB). The CEB proved hugely popular, even beyond what its publishers expected, though I like it less than many. It’s not a surprise that the translation made news. It was reprinted twice within weeks of its initial run, and has over half a million copies in print. It also made some bold decisions, like changing the traditional “Son of Man” into “human one.”

Though all three of these news items seem to be about Bible translation, I think there’s more going on.

The gender debate, in particular, seems less about translation than about the role of men and women. As I told the AP, I think the NIV is a step backwards in terms of gender accuracy in translation. The loudest complaints this year were that it didn’t take a big enough step backward.

Similarly, I think the admiration (and sometimes reverence) that many people have for the KJV has a lot to do with keeping things the way they were.

And on the other side of the coin, part of the CEB’s appeal is tied up with specifically not keeping things the way they were.

Certainly one common theme here is how we deal with modernity. There seems to be a more specific message behind the stories, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Why Most Bible Translations are So Bad (And Why the Next Generation Should Care)

This past July I had the pleasure of presenting at a TEDx conference in East Hampton, the broad theme of which was “The Next Generation.”

So I offered an 18-minute segment on Bible translation, on what so often goes wrong with translations, and on how to avoid the common mistakes. I couched these topics in the broader theme of why the Bible is important for the next generation.

The edited version of my presentation is available here and on YouTube:

After watching it, you’ll be able to answer these questions:

  1. Why is the King James Version (“KJV”) so important for understanding Bible translation today?
  2. What are the three most common ways of understanding ancient languages?
  3. Why don’t those ways work? How do we know? And what are some consequences?
  4. What is a better approach? Again, how do we know?
  5. Why are the Ten Commandments still uniquely relevant?
  6. What does all of this have to do with supermarkets?

I’ve touched on many of these themes in individual blog posts here, and I go through all of them (except for the supermarkets) in And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, but here’s a compact and relatively complete introduction. Enjoy!

And then take a look at the other presentations.

I also want to express my thanks to Left of Frame Pictures for producing the videos.

September 14, 2011 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps, video | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Translating Mistakes in the Text

From time to time, we have what seem to be mistakes in the traditional text of the Bible, frequently the results of apparent errors on the part of a scribe. How should these be translated?

Here are three examples.

Leviticus 20:10 (dittography)

In Leviticus 20:10, we find the phrase “a man who commits adultery with the wife of” repeated, almost certainly inadvertently. So the Hebrew text reads, literally:

a man who commits adultery with the wife of
a man who commits adultery with the wife of
his neighbor:
[in that case the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.]

Three translation options seem to present themselves:

1. Translate the text as it is, repetition and all.

2. “Fix” the text by ignoring the repetition.

3. “Fix” the text by making sense of the repetition.

Most translations take the second route. The ESV, NRSV, and The Message, for example, translate the repeated phrase only once. (The ESV and NRSV note the Hebrew duplication in a footnote.)

I don’t know of any version that follows the first strategy exactly, but the KJV comes pretty close: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” If we disregard the italics, the duplicated phrases are almost identical. But even so, the KJV doesn’t reproduce the effect of having the same phrase twice.

The remaining translations try to make sense of the duplication, much as the KJV did. For instance, the NIV gives us, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — …,” as if the second phrase is an explanation of the first.

The merits of Option 2 are pretty clear: Just because a scribe made a mistake doesn’t mean we should introduce a mistake into English.

I can understand Option 1 as well: We should translate the text, not emend it.

But it’s hard for me to understand why Option 3 is a good idea. Rather, it seems like a mistake born of misunderstanding the nature of the original text.

Deuteronomy 31:1 (parablepsis)

We find a different challenge in Deuteronomy 31:1. That verse starts in Hebrew, “Moses went [vayelech] and spoke…” The problem is that Moses didn’t go anywhere. In fact, it’s pretty clear that he’s exactly where he was in the previous verse.

It seems that the original text was not “Moses went” but rather “Moses finished.” While those two verbs seem unrelated in English, in Hebrew the first (without vowels) is V-Y-L-K, while the second is V-Y-K-L. Except for the order of the final two letters, they’re the same. Furthermore, we find V-Y-K-L (“finished”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls (“DSS”), and the Septuagint translates sunteleo, “finished.”

Again, we have three basic options: translate the text as is, ignore the mistake, or make sense of the mistake.

The KJV, among others, takes the first approach. (This is hardly surprising. Until the discovery of the DSS, it wasn’t clear that this was a mistake. Many people thought the Septuagint had it wrong. And, in fact, I suppose it’s possible that the Septuagint and DSS are both wrong.)

Other translations, such as the NAB and NRSV, simply translate “finished” here, as though the Hebrew read V-Y-K-L.

And other translations yet try to reconcile the text, with such options as, “So Moses continued to speak” (ESV).

Again, I understand the first two approaches better than the third.

Psalm 93:4 (haplography)

A third example comes from the poetry in Psalm 93:4. The Hebrew is, literally, “more than the sounds of much water mighty sea-breakers mighty on high is Adonai” — which doesn’t make much sense.

The Hebrew grammar here is complicated, but three basic points will help: The Hebrew letter mem (“M”) is used at the end of a word to indicate plurals. It is used at the beginning of a word to indicate nouns. And, also at the beginning of a word, it means “more than.”

So the plural of “mighty” (adir) is adirim. The word “breaker” starts with a mem: mishbar. And the first word of Psalm 93:4, mikolot comes from mi- (“more than”) plus kolot (“sounds”).

Accordingly, the way to say “mightier than sea-breakers,” if “mightier” is plural, is adirim mi-mish’b’rei yam, or, without vowels or spaces, A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M. However, the traditional text gives us A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M.

In short, if we add a third mem (back?) into the text, we get the much more sensible, “God is mightier than the sound of the water, mightier than the sea breakers.”

Here, every translation I know adopts what we’ve been calling the second strategy, fixing the text by ignoring the mistake.

Summary and Questions

Even though these three — and other — scribal errors are in principal the same, we find that translations deal with them differently.

1. Do you think a translation should fix erroneous text? If so, when?

2. When a translation does fix the text, should it also indicate what the uncorrected text means?

3. What value might there be to printing the uncorrected Hebrew (or Greek) next to the corrected English?

June 22, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Making the Bible Sound Like the Bible

David Frank at BBB asks if a translation has to sound like a translation. Not surprisingly when it comes to the Bible, two answers emerged: “yes,” and “no.”

David’s point was that a translation into English should sound like English.

Bob MacDonald seems to counter that the foreignness is part of the text and a translation that isn’t foreign has destroyed that aspect of the text. Also apparently in rebuttal, Theophrastus claimed that the text of the Bible is qualitatively different than other texts

Wayne Leman focused the issue, noting that the content can sound foreign (Levirate marriage, wave offerings, praying for the dead, temple prostitution, etc.) even if the language sounds like English.

I think part of what’s going on here is that poor Bible translations have created a false image of the Bible, and many people are reluctant to give up that false image because, for them, the image of the Bible has become the Bible itself. In other words, they want the Bible to sound like what they think the Bible sounds like.

An example I use frequently is “God spoke unto Moses, saying…” That’s not English. Furthermore, it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew leimor here — which became “speaking” in translation — functions the same way our modern quotation marks do. So the translation should read, “God said to Moses, `…'”

But for people who grew up hearing “God spoke unto Moses, saying,” that’s what the Bible sounds like. They heard that (poor) translation frequently, internalized it, and then came to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that the Bible is foreign and strange in exactly the way that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” is.

So any attempt to retranslate the Bible into better English, for them, destroys part of what the Bible is.

At its extreme, this gives us the KJV-Only movement. For people who adhere to that philosophy, the archaic language of the KVJ — “spake,” “verily,” “holpen,” etc. — is the Bible, and for them, modern translations destroy what the Bible is.

But I think that this perceived foreignness is an artifact of poor translation and a misunderstanding of how language works. That is, the foreignness of the Bible that some people want to capture in translation is really just the foreignness of previous translations, not of the Bible itself.

Making matters much worse, many of the people who decide to become Bible translators do so because of their love for the Bible, a love they gained as they grew up with bad translations. So Bible translators (a) start to think that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” actually is English; and (b) want to produce a translation that preserves their childhood understanding of what the Bible is.

This situation strikes me as doubly lamentable. Not only have poor translations hidden the original beauty of the Bible, they have prevented people from taking the steps to find it.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 10 Comments

The King James Version (KJV): The Fool’s-Gold Standard of Bible Translation

In 2008, as I was writing And God Said, I described the King James Version (KJV) as the “fool’s-gold standard” of English Bible translation. That was approximately 397 years after the watershed publication of the KJV, hardly a date worth noticing.

KJV Cover

KJV Cover

But today the KJV turns 400, and with that anniversary has come renewed world-wide attention to what certainly ranks as one of the most important and influential translations of the Bible ever. But some of the celebration is misplaced.

It’s not that I don’t like the KJV. I do. It’s often poetic in ways that modern translations are not. And I recognize all it has done both for English speakers who are serious about their faith and more widely. Dr. Alister McGrath is correct when he writes in his In The Beginning that the “King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians.”

Equally, I appreciate the dedication and hard work that went into the KJV, as Dr. Leland Ryken passionately conveys in his Understanding English Bible Translation: “[f]or people who have multiple English Bibles on their shelves, it is important to be reminded that the vernacular Bible [the KJV] was begotten in blood.”

Yet for all its merits, the King James Version is monumentally inaccurate, masking the Bible’s original text. There are two reasons for the errors.

The first is that English has changed in 400 years, so even where the KJV used to be accurate, frequently now it no longer is. (My video-quiz about the English in the KJV — Do You Speak KJV? — illustrates this point.)

The second reason is that the KJV was written several hundred years before the advent of modern translation theory, linguistics, and, in general, science. Just as advances like carbon dating and satellite imagery help us know more about antiquity now than people did 400 years ago (even though they were a little closer to the original events), we also know more about ancient Hebrew and Greek now than they did 400 years ago. In fact, we know much more, both about the ancient languages and about how to convey them in translation.

Bunting Clover-Leaf Map

Bunting Clover-Leaf Map

Like Heinrich Bunting’s famous 16th-century “clover-leaf map” of the world that adorns my office wall (the map puts the holy city of Jerusalem right in the middle, surrounded by three leaves: Europe, Asia, and Africa), the KJV translation is of enormous value historically, politically, sentimentally, and perhaps in other ways. But also like Bunting’s map, the KJV is, in the end, not very accurate.

And those who would navigate the Bible solely with this 400-year-old translation journey in perils.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | editorial, translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , , , , | 15 Comments

What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Words

It makes intuitive sense that a translation should preserve the meaning of each word.

But in this case, our intuition leads us astray, which is why I’m not a fan of so-called “literal,” “essentially literal,” or “formal equivalence” translations.

Here’s an example that will make clear what goes wrong.

There’s a German verb blaumachen. Though the Germans write it as one word, we can look at the two parts: blau (“blue”) and machen (“to make” or “to do”).

The obvious translation of blaumachen is not “to blue make” — because that’s not English — but “to make blue” or “to do blue.” Both of these translations fit into the “literal” Bible translation camp: ESV, KJV, etc.

We can go one step further and note that neither “to make blue” nor “to do blue” is an English phrase, while “to be blue” most certainly is. So we might translate “to be blue” (which — for non-native speakers — means “to be sad”). That translation fits into the “make the English understandable” camp: CEB, NLT, etc.

We can go one step further yet and, trying to write better or more vivid prose, translate, “to lament.” This is what The Message might do.

But all of these are wrong, for a very simple reason. “To make blue” (blaumachen) in German means “to skip school.”
Continue reading

April 22, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Exploring the Bible Videos

I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.


The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:

Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes.

These first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written (here, here, and here).

My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.

Please let me know what you think.

I’ll also be grateful if you can ask a few friends or colleagues to take a look — particularly if they don’t follow this blog — so I can get a sense of what these videos are like for people who encounter the material for the first time.


March 28, 2011 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory, video | , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

On the King James Version

The BBC News Magazine has an interesting, accurate, and balanced piece on the KJV out today, called “King James Bible: How it changed the way we speak.”

Based largely on works by David Crystal (Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language) and Alister McGrath (In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible), the article quantifies and explains the impact of the KJV on English, along the way describing the nature of the KJV.

From the middle of the article:

Perhaps the most intriguing reason for the impact of the King James Bible is that it ignored what today would be considered essentials for good translation.

Read the article

January 17, 2011 Posted by | article review, translation practice, translation theory | , , , | Leave a comment