God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Similar Words Lead Bible Translators Astray

“Nuclear families” have nothing to do with “nuclear energy,” in spite of the word “nuclear” in both phrases.

Most people know that two unrelated words can look the same: the “bank” in “river bank” and in “money bank,” for example. Such words usually mean completely different things.

It’s less commonly appreciated that closely related words can also mean completely different things. In this case, the “nuclear” in “nuclear family” and in “nuclear energy” comes directly from the word “nucleus.” But even so, knowing what “nuclear families” are doesn’t help understand the phrase “nuclear energy.” (This kind of mistake is so common that “nuclear magnetic resonance imaging,” which measures the interaction between magnetic fields and atomic nuclei, was renamed just “magnetic resonance imaging” because “nuclear” falsely suggested that the process had something to do with radioactivity.)

This basic fact about languages has important implications for Bible translation.

One example comes from the Hebrew word hikriv, which means both “draw near” and “sacrifice.” It’s possible that these two meanings, as with “nuclear” in English,” have common ancestry. But that doesn’t mean that the two meanings are related. Nonetheless, it’s a common mistake to assume that “sacrifices” in the Bible had more to do with “drawing near” than the English translation suggests. They did not.

A second example is the Greek work sarx, literally “flesh,” but — as is widely known and often discussed — the word meant something different for Paul than it did for the authors of, say, Genesis.

If identical words can mean different things, certainly related words can, too. Yet many Bible translators ignore this fact.

An example comes from the two related words chamad and nechmad in Hebrew. They are both from the root Ch.M.D. The initial “n” in Hebrew essentially marks passive voice. And the vowel differences are a direct result of the lengths of the words. So it looks like chamad and nechmad should be related just like any other active/passive pair.

But they are not. The verb nechmad means “desirable” while the active verb chamad means “take.” This confusion led to a mistranslation of the last commandment, which should read “do not take,” not “do not covet.” (I have lots more here: “The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting” and in this video: “Thou shalt not covet?.)

Returning to the English “nuclear,” it would be a mistake to try to use “nuclear energy” to understand what “nuclear family” means, and it would almost always be a mistake for a translator from English to another language to try to use the same foreign word for “nuclear” in both cases.

Similarly, it seems to me, the Bible translation challenge in this regard is twofold: First, to differentiate between similar or even identical words, so that the meaning of one doesn’t wrongly shade the meaning of the other. And secondly, only to try to use identical English words for identical Hebrew or Greek ones when the original words mean the same thing.


October 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Behold! Little words mean a lot more than you might think.

It turns out that “um” means something in English, and we can learn about translation by looking at that short word.

The following hypothetical conversation between a shopper and a sales associate at a book store demonstrates:

Shopper: “Where can I find a complete bilingual text of Aristotle?”

Clerk: “Aristotle who?”

Shopper: “Um, the Greek philosopher?”

The last line, in colloquial American English, does two things. The last three words answer the question. But the first word, “um,” demonstrates disdain. The shopper is mocking the sales associate for his or her ignorance. (Incidentally, this happened to me at Barnes and Noble a couple of years ago. The staffer at the customer service desk didn’t know who Aristotle was. I did my best to hide my disappointment in our school system.)

This short word “um” demonstrates an important way words can work in language: they can add a flavor or nuance to a conversation. And as a guess, most English speakers are unable to articulate how “um” works in their native language, so we also see how complex and subtle these nuance-words can be.

I’m almost sure that na in Hebrew was such a word, and that “please” or “pray” don’t convey the same thing in English.

I think hinei in Hebrew and idou in Greek also contributed primariliy to the tone of a sentence, in a way that is not captured by “behold,” “see,” “see here,” and so forth.

So here’s a challenge: What do you think hinei and/or idou contributed?

December 2, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Q&A: Is Greek Different Than All Other Languages?

Also from the about page:

Is it true that in Greek they didn’t have multiple words that meant the same thing or one word that meant multiple things? More clearly — that every word had only one meaning and each thing/idea had only one word for it. Thanks!

Thanks for the question, which I think is important for two reasons, not just because of the details of the question but also for the more general implication.

The short answer is no. There is no truth to the idea that there was a one-to-one match between Greek words and meanings/things/ideas.

More generally, I think it’s a common error to view Greek as fundamentally different than other languages. Ancient Greek is a human language like any other, and what’s true of languages in general is also true of Greek in particular. This is one reason that the linguistics revolution of the last century is so exciting for Bible scholarship and translation in particular. Even without looking at Greek, we know a lot about the language. Of course, this is not to say that Greek doesn’t have to be studied in detail, but linguistics guides what we look for, because we already have a sense of what’s possible and what’s not.

In this case, no language has the one-to-one mapping you mention, so in particular Greek does not.

November 29, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, Q&A, translation theory | , , , , | 2 Comments

The Grammar Can’t Be Wrong

In an interview with Karyn Traphagen, Pete Enns says:

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.

While a printed grammar of a language can be (and frequently is) wrong, the underlying grammar of the language is always right. That is, there are rules by which all languages operate, and one task of the linguist is to discover those rules. In this regard modern linguistics, beginning last century, has been particularly helpful. (Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct is a great introduction.)

So if people are working from books that don’t match up with the language they’re studying, I think it’s time to stop blaming the language and start blaming the books.

October 8, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , | 2 Comments

Luck, Omens, and Other Bipolar Words

“Luck” is an interesting word in English, because people can have “good luck” or “bad luck,” but if they are “lucky” it only means “good luck.” That is, the word “luck” can refer to positive or negative things, but in order to mean something negative, it has to be qualified, either explicitly or by context.

“Omen” works pretty much the same way, except in the opposite direction, at least in my dialect. An “omen” is ominous and foreboding by default, but there are “good omens” as well as “bad omens.”

We learn at least two lessons from these observations.

First, it’s not hard to imagine a language that has words for “luck” and “omen” but whose default meanings are reversed. For convenience, we can call such a language English-B, and call the words luck-B and omen-B. The English-B phrase “good luck-B” should (probably) be translated “good luck” into English, and the English-B phrase “bad luck-B” should (again, probably) be “bad luck,” but what should be done with “luck-B”? Remember, in English-B it means “bad luck,” but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “bad luck-B.”

Secondly, we see more generally that words can have default meanings that can be overridden overtly or covertly by context.

October 5, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Gender Neutrality and Gender Indifference

A quick note about “they” in colloquial English. It’s used for two purposes: (1) when the speaker doesn’t know the gender of the referent; and (2) when the speaker doesn’t care about the gender of the referent.

For example, if I see a cell phone in the aisle of a plane as I’m exiting, I might pick it up and give it to a flight attendant, explaining, “I think someone dropped their cell phone.” I use “their” because I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman.

But equally, if I want to tell you about a phone conversation I had last night, I might tell you, “I was talking to a colleague yesterday and they said the most interesting thing….” I use “they” not because I don’t know who I was talking to, but because I don’t want to emphasize their gender. (See? I did it again. “Their” gender.)

September 8, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , | Comments Off on Gender Neutrality and Gender Indifference