God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted: Hosea’s Children

The prophet Hosea, we read, has three children, named yizrael, lo-ruchama, and lo-ammi in Hebrew, but in Greek their names are Yezrael, Ouk-Ileimeni, and Ou-Laos-Mou. What’s going on? Normally Greek names are simple transliterations of the Hebrew sounds.

The answer is that the second two Hebrew names are actually phrases that mean “not loved” and “not my people,” respectively. The Greek translates the meaning of the words, rather than preserving the sounds. Ouk-Ileimeni means “not-loved” and Ou-Laos-Mou means “not-people-mine.” The first name, Jezreel in English, is taken from the disaster at the Jezreel valley — vaguely similar would be living in New Orleans and calling your daughter “Katrina” — and because that’s a place, not just a word, the Greek transliterates the sounds.

English translations, though, usually ignore what the words mean, as in the NRSV’s Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi. The CEB and others take a different route, with Jezreel, No Compassion, and Not My People.

Some translations walk a middle ground, as in the latest NIV, which gives us, “Lo-Ruhamah (which means ‘not loved’)” and “Lo-Ammi (which means ‘not my people’),” explaining things for the English reader.

Though this is perhaps the most extreme example of names that are words or phrases, it’s not the only one. The famous passage in Isaiah 7:14 has a kid whose name is emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When the name appears in Isaiah, it remains untranslated in English, though many versions provide a footnote with an explanation of the name. But when Matthew (in 1:23) cites the verse, he adds, “…which translates as ‘God is with us.'”

What should we do with these names in English translations? Certainly a story about “Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi” paints a markedly different picture than one about, say, “Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted.” Does it do the narrative justice if we strip it of the jarring names “Unloved” and “Unwanted”?

Is turning “Jezreel” into “Disaster” going too far? What about a translation that calls yizrael “Gettysburg,” which, like the Valley of Jezreel, was the site of bloodshed? Should we respect the fact that Hosea has one kid named after a place and two with phrases for names?

And what about Emmanuel? If we translate lo-ruchamma as “Unloved,” shouldn’t Emmanuel be “God-Is-With-Us?”

What do you think? How would you translate Hosea’s kids, Isaiah 7:14, and Matthew 1:23?

May 9, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Relying on Structure

Perhaps the biggest translation mistake I’ve seen is relying too closely on word-internal structure to figure out what words mean. We saw this last week with toldot and in a comment regarding etymology.

I call this the trap “word-internal structure” (even though it applies to phrases, too).


As usual, we can look at modern languages to see how poorly internal structure reveals the meaning of a word.

Two examples from my recent And God Said include “hostile,” which doesn’t mean “like a host,” even though the pattern of “infant” and “infantile” would suggest otherwise; and “patently,” which means “obviously” even though a patent by definition must be non-obvious. We see that even with something so simple as adding “-ly” to a word, we can’t rely on structure to tell us what a word means.


Also from And God Said comes this example about phrases:

A more detailed example highlights the issue. English has a verb “pick” and two words “on” and “up” that can be added to verbs. “Pick” (as in “pick a lock”) means, “open stealthily without a key.” “Up” means “away from gravity” and “on” means “touching and located in the direction of open space.” (All of these definitions are approximate. That isn’t the point here.) This knowledge, however, doesn’t explain why “pick on” means “annoy,” “pick up” means “increase” (as in, “pick up the tempo”), and “pick up on” means “discern.”

This demonstrates the important fact that phrases, like words, don’t always get their meanings from their parts. (Another favorite example is “drive-through window.”)


We’ve already seen one clear case where internal structure leads us astray. The internal structure of the Hebrew word toldot suggests that it specifically has to do with “birth,” or maybe “generations” or “descendants.” But we saw that it does not.

Another example comes from the Hebrew phrase “spy after” in Numbers 15:39. The verb there is tur, which means “spy” or “explore.” And the preposition is acharei, “after.” But — just as with “pick up” and “pick on” — it’s a mistake to assume that we can understand the phrase just by knowing its parts. In this case, the phrase occurs nowhere else, so we’re stuck with a problem. The full sentence — important enough in Judaism to be included in the m’zuzah that adorns doorways and the t’fillin that serve as ritual prayer objects — is this: “this will be your tassel. When you see them, you will remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them. Do not ??? your heart and your eyes, after which you lust.”

(Two notes are in order: “heart” is misleading here, as is “lust.” Also, t’fillin enjoys the utterly useless English translation “phylacteries.”)

Translations for the literal “spy after” include “follow after” (ESV), which I don’t think is even an expression in English; “[go] wantonly astray after” (NAB); “going after the lusts of” (NIV); and “follow” (NRSV). Except for the NRSV, all of these translations (wrongly, in my opinion) insist on putting the word “after” in the translation. (The LXX gives us diastrafisesthe opiso, while the Vulgate has the single word sequantur, from sequor, “to follow.”)

Hebrew word-internal structure is complicated, and — depending on personal constitution — either immensely enjoyable or the ultimate barrier to learning Hebrew. Either way, it’s hard to ignore Hebrew’s rich word-internal structure, but sometimes translation demands that we do.

By way of further example, we can consider the Modern Hebrew word m’sukan. It is the passive of the active m’saken. The active means “endanger.” So word-internal structure points us to “endangered” for a translation of the passive. But that’s wrong. The word means “endangering.” In other words, the passive means almost the same thing as the active. “Dangerous” is the usual translation.


When I discussed energeo (responding to discussions by J.R. Daniel Kirk and on BBB — then BBB followed up, as did T.C. Robinson), one comment noted that I “miss[ed] the distinction between the active in Matthew 14:2, Galatians 3:5 etc. and the middle or passive in Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16.” I think we see from the discussion here that, while the active/passive/middle distinction is not to be ignored, neither can we rely on it to tell us what words mean. It’s possible (as we just saw in Modern Hebrew) for a passive form not simply to indicate the passive of what the active form indicates.


It seems to me that two lessons are important.

First, word-internal structure, while sometimes helpful and often fun, is an unreliable way to figure out what a word means.

Secondly, phrases are just like individual words in this regard.

So when we look at a word or a phrase, I think it’s important not just to look at its formal structure.

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Q&A: The Stiff Burning Neck of Proverbs 29:1

These questions about Proverbs 29:1 come in via the About page:

1. Is it possible that this verse refers to, or alludes to, a broken neck (spinal column), with no possibility of mending (except, in modern times, T-cells)?

2. What is with the references to “reprover” and “fire” in the LXX?

The verse is (NRSV): “One who is often reproved, yet remains stubborn, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.”

The Neck

Regarding the first question, I’d hate to say that it’s impossible that this is a broken neck, but I don’t think it’s very likely. The phrase “neck-hard” or “hard of neck” (k’she oref) that we find in Proverbs 29:1 is a common one, and it seems to refer to stubbornness. We find it applied to the people Israel in Exodus (32:9, 33:3, 33:5, and 34:9) and in Deuteronomy (9:6 and 9:13). It seems to be a negative trait that can describe a group. Furthermore, it’s not the neck that breaks in Proverbs 29:1, but the person who has it.

I’m not sure how we’d know if an idiom were used literally. (It would be like “he kicked the bucket” meaning someone who literally gave the bucket a kick.) But because we have no evidence to point to a literal meaning, I think the idiomatic one is our best guess.

The final word, marpei, is common in Proverbs. Some things have no marpei, as here, and as in Proverbs 6:15 (and Jeremiah 14:19). Other times, something can bring marpei: in Proverbs 12:18, it’s the tongue of the wise.

Proverbs 29:1 promises no marpei for the stubborn who are broken. That’s where “beyond healing” (NRSV) comes from. But I think the phrasing in the NRSV (and others) is off. It’s not, “…will be broken beyond repair,” but rather “…will be broken; [the situation] will be beyond repair.”

The Fire

The LXX’s flegomenou (“set on fire”) is surprising.

Often when the LXX differs significantly from the Hebrew, it’s because the LXX reflects a different interpretation of the Hebrew — usually a different way of adding vowels to the consonantal text — or actually a different (sometimes erroneous) Hebrew text. Frequently, the alternative text that gave us the variations in the LXX involves one or more Hebrew letters having been copied incorrectly. For example, we often find a vav (long line) for a yud (short line), which is manifested in sound as an /o/ or /u/ for an /i/ or /ei/; sometimes we see swapped or missing letters.

In the case of “better than a stiff-necked man” (Brenton LXX translation), it seems that the LXX translators took makshei oref and read it as mikshei oref. The latter phrase means “than a stiff necked person.” From there, maybe someone added “better.” The details of the Hebrew grammar here are complicated, and ultimately this case isn’t all that interesting.

But the “fire” is very interesting. There’s no Hebrew word in Proverbs 29:1 that — even with letter changes — seems to have to do with “fire.” But — and this is the fun part — Proverbs 6:15 ends with the same four words as Proverbs 29:1. And in Proverbs 6:15, we find the somewhat rare Hebrew word eid, which (probably) means something like “disaster.”

However, make the middle yud of eid into a vav and you get oud, “firebrand!”

So I think the LXX’s “fire” comes not from Proverbs 29:1 but from (a misreading of) the similar Proverbs 6:15.

Great question.

February 7, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Did God Sit on a Chair or a Throne?

In my last post I asked whether we should use modern terms like “womb” and “stomach” to translate the ancient beten, which was used for both.

Similarly, what about “chair” and “throne”? It seems that, at least in the OT, one word was used for both different modern concepts.

The Hebrew for both is kisei. It’s a common word, so it’s not hard to find examples of a kisei for commoners (I Samuel 1:9, e.g.), for kings (II Samuel 3:10, e.g., where it’s used metonymically for “kingdom”), and for God (Psalm 11:4).

Though the Greek thronos is used consistently in the LXX for kisei, in the NT thronos seems more narrowly reserved for kings and other dignitaries (Luke 1:32, Revelation 4:4) and God (Matthew 5:34), though Satan (Revelation 2:13) gets one, too.

The Greek kathedra is used in the NT for ordinary chairs (Matthew 21:12), and in the LXX for the Hebrew moshav “seat” and more generally shevet “sitting.” (The Hebrew moshav seems to include seats of any kind, both “chairs” and “thrones.”)

Another way of looking kisei in the OT is to compare it to the modern English word “shoe.” Even though kings and ordinary folk wear different kinds of them (I think), there’s only one word for them (I think).

The translation issue is forced in I Kings 2:19, where King Solomon sits on his kisei and also orders a kisei brought for his mom (which, at the risk of editorializing, is really sweet). The KJV, ESV, and NJB use two different words here, first “throne” (for the king) then “seat” (for mom). The LXX (in Greek), NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV use the same word twice. (I’m a little surprised to find the “essentially literal” ESV using two words here, and the generally more idiomatic NLT sticking with one.)

The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.

Elsewhere, the translator has to decide between “chair” and “throne” for God. By choosing “throne,” God is necessarily like royalty; and while that’s certainly a common metaphor for God in the OT, how do we know it’s always what the Hebrew meant? In the famous vision of Isaiah 6, for example, the only clue to a kingship metaphor is the word “throne” in English.

Should a translation preserve the OT way of looking at things that are sat upon (if you’ll pardon my grammar), the NT way, or go straight for the modern English way?

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments