God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Mimicry

One of the most non-intuitive aspects of translation is that mimicry can lead the translator astray.

For example, it stands to reason that an adverb at the beginning of Hebrew sentence should be translated into English by an adverb at the beginning of a sentence; and, similarly, that an adverb at the end in Hebrew should be rendered as a final adverb in English.

But the reasoning is flawed. This is why the translation of the Hebrew word breishit (“in the beginning”), may not belong at the start of Genesis 1:1.

Modern Languages

As usual, we can look at modern languages to get a sense of the situation. This time, we’ll look at word order in modern Russian and modern Hebrew.

Spoken colloquial Russian allows considerable word-order variation. In fact, in the Russian equivalent of “Yesterday John saw Sarah” (v’chera Ivan videl Saru), all 24 logically possible word orders are grammatical. By contrast, the written language is more restrictive in Russian, generally requiring something close to what we allow in English.

Modern Hebrew also allows more word-order variation than English. But in Hebrew, it’s the written language that is more flexible than the spoken one. So in written Hebrew, again all 24 logically possible word orders are grammatical, but the spoken language is more restrictive.

The naive way to translate Russian into Hebrew is to preserve the word order. After all, the Russian word order is always grammatical in Hebrew (in this example). But mimicking the word order sometimes take colloquial Russian and turns it into formal Hebrew.

This demonstrates what can go wrong when translators mimic instead of translating.


Rather than merely mimicking the original word-order, translators need to look at what the word order in Hebrew or Greek does, and then try to do the same thing in English. More generally, I think this lesson applies not just to word order but also to other aspects of grammar.


Perhaps the most mimicry-based translation is Dr. Everett Fox’s (and this is the problem I have with his work). To take an example that just came up in a discussion on BBB, we can look at part of his rendering of Genesis 22. In verse 2, he translates the Hebrew y’chidcha as “your only-one.” Presumably the hyphenated “only-one” is supposed to mimic the one-word Hebrew yachid. But in (partially) mimicking the number of words, Fox has taken ordinary Hebrew and turned it into bizarre English.

Fox’s “started-early” (verse 3) for the one Hebrew word hishkim makes the same mistake.

Dr. Robert Alter’s rendition of Psalm 104 — which he discusses in the introduction to his generally excellent The Book of Psalms — makes the same mistake. He gives us, “grandeur and glory You don,” which is barely English. He wants to preserve what he calls syntactic fronting. The problem is that the resulting English is bizarre in a way that the Hebrew never was.

A third example comes from Matthew 6:11. The common “give us this day our daily bread” mimics the Greek word order rather than translating it. It is well known that putting full phrases between the verb and its object in English is an odd word order. So “this day” doesn’t belong between “give us” and “our daily bread.” (Also “daily bread” might be wrong, but that’s for another time.)

I don’t know if this strange word order comes from the Greek (which reads: “our daily bread give us today”) or just from the KJV (which was written in a dialect that allowed for more word-order freedom). Either way, the right way to translate the Greek is to use English word order: “Give us our daily bread today” (again, if “daily bread” is right.)

May 28, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , | 8 Comments