God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Israel, Modern Hebrew, and Bible Translation

As always, I’ve returned from my week in Israel recharged and renewed. Also, as always, my visit has given me a lot to think about regarding translation.

Modern Languages

I believe that looking at modern languages can help us understand the nature of translation because it’s easier to know what modern languages mean, so it’s easier to know if we’ve got the right translation. So even though Modern Hebrew doesn’t directly help us understand Biblical Hebrew (or, obviously, Greek), understanding how to translate Modern Hebrew may help us figure out how to translate ancient languages better.

In this regard I’m lucky. My parents took me to Israel early enough in my life that I speak Israeli Hebrew fluently, so I generally know not just the meaning but also the exact nuance of a Hebrew phrase, and I can conduct field work just by listening.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some observations and questions.


1. There are two phrases in Hebrew, s’de t’ufa and n’mal t’ufa, and they mean roughly “air field” and “air port,” respectively. But it’s the former term that is in general use in spoken Hebrew, while the latter carries a flavor of formality. Should s’de t’ufa be translated into English as “airfield” or “airport”?

2. There’s a phrase in Hebrew pachot o yoter, literally, “less or more.” As nearly as I can tell, it’s exactly the same as the English “more or less.’ Does the reversed word order affect translation?

3. There’s a device in Israel called a “disk on key,” which Israelis pronounce DEESkonki, thinking they are speaking English. Is “disk on key” the right translation? (We call it a “flash drive” here in the U.S.)

4. I have a friend who lectures at Haifa University. As is common in Israel, the undergraduates call him by his first name. Should a translation of the class similarly use his first name in English? Will that give the wrong impression that the students are behaving rudely or not showing proper respect?

5. If you don’t know someone’s name in Israel, you can address them with the role they play: nahag, (“driver”), for example, to talk to the bus driver (we do this in English, too), but also yeled (“boy”) to talk to a boy. Should yeled be translated as the English “boy,” or do other connotations of the word make that impossible? (Russian works the same way in this regard. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a club in Kiev. An eleven-year-old girl was helping serve from behind the bar. A nine-year old came up to order a soda, and addressed the older child as “little girl.”)

6. The weather while I was in Israel ranged from the 50’s to the 70’s (that’s about 10 to 25 Celsius). A day in the low 60’s was called kar, literally “cold.” To me it was “warm.” Should the cultural differences regarding winter temperatures come into play when translating kar?

7. Similar to (4), Haifa was about an hour from where I was staying in Israel. People there called that rachok, literally “far.” To me it was close. Again, should translation reflect cultural differences?

8. The official Israeli news broadcasts are in a markedly different dialect of Hebrew than almost anything else in the country, adhering to rules of Biblical Hebrew (really Tiberian Masoretic Hebrew) that are otherwise all but dead in the modern language. Should the drastic differences in dialect be conveyed in translation? How might that be accomplished?

9. Quoting the Hebrew of the Bible has a certain elegance in Israel. Should those quotations be translated into English as quotations of an English translation of the Bible? If so, which translation? If not, perhaps something analogous, like Shakespeare?

10. Some English expletives have been borrowed into Hebrew, along the way losing much of their force. For example, two words that I’ll transliterate as sheet and fuk are acceptable in most social settings; they even appear in widespread print advertisements. Should those English-words-in-Hebrew be translated back into English as what they started off as, or as something more moderate, like “darn”?

Meta Questions

A. How should a translator study Modern Hebrew to make informed translation choices in these cases?

B. What non-linguistic issues (culture? sociology?) are important for the translator to appreciate?

C. How would various Bible translation strategies (e.g., those of, say, the NIV, ESV, and The Message) address these questions?

D. What other implications do these differences between English and Hebrew (and between the U.S. and Israel) have for Bible translation?


January 13, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 9 Comments

Gender in Modern Hebrew – An Example

I think it might be informative to look at how av (usually translated “father”) and its plural, avot, work in Modern Hebrew. Even though we can’t directly conclude anything about ancient Hebrew or Greek from Modern Hebrew, we can learn more about how gender — at least potentially — works in human language.

In no particular order, here are some facts about av and avot in Modern Hebrew:

  • When people talk about their literal father, one word they use is av.* (When they talk about their mother, one word is em.)
  • The word av is grammatically masculine.
  • The plural avot is grammatically masculine, even though it ends in -ot which is often reserved for feminine plurals.
  • When Lucy, the “first human,” was discovered, she was called av kadmon in Hebrew, literally “original av.”
  • When people talk about how “fathers” are different than “mothers,” the words they use are avot and imahot (the plural of em).
  • The Hebrew for “old-age home” is bet avot, literally, “house of avot.” (The phrase applies equally to men and women.)
  • When people talk about their “ancestors,” the word they use is avot. (Again, the phrase does not have specifically male connotations.)

It seems to me that if a theory of gender and language doesn’t allow for the possabilites above, it’s probably inaccurate, or, at least, incomplete, so we shouldn’t use that theory to try to understand ancient languages.

(*) In addition to av, there’s a less formal word aba in Hebrew. The two words approximate the difference between “father” and “dad.”

September 9, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Birds And The Bees

Readers keeping up with the theoretical issues surrounding gender and translation may find this helpful or interesting or both. It’s reposted from my The Glamour of the Grammar column for the Jerusalem Post:

Unlike in English, Hebrew nouns, verbs, and adjectives come in two varieties, commonly called masculine and feminine. The endings -a (singular) and -ot (plural) frequently mark the feminine, and while the masculine nouns have no particular ending in the singular, typically their plural marker is -im. So “man” is ish and “woman” is isha. Adjectives (which in Hebrew follow the nouns they describe) match – ish tov is a “good man” and isha tova is a “good woman.” But that’s just the beginning of the story….

UPDATE. The link works now: Read more….

September 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , | Comments Off on The Birds And The Bees