God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Missing the Point

[Between six appearances in four cities and then having to buy a new car, I haven’t been in front of a computer in nearly two weeks. So I’m playing catch-up, starting with a much-delayed installment of “translation traps.”]

Following up on some thoughts about myopic translations, here’s one way in particular that a translation can focus too closely on the words and not closely enough on the text.

This is a typical translation of a (Modern) Hebrew text into English:

Rain was falling, it was cold and wet. We sat at home, we looked out toward the street.
I sat with Tali. It was very cold. I said, “What a shame. We can’t do anything.”
[I’m] not allowed to go out and play ball. It’s just cold and wet and [I’m] not allowed. [I’m] not allowed.”
We kept sitting. Just, just, just, just [sitting]. It was the most boring [thing] in the world.
And then something moved. Bump. Wow, what a bump. We were so shocked.
We looked, and then he made his way in. We looked, and we saw, a mischievous cat.

For reference, here’s the original Hebrew, with word-for-word translations:

geshem
rain
yarad
fell
haya
it-was
kar
cold
v’ratov.
and-wet.
yashavnu
we-sat
babayit,
in-the-house
hibatnu
we-looked
lar’chov
to-the-street

yashavti
I-sat
im
with
tali.
Tali.
haya
it-was
nora
awfully
kar.
cold.
amarti:
I-said
chaval,
too-bad
i
not
efshar
possible
shum
any
davar
thing

asur
it-is-forbidden
li
to-me
latzeit
to-go-out
l’sachek
to-play
b’chadur.
in-a-ball.
rak
just
kar
it-is-cold
v’ratov
and-wet
v’asur
and-it-is-forbidden
v’asur
and-it-is-forbidden

himshachnu
we-kept
lashevet.
to-sit.
stam,
just
stam,
just
stam,
just
stam.
just
zeh
it
haya
was
hachi
the-most
m’sha’amem
boring
ba’olam.
in-the-world

v’az
and-then
mashehu
something
zaz.
moved.
trach.
bump
ach,
wow
eizeh
what
trach.
bump
nivhalnu
we-were-shocked
kol
all
kach.
so

hibatnu,
we-looked
v’az
and-then
hu
he
nichnas
entered
lo
to-him
mimul.
from-acrosss
hibatnu
we-looked
ra’inu,
we-saw
chatul
cat
ta’alul.
mischievous

But the English translation above, even though at first glance it may seem pretty good, is wrong in almost every regard. Can you figure out what happened?

Continue reading

April 22, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: How Mistranslation Created Divorce in the Bible

From the About page comes this response to something I wrote in And God Said:

On p. 155 of And God Said you claim that “there is no divorce in the Bible.”

Yes.

Two great questions follow. I’ll take them in reverse order:

The Case of Two Husbands

Also, you speculate that perhaps the Bible would call both an ex-wife and a current wife, “his wife” but this is not true, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we see “former wife.”

I presume you mean “former husband,” and here we find a true translation gaff.

The KJV, ESV, NAB, NLT, and others translate “former husband” for ba’al rishon. But “former” in English usually implies “no longer,” whereas the Hebrew rishon just means “first.” For example, when Esau is born before Jacob, he is called the rishon. Genesis 26:1 mentions a famine, and then clarifies, “not the first [rishon] famine,” but rather a new famine. This doesn’t mean or imply that the first famine is no longer or famine. Similarly, ba’ala harishon doesn’t “her husband who is no longer her husband,” but rather, “her first husband.”

(There’s a related use of “former” in English that’s the opposite of “latter” and that just means “first.” For example: “Consider two people, the former a senator and the latter a judge….”)

By comparision, we might look at “ex-wife” in English. A man in his third marriage can have two ex-wives. Even if we call them “the former ex-wife” and “the latter ex-wife,” both remain his ex-wives, and the clearer way to refer to them in English is “his first ex-wife” and “his second ex-wife.”

The NIV gets rishon right with “first,” but then errs and translates shilach as “divorced” instead of the more accurate “sent away.”

The NJB’s combination of “first husband” and “repudiated her” isn’t bad, except for the fact that the Hebrew shilach is a common verb while the English “repudiate” is not.

The NRSV’s translation is pretty accurate here: “…her first husband, who sent her away…”

So here we see Hebrew that just talks about two husbands, while the English, with the word “former,” wrongly suggests that one of them is no longer a husband.

The alleged divorce only takes place in translation.
Continue reading

April 9, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 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).

English

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.

Phrases

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.”)

Hebrew

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.

Greek

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.

Lessons

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

Here’s the Story of Toldot

From the about page comes a question about the Hebrew word toldot:

I ran across Genesis 6:9 in the TNIV, which says “this is the account of Noah and his family.” I’ve checked the KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, Message, Luther’s translation (1545), the Amplified Bible, the NLT, and the Leningrad Codex for good measure. Only the TNIV and NLT mention his family.

We don’t have a good word for toldot is English (at least, not that I can think of). Though it occurs only about a dozen times in Genesis (and then once in Exodus and once in Ruth) it’s an important word. In a sense, what Genesis is about is toldot.

Unfortunately, the usual translation “generations” is completely wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how to interpret Hebrew. (Specifically, it comes from using word internal structure to figure out what a word means. This is the second time that that translation trap has come up this week. I’ll try to write more about it soon.)

We first encounter the word in Genesis 2:4: “These are the toldot of the heavens and the earth as they were created.” There’s a lot to bicker about in that translation. What follows, though, is what’s widely called “the second account of creation,” so one thing is clear: “generations” makes no sense here. “These are the toldot” introduces the story of creation: heaven, earth, plants, (lack of) rain, etc. There’s nothing about generations there.

Genesis 25:12-13 gives us more information about the word toldot: “These are the toldot of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom the Egyptian Hagar, Sara’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of Ishmael’s children … Nebaioth — Ishmael’s firstborn — Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam…” Because it’s the children of Ishmael that follow the introduction “these are the toldot,” — and because of the (wrong) English translation “generations,” it looks like toldot here is specifically introducing descendants. Indeed, the NAB translates the word here as “descendants.”

But the reasoning is faulty. Just because the descendants come next doesn’t mean that the word means “descendants.”

In Genesis 6:9 we read, “these are the toldot of Noah. Noah was a righteous man in his generation [dorot in Hebrew, not toldot]. Noah walked with God.” It’s not until the next verse that Noah’s children are listed. The toldot seem to include the fact that Noah was righteous.

Genesis 25:19 tells us, “these are the toldot of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was Isaac’s father.” Particularly after the phrase, “Abraham’s son,” the sentence “Abraham was Isaac’s father” stands out. The toldot here seem to include Isaac’s father, not just his children.

More evidence comes from Genesis 37:2: “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father” (ESV — which uses “generations” for toldot here). Here the word toldot includes particularly what happened with Joseph.

The bits of information that come after each person or thing’s toldot have something in common: they are all important for understanding the person or thing. In Genesis 6:9, it’s important to know that “Noah was righteous in his generation” in order to understand Noah. In Genesis 25:19, it’s important to know that Abraham was Isaac’s father; that’s part of who Isaac is. In Genesis 2:4, was follows “the toldot of the heavens and the earth” is important information about their creation. And so forth.

The word toldot seems to introduce something important to know.

It just so happens that descendants were particularly important in the Bible, so frequently the important bit of information regards children.

As for the TNIV’s “account of Noah and his family,” I understand the motivation, but I don’t agree with the translation. The passage is about Noah, even though it mentions his family.

By comparison, we might consider two English sentences: “What you have to know about Bill is that he loves sports” and “what you have to know about Bill and sports is that Bill loves sports.” They’re not the same thing, and to take one and render it as the other seems like a mistake to me.

I think “story” would work pretty well for toldot if the word didn’t have two meanings. “Story” can be “information about” (that’s like toldot) but also “tale.” The first meaning seems pretty good for toldot, but the problem is that the second meaning encroaches. And particularly regarding a text whose nature is a matter of fierce debate — is this is a story? history? fable? myth? etc. — prejudicing the issue with “story” doesn’t seem to work. (Still, some translations use “story” for toldot in places.)

At any rate, I think it’s important not to deflate the force of toldot, which is what I see happening in translations that substitute more specific terms for “toldot” or that over-explain the text.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

John 3:17 and a Translation That Might Work

I think John 3:17 (like John 3:16) shows us three things: potential traps in translation, typical patterns of some of the common Bible translations, and the importance of paying attention to detail.

The point of John 3:17 is pretty simple (even if the theology is deep): God didn’t send Jesus into the world in order to condemn it, but rather in order for the world to be saved through him.

To me, the line contrasts two possibilities: (1) God sent Jesus to condemn the world; and (2) God sent Jesus for the world to be saved through him. John 3:17 explains that it’s the second one.

And the line presents two aspects of the second possibility: the world will be saved — we can call this (2a) — and, furthermore, the world will be saved through Jesus (2b).

Yet I haven’t found any translation that conveys (1) versus (2a) and (2b) accurately.

The ESV, NRSV, and NAB (and others) translate the second half as, “…in order that the world might be saved through him.” I think that when most English speakers hear “the world might be saved,” they think, “maybe the world will be saved, maybe not.” But that’s not the point of the Greek, or — I don’t think — what the translators wanted their English to mean. In other words, these translations change point (2a). Instead of God sending Jesus so that the world will be saved, these translations have God sending Jesus so that maybe the world will be saved.

I think what happened here is that the translations mimicked the Greek too closely (in this case trying to find an English equivalent of the Greek subjunctive), and what resulted is a translation that’s either misleading or that uses odd syntax. This is typical of the ESV, and to lesser extent of NRSV and NAB.

By contrast, the NLT gives us the straightforward, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” This has the benefit of being easy to understand. And unlike the previous translation, it doesn’t introduce uncertainty where there was none in the original. But the English ends up overly simplistic, and that’s a big drawback.

The part about “though him” is just missing in the NLT. So right off the bat the NLT mis-conveys point (2b).

Furthermore, the Greek doesn’t actually say that “his Son will save the world,” but rather that “the world will be saved.” It’s not the same. The NLT added a new concept (explaining who will save the world) and missed one that’s in the original (the world will be saved through Jesus).

So here the translators strayed too far from the Greek in order to come up with a simple translation. And this is typical of the NLT. It’s easy to understand, but it misses the depth and nuance of the original.

The CEV moves even further away from the original, with: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!” The switch to “the world…its people” makes for better English reading (maybe), but John doesn’t introduce the people until the next verse (3:18). The CEV destroys the progression.

And this is typical of the CEV. In rewriting the English to help make it more readable, it often misconveys the force and sometimes even meaning of the original.l

The Message strays even further yet from the original, giving us: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” In this case, the English has both missed part of the Greek and also added so many new ideas (it was a lot of trouble; the world used to be right; etc.) that I think the English is better considered a commentary than a translation. And this, too, is typical of The Message. It tends to be well written, but it tends not to match up with the original nearly so closely as other translations.

The NIV corrects the ESV’s shortcoming, offering “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This also corrects one of the two problems we saw with the NLT. But the second problem still remains: The NIV tells us who’s doing the saving while the Greek does not.

There are other issues to attend to.

The Greek says merely “the son,” not “his son.” Why not capture this fact in English? (The NRSV gets it right.)

The word “world” appears three times in Greek. Again, why not do the same in English?

The Greek is nicely parallel, with ina krini (“in order to condemn”) starting what I called (1) above, and ina sothi (“in order to be saved”) starting what I called (2) above. The NLT “to condemn it but to save it” captures the parallel structure, but, as we saw, at the expense of the meaning. Is there a way of doing both?

For that matter, “condemn” for krino isn’t quite right, and “world” for kosmos isn’t a perfect fit, either, though in these two cases I don’t think we have anything better.

I would offer: “God didn’t send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order for the world to be saved through him.” It gets everything (I think) except the exact parallel syntax.

Beyond the actual English rendering, I think this teaches us a general lesson about the complexity of translation, and specific lessons about what different versions tend to miss.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer

Scripture Zealot reminds us that the usual translation of John 3:16 is wrong. The Greek there doesn’t mean, “for God so loved the world…,” so the line shouldn’t read (NRSV) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Watch my “Exporing the Bible” video about John 3:16.

The translation used to be right, though, when “so” between a subject and a verb meant “in this manner.” The word “so” is meant to translate the Greek outos, and the point of John 3:16 is that “God loved the world like this….” or “God loved the world in this way….” or “This is how God loved the world.” (Don’t confuse “outos,” meaning “so,” with autos, which means something else.)

The word outos appears hundreds of times in the NT, including in the introduction to what has become known as the Lord’s prayer. Most translations get the word right in Matthew 6:9, as for example, “after this manner” (KJV), which is needlessly awkward but still generally accurate; “in this way” (NRSV); “like this” (ESV); variations on “this is how” (NAB, NIV); etc. (Outos doesn’t appear in the introduction to the “short Lord’s prayer” in Luke.)

So John 3:16 should read along the lines of, “for this is how God loved the world…”

The meaning of John 3:16 is not generally a disputed point.

The authors of the KJV knew what outos meant, but in their 400-year-old dialect (it wasn’t 400 years old then — but it is now), “God so loved…” meant “God loved in this way….”

The translators of the ESV knew it, too, and they even added a footnote to John 3:16: “Or For this is how God loved the world.” I can only guess that they didn’t change the KJV because in this case they valued tradition over accuracy.

The current translations are as wrong as it would be to render Matthew 6:9 as “you should pray this much….” instead of “you should pray this way….”

Other versions also seem to prefer tradition over accuracy when it comes to John 3:16, even when they do not adhere to the KJV translation tradition. The NLT rewrites the line, but their rendition, “For God loved the world so much that….” is a rewrite of the wrong meaning. The Message gets it wrong, too, with “This is how much God loved the world….” So does the CEV: “God loved the people of this world so much….” In other words, these three translations rewrote the wrong meaning to make the wrong meaning more accessible.

This pattern is interesting, and, I think, important for understanding the field of Bible translation. We see that in practice Bible translation is not simply translation applied to the Bible (though many people think that it should be).

Cases like these — where the Greek is easy to understand and generally undisputed — show us that even the most knowledgeable Bible translators can have trouble breaking free from their familiar, if wrong, translations.

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

Haiti and Jeremiah 25:7

Dr. Jim West’s comment that Jeremiah 25 is a good litmus test for translation — and his claim that the NLT doesn’t do badly — directed my attention to the NLT’s translation of Jeremiah 25. In light of some resent claims about the disaster in Haiti, Jeremiah 25:7 in the NLT jumped off the page at me:

“But you would not listen to me,” says the LORD. “You made me furious by worshiping your idols, bringing on yourselves all the disasters you now suffer.

I’ve bolded the part that struck me. The problem is that the Hebrew doesn’t say that. Here’s the original:

“You didn’t listen to me,” v’lo sh’matem eilai
says Adonai, n’um adonai
“so that you angered me” l’ma’an hach’isuni
with the works of your hands b’ma’asei y’deichem
to harm you.” l’ra lachem

The verse follows up on the previous one, in which God warns, “do not pursue other gods and serve them and bow down to them, and do not anger me with the works of your hands, and I will not harm you.” The repetition in verses 25:6 and 25:7 of “anger,” “works of your hands” and “harm” tie the two together.

Verse 25:6 is classic Hebrew parallelism, in which “other gods” from the first part is like “works of your hands” in the second part. These are idols. More interestingly, Jeremiah juxtaposes “pursuing/serving/bowing down to [other gods]” with “angering [God].” So one message of verse 25:6 is that “serving other gods” is like “angering God,” just as “other gods” are like “works of [human] hands.”

It seems to me that at the very least a translation of these two verses should (a) convey the point of the passage, and only the point of the passage; and (b) preserve the connection between the two verses.

The NLT fails (a), because the original verses do not say “bringing on yourselves.” Does the original text imply that the false-god worshippers have brought about their own punishment? Maybe, if you think that failing to heed a warning is the same as bringing something on yourself. But even so, turning an implication of the text into the text is a mistake.

The NLT also misses the connection with the previous verse: “Do not make me angry by worshiping the idols you have made. Then I will not harm you” (Jer 25:6, NLT). The switch from “angry” to “furious” for the same Hebrew word is misleading. The NLT rewrite of 25:6 lacks the parellism of the original, but I think it still conveys the similarity of angering God and worshipping idols.

Other translations do a better with (a), generally sticking to the text and not editorializing, and most stick essentially with the KJV: “[Jer 25:6] And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt. [25:7] Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the LORD; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.” The parallelism in 25:6 is preserved, as is the connection between the two verses, because both have “provoke me to anger,” “works of your hands,” and “hurt.”

On the other hand, “do you no hurt” and “to your own hurt” are barely English.

The ESV changes “hurt” to “harm,” updating the English a bit. The NRSV does the same.

The NAB fixes verse 25:6 with “bring evil upon you,” but then keeps “to your own harm” in the following verse, breaking the connection between the two.

The NIV fixes verse 25:6 with “then I will not harm you” and follows up with “and you have brought harm to yourselves,” again shifting the focus a little.

The CEV correctly preserves the neutrality of the Hebrew in 25:7: “you are the ones who were hurt by what you did,” but in 25:6 that version invents a new premise: “I don’t want to harm you.”

Though there are some interesting translation issues in Jeremiah 25:6-7, it’s among the more straightforward passages, and I’m a little surprised how far some versions stray in translating it.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Slavery to Parts of Speech

Perhaps because understanding parts of speech is so central to learning a foreign language, translators often try to preserve parts of speech when they translate.

But I think this is a mistake.

We know from modern languages that parts of speech often have to change in translation, and I think we see cases where more flexibility would benefit Bible translations, too.

As usual, we use modern languages to help us understand how translation works, and then apply the lessons to translating ancient languages.

Modern Languages

The French for “I’m hungry” is j’ai faim, or, perhaps more to the point, the English for j’ai faim is “I’m hungry.” This generally undisputed point is relevant because j’ai faim starts off with “I have” (j’ai) followed by a noun which we can roughly translate as “hunger.” Certainly this pronoun-verb-noun combination has to become a pronoun-verb-adjective one in English. Anything else is simply to misunderstand the French or to misrepresent it in English.

Specifically, the awkward “I have hunger” is an inaccurate translation. Even though it makes (a little) sense in English, the French is a common expression while “I have hunger” in English is certainly not.

Other examples don’t work at all in English.

For instance, the French j’ai sommeil means “I’m tired” or “I’m sleepy,” but preserving the parts of speech results in the absurd “I have sleepiness.”

The Modern Hebrew kar li means “I’m cold,” even though the Hebrew is an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase. “Cold to me” and “there is cold to me” are clearly the wrong translations.

The German wie geht’s Ihnen? means “how are you?” It’s an interrogative-verb-pronoun-pronoun combination. The literal “how goes it to you?” is wrong. English demands interrogative-verb-pronoun.

Another common misunderstanding is that the grammar of a different language — say, French — reflects a fundamentally different way of thinking about the world. So some people naively think that because the literal equivalent of “I have sleepiness” is grammatical in French, the French notion of being tired differs from the English one.

But we can see that this approach is flawed because alongside the French j’ai sommeil we find je suis fatige, literally, “I am tired.” In other words, both expressions — the English-grammar variety and the French-grammar variety — exist side by side in French.

What we see instead is that parts of speech can change within a language without changing the meaning, and that parts of speech sometimes have to change as part of a successful translation.

Another Modern Example

Modern Hebrew has few adverbs, so aderverbiness (if you’ll pardon the word) is often expressed through a combination of b’ofen (“in a manner”) or b’derech (“in a way”) followed by an adjective. For example, “I explained it clearly” in Hebrew becomes …b’ofen barur, “…in a clear manner.” “Superficially” is b’ofen shitchi, “in a superficial manner.”

Here we find a greater temptation to mimic the Hebrew parts of speech, because “in a clear manner” and “in a superficial manner” sound like English. But even though they are grammatical, they are still the wrong English to translate the Hebrew.

Two Biblical Examples

Kata

A perfect example of the need to think beyond parts of speech comes from the Greek kata, commonly glossed as “according to” or “as.”

In Mark 4:10 and Luke 9:18 we find the phrase kata monas, literally “as alone,” but every translation I know of renders that phrase with the adverb “alone.”

The very similar Greek kata idian (usually kat’ idian) highlights the issue. The word idian is pretty close to the English “self.” So kata idian could be “by himself,” and this is how the ESV translates the phrase in Matthew 14:13. The KJV gives us “apart” and the NIV translates “privately.” As it happens, “by himself” is grammatical English, but — as we’ve seen — the fact that it so closely matches the Greek doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best translation.

In Romans 2:2 we find kata alitheian, which the KJV translates literally as “according to truth”: “But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.” Some other translations recognize that “according to truth” is not English, and offer instead “rightly” (ESV), “is true” (NAB), “is based on truth” (NIV), “justly,” (NJB), etc.

In Romans 11:21, kata fusin — “according to nature” — is almost always translated “natural,” as in the NRSV: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” Yet three verses later, most translations go with “by nature” for the same phrase.

These issues are particularly important when it comes to kata sarka, “according to sarx.” I’m not going to revisit the complex issue of sarx here. My point is more simply that even if the NIV translators are right that the word means “sinful nature,” they still may be wrong in translating, “according to the sinful nature.” Perhaps “in sin” is better, or “sinful,” etc.

Katergazomai

The verb katergazomai means “do,” but that doesn’t mean that we need to translate it as a verb every time.

Philippians 2:12 gives us: sotirian katergazomai, “work out salvation,” (KJV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, NIV, etc.). But maybe a verb is called for here. What about katergazomeni thanaton in Romans 7:13? It’s usually translated along the lines of “working/producing/causing death.” Again, a verb seems the better choice (though there are other considerations, like the word play with egeneto thanatos earlier in the verse).

Lessons

What we see is that the slavish preservation of parts of speech tends to create awkward, inaccurate translations.

What other examples can you think of?

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Translate But Don’t Editorialize

We just saw a case of an attempt to translate the pragmatics of a text instead of the text itself.

In general, a text will have a variety of implications, morals, allusions, etc. I think that a good translation of the text will match the original with a translation that has similar implications, morals, allusions, and so forth. Sometimes, however, translators are tempted to focus on one aspect of the text; then they translate that aspect instead of the text. The chart at the right depicts the two approaches.

For example, the “golden rule” is explained in Matthew 7:12 as outos gar estin o nomos kai oi profitai, “for this is the law and the prophets.” Ignoring for the moment what exactly “the law and the prophets” is (probably the Jewish Canon at the time), we still find translation variations for outos gar estin. For example (with my emphasis):


  • this is…. (ESV, NAB)
  • this sums up…. (NIV)
  • this is a summary of…. (NLT)
  • this is the meaning of…. (NCV)
  • this is what [the Law and the Prophets] are all about…. (CEV)
  • add up [God’s Law and Prophets] and this is what you get. (The Message)

I think that the NIV, NLT, NCV, CEV, and The Message get it wrong. Each of those versions translated something related to the text instead of the text itself.

Presumably, the translators for some of these versions decided that it’s just not true that the Law “is” the Golden Rule, but if so, what they missed is that it’s equally (un)true in Greek as it is in translation.

Perhaps the point of the passage is that the golden rule sums up the Law and the Prophets, but again, even if that’s true, “sums up” doesn’t seem like the right translation, because I don’t think it’s the job of the translation to jump from the text to its point for us.

By focusing on the point, or the moral, or the message, of the text, translators disguise their interpretation as translation. (This is, by the way, what I think Dr. Leland Ryken dislikes so much about the translations he criticizes, and I think in this regard he is correct to protest.)

It seems to me that when the lines between commentary and translation are blurred, it does a disservice to both.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

How do You Say Hosanna in English?

The Greek word hosanna appears six times in the NT: three times in Matthew, twice in Mark, and twice in John. The context is each case includes the quotation, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” from Psalm 118:26. Because Psalm 118:25 contains the Hebrew words hoshi’a na, the Greek hosanna is widely (and I think correctly) assumed to be a Greek spelling of those Hebrew words, or perhaps an Aramaic equivalent.

In Psalm 118, hoshi’a means “save,” presumably, “save us.” (The direct object is optional in Hebrew, and can be inferred from context.) And na is a word that’s hard to translate — it may indicate politeness (“please”) or, more likely, formality or elegance.

There’s a persistent rumor that hosanna literally means “save now,” as in the NLT footnote that explains the word this way. But even the NLT translates hoshi’a na as “please save us,” not “save now.” The NAB says hosanna means “(O Lord) grant salvation,” and the NIV’s footnote explains the phrase as “A Hebrew expression meaning ‘Save!’ which became an exclamation of praise.” The rumor about “save now” probably comes from the KJV rendering of Psalm 118, “Save now, I beseech thee…”

In English, hosanna becomes “hosanna,” because the English spelling is taken directly from the Greek, (h)osanna. But the Greek is — again, widely and probably accurately — assumed to be a simplification of the Hebrew. The word should be hoshana, with the “sh” that is consistently lacking from Greek transliterations of Hebrew.

So should we put the “sh” back in to the English? By comparison, what if a French publication took the English “North Carolina” and turned it into norskarolina. Should a transliteration of that transliteration perpetuate the mistake?

For that matter, is transliterating the word the best way to go? And if it is, should “hosanna” be italicized?

Compounding the confusion, in Matthew and Mark “hosanna” appears in a phrase that gets translated as the barely intelligable “hosanna in the highest.” It apparently is supposed to mean “praise God on high.”

I think the case of hosanna is interesting not just in its own right, but also because it highlights the question of how much a translation into English has to be written in English. If we allow the word “hosanna,” and assume that it means “praise God” (but only here) can we use “in the highest” for “(God) on high” (but only here)? Or “man” for “people” (but only here)? Or allow any of the other seemingly wrong translations to be “one time exceptions”?

What do you think?

November 24, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments