God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 3, “Heart and Soul”

In two previous postings (here and here) I show how “Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul” — from Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 — actually refers to two specific aspects of being human: the intangible (levav in Hebrew or kardia in Greek) and the tangible (nefesh in Hebrew or psuche in Greek). Essentially, the words translated as “heart” and “soul” are like the computer terms “software” and “hardware,” but for people.

So “heart” in English is inaccurate as a translation, because it refers only to emotion, while the original includes intellect. And “soul” in English is even worse, because it suggests intangible qualities, but the original specifically referred to tangible things like the flesh, blood, and breath.

While we don’t have convenient words in English to express these “software” and “hardware” aspects in people, we are lucky that we have a pair of words that does. The English pair, like levav/nefesh or kardia/psuche, refers to the combination of these two concepts. And that pair is “mind and body.”

Normally the word “mind” in English indicates intellect to the exclusion of emotion, and normally “body” tends to focus on flesh rather than blood or breath. But taken together they assume broader meanings.

We see these broader meanings, for example, in the “mind-body connection,” which refers to the fact that both how we feel and what we think are connected to more physical matters. For instance, it’s becoming clear that losing a loved one can increase the risk of heart attack. That’s the mind-body connection. Taking deep breaths can help mitigate agony. That’s also the mind-body connection. And so forth.

So I would translate the first two parts of Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, as “love the Lord your God with all your mind and body…”

January 18, 2012 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 2, “Soul”

A while ago I explained why I don’t think “heart” is an accurate translation in “Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul,” from Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. The reason was that the original referred to both emotion and intellect, while “heart” in English is generally only the former.

I think that “soul” is an even worse translation. Here’s why.

“Soul” in English

there are two parts to being human, our internal processes and our physical stuff”

Most people don’t agree on what exactly a “soul” is in English. For some, it’s what lives on after death. For others, it has more to do with lifeforce. Nonetheless, most people do agree on certain aspects: the soul is intangible, for example, and there’s something mystical or unworldly about it. And in this regard, it’s worthwhile to point out that even those who don’t think people have souls know what “soul” means. (I’m reminded of J.-E. Renan: O Seigneur, s’il y a un Seigneur ; sauvez mon ame, si j’ai une ame – “O Lord, if there is a Lord, save my soul, if I have a soul.”) So in spite of disagreement about some things, “soul” does have a core meaning common to most English speakers.

We do have a few expressions in English that veer off in other directions, most notably the metonymic use of “soul” for “person,” as in, “17 souls were lost at sea.” (Also, it’s been widely observed that “bless her soul” in certain dialects really just means, “I’m about to say something nasty about her.”) But these are exceptions. The “soul” in English is intangible, amorphous, and perhaps eternal.

“Soul” in the Bible

Hebrew

The English “soul” is supposed to translate the Hebrew word nefesh (also commonly spelled nephesh) but the Hebrew nefesh isn’t at all what we would call a “soul.”

The first sign that things have gone wrong comes from Leviticus. In 7:18, for example, we see that the nefesh does the eating. We see the same thing in 7:27, which warns about any nefesh that eats blood. Certainly it’s the body, not the soul, in English that does the eating and drinking. But in Hebrew it’s the nefesh.

Additionally, we read in Leviticus 17:11 that “the nefesh of flesh is in the blood … it is blood that atones for the nefesh.” Though opinions differ about where the soul in English might be located, it’s pretty clearly not in the blood. Yet that’s exactly where the nefesh lies in Hebrew. Furthermore, we actually see a close connection here between nefesh and blood.

Leviticus 24:17-18 gives us more information. There, we read that anyone who wounds the nefesh of a person will be put to death, and anyone who wounds the nefesh of an animal will pay for it, “a nefesh for a nefesh.” These passages are clearly not about what we would call “souls” in English. They are about the physical body.

The parallelism in Psalm 63:1 (“my nefesh thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,” NRSV) helps us further. There nefesh is in parallel with basar, “flesh.” So in addition to having something to do with the blood, we learn specifially that nefesh is related to the flesh.

Finally, in I Kings 17:19-22, we learn that the nefesh is related to the “breath.” Elijah revives a dead boy by laying him down (17:19), stretching himself over the boy (17:21) and then the nefesh “of the child came into him again, and he revived” (NRSV). The passage is almost certainly about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. (Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, also knew how to perform mouth-to-mouth, as we read in II Kings 4:8, where Elisha puts his mouth on the mouth of a dead child to revive him.)

So the nefesh is related to the blood, to the flesh, and — we now see — to the breath.

In short, nefesh was the tangible aspects of life, that is, everything that could be touched: the blood, the flesh, and the physical breath. This is why “soul” is such a disasterous translation for nefesh. “Soul” in English is precisely that which is intangible, while nefesh is the opposite.

Greek

The situation in Greek — where we find psuche (also commonly transliterated psyche) for the Hebrew nefesh — is more complicated.

Like its Hebrew counterpart, the Greek psuche can refer to the physical aspects of life. In Matthew 6:25, for example, the psuche does the eating and drinking. But in Matthew 10:28, we see psuche used in contrast to the phsycial body.

So the Greek word is used both in the Hebrew sense of nefesh and in the English sense of “soul.” (Actually, the English word is probably used in the Greek sense, but it works out the same.) Still, we can be fairly certain that in the context of kardia (“heart,” but not really), psuche in Greek matches what nefesh means in Hebrew, both because the quote is from Hebrew, and for a more fundamental reason:

“Love with All Your Heart and Soul”

We’ve already seen that the word translated as “heart” really refers to emotions and intellect together. Now we see that the word translated as “soul” refers to the physical aspects of life.

Taken together, they form a nice pair: the first word refers to the intangible aspects of being human, and the second word to the tangible aspects. The concepts are just like software (“heart”) and hardware (“soul”) for computers, but applied to people. We don’t have words like these in English, but I think it’s fascinating that they did in antiquity, as if to say that there are two parts to being human, our internal processes and our physical stuff.

The commandment is to love God with both.

[Update: The third part in this series is here.]

January 11, 2012 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Too Much Information

Translators frequently have information at their disposal that doesn’t come directly from the text they are translating.

Though it’s often tempting, it is nonetheless almost always a mistake to add the additional information into the translation.

For example, if a mystery novel starts, “a man was walking by the beach,” the translator should not change it to, “Mr. Smith was walking by the beach,” even if it later turns out that Mr. Smith was the man.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment begins with odin molodoi chelovek, “a young man.” The reader soon learns that the young man used to be a student. But it would surely be a mistake for a translator to render the Russian as “former student” instead of “man,” even though the guy happens to have been a student.

This sort of mistake comes up frequently in Bible translation.

Four Examples

People / Men — Anthropos

We just saw one clear case at Bible Gateway‘s new translation blog, regarding the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 (“and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people [anthropoi] who will be able to teach others as well,” NRSV). The question there is whether the translation for anthropoi should be “people” or “men.”

Ray Van Neste’s answer notes that the leadership position referred to in 2 Timothy 2:1-7 “has been forbidden to women in [verse 12 of] 1 Timothy 2.” Based on this, Dr. Van Neste seems to claim that anthropoi should be translated “men.”

But even if he is right about who the anthropoi are, his reasoning is flawed. Just because the people are men doesn’t mean that anthropoi means “men,” or that “men” is the right translation, any more than “young student” is the right translation for the “young man” in Crime and Punishment.

Hebrews 5:1 works the same way. There, high priests are selected from among anthropoi. I suppose they were probably men, but that doesn’t mean the translation should say “men” where the original is broader: “people.”

Similarly, I suppose the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 were also followers of Christ. Should we therefore translate “reliable Christians” for pistoi anthropoi? Of course not. To translate “Christians” is to add information that comes from other parts of the text. To translate “men” is to make the same mistake.

People / Slaves — Nephesh

Another example came up in a comment to a discussion about nephesh in Genesis 12:5 on BBB: “Abram took … the persons [nepheshes] whom they had acquired in Haran…” (NRSV). Yancy Smith points out that some versions translate nephesh as “slave,” rather than “person,” because the nepheshes there are “acquired.”

But again, the reasoning (of the TEV and others) is flawed. Even if the people are slaves, there is a difference between “acquiring people” and “acquiring slaves.” The Hebrew has the former, and so should the translation.

The Son of God / Christ

A third example comes from Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (NRSV). The “Son of God” is, of course, “Christ,” also translated as “Messiah.” We see the identity, for example, in Matthew 26:63: “tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (NRSV). But that doesn’t mean that we can translate Mark 1:1 as “Jesus Christ, the Messiah.”

Dry Bones

Our final example for now comes from the “dry bone” prophesy in Ezekiel, who is told in verse 37:4: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (NRSV). In verses 37:9 and 37:11, the reader learns that these bones are the “slain” “house of Israel.” It’s a brilliant progression, and it would be destroyed by translating “bones” as “slain of the house of Israel” in 37:4.

Summary

It seems to me that, wherever possible, translators should translate the text of the Bible without destroying the nuances of the original. And often, providing too much information makes a translation less accurate.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , | 10 Comments