God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: The Original Baptism

From the About page comes a question about baptism, the essence of which is the observation that the words we now translate “baptize,” “baptism,” “[John the] Baptist,” etc. were actually ordinary words in Greek, like our “wash” in English. They were not technical religious terms like the English “baptize,” and the Greek words did not mean what the modern English “baptize” does.

So perhaps instead of “baptism” we should translate “washing.”

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Greek Baptism

The Greek word for “baptize” is baptizo.

We know from passages like Mark 7:4 that the word can mean simply “wash”: “[The Pharisees and Jews] do not eat after returning from the marketplace unless they have washed [baptizo] … [Other traditions include] the washing [baptismos] of [various eating vessels].”

We see similar evidence in Luke 11:38: “The Pharisee was amazed to see that [Jesus] didn’t wash [baptizo] before the meal.”

We also see the verb in the OT, once in II Kings 5:14, where it’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew taval (“dip” or “immerse”), and once in Isaiah 21:4, where the word seems out of context.

Equally, we find the verb baptizo in non-Biblical Greek texts — more on this below. In those contexts, too, the verb seems to be a general one.

From all of these sources, it’s clear that baptizo is a common verb, and the specialized “baptize” in English misrepresents the original Greek.
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August 24, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

The Microcosm of Bible Translation: Amos 5:15

[This is the first in what I hope will become an occasional series about the details of actual translation: methods, decisions that have to be made, compromises, etc.]

Amos 15:5

The first part of Amos 15:5 reads (NRSV), “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;” What goes in to that translation? What does the translation miss? What other options might be better?

As we go through, I’ve italicized questions that the translator needs to answer. I offer my answers to some of them toward the end.

Words

We start with the words, most of which are straightforward:

sin’u
hate
ra
bad/evil
v-ehevu
and love
tov
good
v-hatzigu
and place/put in place
va-sha’ar
in/at the gate
mishpat
justice/judgement

There are details of the words which are not conveyed in these English glosses.

Imperatives

The verbs (“hate,” “love,” and “put in place”) are plural imperatives. We don’t have plurals like this in English, but there are ways of expressing the same point if we want: “all of you, hate…,” for example. (The LXX‘s “we hated” and “we loved” doesn’t match the Hebrew here.)

Is the nuance of the verb forms important to convey in translation?

Evil

There are at least two reasonable translations for ra: “bad” and “evil.” The Hebrew is the common opposite of “good” (tov), so “bad” seems like the better choice. Unfortunately, while “good” and “evil” in English function both as adjectives and nouns, “bad” is only an adjective. “Hate bad” isn’t English. The KJV ops for “hate the bad” to preserve the pair “good/bad.” Modern translations almost all go with “hate evil.”

Is the substitution of “evil” for “bad” warranted? Or should the translator find a way of making the more accurate “bad” work in English?

Love

There are lots of ways of loving. Clearly, one doesn’t love a spouse the same way one loves what is good. Perhaps for this reason, the CEV goes with “choose good.” (In a similar vein, the Greek agapao is frequently glossed along the lines “love, primarily of Christian love.”)

Should the translation reflect how “love” (ahav) is used here?

Establish

The verb I gloss as “[put in] place” is usually used for people and physical things. In Genesis, “present” is often a good translation. In Deuteronomy 28:56, the verb is used for “set” in the phrase “set the sole of her foot on the ground.” In Judges 6:37, it’s used for “set” in the phrase “set the wool fleece” on the ground.

Is “establish” too grandiose here?

The NIV offers “maintain justice” here. But the broader context of the passage makes it clear that justice was lacking and that it had to be restored. (The LXX gives us “restore.”)

Should the translation of “establish” include the context here?

Gate

For me, the issue of “gate” is one of the most interesting. The “gate” (sha’ar) here is a city gate, but when I think of “gate” in English, I think of the gate of a fence. (Similarly, the famous phrase from Deuteronomy 6:9, “write them … on your gates” deals with the entrances to cities.) Maybe “city gate” is better?

More importantly, the gate in antiquity was a gathering spot, not merely a portal. In modernity, the “city square” serves the same purpose. (So does the watercooler, I guess, but not really.)

One purpose of gathering at the gate was justice. This is probably why the NIV goes with “courts” here instead of “gate.” The English translation that puts “justice” in the “gate” seems to put it in an odd spot, whereas originally the Hebrew put it right where it normally was.

Does “gate” in English correctly convey the Hebrew? Should the translation focus on the physical location of the gate or on its purpose? Is the translation successful if readers have to know details of ancient society to understand it?

Justice

The Hebrew mishpat is variously “judgement,” “justice,” “rule,” “law,” “sentence,” and more.

Does “mishpat” have to be translated uniformly throughout the Bible? What nuance is implied here? Should the translation indicate the nuances?

Poetry

Beyond the choice of words, the Hebrew is poetic.

The phrase starts with classic parallelism, juxtaposing two pairs of opposites: “hate/love” and “bad/good.” The previous verse also puts “good” and “bad” together, though there “good” comes first. (Surprisingly, the KJV translates “good/evil” in verse 14 but “the good/the bad” for the same Hebrew in verse 15.)

Then a new element, “justice,” is introduced. Stylistically the third clause is similar to the first two, but in terms of content it’s very different. (This has the effect of emphasizing “justice.”)

The object of the verb comes last in all three cases (“bad,” “good,” and “justice”). Should the English translation preserve this poetic device? Is it possible?

The NLT, correctly noting that “evil” is more commonly used as a noun than “good,” translates, “hate evil and love what is good.” Should the English translation preserve the single-verb-single-noun pattern for the first two clauses?

Reading Between the Lines

The connection between “justice” and the first two pairs is (purposely?) left vague. Should the translation fill in the details of the connection here? For example, The Message and God’s Word translations offer “then” instead of just “and.”

Noting that gates used to be where justice was administered and that courts now serve that function, the NIV, God’s Word and others translate “gates” as “courts.” The Message goes with “public square” in the phrase “work it out in the public square.” The NLT offers, “remodel your courts into true halls of justice.”

Other translations explain what happens with justice. For example, the NJB translates, “let justice reign.”

Should a translation explain the text in these kinds of ways?

English Grammar

Maybe it’s because of all of this hidden complexity that modern translations sometimes ignore English grammar. One immediate question is whether one meets “in the gate” or “at the gate” in English. (For me, “I’ll meet you at Jaffa gate in Jerusalem” is better than “I’ll meet in you Jaffa gate in Jerusalem.” I suspect this will be dialectal. Does anyone prefer “in” here?)

The NIV, NJB, and others forget about simple English punctuation. The NIV drops the first “and” (“Hate evil, love good;”), for example. Is there any reason not to use correct English grammar?

Summary and Answers

Summary

We’ve seen that the original text refers to hating what is bad, loving what is good, and (re)establishing justice in the place where justice was usually administered, that is, the city gate.

The text addresses people collectively.

The text is poetic and pithy. It consists of three clauses, the third standing out because it’s a little longer than the first two.

My Answers

I think it’s nice to convey singular/plural nuances in imperative verbs, but not necessary, primarily because ancient Hebrew uses both singular and plural for addressing a group. This doesn’t seem to be a big deal, and there’s no easy way to do it in English anyway.

I think that “evil” for ra is going too far. I see a statement about ordinary, daily life in the original. We use “bad” for that in English, I think, not “evil.”

I think that the English “love” covers roughly the same areas of meaning as the Hebrew ahav. It’s a mistake to try to spell out in English what the original did not spell out in Hebrew, so “love,” though broad, is right.

I think “establish” is not too bad for the Hebrew, and I can’t think of anything better. “Set up” might work, too, depending on the other lexical choices.

The issue of “gate” is, for me, the hardest. “Justice” in modernity has nothing to do with “gates,” and, in fact, this passage in Hebrew is not about gates except to the degree that gates are the locus of justice. It’s like “restore justice to the courts” in English. The focus there isn’t “courts” but rather “justice.”

On the other hand, gates come up frequently in the Bible, so changing the word only here seems problematic. Just for example, the Hebrew in this passage matches Deuteronomy 6:9. If we change “gate” to “court” here we destroy the connection.

As for “gate” or “city gate,” I think “city gate” is more accurate, but the accuracy is irrelevant, because either way we end up with an odd place for justice. People who know about the role of ancient city gates will know what “gates” means, and those who don’t won’t find “city gates” to be particularly helpful.

I think the poetry is important, and, in particular, the translation should preserve the grammatical connection among the three phrases. I don’t think the translation necessarily has to use verb-noun each time, though; another repeated pattern would serve just as well.

I do not think that it’s the job of the translation to fill in details that are not in the text. I think that’s where commentary comes in.

And I think writing an English translation according to the rules of English grammar is important.

Translations

So one reasonable translation is:

“Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just among you.”

I’ve use the “what is…” construction to give all three clauses the same pattern, yet not force myself to use “evil.” I’m pretty happy with everything up to “among you.” Though I still think “among you” is better than “at the gate,” I’m left wondering if there is a better solution. I also worry that the sentence might be read as referring to “what is just among you.”

Another reasonable translation leaves out “gate” altogether. Perhaps every English translation is more misleading that not translating the word: “Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just.”

Or, to revert to “evil,” we might try: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice among you.” While “evil” sounds stronger in English, it may be stronger than what the Hebrew represented.

What do you think?

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 7 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.
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April 9, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

What do you call water you can drink?

Exodus 15:22-26 deals with drinking water. The People of Israel come to Marah (the name of a place, but the word also means “bitter”) and when they find that the water there is undrinkable, Moses throws a log into the water and it becomes drinkable. It’s a fairly simple concept (thought a complex trick), yet the KJV, ESV, NIV, NJB, NRSV, and JPS translations all translate “drinkable water” here as “sweet water.”

That’s because the Hebrew word here is matok. In Hebrew — as in English — “sweet” and “salty” are generally opposites, and in Hebrew the paradigm extends to water. But unlike Hebrew, in (most dialects of) English the opposite of “salt water” is not “sweet water” but rather “fresh water,” or perhaps “drinkable water” or even “potable water.”

The same contrast in James 3:11 is variously rendered “sweet/bitter” (KJV), “fresh/salt” (ESV), “fresh/bitter” (NLT), “fresh/brackish” (NRSV) or “pure/brackish” (NAB). (I’ve never used the word “brackish” in my life, though I remember hearing the word when I took a boat tour of the Everglades. Apparently it’s a mixture of seawater and fresh lake water.)

All of this complexity is introduced for what is essentially a very simple contrast, with common English words to describe it: fresh water and salt water.

It seems to me that the only reason to prefer “sweet” in Exodus is to maintain the literary contrast between the name of the place (“Marah,” which means “bitter”) and the water, which becomes sweet.

Do you think it’s worth it? Is “sweet” acceptible for “fresh”/”potable”/”drinkable”?

What about in James 3:11. Is “brackish” called for? I don’t see what’s wrong with “fresh/salt.”

Thoughts?

February 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

Fear and Awe in Jonah: A Short Case Study

The first chapter of Jonah contains the verb yarah four times, so we see another example of the tension between local and global translation, or between text and context. What works well verse by verse doesn’t always work to convey a longer passage.

In verse 5, the sailors on Jonah’s boat “yarahed” in response to the storm God sends. Then in verse 9, when the people question Jonah, he identifies himself as “a Hebrew,” who “yarahs Adonai.” In response, in verse 10, the people yarahed greatly (or, as the Hebrew grammar would have it, “yarahed a great yarahing”). Then in verse 16, after the storm subsides, the people “yarahed Adonai greatly” (or “yarahed a great yarahing for/of/toward Adonai”).

The verb yarah and the related noun yir’ah combine “fear” and “awe” in a way that’s hard to express in Modern English. (It’s approximately the feeling one might have for a beautiful lightning storm — it’s awesome, awe-inspiring, scary, etc.) This is why translations vary.

But the running theme of yarah is destroyed in every translation I can find.

Here’s a sampling:

Verse 5 Verse 9 Verse 10 Verse 16
ESV: were afraid fear exceedingly afraid feared the LORD exceedingly
KJV: were afraid fear exceedingly afraid feared the Lord exceedingly
NAB: became frightened worship seized with great fear struck with great fear of the LORD
NIV: were afraid worship [this] terrified them greatly feared the Lord
NLT: fearing for their lives worship were terrified were awestruck with the Lord’s great power
The Message: were terrified worship were frightened, really frightened were … in awe of God
NRSV: were afraid worship were even more afraid feared the LORD even more

In particular, verses 10 and 16 both start with the same four Hebrew words, yet in none of the translations does the English start identically.

(The translation “worship” in verse 9, which is almost certainly wrong, comes from the LXX. But the LXX seems to be working from a different text, as it also has “servant of the Lord” instead of “Hebrew.”)

For all this bickering about which translation approach is best, they all seem to get Jonah wrong.

October 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 1 Comment