One of the most common expressions in Bible translations is a variation on the theme “daughter of so-and-so,” “father of so-and-so,” etc.
For example, in Genesis 11:29, we learn that Milcah was the daughter of “Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah” (NRSV, along with most others). Even the new CEB, which prides itself on using ordinary English, gives us “Haran, father of both Milcah and Iscah.” (The NLT “does the genealogical math” for us: “Milcah had a sister named Iscah.”)
But it seems to me that the way we translate Genesis 11:29 into English is, “Haran, Milcah and Iscah’s father.” Somehow, standard English grammar disappears from most translations.
This is how the start of the New Testament (Matthew 1:2) almost always becomes, in English, “Abraham was the father of Isaac.” (Other variations try to use an English verb for the Greek one: “Abraham fathered Isaac” [NJB] or the archaic “Abraham begat Isaac.”)
But again, the way we say that in English is “Abraham was Isaac’s father.” The grammar gets tricky a few words later — “Jacob was Judah and his brothers’ father” is a tad awkward — but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to abandon common English.
I understand that there’s a formal dialect of English that prefers “father of Isaac,” but I don’t that “Isaac’s father” is overly colloquial.
So I think the list should read:
Abraham was Isaac’s father,
Isaac, Jacob’s father,
Jacob, Judah and his brothers’ father,
Judah, Perez and Zerah’s father, with Tamar,
Perez, Hezron’s father,
Hezron, Ram’s father,
Ram, Amminadab’s father,
Amminadab, Nahshon’s father,
Nahshon, Salmon’s father,
Salmon, Boaz’s father, with Rahab,
Boaz, Obed’s father, with Ruth,
Obed, Jesse’s father,
and Jesse, King David’s father.
What do you think? Is there some merit to the standard phrasing that I’m missing?
While most translations agree that the translation of Genesis 1:1 should read, “In the beginning…” the (Jewish) JPS translation offers instead, “When God began to create…” And the NLT and some others offer a footnote with that possibility. What’s going on?
The answer dates back 1,000 years to Rashi. He notes that the usual word for “in the beginning” would be barishona. And he further notes that b’reishit is never used except preceding a noun to mean “at the beginning of.”
He therefore concludes that Genesis 1:1 does not say that creation took place “in the beginning,” but rather that it was “in the beginning of” creation that the first part of the story takes place. That is, the earth was in disarray when God began to create.
Rashi’s analysis gives us, “When God began to create,” or (as the translation in Artscroll’s Rashi edition has it) “In the beginning of God’s creating.”
Rashi’s analysis has at least two kinds of problems.
The first is a matter of detail. For his analysis to work, he needs the verb bara to be a participle, though it’s unclear how that’s possible. Secondly, he needs the “and” of “and the earth was…” to mean “when.” That one is possible, though unlikely.
The second kind of problem, though, is methodological.
Rashi is right that b’reishit is never used except before a noun, but there are only four other times the word is used, all of them in Jeremiah, and all of them before words having to do with “kingdom” or “reign.” This is hardly a large enough sample to deduce what b’reishit means. (The same reasoning would force bara to mean something about kingdoms.)
Rashi’s point is actually more generally about reishit. (The b- prefix means “in/when/at/etc.”) But here, too, he runs into problems, wrongly assuming that a word is the sum of its parts.
Furthermore, while Rashi is correct that barishona means “at first,” that doesn’t really have much bearing on what b’reishit means. Perhaps the two words are nearly synonymous, for example. Or maybe barishona means “at first” in the sense of “the first time around” while b’reishit means “at first” in the sense of “the first and only time around.” (I just met someone who introduces his wife as his “first wife.” She is his first, only, and last wife.)
All of which is to say that Rashi’s commentary here is interesting — and it explains the JPS translation — but I don’t think it helps figure out what the first words of the Bible originally meant.
I have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and here.
James 2:23-24 uses the same root twice to highlight the point that Faith requires Works. But that important rhetorical device — duplication of the root — is lost in most translations. For example (NRSV):
(23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] … (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
That translation, like most others, is ambiguous regarding the exact connection between Abraham’s belief (in James 2:23, which quotes Genesis 15:6) and faith (in James 2:24).
But in Greek, “believed” is pisteuo and “faith” is pistis. The text connects Abraham’s pistis with the general nature of pistis. It’s essentially a grammatical accident that we see a verb in Genesis 15:6 — so also in James 2:23 — and a noun in James 2:24.
Why do translations have such a hard time capturing this basic effect? The KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV all have “Abraham believed” here, instead of the obvious other choice: “Abraham had faith.”
(The NAB’s lapse is particularly surprising. In Genesis itself that translation reads, “put his faith.” The CEV opts for “had faith” in James 2:23, but then goes with “what we believe” in verse 24.)
I also think it’s no small matter that the same root appears twice, a topic I’ll turn to soon.
Bill Mounce notes (also here) that Classical Greek had two words for “new”: neos and kainos.
We see them both in Matthew 9:17 (as well as Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:37), where Jesus relates that people “pour new wine into new wineskins” (NIV). The problem is that this translation (along with the NLT, CEV, and others) wrongly makes it sound as if it is the newsness of the skins that makes them suitable for the new wine. That is, the translation seems to suggest that the wine and the skin should match.
But the Greek uses neos for the wine and kainos for the skins. So in Greek, the wine doesn’t match the skin. Rather, there are two kinds of skins (palaios and kainos) and the question is which is better for wine that is neos.
In other words, the original question is “should neos wine go in to kainos or palaios skins?” Some translations prejudice the issue by asking instead, “should new wine go in to new or old skins.”
Simply as a description of the skin, I’m not sure that “fresh wineskin” — the other common option, from the KJV, NAB, NRSV, etc. — is better than “new.” (This might because I get my wine from bottles, so in truth I’m not really sure what this wineskin [askos] is, and what a fresh one looks like.) But in the context of Matthew 9:17, I think it’s more important to convey the point of the lesson than to describe the exact quality of the skin.
I also think that this is a perfect demonstration of why translating each word is not enough to create a good translation.
[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:
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?