God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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

All in All Not Much of a Conversation

All in All

Dannii at BBB has a post about “all in all” as a translation for panta en pasin in 1 Corinthians 15:28. The full verse is (NRSV):

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

I think this is an excellent demonstration both of what can go wrong in Bible translation and how hard it can be to talk about Bible-translation issues.

Dannii read “all in all” and “almost made the mistake of thinking the Bible taught pantheism.” Therefore, for Dannii, the NLT’s “[God] will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere” is “a much better translation.”

In a comment, Marshall Massey replies that, “Personally, I’d rather have a mechanically literal translation of this verse than a translation ‘corrected’ to fit someone’s preconceived notions of what the Bible can and cannot teach. If a verse appears to teach pantheism, then let the readers wrestle with that fact!”

Another comment agrees: “Others are saying it better than me, but I’ll weigh in against this theological filtering.”

Gary Simmons then suggests that modern audiences are “less capable of interpretation” than Paul’s audience and “[i]f our audience is less capable of working through interpretation, then clarity becomes a prominent issue.” So a translator has to take obscure Greek and clarify it in translation.

Peter Kirk notes that “all in all” isn’t a literal translation at all, because “it misses the significant fact that in Greek both ‘all’s are plural, and the first is neuter, whereas the second could be any gender.”

John Hobbins then raises the issue of consistency: “It also makes sense to translate a neologism [such as panta en pasin] in the same way across all of its occurrences,” suggesting that the “ESV among recent translations is the way to go. It’s as simple as that.”

Four Conversations

At this point, we have four conversations going on:

1. What did the Greek mean?

2. How do we judge the success of a translation?

3. Which English best applies the right answer to (2) to the right answer to (1)?

4. Which published translation best represents the right answer to (3)?

(J.K. Gayle rightly notes three of these, in a different order: “1. the Greek; 2. the English; and 3. what translation means and does.”)

I think one common source of frustration is when people appear to be engaged in dialog but in fact they are having different conversations.

For example, Marshall pits literal translations against translations that are corrected. For him, this is a conversation about the second question: he prefers accuracy over emended theology. But for me, this is a combination of the 1st question and the 3rd. I agree that accuracy is important, but I don’t think that “all in all” accurately represents the Greek. So even though I disagree with Marshall’s conclusion that “all in all” is a good translation, fundamentally, at least on this, I agree with him.

Dannii seems primarily to address the third question, without first having answered the first and the second (but with the caveat: “I won’t say the NLT is necessarily correct, but at least they tried.”).

Peter is apparently addressing question 3 (“is this really a literal translation?”), though I don’t believe that he is in favor of literal translations in the first place.

Gary’s point concerns the second question.

John seems to address the second and fourth questions. I agree with John that consistency is important, though I disagree that the ESV achieves it. The same Greek phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 12:6, but there the ESV translates, “all in everyone.” (I don’t know of any translation that offers consistency here.)

Lessons

I think this expanded view of what’s going on is important for two reasons:

1. This is typical of how Bible translations are debated.

2. When we aren’t clear about which question we’re addressing, fundamental agreement (e.g., “a translation should be accurate”) ends up looking like disagreement.

April 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Gazelles, Stags, and Other Romantic Images

This final line of Song of Solomon, reprising a phrase that appears twice earlier, references two animals which the female heroine tells her male hero to be like as he leaves.

The most common translation of these animals is “gazelle” and “young stag,” as in the NRSV “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!” (A “stag” is an adult male deer.)

Stag

Stag

In English, calling a man a “gazelle” sounds very different than calling him a “stag.” The word “gazelle” generally represents speed and grace, while “stag” is generally more overtly sexual, as reinforced by the phrase “stag party” (bachelor party). Does the common translation, which combines these images, capture the point of the Hebrew? Or did the Hebrew words refer to other qualities?

The NLT prefers “young deer” over “young stag,” perhaps thinking that both animals in Hebrew were meant to convey speed and grace.

The Message goes in a slightly different direction with, “Run to me, dear lover.//Come like a gazelle.//Leap like a wild stag//on the spice mountains,” adding the words “leap” and “wild” (though I think all stags are wild, because deer can’t be tamed), and then joining them in a way that I find incongruous.

Marcia Falk (in her The Song of Songs) — perhaps recognizing that the imagery of “stag” in English is inconsistent with the point of the Hebrew — renders the line, “Go—//go now, my love,//be quick//as a gazelle//on the fragrant hills.”

My own guess is that both animals were meant to allude to physical motion, so “stag” doesn’t work in English.

I also think that this demonstrates an important facet of translation: words convey more than their literal meanings, and sometimes — as in the poetry here — the associations of a translation are more important than its literal accuracy.

March 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?

Is homosexuality a sin?Who says homosexuality is a sin? The NLT does, right there in its “translation” to Leviticus 18:22: “Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin.”

But that’s not what the Hebrew says, and I’ve put the word “translation” in scare quotes because I think that what the NLT has here is an interpretation, not a translation.

The Hebrew in Leviticus — as is widely known — is more complicated. The first part of the verse is in commandment form. The NRSV’s rendition is fairly good: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” The second part augments the first with the explanation that, “it is an abomination.”

Homosexuality

Although the phrasing is odd to modern ears, the Hebrew almost certainly referred to men having sex with men. The NLT’s substitution of “homosexuality” is wrong for at least two reasons. Their English refers equally to men and women, while the Hebrew doesn’t address what women do. And their English refers to a wider variety of acts and attitudes than the Hebrew. But even so, I think “homosexuality” for a translation here is close enough to be considered okay for what the NLT is trying to do.

Sin

But when the NLT introduces the word “sin” for the Hebrew to’evah, I think it has left the realm of translation behind, replacing it with their understanding of modern dogma.

The Hebrew word to’evah occurs often enough that it’s not hard to figure out what it means. For example, in Genesis 43:32, the Egyptians don’t eat with the Hebrews because it is a to’evah for the Egyptians. Similarly, “every shepherd” is a to’evah to the Egyptians according to Genesis 46:34. Deuteronomy 14:3 helps us out further: “Do not eat any to’evah”; from context the to’evah is unkosher animals. Proverbs 21:27 teaches that the sacrifice of the wicked is a to’evah. In the moving lament in Psalm 88, verse 9 (also numbered verse 8, and in the LXX numbered Psalm 87:9) includes the woe that God has made the author a to’evah to his acquaintances.

All of this evidence — and more — points in the direction of “undesirable thing” for to’evah. The standard translation “abomination” is probably mostly right. (I sometimes wonder if “taboo” was included in the meaning.)

And it seems that the authors of the NLT knew this. In the very similar text of Leviticus 20:13, also about a man having sex with another man, the NLT translates the resulting to’evah as “detestable act.”

Leviticus 18:22 is politically and religiously charged. It seems to me that a translation that masks the original text — presenting an interpretation as though it were the original — is a disservice to everyone.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 75 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

The NLT has its own God and its own Jesus

I saw the following on the NLT website (my emphasis):

I found out that I had a lot to learn from the God of my New Living Translation Study Bible […]

Why didn’t I discover this about him earlier? I had allowed my pride and prejudice to cloud my judgment. The kind of pride that sometimes keeps me from recognizing the Jesus of the New Living Translation Study Bible.

If I’ve understood the author’s point (the post is signed by Gladys N.), the claim seems to be that the NLT has its own God and its own Jesus. If so, obviously, the NLT is not a translation but a rewrite, and one that, presumably, readers who are interested in the original God and Jesus would want to avoid. In other words, what the author seems to think of as a merit is in my mind a fault.

Later on, the author posits that, “God made this [message] clear in His Word in the New Living Translation Study Bible.”

But the statements seems so outrageous — almost like a parody of the KJV-onlyists — that I have to believe I’ve missed what’s really going on.

Any thoughts?

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, using Bible translations | , , , | 18 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