God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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

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

Q&A: What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?

From the about page comes this important question:

I am currently trying to find a good Bible translation to read and study from. What would you recommend and could you point me to any good articles/books/resources which could help me make this decision? Thanks!

It’s hard to imagine a reply that won’t get someone really angry with me, but I’ll still give it a shot.

My short answer is this: start with the New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”) or the New American Bible (“NAB”). Both are widely available, and in my opinion generally unsurpassed in accuracy (though each also has its own drawbacks).

The longer answer begins with some background. There are essentially four different kinds of English Bibles available today:

1. Paraphrases. These are like “English books based on the original Hebrew/Greek Bible,” sometimes only coming as close as a movie based on a book. The most common are The Message and The Living Bible. These tend to be written in colloquial, even chatty English, and are easy to read. But even though they are so accessible, I generally don’t recommend them, because they hide much of the original beauty and complexity of the Bible.

2. Word for Word Translations. I could equally call these “partial translations.” They take the words of the original Bible and try to reproduce each one in English. As a matter of translation, this is usually a really bad idea. But as a matter of religion (particularly for Jews) there are some good reasons to do this, so these partial translations of the Bible are more popular than they otherwise would be. The most common word-for-word translation is the English Standard Version (“ESV”). I don’t generally recommend publications that take this approach because they tend to create the wrong impression that the Bible was archaic or even incomprehensible.

3. Full Translations. These are Bibles that try to produce a true English equivalent of the text of the Bible, which is what you probably want. The most common are the New International Version (“NIV”), and the NRSV and NAB that I’ve already mentioned.

4. Outdated Full Translations. These are much older English translations, so they translate the Bible into English we no longer use. There’s no good theoretical reason to read one of these Bibles, but there’s a good practical reason. The King James Version (“KJV”) and the New King James Version (“NKJV”) are examples of this approach, and they are the most widely cited English Bible translations. When most people think of “what the Bible says,” they think of the KJV.

The reason I give all of this background is that at first glance each of (1), (2), and (4) seems to be appealing — for ease of reading, apparent fidelity to the text, and apparent authenticity — but they are each mostly misleading in this regard.

However, which Bible you ultimately want depends on what you want to do with it. If you belong to a religious community that has already chosen a translation, you probably want to stick with what your community has chosen; similarly, most translations reflect not only what the Bible originally meant but also what subsequent religious thinkers said that it meant. If you just want a general sense of what the Bible stories in Genesis or the Gospels are about, a paraphrase is the quickest path. The word-for-word translations frequently “sound like the Bible,” which can be comforting.

Regarding resources for deciding, the Better Bibles Blog has a wealth of helpful information and discussion. And lots of books explain the different Bible versions, but mostly with not enough insight into how translation works. Still, you might want to look at Philip Comfort’s Essential Guide to Bible Versions or Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation.

Finally, I would suggest that more important than a good translation is a good teacher to work with. Even a perfect translation (and none exists) would only be a starting point.

November 10, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 49 Comments

Miracles and Wonders

Are there miracles in the Bible?

The KJV uses the word “miracle” (or “miracles”) less than 30 times. The ESV, only about a dozen. And the NAB half of that, even with the apocrypha. Yet the word appears over 150 times in the NLT. So miracles pervade the Bible only in some translations. Why?

What’s going on, I think, is this:

The most common use of “miracle” in English is to refer to something (good) that science can’t explain. So it’s a miracle when a patient lives in spite of a deadly disease, or — depending on one’s view of the details — when a sea splits to let a people leave oppression. Miracles, by this way of thinking, are extra-scientific events.

But there was little science when the NT was written, and even less in the days of the OT. So to an ancient author, the splitting of the Red Sea would have been in the same category as, say, an eclipse. And neither of them would have been miracles, because — there being no science — neither one could have been considered extra-scientific. They were “wonders,” but they weren’t “miracles.”

So one approach holds that the word “miracle” is an anachronism in Bible translation, no different, really, than “neuron” would be. This is why many versions prefer “signs,” “wonders,” and even “portents” to “miracles.” (Though in many translations it seems that “miracle” was sometimes mechanically replaced by another term. For example, the ESV takes the KJV’s “John did no miracle” [John 10:41] and turns it in to “John did no sign.”)

The other approach suggests that we might know more about the text than the original authors: what if what the ancients considered “wonders” were really miracles, only they didn’t know it back then? (I think this question applies whether or not one believes the literal truth of the text. Before the text can be believed or not, it has to be understood.) Should a translation reflect our improved understanding?

October 25, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , | 4 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

The Blank Slate of Incoherent Translation

In a comment to Mike Aubrey’s post on Dynamic Equivalence, Davis asks:

Do you think a lot of this misunderstanding in the method of translation comes from a shallow understanding of the original languages? Since most people are trained to basically decode a sentence into English, instead of actually learning the languages so that they think and understand in Greek and Hebrew, then entire translations are produced that are more of a decoding rather than a translation.

I think Davis is absolutely right. And I think two reasons lie behind what is frequently a superficial approach to translation.

First, some people don’t have the means to understand the ancient texts. Learning ancient Hebrew or Greek involves a lot more than learning the vocabulary.

Secondly, though, some people — consciously or unconsciously — don’t want to fully learn the ancient languages. I think there is sometimes something spiritually satisfying about an opaque text. Ironically, a phrase without a specific meaning can sometimes be incredibly meaningful, precisely because it offers a blank slate upon which readers can superimpose their own meanings.

For example, I do not believe that most English speakers today can understanding the following KJV translation of Matthew 17:25:

He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

Yet many of these same English speakers prefer the KJV to the NLT:

“Of course he does,” Peter replied. Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it. But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Peter? Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”

I think one reason Bible readers sometimes prefer the KJV is that the archaic language makes it easier for them make the text mean what they want it to mean.

September 22, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 7 Comments

More On Parallel Passages

On Thursday, I posted about the English translations of near-parellel passages in Mark and Matthew. It got me thinking about Chronicles, which frequently quotes other books such as Kings. II Chronicles 6:1-5, for example, seems to be an update (grammatically and in terms of spelling) of I Kings 8:12-16.

In particular, I Kings 8:15 and II Chronicles 6:4 are identical in Hebrew except in spelling and that the former has yado (“his hand”) where the latter has yadav (“his hands”) — and this, too, may originally have been a matter of spelling.

Still, in most translations the English (for identical Hebrew!) doesn’t match, even in the “word by word” translations.

Do you think this is a problem?

Comparison of Translations
(Differences are marked with italics, except for the KJV which is too different for that to be practical.)

I Kings 8:15 II Chronicles 6:4
KJV And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, which spake with his mouth unto David my father, and hath with his hand fulfilled it, saying, And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, who hath with his hands fulfilled that which he spake with his mouth to my father David, saying,
NIV Then he said: “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his own hand has fulfilled what he promised with his own mouth to my father David. For he said, Then he said: “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his hands has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David. For he said,
NRSV He said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his hand* has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David, saying, And he said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his hand* has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David, saying,
NAB He said to them: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his own mouth made a promise to my father David and by his hand has brought it to fulfillment. It was he who said, He said: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his own mouth made a promise to my father David and by his own hands brought it to fulfillment. He said:
NLT “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who has kept the promise he made to my father, David. “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who has kept the promise he made to my father, David. For he told my father,

(*) The English is the same but the Hebrew is different.

September 6, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Preserving Parallel Passages

John Hobbins has an interesting analysis of near-parallel passages in Mark 1:16-18 and Matthew 4:18-20.

I’m struck by the fact that I can’t find a translation that makes it possible to follow along in English. (I have a table below.)

The KJV, for reasons I can’t fathom, adds the word “Jesus” to Matthew, and it misses the different wording (“trap-throwing” vs. “throwing a trap net”) between the two passages.

The NAB does better, only missing the different wording for “make you [to be] fishers of men.”

The NLT almost completely masks the differences between the passages.

The NRSV adds the word “Jesus” to Mark, and otherwise masks the differences between the passages.

The NIV adds the word “Jesus” to both Mark and Matthew, and it, too, nearly completely masks the differences between the passages.

Thse are, of course, not trivial passages, and they must have received a good deal of attention. How, then, do all of the translations so poorly match the Greek?

(Regarding “fishermen”/”fishers of men” etc., see our discussion in Scripture Zealot.)

Comparison of Translations

Mark 1:16-18 Matthew 4:18-20
J. Hobins: And while passing along the sea of Galilee he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew trap-throwing at sea for they were fisherman, and Jesus said to them, “Come, after me, and I’ll make you to be fishers of men.” And leaving the nets right then they followed him. While walking along the sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon known as Peter and his brother Andrew throwing a trap net into the sea for they were fishermen, and he says to them, “Come, after me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Leaving the nets right then, they followed him.
KJV Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.
NAB As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
NLT One day as Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother, Andrew, fishing with a net, for they were commercial fishermen. Jesus called out to them, “Come, be my disciples, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and went with him. One day as Jesus was walking along the shore beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers — Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew — fishing with a net, for they were commercial fishermen. Jesus called out to them, “Come, be my disciples, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and went with him.
NRSV As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
NIV As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
NAB As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
ESV Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments