God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

God as Reward(er) and Protector in Genesis 15:1

From the About page comes this great question: Does Genesis 15:1 mean “your [Abram’s] reward will be very great” or “I [God] am your great reward”?

The NRSV translates it, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” while the KJV has a different understanding: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”

The issue is the final phrase in Hebrew, which (disregarding tense for a moment), according to the NRSV, means “your reward is good,” while the KJV thinks it means “your good reward.” Together with the first part of the sentence (“I am your shield”), the NRSV version ends up, “I am your shield and your reward is good,” while the KJV is also coherent: “I am your shield, your good reward.”

It turns out that the Hebrew is actually ambiguous.

To understand the text here we need a detour through a handful of related bits of Hebrew grammar. (And, really, what says “fun” more on a Friday morning in early September than a handful of Hebrew grammar?)

First, adjectives in Hebrew generally follow nouns, and there’s no word for “a” or “an.” So, for example, from the Hebrew words yeled (“boy”) and tov (“good”), we get yeled tov, “a good boy.”

Secondly, Hebrew does have a word “the” in the form of the prefix ha-. When it’s used, it gets put on both nouns and adjectives. So “the good boy” in Hebrew is ha-yeled ha-tov, literaly “the-boy the-good.” Furthermore, some phrases (technically called “definites”) behave like they have “the.” One such case is possessives. So “my good boy” in Hebrew is “my-boy the-good” (yaldi ha-tov).

Thirdly, Hebrew almost never uses “to be” in the present tense. So, for example, “I am your shield” in Hebrew is just “I your shield.” (The KJV — foolishly, in my opinion — sometimes uses italics in English to reflect the Hebrew grammar in these cases.)

The combination of the first and third bits create potential ambiguity. While yeled tov can mean “a good boy,” it can also mean “a boy is good.”

As a matter of practice, though, this kind of ambiguity is rare, because of the second bit. Hebrew differentiates between “the good boy” and “the boy is good” by using “the-boy the-good” (ha-yeled ha-tov, as we’ve seen) for the first one, and “the-boy good” (ha-yeled tov) for the second.

Similarly, “your good reward” is “your-reward the-good” in Hebrew (s’char’cha hatov), while “your reward is good” in Hebrew is “your-reward good” (s’char’cha tov). So you might expect that we’d be able to distinguish between “your great reward” and “your reward is great.”

Unfortunately, the word for “great” here is harbeh, and, together with m’od (“very”), it forms the invariant phrase harbeh m’od. Unlike most modifiers, that phrase never takes “the.” So “your reward is very great” in Hebrew is (as we see here in Genesis 1:15) “your-reward very great” (s’char’cha harbeh m’od) but “your very great reward” is the identical Hebrew, because, in this case, the expected “your-reward the-very-great” doesn’t exist.

This means that, as a matter of translating this sentence, the Hebrew is truly ambiguous. So we have to look elsewhere for clues.

One such clue might be the tenses. The first is present tense, and the second — if, as in the NRSV, it is its own clause — is also present tense. So the NRSV has to explain why the sentence doesn’t mean, “I am your shield; your reward is very great.” This seems to point in the direction of the KJV.

On the other hand, tenses are notoriously idiosyncratic, and anyone who’s looked at Hebrew knows that we commonly see one tense in Hebrew and a different one in English.

The commentator Rashi suggests that God is assuaging Abram on two fronts: he will not be punished, and he will be rewarded. So Rashi thinks the line means “don’t fear, Abram, I will be your shield [so you will not be punished] and you will be rewarded.” So Rashi would have sided with the NRSV.

I have some more thoughts, but nothing to convince me solidly one way or the other. (For those who are curious, here’s a list of where the phrase harbeh m’od appears: Genesis 15:1, Genesis 41:49, Deuteronomy 3:5, Joshua 13:1, Joshua 22:8, I Samuel 26:21, II Samuel 8:8, II Samuel 12:2, II Samuel 12:30, I Kings 5:9, I Kings 10:10, I Kings 10;11, II Kings 21:16, I Chronicles 20:2, II Chronicles 14;12, II Chronicles 32:27, Ezra 10:1, Nehemiah 2:2, and Jeremiah 40;12.)

So I’m opening up the question here. Based on context, which translation do you think makes more sense? And why?

September 7, 2012 Posted by | grammar, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

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


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.


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

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 1, “Heart”

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul…” According to Jesus in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, this is the most important commandment.

Jesus’ Greek is a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:5, and that Hebrew passage is so central to Jews that it’s part of what is inscribed on the parchment inside the mezuzah traditionally affixed to doorways.

But I don’t think “heart” (or “soul”) is what the original meant in either the Old Testament or the New Testament.

As a matter of anatomy, the Hebrew levav (“heart” in Deuteronomy) and the Greek kardia (“heart” in Mattherw, Mark and Luke) is what we would now call the heart in English. But as a matter of metaphor it is something very different.

“Heart” in English

In English, the word “heart” generally indicates emotion. And it’s the opposite of “brain” or “mind,” which represent rationality. For example, someone who is “thinking with his heart” is being emotional and not rational. “To follow your heart” is to do what you love, even if you don’t think it’s a good idea. “A sound mind in a sound body” refers to someone who can think clearly, not necessarily someone whose emotions are well organized. “Let the mind rule the heart” means to let rationality prevail over emotion. The expression “heart-broken” refers to emotions, while “his mind is gone” refers to rational thought.

It’s not that we think that emotion is literally in the heart or that thoughts are literally in the mind (though, in fact, as a matter of science, both are probably mostly in the brain). Rather, we use “heart” metaphorically to represent emotion and “mind” (or “brain”) metaphorically to represent thought.

In fact, this way of using “heart” and “mind” is part of a broader, more fundamental view of people: they have emotions (hope, fear, love, expectation, sorrow, etc.) and they have thoughts. And the two are distinct.

But this ontology is not the only way of divvying up what it means to be human.

“Heart” in the Bible


In the Bible, emotions and thoughts were considered to be closer in nature than they are now. For instance, in modern English “I love him” and “I fear him” are both statements about emotions, even though the emotions differ. Similarly, in the Bible, “I love him” and “I think he’s a capable ruler” were both the same kind of thing.

And the levav (Hebrew for “heart”) and kardia (Greek for “heart”) were used to represent both — that is, what we would now call emotions and also what we would now call thoughts.

We see levav used to represent cognition, for example, in Isaiah 6:10, which contains three pairs. “To see” goes with “eyes.” “To hear” goes with “ears.” And “to understand” goes with levav. (Matthew 13:15, quoting Isaiah, similarly pairs “understand” with kardia.) Deuteronomy 29:4 contains the same three pairs, though it has the alternative form lev instead of levav. In the same way, Isaiah 10:7 pairs “thinking” with levav. And in Ezekiel 38:10, when something enters your levav you think a certain way.

The levav, then, is the seat of thoughts and cognition. In this sense, levav is the opposite of the English “heart.” (Using the opposite of the word you want to translate is usually a bad idea.)

The Hebrew levav is also used for emotion, though. In Leviticus 19:17, the levav is where you should not “hate.” In Psalm 27:3, the levav is connected to “fear.” And so forth.

We see a particularly clear picture: while the English “heart” is used for “emotions and not thoughts,” the Hebrew levav is used for “emotions and thoughts.”


Greek works like Hebrew in this regard. We’ve already seen Matthew 13:15, but that’s a quote of Isaiah, so it’s not necessarily reliable. But there are plenty of other examples. In Matthew 9:4, when Jesus knows the scribes’ “thoughts,” he knows what is in their kardia. In Matthew 15:19, thoughts come from the kardia. Mark 8:17 connects a “hard kardia” with inability to understand.

And the kardia is also where people are happy (as in Acts 2:26), afraid (John 14:27), and so on.

So, as with Hebrew, Greek combines thoughts and emotions in the kardia. And again this is unlike English, which separates them, using “heart” not just to include emotions but, importantly, specifically to exclude thoughts.

“Love with All Your Heart”

So while it’s tempting to translate levav and kardia as “heart” — particularly because “love” and “heart” go together in a way that “love” and “mind” do not — it’s also a severe mistake, because “heart” excludes thoughts, and what we need is a word that specifically includes them, along with emotions.

In isolation, finding such a word in English is no easy task, as the issue is not just linguistic, but also ontological. Modern English speakers think there are (at least) two kinds of internal human events: thoughts and emotions. Ancient Greek and Hebrew speakers thought there was one. And the point of levav and kardia is to include them both.

Fortunately, the translation task gets easier when we take into account “soul” (which is also a major mistranslation), as I hope to address soon. [Update: the explanation of “soul” is here: “How to Love the Lord Your God — Part 2, Soul.”]

November 28, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments

Is a Book Report a Translation?

I recently criticized The Message for adding “all you see, all you don’t see” to its rendering of Genesis 1:1. Dannii responded:

If you think the Hebrew refers to the totally of God’s creative work, both the earth, the heaven(s), the underworld, the physical, the metaphysical, the spiritual, the holy and the demonic, then The Message conveys that quite well.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t make The Message a good translation. It makes it a nice elucidation (perhaps), or a nice commentary (perhaps), but I don’t think that explaining what the text refers to is the job of the translation.

This is not the only case of disagreement about how to use the word “translation.”

There’s a movement underfoot to create a “conservative translation” of the Bible. (The program has been widely mocked, but it’s for real, and a lot of serious people are involved.)

Similarly, a common theme among Bible translators is to decide a priori how complex the English should be. In the same thread in which I mentioned The Message, Dannii noted (correctly in my opinion) that that version is “is written in a low, conversational register” which “obscures the differences in genre and register between books and passages,” to which Peter Kirk added (also correctly in my opinion) that “most other English Bible translations are written in a consistently formal and high level register, marked all the more by the presence of obsolescent words and syntax,” so they do the same.

At issue, I think, is two different ways people use the word “translation.” When I use it, I mean an English rendition that as closely as possible captures the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic of the original.

Some people use the same word “translation” to mean any English publication that is based (closely enough?) on the original. So I would say that The Message is a paraphrase, not a translation, while they would say that it is translation that’s a paraphrase. Similarly, a conservatized or simplified or archaicized volume that means sort of what the Bible does might be, for them, a “translation.”

It’s not up to me to tell people how to use words, so they are free to keep using “translation” however they like. But I think it’s important to keep the difference clear.

I also wonder how close the English has to be to be called a “translation” even under the broader use of the word.

Can a book report be a translation?

November 12, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , | 9 Comments

Translating Words That Mean More Than One Thing

Frequently a Hebrew or Greek word will, in the eyes of English speakers, “mean more than one thing.”

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

There are two ways for this to happen. The first is when there are really two foreign words, similar to the situation with “bank” in English (both a financial institution and the side of a river); that’s not what I have in mind here. The trickier case is when the foreign word only has one meaning, but that meaning is more general than any English word, so it takes two (or more) English words to cover the same semantic territory as the one foreign word. This is depicted graphically to the right.

A simple example might be eitz in Hebrew, which means both “tree” and “wood” in English. It’s not that eitz means more than one thing. Rather, the Hebrew term is more encompassing than any English word. So we say that it “means more than one thing,” but really we just have a mismatch between English and Hebrew. (When the situation is reversed, we again generally resort to English-centric terminology, and say that the foreign language has two words “for the same thing.”)

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

I see three possible translation scenarios, depicted to the left. In the first two, context makes it clear how to translate the foreign word into English. These two cases are usually easy for the translator, and it’s generally only a linguistic curiosity that the foreign language has but one word for the two English ones. Continuing our example, the “eitz of knowing good and evil” is a “tree,” while the eitz of which the ark was built is “wood.”

But sometimes the usage of the foreign word spans both English words, and this is always a true dilemma for the translator. Neither English word suffices as a translation. We don’t see this with eitz, but lots of other words come to mind.

One example seems to be sarx in Greek (as was discussed extensively about a month ago by Peter Kirk, Clayboy, Mark Goodacre, Jason Staples and others, and again in passing yesterday by T. C. Robinson). It’s not exactly that sarx means more than one thing. Rather, its meaning includes “body” in English, but it is broader than that English word. When sarx is used for “body” or “flesh” (say, in Leviticus 13:24), it’s easy to find an English translation. But when it includes “body” and other important denotations as well, a good translation is elusive.

I think another set of examples comes from gender words. The Greek adelphos, for example, includes the English “brother,” but also what we might awkwardly call “co-member of society.” Again, the word doesn’t have more than one meaning, just more than one good translation, depending on context.

What other important words like this present themselves?

October 22, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

How Much Meaning Do You Want?

At the end of my discussion of anthropos, I concluded that one meaning of anthropos is “man,” and that we see that meaning in Matthew 12:10.

Here I want to suggest that, even so, “man” may not be the best English translation for anthropos. Here’s why.

One of my points before was that Greek makes it very difficult to talk about people without specifying their gender. (English makes it easy in the plural, but equally difficult in the singular. Had I written, “Greek makes it hard to talk about a person without specifying…” I would have been hard pressed to finish the sentence grammatically and elegantly.) Accordingly a Greek text about “just someone” will usually end up looking “masculine.”

Again (see here for the background), we can compare the situation to Modern Hebrew, with its two verbs halach and nasa. The former means “went by foot” and the latter means “went by vehicle.”

Suppose we have a Modern Hebrew text that reads, “Chris nasa to Tel Aviv to start his day.” We have two translation options:

1. “Chris traveled to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

2. “Chris went to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

At first glance, (1) looks like the obvious choice. Nasa means “traveled,” and it is what Chris did. We know he didn’t walk, because otherwise the verb would have been halach.

However, in favor of (2) is the fact that the original Hebrew doesn’t necessarily stress the means of transportation, while the English in (1) does. The Hebrew is as neutral as possible about how Chris got to Tel Aviv, while the same cannot be said for (1). As a speaker of English and Hebrew, I know that (2) is often the best translation of the Hebrew.

To look at the matter another way, imagine starting with an English sentence, translating it first into Greek and then back into English. I think we can agree that if we’re doing things right, the English that we start off with and the English that we end up with will be the same.

If we start with “Someone walked into the room,” we get either “anthropos…” or “gune…” in Greek, but we probably get the former. It stands to reason, then, that when we translate back, we should translate anthropos as “someone.”

At least, sometimes “someone” is the best translation of anthropos. We have a dilemma, because if we start with “a man walked into the room,” we might get the same Greek “anthropos….”

Part of the translator’s job in this case is to figure out whether the Greek text means to emphasize “man” over “woman” (in which case “man” is the better translation) or whether the maleness is incidental (suggesting “person,” “someone,” etc. as the better translation).

It’s pretty difficult to discern these nuances from the text, which is but one of many reasons that translation is hard.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 13 Comments

The Funny Thing About What Words Mean

The funny thing about what words mean is how hard it is to notice when they mean more than one thing, as, for example, “funny.” The way I’m using it here the word doesn’t mean “humorous” but, rather, “odd.”

Two thousand years hence, will scholars be arguing over whether “funny” should be translated into the then-equivalent of “humorous” or the then-equivalent of “odd”? Will they even know enough to ask the question?

September 14, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 3 Comments