God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

I’m pleased to announce the third volume in the “Prayers of Awe” series: We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism. Representing the 15th time I’ve collaborated with my father, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, the book contains my translations of ancient Hebrew liturgical poems, along with detailed notes about why I made the decisions I did, so it may be of interest to those who are curious about how I approach translation.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

The book also contains detailed essays on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance, as well as dozens of shorter pieces approaching those same topics from a multitude of viewpoints. As my father writes:

All my life, I’ve wondered about the High-Holiday confessions in Judaism, and I finally edited a book about them. Called We Have Sinned, it just came out from Jewish Lights Publishing, and it represents a multitude of Jewish voices on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance.

The book is a beginning of a conversation. I hope we can continue it here.

Translating the Hebrew presented some particularly interesting challenges for me. Right off the bat, I had to deal with the central prayer in the book, ashamnu, which consists of an alphabetic acrostic of 24 verbs in a row, all roughly meaning “we have sinned.” More generally, much of the poetry is built around synonyms. As I write in the book (p. 92):

This creates a double challenge for the translator.

First, words often have fewer synonyms in English than in Hebrew. When that is the case, so that there is no natural English for all of the Hebrew synonyms, we must choose between accuracy and naturalness. But the poetic force of the Hebrew comes less from the nuance of each word than from the cumulative impact of the combined string of synonyms, so a non-natural translation for a specific word impacts not only that word but the words around it as well.

A parallel example would be this familiar phrase from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (act 2, scene 2):

Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season,
When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?

A “translation” of the second line along the lines of “when in the why and the cause of what happened is neither poetic assonance nor reason” matches in some regards but misses the mark in others.

I think similar issues sometimes impact Bible translations.

I’ll try to post more from the book soon.

August 29, 2012 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An Open Letter to CNN’s Piers Morgan

Again, slightly off topic, but I think important for those of us who take the Bible and these issues seriously:

Is homosexuality a sin?Dear Mr. Morgan:

I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.

During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn’t ask him where the Bible says that.

It’s both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn’t provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that homosexuality is a sin.

Read the rest…

[Update: An expanded version of this letter, with additional information about how I read the Bible regarding homosexuality, is available on the Huffington Post. (June 5, 2012)]

May 23, 2012 Posted by | Off Topic | , | 9 Comments

Always Pick On The Correct Idiom

A classic bit of self-contradictory writing advice goes back to William Safire in the 1970s: “Always pick on the correct idiom.” In English, “pick on” means to annoy, and the right phrasing here is “pick” (which means “choose”).

What makes his example work is that the meaning of “pick on” doesn’t come from the meanings of “pick” and “on.” More generally, phrases, like words, are not the sum of their parts. (I have more here.)

Thinking otherwise is a widespread error in translation. This gaff usually comes up in the context of word-for-word translations that make no sense. In other words, sometimes the words of the original Hebrew or Greek suggest nonsense in English, and that nonsense becomes the accepted translation.

But sometimes the words of the Hebrew or Greek suggest an idiom in English. In those cases, rather than a nonsensical translation, we find a translation that is idiomatic but wrong. This sort of wrong translation is particularly difficult for lay readers to detect because — unlike the nonsense translations — there is no red flag.

What got me thinking about this is a translation in the CEB — highlighted by Wayne in a recent post — that reads, “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up…” (Hebrews 12:1, Wayne’s emphasis).

The English expression “throw off any extra baggage” is without doubt more idiomatic than, for example, than the ESV: “let us also lay aside every weight.”

In English, “baggage” metaphorically means “emotional background,” and “extra baggage” (or “excess baggage”) means “destructive emotional background.” So the CEB’s English means “let us try to rid ourselves of our destructive emotional background and get rid of sin.” The image is that sin is like destructive emotional background.

Unfortunately, this is not what Hebrews 12:1 means. The image there is not of complicating emotions, but rather more directly of a weight that makes it difficult to proceed quickly. Indeed, the second half of Hebrews 12:1 refers to “the race that is set before us.” By shedding the “weight,” we are are better able to “run the race.”

Furthermore, “sin” itself was seen as a weight, a burden to be borne. (For more, take a look at Anderson’s wonderful book Sin: A History, or start with my review.)

So the imagery in Hebrews 12:1 is of better enduring a race without weights such as sin. By contrast, the imagery in the CEB translation is of discarding destructive emotions.

To look at it another way, it seems to me that Hebrews 12:1 is about a better way of going where we are already headed, while the CEB’s translation is about going in a different direction.

More generally, I think it’s important to note that an idiomatic English phrase that copies the original Hebrew or Greek words is just as likely to be wrong as a non-idiomatic one.

What other examples of this sort of error have you noticed?

September 22, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.”


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.


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 | , , , , , , , | 74 Comments