God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Does Your Bible Translation Measure Up?

I just had an interesting conversation with the AP’s Travis Loller about the new(ish) Bible translation The Voice. (Read her article: “New Bible Translation Has Screenplay Format.”) As we were talking, she asked me whether the new translation is better than the King James Version.

I think it’s a fascinating question.

The background is that I told Travis that I believe that The Voice is flawed, and I’ve told her in the past that I also believe that the KJV is flawed. (“The King James Version [KJV]: The Fool’s-Gold Standard of Bible Translation.”)

The Voice is a translation in the style of The Message, designed primarily to be modern, colloquial, and readable. And it has a few added quirks, like its screenplay-like formatting and use of “The Eternal” where most translations have “The Lord.” As with so many other modern Bible translations, I think the implementation falls short of the goals, though it’s not always easy to tell the two apart, because what I see as failed implementation could be my misunderstanding of the goals.

In the end, The Voice ends up related to the original text of the Bible in much the same way that a movie is usually related to the book it’s based on. The Voice contains roughly the same material as the Bible, though with some significant additions and omissions. But the experience of reading The Voice strays far from what the original text created. The Voice is sometimes straightforward where the original is nuanced, for example, and mundane where the original is poetic. And in some places the modern rendition is simply inaccurate.

But here’s where things get interesting, because — especially for modern readers — the experience of reading the KJV also strays far beyond the original. For example, the KJV is now perceived to be uniformly formal or archaic, while the original text of the Bible was often neither. And, like The Voice, the KJV is frequently inaccurate, either because English has changed (take the video-quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“) or because the original translators got it wrong.

So which is better? A translation that oversimplifies the nuances of the Bible (The Voice) or one that over-complicates its accessibility (the KJV)? Which version’s mistakes do less damage to the original? This, really, is what Travis Loller was asking. In many places, I think The Voice comes out ahead.

We can extend the question to other versions. Like The Voice, I think The Message improves on the KJV in places, even as it suffers from significant drawbacks.

Certainly I think my recommended translation, the NRSV, improves greatly on the KJV.

What about the NIV, which I have often criticized? (I’m particularly frustrated with the latest version of the NIV, because the translators seem to have bowed to political pressure to move away from accuracy in some places.) I think that it, too, improves on the KJV.

So what do you think? Is your preferred translation better than the KJV? Why?

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July 30, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions | , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Translating Mistakes in the Text

From time to time, we have what seem to be mistakes in the traditional text of the Bible, frequently the results of apparent errors on the part of a scribe. How should these be translated?

Here are three examples.

Leviticus 20:10 (dittography)

In Leviticus 20:10, we find the phrase “a man who commits adultery with the wife of” repeated, almost certainly inadvertently. So the Hebrew text reads, literally:

and
a man who commits adultery with the wife of
a man who commits adultery with the wife of
his neighbor:
[in that case the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.]

Three translation options seem to present themselves:

1. Translate the text as it is, repetition and all.

2. “Fix” the text by ignoring the repetition.

3. “Fix” the text by making sense of the repetition.

Most translations take the second route. The ESV, NRSV, and The Message, for example, translate the repeated phrase only once. (The ESV and NRSV note the Hebrew duplication in a footnote.)

I don’t know of any version that follows the first strategy exactly, but the KJV comes pretty close: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” If we disregard the italics, the duplicated phrases are almost identical. But even so, the KJV doesn’t reproduce the effect of having the same phrase twice.

The remaining translations try to make sense of the duplication, much as the KJV did. For instance, the NIV gives us, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — …,” as if the second phrase is an explanation of the first.

The merits of Option 2 are pretty clear: Just because a scribe made a mistake doesn’t mean we should introduce a mistake into English.

I can understand Option 1 as well: We should translate the text, not emend it.

But it’s hard for me to understand why Option 3 is a good idea. Rather, it seems like a mistake born of misunderstanding the nature of the original text.

Deuteronomy 31:1 (parablepsis)

We find a different challenge in Deuteronomy 31:1. That verse starts in Hebrew, “Moses went [vayelech] and spoke…” The problem is that Moses didn’t go anywhere. In fact, it’s pretty clear that he’s exactly where he was in the previous verse.

It seems that the original text was not “Moses went” but rather “Moses finished.” While those two verbs seem unrelated in English, in Hebrew the first (without vowels) is V-Y-L-K, while the second is V-Y-K-L. Except for the order of the final two letters, they’re the same. Furthermore, we find V-Y-K-L (“finished”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls (“DSS”), and the Septuagint translates sunteleo, “finished.”

Again, we have three basic options: translate the text as is, ignore the mistake, or make sense of the mistake.

The KJV, among others, takes the first approach. (This is hardly surprising. Until the discovery of the DSS, it wasn’t clear that this was a mistake. Many people thought the Septuagint had it wrong. And, in fact, I suppose it’s possible that the Septuagint and DSS are both wrong.)

Other translations, such as the NAB and NRSV, simply translate “finished” here, as though the Hebrew read V-Y-K-L.

And other translations yet try to reconcile the text, with such options as, “So Moses continued to speak” (ESV).

Again, I understand the first two approaches better than the third.

Psalm 93:4 (haplography)

A third example comes from the poetry in Psalm 93:4. The Hebrew is, literally, “more than the sounds of much water mighty sea-breakers mighty on high is Adonai” — which doesn’t make much sense.

The Hebrew grammar here is complicated, but three basic points will help: The Hebrew letter mem (“M”) is used at the end of a word to indicate plurals. It is used at the beginning of a word to indicate nouns. And, also at the beginning of a word, it means “more than.”

So the plural of “mighty” (adir) is adirim. The word “breaker” starts with a mem: mishbar. And the first word of Psalm 93:4, mikolot comes from mi- (“more than”) plus kolot (“sounds”).

Accordingly, the way to say “mightier than sea-breakers,” if “mightier” is plural, is adirim mi-mish’b’rei yam, or, without vowels or spaces, A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M. However, the traditional text gives us A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M.

In short, if we add a third mem (back?) into the text, we get the much more sensible, “God is mightier than the sound of the water, mightier than the sea breakers.”

Here, every translation I know adopts what we’ve been calling the second strategy, fixing the text by ignoring the mistake.

Summary and Questions

Even though these three — and other — scribal errors are in principal the same, we find that translations deal with them differently.

1. Do you think a translation should fix erroneous text? If so, when?

2. When a translation does fix the text, should it also indicate what the uncorrected text means?

3. What value might there be to printing the uncorrected Hebrew (or Greek) next to the corrected English?

June 22, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

The Value of a Paraphrase instead of a Translation

Paraphrases like The Message and the NLT are regularly among the best Bible editions sold in the U.S. What is their merit?

Just the title of this post shows you where I stand based on training an experience. A paraphrase is not the same as a translation. (I could have written “the value of a paraphrase as a translation.”) Still, as with word for word translations, I think it’s worth while to understand both sides of this debate.

I can think of two ways a paraphrase might be valuable.

First, a paraphrase might be a nice “Bible-like” thing to read, sort of like a movie based on a book. The movie isn’t the same as the book, and everyone agrees that reading the book will give a better sense of the book than any movie, but the movies can still be fun, or informative, or what not. Similarly, a paraphrase, though not the Bible, might have spiritual worth.

I hold this first position, but I don’t think it’s how the paraphrase publishers intend their work. Rather, I think they believe that their work is more accurate — in some sense — than (other) translations.

And this brings us to the second way a paraphrase might have value.

Most translators agree that words are more important than letters even though letters form the words, because it’s the words that convey meaning. Equally, the words themselves combine to create phrases. Failure to recognize either of these basic tenets is to misunderstand how language works.

But what if the Bible is different than other kinds of writing in that the point of all those clauses (or sentences, or verses) doesn’t depend on the smaller units?

For example, what if the only point of a particular passage is to bolster belief in God? If so, the translation may not need to preserve all of the literary nuances of the original. Even if the original is poetic, for instance, perhaps the poetry is irrelevant, just as the individual letters of a word are meaningless by themselves.

A concrete example will demonstrate. In describing Matthew 12:9-14 (“The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma“), I wrote that a good translation should “convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.” But what if the rhetorical style and the irony are as irrelevant as the letters that make up a word? What if the point of the passage (let’s say) is simply to reinforce a difference of opinion between Jesus and the Pharisees?

Similarly, what if the point of Psalm 23 is simply to explain that God uses might to bring about tranquility? If so, “shepherd” and “still waters” and “staff” and so forth don’t need to be in the translation.

I don’t subscribe to this second approach, but I do think that it’s an intriguing possibility.

What do you think?

And can you suggest other reasons to prefer a paraphrase?

June 1, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , | 16 Comments

What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Words

It makes intuitive sense that a translation should preserve the meaning of each word.

But in this case, our intuition leads us astray, which is why I’m not a fan of so-called “literal,” “essentially literal,” or “formal equivalence” translations.

Here’s an example that will make clear what goes wrong.

There’s a German verb blaumachen. Though the Germans write it as one word, we can look at the two parts: blau (“blue”) and machen (“to make” or “to do”).

The obvious translation of blaumachen is not “to blue make” — because that’s not English — but “to make blue” or “to do blue.” Both of these translations fit into the “literal” Bible translation camp: ESV, KJV, etc.

We can go one step further and note that neither “to make blue” nor “to do blue” is an English phrase, while “to be blue” most certainly is. So we might translate “to be blue” (which — for non-native speakers — means “to be sad”). That translation fits into the “make the English understandable” camp: CEB, NLT, etc.

We can go one step further yet and, trying to write better or more vivid prose, translate, “to lament.” This is what The Message might do.

But all of these are wrong, for a very simple reason. “To make blue” (blaumachen) in German means “to skip school.”
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April 22, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Why Chiasmus Matters in Proverbs 14:31

Jeff (at Scripture Zealot) wonders about Proverbs 14:31:

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (ESV)

Jeff’s question is whether “his” in the first half of the verse is “the oppressor’s” or “the poor man’s.”

As it happens, about a decade of linguistics research last century was devoted to similar matters, the typical case involving questions like whose picture got taken if “John’s friend took his picture.” Nonetheless, taken by itself, the Hebrew in the first part of Proverbs 14:31 is potentially ambiguous.

But we get an answer by looking at the second part, because it forms a chiasm with the first part. That is, the first and second lines are parallel, with matching parts in each.

So “oppresses a poor man” in the first half is like “generous to the needy” in the second, and “insults his Maker” is like “honors him” in the second. Furthermore, the word order is reversed in Hebrew, along the lines of:

Who oppresses a poor man gives insult to his maker,
and he gives him honor who favors the needy.

It’s pretty clear that the second part doesn’t mean “who favors the needy gives the poor man’s maker honor,” so “his maker” in the first half is “the oppressor’s maker,” as is “him” in the second half.

So The Message got that part of the meaning right with “You insult your Maker when you exploit the powerless; when you’re kind to the poor, you honor God.” The Message also gets points for not turning the inclusive Hebrew into gender-specific English, though it loses a point for turning “him” into “God.”

Beyond this specific verse, I think it’s interesting that knowledge of how Hebrew poetry works can help clarify the original meaning of the text.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 2 Comments

The Microcosm of Bible Translation: Amos 5:15

[This is the first in what I hope will become an occasional series about the details of actual translation: methods, decisions that have to be made, compromises, etc.]

Amos 15:5

The first part of Amos 15:5 reads (NRSV), “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;” What goes in to that translation? What does the translation miss? What other options might be better?

As we go through, I’ve italicized questions that the translator needs to answer. I offer my answers to some of them toward the end.

Words

We start with the words, most of which are straightforward:

sin’u
hate
ra
bad/evil
v-ehevu
and love
tov
good
v-hatzigu
and place/put in place
va-sha’ar
in/at the gate
mishpat
justice/judgement

There are details of the words which are not conveyed in these English glosses.

Imperatives

The verbs (“hate,” “love,” and “put in place”) are plural imperatives. We don’t have plurals like this in English, but there are ways of expressing the same point if we want: “all of you, hate…,” for example. (The LXX‘s “we hated” and “we loved” doesn’t match the Hebrew here.)

Is the nuance of the verb forms important to convey in translation?

Evil

There are at least two reasonable translations for ra: “bad” and “evil.” The Hebrew is the common opposite of “good” (tov), so “bad” seems like the better choice. Unfortunately, while “good” and “evil” in English function both as adjectives and nouns, “bad” is only an adjective. “Hate bad” isn’t English. The KJV ops for “hate the bad” to preserve the pair “good/bad.” Modern translations almost all go with “hate evil.”

Is the substitution of “evil” for “bad” warranted? Or should the translator find a way of making the more accurate “bad” work in English?

Love

There are lots of ways of loving. Clearly, one doesn’t love a spouse the same way one loves what is good. Perhaps for this reason, the CEV goes with “choose good.” (In a similar vein, the Greek agapao is frequently glossed along the lines “love, primarily of Christian love.”)

Should the translation reflect how “love” (ahav) is used here?

Establish

The verb I gloss as “[put in] place” is usually used for people and physical things. In Genesis, “present” is often a good translation. In Deuteronomy 28:56, the verb is used for “set” in the phrase “set the sole of her foot on the ground.” In Judges 6:37, it’s used for “set” in the phrase “set the wool fleece” on the ground.

Is “establish” too grandiose here?

The NIV offers “maintain justice” here. But the broader context of the passage makes it clear that justice was lacking and that it had to be restored. (The LXX gives us “restore.”)

Should the translation of “establish” include the context here?

Gate

For me, the issue of “gate” is one of the most interesting. The “gate” (sha’ar) here is a city gate, but when I think of “gate” in English, I think of the gate of a fence. (Similarly, the famous phrase from Deuteronomy 6:9, “write them … on your gates” deals with the entrances to cities.) Maybe “city gate” is better?

More importantly, the gate in antiquity was a gathering spot, not merely a portal. In modernity, the “city square” serves the same purpose. (So does the watercooler, I guess, but not really.)

One purpose of gathering at the gate was justice. This is probably why the NIV goes with “courts” here instead of “gate.” The English translation that puts “justice” in the “gate” seems to put it in an odd spot, whereas originally the Hebrew put it right where it normally was.

Does “gate” in English correctly convey the Hebrew? Should the translation focus on the physical location of the gate or on its purpose? Is the translation successful if readers have to know details of ancient society to understand it?

Justice

The Hebrew mishpat is variously “judgement,” “justice,” “rule,” “law,” “sentence,” and more.

Does “mishpat” have to be translated uniformly throughout the Bible? What nuance is implied here? Should the translation indicate the nuances?

Poetry

Beyond the choice of words, the Hebrew is poetic.

The phrase starts with classic parallelism, juxtaposing two pairs of opposites: “hate/love” and “bad/good.” The previous verse also puts “good” and “bad” together, though there “good” comes first. (Surprisingly, the KJV translates “good/evil” in verse 14 but “the good/the bad” for the same Hebrew in verse 15.)

Then a new element, “justice,” is introduced. Stylistically the third clause is similar to the first two, but in terms of content it’s very different. (This has the effect of emphasizing “justice.”)

The object of the verb comes last in all three cases (“bad,” “good,” and “justice”). Should the English translation preserve this poetic device? Is it possible?

The NLT, correctly noting that “evil” is more commonly used as a noun than “good,” translates, “hate evil and love what is good.” Should the English translation preserve the single-verb-single-noun pattern for the first two clauses?

Reading Between the Lines

The connection between “justice” and the first two pairs is (purposely?) left vague. Should the translation fill in the details of the connection here? For example, The Message and God’s Word translations offer “then” instead of just “and.”

Noting that gates used to be where justice was administered and that courts now serve that function, the NIV, God’s Word and others translate “gates” as “courts.” The Message goes with “public square” in the phrase “work it out in the public square.” The NLT offers, “remodel your courts into true halls of justice.”

Other translations explain what happens with justice. For example, the NJB translates, “let justice reign.”

Should a translation explain the text in these kinds of ways?

English Grammar

Maybe it’s because of all of this hidden complexity that modern translations sometimes ignore English grammar. One immediate question is whether one meets “in the gate” or “at the gate” in English. (For me, “I’ll meet you at Jaffa gate in Jerusalem” is better than “I’ll meet in you Jaffa gate in Jerusalem.” I suspect this will be dialectal. Does anyone prefer “in” here?)

The NIV, NJB, and others forget about simple English punctuation. The NIV drops the first “and” (“Hate evil, love good;”), for example. Is there any reason not to use correct English grammar?

Summary and Answers

Summary

We’ve seen that the original text refers to hating what is bad, loving what is good, and (re)establishing justice in the place where justice was usually administered, that is, the city gate.

The text addresses people collectively.

The text is poetic and pithy. It consists of three clauses, the third standing out because it’s a little longer than the first two.

My Answers

I think it’s nice to convey singular/plural nuances in imperative verbs, but not necessary, primarily because ancient Hebrew uses both singular and plural for addressing a group. This doesn’t seem to be a big deal, and there’s no easy way to do it in English anyway.

I think that “evil” for ra is going too far. I see a statement about ordinary, daily life in the original. We use “bad” for that in English, I think, not “evil.”

I think that the English “love” covers roughly the same areas of meaning as the Hebrew ahav. It’s a mistake to try to spell out in English what the original did not spell out in Hebrew, so “love,” though broad, is right.

I think “establish” is not too bad for the Hebrew, and I can’t think of anything better. “Set up” might work, too, depending on the other lexical choices.

The issue of “gate” is, for me, the hardest. “Justice” in modernity has nothing to do with “gates,” and, in fact, this passage in Hebrew is not about gates except to the degree that gates are the locus of justice. It’s like “restore justice to the courts” in English. The focus there isn’t “courts” but rather “justice.”

On the other hand, gates come up frequently in the Bible, so changing the word only here seems problematic. Just for example, the Hebrew in this passage matches Deuteronomy 6:9. If we change “gate” to “court” here we destroy the connection.

As for “gate” or “city gate,” I think “city gate” is more accurate, but the accuracy is irrelevant, because either way we end up with an odd place for justice. People who know about the role of ancient city gates will know what “gates” means, and those who don’t won’t find “city gates” to be particularly helpful.

I think the poetry is important, and, in particular, the translation should preserve the grammatical connection among the three phrases. I don’t think the translation necessarily has to use verb-noun each time, though; another repeated pattern would serve just as well.

I do not think that it’s the job of the translation to fill in details that are not in the text. I think that’s where commentary comes in.

And I think writing an English translation according to the rules of English grammar is important.

Translations

So one reasonable translation is:

“Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just among you.”

I’ve use the “what is…” construction to give all three clauses the same pattern, yet not force myself to use “evil.” I’m pretty happy with everything up to “among you.” Though I still think “among you” is better than “at the gate,” I’m left wondering if there is a better solution. I also worry that the sentence might be read as referring to “what is just among you.”

Another reasonable translation leaves out “gate” altogether. Perhaps every English translation is more misleading that not translating the word: “Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just.”

Or, to revert to “evil,” we might try: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice among you.” While “evil” sounds stronger in English, it may be stronger than what the Hebrew represented.

What do you think?

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Growing Old and Fat in God’s Courtyard

Psalm 92:12 begins a series of verses that compare the righteous to trees: the people, like Palm trees, will blossom and flourish. They will be planted in God’s courtyard. And they will grow old and fat.

What’s going on is this: In antiquity, most people didn’t get enough calories to live. Today (in the U.S. and other “modern” Western countries) many people struggle to cut down their caloric intake. In the days of the Psalms, by contrast, people struggled to get enough. Old age in particular was a challenge, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to die prematurely because they couldn’t get enough to eat.

The lucky ones, though, did have enough food.

So “fat” back then was the opposite of “scrawny.” Or to look at the matter another way, “healthy and fit” is now represented by “thin,” but it used to pair with “fat.”

How, then, should we translate Psalm 92:14? It reads: the righteous shall bear fruit in old age, being dashen (fat) and ra’anan (fresh). Certainly, “they will bear fruit in old age, being fat and fresh” doesn’t have the right ring to it.

Current Translations

The KJV’s “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” is perhaps literally accurate, but it misses the changing role of “fat.”

The ESV’s “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” might work with trees, but it doesn’t seem to extend felicitously to people — “full of sap” hardly sounds like a desirable trait for the elderly.

The NIV’s “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” seems to suffer from another problem. “Green” in English is usually a metaphor for “inexperienced.” When I read “fresh and green,” I don’t think of the elderly but rather new-comers just starting out.

The NLT goes with, “Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”

The CEV offers “They will be like trees that stay healthy and fruitful, even when they are old.” That at least makes sense and seems positive, though it seems to miss the poetic impact of the original.

The Message‘s “lithe and green, virile still in old age” may be the point, though by spelling out “virile” instead of using imagery, it similarly strays significantly from the original. I also don’t think that trees are “virile.”

Lessons

I think this is a clear example of the need to look beyond the literal meaning of words — “fat,” in this case — and see how they function metaphorically.

The Challenge

How would you translate Psalm 92:12-14?

May 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Problem with Forever

Ancient Hebrew divided “forever” into two parts: forever in the past, and forever in the future. Hebrew used the preposition “from” (mi-) to indicate the former, and “to” (l’-) for the latter.

So Hebrew has three words. “Eternity” is olam. “From the beginning of time up to now” is mei-olam. And “from now to the end of time” is l’olam. Variations include ad olam (“until olam”) and la’ad, both of which mean the same thing as l’olam.

English has a convenient word “forever” that encompasses all time, but we don’t have the equivalent of l’olam or mei’olam. This creates a translation challenge when those two Hebrew words are juxtaposed as a poetic way of indicating “all of eternity.”

One example out of a great many comes from Psalm 90 (which recently popped up here and here). The end of verse 2 in Hebrew reads, “and mei-olam [eternity up to now] ad olam [eternity starting now] you are God.” The point is fairly simple: “You have always been God and you will always be God.”

But the KJV offers the barely coherent, “from everlasting to everlasting.” Here I have to wonder if the translators were even aware of the role that “from,” “to,” and “everlasting” played in Hebrew.

More surprisingly, modern translations generally keep this odd phrasing. The NRSV, NIV, and ESV mimic the KJV here. The NAB offers the equally odd “from eternity to eternity.”

The NLT (which I generally don’t like because of its inaccuracies) has an interesting solution: “you are God, without beginning or end.” I still don’t think the NLT’s translation here is accurate, but it’s certainly better than the others, in that at least it expresses the correct general thought.

The Message (which I usually find to be even less accurate than the NLT) also has an interesting option: “from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘kingdom come’ — you are God.” The story-like “once upon a time” and the theologically-laden “kingdom come” grate on my ear, but at least the English means something akin to the point of the Hebrew.

I think this is a perfect demonstration of what I called slavery to parts of speech. In this case, I think the two prepositional phrases “from everlasting” and “to everlasting” should be translated as past-tense and future-tense verbs, respectively.

So: “you always were and always will be God.”

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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

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