God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer

Scripture Zealot reminds us that the usual translation of John 3:16 is wrong. The Greek there doesn’t mean, “for God so loved the world…,” so the line shouldn’t read (NRSV) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Watch my “Exporing the Bible” video about John 3:16.

The translation used to be right, though, when “so” between a subject and a verb meant “in this manner.” The word “so” is meant to translate the Greek outos, and the point of John 3:16 is that “God loved the world like this….” or “God loved the world in this way….” or “This is how God loved the world.” (Don’t confuse “outos,” meaning “so,” with autos, which means something else.)

The word outos appears hundreds of times in the NT, including in the introduction to what has become known as the Lord’s prayer. Most translations get the word right in Matthew 6:9, as for example, “after this manner” (KJV), which is needlessly awkward but still generally accurate; “in this way” (NRSV); “like this” (ESV); variations on “this is how” (NAB, NIV); etc. (Outos doesn’t appear in the introduction to the “short Lord’s prayer” in Luke.)

So John 3:16 should read along the lines of, “for this is how God loved the world…”

The meaning of John 3:16 is not generally a disputed point.

The authors of the KJV knew what outos meant, but in their 400-year-old dialect (it wasn’t 400 years old then — but it is now), “God so loved…” meant “God loved in this way….”

The translators of the ESV knew it, too, and they even added a footnote to John 3:16: “Or For this is how God loved the world.” I can only guess that they didn’t change the KJV because in this case they valued tradition over accuracy.

The current translations are as wrong as it would be to render Matthew 6:9 as “you should pray this much….” instead of “you should pray this way….”

Other versions also seem to prefer tradition over accuracy when it comes to John 3:16, even when they do not adhere to the KJV translation tradition. The NLT rewrites the line, but their rendition, “For God loved the world so much that….” is a rewrite of the wrong meaning. The Message gets it wrong, too, with “This is how much God loved the world….” So does the CEV: “God loved the people of this world so much….” In other words, these three translations rewrote the wrong meaning to make the wrong meaning more accessible.

This pattern is interesting, and, I think, important for understanding the field of Bible translation. We see that in practice Bible translation is not simply translation applied to the Bible (though many people think that it should be).

Cases like these — where the Greek is easy to understand and generally undisputed — show us that even the most knowledgeable Bible translators can have trouble breaking free from their familiar, if wrong, translations.

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

Being Clear on Being Clear

A post by David Frank on BBB has got me thinking about clarity in Bible translation.

I think there are at least two kinds of clarity, and two times when we don’t want clarity.

Clarity of Language

The most basic kind is clarity of expression in the target language — in our case, the English translation of the original Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic). An ordinery Hebrew or Greek sentence should up as an ordinary English one.

This is a fairly basic concept in translation, so it’s surprising how many popular translations get this wrong.

At the top of the list of offenders here is the KJV, not because of any particular fault on the part of the translators but because English has changed in the past 400 years. For example, a clear Greek sentence like pote ode gegonas (John 6:25) becomes “when camest thou hither?” in the KJV instead of “when did you get here” (NIV). Even the NRSV ends up with “when did you come here,” which is not as clear as the original.

David Frank’s point (I think) is that the NRSV is therefore both less clear and less accurate than the NIV. There are those who claim that the NRSV is more accurate because the English “came” is closer to the Greek gegonas, but most translators (including myself) disagree, because the Greek gegonas is clear and colloquial in context, and the English “when did you come here” is not.

Clarity of Content

On the other hand, there are times when the content of what we want to translate is complex, and here I think translators have to resist the temptation to “translate and improve.”

Some examples will demonstrate. We can start with English.

English Examples

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” While the langauge is perfectly clear, the content of Dickens’ opening line is anything but, and I think it would be a mistake to “translate” this as “the times were ambiguous,” or “the times were perceived differently by different people” or (this is Dickens’ point in the opening paragraph), “the times were seen only in superlatives.”
Continue reading

January 29, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Sweet Translation

I stumbled across this blog post that laments what the author calls “Cultural Diabetes.” She starts by pointing out that Americans (in particular) have become so accustomed to sweetened food that anything unsweetened seems unacceptable, but her point is that the problem is more widespread:

Just as the American palette cannot bear the taste of non-sweet foods, our brains and appetite for news and information seem unable to process or stomach anything that hasn’t been coated in a fine sugary glaze.

I wonder if the same hasn’t become true of Bible translations.

And I wonder if modern translations — in particular, the wildly popular The Message — aren’t like overly sweet food: they seem appealing, but they dull the reader to the subtle underlying beauty of the original.

Thoughts?

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions | , , , , | 4 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Seductive Translations

Some readers want clarity (as in The Message or the CEV) in a Bible translation. Others want loftiness (NKJV), or even near incoherence (KJV). Others yet opt for chattiness (Good News). And so forth.

I think what these approaches to translation and others like them have in common is that they put the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather than looking at the Bible and seeing what its text is like, readers opt instead for a translation that adheres to their own sense of attractiveness.

This is why comments on this blog, BBB, and others often run along the lines of: “I prefer that translation because it sounds better / is more meaningful / is more spiritual / resonates / reminds me of my childhood / sounds biblical.”

These seem like worthy goals. For example, isn’t a spiritual translation of the Bible better than a non-spiritual one?

I don’t think so, or, at least, not necessarily.

I think, rather, that chasing attractive Bible translations is similar to falling prey to other forms of seduction: the superficial qualities of beauty or what-not mask the fundamental drawbacks.

It seems to me that the value of a translation lies primarily in its fidelity to the original. After all, this is what distinguishes translation from creative writing.

In this regard, translation can be likened to photography. By example, we might consider two photos of war carnage, one that shows the violence of war in all its ugliness, the other than has been manipulated to appear beautiful. Simply as a shot for hanging in the living room, the aesthetic photo is probably a better choice. But as a representation of what happened, the ugly photo has the upper hand. Those who want to understand war would have to be careful not to let the false depiction mislead them.

Similarly, choosing a translation only because of the qualities of the writing — rather than taking into account accuracy — is to decide what the Bible should be rather than to discover it.

For example, Steve Runge recently wrote about redundancy and, in particular, the NET’s decision to remove it from Deuteronomy 9:25. The NET explains in a footnote there that “The Hebrew text includes ‘when I prostrated myself.’ Since this is redundant, it has been left untranslated.'” As it happens, I don’t think this is a case of redundancy in the Hebrew, but my point here is not the nature of the Hebrew but rather the brazen NET footnote that seems to suggest: “We didn’t like the original, so we’re giving you something better.” The redundancy-free translation is seductive, but is it accurate?

We also see from the NET footnote that it’s not just lay readers who chase seductive translations. It’s official translators, too. The NET, in this case, doesn’t want redundancy. The ESV — which seemingly has nothing in common with the NET — wants formality. But this, too, is a form of seduction. What good is formality if the original is not similarly formal?

Bibles are created, sold, purchased, and read in a consumer-driven world of personal choice. Marketers have known for a long time that seduction sells. Is it possible that it sells Bibles, too?

January 11, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Short-Circuit Translations

The God’s Word (“GW”) translation of Luke 2:1-7 (which Wayne Leman recently posted) and The Message‘s rendition of Proverbs 14:15 (tweeted by Rick Warren) highlight a common translation trap that I’d like to call translation short-circuits. What I mean is when a translation short-circuits the original text and tries to jump right to the point.

Example 1: Proverbs 14:15 (The Message).

The original Hebrew of Proverbs 14:15 contrasts peti and arum. It’s hard to know the exact nuances of those words, but I think the NRSV’s choice of “simple” and “clever” is pretty close: “The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.” The message is that foolish people believe everything they hear, while clever people understand things in their own way.

As it happens, we have a word in English to describe people who believe everything they’re told: “gullible.” So another way to understand Proverbs 14:15 is that being prudent is the opposite of being gullible. And I suppose one reasonable way to translate Proverbs 14:15 would be, “the simple are gullible….”

However, The Message short-circuits the text and jumps to the following translation: “The gullible believe anything they’re told….” It seems to me that this translation has taken a line that has a point (foolish people are gullible) and turned it in to a meaningless tautology (gullible people are gullible). I think what led to this mistake was a desire to use the translation not just to translate but also to explain.

Example 2: Luke 2:3 (God’s Word).

Luke 2:3 is fairly straightforward: “Everyone went to be registered, each to their own town.” The Greek for “each to their own town” is ekastos eis eautou polin. (I’ve translated it in the plural to preserve what I believe is a gender inclusive original.)

However, God’s Word translates: “All the people went to register in the cities where their ancestors had lived” (my emphasis). Where did they get the notion that “his city” or “their cities” means “where their ancestors had lived”?

The answer comes from Luke 2:4, in which Joseph chooses to go to “David’s city” of Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from David.

I suppose the GW translators realized that, in this particular case, “his city” for Joseph was “his ancestor’s city.” Even if they’re right, though, they’ve created a short-circuit translation. The original text has complexity and richness — Why did Joseph think that Bethlehem was “his city”? Did Mary’s presence there (Luke 2:5) have anything to do with his choice? What counts as one’s city? Etc. The translation has none of these.

There’s also a question of whether the translators in this case are even right. I suspect that they’re not. I don’t think that Bethlehem was “where Joseph’s ancestor [David] lived.” David lived in Jerusalem. But for me the accuracy of the short-circuit isn’t the point so much as the misplaced goal of short-circuiting the text in the first place.

Lessons

I think that short-circuit translations are particularly tempting because they seem to be adding accuracy or clarity to a text. Short-circuit translations are often easier to understand than the original text they bypass.

But short circuits run the double risk of outright error (as I think we see in GW’s rendition of Luke 2) and of dumbing down the text (as in The Message‘s tautology where a lesson once was).

And even if the short circuit is accurate, it is still a mistranslation cleverly masquerading as the real thing.

What other short-circuit translations can you find?

[This is the first of what I hope will be a series of weekly posts on common translation traps. I’ll try to post the next one next Monday.]

December 28, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Translate But Don’t Editorialize

We just saw a case of an attempt to translate the pragmatics of a text instead of the text itself.

In general, a text will have a variety of implications, morals, allusions, etc. I think that a good translation of the text will match the original with a translation that has similar implications, morals, allusions, and so forth. Sometimes, however, translators are tempted to focus on one aspect of the text; then they translate that aspect instead of the text. The chart at the right depicts the two approaches.

For example, the “golden rule” is explained in Matthew 7:12 as outos gar estin o nomos kai oi profitai, “for this is the law and the prophets.” Ignoring for the moment what exactly “the law and the prophets” is (probably the Jewish Canon at the time), we still find translation variations for outos gar estin. For example (with my emphasis):


  • this is…. (ESV, NAB)
  • this sums up…. (NIV)
  • this is a summary of…. (NLT)
  • this is the meaning of…. (NCV)
  • this is what [the Law and the Prophets] are all about…. (CEV)
  • add up [God’s Law and Prophets] and this is what you get. (The Message)

I think that the NIV, NLT, NCV, CEV, and The Message get it wrong. Each of those versions translated something related to the text instead of the text itself.

Presumably, the translators for some of these versions decided that it’s just not true that the Law “is” the Golden Rule, but if so, what they missed is that it’s equally (un)true in Greek as it is in translation.

Perhaps the point of the passage is that the golden rule sums up the Law and the Prophets, but again, even if that’s true, “sums up” doesn’t seem like the right translation, because I don’t think it’s the job of the translation to jump from the text to its point for us.

By focusing on the point, or the moral, or the message, of the text, translators disguise their interpretation as translation. (This is, by the way, what I think Dr. Leland Ryken dislikes so much about the translations he criticizes, and I think in this regard he is correct to protest.)

It seems to me that when the lines between commentary and translation are blurred, it does a disservice to both.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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

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

On Translation Strategies: An Exercise

Today’s on-line edition of Le Monde is currently running the headline: Les magasins de jeux vidéo vont-ils disparaître?

How should we translate that into English?


  1. The stores of video games, are they going to disappear (italics a la KJV)
  2. The stores of video games, are they going to disappear? (“essentially literal”)
  3. Video game stores, are they going to disappear? (also “essentially literal”)
  4. Soon there might be no more video game stores. (Good News)
  5. Eek! What if there are no more video game stores? (The Message)
  6. Will video-game stores disappear?
  7. Are video-game stores going to disappear?

October 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , | 10 Comments

Children, Oxen, Asses, and Cribs

Isaiah 1:2-3 reads (NRSV):

[2] Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. [3] The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

When I read “children…cribs,” I naturally think of, well, children and cribs, that is, children and where they are kept.

But it turns out that a “crib” is also what I would call a feed trough and what the Oxford English Dictionary (unhelpfully for me) defines as a “cratch.”

Verse 3, using classic ancient parallelism to reinforce a point, sets the stage with two animals (ox and donkey) and two things upon which the animals depend (owner and, metonymically, food). Then the second half of the verse, again using classic parallelism, contrasts the animals with Israel/my people, which does not know/understand.

Verse 2 similarly employs parallelism, with hear/listen, heavens/earth and then reared/brought up.

The Message offers this for Verse 3: “The ox knows who’s boss,//the mule knows the hand that feeds him.”

At least I know what that means, and, in this case, the English matches the original. (This is unusual for The Message. The “translation” of Isaiah 1:2 reads, “Heaven and earth, you’re the jury.//Listen to God’s case.”)

The NLT paraphrases as, “Even the animals — the donkey and the ox — know their owner and appreciate his care, but not my people Israel. No matter what I do for them, they still do not understand.” That’s what the poetry means, but it’s no longer poetry.

What’s more important, retaining the technical word eivus — variously “crib” or “manger” — or conveying the point? What’s more important, the point or the poetry?

And if we want to reach the modern reader, maybe we should do away with “ox” and “donkey” (“ass” is surely wrong these days) — animals that most readers no longer own — and translate “dog” and “cat.”

What do you think?

September 20, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 7 Comments