God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating the Bible into a Language Whose Values you Hate?

Kate asks a fascinating question about translating the Bible into the language of an cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon that grammatically classifies non-tribe members as “edible”:

Linguist/philosopher Steven Pinker and other researchers inform us that the language of one Amazonian tribe, the Wari, grammatically classifies nouns as either “edible objects” or “inedible objects” — with the category of “edible objects” including all non-Wari human beings, while the category of “inedible objects” includes the Wari themselves. […]

The Bible translation conundrum which this situation creates is, plainly, this: How does one translate the Bible into Wari? […]

How, then, should the Bible be translated into a language whose very grammar endorses cannibalism of outsiders?

There are really two potential issues here.

The first concerns the grammatical details of Wari: What kind of marking is this? In particular, is it pro-forma (like “feminine” and “masculine” in, say, Greek) or is it semantic? If it’s pro-forma, then there’s no problem. (One way to test — are there any Wari speakers reading this? — is with a sentence like, “We can’t eat this meat because…” If “meat” in that sentence still takes the edible marking, as I suspect it would, then the marking is simply a matter of grammar, not of meaning.)

However, if the marking really only applies to things that can eaten, and if, in addition, it must be applied to foreigners, then we have a second issue: What do we do if we don’t like the values expressed by a language?

Wari (if our information is correct) isn’t the only language that might present this dilemma. What about a language that classifies women as children, for example? What about cultures in which a father takes the name of his firstborn child, but only if that child is a boy? And so on.

With Wari, the obvious temptation is to create a translation in which, say, Paul is neither edible nor a member of the Wari tribe. But that, apparently, would be ungrammatical, and, I think, representative of a common but hugely misguided approach to Bible translation: trying to convey more than we can. (This is, again, assuming our information about Wari is right.)

By analogy, we can imagine a language that divides nouns into “human” and “inanimate,” the way English does with “who” versus “that”: “This is the person who changed my life” versus “this is the idea that changed my life.” Hebrew doesn’t differentiate in this way. The question is what to do with “God.” Is God a person or an inanimate object? Hebrew doesn’t force the choice, but English does. Most translators opt for “who” here, not even noticing the way their choice narrows the meaning of the Hebrew. We could go with “that.” We could not, however, make up a new work in this context to convey are disapproval about the dichotomy in English.

Similarly, I think the way to translate the Bible into a language like Wari is to bite the bullet and use the “edible” marking, as the native speakers do, for anyone who’s not part of the tribe. It’s not just that our job, as translators, is not to judge (though I understand that, in practice, most people doing this kind of work are doing it precisely to judge those people and to change their ways.) Even more, we have no choice.

Such an interesting question. Thanks.

April 24, 2017 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Isaiah Translation Challenge: Verse 1

This is the first verse of the “Isaiah Translation Challenge.” Post your translations, questions, and thoughts as comments.

The Text

Here’s a rough literal translation of Isaiah 54:1:

Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth.//
Shout joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached.//
For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.//
— says the Lord//

Overview

Isaiah 54:1 opens with two words in stark contrast: A command to “rejoice” followed immediately by “barren woman.” Rejoicing — perhaps “shouting for joy” — represents one extreme of the emotional spectrum, while “barren woman” embodies the other. In antiquity, there was perhaps no greater sorrow than to be barren. So even though Isaiah opens with a command — “rejoice, O barren woman” — he also practically assaults the reader with a question, namely, “what reason could the most dismayed member of society have to celebrate?”

Then Isaiah drives home the point in typical poetic fashion. He adds “who has not given birth” to modify “barren woman.” Though redundant, that phrase emphasizes the barren woman’s pain. Next — again in typical biblical poetic fashion — Isaiah repeats his theme with different words: “Shout for joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached [with childbirth].”

Having twice commanded the barren, childless woman to be happy, Isaiah explains why: For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.”

Verse 1 ends by attributing the poetry to God.

The Poetry

Because Hebrew is a gendered language, Isaiah can use feminine language where in English we need the word “woman,” so Isaiah’s command “rejoice” includes the information that he is addressing a girl or a woman. Additionally, adjectives in Hebrew can refer to people (similar to the way we say “an American,” which means “an American person”). So for the English “barren woman,” Isaiah only needs one word, the feminine adjective “barren.” Isaiah is thus able to express, “rejoice, O barren woman” with only two words.

Continuing the economy of language, Isaiah omits “who” in the clause “who has not given birth,” using only the two words “not birthed.” (This is not common biblical Hebrew, but neither is it unattested.)

So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”

Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.

Isaiah next takes advantage of Hebrew’s flexible word order. Instead of addressing the “children of the desolate woman” first, he says, “for more numerous are the children of the desolate woman than the children of the married woman.” And, again because of the gendered nature of Hebrew, Isaiah makes do with far fewer words: “for more-numerous children-of desolate than-children-of married.” (Complex details of Hebrew let Isaiah do away with the words “more” and “of” completely.)

Finally, as in our English, Isaiah puts “the Lord” after the verb “says,” so that God comes last in the verse.

In terms of the words, we don’t know the exact nuances of the words for “rejoice,” “celebrate,” etc. We do know that the imperative in the first line (“rejoice”) is the verbal form of the noun (“joy”) in the second. And our verb “ached” is probably more generally “was ill.”

In terms of imagery, the text starts with a specific woman and her pain in the first two phrases and then progresses to a general situation in the third, as if to say: “you, a specific unhappy person, should be happy, because people like you will be happy.”

Published Translations

The NRSV gives us, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.”

This obviously fails in many ways. The archaic “O” is out of place. “Barren” and “bear” sound similar in a way that the Hebrew akarah (“barren”) and yalada (“bore”) do not. The English phrase has twice as many words as the Hebrew. The next line is unclear until the very last word, which tells the reader that the line is about a woman. And the line contains more than twice the number of words as the Hebrew. Additionally, “shout” doesn’t seem like a happy word. The English phrase “the children of X will be more than the children of Y” borders on the ungrammatical. “Her that is married” is hardly poetic.

The NAB is similarly problematic: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.”

It takes the NAB six words to introduce the two-word contrast between “rejoice” and “barren.” The translation misses the connection between “rejoice” and “joy,” by using the unrelated “raise a glad cry” and “jubilant song.” “Were not in labor” isn’t quite the point; it’s not just that the woman wasn’t in labor but rather that she’s never been in labor. The phrase “deserted wife” has no founding in the original Hebrew, which just refers to a female who is desolate, not necessarily a wife.

The Message — a version I seldom cite here — starts off with promise, but deteriorates rapidly into vapid prose: “`Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing woman.’ GOD says so!”

The Words

For those who want, here are the Hebrew words of the original. Translations are after the slash. Comments are in (parentheses). English words needed to make sense of the Hebrew are in [braces].

roNI/Rejoice (feminine imperative) akaRA/barren woman [who has] lo/not yaLAda/given birth

pitzCHI/Shout (feminine imperative) riNAH/joy v-tzahaLI/and-celebrate [the one who has] lo/not CHAlah/been ill.

ki/for [more] raBIM/numerous [are] b’nai/children-of shomeiMAH/desolate (feminine) mi-b’nai/than-children-of v’uLAH/married (or “espoused”)

aMAR/said (or says) adoNAI/the Lord.

Questions

1. Does the English translation need to mirror the economy of language in the Hebrew?

2. Does the English translation need to preserve the parallel endings “not given birth” in the first line and “not ached” in the second? Does it have to preserve the subtle distinction between the two, noted above?

3. Does barrenness today represent what it used to? If not, is there a better way to express Isaiah’s contrast between rejoicing and sorrow?

Your Translation

So there it is. Post questions or your translation as a comment.

February 2, 2015 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , , | 24 Comments

Translating The Purpose of the Words?

As I recently explained on my blog for “The Unabridged Bible” (“Why did they Build the Tower of Babel?“), the Tower of Babel was waterproofed, the goal being to protect the people against a future flood from God.

The text even says so: “And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar” (Genesis 11:3, NRSV). But if you’re not an expert in ancient materials science you don’t know that bitumen was an ancient waterproofing substance.

So here’s the question: An ancient reader of the text would have known the role of bitumen, and the waterproofing is central to the narrative. Should the translation therefore help modern readers follow along? Perhaps the line should read, “They had brick for stone, and waterproofing bitumen for mortar.”

What do you think?

October 29, 2014 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , | 13 Comments

Coming Soon: The Isaiah Translation Challenge

Translators and poets, get ready!

Now that I’ve submitted my second book manuscript to St. Martin’s Press, I’m looking forward to spending more time here. As part of my return, in the next little while I’m going to announce a project to translate Isaiah 54 collectively. Some of the most moving words ever penned, in my opinion, translations unfortunately run from banal to barely intelligible.

So get ready. Take a look at the text. Start studying the words. Familiarize yourself with the imagery. And think about the best way to convey Isaiah’s message in English.

I’ll post details here soon.

October 7, 2014 Posted by | announcements, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 13 Comments

Was Haman Hanged or Impaled in the Book of Esther?

Haman-Manuscript-HangingWith attention focused on the Book of Esther as the Jewish holiday of Purim approaches, I decided to take a quick break from building “The Unabridged Bible” to address the violent details of the antagonist’s death in the story, because they are interesting in their own right, and are also a prefect demonstration of the two-fold challenge of Bible translation.

The issue is this: As part of the battle between Mordecai (the hero) and Haman (the villain), Haman plans Mordecai’s death in a particular fashion, but in the end the instrument of death is turned on Haman himself.

According to the NRSV, Haman’s wife suggested (verse 5:14) that “a gallows fifty cubits [seventy-five feet] high be made … to have Mordecai hanged on it.” But the JPS translation offers instead, “Let a stake be put up … to have Mordecai impaled on it.” Verse 7:10 details the plot reversal: the King’s men either “hanged Haman on the gallows” (NRSV) or “impaled Haman on the stake” (JPS).

So which is it? Was it a gallows or stake? And was Haman hanged or impaled?

There are two questions here, as there always are with matters of translation. The first is what the original Hebrew means. The second is how best to say that in English.

The Hebrew verb is talah, which means “to hang.” And the Hebrew noun is eitz, “tree” or “wood.” So it looks straightforward. It was a tall piece of wood, and what they did to Haman was hang him on it.

Surprisingly, though, the way to say that in English is not “hang Haman,” because even though the verb “hang” in general encompasses a wide variety of acts, it has a very narrow meaning in English in connection to killing someone: putting the person’s head through a loop of rope and hanging the rope, not the person, from some horizontal structure. (Imagine a comic. The caption is “she told me to hang the wash.” The drawing shows shirts in a noose.)

In other words, “Haman was hanged from a gallows” means that a vertical post was constructed to support a horizontal crossbar; a noose was hung from that crossbar; and Haman was suspended by the neck from that noose. There is almost no chance that this is what the text intended. (This specialized meaning of “hang” used to have its own past tense: “hanged,” as opposed to “hung.” Most people don’t preserve that distinction any more.)

But if not in stereotypical western-movie fashion, how was Haman suspended from the wooden post? Here, unfortunately, we don’t have a clear answer. One reasonable possibility is that he was impaled by the post. Another is that he was crucified in some fashion. We don’t know for sure. (The evidence comes in part from Greek translations, and in part from other Greek writing about the capital punishment practices of the Medes.)

So what do we do about a translation? “Hanged on a gallows” is clearly wrong. It wasn’t a gallows as we think of it, and he wasn’t hanged. “Impaled on a stake” might be right. Certainly “stake” is better than “gallows.” But “impaled” adds a detail that might not be right, and, even if it is, goes beyond what the text actually tells us.

My suggestion, then, is “they hung Haman on the stake.” At least to my ear, this conveys the original image of Haman being attached in some direct manner to a tall piece of wood from which he hung.

What do you think?

March 11, 2014 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Translation Challenge on Men, Women, and People: Who is an anthropos?

In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”

My answers are as follows:

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: person
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?



(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.

(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.

September 24, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

More on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Suzanne McCarthy brings up the issue, again, of whether the Greek word anthropos is exclusively masculine (“man”) or gender neutral (“person”).

The short answer is that it is both.

We’ve been through this before, but the Greek framework of gender really is difficult for speakers of languages like English to grasp in the abstract, so here are some English examples that will help make things clearer.

The first example is the English word “day,” which has two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “24-hour period.” There are seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, stores are open for 24 hours a day, etc. The second is “part of a day.” Some pharmacies are open day and night, night follows day, days get shorter in winter, etc.

The second example is “luck,” which again was two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “good fortune.” The phrase “with any luck” means “with good fortune.” The second meaning is more general, “fortune of any sort.” That’s why people can have good luck or bad luck, and why “I can’t believe his luck” applies equally to lucky people and unlucky people.

The third example is “child,” which yet again has two meanings: “young human” and “any human with a parent.” So we have the phrase, “men, women, and children,” but also “adult children of aging parents.”

This final case is particularly interesting, because every person has a parent (even if the parents are dead: “children continue to mourn their parents’ death for years”). Just looking at the two definitions, it would seem that “child” in the sense of “someone’s offspring of any age” is a pretty silly word to have. How would it be different than “person”?

The answer is that “child” in this broader sense is only used in connection with parents. “Here comes a child” almost always refers only to a juvenile. But “parents and children” is ambiguous.

The case of “day” shows us a pattern that is similar in some ways, different in others. It’s different in that “day” is completely ambiguous. In my dialect, at least, if a store is “open all day,” I don’t know if it’s open at night or not. But it’s similar in that the phrase “day and night” is entirely clear.

One important lesson we learn from all of this is that words often have one meaning when they are used alone, and a separate meaning when they are used in distinction to something else. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the various meanings can seem confusing, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Nonetheless, native speakers usually find the words entirely clear.

Not surprisingly, the Greek anthropos works just like these words.

By itself, it usually means “person.” John 16:21 is a pretty clear example: “a woman in labor suffers pain, but when her child is born she doesn’t remember her pain on account of her joy at having brought a person [anthropos] into the world.” To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks that this only refers to male children.

On the other hand, anthropos also contrasts with female-gender words like thugater (“daughter”), e.g. in Matthew 10:35; gune (“woman”), e.g., in Matthew 19:3; etc. Looking at the second instance, it’s clear that “an anthropos leaves his father and mother and joins his wife” refers only to men taking wives, not women. I don’t think anyone believes otherwise.

These examples point in a very clear linguistic direction. The Greek word anthropos — like many gendered words in gendered languages and like many other words in other languages — has more than one meaning.

In this context — and I think this was Suzanne’s point in her posting — it’s common to observe (as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does here) that “in the New Testament, when this term [anthropos] is used for specific individuals, it always refers to males” (their emphasis).

Maybe. But it does not follow from this (potential) fact that anthropos cannot refer to a specific woman. And they even provide the evidence, in their next paragraph: “The list of specific men of which anthropos is used is quite long […] as distinct from the three times Christ refers to a woman (gune) in a parable.”

The lopsided nature of the text here — that is, the very fact that our data set includes a long list of men and only three women — warns us not to draw general conclusions about the word. If we enlarge the data set, to include, for instance, Suzanne’s example from Herodotus’ Histories (1.60), we do find anthropos used in regard to a specific woman.

Two additional points seem in order:

First, I gather from the CBMW piece that some people are trying to use the linguistic qualities of the word anthropos to determine Jesus’ gender. This doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Again from the CBMW piece: “That Jesus is an anthropos means first of all that he is a human being; but it also means that he is a male human being.” I don’t think so.

Secondly, I frequently read claims like, “Jewish women [in Jesus’ day] were kept in subjection and sometimes even in seclusion” (from Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, quoted in the CBMW piece). Again, I don’t think so. Salome Alexandra ruled Judaea as queen for about a decade shortly before Jesus’ time. This was a hardly a culture that universally denied power to women.

At any rate, and in summary, lots of words have a variety of interrelated, sometimes contradictory meanings that are determined in part by context. The Greek anthropos is no different. Sometimes its meaning most closely overlaps with “man,” sometimes with “person,” sometimes with “human.” But picking and choosing examples without taking into account how language works will almost always lead to a conclusion that is as convincing as it is wrong.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 59 Comments

On Biblical Masculinity and Femininity

Gender roles are a hot topic, so it should come as no surprise that people are looking to the Bible for guidance.

Biblical-Masculinity-FemininityOver the summer, Larry Crabb published his Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. Explaining it to Christianity Today, he says:

Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it.

Unfortunately, Dr. Crabb makes fundamental factual and methodological errors here.

Factually, the Hebrew neqebah (“female”) comes from the root for “pierce,” not “open to receive.” Though the common translation of neqebah as “pierced” is probably not as accurate as “hollow,” the point is the same: the Hebrew neqebah describes the female sex organ.

More importantly, zakar (“male”) comes from a multifaceted root that does not simply mean “remember.” Rather, the root is connected more broadly to referring to something that is not physically present. One way of doing this is to remember something from the past, but there are many others. In Exodus 3:15, for instance, the root gives us zeker as a synonym for “name,” because a name is one way of referring to something that is not physically present. Another way is to point, and it may be this meaning that gives us the Hebrew zakar.

If so, the Hebrew word for “male” comes from the pointing organ and the word for “female” from the hollow organ.

But whatever the case, the methodological errors make the factual evidence irrelevant, because words do not get their meaning from their etymology. As I explain in And God Said, this is one of the most basic tenets of language, and also one of the most common Bible translation traps.

Just for example, a “building” in English comes from the verb to “build,” but that doesn’t mean that we primarily think of buildings in terms of how they are built, just as the word’s etymology doesn’t preclude the possibility of a building being something we occupy. Another English example is the pair of words “grammar” and “glamour,” which share an etymology even though most people don’t think of grammar as glamorous.

Similarly, the etymologies of the Hebrew words for “male” and “female” — memory and reception, or piercing and pierced, or pointing and hollow — are irrelevant to their meaning. So they do nothing to help answer Dr. Crabb’s question of “what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine.”

It seems to me that what Dr. Crabb has done is take his own notions of what men and women should be and, through flawed linguistics, put them in the mouth of God.

September 17, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Once Upon a Time in Bible Translation

Earlier this week I posted a piece on the Huffington Post about different biblical writing styles. In particular, I claim that the exaggerated ages in Genesis served to notify the ancient reader that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally.

In other words, there are at least two different kinds of stories in the Bible: those meant as history and those not meant as history. Furthermore, the different kinds of stories were written differently.

(The quick summary is this: The OT has three parts, detailing: the world, the people Israel, and life in Jerusalem. Only in the third do the characters tend to live biologically reasonable lives. Furthermore, historians generally agree that only the third is historically accurate. This suggests that the ancient authors used large, symbolic ages to mark non-historical stories. I have more in Chapter 8 of And God Said.)

If I’m right — and with almost 4,000 comments on my Huffington Post piece, it’s clear that not everyone thinks I am — an obvious question presents itself: Should we translate these stories differently?

Sometimes the answer to “should we?” in Bible translation is “yes, but we can’t.” In this case, though, we’re lucky, because in English we have a simple, widely accepted way to mark non-historical stories: “Once upon a time.”

Should we, then, translate Genesis 6:9 as, “Once upon a time, there lived a righteous man named Noah…”? Should Genesis 11:1 read, “Once upon a time, the whole earth had one language…”?

What do you think?

March 8, 2013 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 32 Comments

Modernity and Accuracy: Another False Dichotomy

Bible translation seems plagued by a few myths that won’t let go. One of them was recently repeated by Dr. Eugene Merrill in the Christian Post when he said that “if you want a more contemporary […] translation, you’re going to have to give up some accuracy.”

I don’t think it’s true.

Dr. Merrill was explaining the infamous “literal (or word-for-word)” versus “dynamic equivalent (or thought-for-thought)” styles of translation, as the article calls them. But even though there are two broadly different kinds of published Bible versions, that doesn’t mean that there are two equally good ways to convey the ancient text, or that the tradeoff is between modern rendition and accuracy.

Rather the most accurate translation is often also a modern rendition. Just to pick one example (which I explain further in my recent Huffington Post piece on the importance of context), the stiff and word-for-word “God spoke unto Moses saying” is neither modern nor accurate. A better translation, with English punctuation doing the job of some of the Hebrew words, is: “God said to Moses, `…'” And that’s both modern and accurate.

It does seem true that a modern translation and a less accurate word-for-word one say different things — sometimes in terms of basic content, and more often in terms of nuance. I think that some people mistake bad translations for the original meaning, and then lament modern translations that don’t match the older, less accurate ones.

For instance, “God spoke unto Moses saying” has a certain odd tone to it. Some people, I fear, worry that my modern alternative doesn’t convey that odd tone. And, of course, they’re right. But then they make an erroneous leap and conclude that my translation strays from the original, when it’s actually the familiar translation that doesn’t do justice to the source.

Dr. Merrill’s example in the article is b’nai yisrael. He explains that the traditional “sons of Israel” could mislead modern readers into thinking that the phase only refers to males. But the more modern “people of Israel,” accord to Dr. Merrill, also falls short because it strays from the literal, masculine meaning of the word b’nai.

But the reasoning here is flawed. If b’nai refers to both men and women — which everyone agrees that it does — then it what sense does it literally refer only to men? It’s only the older translation, “sons of Israel,” that potentially excludes the women.

So this doesn’t strike me as a choice between modernity and accuracy, but, instead, a modern, accurate option and an older, less accurate one.

To consider an English-only example, one possible way to explain “commuter train” is “a train from the suburbs to a main city.” A possible objection could be that that explanation fails to indicate that “commute” literally means “to change,” and, more specifically, “to change one kind of payment into another,” as in, for example, “combining individual fares into one fare.” The original “commuter trains” were trains in the 19th century from the New York City suburbs in which the full fare was commuted to entice riders.

While I find this sort of background fascinating, I don’t think that it’s necessary for understanding what a 21st century commuter train is. In fact, it’s a mistake to think that a commuter train must be one in which the fare is commuted.

Similarly, I don’t think that knowing the grammatical details of the Hebrew b’nai is necessary for understanding the text in which it is used, and, also similarly, a translation that gets bogged down in those details does a disservice to the original.

It seems to me that this kind of false tradeoff is representative of Bible translation more generally.

And more generally yet, I think that this persistent myth, which pits accuracy against modernity, contributes to Bible translations that are neither accurate nor modern.

January 23, 2013 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments