God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How to be a Biblical Man

The ESV translation of 1 Corinthians 16:13 has Paul tell his audience to “act like men.” This tradition of translation goes back at least as far as the KJV, which renders the text “[behave] like men.” The NRSV, on the other hand, offers “be courageous.” What’s going on?

At issue is the Greek verb andrizomai. That word contains the root andr, which also gives us the word aner, “man.” (The “d” drops in and out, in accordance with Greek grammar. Aner is a “man,” and adres are “men,” for example.)

But the leap from the root andr to the translation “act like men” makes three mistakes.

The first is the wrong assumption that internal structure tells you what a word means. (I have more here: “Five Ways Your Bible Translation Distorts the Original Meaning of the Text.”) Relatedly, the root actually means “person,” not “man,” which we see from words like androphonos in 1 Timithy 1:9. The word phonos means “murder,” but androphonos means “murderer,” not “murderer of men.” (Similarly, “manslaughter” in English doesn’t only mean “slaughtering men.”) So we have methodological and factual errors.
Continue reading


March 2, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 8 Comments

How Words Work Together in the Bible

There is something intuitively appealing about a translation that takes the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible and translates each one into English. But the premise behind such an approach is flawed, because words work together differently in different languages.

Here’s a simple example from Genesis 29:19: vayomer lavan tov titi ota lach mititi ota l’ish acher.

The Hebrew starts off vayomer lavan, which is quite clearly, “Laban said.” What did Laban say?

The next word in Hebrew is also easy: tov means “good.” What is good?

The next word is a bit more complicated, but still uncontroversial. The Hebrew titi is from the verb stem tet (“give”), and it means “my giving.” Then the Hebrew gets easy again: ota is “her” and lach is “to you.” So far we have, “my giving her to you is good” — a translation that is simple and straightforward, but wrong.

Even though that’s what the words mean, it’s not what the phrase means.

What’s going on is, also, uncontroversial. The next phrase in Hebrew is mititi ota l’ish acher, literally “from my giving her to another man.” The key factor here is knowing that Hebrew uses “from” to indicate comparison, or what is technically called “degree.” In English, we usually do this by changing the adjective, either with “more” and “most” or with the suffixes “-er” and “-est.”

For example, in the English “he is happier (than her)” the adjective “happier” expresses a comparison of happiness. Interestingly, it’s possible that “he is not happy,” but he’s still “happier than her.” That’s how degree works.

In Hebrew, the word would be just “happy” in both cases.

English indicates degree by changing the adjective. Hebrew uses “from” elsewhere in the sentence.

When we see mititi (“from my giving”) in the second part of the Hebrew sentence, that’s our clue that this sentence is a comparison. The way we indicate this comparison in English is with “better.” And, of course, that’s what every translation has: “it’s better that I give her to you than to some other man” (NIV).

The point is that Hebrew has one way of indicating degree and English has another. It’s a mistake to translate the words of Hebrew into English. Rather, the goal of the translator, in this case, is to translate the comparison. More generally, the goal of the translator is to figure out what the original words do, and then find a way of doing the same thing in English.

Some people think that the goal of “adding words in English” is just to make what would otherwise be nonsensical (“it is good, my giving her to you, from my giving her to another man”) into something that makes sense. But that’s not quite right. Rather, the goal is to make the English mean the same thing as the Hebrew.

Similarly, some people think that the “from” in the second part of the Hebrew sentence means that “we should translate tov as ‘better.’ ” But, again, that’s not quite right. We’re not translating tov. We’re translating the phrase.

We find another case of the same grammatical issue (degree) in Genesis 4:13: gadol avoni minso, literally, “big my crime from-bear,” with the obvious translation “my crime is too great to bear.” Again, we add the words “too” and “to” not just to make a coherent English sentence, but to make the right coherent English sentence, one that matches the Hebrew.

November 15, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Changing the Son of God for Muslims

An article in World Magazine discusses Wycliffe‘s recent debate about how to translate “Son of God” and “God the Father” into Arabic for Muslim audiences, noting that “in Muslim contexts,” a literal translation “implies that God had sexual relations with Mary” — at least according to some translators.

Therefore, Wycliffe’s translations have at times resorted to alternative wordings, causing more than a little debate.

It seems to me that there are two factual questions here.
Continue reading

October 12, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 16 Comments

Accuracy versus Personal Preference: a hidden choice in Bible translation

The latest round of reporting on the LifeWay Bible-preference poll addresses the theme of gender-neutral translations, with headlines like, “Study: Bible readers oppose gender-inclusive translations” (from the Associated Baptist Press).

What I find interesting here is that the poll specifically explained that some Greek and Hebrew terms refer to “people in general,” and the question was whether these inclusive terms should be translated as “man” or as “humankind” etc.:

“Bible translators have to make choices regarding gender issues. For example, the original Greek and Hebrew often uses masculine words such as those literally meaning ‘man’ to describe people in general. Some translators think these should be translated literally as ‘man’ while others think they should be translated into gender-inclusive terms such as ‘humankind,’ ‘human being,’ ‘person’ or ‘one.’ Which do you prefer?”

The question was, in my opinion, biased, but not terribly so. Describing the translation of “man” as “literal” but not describing the other terms with any potentially positive attribute seems unbalanced; also, the question suggests that the original can be translated “as `man,'” but “into gender-inclusive terms.” Even so, the question specifically told respondents that the point was to convey “people in general.” And only 12 percent wanted the more accurate choice.

Another way to phrase the poll question, it seems to me, would have been: “Some translators try to tell you what the text of the Bible means while others try to give you a text that you will like. Which do you prefer?” Of course, I have no way of knowing for sure what the results of asking such a question would be, but I find it hard to believe that the same 82 percent that opted for “man” would choose translations that are tailored to personal preference.

So why did so many people prefer the word “man” to express “people in general”?

As with the accuracy versus readability, I think these poll results have more to do with culture than with translation, linguistics, or Bible studies.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 30 Comments

Why Most Bible Translations are So Bad (And Why the Next Generation Should Care)

This past July I had the pleasure of presenting at a TEDx conference in East Hampton, the broad theme of which was “The Next Generation.”

So I offered an 18-minute segment on Bible translation, on what so often goes wrong with translations, and on how to avoid the common mistakes. I couched these topics in the broader theme of why the Bible is important for the next generation.

The edited version of my presentation is available here and on YouTube:

After watching it, you’ll be able to answer these questions:

  1. Why is the King James Version (“KJV”) so important for understanding Bible translation today?
  2. What are the three most common ways of understanding ancient languages?
  3. Why don’t those ways work? How do we know? And what are some consequences?
  4. What is a better approach? Again, how do we know?
  5. Why are the Ten Commandments still uniquely relevant?
  6. What does all of this have to do with supermarkets?

I’ve touched on many of these themes in individual blog posts here, and I go through all of them (except for the supermarkets) in And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, but here’s a compact and relatively complete introduction. Enjoy!

And then take a look at the other presentations.

I also want to express my thanks to Left of Frame Pictures for producing the videos.

September 14, 2011 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps, video | , , , , , , | 4 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

The Value of a Word for Word Translation

All of my training and experience has taught me that a word-for-word translation is a siren. It has superficial appeal in that intuitively it seems to bring a reader closer to a foreign text, but, in fact, it misconveys the original text.

Still, I also believe that it’s important to understand both sides of a debate. So what might the value of a word-for-word translation of the Bible be?

The best answer I can think of is this: if the importance of the Bible lies in the actual words and not in what those words do — meaning, poetry, etc. — then a word-for-word translation is better than a translation that captures the meaning and poetry and so forth.

I have always tacitly assumed that the primary point of the Bible’s narrative text was to convey meaning, the point of the poetry to be poetic, and so forth. But that may not be so.

In fact, the evidence we have from antiquity is that the words were more important than what they meant. This is why, for example, the NT frequently quotes the words of the OT out of context. (The early-first-millennium collection of Jewish writing known as the Midrash does the same thing.) Modern readers sometimes see this approach as deceptive, but ancient readers would probably be baffled by our modern insistence on quoting meaning instead of quoting words.

So it’s not a crazy idea to suggest that the words themselves are what’s important.

What other value can you find for a word-for-word translation?

May 18, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 53 Comments

Making the Bible Sound Like the Bible

David Frank at BBB asks if a translation has to sound like a translation. Not surprisingly when it comes to the Bible, two answers emerged: “yes,” and “no.”

David’s point was that a translation into English should sound like English.

Bob MacDonald seems to counter that the foreignness is part of the text and a translation that isn’t foreign has destroyed that aspect of the text. Also apparently in rebuttal, Theophrastus claimed that the text of the Bible is qualitatively different than other texts

Wayne Leman focused the issue, noting that the content can sound foreign (Levirate marriage, wave offerings, praying for the dead, temple prostitution, etc.) even if the language sounds like English.

I think part of what’s going on here is that poor Bible translations have created a false image of the Bible, and many people are reluctant to give up that false image because, for them, the image of the Bible has become the Bible itself. In other words, they want the Bible to sound like what they think the Bible sounds like.

An example I use frequently is “God spoke unto Moses, saying…” That’s not English. Furthermore, it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew leimor here — which became “speaking” in translation — functions the same way our modern quotation marks do. So the translation should read, “God said to Moses, `…'”

But for people who grew up hearing “God spoke unto Moses, saying,” that’s what the Bible sounds like. They heard that (poor) translation frequently, internalized it, and then came to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that the Bible is foreign and strange in exactly the way that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” is.

So any attempt to retranslate the Bible into better English, for them, destroys part of what the Bible is.

At its extreme, this gives us the KJV-Only movement. For people who adhere to that philosophy, the archaic language of the KVJ — “spake,” “verily,” “holpen,” etc. — is the Bible, and for them, modern translations destroy what the Bible is.

But I think that this perceived foreignness is an artifact of poor translation and a misunderstanding of how language works. That is, the foreignness of the Bible that some people want to capture in translation is really just the foreignness of previous translations, not of the Bible itself.

Making matters much worse, many of the people who decide to become Bible translators do so because of their love for the Bible, a love they gained as they grew up with bad translations. So Bible translators (a) start to think that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” actually is English; and (b) want to produce a translation that preserves their childhood understanding of what the Bible is.

This situation strikes me as doubly lamentable. Not only have poor translations hidden the original beauty of the Bible, they have prevented people from taking the steps to find it.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 11 Comments

Why the Debate between Formal Equivalence and Functional Equivalence is Deceptive

The debate between “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence” has come up again at BBB, this time in the comment thread to a post about David Ker’s The Bible Wasn’t Written To You. (It’s a free e-book. Take a look.)

Dannii started the debate with a reference to his post “In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax.”

John Hobbins countered that “mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is […] a reasonable default strategy.”

That is, essentially, the crux of the debate: whether or not the grammatical details of the original should be mimicked in translation or not. The formal equivalence camp thinks yes. Functional-equivalence translators disagree.

My take is that mimicking the grammar is as foolish as mimicking the sounds. We don’t translate the Greek ho (which means “the”) as “hoe” just to mimick the sounds. And we shouldn’t translate, say, a passive verb in Greek or Hebrew as a passive one in English just to mimic the grammar. Failure to realize this basic point, it seems to me, is to misunderstand what translation is.

So why is this basic theoretical point nonetheless so hard to grasp?

I think part of the answer lies in the practice of Bible translation. By and large, published English versions of the Bible are either formally equivalent or flawed in other ways, so the debate ends up, in practice, pitting formal equivalence not against functional equivalence but instead against other kinds of mistranslations.

The non-formally equivalent CEB can help us understand how this plays out.

Among that translation’s aims is that it should be written at a 7th-grade reading level. But I think that that goal is a mistake, because the Bible is not written at a 7th-grade reading level, so from the outset, the CEB has made a decision to abandon accuracy in some regards. And as part of pursuing that goal, the CEB’s editors make other mistakes. For instance, the CEB recasts Hebrews 12:1, turning it into a statement about going in a different direction in life, while the original is about going unburdened in the same direction.

Similarly, from the CEB translation comparison, we see that Genesis 2:7 now reads, “the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land” instead of the NRSV, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (their italics, to highlight the comparison). But the original doesn’t have any notion of “fertile,” and “topsoil” is almost certainly wrong for what should be “dust.”

My point is not to pick on the CEB, but rather to use it to highlight what I think goes wrong in the formal equivalence versus functional equivalence debate.

The formal equivalence crowd looks at the kinds of mistakes we just saw in the CEB, and, rightly in my opinion, notes that these versions miss essential aspects of the original. Then they compare, say, the NRSV renditions of these verses. The NRSV correctly has “lay aside every weight” in Hebrews 12:1. It correctly has “dust” in Genesis 2:7. And it doesn’t introduce the notion of “fertile” there.

In these cases, the NRSV is more accurate that the CEB. But I don’t think that the NRSV’s accuracy here comes from its philosophy. Rather, I think it comes, in this case, in spite of its philosophy.

After all, it’s this same philosophy that leads the NRSV to translate Mark 12:18 as, “The Sadducees … asked him a question, saying:” even though we don’t “say” questions in English; we ask them. The NRSV makes the same mistake in Genesis 44:19.

The supporters of functional equivalence use mistakes like these in the NRSV to attack formal equivalence.

And what follows is a debate where both sides are right — because both the CEB and the NRSV have mistakes — but where neither side is really talking about translation theory. They are talking about practice.

So instead of asking which version is better, I think the right questions are:

1. Can functional-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?

2. Can formal-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?

April 21, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

What to do with significant Bible mistranslations?

In a comment on Dr. Claude Mariottini’s excellent blog, a reader named Daniel asks: “Since we have cleared up centuries of inferior translating, and presumably inferior application, now we should do …?”

It’s an excellent question.

Normally when we find a better way of doing things, we move on: “Out with the old and in with the new.” But as I frequently point out when I present to communities, “out with the old and in with the new” is not a phrase commonly heard in seminary.

At first glance, part of the problem concerns passages that are so familiar that everyone knows them. But it seems to me that if a biblical passage was new and innovative, it’s actually a mistake to translate it as a familiar quotation. (This kind of thinking quickly leads to the irony of the first time that “there’s nothing new under the sun” was penned, and other dilemmas that are a little too close to Eastern philosophy for my rational mind.)

More generally, though, we expect a certain amount of familiarity in a Bible translation. This makes it hard to change familiar but wrong translations.

I think that the first part of answering Daniel’s question is whether we should keep a familiar but wrong translation. If not, we have a lot more work to do deciding how to fix things. But if we’re going to keep things the same, we at least have a final answer.

So here are three examples of the problem, which, in my mind, represent three different kinds of issues:

1. The last commandment is more accurately translated “do not take,” not “do not covet.”

2. The word “shepherd” in Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) is a mistranslation that hides the original image of might and power.

3. The opening line of Genesis is better translated as “It was in the beginning that God created…”

Should we “correct” these in future Bible translations? Keep them the same? Something else?

What do you think?

April 6, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 17 Comments