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.
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:
- Why is the King James Version (“KJV”) so important for understanding Bible translation today?
- What are the three most common ways of understanding ancient languages?
- Why don’t those ways work? How do we know? And what are some consequences?
- What is a better approach? Again, how do we know?
- Why are the Ten Commandments still uniquely relevant?
- 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.
Zondervan has a chart (reproduced immediately below at right) suggesting that effectively conveying both the form and meaning of the original Biblical documents is the best way to reflect the original reading experience.
I disagree, and I think that Zondervan’s approach represents a common and fundamental misunderstanding about how form works.
Form and Meaning
For one thing, form contributes to meaning. So I think it’s a mistake to put “form” and “meaning” on separate axes, as though a translator can convey one without impacting the other.
We see a very basic example in English. “John sees Mary” does not mean the same thing as “Mary sees John.” The form — in this case, the order of the words — contributes to the meaning.
By contrast, word order works differently in Greek. So in Acts 10:38, we find “Jesus of Nazareth anointed God” — “Iesoun … echrisen o theos” — but it very clearly means “God anointed Jesus.” In Greek, grammatical changes to the words themselves (“case endings,” as in the change from iesous to iesoun, for example) sometimes do the same thing as word order in English.
So in this case, we see that capturing the form means missing the meaning, and vice versa.
Acts 10:38 demonstrates the point particularly clearly, but the grammar there is not exceptional. Rather, mirroring the form of the Bible in English often means sacrificing the meaning, because form works differently in Hebrew, Greek, and English.
I have more examples in my post on mimicry.
Form and Flavor
I suspect that people often have “flavor” in mind when they think of “form.” Flavor (which I call “affect” in And God Said) includes the difference between formal and informal language, between funny and serious, etc.
In English, “God, no one has seen” is either particularly formal, or, for some speakers, ungrammatical. But I think everyone can understand that it means the same thing as “No one has seen God.” The difference between the first version (“God, no one has seen”) and the second is a matter of flavor.
And, like meaning, this difference in flavor is conveyed by the word order.
But in Greek, “God no one has seen” — theon oudeis eoraken — is not formal in the same way. That’s why John 1:18 (theon [God] oudeis [no one] eoraken [has seen]) is translated “no one has ever seen God” as opposed to “God no one has ever seen.” To translate “God, no one has seen” is to misunderstand how Greek and English work.
As with meaning, we see that form contributes to flavor, but it not the same as flavor. More generally, in order to capture the flavor, a translator often has to sacrifice the form.
The Inherent Value of FormOnce we see that conveying the form doesn’t help with the meaning or with the flavor, I think we see that conveying the form is only helpful for actually studying the original languages of the Bible, not for conveying the original reading experience.
So my version of Zondervan’s chart (at left) notes that a good translation conveys both the meaning and flavor of the original, and further notes that slavery to form makes it difficult to do either one well.
Translators frequently have information at their disposal that doesn’t come directly from the text they are translating.
Though it’s often tempting, it is nonetheless almost always a mistake to add the additional information into the translation.
For example, if a mystery novel starts, “a man was walking by the beach,” the translator should not change it to, “Mr. Smith was walking by the beach,” even if it later turns out that Mr. Smith was the man.
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment begins with odin molodoi chelovek, “a young man.” The reader soon learns that the young man used to be a student. But it would surely be a mistake for a translator to render the Russian as “former student” instead of “man,” even though the guy happens to have been a student.
This sort of mistake comes up frequently in Bible translation.
People / Men — Anthropos
We just saw one clear case at Bible Gateway‘s new translation blog, regarding the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 (“and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people [anthropoi] who will be able to teach others as well,” NRSV). The question there is whether the translation for anthropoi should be “people” or “men.”
Ray Van Neste’s answer notes that the leadership position referred to in 2 Timothy 2:1-7 “has been forbidden to women in [verse 12 of] 1 Timothy 2.” Based on this, Dr. Van Neste seems to claim that anthropoi should be translated “men.”
But even if he is right about who the anthropoi are, his reasoning is flawed. Just because the people are men doesn’t mean that anthropoi means “men,” or that “men” is the right translation, any more than “young student” is the right translation for the “young man” in Crime and Punishment.
Hebrews 5:1 works the same way. There, high priests are selected from among anthropoi. I suppose they were probably men, but that doesn’t mean the translation should say “men” where the original is broader: “people.”
Similarly, I suppose the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 were also followers of Christ. Should we therefore translate “reliable Christians” for pistoi anthropoi? Of course not. To translate “Christians” is to add information that comes from other parts of the text. To translate “men” is to make the same mistake.
People / Slaves — Nephesh
Another example came up in a comment to a discussion about nephesh in Genesis 12:5 on BBB: “Abram took … the persons [nepheshes] whom they had acquired in Haran…” (NRSV). Yancy Smith points out that some versions translate nephesh as “slave,” rather than “person,” because the nepheshes there are “acquired.”
But again, the reasoning (of the TEV and others) is flawed. Even if the people are slaves, there is a difference between “acquiring people” and “acquiring slaves.” The Hebrew has the former, and so should the translation.
The Son of God / Christ
A third example comes from Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (NRSV). The “Son of God” is, of course, “Christ,” also translated as “Messiah.” We see the identity, for example, in Matthew 26:63: “tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (NRSV). But that doesn’t mean that we can translate Mark 1:1 as “Jesus Christ, the Messiah.”
Our final example for now comes from the “dry bone” prophesy in Ezekiel, who is told in verse 37:4: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (NRSV). In verses 37:9 and 37:11, the reader learns that these bones are the “slain” “house of Israel.” It’s a brilliant progression, and it would be destroyed by translating “bones” as “slain of the house of Israel” in 37:4.
It seems to me that, wherever possible, translators should translate the text of the Bible without destroying the nuances of the original. And often, providing too much information makes a translation less accurate.
The dictionary can be double edged sword, used either to understand or wielded to confuse.
In another forum, a KJVO proponent defended the KJV translation “the voice of the turtle” (for the Hebrew kol ha-tor) as accurately representing a bird call in Song of Songs. His reasoning was that “turtledove” is listed as one of the (archaic) meanings for “turtle,” so “voice of the turtle,” he says, means, “voice of the dove.”
I think this approach is as common as it is misguided.
It usually goes something like this:
[Between six appearances in four cities and then having to buy a new car, I haven’t been in front of a computer in nearly two weeks. So I’m playing catch-up, starting with a much-delayed installment of “translation traps.”]
Following up on some thoughts about myopic translations, here’s one way in particular that a translation can focus too closely on the words and not closely enough on the text.
This is a typical translation of a (Modern) Hebrew text into English:
Rain was falling, it was cold and wet. We sat at home, we looked out toward the street.
I sat with Tali. It was very cold. I said, “What a shame. We can’t do anything.”
[I’m] not allowed to go out and play ball. It’s just cold and wet and [I’m] not allowed. [I’m] not allowed.”
We kept sitting. Just, just, just, just [sitting]. It was the most boring [thing] in the world.
And then something moved. Bump. Wow, what a bump. We were so shocked.
We looked, and then he made his way in. We looked, and we saw, a mischievous cat.
For reference, here’s the original Hebrew, with word-for-word translations:
But the English translation above, even though at first glance it may seem pretty good, is wrong in almost every regard. Can you figure out what happened?
Sometimes it seems that translators look too closely at individual words, only asking “how do I say this ancient word in English?” rather than asking “how do I translate this text into English?” I think this flawed approach comes in part from ignorance, but also from the religious tradition that each word has meaning. So this is one way in which scientific translation can sometimes diverge from religious interpretation.
Getting it Right
As a simple example of a good translation that comes from looking beyond individual words, we can consider Numbers 24:5, which is about Jacob’s tents (“your tents, Jacob”). The first Hebrew word in that verse, ma, means “what” and the second word (tovu) means “were good.” But it’s wrong to translate “what good were your tents, Jacob?” Every translation that I know of gets this right with “how good are your tents…”
This is a case where a word normally has one translation (“what,” in our example) but certain circumstances call for another (“how,” here).
Matthew 1:18 is similar. It’s the first of several times we find the Greek phrase en gastri, “in the womb”: “Mary was found to be en gastri….” But it doesn’t mean that Mary was in the womb, because the next Greek word is echousa, “holding.” “Holding in the womb” is Greek for “pregnant,” or — as used to be common — “with child.”*
Again most translations get this right, correctly realizing that even though the Greek words for “in” and “womb” appear in the original, the English words “in” and “womb” have no place in the translation. To try to form a sentence with “in” and “womb” would be overly myopic, focusing too closely on the words and not on how they work together.
This phrase-level issue is pretty close to internal structure, which I discussed last week.
Getting in Wrong
One of the clearest ways in which translations are myopic is when it comes to light verbs like the Greek poieo. Acts 2:22 is a perfect example both of the problem and the difficulty of getting it right. There, God poieos three kinds of things: dunamis, teras, and simeion.
Translations such as (NRSV) “deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did…” seem to ignore basic English grammar. We don’t say “do deeds of power” in English, or “do signs.” What seems to have happened is this: The translators looked at each word in isolation, myopically asking, “how do we say dunamis?” or, “how do we say poieo?” Once they had answers, they crammed them together.
Using “work” for poieo — as in the NAB, “mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked…” — doesn’t seem much better. “Working mighty deeds” similarly isn’t English.
We do have grammatical ways to express the same thing in English: “God’s wonders,” for example, or “God’s signs,” instead of “the wonders that God did/worked.” (I’m purposely ignoring dunamis for now.)
But the whole sentence makes that approach difficult, because “God poieod the three kinds of wonders through Jesus of Nazareth. Continuing the pattern we just tried, we would get “God’s wonders through Jesus,” but I don’t think that’s right, because the original Greek refers to how the wonders were performed, not what kind of wonders they were.
So we might try, “performed wonders,” which is at least grammatical in English. But we’ll run into trouble with “performed works,” which doesn’t make much sense, and we don’t have a translation for dunamis here.
Still, even without a successful translation (any ideas?) I think the concepts are clear. What we need here is the equivalent of “how” instead of “what” for ma, that is, a way of expressing in English what the Greek expresses very clearly. What we don’t want is what most translations offer: a translation that looks at each Greek word in isolation, renders it in English, and then hopes that those English words will make sense when put together.
Finally, to round things out, we can consider the Hebrew phrase eitz hasadeh. The words mean “tree of the field” (and this is how most translations render the phrase), but the phrase probably means “fruit tree.”
The lessons are clear, and, unfortunately, they invite a cliché in summary: Translators who focus myopically on the words risk missing the forest and seeing only trees.
[Posted at 33,000 feet on my way back from teaching in New Orleans.]
Perhaps the biggest translation mistake I’ve seen is relying too closely on word-internal structure to figure out what words mean. We saw this last week with toldot and in a comment regarding etymology.
I call this the trap “word-internal structure” (even though it applies to phrases, too).
As usual, we can look at modern languages to see how poorly internal structure reveals the meaning of a word.
Two examples from my recent And God Said include “hostile,” which doesn’t mean “like a host,” even though the pattern of “infant” and “infantile” would suggest otherwise; and “patently,” which means “obviously” even though a patent by definition must be non-obvious. We see that even with something so simple as adding “-ly” to a word, we can’t rely on structure to tell us what a word means.
Also from And God Said comes this example about phrases:
A more detailed example highlights the issue. English has a verb “pick” and two words “on” and “up” that can be added to verbs. “Pick” (as in “pick a lock”) means, “open stealthily without a key.” “Up” means “away from gravity” and “on” means “touching and located in the direction of open space.” (All of these definitions are approximate. That isn’t the point here.) This knowledge, however, doesn’t explain why “pick on” means “annoy,” “pick up” means “increase” (as in, “pick up the tempo”), and “pick up on” means “discern.”
This demonstrates the important fact that phrases, like words, don’t always get their meanings from their parts. (Another favorite example is “drive-through window.”)
We’ve already seen one clear case where internal structure leads us astray. The internal structure of the Hebrew word toldot suggests that it specifically has to do with “birth,” or maybe “generations” or “descendants.” But we saw that it does not.
Another example comes from the Hebrew phrase “spy after” in Numbers 15:39. The verb there is tur, which means “spy” or “explore.” And the preposition is acharei, “after.” But — just as with “pick up” and “pick on” — it’s a mistake to assume that we can understand the phrase just by knowing its parts. In this case, the phrase occurs nowhere else, so we’re stuck with a problem. The full sentence — important enough in Judaism to be included in the m’zuzah that adorns doorways and the t’fillin that serve as ritual prayer objects — is this: “this will be your tassel. When you see them, you will remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them. Do not ??? your heart and your eyes, after which you lust.”
(Two notes are in order: “heart” is misleading here, as is “lust.” Also, t’fillin enjoys the utterly useless English translation “phylacteries.”)
Translations for the literal “spy after” include “follow after” (ESV), which I don’t think is even an expression in English; “[go] wantonly astray after” (NAB); “going after the lusts of” (NIV); and “follow” (NRSV). Except for the NRSV, all of these translations (wrongly, in my opinion) insist on putting the word “after” in the translation. (The LXX gives us diastrafisesthe opiso, while the Vulgate has the single word sequantur, from sequor, “to follow.”)
Hebrew word-internal structure is complicated, and — depending on personal constitution — either immensely enjoyable or the ultimate barrier to learning Hebrew. Either way, it’s hard to ignore Hebrew’s rich word-internal structure, but sometimes translation demands that we do.
By way of further example, we can consider the Modern Hebrew word m’sukan. It is the passive of the active m’saken. The active means “endanger.” So word-internal structure points us to “endangered” for a translation of the passive. But that’s wrong. The word means “endangering.” In other words, the passive means almost the same thing as the active. “Dangerous” is the usual translation.
When I discussed energeo (responding to discussions by J.R. Daniel Kirk and on BBB — then BBB followed up, as did T.C. Robinson), one comment noted that I “miss[ed] the distinction between the active in Matthew 14:2, Galatians 3:5 etc. and the middle or passive in Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16.” I think we see from the discussion here that, while the active/passive/middle distinction is not to be ignored, neither can we rely on it to tell us what words mean. It’s possible (as we just saw in Modern Hebrew) for a passive form not simply to indicate the passive of what the active form indicates.
It seems to me that two lessons are important.
First, word-internal structure, while sometimes helpful and often fun, is an unreliable way to figure out what a word means.
Secondly, phrases are just like individual words in this regard.
So when we look at a word or a phrase, I think it’s important not just to look at its formal structure.
Last month, Bill Mounce, C. Michael Patton, and Clayboy all alluded to the issue of etymology, which is surely one of the biggest translation traps (and important enough that I devote considerable attention to it in my And God Said).
Etymology is really fun. Tracing a word’s winding history, seeing how meanings mutated, and learning about the legacy of long-dead meanings are engaging and entertaining ways to delve deeper into language. This is probably why people look to etymology to figure out what a word means, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work.
As usual, we can start with some English examples to get a sense of things.
For example, people like to say that “commit” means to bundle your fate together with another’s, because, after all, “commit” comes from Latin that means “to put together.” It’s a lovely poetic thought (or not), but it’s not what “commit” means.
Similarly, “glamour” and “grammar” share an etymology, but that doesn’t mean that grammar is necessarily glamorous.
A third example comes from the English verb “to table,” which reflects the notion of sitting around a table at a meeting. But in America, “to table a motion” is to put the motion on the table where it won’t be seen until later; that is, it means “not to vote on.” By contrast, in England the phrase means to put the motion on the table in front of everyone, that is, “to vote on.” These two opposite meanings come from the same etymological source.
Hebrew and Greek
Hebrew and Greek work the same way as English in this regard, but still, at least one example seems in order. The root d.b.r gives us the words for davar (“thing”) and d’vorah (“bee”). The root may have originally been used for “speak,” and from there words based on it branched out, meaning (in the case of davar) “that which is spoken about” and (in the case of d’vorah) something that makes a buzzing sound not unlike speech.
But this doesn’t mean that bees in Hebrew are any different than in English. They don’t have a closer connection to speech than in English, for example. More generally, the perhaps interesting etymology does not tell us what the words mean.
The lesson is pretty clear: Don’t use etymology to figure out what a word means.
Finally (and this too is from And God Said), we can note that “in a lovely bit of irony that demonstrates our point, the word ‘etymology’ comes from the Greek for “true meaning.”
So the “true meaning” isn’t the meaning at all.
Mark 15:9 demonstrates how translation can make people forget their own grammar.
A curiosity of English generally prevents anything from appearing between a verb an its object. This is why “I saw yesterday Bill” is such an awkward sentence in English. (It’s fine in French, Modern and Biblical Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages.)
Yet for the Greek apoluso umin ton basilea tou Ioudaion the KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NJB, and NRSV all have some variant of, “[do you want me to] release for you the King of the Jews,” putting the phrase “for you” (sometimes “to you”) right between the verb and the object.
Simple English grammar demands, “…release the King of the Jews for you.”
I suppose what we see is a result of translators’ (unfortunate) desire to mimic the Greek word order combined with something about Bible translation that makes people temporarily forget what they ordinarily know instinctively.
The lesson this week is simple: When you write an English translation, try to write it in English.