God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Grammar

As with words, it makes intuitive sense that a translation should convey the grammar of the original.

“Translating the words and grammar separately doesn’t work. They have to be translated together.”

But, again, our intuition leads us astray.

Here’s an example of what can go wrong if we try to mimic the grammar of one language when we translate it into another.

English and French

With rare exception, adjectives in English come before the nouns they modify. So in English we have “the good man,” not “the man good.” For this reason, when the Greek mneuma (“spirit”) and agion (“holy”) are combined to form the Greek mneuma agion, the English translation is not “spirit holy” but rather “holy spirit.”
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April 27, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

First Things First: Stress, Focus, and Biblical Hebrew Word Order

The importance of word order in Biblical Hebrew recently came up regarding Genesis 1:1, and in particular how we know that that verse answers the question “when?”

Here’s some more information and some additional examples.

An English Diversion

In English, stressing different words changes the implications of a sentence.

For example:

Example 1.

  1. This is my friend.
  2. This is my friend.
  3. This is my friend.

Sentence 1.1 is neutral, and might be used simply to introduce someone.

But 1.2 has addition implications, and it doesn’t make sense as a neutral introduction. But it does make sense in more narrow contexts. For example, it could answer the question, “whose friend is this?” And it makes sense if, because of context, there is already a sense that this is someone else’s friend. In both scenarios — specifically answering a question and clarifying an unasked question — it’s convenient to say that 1.2 “answers the question: whose friend this is?”

Example 1.3 cannot be used to answer the question “whose friend is this?” (Try it: -“Whose friend is this?” -“This is my friend.”) But it can be used if it’s already clear that this person has a relationship to me, but the nature of that relationship is not yet established. And, again, this could be in response to a specific question (e.g, “and how do you know each other?”), an implication, or some other context that causes the speaker to highlight the nature of the relationship.

One particularly interesting consequence of this is that stressing a word sets up alternative scenarios in the mind of the hearer. When I say, “this is my friend,” an English speaker automatically considers other possibilities: this is my enemy; this is my lover; etc.

Example 2.
1. We have landed in LGA. (This is the safe statement.)
2. We have landed in LGA. (This is risky.)

This is why “airplanese” stresses the words that are normally unstressed in English. For example, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport.” This phrasing only sets up one other possibility in the mind of English speakers who hear the sentence: “we have not landed in LaGuardia airport.” But the more usual sentence, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport” makes people consider other undesirable possibilities, like “we have crashed into LaGuardia airport.”

Example 3.
1. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is the safe answer.)
2. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is incriminating.)

Similarly, a witness at a murder trial might be asked, “how did you kill Mary?” The safe answer is “I killed Mary with a knife.” The dangerous answer is, “I killed Mary with a knife,” because that response assumes other pairs of people and weapons to which “I killed” might apply. Just changing the sentential stress is tantamount to admitting to additional murders.


Biblical Hebrew uses the pre-verbal sentence-initial position much the way we use sentential stress in English. This is how we know that Genesis 1:1 answers the question “when?” not “what?” or “who?” — the first word is breishit, “in the beginning.” A spoken-English translation of Genesis 1:1 might be “God created heaven and Earth in the beginning.”

Further Examples

Another example comes from Genesis 3:16-17. The first words of Genesis 3:16 are el ha-isha amar, “to the-woman [God] said.” This deviation from normal word order, like Example 3, has the effect of focusing “the woman,” as if to say, “this is what God told the woman.” The Hebrew reader naturally wonders, “okay. And what did God tell the man?” Genesis 3:17 answers that question, using the word order ul’adam amar…, “and-to-Adam [God] said…” — that is, “and God told Adam…”

We see the same thing in Genesis 45:22. The verse has two parts. The first begins, “to all [of the brothers] [Joseph] gave….” and the second one, “to Benjamin [Joseph] gave…” The point is to contrast Benjamin with the other brothers.

Hosea 5:7 reads badonai bagadu ki vanim zarim yaldu, “God they-betrayed when/for children alien they-bore.” Again, the point is expressed in English with stress: “they betrayed God by fathering illegitimate children.” Hosea is emphasizing the connection between human action and the divine.

All of these nuances come to light when we take Hebrew word order into account.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Forgetting Your Own Grammar

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.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 14 Comments