God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

It Doesn’t Matter the Condition of the Grammar

I think back to a radio spot for lechayim, an “auto donation program” (that is, a program for donating your car, not for donating yourself). The announcer in the ad tells listeners that if they donate their car to lechayim they will get a tax deduction, and furthermore, “it doesn’t matter the condition of the car!”

It’s pretty clear that the text was written by someone who speaks Yiddish.

Somehow the ad was written, edited, produced, and aired without anyone noticing that it makes no sense except to a small subset of English speakers.

This sounds like many Bible translations I’ve encountered.

I think the ad can teach us about three ways that some Bible translations go astray:

1. People doing the translations speak another language — Yiddish in the case of the ad, Hebrew/Greek in the case of Bible translation — and this knowledge shifts their internal grammar of their native language. They start to think that “it doesn’t matter the condition…” (in the case of the ad), or, say, “I spoke unto him saying…” (in the case of Bible translation) is English.

2. People evaluating the translations become so familiar with the flawed English that they, too, start to think it’s grammatical.

3. Context is often powerful enough to override — or, at least, significantly mask — ungrammaticality.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 1 Comment