Volume 16, No. 3
July 2012

Dr. Joel Hoffman

Front Page


Index 1997-2012

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Sea Stories, Musings, and Philosophy from a Life in Languages
by Jonathan T. Hine, Jr, PhD

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Letter to a would-be translator
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  In memoriam
In memoriam: Leland Duane Wright, Jr. — 1942 - 2012

  Translation Nuts and Bolts
Translation on the Basis of Frequency: Compliment and Compliment Response
by Narjes Ziaei

  The Translator and the Computer
Free Online Translators: A Comparative Assessment of www.worldlingo.com, www.freexlation.com, and www.translate.google.com
Claire Ellender, PhD
Olympic Targets
by Jost Zetzsche

  Book Reviews
Don Quijote en su periplo universal. Aspectos de la recepción internacional de la novela cervantina
Concepción Mira Rueda
And God Said—How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman
Reviewed by Gabe Bokor

  Science and Technology
Translators and Math: The case of approximators
by Brian Mossop

  Arts and Entertainment
Mispronunciation in Subtitling
by Sarah Pybus

Norms in the Translation of Southern American English in Subtitles in Brazil: How is southern American speech presented to Brazilians?
by Vanessa Lopes Lourenço Hanes

Translation and Politics
Screening Political Bias and Reality in Media Translations
by Mátyás Bánhegyi

Translator Education
Collaborative Learning in Translating a Travel Guide: A Case Study
by Elaine Tzu-yi Lee
Teaching Translation: A Look at the Way It Is in Iranian Universities and the Way It Should Be
by Sahar Farrahi Avval

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Siri vs. Windows Speech Recognition
by Laura Frädrich, BA and Dimitra Anastasiou, PhD
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

  Translation Journal

Religious Translation


And God Said

How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning

By Dr. Joel M. Hoffman
Reviewed by Gabe Bokor
Publisher:  St. Martin's Press, New York
ISBN:  978-0-312-56558-9
Pages:  256
Price:  $25.99 U.S. / $31.00 Can.
Binding:  Hard cover

ou don't have to know Hebrew (I don't) or be a biblical scholar (I'm not) to thoroughly enjoy this book (which I did). It's more about language and translation than about religion and the Bible. Its basic premise is that Bible translations, starting from the Greek Septuagint through our age, have misunderstood or misinterpreted some of the most widely known and most often quoted passages. But Dr. Hoffman is careful not to lay the entire blame on the translators. He convincingly explains the difficulty of translating from an ancient language with no native speaker to ask about the exact meaning or pronunciation of a word in a text written thousands of years ago about and for a culture very different from ours.

[The author] convincingly explains the difficulty of translating from an ancient language with no native speaker to ask about the exact meaning or pronunciation of a word in a text written thousands of years ago about and for a culture very different from ours.
Add to this the fact that most of our knowledge of the Bible comes from, and most modern translations are based on, the so-called King James version (KJV), which itself is 400 years old. Not only our societies, but also the English language have undergone fundamental changes since that time. This accounts for the fact, that the Bible we know, with its "shalts," "thys," and "doths," sounds archaic, although it did not in King James's time. Neither did the Hebrew Bible, whose different registers and dialects are not reflected in its modern translations.

According to Dr. Hoffman, the errors in Bible translations stem from two sources: 1) the translators misunderstood the original Hebrew; 2) even when they understood the Hebrew, they failed to properly convey it in English. These factors have resulted in mistranslations which occasionally completely distort the original meaning or, in the best case, fail to reflect the poetry or the word play of the original.

Translation has five levels, in order of increasing accuracy:

  1. Sounds (what are the sounds of the original?)
  2. Words (what do the original words mean?)
  3. Phrases (what do the original phrases mean?)
  4. Concepts (what concepts are involved in the original?)
  5. Affect (what does the original do?)

For the "sound level translation," Dr. Hoffman cites the word "dog," which exists in Hebrew, but means "fish." While no translator would translate the Hebrew "dog" as "dog" into English, the sound of a word may be important in poetry or in wordplay.

Word-level mistranslations include the translation of a verse from Solomon's Song of Songs where the poet refers to his lover as "my sister, my bride." No, he did not have incest in mind, but, according to at least one interpretation, wished to express the equality of the sexes in a marriage.

The word "shepherd" in the well-known phrase "the Lord is my shepherd" (Psalm 23) fails to evoke, in the modern reader, the image of the ancient shepherd, which was of a powerful figure, whose job included protection of the herd against wild animals and armed robbers.

One interpretation, which may or may not have been erroneous, of a biblical passage gave rise to the dogma of "virgin birth." The Greek Septuagint translated the Hebrew word "alma" in Isaiah's profecy ("Behold, an alma shall conceive and bear a son"), which means "young woman," as "virgin." All the subsequent translations, including the KJV, followed the Septuagint's cue. This is not surprising or necessarily wrong, since in antiquity, when marrying age for women was 12-13 years, the typical young unmarried woman was a virgin. The young woman-virgin link is also reflected in modern German, where "Jungfrau" (literally "young woman") does not actually mean "young woman"; it means "virgin." Hebrew has a more specific word (b'tulah) for "virgin," so it is likely that the correct translation of "alma" is "young woman." For more about translation and virgin birth, see also http://translationjournal.net/journal/18review.htm.

The translation of the Ten Commandments is another source of confusion, starting with their title. The Hebrew word (in Exodus), that has traditionally been translated as Commandment is "davar,"which actually means what is spoken (a "word") and what is spoken about (a "thing). So, "commandments" and their popular interpretation as "laws" is probably a wrong translation of the Hebrew word.

Unlike our secular laws, the Ten Commandments specify no penalty for non-compliance They only tell us what is (morally) wrong; i.e., they represent value judgments.

At least one of the Commandments (the first one of the Jewish version, but not the Catholic or Protestant versions) is not even a commandment, but a statement ("I am the Lord, your Godů").

The most commonly mistranslated word in the Ten Commandments is "covet" (Commandment 10 of the Jewish and Protestant Ten Commandments, and Commandments 9 and 10 of the Catholic version). While this word is seldom used in modern English, the Hebrew word "chamad" probably means (remember, there were no dictionaries in biblical times, so we know the exact meaning if individual words only from the context in other passages) "to take." This seems to be a logical assumption also because "to covet" is a thought or emotion, and no other commandment prohibits thoughts or emotions, only actions.

In order for us, translators of modern languages, not to feel bad for having too easy a task compared to Bible translators, Dr. Hoffman mentions a few instances where translation between English and French or Spanish is almost as tricky as translation from ancient Hebrew.

Part of the novel  War and Peace of L.N. Tolstoy was written in French, rather than Russian, because French was the language of the Russian upper classes at that time. So how should these passages appear in a French translation of the novel? Left in French (which would destroy the intended effect) or translated into a third language?

A good example of wrong translation from Spanish into English is of the title of the film (and book) "Como Agua para Chocolate" (Like Water for Chocolate), which misses the double-entendre of the Spanish original using a common Mexican expression related to preparing chocolate using boiling water to illustrate the passion of the film's heroes.

The French fared no better when translating the title of Woodward and Bernstein's book All the President's Men literally as "Les hommes du président," missing the allusion to the passage in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: "all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put him [Humpty Dumpty] together again."

Translating every word of a sentence correctly does not necessarily convey the intended meaning in the target language. "Dinnertime" is 6 to 7:00 p.m. in North America, but 9 to 10:00 p.m. in countries like Spain or Argentina. So how should the word "dinnertime" be translated from one language to another.

December is "bleak" and cold in E.A. Poe's famous poem The Raven. In the Southern hemisphere, however, it is the hottest (and sunniest) month of the year. So how should "December" be translated here? Or how should the word "Northeast" be translated between Brazilian Portuguese and English, given that the word evokes completely different images in the native speakers of the two countries: In Brazil the Northeast is an impoverished tropical region, while in the U.S. it is a heavily industrialized prosperous area with a temperate climate?

The translation of the Bible's poetry poses a special challenge to translators. It is a commonly accepted tenet that you need to be a poet to translate poetry; yet, Bible translators were traditionally chosen not for their poetic talents, but for their linguistic and religious scholarship. The result is that most of the Bible's poetry, including style, meter, and rhyme, is lost in translation.

The translation of numbers and units of measurement between two modern languages is usually, although not always, straightforward. Not in Bible translations. "The store is about 6.2137 miles away" is a correct word-for-word translation of "the store is about 10 km away" from most modern languages. The problem is that 6.2137 is not an "about" number, but an "exactly" something. So should "about 10 km" be translated as "about 6 miles" or "about 5 miles" or "about 7 miles"? In the case of Bible translations, things get more complicated by the fact that a "round number" in our decimal system is not necessarily a "round number" in old Hebrew and vice-versa. Wherever we see a round number we should ask ourselves if that's an exact number or a rounded-up or rounded-down one. These "round numbers" in old Hebrew are, for example, numbers ending in or divisible by 6 or 12. Seth's age of 912 years (Genesis 5:8) may be 912 or 900 in the translation. Also, people of the antiquity had difficulty in dealing with large numbers. Try to multiply DCLXXI by CDXIX. And what about a possible hidden significance of some numbers, like the height of the new World Trade Center, which is 1776 feet, in honor of the year of American independence. Does the Bible contain such hidden allusions to historic events? If it does, they are lost in translation.

Translation, even between modern languages spoken by millions of native speakers, is a difficult endeavor. Dr. Hoffman's book shows the special challenges faced by Bible translators attempting to decipher a dead language without the aid of contemporary dictionaries or live native speakers capable of helping the translator reproduce the ancient text so it is meaningful to the modern reader, by clarifying the nuances of meaning of certain words or expressions. In some instances, while pointing out the shortcomings of traditional translations, Dr. Hoffman admits that he is unable to come up with a "good" alternative, which would preserve the meaning, the spirit, and when necessary, the poetry and sound effect of the original. Modesty and intellectual honesty are important traits of a translator, but essential to translators engaged in the almost impossible task of Bible translation.

The book concludes with an Appendix with a guide to existing English translations of the Bible and to further reading, an Index, and a separate Index of biblical references from the Old and New Testaments.

The light, conversational style of this book, despite the seriousness of the issues it discusses, references to current events, and examples from modern languages make it an entertaining, as well as highly informative, reading.