3 wrong ways (and 1 right way) to translate Biblical Hebrew

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by Neil Godfrey

I nice little book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Orginal Meaning, by Dr Joel M. Hoffman, gives us some valuable and interesting insights into the complexities involved with translating from Hebrew to English. He entertainingly discusses some culturally entrenched mistranslations that we have inherited in most of our Bibles, too.

I am sure I am not the only one with an interest in Bible study who has been known to struggle to find original meanings of Hebrew words by piecing together data from a number of lexicons and dictionaries. Hoffman has a discussion highlighting three common methods of understanding Hebrew that don’t work very well. I can understand his advice being fit for amateurs but he seems to be saying that even professional translators have also at times fallen into these traps:

Unfortunately, three common methods of understanding Hebrew are rampant among translators, and none of them works very well. The three methods are internal word structure, etymology, and cognate languages. (p.21)

The news is not all bad, though. Hoffman does discuss a fourth method that really does work. But first he addresses the three bad wolves.

Wrong: Internal word structure

Hoffman illustrates the problem here with English language analogies.

The word “patent” by definition means a “non-obvious art”, with “art” being use in its technical sense to embrace science as well what we think of as art. But the key part of the definition is “nonobvious”.

In fact, Section 103 of Title 35 of the U.S. Code, the part of U.S. law that deals with patents, specifically notes that “non-obvious subject matter” is a “condition for patentability.”

He incidentally refers to one wag who managed to patent the simple stick though describing it in a way to hide its obviousness, and I have seen a patent go through for “a circular transportation facilitation device” (the wheel!) — again clever scientific jargon can be used to make something obvious seem quite novel.

Now since the suffix “-ly” usually turns a word into an adverb, one might expect that patently would mean doing something in a non-obvious way. But of course we know the word means the exact opposite!

Again, the word “host” means someone who welcome guests at parties. But “hostile”, once again, has an opposite meaning. If we tried to use the word “host” to understand “hostile”, or vice versa, we would get a completely wrong answer.

Knowing the meaning of “intern” does  not help us in any way to establish the meaning of “internal”.

Police officers do not work in offices. And sweetbread is neither sweet nor bread.

The point is that words don’t get their meanings from their parts. Language doesn’t work that way.

At least, language doesn’t always work that way, and that’s the catch.

Hoffman describes how cherubs came to be associated with baby-faces. It was through a famous medieval biblical commentator, Rashi, comparing a Hebrew word for cherub with a similar sounding Aramaic one that did indeed mean “like a child” or “apprentice.”

There are two words hikriv in Biblical Hebrew: one means “make near” and the other, more common word, means “sacrifice”. To greatly simplify Hoffman’s explanation, he remarks on a common mistake by many people to let their ideological preference interfere with confusing the meanings of the two. Even though the word for “sacrifice” has nothing to do with “making near”, because of its homonym, they very often interpret the “sacrifice” as including the meaning of “drawing near” (to God). But this is not correct.

Wrong: Etymology

Etymology is about where a word comes from. It thus tells us what it used to mean, not what it does mean.

In a lovely bit of irony that demonstrates our point, the word “etymology” comes from the Greek for “true meaning.

Thus glamour and grammar come from the same source. But one is pushed to find any common meaning between the two nowadays.

Hoffman also informs me, much to my chagrin, that stationery and stationary also have the same origin. Monks of old would sit at fixed — stationary — tables outside the dark areas of their buildings to do their writing. Later as more people became literate they would go to these stationary booths to buy their writing materials from the monks. All those teacher hours wasted in misleading pupils of the importance of knowing the difference between stationary and stationery!

Like internal word structure, etymology has intuitive appeal. It just seems obvious (even though it’s not true) that a word’s history ought to determine, or at least influence, its meaning. (p. 32)

Hoffmann illustrates the Bible’s own love of etymology with its many stories written to explain why a word exists: Adam, Eve, Isaac, Jacob, Bethel, Beersheba, Taberah, Gilgal.

Wrong: Cognate Languages

A work appearing in more than one language is a cognate.”To demand” in English and “demander” in French are an example of a cognate. Hoffman narrates a moment when an international incident almost resulted when a French President, Mitterand, through a translator “demanded” that the U.S. President visit France. While the English word has the meaning of forcefully demanding, the French meanings is merely “to ask”.

So while there is some common thread joining the meanings of the two words, it is clearly wrong to deduce the meaning in one language from its use in another.

Another example given is the English word sombrero meaning “Mexican hat”, while in Spanish it means just “hat”. (So a baseball cap in Spanish is a sombrero.)

Right: Context

Finally Hoffman brings us to the right way to do the job. Context is “the most reliable way of determining what a word in a dead language means.”

Hoffmann uses “driveway” as an example. If we attempt to understand this word from its internal word structure (a road or way where we drive cars) we would be wrong. By finding enough sentences that use the word driveway we will be able to discern that it is associated with parking cars. We will see many phrases like “Park in the driveway”, or sometimes “drive up the driveway” or “drive into the driveway” – but always in the context of parking. We will rarely if ever see “drive in the driveway”.

Similarly, contexts will inform one unfamiliar with English that “ice-cream truck” and “fire truck” are vehicles where people buy ice-cream, or are called out to put out fires.

The word “opposite” is more complex, and context will enable us to eventually work out its various meanings. At one level, opposite means completely unlike or altogether different, explains Hoffman. But if one is asked for the opposite of dog, a common answer will be cat. Yet cats and dogs are not completely unlike at all. So the word “opposite” can include the meaning of “complementary” or “the other of a pair”.

One of the most common words in the Hebrew Bible is leimor.

The word literally means “to say,” and it’s most commonly translated as “saying.” This is where we get (terrible) translations like, “God spoke unto Moses, saying . . .” Let’s look at the context of leimor and see if we can figure out what it really means. (p. 37)

I won’t go through the cases here that Hoffmann examines, but here is his conclusion:

The word leimor is used for questions, statements, songs, blessings, commandments, etc. In fact, leimor is used for anything that involves direct quotation. Indeed, it introduces direct quotation. We don’t have a word like that in English, but we have something just as good. We have punctuation. The role of quotation marks is to mark direct quotations.

And that’s just the beginning. If you want to know what else the Bible translators have got wrong you’ll have to read the book or pick other discussions of it — or wait for a few occasional posts I might do in the future.




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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “3 wrong ways (and 1 right way) to translate Biblical Hebrew”

  1. FYI, as I understand it medieval merchants who operated out of non-mobile storefronts were known as stationers. The goods they sold — books, paper, envelopes — were called “stationery.” Eventually, this general term became associated with specific items, namey paper and envelopes.

  2. Translating leimor as “saying” is not a mistranslation at all. First, unlike quotation marks, it only begins the quotation. That’s how “saying” works too. The KJV was designed to be read aloud in the churches of England and it makes more sense to have the “saying” than quotation marks because in an audible context you can’t trust the reader to always modify his/her voice during quotations. But the “saying” marks the beginning and stands out better than most readers would be able to make a quotation stand out otherwise. So for a text intended to be read aloud, it makes sense, both as a feature (not a bug) of the original language, and of the pre-modern translations. Frankly, I think Hoffman is dead wrong on this one. He undermines his credibility by choosing the stupidest example of all time.

    He ought to have gone with elohim as a plural or something of actual importance and something not so easily proven to be a mistake on his part. Like for example that the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are part of the same tradition not two competing traditions, because in the first “in the beginning gods created the heaven and the earth…and the gods said…” etc. In the second, “the Lord of the gods made the earth and the heavens” and so on. For in Hebrew, the concept of “of” has to be implied. It is not written. Lord God, Adonai elohim can just as well be translated Lord of gods. Just as Adonai melek is translated “Angel of the Lord” when it could just as well be “the angel Adonai”.

    1. Perhaps it’s appropriate for me to add a word in Hoffman’s explanation for leimor.

      He gives examples where it cannot be sensibly translated as “said” or “say” in English. For example, in English we don’t say questions. We ask them. In English we don’t say songs when singing them, we sing them. Hence, the Hebrew leimor is best translated, in Hoffman’s view, as “comma, quote . . . .”

    2. rey: Like for example that the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are part of the same tradition not two competing traditions, because in the first “in the beginning gods created the heaven and the earth…and the gods said…” etc.

      They are not the same tradition. One could argue that P and J are complementary accounts, but they are certainly not the same. Note that P’s elohim (God or gods) creates “the heavens and the earth,” while J’s Yahweh-elohim (Yaweh-God) creates “the earth and the heavens.” The elohim of P is transcendent and removed. The Yahweh of J is localized and personal.

      rey: In the second, “the Lord of the gods made the earth and the heavens” and so on. For in Hebrew, the concept of “of” has to be implied. It is not written. Lord God, Adonai elohim can just as well be translated Lord of gods.

      When reading the text aloud it is customary to say “Adonai” in place of “YHWH” but it no way should we assume that the J writer meant “the lord of gods.” He meant to write the name of his god, which is YHWH (Yahweh). (See verse 4 of chapter 2 –> http://interlinearbible.org/genesis/2.htm.)

      rey: Just as Adonai melek is translated “Angel of the Lord” when it could just as well be “the angel Adonai”.

      Where and when does this happen? I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but as far as I know, “Adonai melek” is normally translated as “Lord King.”

  3. The Liddle-Scott Greek English Lexicon, like its counterpart the Oxford English dictionary, not only provides definitions and translations, but examples of word usage. It provides citations from the Greek literature and in context quotations demonstrating word usage.

    (The Oxford Latin Dictionary has a similar structure.)

    Most of the Greek/English Dictionaries published in the USA by religious publishing houses DO NOT have this feature. Instead just a definition is provided, and the definition is always one that is in agreement with christian interpretation of the bible.

    For example “Paradidimoi” is defined as “betray” in these Protestant sponsored lexicons, while Liddle-Scott shows that it means “to handover”, and provides usage examples to this effect, and suggests that “betray” is an aberant translation.
    There are other examples of this, the word translated as “vessels” in the gospel attributed to Mark, and also translated as such by most lexicons published by a press affiliated with a christian religious order, is translated as “military supplies” in Liddle-Scott.
    In the gospel attributed to John, Jesus is armed not with a whip, but according to Liddle-Scott, he is wielding a “flail” or “scourge”, ie a cat of nine tails. There is a considerable difference between a relatively benign instrument of chastisement like a whip, and a weapon with crippling or lethal capabilities like a flail or a cat.

    The gospel translators were trying to downplay or conceal the potentially lethal intent of their hero, when he allegedly attacked the Temple economic system. The bible publishing house lexicon compilers, in this and other instances, are producing deliberate mis-representations for consumption by a gullible public that does not have access to a decent library, or that un-questionly accepts what their propagandists tell them.

    False cognates, folk etymologies, and bad puns are the stock in trade of the religious propagandist, who exploit them as their “proof texts” to demonstrate the validity of their doctrines. Basically, it is the fast talking ” dog is god ” spiel of the fundamentalist evangelist out to impress a poorly educated or non critical audience. The technique is employed both by the ultra orthodox Jewish Chabad missionaries, the fundamentalist stump preacher, the door to door charlatan, and the distributors of pulp paper religious tracts. As if I am supposed to give these people my absolute obedience and free access to my wallet, on the basis of an un-parseable spiel laden with twisted logic, and ridiculous flights of fancy based on some linguistic happenstance that resulted in similar sounding words, or as the result of very questionable translations of polemical texts produced by late Bronze Age and early Iron Age propagandists.

    The high falutin’ language of the stump preacher is not that far removed from the language of a 19th century medicine show or carny barker. It is deliberately confusing pseudo educated patter designed to extract money from the ill educated unsophisticated rural yokel.

    The primary stock in trade of most diploma mill bible colleges is not teaching critical thought, but to provide courses in appologetics and rhetoric so that the graduate will have the verbal skills needed to build up and fleece his human flock.

    1. “The Liddle-Scott Greek English Lexicon…not only provides definitions and translations, but examples of word usage….Most of the Greek/English Dictionaries published in the USA by religious publishing houses DO NOT have this feature.”

      Excellent point. Wish I had though to mention it. 🙂 Of course, I think you can remove the “most” in “Most of the Greek/English Dictionaries published in the USA by religious publishing houses…” I have never seen one that did.

    2. Don’t we have laws against charlantry in medical practice — or many countries certainly do. False claims are criminal offences in some countries. I’m sure few universities with regard for their academic reputation offer studies in homeopathy or astrology. Surely the reason we have so much biblical nonsense in universities is the chance of historical heritage having granted such studies a secure place by default.

      1. Neil,

        sorry to disappoint you. My alma mater has an school of acupuncture thinly veiled as TCM, Sydney has chiropracty (and there are a hell of a lot of those sorts in the states), London and Manchester have homeopathy hospitals and schools and there are a number of naturopathy colleges states side.

        I am of the understaning that the US chiropracty and australian chiropracty is loans/hecs based as with UTS’ acupuncture.

        Now you brought this up, but there appears to be a number of colleges state side that carry the must believe to pass criterion.

        I really wish there was a school of astrology in the states so that that awful movie, Zeitgeist, could have gotten its facts straight. Not even an astrologer half worth his salt could have made those gaffs.

        Frankly, zeitgeist could have been pulled apart by a keen 10year old amateur observer. It deserves the scorn it has received.

  4. While it is correct the explanation about “sombrero” not being a “Mexican hat”, but just a “hat” It is not accurate that baseball cap in Spanish is a sombrero. Sombrero is used for the hats that somewhat protect against the sun (usually those with “wings”) Baseball cap or any similar cap in spanish would be “gorro” or “gorra” (Perhaps in some other countries might have a different name but never “sombrero”)

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