Translating Genesis?

(Mary) #1

For the linguists among you, if you were to translate Genesis 1 in a new version of the Bible, how would you translate key words such as “day”, “sky”, “sea monsters”, “kind”, “flood gates” and any other contentious words? And would you do anything to emphasize the kind of genre that we find in Genesis 1?

My thinking is that it would be best to translate Gen 1 fairly literally, because if you do otherwise, you are likely to push everyone to a certain interpretation. (Although you could argue that “day” also pushes people towards a certain interpretation.) There is also a case for saying that modern translations that replace “dome” by “sky” are actually stopping people seeing the connections the passage has with the views around at the time of writing. So ironically, a more literal translation might help people not to take it literally!

That is my view, but I am fascinated to know what others think!

(Casper Hesp) #2

Let’s see, we can just do away with all the controversy by translating everything in YEC style, maybe it’s an idea to publish a special Ken Ham Bible Translation. I’m sure it would sell just great:

“day” => “time-accelerated for billions of years but still clearly literal-historical day”
“sky” => “vapor or something like that but surely not a dome”
“sea monsters” => “dinosaurs who tend to appear in gladiator fights”
“kind” => “biblical kind (duh!) that requires hyper-evolution to produce modern animals”
“flood gates” => “global flood vomit gates of the oceans that produced all of modern geology in a few years”

To prevent Poe’s law from taking effect, I will have to end this post with a winking smiley:


(Joel Duff) #3

If I might direct the question of translation a bit differently In a footnote to my post on BioLogos today I noted that the Hebrew root meanings of many animals refer to specific notable traits that animals exhibit. The eagle is a tearer of flesh, lions are of violence etc. Even benign traits of organisms refer to adaptations for their survival in a world of death.

Given these are the names given to the animals that the Israelites knew it seems to be me that the YEC is in a bit of a conundrum. Adam gave names to all the animals but clearly he could not have given these names to the animals before he sinned because he would not have known about these features - again according to the YEC train-of-thought. So, what then is the origin of the Hebrew names given to animals. Are we to believe that Adam and Noah never communicated the names of the animals to future generations and that people forgot the original names and then replaced them with new names reflecting their new natures post-Fall. It would seem this would have to be the YEC position. So yet again, we find another ad-hoc explanation. And doesn’t this undermine systematic biblical study using linguistics if even basic names for animals have completely changed over time?

(Mary) #4

I like that linguistic argument! I haven’t seen that one before!

(Christy Hemphill) #5

Ideally, a good translation leaves open all the possible interpretations available in the original language. There would be no good reason to translate “day” as anything other than “day.”

There is more emphasis now on “paratextual material” in Bible translation, where additional information included in footnotes or sidebars helps readers access the cognitive environment of the original audience so they don’t draw the wrong conclusions about what the text meant. I think these kind of hermeneutical aids are much more called for than messing with text itself through a translation that tries to push one particular reading or rule out another.

(Brad Kramer) #6

Translation: “For the @Christy among you”

This is such a fantastic question, @Mazza_P, because it really gets to the heart of what it means to “translate” the Bible into a modern language. Seriously, @Christy is our resident expert on this topic (since translation/linguistics is her field of work), but as someone who has studied the Bible at a graduate level and has wondered about this topic for my entire life, here are some brief thoughts.

First, I think most people misunderstand what is actually involved in translation. Ancient Hebrew, for instance, has a relatively small vocabulary and is highly pictorial and symbolic in nature. There are tons of passages where we just don’t know for sure what is actually being communicated. This is partially because languages rely on a cultural “thought world” to get across their points. Think about how much of our daily communication in modern English relies on a certain cultural understanding, including many idioms that don’t make grammatical sense but are still widely used. Ancient Hebrew is no different.

There’s also many questions of theology involved too. If one possible meaning of a word conflicts with the translator’s theology, they are more likely to go with an alternative translation. Every translator does this.

So the idea that there are “literal” translations and “nonliteral” translations is highly inaccurate. Translations are interpretations of the text, not just mathematical exercises in turning Hebrew and Greek into modern English (or whatever language).

There’s an extremely common idea among Evangelicals that the best way to read the Bible is to get as many of our biases out of the way and just “listen” to the text. This view has two big problems. First, we aren’t listening to the “text”, we are reading a translation. Second, the best way to insert biases into your reading of Scripture is to pretend that you can overcome them somehow.

The creationist reading of Genesis 1 (young and old earth) is a perfect example of this. In the movie “Is Genesis History?” that we’ve been discussing on the blog, there’s a scene where a Hebrew expert guides the viewer through the first verses of Genesis. When he reads verse 2 (“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” [NIV]), he says something like, “so what’s being portrayed here is a watery sphere suspended in space.” Is this a reading or an interpretation? Verse 2 says nothing a sphere or outer space. This reading is based on several assumptions about the form and function of Genesis, being read into the text. Now, we can debate those assumptions, but the point is that the movie presents this as a “natural” reading, and I’ll bet most viewers didn’t even notice the significant interpretations involved to get that meaning out of Gen. 1:2. This is a massive, massive problem in the origins conversation, and it drives much of the antipathy towards modern science.

If we would translate Genesis 1 in such a way as to preserve the strangeness of it, I think people would approach the chapter in a fundamentally different way, because it would be obvious that a “literal” reading could not suffice to tell us what the passage means today. To demonstrate, let me “translate” Genesis 1:1-8 in a way that I think reflects the cultural backdrop of the passage:

1 At the start, God made everything, both the spiritual realm above and below us and the earthly realm around us.
2 When he first started making everything, the universe was still filled with the primordial waters of the cosmic ocean. Everything was dark and unformed and unproductive. But God’s spirit was present even in the chaos.
3 Then God commanded light to illuminate the primordial darkness.
4 The day is when we experience this light, and the darkness is still there during the night. God made it this way.
5 Speaking of which, this was the end of God’s first workday.
6 God wanted to create a separation between the cosmic ocean under us and the one above.
7 So God blew a huge, hard bubble inside the primordial waters so there would be space in-between them.
8 He called the bubble “sky.” This is what God did on his second workday.

I can defend every one of the interpretative choices I’ve made here, and I believe it reflects a better contextual reading of the Hebrew. The reason why we don’t read it this way today is because it rubs against people’s expectations of what Genesis is supposed to say. Which is why people get so viscerally upset when you talk about things like the firmament or the cosmic ocean.

If we accepted that Genesis is better read in this fashion, then nobody would be able to say, “Genesis is an eyewitness account of creation, and that’s that. Anyone who disagrees just needs to return to God’s Word.” We would realize that the work of understanding and applying Genesis to questions of modern science is so much more complex than just “reading” it. And I think that would be a much healthier place for the church.

(Christy Hemphill) #7

:relaxed: There are a few other linguists lurking round these parts. I hope they throw in their two cents too.

(George Brooks) #8

I am not formally a linguist … but I have strong interests in its study. But right now, I don’t have cents… only drachmas. Are they only good if cents and drachmas are cognates?

(Christy Hemphill) #9

I think it depends on the conversion rate.

(Mary) #10

Two pence would be a pretty good translation right now I think. But I would insist on 5 or 6 drachmas.

(Christy Hemphill) #11

I totally agree that you cannot translate without engaging in interpretation. But, let’s say there is a continuum of translation goals running from “faithfulness to the text” to “communicating the essence of the original meaning.” I think there is a place where you move so far away from the original text into an explication of the text, that what you end up with isn’t really a translation, it’s a paraphrase. Paraphrases can be very helpful, but many people are not going to equate a paraphrase with “God’s word.”

(Mary) #12

Yes I agree that every translator is interpreting. What I really meant by “literal” here was a more word for word translation.Most translators would cringe at the idea of doing such a translation because it is being accurate to the grammatical form of the words in the original language rather than the meaning (in the mind of the author and hearers), and I am not suggesting really doing a word for word translation! But I think in Genesis 1, if you can figure out what the original readers understood by each word and translate that (though it sounds a bit odd to us), that is actually more helpful than trying to find a more creative word or expression that makes scientific sense! By smoothing out some of the unusual concepts, such as “dome”, we lull people into a false sense of security that it kind of works.


Mazza, you have indeed posted an excellent question and I am thrilled to see so many excellent responses.

Very true!

Unfortunately, so many people—no doubt whipped into a frenzy by various ministry leaders, Christian radio call-in program hosts, bloggers, and every self-proclaimed “expert” on such matters—would go absolutely ballistic over the new “liberal Bible translation.” They would proudly repeat the various suggested titles for the new “outrageous” translation coming from their favorite angry expert: The Compromising Christian’s Bible, Really Bad News for Modern Man, and, of course, The Evilutionist’s Billions-of-Years Bible.

A group of academic friends sat at a Denny’s restaurant during the ETS conference some years ago, sharing stories about our backgrounds as enthusiastic “creation science” Young Earth Creationists during the 1960’s and 1970’s. We were amazed at how much we shared in common in terms of life paths and gradual transitions to eventual acceptance of what we had once rejected (i.e., billions of years and evolution.) If we had time machines, how would we go about convincing our 20-year-old or 30 year old selves of long ago of the facts which many of you emphasized in the above posts? I can’t imagine explaining to my young self what I know after a lifetime of Biblical linguistics. I could try to summarize Moises Silva and David Black’s “future” tomes. I could try to explain what I learned from John Beekman, Gene Nida, and J.P. Lowe. [I spent a fascinating evening with Dr. Beekman at his home shortly after the Camp Wisdom Road facility was newly built. I had been invited as a lecturer that week but I learned far more from Dr. Beekman and the SIL/Wycliffe field directors than they ever learned from me. And I admit with some embarrassment, that was when I _really_ started to understand the importance of discourse analysis. I could make similar observations about Drs. Nida and Lowe in their scholarship. Johannes especially (because I had more opportunities to talk with him than Gene Nida) got me far more engaged in semantic domain “thinking”.] Those kinds of growth experiences happen over a period of many years. And I didn’t have a lot of time for learning the science relevant to origins until my retirement!

At age 30, I still didn’t know how little I knew. (Yeah. That’s pretty sad.) So how do we teach that to Bible readers who know nothing about linguistics and the complexities of translation? I don’t know! And most people in monolingual societies assume that translation is a one-for-one substitution process, almost like doing math. Even bringing them up to speed on how translation works is a big job.

Yes, the Kruger-Dunning Effect applies to all of us at one time or another in life. (I suppose somebody might manage to live a lifetime exempt from it, but I doubt it.)

Yes, we have to translate the Bible without going too far into interpretation, knowing that finding the “sweet spot” will always be impossible. But I confess: I have no sweepingly wise solutions. Even making strategic use of translation footnotes at the bottom of the page is fraught with complexities and hazards.

Frankly, with the exception of the B-Greek and B-Hebrew forums where I used to discuss translation with a lot of seminary professors years ago, I’ve rarely found a strong awareness of translation issues. In fact, I just now had a flashback to long ago when there was much flack over a new version of the NIV (was it??) over inclusive language issues. At first I thought my friend, Wayne Grudem, made some worthwhile points on what constitutes “overdoing” inclusive language. But it seemed that it was only a moment later that he and his associates decided to retreat to their motel rooms and in a single evening they were going to draft the definitive “How to Properly Translate the Bible: Guidelines & Rules.” Even though none of them had significant experience in linguistics and translation, they were determined to resolve problems over which great minds had wrestled, debated, and pulled their hair out for generations! (Yet all in one night, mind you. Of course, it ended up stretching into weeks and months. If anything, Wayne has always been tenacious!) In response, one by one I watched many of my academic colleagues pull away from Grudem’s enterprise.

More than any other, that episode convinced me that even experienced Biblical scholars failed to grasp the complexities of translation! Of course, most Christians simply assume that their favorite Bible scholars and seminary professors would all make expert Bible translators. Not so, obviously!

If top academics so often get things wrong, how can I expect the average Bible reader to know who has the right approach to the translation and interpretation of Genesis?

(Jay Johnson) #14

I thought you were still working on the cents/sense distinction. One day, you will get it… haha

(Jay Johnson) #15

The New American Standard Bible is the most literal English version, in my judgment. The New Living Translation, by comparison, uses more of a thought-for-thought translation philosophy. This allows a smooth and readable style, but as everyone seems to realize (which doesn’t stop me from saying it anyway), the end product often favors a particular interpretation of the text.

The New English Translation (NET Bible) provides footnotes to explain some of the choices made in translation. It’s a useful version for those who do not know Greek but are interested in seeing some of the nuances behind the English translation.

(Christy Hemphill) #16

Ha! And the translation choices of the ESV make so much sense. Have you ever read Mark Strauss’ “Why the English Standard Version should not become the standard English version”? The section on “oops translations” is hilarious. And the section on the completely inconsistent application of their gendered language principles is pretty interesting.


Face-palm. Yes, very funny!

I was always baffled at how the ESV was released without at least a basic review by an independent proofreader who played no role in the translation process. I’ll admit it: when one has labored over a text with a fine-toothed comb for weeks, it is easy to miss huge gaffes. You’re just too close to the words to see them. But that is why there are typically some English lit majors somewhere (who finally found free-lance employment as proofreaders) who are reading the text fresh for the first time. And I learned long ago that translation proofreaders must preferably be no more than 30 years old—and not just the 50-something wife of one of the editors—so that they catch wording that falls far too close to a pop culture idiom or some off-color slang that the older ones would never notice. (As a young minister I had the uncomfortable duty of having to explain to the church “ladies’ aid society” that their lighthearted name for their new Wednesday morning Bible study group sounded Biblical but that it was also a slang expression for lesbian practices. I tactfully suggested that they think up an alternative name for the group before we printed the church bulletin. Believe it or not, their second choice turned out to be even more crude than the first one. The church was in the rural American heartland and they _might_have gotten by without anyone noticing. But we were only five miles from a popular resort area where wealthy people bought summer homes and a Baptist group was starting a summer camp for kids on that same lake—and visitors looking at a church directory for the area did join us on some Sundays. So I had visions of teenagers elbowing one another in the middle of my sermon, and pointing to that week’s church calendar of events in the bulletin and giggling. I know that those senior ladies must have thought me very “corrupted” to have found something “inappropriate” in each of their selected names—but then, as now, there are so many synonyms and expressions referring to carnal practices.

Hmmm, while in nostalgia mode, I also recall jokes in the 1960’s about Nebuchadnezzar being crazy on grass for eight years, and a teenager saying that “Rebekah lit her camel.”

And I still don’t understand why anybody thought “Moody Monthly” was a good name for a magazine. (I got so tired of the same lame joke about those because our church would get “seconds” from the printer.) But I suppose that when the magazine started, nobody in that generation noticed anything ill-advised about the name.

(David Lee) #18
When God began to create heaven and earth,
     and the earth then was welter and waste
     and darkness over the deep
     and God's breath hovering over the waters,
 God said,
     "Let there be light."
 And there was light.

 And God saw the light,
     that it was good,
 and God divided the light from the darkness.

 And God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night.
 And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

 And God said,
     "Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters,
         and let it divide water from water."
 And God made the vault
     and it divided the water beneath the vault
         from the water above the vault,
 and so it was.

 And God called the vault Heavens,
   and it was evening and it was morning, second day.

Et cetera. Read it out aloud, as though from a stage!

Note for instance:

  • Near the beginning, “welter and waste”, whose English is intended to resonate with the Hebrew “tohu wa bohu” (and how, in English, the subsequent “waters” then continues the English-alliterative resonance);
  • The continuing “and”, reflecting the Hebrew “wah”;
  • The brevity of the “first day”, “second day”, separated by punctuation from the previous text, and contrasting with all the “and” occurrences;
  • The “vault”, lending a sense of solidity to the dome;
  • And lots more…!

This is by the hugely respected Jewish scholar and linguist Robert Alter. (The poetic line division is mine, for the purposes of illustration here, but also to emphasise that this is a poetic text not the prose text a television “History Channel” documentary.)

P.S. Personal disclaimer: I am not linguist at all. I know absolutely no Hebrew.


I love his translations and commentary. And he provides LOTS of superb commentary.

Genesis: Translation and Commentary

(George Brooks) #20

@David_Lee… not just solidity… . but Height !!!

A vaulted ceiling is a frequently used reference to ceilings of great height and depth!