Mistakes of Biblical Proportions

The impact of Bible translation cannot and should not be underestimated. In fact, most western translation (and literary) traditions stem from work undertaken in Bible translation in the Middle Ages. The whole craft of modern translation, translation studies and translation theory can rightly be traced back to the scholarly practice of Biblical translators. In essence, Bible translation is the foundation upon which modern translation practice rests.

However, what happens when we discover that the foundation upon which modern European translation theory and practice rests is full of contradictions, inaccuracies and translation errors? We shall avoid religious arguments and points of dogma here and rather focus on the fact that a great many scholars have pinpointed errors in the translation of the Bible. If this is the case, does it have an impact on modern approaches to translation?

Modern versions of the New Testament use two source texts, the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus written in Greek, from which to produce their translations. As mentioned above, matters of dogma will not be discussed here so we will accept that these fourth century texts are the authentic versions of the New Testament. In this case, our debate begins with the translation of these two codexes into Latin and other language thereafter.

Two examples, from the English King James Bible, show certain translational ‘problems’. For example, Genesis 1:2 is translated: “And the earth was without form” (but should more accurately be:) “And the earth became without form”. Surely, this sheds new light on the Christian creation myth. Also, John 1:31 reads: “baptising with water” whereas a more accurate rendition of this would be “baptising in water”. If this is the case then the mythological and physical aspects of baptism should be re-thought.

These are only two examples of a host of errors relating to translation from the two codexes, however, what is interesting is the fact that there are many more inaccuracies and errors to be found after this point. Every successive translation produced more mistakes. The process of producing an ‘authentic’ version of the Bible took centuries. Have the mistakes made by copyists and deliberate alterations made by translators left an imprint on society? On religion? On how translators are viewed today?


19 thoughts on “Mistakes of Biblical Proportions

  1. The “problems” you quote are rather minor points which do not have any major effect on the principle and practice of the Christian faith. According to the very little Hebrew I learned in a very basic course a few decades ago, the distinction between “was” and “became” is rather a non-issue – or rather, the concept sets behind the idea do not fit easily into our western language perceptions, so both renderings are more “interpretation” than literal “translation”. And the question of the mode of baptism hinges on many separate references in the New Testament, so whether we use “with” or “in” in John 1:31 is rather non-critical (and I belong to a church that baptises “in” water, so I have no resistance to the use of that preposition on ideological grounds). Nor do the URLs in your links provide any more enlightenment on any earth-shattering uncertainties in the Biblical texts or their translations.

    In the light of this, I am rather amused by the combination of your sensationalist title (“mistakes of Biblical proportions”) and the rather scant content presented in your article. You appear to be a colleague professional translator, so I am sure you can bridge this gap if you give it a little thought – either by adopting a rather more realistic title, or by presenting some more substantial content to bolster the rather stark and dramatic proposition in your current title.

    In fact, the Biblical texts are probably the most carefully analysed and hotly debated translation source texts in the world’s history, and the analysts are by no means all controlled by a single dogmatic entity which forbids all conflicting opinions. There is also an enormous number and variety of translations in many many languages, and as a professional translator myself, I am not surprised to see the different interpretations which are expressed by different translators.

    Many “conspiracy theories” speculate about the iron grip of the Catholic church (or some other dogmatic authority) on theological research. I doubt whether such approaches are even fair to Catholics – but from where I stand, Catholic theology has merely informational value, and certainly no normative authority. Although there is some common ground (and a fair amount of tolerance for differences), I am firmly rooted in a different theological “camp”.

    In my professional work as a translator, I often find that the source text contains uncertainties, concepts which cannot be conveyed in my target language without some form of explanation or interpretation and a whole lot of other complications. And that is just between two mainline European languages with a fairly similar cultural history (German and English). The cultural gap between ancient Hebrew / ancient Greek and modern European languages is very much greater, so the approach needed for translation is considerably more complex.

    This is quite apart from the relationship between the Biblical text itself and the actual life of faith of a Christian. I could write a whole book about it (and I probably will, but that’s another story).

  2. The other day I pointed out in a Proz forum, a mistranslation in the Old Testament that led to a lot of disasters, see: http://www.proz.com/forum/business_issues/131453-mistranslations_leading_to_disasters.html

    This raised a lot of hue and cry resulting in the deletion of my original posting along with some rejoinders to the same.

    Things became so hot that the site owner Henry himself had to come and lock the thread.

    It is gratifying to note however that many posters in that forum felt that the original and subsequent postings by Narasimhan Raghavan (yours truly) did not deserve removal.

    Dondu N. Raghavan

  3. Hallo Dondu,
    I still don’t know what you mean by “a mistranslation in the Old Testament that led to a lot of disasters”. You merely pointed out a possible confusion between the words for “maiden” and “virgin” in translating the book of Isaiah.
    Others suggested that you were referring to the “Virgin Birth” of Jesus. But that does not depend on a single verse in the book of Isaiah, it is stated far more clearly in several places in the New Testament.

    So I don’t understand why you suggest that this “mistranslation” has anything to do with the teaching of the Virgin Birth of Jesus (if that is in fact what you were suggesting). Quite apart from the question of what the REAL difference between “maiden” and “virgin” was in the Jewish culture of Old Testament times.

    Nor do I understand why you link this with historical “disasters”.

    Perhaps you could enlighten me.

  4. //it is stated far more clearly in several places in the New Testament.//
    Dear Victor,

    Whether you like it or not, the New Testament cannot be taken as authority for a prophecy in the Old Testament. The whole point is that the New Testament as such contains this careless translation of Almah as virgin, whereas for the virgin as understood in the virgin birth concept, the Hebrew word is Betulah.

    And the disasters? We living now in more tolerant periods cannot understand the reign of terror unleashed by the Inquisition during the bad old Middle Ages.

    Those who refused to accept in toto the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth were put to the sword, tied to stakes and burnt and were subjected to other innovative punishments which only an inhuman inquisitor can think of and execute.

    And to think that all these things were due to a translation error involving the rendering of Almah as virgin (Betulah) instead of just a maiden or young girl is really mind-boggling.

    Please read the connected threads in Proz where I raised the same question, and which have been quoted in the now locked Proz forum post.

    Dondu N. Raghavan

  5. Hi Dondu,
    The statements about the virgin birth in the New Testament are attributed to Mary. She spoke Hebrew (and as far as we know, she spoke no other language). The chroniclers Matthew and Luke were also native Hebrew speakers who later wrote the gospels in an acquired language.
    You are perfectly at liberty to DISBELIEVE their statements. But I don’t follow the logic in assuming that they made a mistake in their understanding when they “translated” from Hebrew to Hebrew.

    On church history, I agree that there have been a number of atrocities committed in the name of Christianity. The atrocity you refer to (the inquisition) did not only focus on the virgin birth, it covered a wide range of dogma and moral questions.
    I, too, am thankful that murder in the name of Christianity is now rare, and is not accepted by any Christian leaders that I know of.

  6. Victor,

    “the concept sets behind the idea do not fit easily into our western language perceptions, so both renderings are more “interpretation” than literal “translation” ”
    Surely this is a problem in itself…
    As for the use of “with”, Some would argue that the metaphorical sense of “in” is a key issue here. Some denominations fail to notice this.
    No URLs were provided. These are generated automatically by WordPress.
    There was no intention for the title to be sensationalist.

  7. Hi “Transubstantiation”,

    The points you mention (lack of equivalent concepts, literal or metaphorical interpretation of terms such as “in”) are actually a fairly common type of question in translation work (I get similar issues all the time translating contracts and building-related texts from German to English). It is a matter of interpretation and skilful wording, and if a problem can’t be resolved in the text, a translator’s note can be added.

    Many Bible translations contain such translator’s notes (in the form of footnotes, middle notes, appendices, forewords etc.), and there is a great deal of literature on the interpretation of biblical texts in commentaries and other study aids (some directed at the academic theologian, some at the general reader). As in any demanding translation task, aspects of the source text are sometimes noticed which have not been explicitly expressed to date, and they are then debated (more or less similar to some of the better KudoZ terminology discussions on ProZ.com). In my experience, such finer points do not actually revolutionise the general message of the text, and sometimes the scholars do not reach an agreed conclusion and retain their conflicting interpretations. But discussion of such points often enriches the understanding (and sometimes the experience) of those who have the necessary time, interest and background knowledge to follow the discussion.

  8. Dear Victor,

    Sorry to have to disillusion you. Luke is not native Hebrew, in fact he was a gentile of Greek origin born in Antioch. He never saw Jesus in his lifetime but then wrote the Gospel from others’ accounts.

    Mathew’s authorship of the Gospel is being debated. As for Mary, she was just a simple Jewish woman without any scholarship and whatever is attributed to her is all the words of the New Testament and the writer has been influenced by the wrong rendering of Almah.

    Fact is you will have to search only the Old Testament for seeing the origin of Virgin birth. The fact is, the original Hebrew uses the word Almah (a maiden) and the correct Hebrew word for virgin as understood in the context of immaculate conception is Betulah.

    I would like to give more background.

    And would like to share the posting I gave on this subject in another thread with my ProZ.com colleagues. See:http://www.proz.com/?sp=bb/new&ViewTopic&post=92684#92684
    “In one of his books, Isaac Asimov mentions his visit to a museum in Spain along with his friends. Here he came across a bible translated from Hebrew by the Spanish jews. Out of curiosity, he leafed through it and came across the prophecy, which claimed that an almah will give birth to the Messiah. Almah in Hebrew (or Aramic, I forget) means a young girl. It seemed to him that this word almah was erroneously translated as virgin. The Spanish Jews dared not put in the correct word in their translation and they just left almah as it is. In the words of Asimov, he started explaining this excitedly to his friends and his voice reached the window pane shattering level.”
    As for my request in that thread for inputs from other ProZ.com colleagues, this is the reply I got:
    “Narasimhan Raghavan wrote:
    ‘I would like to get the inputs from the esteemed ProZ.com colleagues in this matter.’
    That would be great, except political/religious/highly controversial subjects are not allowed in ProZ.com forums.
    All we can do is respect the rules.”
    Please see: http://www.proz.com/forum/translation_theory_and_practice/16900-what_if_the_source_document_says_something_stupid-page2.html#111018

    Dondu N. Raghavan

  9. Hi Dondu,
    Thanks for the correction on Luke’s nationality (although the authors of the other gospels were certainly native Hebrew speakers). And thanks for the link to the 2003/2004 discussion on ProZ. I was aware of the recent ProZ thread (and as you will remember, I also participated).

    Your contribution to this discussion combines several different issues, and I think it is helpful to separate them:

    1. The Hebrew terms “almah” and “betulah”. Checking a theological reference work (The New Bible Dictionary), I find that neither of them can be easily equated with the connotations of the modern word “virgin”. “Betulah” was even used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to a betrothed or married woman. The basic meaning of “almah” is an unmarried woman. It can be reasonably argued that the word in context signifies a “virgin” (I realise that alternative interpretations can also be reasonably argued, but discounting the meaning “virgin” completely is not objective). It can also be reasonably argued that the passage contains a prophecy with a double meaning – partly applied to the political situation at the time, and partly foreshadowing the birth of Jesus. But the interpretation of this verse is not decisive for my belief that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born.

    2. The virgin birth of Jesus. This is based on narrative accounts in the gospels. Reference to Old Testament prophecies is a supplementary factor.
    Here, your belief and my belief differ. I believe that the events in the New Testament happened as reported, and that people realised AFTERWARDS that the events were foreshadowed in the Old Testament. You seem to believe that the events happened in a different way, and that the facts were later “edited” to fit them around selected statements from the Old Testament. I can tolerate your view, even though I disagree with it. I hope your approach to me is similar. In other words, we can “agree to differ”, and neither of us needs to be angry about it.

    3. Religious power and violence. This is a completely different issue. The religious leaders in the Inquisition abused their power and used rigid dogmatic statements to decide over life and death. Today we can observe a similar abuse of power in several religious contexts (although thankfully no longer as an organised Christian phenomenon – in fact, Christians are often the victims of such violence today). This phenomenon has a lot to do with social dominance, leaders who want to feel powerful and to make others afraid of them – and very little to do with the actual faith content that these leaders advocate. So the virgin birth of Jesus was never a cause of violence and murder. It was used as one of the excuses to kill people, but the belief itself was not the cause.

    There is far more that could be said, and this discussion has only scratched the surface of the immensely complicated relationship between faith, reason, opinion and argument (and the role of the media as reported by Berni). But that would take things too far, in my view.

  10. Victor,
    “…lack of equivalent concepts, literal or metaphorical interpretation of terms… are actually a fairly common type of question in translation work… It is a matter of interpretation and skilful wording.”

    Agreed. One question is: how much of the Bible is ‘interpretation’ and how much is ‘translation’? Is there a difference between these two concepts?

    “such finer points do not actually revolutionise the general message of the text… But discussion of such points often enriches the understanding.”

    The question is does a text such as the Bible contain only ‘finer’ points which are under discussion or more major points also?

  11. Hallo Transubstantiation,
    Your questions are good questions, although they could also apply to most translation jobs that we do. But they stimulate me to think about how I and other Christians actually use the Bible.
    The basic approach is to read the translated text and take it at face value. This will enable us to grasp the message, and even people who are not able to think about the translation process are able to understand it sufficiently to live a life of faith. However, nowadays there is a variety of translated versions available on the market (at least in the two languages that I am familiar with), so most Christians soon realise that there are different possible ways of expressing the same source text, and they notice that although the linguistic style and sometimes the emphasis may change, there is hardly ever any major difference in the substance. This language awareness is supported by the sermons preached in many churches, which often refer to cultural and language differences in the Bible translations used.

    So in fact, being a Christian and a regular member of a church actually has an educational effect, in that people become aware of concepts associated with the translation process, and it is no great problem when someone suggests that a particular verse should be interpreted or translated differently. Alternative translations are freely considered, and sometimes hotly debated, even among people who are not generally aware of linguistic issues. In my experience, such proposed changes in translation/interpretation do not affect the main content of the faith, they mainly affect the “finer” points.

    Another factor is also worth mentioning. The core of the Christian faith is a relationship, i.e. the fact that God lives in us. This means that reading the Bible is not only a rational act, it is also an adventure in relationship. This leads to methods of understanding which go beyond rational interpretation.
    For example, Jesus said “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things” (John 14:26), and “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). In other words, there is an additional dimension to understanding the words. This does not negate the rational and cognitive aspect of our understanding, it supplements it.

  12. Victor,
    “Your questions… could also apply to most translation jobs that we do.”

    That’s the point.

    “In my experience, such proposed changes in translation/interpretation do not affect the main content of the faith, they mainly affect the “finer” points.”

    The key phrase used here is “in my experience” in which case translation is a subjective craft open to a whole host of loopholes, interpretations, and erroneous understanding…

  13. Hi Transubstantiation,
    You write “… translation is a subjective craft open to a whole host of loopholes, interpretations, and erroneous understanding”.
    That is a good description of PART of the story – there are almost always debatable points in translations, doubtful entries in dictionaries and the like. Similarly, every software program contains programming errors, every car has some part that goes wrong more often than such parts do in other brands, every human being has some physical flaw (be it warts, B.O., tooth decay, vulnerability to certain illnesses, irregular walking posture etc.). Such is life. A nightmare for the perfectionist, but otherwise it actually works reasonably well.

    Quality in our area (translation) hinges on the skill of the craftsman or craftswoman and a fundamental openness to review by others, further knowledge etc. It is not usually worth making a big thing of this sort of quality control in short-term utility texts, but for longer-term texts it can be valuable, and the editing and review process (if well and constructively done) is usually a valuable enhancement of any translation.

  14. Dear Victor: I’m not sure if I agree with the statement “It is not usually worth making a big thing of this sort of quality control in short-term utility texts”. As a translator, how can you say this?

  15. Hi Raf,
    Good point – of course quality is important in all texts, however short-lived, and of course I always endeavour to keep the quality of my own work as high as possible (which is why my regular customers keep coming back to me).
    Perhaps I did not clearly express what I was thinking of.
    I was actually referring to the external editing and review process, which is normally not necessary for short-term texts. But some form of external quality control is often advisable for long-term texts or texts in which mistakes could have severe consequences (e.g. books, product instructions for many products, most contracts etc. – and of course texts that are used for decades or even centuries, such as Bible translations).

  16. I was raised a catholic like most catholics/protestants/muslims/jews/hindus etc. we became what are parents wanted us to become, just like them. Sent to catholic school, we weren’t allowed to talk or learn about any other faith. we were (are) brainwashed into christianity. My parents like others had little knowledge of the bible but we believed! If you were born to a family in the west, more then likely you believe in Jesus. Born in the middle east the Quaran is your book of beliefs. Born a Jew, you would be still waiting for the first visit by Jesus…..sorry (Yeshua) and every faith believes for certain their way is the only right way to God.

    I don’t have to see something to believe it, but what I see, or try to comprehend has to make common sense. If the bible is suppose to be the inspired word of God then the WHOLE bible must be accurate. If it isn’t as I believe then its the best selling fiction book of all time.

    If God inspired the writers then the bible should be crystal clear in its teachings, but it isn’t. People have been debating for centuries over interpretations and even so called theologans disagree with many of its information. When someone interprets something different then someone will re-phrase, re-word, re-frig, make it into a metaphor etc to make the story fit to their interpretation. (UNBELIEVABLE) Catholics believe that Jesus had no brothers and sisters. They were cousins, because it doesn’t fit the story as Mary being a Virgin. (LOL) yet in the Bible it clearly states several times naming brothers,and sister, of Jesus Protestants go with what the bible statements say, Jesus had several brothers (James being one of them and 1 or 2 sisters.

    There are stories of talking snakes, talking donkeys, burning bushes, false promises, and stories that don’t exist anywhere else during this era. There is no EVIDENCE that there ever was a divine man named Jesus (yeshua) We call him Jesus because Yeshua christ doesn’t sound as good as Jesus Christ.

    There is no physical, forensic, written documents, coins, etc ever depicting a divine man named Jesus. There is no evidence that there was even a crucifixtion other then what the bible teaches, yet there is all kinds of evidence of other events that took place in the middle east from 6 BCE to 30 AD but nothing ever during the life of a so called divine man called Jesus. Just another mythical man made story 2000 years ago like many other mythical god men that also celebrate their birthday on December 25.

    The bible is a collection of stories of murders, human slaughter, slavery, false promises, sacrifices of animals and humans, talking snakes etc. Now is that the type of book you want your children to read? …… I didn’t think so.

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