How Not to Translate

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Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him. (Judges 11:3, ESV)

Some people think of the ESV as a more literal translation, though it's really just more willing to preserve the form of the original over the meaning of the original, and it's less willing to do that than some translations. Sometimes it's still too formal, as here. One thing that's just pretty stupid is to use an expression that's formally equivalent to the original term but that in the language you're translating into usually means something else. Translating something about close interaction among friends as "intercourse" nowadays is just stupid. You're altering the meaning by using a word that most of the time means sexual intercourse.

The same is true of the English expression 'going out with'. If someone had translated this verse this way seventy years ago, there would clearly have been no problem. Nowadays, if you say someone went out with someone else, we tend to hear it as a dating relationship unless contextual clues force us to do a double-take and lead us to try to hear it another way. In this case, that isn't immediate. These worthless fellows collected around Jephtah and went out with him. It first sounds funny to me, because it gives me the image of these guys trying to take Jephthah out for dinner and a movie, and finally I think about what it was supposed to convey nearly immediately afterward. An intelligent reader won't really assume he was having a romantic relationship with these worthless fellows, but the fact that it will strike some readers as an odd way to say it shows that it's a bad translation.

The NIV and NLT translate this as something like "they followed him", which is a little beyond the original meaning. The NKJV, one of the most formally equivalent English translations (though it uses a less reliable textual tradition as its basis in the NT) amazingly says "went out raiding with him", supplying a participial verb to clarify. The HCSB seems better than the NIV and NLT, saying they "traveled with him", but I think the sense of the NKJV is probably right, that it was more than just traveling. Believe it or not, the best of all the translations I looked at was The Message, which says "they went around with him". That gives enough of the sense of the original without overinterpreting it.

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Around the Web from Theology and Biblical Studies on June 18, 2005 6:43 AM

Here's some posts and blogs of note from the last week or so: Michael Spencer of The Internet Monk has a quality post on moral authority and postmodernism, and he makes the rather important point that very often Christian critique of postmodernity... Read More

The ESV is becoming increasingly popular among evangelicals, and has been receiving lots of praise on various blogs recently (especially Adrian Warnock�s). I have been reading through it this year, and on the whole have been impressed, but I still think t Read More


I have found myself questioning some of the ESV translators decisions as I have been reading it over the past year.

For example the use of the word 'bloody' a number of times, mainly in Ezekiel (e.g. "Woe to the bloody city" (Ezek 22:2; 24:6). In England at least, the word 'bloody' is considered a mild swear-word, and is used by people who are trying to be funny. (e.g. "the bloody French") It takes away from the impact of what is a very solemn pronouncement. I prefer the NIV's "city of bloodshed" which brings out the sense that the shedding of blood is characteristic of the city.

I'm also not entirely sure about the choice of the word "whore" which appears in many places. True, it does bring out a real sense of moral disapproval, but today it is generally considered a term of abuse, along the lines of "slut".

It is a shame when you think twice about reading a Bible passage in public because you are aware of how the translation will be misunderstood.

ps apologies for posting a PG rated comment - feel free to moderate it if necessary :)

I would have thought that both 'whore' and 'slut' have taken on much milder connotations than the original words that they're supposed to translate. Someone is a whore or slut simply by being female and promiscuous (or by being jokingly referred to as if promiscuous), and people often use it as a mild dysphemism but not in the morally condemnatory sense that the biblical terms carried.

In the U.S. calling a city bloody sounds much worse than calling it a city of bloodshed. It gives the sense of a slasher film with blood all over it, where a city of bloodshed seems more distant, without the direct image of the blood itself. This is one of those issues where the sense of the language is relative to the dialect.

I think 'awesome' has the same problems in U.S. English at least as 'bloody' does in U.K. English. It's got a much milder connotation. Translators don't seem to care, however, because they want to be stubborn and retain the classic sense of something's being awe-inspiring.

Ultimately every translation is going to have these things. I don't like the NIV's translation of 'sarx' as "sinful nature" rather than "flesh". I think a dynamic translation should do something different there, though, and I don't have a view on what it should be. Any translation that doesn't consistently render 'hesed' by the same expression in English loses lots of points (and the NIV is guilty there too) because English readers will never get a sense of when such a crucial word is being used.

In the end I still consider the ESV my favorite translation. I have complaints about any translation. The ESV and the HCSB have been my favorite two to read, and finding problems in things here or there isn't going to reduce that because I've found as many small problems in any translation. It's the major philosophy of translation that I think these two win out on as opposed to the more formal and more dynamic ones, which have their purposes but aren't as well suited for the regular reading by someone with my preferences and background.

RSV: "Then Jephthah fled from his brothers, and dwelt in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows collected round Jephthah, and went raiding with him."

NAB: "So Jephthah had fled from his brothers and had taken up residence in the land of Tob. A rabble had joined company with him, and went out with him on raids."

I was reading O'Brien on Ephesians 5 today, who said that he thought a wife should 'fear' her husband (v33), would be a better translation than other versions' (ESV included) 'respect'. But he then went on to qualify that he meant a particular meaning for 'fear', which is quite simply not the meaning that most people would understand if that was the translation. ESV got it right there in my opinion, even if the word 'respect' isn't a direct equivalent.

As for 'awesome' - at least its better than 'awful' - I remember singing about "Jehovah's awful throne" as a child and wondering what could be so bad about it.

The worse thing about that song is that Jehovah is a mistranslation. God's name is written as YHVH. To remind people to not speak His name, the vowel marks (Hebrew lacks actual vowels) for Adonai were added to the tetragrammaton. The result was a mistranslation.

Jeremy, it's good to see that I'm not alone in the blogosphere posting on translation glitches in the ESV. I have just linked to your post.

I have a new poll going which tests one of the wordings in the ESV. I invite you and all visitors to Parableman blog to take my poll. It should take less than a minute to answer the single question. To get to my blog, click on the link next to my comment here, or go to url:

It seems many of the more literal transations are taking the same path on this verse.

YLT: And Jephthah fleeth from the face of his brethren, and dwelleth in the land of Tob; and vain men gather themselves together unto Jephthah, and they go out with him.

Interesting point. The ESV sounds fine to me, though. I wouldn't read the phrase "and went out with him" as dating. Maybe if it said, "and they were going out with him." The progressive tense sounds more like a dating relationship to me.

But I'm a linguistic mess nowadays, after moving to a foreign country and studying too many languages. And the primany language I am studying uses "going out" without any romantic connotations. So maybe it's just me.

Brian, Young's is an old enough translation that I wouldn't fault it.

Hannah, I don't think anyone would read the phrase "and went out with him" as dating. I do think many people will hear it and think it sound funny, which is a bad enough sign that I think the translators would have been better to do what Eugene Peterson did in The Message.

The addition of raiders is, I think an attempt to capture more of the meaning of the Hebrew verb y-ts-h. The basic meaning is to go out, or come forth, but that covers everything from coming out of the human body to coming out of the land of Egypt! If I'm reading the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon correctly, y-ts-h also has a military meaning -- to march out, to go forth with one's soldiers. I suspect that the translaters were as unhappy with "go out with him" as you are. Perhaps they decided that this was a case for the military meaning of the verb. I think "go out raiding" captures that (since raiding sounds like the kind of military activity that "worthless fellows" might participate in).

If my brain had been in full gear last night I would have noticed that the verb should be transliterated y-ts-'. The final letter is alef, not hey. My apologies.

So I guess they just "hung out with him" which is kind of passive or is the grammar more active.

If it covers everything from coming out of the human body to coming out of the land of Egypt, then it doesn't necessarily mean coming out to raid. That's why it seems as if they're interpreting. I don't have the illusions of those who insist on a so-called literal translation who think a translation is automatically illegitimate for interpreting, but this is a case where it can be avoided, as The Message does very well.

William, "hung out with him" is active. The passive would be that they were hung out with him, which has a very different meaning!

I believe we need the Bible passages to say what they are meant to say without watering them down just so we are happy and the text is more readable. If the men who came out were actually raiding, then that should be said. One of the problems with the Message is that in other areas, passages are rewritten in a way to change whole meaning and not in such a simple matter of whether a bunch of guys raided or not but in matters of our NT life in Christ.


I suppose it is interpretation to choose "raiding" over "going out". But it that case it is also interpretation to choose "going out"! ;)

Over 90% of the Old Testament is written using a vocabulary of only 400 words. It is very concise. Many words take on different meanings depending on the context, the aspect and form and tense of the word, and other variables. Even today, discoveries in the study of Semitic languages shed new light on the text.

With regard to translating hhesed the same way in English every time it is used, that would be a great challenge. The most convincing definition I've heard for that word is from Rabbi Spira-Savett:

Here too the usual English translation of "lovingkindness" misses a key element. In the Bible, chesed meant living up to a covenantal responsibility, so my Bible professors taught me to translate chesed as "covenant loyalty." Loyalty captures the blend of duty and feelings of concern, connection, and sympathy that we naturally have for those with whom we feel a bond. Doing chesed means feeling that loyalty toward all other human beings. We owe each other our compassion, not only when it happens to well up within us.

We might write "covenant loyalty" in English, but would it have the same meaning to Christians as it does to Jews who are children of that covenant?

Holladay's Concise Lexicon includes among its definitions for hhesed: obligation to the community, loyalty, faithfulness, kindness, grace, godly deeds, evidence of grace. The meaning can vary with the relationship, just as "love" can in English.

The action/emotion of loving my husband is not the same as the love for my children, for chocolate, for Irish music, or for God. Although the same word is used for each in English, other languages may distinguish.

Choosing any English word is an intepretation unless the semantic range of each word in each language is exactly the same, and the chances of that are almost nil. But some choices are more of an interpretation than others, and I think the context here doesn't make it clear enough that they were going out raiding every time they did whatever this verb is referring to.

As for 'hesed', I think the best way to translate it is to use 'covenant love' or 'covenant loyalty' in the text and then to use the other in a footnote. I wouldn't be too opposed to choosing which one is in the text and which in the footnote by the context, though there are reasons for consistency of translation as well. I would furthermore follow the ESV model with 'adelphoi' in having a longer explanatory note the first time the word is used in a given book, along with an extended discussion of the translation issues and the semantic range in the introduction. A word as important as this one deserves as much time as the names of God (or certainly as much as inclusive language), which most introductions to translations will explain.

I think I have to disagree with your argument. Dumbing down a text might be easier than educating a reader, but there is a reason why we have clergy to teach us. And besides, what is better for the reader, becoming educated or reading a dumbed down text?

I'm trying to figure out how you're bringing anything about dumbing down a text into this discussion, which is about accuracy of translation. A translation is more accurate if it doesn't convey something that the original doesn't convey. In this case, that something is the humorous image of David's men taking him on dates.

Your assumption is false anyway. What you're suggesting amounts to intellectualizing the text up. It's originally in common speech, so translating it into ordinary English isn't dumbing it down. It's retaining the flavor of the original. A good translator should seek to do that, other things being equal (which of course they rarely are).

we tend to hear it as a dating relationship unless contextual clues force us to do a double-take and lead us to try to hear it another way. In this case, that isn't immediate

I disagree that the phrase 'went out with' or 'going out with' always primarily points to a dating relationship. What could the contextual clues be in this case? The fact that they're probably not going to the movies? The fact that 'the fellows' are plural and would force Jephthah to have multiple relationships and see all his boyfriends/girlfriends at the same time? I go out with my friends all the time, I went out with my friends last Saturday night, does that mean I'm dating them all, or that I was just hanging out? Is it odd for me to say that I went out with them in this day and age?

I didn't say it primarily refers to a dating relationship. I said we'll tend to hear it in that way, which doesn't mean we'll assume it is that but just means we'll be thinking of it as a possibility. That's enough to explain the double take I'm talking about.

Also, the dating consideration isn't the key. Thinking of going out on the town to have some fun is just as removed from the context, and that kind of double take should be equally undesirable to a translator. That was just the image I had in my mind when I read it, and it's an unfortunate effect of translating it this way when a perfectly good alternative exists from Eugene Peterson.

I keep referring to David. The passage I gave was Jephthah. The word is also used of David in I Samuel 22, I believe, so that's why I'm thinking in terms of him too.

I think when reading to kids, it is possible to replace the odd word, explain the odd word (they like to learn new ones) and also credit them with some intelligence. I was recently reading Galatians to my son. At the end he suddenly piped up with "now I know what cursed on a tree means" The cross was made of wood so Jesus was cursed by being on the cross. We discussed what cursed actually means (which incidently is a blow for any Chalkian interpretation of the atonement!) and my son had got it! Far better than a simplified toned down kiddies bible.

Matt said: "[The Bible was written} originally in common speech, so translating it into ordinary English isn't dumbing it down. It's retaining the flavor of the original. A good translator should seek to do that, other things being equal (which of course they rarely are)."

Amen! Matt, I am so tired of hearing people refer to Bibles written in standard dialects of English being "dumbed down." The problem is that we have lost touch with how the Bible was originally written, substituting our own views for that based on outdated, obscure English that sounds to us more "sacred." I keep wondering how Jesus would speak to us if he were to be born into the English language group and group up speaking English. I doubt that he would speak the way "church English" Bibles sound today. I am not in favor of using slang or colloquialisms in Bible translation, using folksy words. But we need to return to the heart beat of Martin Luther for Germans and Tyndale for English speakers, that each person, regardless of their education, can hear God's word the way English people actually speak and write. There is nothing dumbing down about that. It simply respects good quality English and uses it in a translation, rather than using church jargon English which a majority of the population doesn't use.

Wayne, Matt didn't say that. I did. Matt disagreed with me on this.


While The Message translation may sound better to you, I have to say that to me it sounds more like a dating relationship than "went out with him". "Going around with" was the term for a "committed" relationship as a kid in NZ (though how committed a relationship can kids have?). I think people still use it to a degree :) The Message translation made me laugh.

Wow! I've never even heard of that expression being used that way. So I guess The Message is the best translation of this phrase for some subset of English speakers.

It's surely important that both meaning and stile should be followed. otherwise it's a poor translation.

the fact that it will strike some readers as an odd way to say it shows that it's a bad translation.

I am not sure about that, Jeremy. With that said, my wife is considering getting me one for Christmas, and I had not really heard much about the translation. I have been a big fan of the NASB and trying to find which of the two is a better translation.

What do you mean exactly? How is it not bad translating to take something that would have sounded normal in the original and make it sound incredibly strange in the translation?

There are a few big differences between the ESV and NASB. The ESV is much more up-to-date on the best scholarship, and its translation team seems to me to be a little more balanced in background, with a few more heavy-hitters in biblical studies. In terms of translation philosophy, they made some key decisions that place them as a little more dynamic than the NASB but a lot more formal than the NIV. They won't do gender-neutral translations of terms that have a gender-neutral sense unless they also have a gender-neutral form. They will translate 'anthropos' as "human being" or "person", which the NASB and NIV both refused to do for absolutely no good reason. You won't get "brothers or sisters" for 'adelphoi', though, at least not unless you look in the footnotes. Some people have pointed out cases throughout the ESV where it translates more dynamically, when some would have preferred they not interpret as much in the translation.

One thing they gain in doing this is avoiding some of the terrible woodenness of the NASB. It just doesn't sound like English. You would never construct sentences in English like many you will find in the NASB. People like me who were raised on things like the NASB have trouble noticing this unless it's pointed out, but it's all through it. The ESV has some of that too when compared with the NIV and TNIV, but it's nowhere near as unEnglish as the NASB.

The other thing the ESV gains in being more dynamic is simply greater accuracy. It's not accuracy in form, which is all the NASB seems to care about much of the time. It's accuracy in what the text would have conveyed to the original reader that we can't get if we just translate the words in the sentence according to the form they appear in the original language. You can go too far with this, and sometimes they do, but you can go too far in the other direction, which they sometimes do also. The NASB almost always goes too far in the other direction. For that reason I see the ESV as much more balanced.

To answer your question, it might just be the case that there are faulty readers. If something is traslated relatively accurately and the audience takes it the wrong way - it is hard for me to place the fault on the translation.

But thank you very much for your detailed response. It is much appriciated. I think I will be getting the ESV after all.

It's taking it the wrong way, but there are two causes of taking it the wrong way. One is that you don't know your own language. The other is that you don't know the original language. Many readers of the Bible would be familiar with David and his raiding parties and thus infer that "going out" in this case refers to that. People unfamiliar with the language forms and culture and setting of this passage would see it and think David and his buddies were going out on the town. I don't think there's anything wrong with the reader who infers such a thing. They just don't know what people who grew up with the Bible knew. But who are we translating for, the biblically literate or someone who has never picked up a Bible in their life? I think translators need to think about questions like this, or they really aren't translating as best as they can into the target language.

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