translation problems poll results

It’s time to discuss the results of a poll which has been in the margin of this blog for quite a few months. The poll has five verses from various Bible versions and respondents were asked:

Check any of the following wordings which seem to you to have a translation problem. Feel free to use any resource you need, including other Bibles.

225 blog visitors responded, with the following results:

First, the number of responses is lower than we normally get for the amount of time the poll was up. I don’t know what this means. Perhaps it means that looking for translation problems is more difficult than some other exercises which have been in BBB polls. Perhaps this is especially true for those who typically visit BBB, who, I’m guessing, are more accustomed to “Bible English” than are other audiences.

There is at least one problem with the English of each of the verses in the poll. I’ll state the problems that I see. They line up with what some others noted about these verses when this poll was first posted.

In the first verse, it sounds like people are being told to brag about themselves: “Let everyone know how considerate you are.” Now, of course, Paul did not intend for the Philippians to brag about how considerate they were. The bragging meaning was unintentionally inserted by the English translators. We can see how this could happen when we look at a literal translation of the Greek of this verse:

The gentleness/considerateness of you let it be known to all people.

It is, grammatically, not very far from “let it be known to all people” to “let everyone know”, yet there is an important difference. In the intended meaning, people will know that we are considerate by how they observe us acting. Paul did not instruct the Philippians to verbally point out how considerate they were. 141 respondents spotted a problem with the test wording, the largest number of responses for any of the verses. For those who are interested, this translation wording is from the God’s Word translation, which is a quite good translation. Unintentional wrong meanings, such as in its translation of Phil. 4:5, are not at all characteristic of the God’s Word translation.

The problem with the wording of Ps. 119:105 was more difficult for most people to spot. This is probably so because we are so accustomed to this traditional wording that we find it difficult to sense anything wrong with it. This verse is one of many examples of Hebraic parallelism in the Bible. For poetic purposes, light and lamp are parallel. They refer to the same thing. In addition, my feet and my path actually refer to the same thing, for purposes of the poetic parallelism. Both refer to the where our feet go as we walk. When it is dark, we need a light to help us see where we should plant our feet, so that we can avoid anything that might cause us to stumble.

English and Hebrew differ in that Hebrew parallel meaning comes through just fine with the Hebrew conjunction, vav. In constrast, English conjunctions block parallel meaning. We cannot conjoin synonyms in English and expect others to understand that we intend the conjoined terms to be synonymous. One example that I like to use to illustrate this is:

I love my wife and my spouse.

This sentence just doesn’t work for English. It looks grammatical but most people sense that there is something wrong with it, because “my wife” and “my spouse” are functioning as synonyms. (For the purists, they are not exact synonyms–there may not be any exact synonyms in any language–but for all practical purposes, the function as synonyms in this context.)

For the majority of English speakers, who have the rule of conjunctions blocking synonymous meaning, the traditional English translation of Ps. 119:105 is ungrammatical. English “and” does not allow us to sense to the fact that “light” and “lamp” refer to the same object, unless we are so “biblicized” that we have adopted the Hebrew rule of a conjunction allowing synonymous meaning. One accurate English translation equivalent of the Hebrew conjunction in poetic parallelism is the comma. The comma results in appositive English syntax which can accurately communicate the parallel meaning of the Hebrew. Some English Bible translation teams had members who understood the different syntactic behavior of Hebrew and English conjunctions with regard to parallelism and accurately translated that parallel meaning. I have found only one version which retains the poetic couplet structure form closely and uses the appositive comma:

Your word is a lamp to my feet,
a light on my path (REB)

Two other versions make additional adjustments to the form of the couplet to retain the parallel meaning:

By your words I can see where I’m going;
they throw a beam of light on my dark path. (MSG)

Your word is a lamp
that gives light wherever I walk. (CEV)

I do not wish to discuss the merits of this more extensive restructuring in this post. I simply want to make the point that it is possible to retain the Hebraic form and its parallel meaning by substituting a comma for English “and” in translation.

I will complete my analysis of the results of this poll in my next post.

10 thoughts on “translation problems poll results

  1. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    I have to admit that I don’t have as much analytical knowledge of English as you do, but, don’t people say things like,

    “my wife and my best friend”

    I suppose I might say,

    “She is my daughter and my good friend” and clearly refer to the same person. Is this also a set phrase or idiom in English?

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Yes, Suzanne, each of the examples you mentioned are good, grammatical English. They are grammatical because in each of them the conjoined terms are not synonymous.

    The following sentences are improper in English because they conjoin words which are functioning as synonyms:

    “I love my wife and my spouse.”
    “Bob is Jack’s professor and teacher.”
    “Sarah is Joan’s sister and sibling.”
    “I am ill and sick.”

  3. Iyov says:

    So, “last will and testament” is ungrammatical?

    Speaking of wills, here is some language typically found in them :

    * “I revoke all wills and codicils previously made”

    * “I give, devise, and bequeath”

    * “I deem and consider”

    * “I shun and avoid”

    It is not hard to find many other examples: should all those convicted of “breaking and entering” be released on the grounds of grammar?

    The rules regarding redundancy are more complex than you indicate. Sometimes redundancy is grammatical, sometimes not.

    Finally, I am surprised you reached the conclusion you did regarding the low turnout for this poll: the low turnout was likely a result of most readers thinking all the examples were grammatical (since there was no choice given for “all are grammatical”)

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    It is not hard to find many other examples: should all those convicted of “breaking and entering” be released on the grounds of grammar?

    I doubt it. Legalese is a special language with nuances of meaning differences between terms that non-legal people might consider synonymous.

    Also, what is considered synonymous can vary from dialect to dialect and even speaker to speaker. Some people might consider a professor not to be a teacher, on some semantic grounds. For those people it would then be grammatical to say that someone is a “professor and teacher” if they are considered two different roles.

    There are many, many translation wordings in English Bibles which need to be re-examined because they are underlying Hebraic parallelism.

    Of course, we need to try to get at what the Hebraic semantic POV was, not our own. We may, for theological, or other reasons, consider two biblical terms not to be synonymous, which those speaking Semitic languages regarded as synonymous, at least for purposes of poetic parallelism.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Suzanne, also, yes, there are frozen expressions in English which consist of conjoined synonyms. Since legal terms have often been used for a long time, some of the may be examples of such frozen expressions. They would not fit within the normal English ban on not conjoining synonyms.

  6. Iyov says:

    Legalese is a special language with nuances of meaning differences between terms that non-legal people might consider synonymous.

    Not actually. “Will” is Anglo-Saxon, “testament” is from Old French, and reflects those crazy days of 1066. “Break” is Anglo-Saxon, “enter” is from Old French. That’s just one of many reasons those who insist on no redundancy will be dazed and confused.

    Let me put this another way. Just as a simplified presentation of English grammar insists that one not have redundancy within sentence phrases, it is considered poor writing style to repeat a story over and over again. By this logic, we should edit the Synoptic Gospels into one book, Deuteronomy has gotta go, etc. In fact, some have produced “Bible translations” with these features. They have not been well received.

    There are even single words that redundant. Underneath or alongside or upward, for example. So therefore I am absolutely sure that all of the redundant expressions add a further quality which acts as an added bonus, not to mention the usual custom which still persists — when we talk out loud with redundant expressions we do not sound like an undergraduate student but we start out, proceed ahead, and end up in the place from whence we came — and that is sufficient enough for me. At this point in time I am unwilling to cancel out the way redundant expressions blend together — to spell it out in detail, the reason why is that it would be like watching a bouquet of flowers suddenly burn up — a brief cameo or a safe haven that dates back to the unsolved mystery of the origin of language. And that’s the honest truth.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Iyov, your points are well take about redundancy. They do not, however, address the English grammatical rule that requires that conjoined terms be interpreted as non-synonymous (except for a few frozen expressions, such as “last will and testament” and others, which flee me at this present point in current time!).

    My post is about differences between Biblical Hebrew and English grammar with regard to the semantics of conjoining and what that has to do with translating Hebrew parallelism to English.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    Iyov, I take your points to some extent. But “breaking and entering” is not two synonyms but two distinct acts both of which must be performed for this offence to occur: first: a door, window, lock etc must be broken in order to make a opening; and then the criminal must enter through that opening. Entering without breaking is not a crime, just trespass; breaking without entering is criminal damage, but a different offence. Similarly with revoking wills and codicils: two different things need to be revoked.

  9. Iyov says:

    “breaking” is short for what is called (in British usage): “housebreaking”. From the OED:

    The crime of breaking open and entering a house with intent to commit robbery or other felony. (See quots.) Also attrib. Formerly usu. denoting such a crime committed by day, for which burglary was the equivalent at night; now applied to such an act committed by day or night.

    1617 MINSHEU Ductor, Burglary,..the Common Law restraines it to robbing of a house by night…The like offence committed by daie they call house breaking or robbing. 1670 BLOUNT Law Dict. s.v. 1769 BLACKSTONE Comm. IV. xvi. (1809) 223 Burglary, or nocturnal housebreaking..has always been looked upon as a very heinous offence. 1838 DICKENS O. Twist xix, Producing his box of housebreaking tools. 1897 Daily News 9 Dec. 10/7 Housebreaking, which means entry before nine o’clock at night, is commoner with these retail criminals than burglary. 1966 8th Rep. Crim. Law Rev. Comm. 85 in Parl. Papers 1966-7 (Cmnd. 2977) XXXIX. 1 The present offence of housebreaking, by day at least, is not regarded as within that class, for many cases are dealt with by fine. 1966 New Statesman 7 Oct. 504/2 All this will be the result of abolishing a host of anomalies in the ancient law of burglary and housebreaking (a distinction which..will itself disappear). The Bill makes a bonfire of them. 1973 ‘J. PATRICK’ Glasgow Gang Observed iii. 27 Under the law of Scotland ‘housebreaking’ covers the forced entry of ‘any roofed building’, i.e. shops, factories, garages, as well as private houses.

    See also “housebreaker”:

    1. One who breaks open and enters a house with intent to commit robbery or other felony.

    c1340 Cursor M. 6747 (Fairf.) Thefe housbreker in any stounde. 1483 Cath. Angl. 190/2 An Howse breker, apercularius. 1662 J. DAVIES tr. Olearius’ Voy. Ambass. 280 A House-breaker coming one night into his House. 1727 SWIFT What passed in London, Highway-men, house-breakers, and common pick-pockets. 1855 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. xix. IV. 295 During the autumn of 1692 and the following winter, the capital was kept in constant terror by housebreakers.

    or the OED at “break”:

    17. a. To enter (a house, an enclosed place, etc.) by breaking part of its circuit; to enter by force or violence. Cf. to break open, or into, 42; and to break up, 57j. (See HOUSEBREAKER.) In modern use, only in phr. to break and enter: see BREAKING vbl. n. 1c.

    851 O.E. Chron. [The Danes] bræcon Contwara bur{asg} and Lundenbur{asg}. a1123 Ibid. an. 1102 {Th}eofas..breokan {th}a minstre of Burh. c1305 Jud. Iscariot 73 in E.E.P. (1862) 109 Iudas brac {th}e {ygh}ard anon. 1393 LANGL. P. Pl. C. XXI. 383 [{Th}ou] by-glosedest hem and bygyledest hem and my gardyn breke. 1483 Cath. Angl. 42 To Breke garth, desepire. 1495 Act 11 Hen. VII, lix. Pream., Evyll disposed have broken the hous of your seid Subget. 1533-4 Durham Depositions (Surtees) 49 The said Dicson did break the churche of West Awkelande. c1677 MARVELL Growth Popery 29 Clauses most for breaking all Houses whatsoever on suspicion of any such Pamphlet. 1745 WESLEY Wks. (1872) XII. 69 Shall George Whitfield be charged with felony, because John Wesley broke a house? 1768 BLACKSTONE Comm. III. 209 Every unwarrantable entry on another’s soil the law entitles a trespass by breaking his close. 1797 TOMLINS Jacob’s Law-Dict. I. Bb3/3 To break and enter a not burglary, but only larceny. 1817 [see ENTER v. 10d]. 1959 A. SILLITOE Loneliness Long-Dist. Runner 11 There’s a shop to break and enter. 1961 J. MACLAREN-ROSS Doomsday Bk. I. iv. 56 He broke-and-entered through a back window.

    To be fair, the word “break” in English is so overloaded (there are 57 main headings in the OED, with some of them having as many as 15 subheadings — all in all more than 150 definitions, I wager — that its meaning is largely contextual. In other words, “break” can mean what you say it means, or it can mean what I say it means.

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