Why translations need careful checking

The BBC reports:

A translation error at a UK prison labelled an exercise yard as an “execution yard” in the draft of an information booklet for Russian inmates.

An inspection report mentioned the faux pas at Lincoln Prison in a section on foreign prisoners.

The translation was spotted by a member of staff at the proof stage, the Ministry of Justice said. …

Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “This is an example where actually making sure prisoners have properly translated material is important.

“You could treat it as a bit of a joke unless you were that prisoner and you didn’t understand how the British prison service worked and came from a country that still had execution yards. It wouldn’t be a funny thing for him.”

Indeed. What is important for a matter of life and death in a prison on this earth is surely even more important for a Bible translation, which is about matters of eternal life and death.

But how many errors potentially just as serious as this have crept into published Bible translations?

The English word “execution” is a good example of why concordant translation is dangerous. In many contexts it means little more than carrying out an action. But if the same word is used in a different context it can have a completely unintended and misleading meaning. A similar example in a published Bible translation might be “charity” in Way’s translation of Paul’s letters, as I mentioned in a comment on a previous post. Can anyone think of examples of this in major modern Bible versions?

17 thoughts on “Why translations need careful checking

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    The English word “grace” today doesn’t have the Greek meaning of xaris for most English speakers. So when an English Bible has something like that Mary was “full of grace” or God was “rich in grace” we need to do field testing to determine what meaning people get from such phrases.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    Most Bibles have printing errors. Perhaps the most infamous was that of the so-called Wicked Bible which advised at Exodus 20:14

    Thou shalt commit adultery

    Now you may think that with modern computerized typesetting and printing techniques, these errors are a thing of the past. But that is most certainly not the case. I recently received a $170 Cambridge Bible, the “Cameo” KJV with Apocrypha. Its Apocrypha stops at 2 Maccabees 15:5. Oops.

    All this ranting makes me hungry. Anyone want to go grab a bite at a Chinese restaurant?

  3. David McKay says:

    In the versions of the Bible I have read completely, I hardly ever noticed a typo, but could easily have missed some.

    But the Contemporary English Version printed in Indonesia and the my Australian edition of The Good News Bible contain quite a few.

    With the GNB, the main problem is the printers joining together what the writers put asunder, to misquote Jesus on marriage and divorce.

  4. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…All this ranting makes me hungry. Anyone want to go grab a bite at a Chinese restaurant?


    >>>…The English word “grace” today doesn’t have the Greek meaning of xaris for most English speakers…

    To my mind, XARIS has the idea of “favor” and of “benevolence.” Is that your take? “Grace” has been commandeered by “Calvinists” to suggest “monergism”, which is foreign to XARIS and renders the word “grace” ineffective at communicating.

    >>>A translation error at a UK prison labeled an exercise yard as an “execution yard” in the draft of an information booklet for Russian inmates…

    In a Russian prison, there is no difference! (Just kidding).

    But it is ironic that you mention this…

    Has anyone ever considered what Paul claims in 2 Cor 11:25?

    “Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;”

    Leaving aside the possible link to California’s Proposition 19 for the moment, what does he mean when he says that he was “stoned”? I mean, if he was executed by having his brains bashed out with rocks, why is he preaching about Jesus’ resurrection, rather than his own?!

    Is the proper translation “I was pebbled once?!”

  5. iverlarsen says:

    No, “I was pebbled” won’t do. Have you read Acts 14:19? Was Paul dead or only wounded? Some people think that a stone hit him in the face and damaged his eye sight. We don’t know for sure.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for the comments. I wasn’t thinking of typos, but of deliberate but inappropriate word choices. “Grace” certainly can be one of those, especially in contexts which might suggest gracefulness of movement, or a prayer before a meal. And “stoned” is another one, and the main reason why TNIV and NIV 2011 changed this, at least in 2 Corinthians 11:25, to “pelted with stones”.

  7. kirsty says:

    “angel” for most people in our culture means “cute little girl in fairy dress”, not “mighty supernatural warrior/messenger”
    Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!!!! (sorry – one of my pet peeves)

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    As an example of how “grace” might be mistranslated, consider the Darby translation of Luke 4:22: “all … wondered at the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth.” I guess Jesus didn’t say the standard “For what we are about to receive…” or even the Jewish baruk ata adonai eloheinu…! Darby gives a literal translation of the Greek here, so all credit to most English translations, even KJV, for rendering “gracious words” rather than “words of grace”.

  9. Mike Sangrey says:


    It doesn’t have the right meaning for every denomination but one. Perhaps even all of them.

  10. Mike Sangrey says:

    I’ve often thought Phil 2:12 is incorrectly translated in all translations.

    Here is the NIV as but one example:
    …continue to work out your salvation…

    I think it should be translated as:
    …continue to work out each other’s salvation…

    My reasons essentially are:
    1. So far in the letter, Paul is going to great pains to convince the reader that being other oriented is the key to living joyously. It’s like, the point! He’s in prison, but he can’t die because the Philippians are more important.
    2. The chiastic structure of 2:1-18. Specifically, verse 3-4 with 12-13.
    3. Paul just illustrated the other oriented, servant attitude of Christ Jesus in one of the most beautiful hymns. He states quite clearly that it is this attitude we’re to have.
    4. ἑαυτοῦ, being plural, is commonly in the sense of “each other’s” “one another” (ἀλλήλων) (See Smyth, section 1231).

  11. Mike Sangrey says:

    Maybe, Mike. But every denomination believes it has the right meaning for them, so no-one is complaining!


    It’s what I call, “one size fits all translation.”

    Has anyone else noticed that, one size fits all rarely ever fits anyone?

  12. Hugh says:

    Well I’m sure this Russian prisoner would have been in for a huge shock had this translation error not have been spotted in time! It just goes to show how important it is to translate from one language to another accurately. I’ve come across far too many dodgy translation tools to know better. These days I only ever use a translation agency for translating language accurately. They actually use language professionals to make sure everything is translated so it reads perfectly in the target language. When it comes to something as important as the Bible I think it is imperative that we try our utmost hardest not to stray from the original meaning, no matter what the language may be.

  13. m1ndyclark says:

    I have recently been pondering Philippians 2:12 myself, Mike. Although I am not sure yours is the correct translation I agree with you that it cant mean what most translations construe it as. It does not fit. It is contradictory to the context in the present translation..You know, telling someone their Bible might be in error is like killing a scared cow in most circles..Glad we can speak of this here..:)

  14. james942 says:

    I was reviewing a couple of the past issues and upon reading the article, “Why translations need careful checking” in the November 2010 blog, I decided to point out there are many well known and collectible error translations. I have listed in my book, “Catalogue of English Bible Translations; A Classified Bibliography of Versions and Editions Including Books, Parts, and Old and New Testament Apocrypha and Apocryphal Books.” William J. Chamberlin. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991.” (Still in print after 19 yrs. This is a 898 page reference book which has set a new standard in its field.), around 35 of them.

    Here are a few of them:
    1611 “Judas” Bible. Misprints of “Judas” for “Jesus” at Matthew xxvi:36.
    1631 “Wicked” Bible or “Adulterous” Bible. The word “not” was omitted from the seventh commandment. (Ex. 20:14)
    1641 “More Sea” Bible. “the first heaven and the first earth were passed away and there was more sea.” Instead of “… there was no more sea” Rev. xxi:1
    1702 “Printers” Bible. Psalms 119:161 states, “Printers (instead of ‘Princes’) have persecuted me without a cause.”
    1716 “Sin On” Bible. The first English Bible printed in Ireland contains in Isaiah: “Sin on more” for “Sin no more”. (John 8:11) This error was not discovered until the entire impression of 8,000 copies were bound and partly distributed.
    1763 “Fool” Bible. “the fool hath said in his heart there is a God” [instead of no God]. The printers were fined 3,000 pounds and all copies were suppressed. (Psalm 14:1)
    1801 “Murderers” Bible. St. Jude 16, the word “murderers” is used instead of “murmurers”.
    1804 “Lions” Bible. This Bible pre-eminently distinguished for its many errors. A few of them are; Numbers xxxv:18, “ The murderer shall surely be put together” for “to death”; I Kings vii:19, “Out of thy lions” instead of “loins”; and Gal.v:17, “For the flesh lusteth after the spirit” for “against”. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (DMH 1474)
    1810 “Wife-Hater” Bible. Luke xiv:26 reads, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father. . . yea, and his own wife (should be ‘life’) also, he cannot be my disciple.”
    1823 “Camels” Bible. Misprint at Genesis xxiv:61, “And Rebekah arose, and her camels”, for “damsels”. London: Eyre and Strahan for B.F.B.S. (DMH 1723)

    These are just a few of the more well-known error Bibles. Even though there are at least one error or more in every book printed, it is very important to try to minimize errors in the special vocation of translating God’s written Word. Of course, most of the errors are probably printer errors, at least, that is what I like to think,.

  15. James says:

    There are many mistakes one can make when translating a document, and this can happen to even the best translators. To avoid such mistranlations to be made in the documents you need translated, always make sure that you use a professional service, provided by an independent translator or a translation agency.

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