Monday, November 18, 2013

The Mistranslations of the Bible

You would think that in our digital age that we would have an accurate translation of the Bible. What I am finding is something very different: very sloppy scholarship.  I guess I was surprised to discover that the Masoretic text is missing a line in Psalm 145, which was present in the Greek Septuagint; and the accuracy of the Septuagint in this particular case was confirmed by a Hebrew text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. I discussed this earlier in the blog post Is the Masoretic Text of the Bible the Most Reliable?). So I decided to start comparing the rest of the Psalms, to see what other textual corrections are contained in the Septuagint. I am finding some corrections, but when going through this exercise in translating the Psalms I had another major surprise: all the major English versions of the Bible contain mistranslations of the Hebrew text. It is so obvious it is ridiculous. Most people can figure it out using Strong's concordance. This I am using in conjunction with Leningrad Codex of the Masoretic text - somebody spent the effort to digitize this and make it available as an add on module to theWord Bible software.

In the former blog post The Best Bible Translation in English? I indicated that the New American Standard version of the Bible (NASB) was probably the best - but even here I am finding mistranslations on the few occasions I bother to check. I probably should have titled that blog the "least worst" translation of the Bible. So let me provide some random examples. Lets look at Psalm 7:13. The King James Version (KJV) has this translation, speaking of God judging the wicked who pursue the righteous:

He ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors

As typical with the KJV, it uses some old English.  So modern translations try and fix this, but in the process they try to be creative.  The NASB has this:

He makes His arrows fiery shafts

So which one is correct?  Neither one.  But the KJV, giving it allowance for older English, is more correct. Translating from the original Hebrew, I arrrived at this:

He makes his arrows against those who hotly pursue

So, the NASB made a mistake because the Hebrew word for "hotly pursue" can in certain cases mean "fiery." So which is correct?  From examining the Psalm, one can determine the meaning if one knows the parallel structure of the lines in the poem: lines will repeat in a certain pattern in each Psalm.  Once one does that, the meaning is obvious: it concerns those who are in pursuit to overtake the righteous. So the KJV version is correct, it just uses old English: the English word persecute used to mean those who were in pursuit, but now it means something slightly different.

So the KJV of the Bible is better, right? Well no, wrong. It not only uses outdated English, but it has its fair share of mistranslations as well.  So here is another example - I will take it from Psalm 10, as I have already translated 9 Psalms and I am in the middle of the tenth Psalm. Here is a line from Psalm 10:4 from the KJV, speaking of the evil:

God is not in all his thoughts

Sounds like a very simple sentence, right? How could one get that wrong? Well, here is what the NASB has for the exact same line:

All his thoughts are, "There is no God."

I stared at this translation, and just said WHAT??? That was the last straw, I decided to post a blog and criticize the NASB translation.  The Hebrew does not say that at all!  I looks like they were trying to be creative with the KJV and did not look at the Hebrew. In fact, the word for "thoughts" is not thoughts.  And this is where it got very confusing, as multiple Hebrew words are taken by translators, and sometimes translated into the same English word, sometimes not. I am finding that the Hebrew is actually precise. Here is the translation, going to the original Hebrew, and regarding the context:

God is not in any of his devious plans

So that's right, it is not talking about thoughts, its talking about intentions above our thoughts. Mostly evil intentions - the best I could come up with is "devious plans" - as from the context, it is speaking of evil plans of the wicked. Its an important point, as Swedenborg stated that in heaven the thoughts and deeds of each person is always regarded from one's intention or purpose. This is an example where neither the KJV or NASB is correct.  So why is this happening?  I am thinking that as each new translation is made, the translators assume the previous translators were correct. I have just shown two examples, I can provide many more. And this is just after translating the first nine Psalms (which is why I have not been blogging lately.)

So why not do a machine translation? That is dangerous, as machine translations do not regard context, nor idioms.  For example, it was tried on this phrase:

Out of sight, Out of mind

The machine translation came up with this:

Invisible Idiot

Or what about this passage from Matt. 26:41:

The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The machine translation came up with this:

The liquor is good, but the meat is spoiled.


For those familiar with the biography of Swedenborg, one of the first tasks he had before him was to find a good translation of the Hebrew text.  As he knew Latin better than Hebrew, he went with a translation in Latin by Schmidius. So although he knew Hebrew, he sometimes went with a reading from Schmidius that was not so accurate - this I discovered in some footnotes when I was working on publishing his works for Amazon and Barnes & Noble  (see The complete works of Emanuel Swedenborg - on your tablet or smartphone). Why is an accurate translation important? Here is what Swedenborg had to say on the Hebrew language, and the internal spiritual sense of scripture:
They who are in the internal sense can know instantly, and indeed from a single word, what is the subject treated of; and especially from the connection of several words. When a different subject is taken up, at once the words are different, or the same words stand in different connection. The reason is that there are words peculiar to spiritual things, and words peculiar to celestial things; or what is the same, words peculiar to matters of understanding, and others to matters of will. For example, the word desolation is predicated of spiritual things, and vastation of celestial things; city is predicated of spiritual things, mountain of celestial things; and so on. So it is with the way in which words are connected. And, what need not be a matter of surprise, in the Hebrew language the words that belong to the spiritual class are very often distinguishable by the sound. In these the first three vowels are usually dominant; in words that are of the celestial class, the last two vowels. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 793)
So, anyone examining translations with a Hebrew concordance will see how translations often use multiple words to translate the same Hebrew word, and this just will not do. Literal word-for-word translations do not fare much better: in many cases a Hebrew word will have multiple meanings, and the meaning has to be determined from context. And the other unfortunate news is that Strong's concordance of Hebrew did not catch all the words. When I look at the actual Hebrew, I am finding what Swedenborg is saying is correct: the Hebrew is precise, and will mention a particular word in a similar context.  Most churches are stuck in the literal sense of scripture and do not see this as a problem. Also many are completely unaware of the hidden knowledge is contained, which Swedenborg revealed in his work Heavenly Arcana (aka Arcana Coelestia). He begins that massive work with this introduction:
The Word of the Old Testament contains arcana of heaven, and each and all things therein regard the Lord, His heaven, the church, faith, and matters of faith. This no mortal gathers from the letter; for from the letter or the sense of the letter no one sees anything more than that in general they regard the externals of the Jewish Church. And yet everywhere there are internal things which do not appear at all in the external, save a very few which the Lord revealed and unfolded to the Apostles — as that the sacrifices signify the Lord; that the land of Canaan and Jerusalem signify heaven, whence they are called heavenly; and so also Paradise.
But that each and all things, even the least, to the smallest iota, signify and involve spiritual and heavenly things, the Christian world is to this day profoundly ignorant, and accordingly it pays little regard to the Old Testament. Yet they might know it from this alone, that the Word, because it is the Lord's and from the Lord, could not but contain interiorly such things as relate to heaven, to the church, and to faith, and could not otherwise be called the Word of the Lord, nor be said to have any life in it. For whence is its life except from the things that are of life, that is, except from this, that everything in it relates to the Lord, Who is very life itself. Whatever then does not interiorly regard Him does not live; and whatever expression in the Word does not involve Him, or in its manner relate to Him, is not Divine.
Without such life the Word as to the letter is dead; for the Word is like a man, who, as is known in the Christian world, is external and internal. The external man separate from the internal is the body, and thus dead; but it is the internal that lives and causes the external to live. The internal man is his soul. So the Word as to the letter alone is as the body without the soul.
From the literal sense alone, when the mind is fixed in it, no one can ever see that such things are contained therein. Thus in these first chapters of Genesis, nothing else is learned from the sense of the letter than that the creation of the world is treated of, and the garden of Eden, which is called Paradise, and Adam as the first created man. Who supposes anything else? But it will be sufficiently established in the following pages that these things contain arcana which have never yet been revealed (Heavenly Arcana, n. 1-4)
Not only does scripture contain within it hidden spiritual truths, but when read it allows a link or communion to take place between a person's mind and the angels of heaven.  Swedenborg saw this repeatedly in his visions - from which he was able to immediately determine which books of the Bible were Divinely Inspired and which were not. The ones that were inspired always contained within them a spiritual correspondence, in a series. Swedenborg described the communion with heaven as follows:
When the Word of the Lord is read by a man who loves the Word and lives in charity, or by a man who from simplicity of heart believes what is written and has not formed principles contrary to the truth of faith which is in the internal sense, it is presented by the Lord before the angels in such beauty and in such pleasantness, with representatives also, and this with inexpressible variety in accordance with all their state at the time, that every particular is perceived as if it had life; which life is that which is in the Word, and from which the Word had birth when it was sent down from heaven. From this cause the Word of the Lord is such, that, though it appears rude in the letter, still there are laid up in it spiritual and celestial things which lie open before good spirits, and before angels, when the Word is read by man. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 1767-68)
So this is why translation is important - a good translation should at least convey the meaning of the original.


After repeatedly encountering mistranslations in whatever version of the Bible I picked, I decided to start translating it myself, especially after discovering the extent of mistranslations in the Psalms. They're mostly minor, but they add up. A good reason to start with the Psalms is that they contain a poetic structure, where lines repeat each other. This has been very helpful in translation when the meaning was not clear. I don't think modern translations paid much attention to this. The other reason why I am starting with the Psalms is that I want to restore the poetic structure of each Psalm. It should be apparent from just looking at it by any reader, and not just left to scholarly journals. Unfortunately for this blog, I am now spending my time in translation. And this all began from a simple investigation of a missing line in the Masoretic text.

So what are the principles I am following in this translation? For this project I am following these simple rules:

Rule #1: Base translation on KJV to be familiar to readers.

Most people are familiar with the King James Bible, with the way it is worded. As much as I can, I want to retain that familiarity. The other reason for that is the text is public domain, so it forms a good base.

Rule #2: Update KJV translation to modern English for readability.

No reason to retain the old English. It should be updated to modern English - many  other translations do this, but just this, and stop at this step. The other issue to fix in this step is to remove words that were added by the KJV translators, which were not in the original text.

Rule #3: Base Old Testament translation first on Masoretic, then the Septuagint. Base New Testament translation on the Aramaic Peshitta and the Greek Majority Text. 

Masoretic text should have priority for the Old Testament. Next I am looking at not just the Septuagint, but also the Vulgate and the Peshitta text.  So far I am not finding much additional value in the Vulgate (which in itself was an ancient translation into Latin from the Septuagint), but the Peshitta is valuable as it does contain corrections of the Masoretic - and precedes that text by at least 500 years.  As for the New Testament, the Aramaic Peshitta resolves a lot of issues found in the Greek texts, as that is what it was originally writen in - Aramaic. This view is not recognized by most western scholars.

Rule #4: Fix mistranslations. If Masoretic is overruled, note in italics. Also note important variants.

Actually I started this project to just fix mistranslations, not create a new translation. So that is the focus: retain the original familiarity as much as possible, and fix the mistranslations. Unfortunately, many translations are not precise in how they translate the Hebrew.

Rule #5: Improve translation with more equivalent words, if apparent.
Rule #6: Improve translation consistency if apparent, regarding context.
Rule #7: DOCUMENT the changes of translation.

The above rules are self explanatory, but the last one is probably the most important: how many times have people wondered which translation is correct? That will no longer be the case. All changes will be documented, in footnotes. This will expose the mistranslations, and also show why a new translation is needed, and allow for future corrections.  I am starting with the Psalms, and not sure how far I will get, but I am already seeing a lot of value in exposing the actual meaning of the original Hebrew in readable English, as well as restoring the poetic structure. I will probably publish a digital edition of the Psalms with the research, and if there is interest, take it further.

Unless, of course, someone can show me a good translation...

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