Reading the Bibles: Why Translations Differ (Part 3)

Here is the second of four categorical reasons why translations may differ.

2) How does the translator parse the mechanics (syntax, etc.) and disambiguate the text on the sentence and paragraph level?
(NB: This is a very simplified presentation of complex subjects.)

Biblical Hebrew is very different from English. Like many other ancient languages, it has no formal punctuation, no capitals, and word order can vary. Consequently, it’s not always easy to figure out if this word belongs to end of this phrase or the beginning of that one. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one sentence ends and another begins particularly since the word “and” functions in multiple ways and is used more frequently then English. Translators have to decide where the breaks are in the text, and then how to represent that in English.

(As a side note, several FARMS papers have discussed this in terms of the Book of Mormon’s awkward English syntax, with its endless run-on sentences and sometime unclear subjects. See here, here, and here.)

Another way Hebrew differs from English that may affect the translation is that it has only two verb “conjugations.” Whereas English makes liberal use of words to indicate tense and mood, Hebrew does not grammatically indicate tenses such as future, past, present, let alone those nightmare tenses like future perfect. This is not to say Israelites didn’t think about time or any such nonsense; what we indicate grammatically, they indicate syntactically and less explicitly. (Scholars argue over whether written Hebrew reflected spoken Hebrew.) This, again, means translators must both decide what it means and how to represent that in English. The lack of grammatical tense explains why one translation may put a verse in the past tense, another in the future and another in the present.

Beyond mechanics, poetry is tough. It’s often less concrete and more elliptical. For example, like Spanish, Hebrew doesn’t need pronouns with verbs; one can simply use the conjugated  masculine singular verb “ate” instead of “he ate”; lacking an explicit subject, translators must decide if the subject is new and assumed (he? it? God?) or if the verb’s subject is something from the previous phrase. Ambiguities of this nature occur more often in poetry. Based on their understanding, translators must make decisions about what the text is saying and how best to convey it.  Translators must say *something.* Based on an outdated view of translation, the KJV uses italics to indicate words added by the translators to round out or completely communicate what they thought the text was saying.

For a good short intro to Hebrew poetry, see Kevin Barney’s award-winning Ensign article here.

Link to part 4.