Forgetting that you’re reading a translation

Of course we all know that the Bible wasn’t written in English, right? So why, oh why, do I come across so much of this sort of thing…

I’m reading a newsletter sent by a Christian mission organisation, talking about the significance of the Passover – a subject that is very close to my heart. They talk about the traditional four cups of wine:

“Each one has a message based on the words of God to Moses in Exodus 6:6-7.” So far, so true. But then they spoil it by saying: “This quartet of phrases all begin with the same two words, I will.”

No, they don’t. Not in the original text. In fact, I can’t even think how to translate “I will” into Hebrew!

(Note for those who don’t know me: I am an Israeli, and a native Hebrew speaker.)

Hebrew doesn’t have a phrase equivalent to “I will”, we incorporate it into the verb itself. You know that bit in the Bible where Moses asks God for his name and God says something that’s normally translated into English as “I am who I am”? The “I am” bit in there is one word in Hebrew: אהיה – pronounced: eh’ye. This word literally means “I will be”, though, depending on context, it can also be “I am”.

To make things a teensy bit more complicated, we’re dealing with biblical Hebrew here, which has some forms that aren’t used in modern Hebrew. The form used in Exodus 6:6-7 is one that looks as though it’s a verb in the past tense, with an “and” before it, so, for instance, the bit translated into English as “I will bring you out…” actually looks like it says: and I brought you out. But it’s really a way of saying, in biblical Hebrew: I will bring you out. But my point is: there is no “I will” there. There’s no such thing in Hebrew – our verbs don’t get split into different words like in English, where you use “will” to indicate future – for example in English you take the verb “to go” and in order to make it future tense, you say “I will go”. In Hebrew the “will go” part is one word. (We even have cases where you drop the “I”  – as in the case I mentioned earlier of the word אהיה = I will be.)

I find this stuff really annoying, because it means people are reading stuff into the text that just isn’t there, and finding meaning that was not intended. I remember being at a group Bible study once when someone said: notice what word this verse begins with – it starts with “but”… and then started to talk about the significance of this. I was the annoying one who pointed out that the original text did not begin with “but”, it was just the way it got translated into English.

Here endeth today’s rant.


6 thoughts on “Forgetting that you’re reading a translation

  1. I wish i knew more of what the original text says. I think there is so much missing in the translations and interpretations. Thank you for sharing this word!!!


    • I think one key thing is to be aware of this – none of us can know everything, I’m a Hebrew speaker but I’m conscious that biblical Hebrew is different and I’m no expert, so I do also miss things.


  2. I used to have a Bible that had the Hebrew written out with the English beneath it (and for the NT it had the Greek). I appreciated it because even when I didn’t know the Hebrew or Greek (studied Greek a bit in high school and a friend tried to teach me Hebrew when I lived in San Francisco, which all told means I know just enough of both languages to know that I know nothing) I could look to see what it had been translated into. (I think they used a KJV translation for the English part.) The interesting part, though, was when there was an English word with no corresponding Hebrew or Greek word, they’d stick the English into parens to show that they had just added that word in to help make sense of the sentence. But it wasn’t there in the original. … So even without any knowledge of the language, you could still tell what had been Englished into the sentence. I’ve found that helpful. You could probably use now-a-days to achieve the same sort of thing.

    My favorite is when the pastor is getting all philosophical about a verse and he says something like, “now this word ‘give’ in the text,… if you look at the original Greek word that’s used here, you’ll find that it means to ‘really give.’ the author is trying to instill in us this sense of giving with the use of this Greek word. we’re to take something we have and ‘give’ it to another.” *eyeroll* Somehow referring back to the Greek word makes the English word more meaningful than it ever could be in its own right. And of course, it should also make the pastor look necessary as a teacher to the congregation that he can look at the Greek word for “give” and tell us that it means to “give.” :-P


    • lol at that Greek example… (a sad lol though. wish people didn’t feel the need to show off like that…)

      I have a Bible in English that shows when a word has been added, I agree that’s really helpful. There are places where you absolutely have to add something or it wouldn’t make any sense in English. Like when they add the verb “to be” – you can’t really have a sentence English that would read “Meg at home”, you need an “is” there. (or “the LORD is my shepherd”, to pick a biblical example. We say “the LORD my shepherd”, we have no “is”.)


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