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Monday, 18 May 2009

The NIV is a poor translation--relatively speaking

When a Bible translator sets out to put God's Word into a new language, one of the things he has to get a good grasp on is how the target language uses kinship terms, because this can be a very crucial factor in making an accurate translation.

Alas, this factor appears to have been overlooked by the Committee on Bible Translation.

Genesis 12:5 KJV
"And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan;"

Now, even without this verse, we would have known Lot's relationship to Abram; they had common agnate descent from Terah, who was Abram's father and Lot's paternal grandfather. But if all we had to go on was this verse, would we be able to glean as much from the NIV?

Genesis 12:5 NIV
"He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan,"

The CBT apparently thought that "his brother's son" was not the best English translation of ben akhiyu, although that is almost as literal a translation as possible; only "the son of his brother" would have been more so. "Nephew," however, is a much less specific word; quite a lot of meaning was lost in translation.

In English, 'nephew' can mean:

- (archaic) son's son (in Judges 12:14, Job 18:19, Isaiah 14:22, and 1 Timothy 5:4 of the KJV)
- son of a brother
- son of a sister
- son of a wife's brother
- son of a wife's sister
- stepson of a brother
- stepson of a sister
- stepson of a stepbrother
- stepson of a stepsister
- stepson of a wife's brother
- stepson of a wife's sister
- son of a wife's stepbrother
- son of a wife's stepsister
- stepson of a wife's stepbrother
- stepson of a wife's stepsister
- son of a husband's brother
- son of a husband's sister
- stepson of a husband's brother
- stepson of a husband's sister
- son of a husband's stepbrother
- son of a husband's stepsister
- stepson of a husband's stepbrother
- stepson of a husband's stepsister

So the CBT has greatly diminished the specific meaning of this word, even in a context that excluded all sons of a husband and his relatives!

In English, we do not distinguish in our kinship terminology between those related by blood or by marriage, except when within the immediate context of a broken marriage relationship: thus we have half-brothers and step-sisters, but not half-cousins or step-nephews. Not even the children of one's stepchildren are customarily referred to as 'step-grandchildren'.

In Hebrew, on the other hand, agnate (male-line) relationships are all-important, and all others are secondary. Even generational gaps are of less importance; Abram could just as well speak of Lot as his brother as he would speak of him as his brother's son. But either way, the relationship is through their common male ancestor.

Here are all the Hebrew remote kinship terms found in the Old Testament:

yabam: husband's brother

yebemeth: brother's wife (of a man); husband's brother's wife (of a woman)

doed: father's brother; also in construct as uncle's son and uncle's daughter

dodah: father's sister

khathan: male related through the marriage of a daughter (or sister, maybe even an aunt)

khathanah: female related to a man through his wife

kham: (late) husband's father; used only of Judah to Tamar

khamah: (late) husband's mother; used only of Naomi to Ruth and Orpah

kalah: son's wife

neked: son's son

In none of the places where these kinship terms are used does the NIV translate them as specifically as the Hebrews understood them (but--see exception below)--even in the text of 2 Chronicles 36:10, where neither formal nor a dynamic equivalence was used in translating the Hebrew:

"In the spring, King Nebuchadnezzar sent for him and brought him to Babylon, together with articles of value from the temple of the LORD, and he made Jehoiachin's uncle, [Hebrew brother, that is, relative (see 2 Kings 24:17)] Zedekiah, king over Judah and Jerusalem."

Now, that Zedekiah was Jehoiachin's father's brother is clear from the cross-reference. But 'brother' carries only half of the semantic value that akh does. Specifically, the word refers to a male relative on the father's side. The NIV text is a little more specific than its footnote, but still not specific enough.

There is an entire incident in the Bible where the NIV's failure to accurately translate kinship terms causes a loss of understanding to the reader. It is when Jesus visits Nazareth, and the locals ask,

"Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us?"

What is missing here is that the people saw Jesus as a natural son of Joseph, and his enate (female-line) siblings as sons and daughters of his father. But they weren't; the true answer to all but the second and fourth questions was "Not exactly." But Jesus didn't answer them directly; it was not yet the time to reveal his true identity.

The reader of the NIV, however, would naturally answer all four questions with "Yes," missing a big part of the message.

Relatively speaking, the NIV does a poor job of translating the Bible.

ADDED June 11, 2009

I discovered one verse where the NIV accurately translated the word khathan, and it is in a context where they really had no choice:

Genesis 19:14
"So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry [or were married to] his daughters. He said, "Hurry and get out of this place, because the LORD is about to destroy the city!" But his sons-in-law thought he was joking."

Remember the word simply means "in-laws," but the context here absolutely prevents the NIV from taking its usual route of translating it as "father-in-law." We saw the same thing with the Levite's concubine and the wife of Phineas: they give the word a more specific meaning that it normally carries, but one exactly matching the context that makes it as specific as the English term used to translate it.

Added January 19, 2010

I thought of another use of akh in Scripture, where agnate descent is assumed unless qualified. In Song 8:1, the Beloved wishes that her lover had been her akh, the nursling of her mother. I believe this to be such an unusually specific usage that it had to be thus qualified to be clear to the reader.

Added April 29, 2016
Looking more closely at 1 Timothy 5:4, I see that the NIV translation of "children or grandchildren" perfectly adequate. They mangle the rest of the verse, but by using neuter plural words, Paul does seem to be emphasizing descent with no emphasis on gender. It may not fit with what we know of the cultural expectations of the day, but Paul apparently expects a woman of means to use her wealth, as necessary, to support either of her widowed grandmothers as well as her mother or mother-in-law.

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