Shock! Ten Commandments Translation Fail

by Translation Guy on June 24, 2010

Talk about the ultimate translation fail. In the most important moral teaching of Western civilization, two out of ten commandments have been mistranslated for centuries, according to Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, a Bible scholar and linguist who has applied modern translation techniques to the Bible.

“Perhaps more than any other part of the Bible, the Ten Commandments have shaped Western culture,” Hoffman argues. “The good news is that most of the commandments have been translated accurately. The bad news is that two have not.”

Hoffman has discovered that coveting is not a problem. It’s just that you are not allowed to take stuff. The Ten Commandments prohibit bad deeds, not bad thoughts, argues the iconoclastic translator.  (Personally, I hope Hoffman’s right, since I’ve been basically thinking bad thoughts ever since my first catechism class, as Father Kelly used to point out.)

There’s also a big translation problem with “Thou shall not kill.” Kill is apparently a little too broad, definition-wise. The alternative commonly used (at least by Catholics), “You shall not murder,” is wrong too.  According to Hoffman, there are shades of gray involved here─not all killing is verboten. “Thou shall not commit murder, manslaughter or any other form of illegal homicide” is probably a more precise─and certainly less catchy─translation of the original Hebrew.

Do you think this is just hairsplitting? Hey, this is what translators do and love to argue about.

Bible translation in particular is a tough gig, what with other translators looking over your shoulder all the time, some with very strong opinions. Back in the good old days, a bad biblical translation could get you burnt at the stake, which, from an ISO quality assurance perspective, is one serious corrective action.

Despite these measures, biblical translation errors abound, perhaps because most Bible translations are produced by theologians and not professional translators, and modern translation techniques were not available to the old-time amateurs.

According to Hoffman, other Word-of-God translation gaffs include the prophesy of the virgin birth in the Book of Isaiah─Hoffman translates the word there as “woman,” not “virgin” (Say it ain’t so, Joel!)─and the exhortation from Deuteronomy (quoted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” The words “heart” and “soul” there are mistranslations, he says. The first Hebrew word refers to all of the intangible aspects of life, including emotions and intellect, while the second connotes the physical flesh, blood, and breath.

Hoffman slams Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” because shepherds in the Bible were “brave, strong, valiant,” and “regal,” while the modern shepherd is “a marginalized loner who spends more time with sheep than with people.” Hoffman explains that using the word “shepherd” to translate Psalm 23 “suggests all of the wrong images and none of the right ones.” I can’t buy that one. Perhaps it’s all that catechism class with Father Kelly, but my cup runneth over every time I read the King James version, with all due respect and a candle lit for St. Jerome and his Vulgate, St. Jerome being the patron saint of translators.

Hoffman is the author of the recently published book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.


  1. DandyLion says:

    People sometimes wonder why there are various “Versions” or “Translations” of the Bible… There you have it.

  2. Hailey says:

    A thought occurred to me: the situation with the Bible and its extensive size seems like it would have caused massive copyist errors over the centuries because of the scale of the task and the format that is being copied. It is truly a sign of how incredibly careful the copyists all were that there were as few (minor) errors as are found in a few of the manuscripts. Fortunately for us, there are so many source manuscripts that exist that the few variations that have been found have been checked in all the source documents and scholars are now extremely certain of the accuracy of modern translations.

  3. Mark Demanno says:

    What is the difference between a good and a bad translation of a literary work? How can you tell?

    • Ken says:

      Mark, This weekend in London they did a translation face-off between two literary translators. A 56-sentence short story. In the two different versions of the 56-line only once sentence was translated the same by both translators. I’ll post on it.

  4. Pat Berls says:

    Every translation of the Bible embodies a philosophy about what the Bible is, about the relation of its writers to God, and even about God Himself. The trend today is away from a more literal rendering of the ancient text toward a more literary one; newer translations seek to make the Bible easy to read and understand.

  5. Paulie' says:

    Translations of The Bible have always played an important part in the history of translation in general, incidentally – many of the milestones in translation history (in terms of politics and in terms of the way translation is perceived as an art) have related to Bible translations. It’s no wonder that the patron saint of translators is St Jerome, the man behind the most famous translation of the Bible into Latin.

    • Ken says:

      Ever since Vatican II, I’ve stopped burning insense to St. Jerome. Now all my devotions revolve around meditation while watching endless YouTube loops of Jeromobot.

  6. aQtheR says:

    Tmuch more important is the cat bible translations:

  7. Ghostface says:

    Good point. The Old Testy source manuscripts are written in Hebrew. Before about 900 AD, Hebrew was also written without any vowels. Can you imagine the possibilities of what might happen if copyists were even slightly careless? By the way, this is closely related to YHWH, the Name of God, becoming Yahowah or Jehovah (or Yahweh), when the vowels from Adonai (another ancient Name for God) were inserted into YHWH many centuries later.

  8. Marianne says:

    Every translation necessarily bears the understanding of its translators. In bringing the ancient text into a modern language, the translators must first understand the original in terms of the original and, in many cases, interpret the original. Good luck.

  9. Trinity says:

    All translations and exegesis are in fact ‘models’ of Scriptures, just like the many cosmological interpretations that mankind has come up with over the centuries are models of the cosmos. Up to the present day no cosmological model has been devised that is fully consistent with all observations, and the same goes for Scriptures. So far no translation or exegetical system has been able to fully cover the essence of the Text.

  10. Cynthia says:

    I love this timeline of how the bible got to English: very interesting stuff ken!

  11. I guess it is not enough to make fun of the contents of the Bible, now even
    “noble” translators are finding errors with the translation of the ten commandments written by the hand of God. I might also add that Jesus himself is defined as the Good Shepherd. Please keep your religious or non religious opinions to yourselves….O yee of little faith

  12. This sort of discussion regularly generates more smoke than light and tends to conceal issues, make mountains out of molehills and so on. I suspect that Hoffman’s alleged mistranslation “bombshells” would fail to ignite in most Bible-reading organisations (including most conservative churches). In fact, the terms “mistranslation” and “translation fail” strike me as rather overshooting the mark.

    The sort of background explanations that you quote from Hoffman (the old woman/virgin chestnut and the social status of shepherds) would be unlikely to ruffle any feathers in the sort of church I am familiar with (charismatic/evangelical). They are the sort of thing that could easily feature in a sermon in very many churches, and nobody would bat an eyelid. Does Hoffman really make such a song and dance about them? If so, I wonder why he feels a need for so much attention.

    When I translate a highly legal contract from German to English (which is a large slice of my daily bread’n butter), there will naturally be some terms which are drawn from the German legal system and don’t come across well in a UK or US legal setting. Does that mean my translation is worthless? No way. Perhaps I need to add an explanatory note, perhaps the client needs to engage a lawyer who knows German law and can explain what is actually meant.

    It is similar with the Bible. Translation always has the potential for a cultural or linguistic mismatch. But there is such a wealth of alternative translations (I have plenty, in two different languages), and also an enormous volume of accessible scholarly commentaries, so the suggestion that we know nothing of what the Bible means because it has all been spoilt by translation seems to me to be adventurous in the extreme.

    Are we looking at yet another storm in a teacup?

    • Ken says:

      Victor, I thought if I nailed a big translation fail on the Ten Commandments it would go viral. And now you’re tellling me I’ve got a fizzle instead of a Force 5.

      Interesting to note that there are lots of translator notes for the Ten Commandments. Even so, most don’t read the fine print.

  13. ken…a force 5 exactly it is

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