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Shock! Ten Commandments Translation Fail
June 24, 2010 - By: - In: Translation - 17 comments

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.

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