Jovial  (31 Aug 2014)
"How Important Is Reading from the Original Language?"

How important is it to read from the original language?  Some people think that if they have an interlinear, they have every study tool they need.  What I am going to demonstrate in this is why that philosophy is wrong by looking at some abiguous verses.

Gen 49:6b reads

"בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר"

This has been translated by King James as “for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall."  The first part is not controversial, but the second part is.   In various translations we see:

  • "digged down a wall" (KJV)
  • "hamstrung oxen" (NIV)
  • "they lamed oxen" (NASB)
  • "eradicated a prince" (YLT)
  • "עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר" could also be translated "made barren a lineage"

Why so many different translations?  Let's take a look:

  • "עקר" can mean to "uproot" or "displace" or "make barren"
  • "שור" can mean "ox" or "line" or "lineage" or "wall"
  • "שר" means "prince"

The KJV started with interpretting "שור" as "wall", and then paraphrased "עקר".  While digging typically is involved in uprooting a plant, it is not the digging that this word really refers to.  The KJV just got this wrong.

The NIV and NASB went with "oxen" for "שור", even though it is singular.  Both paraphrased "עקר" in order to cause it to make sense with "ox".  However, maybe they should have reallized that if no literal translation of "עקר" works with "ox", then perhaps "ox" is not the right way to interpret "שור".  There's also no record in Genesis of Shimon and Levi digging a wall or doing anything to an ox.  The YLT rendered this "eradicated a prince", and indeed, in previous chapters, there is a record of them doing that.  But to get that, the YLT had to interpret "שור" as a spelling mistake for "שר".  Even then, they paraphrased "עקר" . Despite the fact that they had to take one liberty, it's the only translation where this phrase is logically related to the rest of hte sentence.

What I find hardest to understand is why the most literal translation of these two words wasn't done by anyone.  "שור" can mean line or lineage.  "עקר" can mean "to make barren" or "uproot".  And Shimon and Levi definitely did this.  By killing a man, they destroyed all possibility of him having descendants through their sister.  That was their intent in fact.  So they definitely destroyed or "uprooted" or "made barren" a lineage.  So why is it all of these translations missed the most literal translation of these two words that fit the context of the book of Genesis?  Beats me.

Some people think an interlinear will tell them everything they need to know about how the Hebrew reads.  Let's do an interlinear of these two words to show how misguided that idea is.

Version שׁוֹר עִקְּרוּ
KJV wall digged down
NIV oxen hamstrung
NASB oxen they lamed
YLT prince eradicated
yet another possibility lineage they made barren

So a KJV interlinear will read much differently than a NIV interlinear, as would a YLT interlinear. All any interlinear really shows you is how the words were translated.  They do not actually tell you whether it was translated correctly.  And if you are not personally aware of what other possible meanings each word you are looking at could have, then it might indeed be counter productive by biasing you towards an erroneous translation and reinforcing the idea that it is right when it is not.

Ambiguous phrases are common in Hebrew, but most of the time when one is used, there's a parallel phrase to help decode it.  That WAS done here, but the parallelism was ignored.  It says....

  “for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill "עקרו שור". 

So while "עקרו שור" is ambiguous, it is to be interpretted in light of the previous parallel phrase, which was "for in their anger they slew a man". The KJV, NIV, NASB all give a translation that is not logically related to the parallel phrase.  The YLT does, but  that had to modify "שור" to "שר".  Killing a lineage - the translation no one used, does line up with the parallel phrase in this verse.  YLT got closest to the interpretation I have proposed for this verse, since it at least implies killing off a lineage, in that the word "prince" implies a lineage and "eradicate" erasure from the root.  But no translation conveyed at least what is not only one of the possible meanings, but probably the intended meaning.

Zech 13:5b reads

" אִישׁ-עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה אָנֹכִי, כִּי אָדָם הִקְנַנִי מִנְּעוּרָי"

It's interesting to see how many different ways this has been translated:

  • "I am an husbandman; for man taught me to keep cattle from my youth." (KJV)
  • "I am a farmer; the land has been my livelihood since my youth." (NIV)
  • "I am a tiller of the ground; for I have been made a bondman from my youth" (JPS, Amplified, ASV omits "made")
  • "I am a tiller of the ground, for a man sold me as a slave in my youth" (NASB)
  • "A man, a tiller of ground I am, For ground [is] my possession from my youth" (Young's Literal)
  • "I am a tiller of the ground; for man acquired me [as bondman] from my youth. " (Darby)

Why are so many translations reading so different?  No, it's not because any are paraphrasing since most of these are rather literal translation, with the NIV being the least literal.   Here's the first half in interlinear.....

אָנֹכִי אֲדָמָה עֹבֵד אִישׁ
I ground work man

So this is saying "I am a man who works the ground."  Most of these translations rendered it "I am a tiller of the ground", making the general verb "עֹבֵד" (work) a bit more specific than it actually is, losing a little generality from the original Hebrew, but without changing the intention of what is communicated.  The NIV rendered "man who works the ground" as "farmer", and the KJV did so as "husbandman.".  Nothing wrong with those two, it just loses a little bit of literalness, but without any loss of meaning.

But the second phrase is another whole matter.  At the center of the disagreement over this text is how to interpret the verb "הִקְנַנִי".  Let's do a multi-interlinear on how various translations translated this.....

Version מִנְּעוּרָי הִקְנַנִי אָדָם כִּי
NIV since my youth  my livelihood ground -
YLT from my youth  my possession ground  for
KJV from my youth  taught me man (3p)  for
JPS , Amplified from my youth I have been made a bondman man (1p)  for
ASV from my youth  I have been a bondman man (1p)  for
NASB from my youth  sold me as a slave man (3p)  for
Darby from my youth  aquired me man (3p)  for


this chart helps demonstrate that having an interlinear doesn't really show you everything you need to see how the English was translated.  there's general agreement on the first and last word; it's the middle two that are in debate.

Not only do various translations disagree on whether "אָדָם" should be "ground" or "man", but even those that agree on it being "man" can't agree on the sentence structure and whether this "man" is the speaker or someone else in the third person.

"הִקְנַנִי" is the word they disagree on the most.  It could come from more than one multiple root:

  • from verb form of "קנן", often translated as "dwell", "establish", "build". 
    • The King James translated "הִקְנַנִי" as "taught me", probably paraphrasing the "establish" meaning this word is often rendered as.  The King James is trying to tell you HOW someone established this farmer.
  • from noun derived form of verb "קנה", often translated "aquire", "purchase", "buy", "obtain".  Everyone else went with this interpretation, but even then, couldn't agree on exactly how to apply that either.
    • The NIV interpretted it as in the 3rd person, and then paraphrased a bit.
    • The YLT interpretted it as in the 3rd person and did not paraphrase.
    • Darby and the NASB expressed it in English as a verb, probably for simplicity.
    • The JPS, Amplified and ASV interpretted it as in the 1st person, but even they disagreed on the HEY.  ASV interpretted it as a definite article, the JPS and Amplified as being a hiphil construct.

None of these translations completed "flubbed" or anything.  It's just multiple translations of an ambiguous phrase.  Examining this verse with an interlinear does not fix the problem.  Which of the above interlinears do you use?  No dictionary or concordenance would be enough to solve the problem, because it woun't tell you if "man" is first person or third person in this sentence, and that is one of the pointds of contention between the various translators.  you can't cross examine that looking at the English sentence, because the English sentence structure ALREADY ASSUMES one or the other.  You can't look at the NASB or Darby or KJV and see the possibility that maybe the "man" in question was the speaker.  You can't look at the JPS, ASV or Amplified and see that the "man" in question could potentially be someone OTHER than the speaker.  Context won't help of you're looking at an English sentence, because the context has been assume and so translated for you.  A dictionary or concordenance will only tell you that "man" is an English word to use, but tells you NOTHING about the grammar.  The only way to decide between these translations is to be able to analyze the sentence construction of a Hebrew sentence in order to cross examine which is correct.