02 Nov 2015

The Danger of Relying on a Single Translation

Religious 25 Comments

My Bible study partner and I typically read from at least two different (English) translations when covering a portion of scripture. Often it doesn’t make much difference, but once in a while it does.

For example, tonight we noticed that the famous “be fruitful and multiply” command from Genesis 1 is followed by “fill the earth” in the New International Version (NIV), but as “replenish the earth” in the King James.

Some commentators believe that something major happened (involving Lucifer’s fall) that is not spelled out in Genesis 1. One of their pieces of evidence (for example Vernon McGee starting at 11:10) is this use of “replenish,” which suggests that the earth had previously teemed with life.

25 Responses to “The Danger of Relying on a Single Translation”

  1. Guest says:

    Hi Bob, thanks for another insightful post. Do you ever feel overwhelmed or disturbed by the huge theological points that potentially can slip through the cracks like the one you mention here? When all of these uncertainties bog me down sometimes I turn to the simplicity of John 3:16 to assure myself that regardless as to whether or not I correctly interpret certain auxiliary theological points, I can be at peace. I wonder if you ever feel the same.

    Also, in a post regarding Noah’s Ark you asked if the water could have been stored in underground fissures. I learned in an astronomy class that the oceans may have been stored in the Earth’s mantle and then outgassed later on.

  2. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Yep – Atlanteans and Lemurians.

    I think you’ve mocked me before for saying things to the effect that I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of there being a God but if there is one it’s probably an alien, but it’s this and a number of other passages (and similarities with other traditions) that makes that at least grounds for speculation. You don’t have to suppose something as foreign as the God of the Bible.

    The whole ancient alien/alien astronaut is still highly unlikely and at its very best all we can have is some fun speculation around it, but I assign some non-zero probability some sort of extraterrestrial engagement with an advanced civilization in the deep, deep past that was catastrophically wiped out and where most of the religious traditions we have to day come from a devastated human race picking up the pieces from that.

    Probably not true, and the details are anyone’s guess. But like Genesis, it’s a very very nice story.

    • Z says:

      Who knows which of your two stories happened. Just flip a kuehn and be done with it.

      • guest says:

        Does that sound racist to anyone else?


        • Z says:

          Who knows, but it’s almost certainly a microaggression against Daniel.

  3. Harold says:

    Probably best not to rely on Google translate then. I see that in Finnish it says “täyttäkää maa ja tehkää se itsellenne…” which Google translates as “fill the earth and do it yourself…”

    Looking at a few of the different translations (on that web site Bob linked to), the only one I saw with “replenish” was the KJ. It seems likely that teh KJ is a magnificant piece of literature, but maybe not the most reliable when nuance in translation is significant, as in this case.

    Or maybe they did know what they were about in 1616. A small amount of digging reveals some justification for the KJ version ““Here, the Hebrew texts all read “male”. It is translated as “replenish” in
    Genesis 1:28 and 9:1 [KJV]. The same word is translated as “replenish” in
    Jeremiah 31:25; Isaiah 2:6, 23:2; and Ezekiel 26:2; 27:25. In all five cases it
    was a restoration of a previous condition: “it was rich and then poor,” “it got
    joy back that it had lost,” “it had done it before,” and “someone is being
    REFILLED after being empty.”

    That seems to be saying the same word is used to mean replenish elsewhere in the bible. A further quick dig reveals Isiah 23:2 says “replenish” in the American standard version, whereas “fill” is used in the Genesis passage. Although the Jeremiah passage talks of refresh, so who knows.

    The trouble is, we have to rely on some translation – there is no such thing as the “literal” word of God in English. However, exact translation is not possible. Translate each word and you lose the meaning, translate the meaning and you must change the words. That is why computers cannot translate very well. The Google translate algorithm uses translations that are on-line and done by humans in order to make sense of the language. Modern computer translation is much better than oit used to be because it is piggy-backing on human translators.

    Relying on a text as a source of knowledge will always lead to this sort of problem.

  4. Craw says:

    1) you are relying on translations rather than the Hebrew
    2) one translation is the KJV, made 400 years ago, on the basis of fewer and faultier manuscripts, using English words whose meaning may well have changed over time
    3) you are accepting the whole thing as literal truth in the first place
    4) you are spinning out fantasy worlds on that basis

    Ummm, ….

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Craw, fair enough on points 3) and 4), but I’m confused by your 1) and 2). Should I not claim to know anything about Adolph Hitler’s intentions in *Mein Kempf*, since after all I haven’t learned German?

      • knoxharrington says:

        On Craw’s point number 1 it would be instructive to know if the translation is derived from the Hebrew or the Greek translated from Hebrew – specifically with regard to the Septuagint portion of the OT. I don’t know if there are differences noted between the Hebrew and Greek versions but that may be a point worth considering.

        On Craw’s point number 2 I think he raises a valid issue. There are better translations than the KJV like the NASB. Unless you go to one of those churches which puts on the marquee something like “we use the Bible – black covered KJV” (I’ve actually seen the equivalent).

        Take a look at the differences between the Living Bible and the NASB – they often appear to be two different books. Translation and literalness does matter.

      • anon says:

        Translating is tricky work, as literal translations lose nuance and poetic translations retain the nuance while risking the form. The risk is worse the older the text and the language; “translating” Chaucer is a whole lot easier than translating Beowulf.

        If you take the Bible seriously from either a theological or scholarly view, you probably want to read and understand the nuances of the original text while avoiding the complications of translation. Secular writings like MK usually aren’t worth that unless you’re a Hitler Studies major.

        That students are encouraged (required?) to learn Classical Arabic is one of the most admirable aspects of Islam, and an example that Christianity would benefit from if our religion hadn’t been turned into a weekly series be-good, feel-good lectures to be endured before the baseball/football game.

      • Craw says:

        Your argument turns on reading meaning into one word. That word is not in the original, it is in a translation. That raises two problems: is your translation using the right word, and does that English word have modern meanings that mislead.

        I assume your Main Kampf point is directed to my point 1: you don’t speak ancient Hebrew (nor do I). Well that would be a reasonable point if you were concerned with the gist of the book, not arguing that Hitler didn’t really want to conquer Russia because on page 312 he said “into” not “in”.

        My second point is really two points, and I probably should have separated them. 2a is that the KJV is based on a poor set of sources. We have many new and better manuscripts available now. Are we sure which Hebrew word they translated as opposed to the NIV translators? (I have no idea.) My 2b point is more important. English words drift over time. Does “replenish” mean what it meant when the KJV was written? In 1600 did it imply a previous fullness? Was a poetic use frowned on? I don’t know, but if you are going to base an argument on it I think you should. I mean, examples abound. “An exception proves the rule” sounds idiotic , but “proves” once meant “probes”, and “An exception probes the rule” makes perfect sense.

        • Craw says:

          Google replenish etymology.

          “late Middle English (in the sense ‘supply abundantly’):”


          “mid-14c., from Old French repleniss-, extended present participle stem of replenir “to fill up,”

          So it seems to me that in 1600 you could replenish something that had not previously been full.

          • Darien says:

            Chase the etymology a bit farther than that and you find the Latin roots: “re” (again) and “plenir” (fill). It almost definitely has its origins as a synonym of “refill,” though it appears that there is significant evidence of the transitive form being used to mean merely “fill” at one time: http://english.stackexchange.com/a/448

            Granted, that’s an early-nineteenth-century citation with a strong probability of having been influenced *by* the KJV, but it exists all the same. Pre-KJV usage is not easy to find, but I’ll keep at it.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Craw at the BlueLetterBible website they give the original Hebrew word, and the frequency with which is translated into different English words throughout the Bible. I don’t remember exactly but that same Hebrew word got translated as “fill” something like 107 times, and “replenish” fewer than 10. In those other cases where it was rendered as “replenish,” it definitely made sense in context as “to fill again.”

          • Craw says:

            Let’s assume it was the right choice in those other cases. Still does not mean the KJV team made the right choice. Clearly that word, in Hebrew, does not require a previous fullness. So your argument is, at best, about the thinking of the KJV team.

            • Bob Murphy says:

              Craw, I wrote a post about the dangers of relying on a single translation, and somehow this has turned into a critique of me for relying on a single translation. ?!

              • guest says:

                I think he just wants to help with the confusion of the example used, if I understand him, correctly.

              • Craw says:

                Well, for parsing that finely from a translation at all, if that helps. Like my in, into example.
                There are two problems with arguing from the exact wording of a translation. The translators might be wrong; you might misunderstand the translation. With the KJV I think the latter has happened. Replenish in 1600 does mean exactly what replenish in 2015 does, but your parse assumes it does.

                Your fantasy world inference is betting on a parlay: the KJV got it right, everyone else got it wrong, the meaning you detect is what they meant, the original author meant it literally, and he knew the truth.

              • Craw says:

                Sorry to repeat but. Your post was about how relying on just one translation would have caused you to miss this possibility of an earlier teeming world. But that inference is completely bogus.

  5. Darien says:

    If I’ve done my work correctly (and if you think my English is rough, try my Greek!), the relevant portion in the Septuagint reads “πληρώσατε τὴν γῆν,” which doesn’t have any connotations of replenishing what was once there as far as I can see. Someone with far better classical Greek skills than mine may be useful here, though.

    • Craw says:

      Out of curiosity I checked a few Jewish translations. All had fill. Replenish is better poetry. The KJV is always better poetry. That’s why I prefer it. But Murphy’s argument, that the word replenish suggests an earlier teeming world, is a dead letter. But I will say I rather like the idea that Murphy’s God had a history of screw ups and obliterated lives, and that Noah’s flood was only his latest genocide. Fits his personality, what with all the smithing.

      • Harold says:

        “Murphy’s argument, that the word replenish suggests an earlier teeming world, is a dead letter.”
        I thought his argument was the people had used it as evidence for an earlier teeming world. His references demonstrate that people have indeed done so. I think you are correct that they proabably shouldn’t have, but that does not alter the fact that they did.

        Therefore you shouldn’t rely on a single translation.

        • Craw says:

          Hmm. I guess that is possible but it seems unlikely. Afterall it’s Murphy and his partner noticing the difference. Seems more likely he meant he and his partner would have missed the clue had they read only the NIV. But he can clarify himself better than you or I can infer.
          Did you mean to criticize those early teemers Bob Murphy?

  6. Major.Freedom says:

    OT: Thought you might enjoy:


    “Many tech companies in the last few years, such as Facebook and Google, have launched bug-bounty programs, offering rewards to friendly hackers who find vulnerabilities and disclose them to the company so that they can get fixed.”

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