chris blogs

January 2005

27jan2005 · Comparing Bible Translations

Donald Knuth once wrote a book called 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated. In this book, he analyzes verse 16 of the 3rd chapter of each book in the bible.

Yesterday we talked in #ruby-de about Onan (Gen 38, 8-10), of whom is delivered to practice the “coitus interruptus”. However, this was not clear by the german Luther translation of the bible:

Aber da Onan wußte, daß der Same nicht sein eigen sein sollte, wenn er einging zu seines Bruders Weib, ließ er’s auf die Erde fallen und verderbte es, auf daß er seinem Bruder nicht Samen gäbe.

(Poor, but literal translation:

But because Onan knew the semen should not be his own, when he penetrated his brother’s wife he dropped it on the earth and ruined it, not to give semen to his brother.

). What is described is not the coitus interruptus at all, it seems to be masturbation. BTW, this story is also the reason the german word “onanieren” (masturbate) exists.

Now, contains a lot of bible etexts of different translations, so just for fun, I looked at all of them. And I think I made an interesting discovery: The actual semantics of the text vary a lot among the translations.

First, Young’s Literal Translation:

and Onan knoweth that the seed is not [reckoned] his; and it hath come to pass, if he hath gone in unto his brother’s wife, that he hath destroyed [it] to the earth, so as not to give seed to his brother;

Since this is supposed to be a literal translation, I expect it to carry the same semantics as the Hebrew original text. (This may not be true, but let’s assume it.)

Here is the King James Version of that section (all emphasis following is mine, of course):

And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

Notice that “destroyed” and “spilled” is quite different, isn’t it?

Next, New American Standard Bible:

Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother.

“seed” has changed here to “offspring”. “destroyed” got “wasted”.

Here is the New International Version:

But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother.

Aha! Suddenly, he lays with his brother’s wife not once, but multiple times. (Interesting, because god kills him because of that.) The Message, a recent translation also says “whenever he slept with his brother’s widow”.

The version included in the Amplified Bible blurries the actual action:

But Onan knew that the family would not be his, so when he cohabited with his brother’s widow, he prevented conception, lest he should raise up a child for his brother.

The New Living Translation is very easy to understand (written in 1996, by the way):

But Onan was not willing to have a child who would not be his own heir. So whenever he had intercourse with Tamar, he spilled the semen on the ground to keep her from having a baby who would belong to his brother.

“to have intercourse”, nice. The New International Reader’s Version puts it even more romantic:

But Onan knew that the children wouldn’t belong to him. So every time he made love to his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground. He did it so he wouldn’t produce children for his brother.

Quite a contrast with the Contemporary English Version (1995):

Onan knew the child would not be his, and when he had sex with Tamar, he made sure that she would not get pregnant.

Again, the actual action was not delivered. (And don’t forget that the coitus interruptus is not a safe way of prevention!)

The New King James Version somehow makes me think of transistors:

But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother.

Somehow, there are quite a lot of possibilities to influence readers of bible translations. Now if we just knew what actually the intent of the writers was…

NP: Jack Johnson—Wasting Time (this was not on purpose!)

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