Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Problem with Mistranslations

Example 1
Imagine that I do not speak English and I always have a translator accompanying me. I am a farmer but for whatever reason every time I say "farmer" my translator says "salesman." Let us presume that my translator gets everything else I say right. If you talk with me there are only a few ways to find out that I am a farmer and not as salesman.

One is to pick up on clues in the context when I speak about my job. I may mention livestock and farm equipment but even then you could assume that I sell those things.

Another way, if you ever even get to the point of questioning my translator's accuracy, is to look up the word salesman in the language I speak. You can find that the word I am saying is not salesman. You then need to find a way to discover the meaning of the word I am actually using.

The power of the word salesman being used by my otherwise trustworthy translator makes you believe something that is not true. It shapes how you view the context of my conversation. It perhaps makes you think that I sell farm equipment rather than farm the land myself.

Example 2
Imagine that your job position originated in a country that spoke a different language than you and they are just now expanding into your country. The person they have to translate their operating manuals grew up in a part of their country that has a slightly different dialect, where words mean slightly or drastically different things than they do where the manuals were originally written. The language barriers prevent you and others from doing the best job that you can and the business as a whole suffers. Everyone thought that they were doing the right thing and going exactly by the book but they never questioned the translation when one part of the book contradicted the other.

The Problem
These situations pale in comparison to the problems with our English translations of the Bible. Some words were intentionally mistranslated in the first place and tradition has kept them there (church, pastor, minister, deacon). Other words are unclear in meaning because they have little to no secular use (grace, faith, repent). These religious words are defined in many different ways but were not religious words in the original language. They were common words easily understood by anyone who spoke the language (grace=favor, faith=trust, repent=change of mind).

Some words are influenced by the beliefs of those who translated them (usually the institutional church). These translators and subsequently those who read their translation believe that the way things are today is the way things have always been and read the present situation into past events. When they see the word "church" in the bible they think of an organization or building, seeing "pastor" they think of the man in charge who preaches at the church, seeing the word "minister" they think of a leader, etc. People are thinking that the farmer is the salesman. Soon they hire salesmen to farm and all sense of meaning is lost to the masses.

From Guardians to Gurus
Untold damage is done by these mistranslations. One English word poorly translated in one verse (pastor in Ephesians 4:11) is part of the basis for thousands upon thousands of men to unwittingly usurp the headship of Christ. Too often I have heard people happily repeat things from sermons they've heard recently which are actually destructive lies. They instantly believe what they are told no matter how shame-filled, self-centered, unloving, or absurd  it is simply because the pastor said so. Pastors need only to point to the word "pastors" in Ephesians 4:11 to justify their office to most despite the fact that the word "pastors" only appears once in all of scripture, the word is plural, the context says little about what the pastor actually is, and the word is a mistranslation (it is supposed to be translated as "shepherds").

I specifically talked with two pastors who knew I was out of the church system and Ephesians 4:11 was the only scripture they used to support their existence. When asked if all Christian groups need pastors I said "Jesus is the Good Shepherd and speaking of Him in Ezekiel 34:15 God says, 'I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord.'"

The mistranslation perpetuates the false office and false authority. While not all motives are pure most pastors are simply following the traditions of the church thinking that it is what God intends. Sadly those traditions and falsehoods existed 400 years ago and certain words were placed into scripture to support them. While I wish pastors would research their supposed position solely using the scriptures, they aren't to blame. Hundreds of years of man made traditions, falsehoods, and mistranslations stand against the people of God.

Here two questions to ask yourself, "Am I believing false things because of traditions or mistranslations?" & "Do I trust what I hear over trusting the living God?"

Related Posts
Older People as Guides not Officials as Governors:  Explains what a shepherd (mistranslated pastor) actually is.
All Posts on Mistranslations


  1. Very true, I have never been comfortable with all the Titles, positions and organization of the church. I thought that was just because I am not a structured person who likes everything to fit into the proper boxes. Regardless of the way the church is organized now, God still works through it where they are at because he knows we are imperfect. I do have a longing to have small gatherings in peoples homes and fellowship and pray with and for my brothers and sisters Instead of standing a singing worship songs and a message and go home without any personal interaction. I understand what you mean by being "out of the church system" and I would really like to know what or how your faith life looks like now. What I mean by that is do you meet and fellowship with other believers in homes (without Pastors and all the other positons) like they did with eachother after Jesus went back to be with the Father?

  2. Yeah I meet with a nameless group without any leaders. We have open participatory meetings most Sunday evenings where we just talk about God & maybe go through a some scripture. There are not time sensitive studies or anything.

    I try to follow God's lead as to what to say & when. I make sure to listen to the others attentively & speak as God guides.