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Biggest translation blunder in history?
Thread poster: Heinrich Pesch

Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
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Dec 24, 2015

I hope nobody takes offence when I address this question on Christmas Eve.

Does greek parthenos mean "young woman" or "virgin"?

https://outreachjudaism.org/septuagint-virgin-birth/


 

Kristina Cosumano  Identity Verified
Germany
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German to English
Maybe not so much a blunder Dec 24, 2015

as an intentional thing. There seem to have been a few "virgin birth" myths floating around in other cultures before Christianity.

 

Kirsten Bodart  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
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Dutch to English
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Both intentional and coincidence, I think Dec 24, 2015

Not that I believe in it, but as Kristina said, there were already stories about virgins bearing children around before the Virgin Mary even came along. It's a bit the same as the story of Noah: there are several flood myths before the story of Noah. And I seem to remember that the Gospels that weren't included in the New Testament of the Bible passed Jesus and Mary off as less divine than the ones formally canonised by the Church.

Having studied medieval literature, I suppose it happened like this:

People started believing in this impressive guy Jesus, started spreading myths and by the time the New Testament was really established, there were several versions, a few of which make Jesus a figure who came straight from God through the immaculate conception, because otherwise Jesus would have been imperfect, as he would have been the result of sin (coital acticon_biggrin.gif).

It was quite common for people in earlier times to 'borrow' things from other holy figures to make theirs holier. The big genre of saints' lives, for example, feature a number of exactly the same miracles that can be traced back to one story. Point being that either Mary wasn't a virgin (which is the most likely) or Jesus didn't exist at all and it's all an invention of one person. Though that's probably far-fetched. After all King Arthur does have a basis in a real unnamed chieftain, although his story seems to have been seriously beefed up.


 

Sandra& Kenneth  Identity Verified
Israel
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Biggest translation blunder? Dec 24, 2015

The Hebrew word alma, which means young woman in the Hebrew Bible, was translated into Latin as virgin.

"In the same way that in the English language the words “young woman” does not indicate sexual purity, in the Hebrew language there is no relationship between the words almah and virgin. On the contrary, it is usually a young woman who bears children. The word alma only conveys age/gender."

http://is.gd/5yFaMR
icon_smile.gif

[Edited at 2015-12-24 16:15 GMT]


 

Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
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Russian virgin and derivatives Dec 24, 2015

The Russian for virgin is дева (dyeva), Other words based on this are девушка (dyevushka), a girl; девочка (dyevochka), a young girl, i.e. a child; and девица (dyevitsa), which is pretty much the opposite of a virgin: a woman of dubious reputation. The Russian for "call-girl" is телефонная девица.

 

Ksenia Sergeeva  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
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девица Dec 24, 2015

Jack Doughty wrote:

and девица (dyevitsa), which is pretty much the opposite of a virgin: a woman of dubious reputation. The Russian for "call-girl" is телефонная девица.


Jack, you are right about young girls and female children, but I have never heard the expression телефонная девица in my entire life, I doubt it exists in Russian language, and девица does not imply dubious reputation. Девица is just archaic and sounds funny. There's девка/devka/ though...


 

Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
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To Ksenia Dec 24, 2015

In 1963 I had not long been working at BBC Monitoring when the Profumo affair, a notorious scandal involving the Defence Minister, a Soviet military attaché and two call girls, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, was in the news. Moscow Radio referred to these two as "телефонные девицы" -that's where I got the expression from.

 

Kuochoe Nikoi  Identity Verified
Ghana
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Japanese to English
According to my sources Dec 24, 2015

According to sources I've read on the issues, while the Hebrew word 'alma' can have two meanings, it is always used in the Old Testament to mean 'virgin'.

Source: http://www.gty.org/blog/B111223/the-virgin-birth-and-prophecy

Relevant portion:
In his original pronouncement in 7:14, Isaiah used the Hebrew word ’alma for “virgin.” That is a significant term, and it’s important to understand why the prophet used it. ’Alma occurs six other times in the Old Testament (Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8), and in each instance it connotes or denotes “virgin.” Until recent times, both Jewish and Christian scholars always translated the word that way.

It is interesting that in modern Hebrew either ’alma or betula can mean “virgin.” However, Isaiah did not use betula because in Old Testament Hebrew it can refer to a married woman who is not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:19; Joel 1:8). It’s apparent, therefore, that he used ’alma in 7:14 with the clear, precise conviction that the woman who would bear the Messiah would indeed be a young woman who never had sexual relations with a man.


 

Ksenia Sergeeva  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
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English to Russian
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Dyevitsy Dec 24, 2015

Jack Doughty wrote:

In 1963 I had not long been working at BBC Monitoring when the Profumo affair, a notorious scandal involving the Defence Minister, a Soviet military attaché and two call girls, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, was in the news. Moscow Radio referred to these two as "телефонные девицы" -that's where I got the expression from.

Well, that's interesting, I looked it up. But I couldn't find this phrase in any stories about the scandal. Guess it was a calque from English though. There is a set expression which must also be a calque - девушка по вызову, this one is used commonly and anyone would get what it means. I guess телефонные девицы was quite a convenient term to use for prudish Soviet media back then, as it's not that obvious...


 

Kristina Cosumano  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 17:03
Member (2015)
German to English
In German, for instance Dec 25, 2015

the word for virgin is Jungfrau.
So, clearly, there has been a connection in the minds of some folks over the last couple of millennia.


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
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English to Afrikaans
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Well, what does "orphan" mean? Dec 25, 2015

Heinrich Pesch wrote:
Does Greek parthenos mean "young woman" or "virgin"?
https://outreachjudaism.org/septuagint-virgin-birth/


Let us as translators not forget that the meaning of words can change over time, and that words can have more than one meaning, and words can be used in a particular meaning but that that meaning can then become something else due to the context that the word is used in. And of course any definition should be read within the culture of the author of the definition, because definitions tend to take things for granted which may not be obvious to future generations.

A word that one might use to illustrate this, is "orphan". We all know what an orphan is, yes? Not quite. For example, I grew up with the understanding of the word to mean "a non-self-sufficient person whose parents are both dead". However, in UNICEF statistics, a person of 18 years whose parents have both died, is not an orphan, whereas a person of 16 years whose mother OR father died (even if the remaining parent remarried and the stepparent is a loving parent) is an orphan. In English we also have "orphanage", a place where (by the shape of the word) orphans are kept. But [in some countries, at least] orphanages often also house children whose parents either abandoned them or are unable to care for them. So the meaning of "orphan" can be narrow, but also quite wide.

Even the word "virgin" in English is problematic, if you try to analyse it too finely. If a girl regularly participates in cunnilingus and/or fellatio, but never coitus, is she a virgin? Some would say "yes", some would say "definitely no".

So what does parthenos mean? As a non-Greek scholar I suppose it would mean a girl who can have children but of whom one would reasonably expect to have not had sex yet.


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
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English to Afrikaans
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Mr Singer's reply Dec 25, 2015



Since you cite that blog post, I suppose you want some comment about it as well. Ordinarily, I would not have read the blog post for more than 1 or 2 minutes before clicking the X. The interviewer is off to a bad start by assuming too much about what his reader might know about who said what:

Mr Singer, why did you say Christians mistranslate the Scripture by saying “almah” doesn’t mean “virgin,” when their translation of virgin comes from the Septuagint’s “parthenos,” not the Hebrew “almah”? “Parthenos” does mean “virgin.”

Did Mr Singer say that almah does not mean virgin, or did those Christians say that almah does not mean virgin? Did Mr Singer claim that Christians' translation of virgin comes from the Septuagint, or do those Christians claim it? Is the statement that parthenos means virgin a statement from the interviewer, or from those Christians? Some of these questions can be answered by analysing Mr Singer's response, but I find it a sloppily written opening for a blog post.

In his reply, Mr Singer deals with the question too literally, which is not helpful. For example, the interviewer uses the word "Septuagint" when in fact he means "pre-Christian Greek Old Testament" (a common error by those who are not scholars in this field). Instead of simply correcting the interviewer's blunder and then answering the question that the interviewer had meant to ask, Mr Singer goes on to answer the original question as if the interviewer had used the wrong word deliberately.


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
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English to Afrikaans
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@Kirsten Dec 25, 2015

Kirsten Bodart wrote:
I seem to remember that the Gospels that weren't included in the New Testament of the Bible passed Jesus and Mary off as less divine than the ones formally canonised by the Church.


I've never heard that idea before, and it was interesting to me, so I googled for it, but I could not find any evidence for it. In fact, several of the gospels that didn't make the canon refer to the mother of Jesus quite highly. Can you tell us a little more about this idea?

Point being that either Mary wasn't a virgin (which is the most likely) or Jesus didn't exist at all and it's all an invention of one person.


The question is not whether Mary was or wasn't a virgin, but whether the Bible does or doesn't say that she was a virgin. The story of Jesus also contains has some other non-natural events, so the fact that we find it personally unlikely that Mary was a virgin mother (which would also be a non-natural event) does not tell us anything about the intended meaning of the statement itself.

In other words, it is false textual analysis to say "the author couldn't have meant X because we don't think X is likely to have been what had happened".


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
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Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
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@Sandra Dec 25, 2015

Sandra& Kenneth wrote:
The Hebrew word alma, which means young woman in the Hebrew Bible, was translated into Latin as virgin.
...
http://outreachjudaism.org/alma-virgin/


While it is true that Jerome translated the Hebrew word as "virgin" into Latin, Mr Singer's statement in the blog post cited by you that "For nearly two millennia the Church has insisted that the Hebrew word almah עַלְמָה can only mean “virgin.”" is quite incorrect.

Jerome wrote commentaries with all of his translations, which are incredibly helpful to translators today, and we know that he did not think that "almah" means "virgin". He thought that it meant "young girl" with the implied nuance that it is a "hidden girl", i.e. a girl who have been cloistered, i.e. kept in secret, away from men.

At the time that Jerome made his translation, the verse was commonly interpreted (by Christians) to mean "virgin" anyway -- though not because of the word "almah" but simply because the event of a birth itself would not have been miraculous. In other words, Christians at the time of Jerome used a logical argument, not a linguistic one.

Jerome and his predecessors knew perfectly well (and also said so) that "almah" is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to mean things other than "virgin".

Perhaps Mr Singer's statement above is intended as hyperbole (though I doubt it). Why then not also make allowances for the possibility that some of what he is trying to confute may also have been hyperbolic?


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:03
Russian to English
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Hi, it must have been just figurative language— Dec 26, 2015

Jack Doughty wrote:

In 1963 I had not long been working at BBC Monitoring when the Profumo affair, a notorious scandal involving the Defence Minister, a Soviet military attaché and two call girls, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, was in the news. Moscow Radio referred to these two as "телефонные девицы" -that's where I got the expression from.

someone's idiolect. It is not a regular expression. It just means a young woman or a virgin.
As to Virgin Mary, who cares really. It is the message or teachings of Christ that have the most value. Nowadays there are plenty of virgins who gave birth to children—women who never had sex and got impregnated by artificial insemination.

As to Hebrew, the New Testament was written in Greek. Of course it may draw on some Hebrew expressions from the Old Testament, but it was not written in Hebrew.

Happy Holidays to all.

[Edited at 2015-12-26 06:45 GMT]


 
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