Archive for July 12th, 2008

Suing Bible publishers for bad translations

July 12, 2008

Via Language Log and Religion Clause and a whole lot of other places: the story of Bradley Fowler, who is suing Bible publishers Thomas Nelson and Zondervan “on the grounds of malicious negligence, breach of duty, duty of care, intentional torts, malice, strict liability, and violating [his] civil right according to the U.S. Constitution, 14th amendment.” Specifically, he objects to the use of the word “homosexual” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and related passages, and appears to think the publishers are engaged in some sort of conspiracy to change the translation capriciously, I suppose with the intent of causing him further confusion and heartbreak.

The post at Language Log has oodles of great stuff, both in the body and in the comments. Religion Clause has links to the hand-written complaints. For rather less useful commentary, here‘s a discussion of the suit in the context of an anti-Barack Obama screed (really!). [My own commentary will also be rather less useful than LL and RC, but in a different way.]

In no sane world could this case have any merit. I would say “it should be laughed out of court,” but really it’s more sad than funny. Mr. Fowler is clearly a disturbed and desperate individual. He might benefit more from anti-depressants than from frivolous lawsuits.

Fowler’s complaints are seriously confused and confusing. His notion of what publishers do seems somewhat muddled. From the Zondervan complaint:

Zondervan Publishing House knowingly implemented the term — homosexual — to its 1982 and 1987 new edition Bibles. Yet elected to revise that text and remove the text from the 1994 editions. Ironically, the 1989 edition didn’t include the term either. Still, Zondervan Publishing neglected to inform the public of their changes.

You get the idea. Earlier in the complaint he cites the New King James version, but the 1982/1987/1989/1994 “editions” he quotes are actually the NIV, the Amplified Bible, the NRSV (you can find it here), and the King James.

As far as the translation itself, the Greek words in question are μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται, malakoi and arsenkoitai, the “soft” and the “man-bedders.” No one is really sure what Paul meant by the terms—well, plenty of people are very sure, but they’re sure of different things—so the translation is necessarily tricky. “Arsenokoitai” is particularly interesting, as this passage is its first known use (and for all I know all the other uses are quoting Paul). He may have been referring to Leviticus 18:22, literally something like “Thou shalt not lie with a man in beds of woman; it is an abomination.” Or not. See the comments at the Language Log post for much better-informed commentary.

My own ill-informed opinion, for what it’s worth, is that “homosexuals” is a lousy translation, as it carries anachronistic cultural connotations. I prefer the King James’ “abusers of themselves with mankind” just for its pungency. But “homosexuals” isn’t obviously completely wrong either. I’m pretty certain Paul would not have approved of homosexuality as we understand it, either as a sexual preference, or as a “lifestyle,” or simply in terms of sex acts themselves. He only barely tolerated sex at all, and then only in marriage.

In any case I doubt this is the most egregious mistranslation in the Bible. Nor is it the most portentous—my nomination for that would be Isaiah 7:14. I think that one goes back to the Septuagint, whose translators would be difficult to sue.