The Wartburg Project

December 15th, 2019

50. Are pronouns always translated literally?

I noticed that in the EHV it seems that the pronouns are not always translated literally. Sometimes you have a noun instead of a pronoun. Sometimes the person of the pronoun seems to be different than that in the Hebrew or Greek (a literal he is translated you). Why? Wouldn’t it be better to translate literally?

Your question is very timely because we recently published our EHV grammar handbook, Biblical Grammar: Mechanics or Meaning? It is available in our online library or by request. The following answer is adapted from that handbook.

Sometimes grammatical difficulties are due to differences between the structures and practices of the English language and the structures and practices of the biblical languages.

The interplay of nouns and pronouns is probably the area of grammar in which translators most often must depart from a word-for-word rendering of the original Hebrew and Greek texts to produce acceptable English. English often requires a noun where Hebrew might be able to use a pronoun, and vice versa.

English style normally does not permit us to use a pronoun unless there is a clear antecedent in the near vicinity. In cases in which a Hebrew pronoun does not follow its antecedent closely enough to fit English style, translators may have to replace the pronoun with the appropriate noun in order to make it clear who is being referred to (for example, using “Moses” rather than “he”) and to prevent readers from thinking that the editors are guilty of sloppy grammatical style.

Although English style normally does not permit use of a pronoun until a noun has been mentioned to serve as its antecedent, Hebrew does this very thing very often. On the other hand, repeating the same noun over and over again, which is not uncommon in Hebrew, sounds strange in English. So for readability and to avoid a mistaken perception of grammatical and stylistic errors, pronoun usage in the EHV normally follows English usage and rules. Footnotes sometimes call attention to places in which the English translation has supplied an antecedent, but this phenomenon is so common that it would be distracting to footnote them all.

The problem is that if all the pronouns are translated literally, this will sound strange or even wrong to English readers. On the other hand, if the pronouns are not translated literally, it will look wrong to people who look up the Hebrew. So notes are added to try to prevent this peon. What is being provided in such cases is not just a literal word-for-word rendering of each pronoun, but an acceptable English rendering of the whole sequence. The rendering is not just word-for-word, but thought-unit-for-thought-unit.

Here is an example from 1 Kings 20:14:

14 Then Ahab said, “Through whom will this happen?”
The prophet answered, “This is what the Lord says. It will be through the young officers from the provinces.”
He said, “Who will start the battle?”
He said, “You will.”

This is a correct literal translation of the Hebrew, but the passage was red-flagged by the English reviewer as bad English because of the back-to-back use of two instances of he which do not have a clear relationship to their antecedents. Better English would be:

14 Then Ahab said, “Through whom will this happen?”
The prophet answered, “This is what the Lord says. It will be through the young officers from the provinces.”
Ahab asked, “Who will start the battle?”
The prophet answered, “You will.”

Whichever way the editor decides, one set of readers will think that the translation is wrong.

Jumps in Person

A closely related problem is that Hebrew frequently jumps back and forth between first, second, and third person pronouns in ways that sounds odd in English. In some cases, the EHV adjusts these statements by producing a sequence which is acceptable English.

Agreement in Number

Biblical texts very frequently use plural pronouns like they, them, and their after collective singular nouns like people, nation, and Israel, especially when the texts refer to actions carried out by many individuals within the group. This is the common usage in Scripture, and EHV sometimes retains it. To the biblical writers expressing the sense of the passage is more important than mechanical agreement of form.

Gender of Pronouns

Nouns in Hebrew and Greek often have grammatical gender that does not reflect their actual gender. This often has to be adjusted in regard to the gender of the pronouns in the English translation.

Nouns like Israel and Edom are sometimes followed by masculine singular pronouns (he) when there is an allusion both to the nation and to the ancestral father of the nation.

Names of cities and countries are usually feminine in gender, but they are followed by feminine singular pronouns in English translation only when the city or country is personified as a woman. EHV does not always retain these feminine pronouns when they reflect only grammatical gender rather than personification.

Here as in many other translation issues translators and editors find themselves “between a rock and a hard place” knowing that whichever option they chose, it will sound wrong to some of their readers. Notes can minimize this.