Lost in Translation

Please forgive my nerdiness in this post (and subsequent ‘Translation Issues’ posts, as this might become a series). In case you didn’t know, every Bible for the last 1500+ years has been a copy, a transcription (or more recently a print) of an older document. Obviously it became important over time to translate the original documents into other languages, so more people could read them. But sometimes things don’t translate so well (see the picture above). And sometimes those translation issues are really funny. Here’s one that made me laugh this week.

In Exodus, when the Israelites were leaving Egypt, there’s a really famous story where the Israelites are pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s pursuing army. God speaks to Moses and tells him to raise his staff over the sea. Moses does so, and miraculously a wind comes up, turing the seabed into dry land. The Israelites then cross on dry land between walls of water. Then this happens…

Then the Egyptians – all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and charioteers – chased them into the middle of the sea. But just before dawn the LORD looked down on the Egyptian army from the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw their forces into total confusion. He twisted their chariot wheels, making their chariots difficult to drive….

That is Exodus 14:23 through the first part of verse 25 from the New Living Translation, a fantastic translation that I use quite a bit. But notice the word “twisted” towards the end there. Along with the NLT, several other good translations and paraphrases say God “twisted” or “clogged” or “bound” the Egyptians’ chariot wheels. But check this out…

Several other good translations, including the NIV and KJV, say something along the lines of, “God removed the wheels from their chariots.” That’s a way funnier story, in my opinion. I’ve always taken it as a principle of comedy that, within some distant limit of reason, the more exaggerated and unlikely option is usually the funnier. Example: Pharaoh’s army gets bogged down in the mud: meh, that’s kind of funny. Pharaoh’s army gets halfway across the Red Sea and the wheels literally fall off their chariots: now that’s comedy!

Have you ever come across an interesting and/or funny translation issue in your Bible reading? What do you think about this one?




  1. When I first became a Christian, I started reading the Bible straight from the OT. This horrified many other more experienced folks around me who thought that I would throw it out the window by the time I got to Leviticus.

    However, I thought it was great, because in doing so I thought I dicovered the world’s first joke of its type in the Bible: 1 Kings 12:10. In most translations, it sounds something like, “Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us, thus shall you say to them, My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs.” Some versions say “waist” or “legs”… my NASB said “loins”. I’m pretty sure that it was meant as a vulgarity in that situation. Nobody else I talked to had ever heard or remembered that passage.

    Another one I like: Proverbs 5:19. Some of the translations keep it clean, but there are others that talk about wives and basically lay it all out there (so to speak): “Let her breasts satisfy you at all times.”

    And now, I’ve dragged it down into the gutter…


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