God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Blank Slate of Incoherent Translation

In a comment to Mike Aubrey’s post on Dynamic Equivalence, Davis asks:

Do you think a lot of this misunderstanding in the method of translation comes from a shallow understanding of the original languages? Since most people are trained to basically decode a sentence into English, instead of actually learning the languages so that they think and understand in Greek and Hebrew, then entire translations are produced that are more of a decoding rather than a translation.

I think Davis is absolutely right. And I think two reasons lie behind what is frequently a superficial approach to translation.

First, some people don’t have the means to understand the ancient texts. Learning ancient Hebrew or Greek involves a lot more than learning the vocabulary.

Secondly, though, some people — consciously or unconsciously — don’t want to fully learn the ancient languages. I think there is sometimes something spiritually satisfying about an opaque text. Ironically, a phrase without a specific meaning can sometimes be incredibly meaningful, precisely because it offers a blank slate upon which readers can superimpose their own meanings.

For example, I do not believe that most English speakers today can understanding the following KJV translation of Matthew 17:25:

He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

Yet many of these same English speakers prefer the KJV to the NLT:

“Of course he does,” Peter replied. Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it. But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Peter? Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”

I think one reason Bible readers sometimes prefer the KJV is that the archaic language makes it easier for them make the text mean what they want it to mean.


September 22, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 7 Comments

The Son of Man and Other Fixed Phrases

Even gender-accurate translations retain “son” and “man” in the phrase “the Son of Man,” presumably because it has become a fixed phrase. They do this even though most people recognize that anthropos (“man”) means “humankind” in the phrase, and that uios (“son”) is at least potentially inclusive, even if it refers to a specific male.

Any translation other than “Son of Man” — I think the translators think — would sound jarring or, because it was unfamiliar, would not convey the already-established sense that people automatically hear in “Son of Man.”

I understanding their reasoning, but I don’t agree with it.

Essentially, their point is that a phrase is currently mistranslated, but because it has been mistranslated for so long, it’s too late to change it. But isn’t this the same thing as saying that the translation is knowingly propagating an error?

September 22, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 4 Comments