God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

That Familiar Sense of Unfamiliarity

It seems that people who frequently read a particular Bible translation generally come to expect a certain “Bible style” that often includes an oddness of vocabulary and syntax. They then associate that oddness with the Bible itself.

And because they think that the Bible is odd in the ways that their translation suggests, they refuse to accept any translation that departs from the oddness, thinking that it’s a departure from the Bible.

(I’ve suggested here that people might have more than an accidental personal investment in strange or even incoherent translations.)

But what if (as I believe) the oddness is merely an artifact of bad translation?

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October 1, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. One of the problems with settling for a somewhat less than perfect provisional translation for a culture which has never had the bible before is that it can become the accepted norm for worship and you can face fierce resistance to improvements in a later edition. The time between the provisional edition and the revision can be a whole generation. It is very difficult to unseat a bible that has been in use as the only version available for a generation.

    In my humble opinion, we need to stop beating a dead horse. The dead horse of “absolute word for word formal equivalence” is a straw man. Every time someone intelligently critiques “dynamic equivalence”, e.g., E.A. Gutt, we get a knee jerk reaction and this straw man is hauled out once again and given a thorough flogging.

    Comment by c. stirling bartholomew | October 1, 2009 | Reply

    • Two very good points.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 1, 2009 | Reply

  2. I think there’s more to it than bad translation. I think it often is the result of relatively good translations aging less than well. Surely you’ve been in situations where you’ve heard people’s prayers full of “thees” and “thous,” despite these vestiges of older English never being used by the very same people outside of a liturgical/church context. I think that, as much as anything else, it shows the tendency of people to inject some sense of “other-ness” or “strangeness” or “esotericism” into the context of religion. So as the translations (like the KJV) age, they are held to even more firmly because they are “holy” in the sense of religiously different.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 2, 2009 | Reply

    • Jason: I agree. I suppose there are lots of ways of getting “a bad translation,” only one of which is “bad translation (practices).” Another is a combination of good translation and language change.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 2, 2009 | Reply


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