God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Being Clear on Being Clear

A post by David Frank on BBB has got me thinking about clarity in Bible translation.

I think there are at least two kinds of clarity, and two times when we don’t want clarity.

Clarity of Language

The most basic kind is clarity of expression in the target language — in our case, the English translation of the original Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic). An ordinery Hebrew or Greek sentence should up as an ordinary English one.

This is a fairly basic concept in translation, so it’s surprising how many popular translations get this wrong.

At the top of the list of offenders here is the KJV, not because of any particular fault on the part of the translators but because English has changed in the past 400 years. For example, a clear Greek sentence like pote ode gegonas (John 6:25) becomes “when camest thou hither?” in the KJV instead of “when did you get here” (NIV). Even the NRSV ends up with “when did you come here,” which is not as clear as the original.

David Frank’s point (I think) is that the NRSV is therefore both less clear and less accurate than the NIV. There are those who claim that the NRSV is more accurate because the English “came” is closer to the Greek gegonas, but most translators (including myself) disagree, because the Greek gegonas is clear and colloquial in context, and the English “when did you come here” is not.

Clarity of Content

On the other hand, there are times when the content of what we want to translate is complex, and here I think translators have to resist the temptation to “translate and improve.”

Some examples will demonstrate. We can start with English.

English Examples

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” While the langauge is perfectly clear, the content of Dickens’ opening line is anything but, and I think it would be a mistake to “translate” this as “the times were ambiguous,” or “the times were perceived differently by different people” or (this is Dickens’ point in the opening paragraph), “the times were seen only in superlatives.”
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January 29, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments