Top Translation Traps: Dependence on the Dictionary
The dictionary can be double edged sword, used either to understand or wielded to confuse.
In another forum, a KJVO proponent defended the KJV translation “the voice of the turtle” (for the Hebrew kol ha-tor) as accurately representing a bird call in Song of Songs. His reasoning was that “turtledove” is listed as one of the (archaic) meanings for “turtle,” so “voice of the turtle,” he says, means, “voice of the dove.”
I think this approach is as common as it is misguided.
It usually goes something like this:
1. An existing English translation is up for discussion. (In this case, “voice of the turtle.”)
2. The most natural understanding of the translation doesn’t match what the original Greek or Hebrew means. (To English speakers, “turtle” sounds like an animal that crawls, not one that flies.)
3. An obscure, archaic, or otherwise non-contextually appropriate meaning for one of the English words is found. That meaning matches the meaning of the Hebrew. (“Turtledove.”)
4. The translation is defended as being right. (KJVO forever.)
The fundamental mistake here is thinking that one can arbitrarily decide which dictionary definition of a word will apply in a sentence. More generally, the mistake is thinking that the dictionary controls the language it is supposed to describe.
In the case of “turtle,” even though one of the dictionary definitions is a bird, there is nothing in the phrase “voice of the turtle is heard” that would make an English speaker think of a bird, or even think to look up the word “turtle” in the dictionary. The translation is wrong because English speakers will not find the archaic definition that might otherwise make the translation right.
I think part of the confusion comes from those who already know what the original means. In this case, people who already know that kol ha-tor means “voice of the dove,” might correctly understand the English. And they might therefore not realize how wrong the English translation is.
This type of flawed reasoning is particularly suited to defending the KJV in those instances where the KJV’s English uses to be correct but is now archaic, because frequently the archaic meanings will still be in the dictionary. (The KJVO proponent also defended “let” as meaning “prevent” because not only is it an archaic meaning, it’s also still used technically in tennis to mean something similar to “prevent.”)
The same or similar reasoning applies to more modern translation, too.
For example, in a discussion on BBB of “meteoric,” reference was made to the “dictionary definition” of “meteoric rise,” in this case to attack a translation.
When I complained that the combination of “children … crib” in Isaiah makes me think of children and cribs (rather than a place for keeping an animal’s food), a reader chastised me and pointed to a dictionary definition of “crib” as “a bin or granary for storing grains.”
In yet another discussion on BBB, in a vaguely similar way, reference was made to the dictionary definition of “clap [one’s hands],” even though I think all English speakers know what it means to “clap.”
All of these (and more — what can you think of?) rely on the dictionary as if it could change what a text means.
I think the dictionary should be used by native speakers who really don’t know what a word means (“warp” and “woof” come to mind), rather than to try to make a word mean something it does not.