God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would You?

In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”

Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?

I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.

My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.

Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.

As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.

(As part of my travels, I commonly present to interfaith audiences, and, by and large, the Christians are bewildered by this Jewish approach, while the Jews often think it’s self evident.)

Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.

All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?


October 10, 2012 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. If Jerome’s translation approach was sense-for-sense, he wouldn’t need to jump off a cliff. Many of today’s conservative Christian scholars would toss him off.

    Comment by nwroadrat | October 10, 2012

    • 🙂

      Comment by Joel H. | October 10, 2012

  2. My take is that word-for-word and sense-for-sense are both useful, but they should each be used in correct ways, and they are often not used in these ways. For example, to use a word-for-word risks teleporting modern metaphors into ancient text with the result a mashup, but if one learns the ancient metaphors, then it can be useful.

    Comment by Don Johnson | October 10, 2012

  3. Does it matter how people translated in the past? – yes, very much. Knowing how they translated is part of the ‘modern’ science you speak of. The LXX is particularly important since it is the first and it seems often to reveal a different underlying Hebrew text.

    Nonetheless – translation in ‘modern’ terms is still a difficult operation even with ‘science’. I regret to say that sense inferred is often non-sense. A translation should reflect the drama of the text it translates. Rhetoric, pace, pulse, go beyond the cerebral. Recently working with Deuteronomy 8, here and particularly with its music, I note how weak the modern REB rendering is. It is rendered as in a meat packing plant. The sense is missing because the dramatic pace and tenderness is missing. Sense must not become senseless. Word for word, phrase for phrase, forces the translator to consider the aural impact of the original.

    It is patently obvious that grammar, gloss and so on will be different for different contexts – homonyms, synonyms, etc must all come into play in the host language. But if the guest language drama is ignored, then the host language will reveal its lameness.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | October 10, 2012

    • Does it matter how people translated in the past? — yes, very much. Knowing how they translated is part of the `modern’ science you speak of. The LXX is particularly important since it is the first and it seems often to reveal a different underlying Hebrew text.

      I agree. Knowing how they worked on the LXX helps us understand it, and that, it turns, helps us understand both the Hebrew of the OT and the context of the NT.

      My question is what benefit there is — if any — to purposely trying to mimic what that LXX did. For example, if I’m right that the translators of the LXX only tried to capture the general sense of each word they translated, does that mean that perhaps we should, too?

      Or, again, should Jerome’s translation theory impact our own? Or does it just help us understand what Jerome was doing?

      Comment by Joel H. | October 10, 2012

  4. trying to mimic what that LXX did? It’s interesting to me that the LXX preserves Hebrew word order in Psalm 1:1 so that the a-b-b-a-b-a pattern is audible. I would operate this way – this is perhaps called ‘rhetorical imitation’. But I am imitating the Hebrew. The Vulgate also follows this pattern. English translations generally fail on this verse.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | October 10, 2012

  5. […] Words Lead Bible Translators Astray.” . And Joel Hoffman asks Daniel B. Wallace: “If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would You?” (And Joel brings in the Talmud and Rashi to suggest a “Jewish approach” to Bible […]

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