God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Modernity and Accuracy: Another False Dichotomy

Bible translation seems plagued by a few myths that won’t let go. One of them was recently repeated by Dr. Eugene Merrill in the Christian Post when he said that “if you want a more contemporary […] translation, you’re going to have to give up some accuracy.”

I don’t think it’s true.

Dr. Merrill was explaining the infamous “literal (or word-for-word)” versus “dynamic equivalent (or thought-for-thought)” styles of translation, as the article calls them. But even though there are two broadly different kinds of published Bible versions, that doesn’t mean that there are two equally good ways to convey the ancient text, or that the tradeoff is between modern rendition and accuracy.

Rather the most accurate translation is often also a modern rendition. Just to pick one example (which I explain further in my recent Huffington Post piece on the importance of context), the stiff and word-for-word “God spoke unto Moses saying” is neither modern nor accurate. A better translation, with English punctuation doing the job of some of the Hebrew words, is: “God said to Moses, `…'” And that’s both modern and accurate.

It does seem true that a modern translation and a less accurate word-for-word one say different things — sometimes in terms of basic content, and more often in terms of nuance. I think that some people mistake bad translations for the original meaning, and then lament modern translations that don’t match the older, less accurate ones.

For instance, “God spoke unto Moses saying” has a certain odd tone to it. Some people, I fear, worry that my modern alternative doesn’t convey that odd tone. And, of course, they’re right. But then they make an erroneous leap and conclude that my translation strays from the original, when it’s actually the familiar translation that doesn’t do justice to the source.

Dr. Merrill’s example in the article is b’nai yisrael. He explains that the traditional “sons of Israel” could mislead modern readers into thinking that the phase only refers to males. But the more modern “people of Israel,” accord to Dr. Merrill, also falls short because it strays from the literal, masculine meaning of the word b’nai.

But the reasoning here is flawed. If b’nai refers to both men and women — which everyone agrees that it does — then it what sense does it literally refer only to men? It’s only the older translation, “sons of Israel,” that potentially excludes the women.

So this doesn’t strike me as a choice between modernity and accuracy, but, instead, a modern, accurate option and an older, less accurate one.

To consider an English-only example, one possible way to explain “commuter train” is “a train from the suburbs to a main city.” A possible objection could be that that explanation fails to indicate that “commute” literally means “to change,” and, more specifically, “to change one kind of payment into another,” as in, for example, “combining individual fares into one fare.” The original “commuter trains” were trains in the 19th century from the New York City suburbs in which the full fare was commuted to entice riders.

While I find this sort of background fascinating, I don’t think that it’s necessary for understanding what a 21st century commuter train is. In fact, it’s a mistake to think that a commuter train must be one in which the fare is commuted.

Similarly, I don’t think that knowing the grammatical details of the Hebrew b’nai is necessary for understanding the text in which it is used, and, also similarly, a translation that gets bogged down in those details does a disservice to the original.

It seems to me that this kind of false tradeoff is representative of Bible translation more generally.

And more generally yet, I think that this persistent myth, which pits accuracy against modernity, contributes to Bible translations that are neither accurate nor modern.

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January 23, 2013 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Year in Review (2012)

As 2013 begins, here’s a look at the year just ended, starting with the ten most popular posts from 2012:

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  1. Q&A: What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?
  2. The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think (or: Don’t Mess with the Shepherds)
  3. BBC: “Virgin Birth a Mistranslation”
  4. How to Love the Lord Your God — Part 1, “Heart”
  5. How to Love the Lord Your God — Part 3, “Heart and Soul”
  6. Adultery in Matthew 5:32
  7. Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?
  8. Q&A: What color is the “blue” of the Bible?
  9. What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?
  10. Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted: Hosea’s Children

I like looking at this list each year because I think it reflects interest in the Bible.

Bible translation remains a popular topic (“What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?“). Many people, apparently, are interested in the role the Bible plays in modern life, whether spiritually (“The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think” and “How to Love the Lord Your God“) or in terms of social issues (“Who Says Homosexuality is a Sin?“). And I see a third group of people who are drawn to the intersection of modern topics and the Bible (“What color is the ‘blue’ of the Bible?“).

On the other hand, my thoughts about translating the names of animal species (“What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?“) keep attracting attention for the wrong reasons: The popularity of my blog has unfortunately put the post among the top Google results for searches about the differences between eagles and vultures.

I’ve continued writing for the Huffington Post (most recently, “Putting the Text of the Bible Back Into Context,” and, earlier in the year, the more interesting “Five Bible Images You Probably Misunderstand“), a fact which I mention because normally that site sends more traffic my way than any other single source, but this year, according to WordPress, the superb BibleGateway.com was the top referrer, with HuffPo coming in second. Third in the list was Facebook, presumably from my book’s Facebook page. (I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that my book has so many more friends than I do.)

With my writing (including my latest project, a thriller series called The Warwick Files), lecturing, teaching, and so forth all competing for my time, I was only able to add a few posts a month last year. Each time, the discussion that followed reinforced my belief that there’s room on the Internet for serious, thoughtful, respectful, and fun discussion about things that matter. I’m looking forward to another year.

Happy 2013.

January 2, 2013 Posted by | meta | , , , , , | Leave a comment