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.
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?
Theophrastus has an interesting post — “Men without hats: Anachronism in Daniel 3:21” — about the Aramaic word kar’b’la in Daniel 3:21. He notes that many translations use the word “hats,” even though “we can be sure that the headgear worn in the Babylonian Captivity most certainly was not a hat.”
Take a look. It’s interesting in its own right, and it highlights the kind of very specialized knowledge that’s sometimes required for translation.
The RNA singled out three events that contributed to the prominence of Bible translations in the news this past year:
- Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. There’s no doubt that the King James Version (“KJV”) has had an unprecedented impact on English and on religion, as well as on the practice of Bible translation, though I insist that at this point its value lies less in what it tells us about the original text of the Bible — I did, after all, call it a fool’s gold standard — and more in its historical and cultural role. (For more on why I think the KJV is now inaccurate, take my “Exploring the Bible” video quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“)
- Criticism of the newest NIV. The NIV was officially published in 2011, but it was released on-line in 2010, which is perhaps why the RNA didn’t single out the publication of the NIV, but rather criticism of the gender decisions in it. Southern Baptists were especially vocal in this regard, and I don’t think this gender debate is going away. (Just a few days ago I was denounced by some Southern Baptists for my translation work, in particular for my suggestion in the Huffington Post that the Song of Solomon advocates equality between men and women.)
- The completion of the Common English Bible (CEB). The CEB proved hugely popular, even beyond what its publishers expected, though I like it less than many. It’s not a surprise that the translation made news. It was reprinted twice within weeks of its initial run, and has over half a million copies in print. It also made some bold decisions, like changing the traditional “Son of Man” into “human one.”
Though all three of these news items seem to be about Bible translation, I think there’s more going on.
The gender debate, in particular, seems less about translation than about the role of men and women. As I told the AP, I think the NIV is a step backwards in terms of gender accuracy in translation. The loudest complaints this year were that it didn’t take a big enough step backward.
Similarly, I think the admiration (and sometimes reverence) that many people have for the KJV has a lot to do with keeping things the way they were.
And on the other side of the coin, part of the CEB’s appeal is tied up with specifically not keeping things the way they were.
Certainly one common theme here is how we deal with modernity. There seems to be a more specific message behind the stories, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The NAB’s decision to change “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 has once again brought up the virgin birth, Mary, and the nature of prophesy, as well as the role of translation in accurately conveying the text of the Bible.
Most reports I’ve seen recently, though, confuse what are really three separate issues here.
The first issue is the text of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew there reads: “an alma … will bear a son and call him `Emmanuel.'” It has long been known that alma does not mean “virgin.” Rather, the Hebrew word applies to any young woman. So the English translation of that line should read along the lines of “a young woman … will bear a son…” (The evidence is widely known and readily available, including in my And God Said.)
Unfortunately, the Septuagint — the highly influential ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament — got the translation wrong here, translating the Hebrew alma as the Greek parthenos, which (probably) did mean “virgin.” It was an easy mistake to make, because most young women back then were virgins, and most virgins were young women. It would be like translating “teenager” as “high-school student” in a society where most teenagers were in fact in high school.
Based on this mistranslation, though, most modern translations — going back to the KJV and including the recently published NIV — translate “a virgin … will bear a son” here. (The NIV has a footnote, “or young woman.”) The new NAB (“NABRE”) is a notable exception. That version now has, “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” Their choice to go with “young woman” reflects the correct understanding of the original Hebrew (though I do have problems with their phrasing of the rest of the line).
The Virgin Birth
Importantly, though, Isaiah 7:14 is not the description of “the virgin birth” of Jesus. Rather, we find the virgin birth first in Matthew 1:18-25, which brings us to the second issue.
As part of the description of Jesus’ birth, the text in Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14, noting that Jesus’ birth “fulfilled” (plirow) the phrophet Isaiah’s words (a point I return to below).
Matthew 1:18-25 only uses “virgin” (parthenos) in quoting Isaiah 7:14. But Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is nonetheless clear on the matter. The text uses the euphemisms “before [Mary and Joseph] came together [sunerchomai]” and “[Joseph] did not know [ginosko] her [Mary] until after she gave birth” to indicate that Mary was a virgin, and the text twice clarifies that the pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit” [ek pneumatos agiou].
These combine to create a clear account: Jesus was born to a virgin.
The text in Luke 1:26-38 is similar in nature. Though again “virgin” is replaced with a euphemism (“Mary asked the angel, `how [is it possible that I will conceive] since I do not know [ginosko]” any men?), the text is clear, adding for emphasis that “with God nothing is impossible.”
The actual descriptions indicate a virgin birth, regardless of what the words in Isaiah 7:14 mean.
The third issue is how to reconcile the virgin birth with Isaiah 7:14, which is cited in Matthew 1:23.
The most straightforward way is to note that even though Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “young woman,” not a “virgin,” the text doesn’t say that she wasn’t a virgin. She could have been. (By comparison, the text also doesn’t say that the woman had long hair, but she might have.) In other words, Isaiah 7:14, even with the better understanding of the original text, doesn’t contradict anything in the NT.
The more nuanced way to reconcile the two texts is to recognize what the verb in Matthew 1:22, plirow, really indicates. Though the word is commonly translated “fulfill” (as in, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [Isaiah]”), better is “match,” as I describe here (“What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?”). I won’t go through the whole explanation again, but for now I think it suffices to note that Matthew knew that the details in Isaiah 7:14 differed from those he was describing. After all, the name of the child in Isaiah 7:14 was Immanuel, not Jesus.
Either way (and even though it’s not really my place to say), I don’t see a huge theological problem here. And even if there were a problem, I would still be in favor of an accurate translation.
It seems pretty clear to me that Isaiah 7:14 mentions a pregnant woman (who, at least as far as translation can take us, may or may not have been a virgin) and that the NT refers to the virgin birth of Jesus. It seems equally clear that the lack of perfect harmony between the texts is in keeping with other kinds of prophesy in the NT.
Still, from the international stage (“traditionalists may see [the NABRE’s change from “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14] as a step away from the original meaning”) to local communities (“If the meaning of the language is changed to reflect that Mary may not have been a virgin, you’ve just denied the divinity of Christ”) the discussion seems skewed to me. It seems to start with theology, and then ask how the translations can be doctored to match that theology, while I think an accurate translation should stand on its own.
Or to put it another way, it seems to me that basing theology on a translation designed solely to support that theology is both bad translation technique and bad theology.
Zondervan has a chart (reproduced immediately below at right) suggesting that effectively conveying both the form and meaning of the original Biblical documents is the best way to reflect the original reading experience.
I disagree, and I think that Zondervan’s approach represents a common and fundamental misunderstanding about how form works.
Form and Meaning
For one thing, form contributes to meaning. So I think it’s a mistake to put “form” and “meaning” on separate axes, as though a translator can convey one without impacting the other.
We see a very basic example in English. “John sees Mary” does not mean the same thing as “Mary sees John.” The form — in this case, the order of the words — contributes to the meaning.
By contrast, word order works differently in Greek. So in Acts 10:38, we find “Jesus of Nazareth anointed God” — “Iesoun … echrisen o theos” — but it very clearly means “God anointed Jesus.” In Greek, grammatical changes to the words themselves (“case endings,” as in the change from iesous to iesoun, for example) sometimes do the same thing as word order in English.
So in this case, we see that capturing the form means missing the meaning, and vice versa.
Acts 10:38 demonstrates the point particularly clearly, but the grammar there is not exceptional. Rather, mirroring the form of the Bible in English often means sacrificing the meaning, because form works differently in Hebrew, Greek, and English.
I have more examples in my post on mimicry.
Form and Flavor
I suspect that people often have “flavor” in mind when they think of “form.” Flavor (which I call “affect” in And God Said) includes the difference between formal and informal language, between funny and serious, etc.
In English, “God, no one has seen” is either particularly formal, or, for some speakers, ungrammatical. But I think everyone can understand that it means the same thing as “No one has seen God.” The difference between the first version (“God, no one has seen”) and the second is a matter of flavor.
And, like meaning, this difference in flavor is conveyed by the word order.
But in Greek, “God no one has seen” — theon oudeis eoraken — is not formal in the same way. That’s why John 1:18 (theon [God] oudeis [no one] eoraken [has seen]) is translated “no one has ever seen God” as opposed to “God no one has ever seen.” To translate “God, no one has seen” is to misunderstand how Greek and English work.
As with meaning, we see that form contributes to flavor, but it not the same as flavor. More generally, in order to capture the flavor, a translator often has to sacrifice the form.
The Inherent Value of FormOnce we see that conveying the form doesn’t help with the meaning or with the flavor, I think we see that conveying the form is only helpful for actually studying the original languages of the Bible, not for conveying the original reading experience.
So my version of Zondervan’s chart (at left) notes that a good translation conveys both the meaning and flavor of the original, and further notes that slavery to form makes it difficult to do either one well.