God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

When the Bible Quotes Itself

John Hobbins writes in favor of “retaining the standard ‘x and y’ collocation ‘God and men'” in I Samuel 2:26 and Luke 2:52, because it is an example of “standard literary English.”

I think “peace on earth and good will toward men,” — another example that John mentions — is now a perfect example of what I call the Bible quoting itself.

Even though Luke 2:14 was original prose when it was written, precisely because it has become such a common phrase in English now, it’s hard to read “good will toward men” without seeing first a Bible quotation, and only second whatever it might actually mean. (Luke 2:14 has been highlighted recently by Jim West, by Clayboy, on BBB and in a slew of other places.)

This translation dilemma is not unique to the Bible. Shakespeare, too, has been facetiously criticized because he just “strung together a bunch of well known quotations.” A reader who reads Shakespeare for the first time may now read a “well known quotation” where Shakespeare penned original words.

Similarly, “dust and ashes” is now an English expression, whereas it was novel Hebrew once. Like “good will toward men,” it’s hard to read “dust and ashes” and actually see the words that make up the phrase.

I think this is a translation problem, because it’s usually a mistake to translate a novel thought with a well-known expression. More importantly, it’s surely a mistake to translate a phrase that was intended literally with a phrase that can only be understood figuratively. As an example of the latter, what we would do if a foreign text referred to “driving me up a wall” and really meant “driving up a wall”? The seemingly obvious text would be completely wrong if “driving up a wall” wasn’t an idiom in the original language.

Similarly, “dust and ashes” wasn’t an idiom in the OT, nor (as I understand it) was “good will toward men” in the NT.

But in many cases like these we seem to have little choice.

As it happens, though, we have a great alternative for Luke 2:14. And that’s getting rid of the word “men,” which I don’t think is what Luke meant. The original point was “people,” male and female alike.

The debate over gender and language has been fierce and on-going, but I think this example is particularly instructive.

In favor of keeping “men”: Even though “men” may not usually be the right word to express anthropoi, it would be a shame to destroy such a well-known quotation. (I have some thoughts about quoting the Bible when the translation keeps changing here.)

In favor of changing “men”: Not only is “men” the wrong word to express anthropoi, but even if it were accurate, we want to avoid a familiar phrase in translating an original one.

In other words, sometimes “that’s the traditional way of translating it” or “it’s a well known phrase” may mean precisely that it has to be changed.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 5 Comments