Opinions on faith and life

Case Studies in Translation

2008-06-03

I’ve been pondering the problem of conveying to the poorly-trained believer how there can be so many variations in Bible translations and paraphrases (the line between which is much blurrier than most realize). I think the best way is by illustration. Some believe, as a matter of principle, that every word in one language must be translated by the same corresponding word in another, all the time. But that just can’t always work.

Take the word pitch for instance. Suppose we make a rule that it should always be translated “to throw something away from yourself”. Now take that rule and apply it in the following sentences:

  1. The person on the mound will pitch the ball to the batter.
  2. When we arrive at the campground, we will pitch our tent.
  3. The pitch of that note was one only dogs could hear.
See the problem? #1 works just fine: someone will throw a ball away from themselves. But #2 would have us believing that we intend to throw our tent away, when we really want to keep it and set it up. And #3 makes no sense at all: how can you throw a note away? Can it be an idiom (expression) for “sing”? Yes, but we can’t translate it as an idiom; we made a rule and we’re sticking to it! Never mind that we completely lose the real meaning, which is the frequency of the note’s sound vibrations.

Or how about the classic example, trunks? It can mean:

Yet another point of controversy is over how to translate a word made of other words. Do we just put the other words together or do we use the new one, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts? For example, the Greek word ekklesia is made of the words “out” and “called”. Do we always translate it into English as “called out”, or with its full meaning: “a meeting or assembly or gathering of people for some purpose”? After all, when a lot of English speakers read “called out” they immediately think of baseball, where the batter or runner has to go “out” of the game for the rest of the inning, so a first-time reader of a very literal Bible might read “You are the called out of God” as meaning God is finished with us!

If only the Bible came with commentaries written by the people of that time! The best we can do in hindsight is to read all the relevant literature we can get our hands on and make our best guesses. That’s what linguists and related experts do. And as new discoveries are made, changes in dictionaries should be made as well. Sadly, this isn’t always done. But the bottom line is to convey meaning, to understand what the writer meant to communicate.

And that’s why I have no conniptions about paraphrases. Even the most woodenly-literal translation has an element of interpretation and the translator’s opinion, and as we’ve seen in the examples above, can actually do more to confuse the reader than a free paraphrase. In fact, what is it that most preachers do every week? They paraphrase on the fly. (That’s an idiom! They don’t literally put words on flies, they give their personal interpretations of what the text means as they read.) And why is such preaching even necessary, if the printed words are so cut-and-dried? (Another one! Nobody literally cuts and dries the printed words, it just means “obvious” or “indisputable” or “self-evident”.)

We all know how hard it is to communicate; just look at the internet, or even the daily news. People are always jumping to conclusions or misunderstanding other people’s words, spoken or written. And that’s even within one language, one culture, one generation. Should it come as any surprise that the problem is compounded by different languages, several thousand miles and years apart, and very different cultures?

I hope this sheds some light on translation issues, as well as why we even translate the Bible at all. Unlike other religious books, such as the Quran, we must not woodenly memorize the words of the Bible in one particular translation and think we understand what God has told us. To really get the gist of it we need to look at it from many angles.