Least in Translation?
One of the most fun innovations this Fall at 3Crosses has been our 3Crosses U discipleship courses on Wednesday nights. We've been discussing several of the building
blocks of hermeneutics--the art and science of biblical interpretation. We've discussed illumination, inspiration, historical reliability, and, recently, translation theory. Most of us
don't think about the difficulty in translating the Bible from its ancient original languages into English, but that's only made possible by the embarrassment of riches we have in English versions.
We see this difficulty, though, in normal life all the time! Anyone multi-lingual knows the challenge of putting ideas, words, and especially idioms into another language in a way that not only makes sense but still carries the sense of the original. Superholly on YouTube has a great video bringing this to life--she will teach you that "to ponder the immortality of the crab" means to zone out and daydream! My friend Shibu, likewise, taught me that the Malayalam phrase "aven shinchipoi" means something like "he is tired looking." But the real sense of the phrase is more like "he has lost weight; he should eat something!" Here in California, if we tell you that you have lost weight it is as a compliment, not as a warning!!!
This idiomatic, vocabulary, and cultural difference is at the heart of biblical translation difficulty as well. Translators have to choose how to render each idea into the receptor language (the language they are translating in to). Do they work as hard as possible to retain the sense of word order? What about gendered language? What about weights and measures? And what about readability and poetic quality? Good translations will differ in what philosophy they choose, as each has strengths and weaknesses. The classic How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth does an excellent job outlining the issues at play, and I recommend grabbing that while you can! (It's on sale for $3.99 as of the time of writing on Kindle at the above link!)
One of my favorite examples is in the book of Amos. Chapter 8 verses 1-2 recount a dialogue between the prophet and the Lord. God shows him a basket of ripe fruit, and some translations, including the NIV will echo that in the translation--"the time is ripe for my people Israel. (8:2)" This instance of "ripe" is the translator's effort to bring out the Hebrew wordplay hiding behind those words--the Hebrew words are just one vowel off from each other!
Even though the words more literally mean something more like "summer fruit" and "at and end", respectively, I love the NIV's license here to extend the semantic range of those words and capture the poetic essence. Compare that with the ESV's rendering of the same passage: "2 And he said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me, “The end[a] has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them. " More literal? Yes! More poetic? Sadly, no. They've reduced the wordplay to a footnote (retained in that quote above) directing you that these Hebrew words sound alike. So, which one is better? That's up to readers to decide! We see a similar dilemma in Jeremiah 1:11-12 where the word for "almond branch" sounds a lot like the word for "watching over." Here, I love the Message's ability to create a clever catchphrase: "God’s Message came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “A walking stick—that’s all.” And God said, “Good eyes! I’m sticking with you. I’ll make every word I give you come true.” (Jer. 1:11-12, MSG)"
What, then, should readers choose? A word-for-word translation? A poetic option? Or something in the middle? In my view, I think a range is best. If you choose one translation for most of your reading, balance that by reading in a version with a different translation philosophy from time to time. My current choices are the ESV, which is a translation that leans more word-for-word and happens to have great publishing house support, making it possible to grab an ESV with cool covers, great margins, and the like. Readers should be aware that the ESV chooses to retain what I call the "general masculine," meaning that they will typically translate a word like "man" as "man" or "mankind" when other translations will chose "humankind" to make more clear that men and women are in view. This can cause some challenges in passages where it is not quite as clear if men and women are meant and is a weakness of the translation overall, in my view. I supplement this ESV reading with NRSV, NIV, and a dash of the Message and the new Passion Bible. I like the poetics in the Passion Bible, but I don't think it does enough to clue readers in about its own translation philosophy. If you approach it as if it is a word-for-word translation, you'll miss a lot as it actually is far on the dynamic end, over by the Message on the spectrum! That doesn't make it a bad tool; it just means that you should use the right tool for the right job.
At the end of the day, the best Bible is the one that you'll read! In fact, go ahead and log off of your phone and get out your Bible. There's more wisdom and peace there than you'll find here in cyberspace, that's for sure! May He be with you as you read today.....