This is the fifth in a series attempting to nuance the statement, “The Bible says…” I encourage you to read the story so far:
The Septuagint (LXX)
Hebrew vowel pointing
There’s also been a related post, “the pope says…”
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual
What do you call someone who speaks one language? …..
…English (or American, or a Kiwi,…)
People who have no agility in more than one language regularly misunderstand what is involved in translation. Concepts, tenses, constructions may exist in one language with nothing comparable in another language we are trying to translate into. Hebrew tenses can only be approximated into English. Greek is a highly inflected language, so that the function of a word is modified to indicate information that cannot easily be simply translated into English where word order is far more significant. Word order in Greek can be significant in stressing and highlighting. We struggle to be sure what some of the words in Hebrew or Greek even actually mean – even after we have determined which word was there in the first place.
A specific problem in translating is that there are some words that occur only once in the Bible and nowhere else in ancient literature. Such a word is called a hapax legomenon. The meaning of such a word can be particularly obscure, with guesses made from the context.
Muslims regard every translation of the Qur’an from Arabic as being a commentary. That would be a helpful starting point for those who refer to an English translation when they say, “The Bible says…” Actually, “this particular English translation says… this particular interpretation… this particular English commentary on the original…”
There are different ways to translate. Generally these different translation approaches can be categorised as:
Formal equivalence: the attempt to translate word for word, trying normally to translate the same word in the original consistently into the same word in the translation, and then attempting to disrupt the word order as little as possible in the English translation from the word order in the original.
Dynamic equivalence: the attempt to translate idea for idea, without attention to consistent word translation or original word order.
Paraphrase: the attempt to restate the content in language easy for the contemporary English reader to grasp.
Maybe an example from this coming Sunday’s reading helps. The original of Romans 13:8-10 reads:
The above is from the Greek interlinear text
A formal equivalence translation (NRSV):
8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
A dynamic equivalence translation (CEV):
8Let love be your only debt! If you love others, you have done all that the Law demands. 9In the Law there are many commands, such as, “Be faithful in marriage. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not want what belongs to others.” But all of these are summed up in the command that says, “Love others as much as you love yourself.” 10No one who loves others will harm them. So love is all that the Law demands.
A paraphrase (The Message):
8-10Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.
I have (purposely) chosen a text that is pretty uncontroversial. If I chose a text with a variety of complex interpretations, we could get distracted from the primary point of this particular post onto debating the various interpretations.
What I hope is clear is that these three categories of translation are not discrete, but rather, that there is a spectrum of translation approaches with the more formal equivalent at one end and paraphrases at the other. Every translation involves interpretation by the translator. When someone says, “The Bible says…” and then continues with an English translation, we need to understand the issues around such a statement…