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The Translator is a Traitor

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In the discussion around my recent discovery that the Anglicised NRSV changes “sea” (θάλασσαν) to “lake” (in Mark 3:7) , there were some people who were perfectly comfortable that, because Mark was incorrect in calling it a sea, it was best corrected in the English translation. I am strongly opposed to this – it is quite dishonest to correct errors in the biblical texts, and to misinform readers with little to no access to the ‘originals’ (you know what I mean by ‘originals’ – let’s not pretend that we have any original scrolls!).

Someone, helpfully, suggested I read the preface to the NRSV Anglicised Edition. I was surprised (read shocked!) to find that changing “sea” to “lake” wasn’t simply accidental – it was intentional, with a whole paragraph in this Preface devoted to this:

The Anglicized Edition’s editors also found that words in common use could sometimes have different meanings in various English-speaking cultures, which must affect understanding and interpretation of the text. Thus, references to the (freshwater) Sea of Galilee retain this form, but where the proper name is not given in full, ‘sea’ is replace by ‘lake’, a more unmistakable description for readers to whom sea implies salt water, corresponding to the American ‘Ocean’. 

Preface to the New Revised Standard Version Anglicized Edition

Let me possibly (but I don’t think so) go out on a limb here: the word “sea” is not used differently in USA than in Britain!!! There is absolutely no need to change “sea” to “lake” simply for cultures that prefer British spelling and hence an Anglicised NRSV!

And, following this nonsense approach of sometimes translating θάλασσαν as “sea” and at other times “lake”, soon after my Mark 3 example, you end up in Chapter 4 of Mark where Jesus is teaching “beside the lake (θάλασσαν)” but IN THE SAME NRSV ANGLICISED EDITION, only a few verses later, Mark’s English “sea” suddenly becomes a “lake”: Jesus “woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’’ (Mark 4:39). That’s to set up the exclamation: they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41) which alludes to God’s power over the Sea (Psalm 65:7; 89:9; 107:28-29…)

So Anglicised NRSV corrects Matthew 8:32 (“the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake”), but NOT Matthew 13:47 (“the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind”); then they go on to correct Matthew 17:27 (“…go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin…”).

All this becomes sorely disappointing when the whole imagery of God walking on the sea/conquering the sea is lost in the story in John 6 of Jesus – in the Anglicised NRSV – walking on a “lake” (θάλασσαν). This allusion to the God-walking-on-the-sea imagery is in the original in every Gospel except Luke!

who alone stretched out the heavens
   and trampled the waves of the Sea

Job 9:8

[Along with the psalms mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, and this Job quote, the imagery is also found in Sirach 24:4-5; Psalm 76:19 (LXX); etc.] Christ’s power over the sea, in each of those Gospels, follows the miraculous feeding. The feeding of the multitude and the conquering of the sea echoes the story of Moses, with Jesus acting as only God acts in history.

I think it is unrealistic for people to be expected to read every edition’s preface in order to discover and then keep in mind that, in this example, sometimes “lake” will mean “lake” and at other times when it says “lake” the original is actually “sea” – and to then need to check each occurrence in an interlinear to see if this is actually “lake” or if it is “sea”! Just as I was berated for not going back to a footnote at the start of a chapter that if a word X occurred anywhere in the chapter it really means Y in the ESV, which I refer to as the Bible as some people wish God had written it!

Launching from this joke:

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? A native English-speaker.

recently there was a famous person who had discovered a “side-by-side literal translation” of the Bible and was occupied in publicly correcting the from-her-perspective on-purpose mistranslated Bible that we regularly read! There is this common misunderstanding – especially amongst monolingual people – that translation is simply the replacing of an English word (or occasionally, several words) for the original’s word. Good luck with (for example) Māori particles (ko, ka, …) which indicate the nature of what follows but have no English equivalents whatsoever!

I am sure that it is not simply Italians who have the lovely-sounding adage “Traduttore, traditore!” (Translator, traitor!) – we make decisions about what to include in our translation (Yes, the first of the 1000 or so different editions of what people call the “King James Bible” had The Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books) but we are culturally as well as linguistically unbelievably far removed. When a Kiwi says, “I went to Sydney for a wedding this weekend”, we know they flew (and by “fly”, we know it means “by aeroplane”). When someone responds to “how far away is the airport?” with “a half an hour” – we know they mean by car ie. about 25km away. When someone in USA says it’s 30 degrees – most of the planet needs a calculator to work out: that’s cold, and not sunbathing weather!

Recently someone treated their English-translation Bible as some sort of Maths equation, arguing that the Lord’s Day was Saturday because “Lord’s Day” in Revelation (a book that got bound into our Bible by the skin of its scroll!) was so called because in the Gospels Jesus is “Lord of the Sabbath (Saturday)”!

Take care not to assume that your understanding of the scriptures is so straightforward. Decisions have been made about what to include and how to translate. Translation is more akin to taking our 3D-with-other-senses experience in colour and converting that to a black and white sketch! “Traduttore, traditore!” (Translator, traitor!)

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2 thoughts on “The Translator is a Traitor”

  1. Christopher Upton

    Just to check, as a person with very little Greek – is there a separate word used in the Gospels that unequivocally refers to a lake (relatively small body of fresh water)?

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