Friday, June 11, 2004


Well, I'm still at home sick today. I figure sitting in this chair typing about 10 feet from the bathroom is no more or less taxing than lying on the couch 10 feet from the bathroom so you all get the benefit of a little focus in an otherwise quiet household (if you will excuse the cantankerous rumblings of my intestines).

Yesterday's post, though somewhat rambling, tried to deal with translations. In the original context it was translations of the Bible but the principles hold true no matter what you're translating. I've studied French, German, Greek (Koine), Japanese (easy language) and Chinese (by far the hardest language I ever even considered). Principles of translation apply the same throughout most languages. Tense, voice, mood, etc all go into knowing what was initially said in the original source language. You don't have to completely understand what was said to make a translation. To attempt a translation with a high degree of accuracy in concepts often times requires some interpretation. The example I used yesterday was regarding a phrase "bowels and tender mercies" which in the original text appears to have meant compassion. In modern vernacular the word "bowels" generally doesn't thrust a person into a thought pattern regarding their feelings. "Bowels" more commonly today refers to the types of gastro-intestinal problems I've been having with this virus or whatever it is over the last few days. To convey a similar thought process out of 4,000 year old Hebrew to modern American English (as opposed to British English or Colonial English) one might consider a slight modification of the word "bowel" to "heart". This is no longer a strict translation; it has become invested with the understanding and belief of the translator. It has encountered an interpretation. Now, not to throw you off of reading your Bible (or any other good translated document) but these types of changes occur with some regularity in your Bible. The Bible was written conversationally (especially the New Testament) and, therefore, uses idiomatic phrases which meant one thing to the original recipients of the letters but based on word-for-word translation these phrases would be stupid and useless to modern American readers.
Modern translators have to evaluate their choices carefully. Teams of translators could translate a passage separately and then compare notes to see what they think is the best approximation of the original language. It is important to remember for those who believe the Bible to be the Holy, Inerrant, Infallible message from an all-powerful entity (Jewish Yahweh or Jehovah) that the infallibility only exists in the original texts. Translations are completely fallible. Monks throughout history have made some glaring mistakes in copying passages although many current translations utilize texts that are very close to the original documents (more on this in the 5th installment: the Canon).
When you select a version of the Bible for yourself you should understand upon what criteria the translators decided to base their choices. Did they choose "Tree of Life" or "Book of Life"? Did they choose "Lake of Fire" or "Hell" or even the original word "Gahenna" and expect you to look that up? Why did the translators make the trade-offs that would inevitably follow? Were they looking to convey the most important passages and doctrines of the Bible to the lowest common denominator of people or were they expecting to translate word-for-word concepts and allow readers to dig into the historical significance of some of the confusing passages that would surely crop up in the English?
My tendancy is to go for a more direct word-for-word translation such as the New American Standard Bible. It more closely follows the original text, leaving in some idiomatic phrases and historical euphemisms. The King James also tends more towards the original language structure. The New King James is a bastardization of a translation. It is my understanding that the work done of the New King James version did not go back to the source documents but rather modified the King James version. When translating it is imperative to get back as close as you can to the source documents otherwise you may be dealing with hearsay and erroneous text.
One current translation that tends more towards modern language is the New International Version. I know others have appeared in the last few years but I haven't purchased a new Bible in years so my knowledge of current material is stunted.
These interpretation-heavy versions are fine for reading and even for studying but it is always helpful to try getting as close to the source documents as possible. Before going out to purchase a new version of the Bible you should do a little homework and find out how the translators of each version you are considering decided to base their decisions about idiomatic phrases and euphemisms. Even literalists like myself know that some phrases in the Bible are put there for allegorical or metaphorical usage. Others passages, however, we believe they mean what they say.

Thanks for reading,


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