Monday, March 26, 2012

The Translation Situation

I wrote this piece this morning.
We often find that different translations word things differently. Sometimes it is just a matter of style. There is no one, right way to translate from one language into another. For example, the New International Version (NIV2011) of Romans 12:2 says to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It is saying the same basic thing as the New Living Translation (NLT): “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” The one has simply worded the translation differently.

You probably already know that the Bible is a collection of books (biblia means “little books in Latin) that were originally written in other languages. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Since these other languages often put words in a different order than English and since the meanings of words in one language do not usually correspond exactly to those of words in another language, there is almost always going to be more than one way to translate from one language to another.

However, some differences in translations have to do with disagreements over what the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic originally meant. Take the Common English Bible (CEB) of Romans 3:25: “God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice.” It differs from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), “God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement,” which differs from the English Standard Version (ESV), “God put forward as a propitiation,” which differs from the Revised Standard Version (RSV): “God put forward as an expiation.” These are not simply different wordings in English, they are different meanings based on disagreements among experts about what Paul originally meant in Romans 3:25 by one word, the Greek word hilasterion.

Still other differences between translations are based on uncertainty about what the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic was to begin with. The King James Version (KJV) of Psalm 19:4 says, “Their line is gone out through all the earth,” while the New International Version says, “their voice goes out into all the earth.” This difference is neither one of style or of interpretation but comes from the fact that some of our ancient sources of Psalm 19:4 have the Hebrew word (“line”) while others presuppose the word qôl (“voice”). Obviously someone copying the psalm very early on either accidently added or dropped an “l,” and which “reading” a translation has depends on which source the translators followed.

The following is both about the different approaches used in translation as well as the process that experts use to determine what the original text of the Bible most likely said. Most pastors and Christians in general are not expert enough to make these sorts of decisions with confidence. As with all the subjects on which we are not experts, we are reliant on those who have done our homework for us so that we can benefit from their work. Thankfully, the majority of those experts have reached the same conclusions, and if we prefer to go with the alternative, it is fairly well mapped out as well.

1 comment:

Bob MacDonald said...

Re voice and line. It would focus the recurrence if voice were repeated. But perhaps not relevant. It might be decidable if I could infer more about rhythm in that poetry. There is no difference in syllable count. Isaiah 28:10 is fun to see. Note how the lamed is part of the verse also.
צַו לָצָו צַו לָצָו קַו לָקָו קַו לָקָו
Here precept (command) and line are in the same text as in Psalm 19.

Also Job 38:5 uses line in the same context - the line traced by the heavenly body.

Re hilasterion, I think always of the mercy seat, a part of the Holy Place where the blood goes at the feast of the Atonement. (Lev 16:14, LXX ἱλαστήριον, Hebrew כַּפֹּרֶת. It's the cover, and sounds a bit like it in English, the verbal form being cphr).