Have you ever witnessed someone attempt to translate or interpret one language into another? It’s a telling sight, isn’t it? No matter how fluent the interpreter, one thing becomes quickly obvious to all who are witnessing the work: a great many words simply don’t have a one-to-one correspondence in meaning in another language. After all, we’re not talking about number here, but words.
Consequently, what might be conveyed well in one language by a single word might require several words in another language. Similarly, what is said in the language being rendered might legitimately be communicated several different ways in the receiving language. The danger, of course, in all translation from one language to another, is that something can (and will) be lost in translation. A nuance of meaning might unintentionally be slighted, stressed, or over-looked. The meaning a word has in one context could accidentally be substituted for its meaning in another (a great many words have two or more meanings). Etc.
All of this is obvious when watching two people converse to each other through means of an interpreter. The interpreter – a qualified and adept one, at any rate – will regularly be forced to hesitate or pause as they consider all the possibilities open to them for translation. Choices must be made and those choices frequently demand something on the order of “compromise” in the off-loading of all the freight a word carries in one language onto the word(s) of another. The person receiving the translation – a thoughtful and honest one, at any rate – will always bear this in mind and will allow for a bit of “play” in what they’re receiving. They know better than to expect everything to be perfect or “tight” because if for no other reason, there is that common lack of one-to-one correspondence in words, etc.
Now if the translation work is being done between living people and a question arises as to how best to render something, the translator need only pause and ask the person being interpreted to run that by the translator again, rewording the matter. In that rewording, the translator receives a fuller understanding of the meaning that was intended to be conveyed. Often, it’s in this second shot at grasping what was meant that the light bulb turns on in the translator’s mind and they’re then enabled to offer an interpretation.
However, the work is much more difficult if the translation is not between living people in immediate contact with each other and where query, exchange, and clarification can take place. Let’s suppose that in place of a conversation between two people and an interpreter we have instead one person reading the writing of another in a different language. If there’s a question as to meaning or if clarification is longed for, that’s just too bad, for the one who wrote the material is not available to ask. The interpreter will simply have to do the best they can with the knowledge they have within themselves or available to them from others, but not the original author. Naturally, the translator – a good one, of course – will likely come close to capturing the intended meaning, but there will, of necessity, be some loose ends, as it were.
Now let’s compound the matter even a bit further. Let’s say the translator is not only working to interpret a written piece in a foreign language and the author is not available for contact, but that which was written was penned numerous centuries ago, in an entirely different culture, and coming from a totally different world view. Further, the language used is now a “dead” one, that is, it has not been written or spoken by a people for many centuries. Perhaps needless to say, but say it we will, such a translator’s task just increased in difficulty exponentially.
Now with all of that in mind, I say all of that in order to say this: it’s precisely in this last scenario in which we find seated those who serve as translators of the the writings we’ve come to know as the Bible. Their work is not at all easy. Put several of such scholars in a room together working to translate the same portion of text and quite often several different views as to what would be the best way to “say it” will come forth. On occasion, they will not even be able to come to total agreement as to what was intended by the original author, much less on how to best convey it, for interpretation is inherent to translation, you see.
This leads us to make three observations:
1. We all owe those who translate the Scriptures an tremendous debt. Thank God for the work of Bible translators everywhere!
2. Our understanding of the Biblical languages grows as time goes by. Since we cannot ask the original writers what they meant, we stand on the work of scholars who have studied these languages and each generation that follows has carried our understanding forward just a bit. This knowledge dramatically increased not only in terms of the base with the discovery numerous manuscripts in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also took off in terms of speed with the advent of the computer.
3. Students of the Bible do well to compare quality translations with each other and learn not just from one, but from them all. This is something nearly any English-reader of the Bible can do with ease for their are a number of good translations available. And in light of preceding point (2), we would only needlessly and greatly handicap and hinder ourselves by limiting our reading and study to translations that were created decades, perhaps even centuries, ago.
Imagine, for example, what an uproar there would be, and rightly so, if suddenly your children’s school decided to use only American history and science textbooks written one hundred years ago! Such would be unthinkable, but when it comes to Bible study, many readers of the word of God limit their encounter with Scripture to translations produced several decades, a full century, or perhaps even several centuries ago. We can do better and the best place to start would be with (1): thank God for the work of Bible translators, including, and especially, those of modern times!
Starting tomorrow, I want to lead by example, as it were and at the same time, do a bit of your homework for you. I’ll do this by comparing several of the texts of the New Testament directly related to the work of elders, laying the wording of several translations alongside each other, without comment, for easy comparison. In that comparison, you’ll notice both continuity and variety, giving evidence of, in the receiving translation (English) of different possibilities or wording (synonyms), nuances (shades of meaning), development (increased understanding of the original text), and adaptability (replacing words that have changed their meaning or dropped out of use with current and contemporary terms).
We’ll begin, in tomorrow’s post, with the best known texts: 1 Timothy 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5-9. After that we’ll take a look at texts not as well known or as frequently consulted (1 Timothy 5.17-22, 1 Peter 5.1-4, etc.).