THE WAY TO TRANSLATE

For some years now, I have found it hard to read the New Testament in English alone. Now, don’t think I’m showing off there. My Greek is no better than OK, and a parallel text is really, really, useful. The problem is that, the more you read the text in the Greek original, you realize just how much you are missing in even the very best translations by the world’s greatest scholars. You miss all sorts of nuances and cross-references, subtle recollections and pointers, echoes and resonances. As the (Latin) saying has it, omnis traductor traditor: every translator is a traitor.

An author, for instance, might want to place special emphasis on a particular word or phrase, which s/he means to emphasize almost as a slogan or logo. When we translate it, though, that pattern might well be lost. We don’t like to use the same word repeatedly, so we try to vary it a bit, especially if the English meanings of the word are slightly different depending on context. And thus we lose the author’s intent.

As an example, I offer the Greek word hodos, “way,” which was a very early term for the Jesus movement, before the invention of “Christianity.” Jesus proclaimed himself the Hodos, and the Truth, and the Life. Before his conversion, Saul went to Damascus to seek out “any of this Way,” that he might arrest them. He later confessed that he has “persecuted this Way unto the death.” Note, incidentally, that I have capitalized the word “Way” in these phrases, to bring out the reference to a movement: the original text demands no such punctuation, so I am acting as a traitor.

Any standard English translation will include those specific Way references. Most such usages are lost, though, as they are often rendered as road, path, journey, route, etc. We thus lose the impact that the text would have had on a Greek reader, who found himself battered so repeatedly by way-words. Sometimes, the New Testament authors were just using a generic word for road or path, but often, they are pressing a linguistic button: when you read this word, also think of the movement we belong to, the wider Way!

As we learn from any good Concordance, some authors did this much more than others. Hodos occurs an impressive 101 times in the New Testament. Paul, interestingly, did not use the word much, just six times, and only 1 Cor.12.31 might conceivably refer to the wider Jesus movement: “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”

But turn now to the sixteen usages in Mark, who begins his (short) gospel by quoting Isaiah: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Any early Christian would recognize there a specific reference to the movement they had just joined.

They would also pick up on many other examples lost to an English reader. In the KJV, Mark 2.23 reads as follows: And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the Sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.” In the Greek, they make their way (hodos) along. When you read carefully, Jesus and the disciples are usually on the way, or making their way.

Remember the parable of the Sower? In the Greek, some of the seed “some fell by the way side [para ten hodon], and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up” (4.4, compare 4.15). You have to stick to the Way.

And here’s Jesus sending out the disciples on their mission: And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no scrip, no bread, no money in their purse.” That’s the KJV. Here’s the NIV: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” Unless you refer to the Greek, both versions miss the central point that Jesus actually tells his followers to take nothing for their Hodos. They aren’t on a journey, they’re on the Way.

That way, certainly, can be a dangerous place. In Mark 10, we hear how  “they were in the way [hodos] going up to Jerusalem; and Jesus went before them.” When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds greet him: “And many spread their garments in the way [hodos]: and others cut down branches off the trees, and strawed them in the way.” They seem, in other words, to be signing up for the movement.

That’s just Mark. Let me continue this discussion in another post.

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  • J_Bob

    You might want to read a couple of little books by Dead Sea scholars, “Birth of the Synoptics” by the late Fr. Jean Carmignac, & “Hebrew Yeshua vs the Greek Jesus” by Nehemia Gordon.

    They make a interesting case for the Gospels being written primarily in Hebrew, which follows comment by Irenaeus, Papias & Eusebius.

    • philipjenkins

      Thanks for the references. I know the argument, but I think the overwhelming weight of evidence is against it.

      • FA Miniter

        Yes, even the Q Source, the proto-gospel for Matthew and Luke, seems to have been in Greek.

      • J_Bob

        Does the case for Greek NT gospel case rest primarily because we only have Greek early NT gospel copies?

        Do we really know how 1st. cent. Hebrew, outside of the Dead Sea scrolls, was written? We know how US “English” has changed with slang over the past 50 years. Languages change with time, & are a moving, a moving target.

        • philipjenkins

          No, certainly not just survival of copies.
          It’s so many things, but partly it’s the OT citations which are Greek Septuagint, and that phraseology is then echoed through the text. There’s no way that could happen if someone had a Hebrew text and then translated it. There are internal cross references, linkages and parallels that make no sense except in Greek. Also, there’s just no reason for the Hebrew/Aramaic first idea.

          • J_Bob

            If I understand your point, that would imply that Jesus preached in Greek, which I don’t think is probable. So if one made notes of Jesus’s words (i.e. Matthew a customs official) wouldn’t that have been in Hebrew?

            Fr. Jean Carmignac comments that it was common practice, back then, for students to make notes of the teachers comments. Could Matthew have done the same?

            I try to keep an open mind on this fascinating area, but I remember some time ago, the thought was the gospels were written decades/centuries after Christ. Yet archaeologists find ruins of the 5 portico pool, that John’s Gospel notes is still standing (destroyed in 70 AD), & the Muratorian fragment, noting John Gospel was last to be written.

            If you have a chance to pick up the two books, on Amazon, they are interesting.

          • J_Bob

            P.S.
            There is also another interesting book by Claude Tresmontant, “The Gospel of Matthew”.

            He translates Matthew from Greek to Hebrew to English, with a lot of background information.

            Unfortunately, most of his works are in French. But another thought provoking book.

          • philipjenkins

            Thought provoking maybe – but please don’t get the wrong impression. In terms of the scholarly consensus, those views are located at the far distant end of crankery.

          • J_Bob

            While not having a lot of background in 1st. century
            Biblical languages, I find it interesting that the views of two Dead Sea scholars would be “crankery”, when a number of early Christian writers that have a similiar opinion:

            “Once you label me you negate me” – Soren Kierkegaard

            It is interesting to note that the consensus of “climate scientists” say that man is causing climate change, while observations tell a different story.

            “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong. – Richard P. Feynman

  • FA Miniter

    If you think the New Testament is difficult, the Hebrew Bible is even harder. the KJV translates “El” and “Yhwh” both as “God” or “Lord God”, even though they were the names of gods, as we now know from the Ugaritic texts. By the time you reach Ch. 2, v. 5 of Genesis, you are in a complete muddle. Not the least because Ch. 1 uses the plural of El – “Elohim” – with a singular verb. Of course, Genesis is a combination of texts, and was been edited and reedited many times before it was finally considered sacred, at which time it became frozen.

    • philipjenkins

      I dearly wish I had the Hebrew competency to approach the text in the same way that I sort of can with the New Testament.

  • David Tiffany

    The word “way” in the Scriptures is very important. Even when the word itself is not used. We are told the way to approach God, and the way we must not approach God. We learn the way Jesus paid for the sins of man: at the cross rather than in the Garden of Gethsemane. We learn that we approach God through the Gospel of Christ that the Apostle Paul preached, and not by a different gospel. We learn that the way to the Father is through grace and not through works.
    We learn that the way to know and understand God is to rightly divide the Word of Truth, and not to marginalize His Word for the purpose of introducing what is not true.
    The Apostle Paul said when a person preaches a different gospel than the Gospel of Christ that he preached that that would be a way to be eternally condemned.
    I wonder about Joseph Smith. He marginalized the Word of God and introduced a different gospel. What way did he take?
    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/


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