Philip Jenkins– The Way to Translate– Part One

[Here is a repost, by permission, of a fine comment by Philip Jenkins, which reminds us that you cannot rely purely on an English translation of the Bible if you want to be a good interpreter of the Bible–every translation is already an interpretation]

March 21, 2014 By Philip Jenkins 0 Comments

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.