Some Notes on Bible Translation

A friend recently sent me an interesting facebook post by writer Stant Litore, which covered a variety of mistranslations in the Bible. See this one, for example:

Someone mentioned the squeezing of a rich man through the eye of a needle yesterday, and of course I started reflecting on mistranslation and the evocative power of language. The camel and the needle is one of my favorite examples of translation shenanigans, and is all the more delightful because no matter which way you translate or mistranslate it, the message of the metaphor remains roughly the same.

For those not in the know, here’s what happened. Very probably, the rabbi Yeshua told his followers two thousand years ago that it is easier to thread a rope (like the big ropes used on fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee) through the eye of a sewing needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, in Aramaic – the language he was speaking and the language in which the source text for the synoptic gospels was probably written – “camel” and “rope” are spelled the same: “gml.” They do -sound- different, but written Aramaic doesn’t often represent vowels. So someone dutifully recorded, “gml.”

Now this gets even funnier when the synoptic gospels come along and people are translating the words of Christ into Koine Greek. Because in Koine Greek “camel” and “rope” are ALSO the same word, distinguished in text by a single vowel but pronounced almost identically. Camel is “kamilon” and rope is “kamiilon.”

In Latin and English, of course, “camel” and “rope” are really easy to tell apart. But, in both Aramaic and Greek, they are not. So while it is frustrating enough to try jamming a knotted fishing rope through the eye of a sewing needle, now we are left with the image of a massive dromedary squeezing through a needle, hump and all, and the rich are not only in a proper mess, but comically so. For want of a vowel!

It’s an amusing case because the meaning comes out somewhat similar in either case. And “camel” fits Jesus’s teaching style, which often made humorous use of hyperbole.

It turns out language is complicated!

In addition to mistaken-word mistranslations like the one explored above—in which two words are nearly or actually identical and become confused—there are other issues that can complicate translations.

I remember thinking, when I was a young child, that language is like a code—that it was a word for word match, from language to language. But it’s not. In English, there are many words that carry a variety of meanings or connotations; when we translate that word into another language, the other-language word we use won’t necessarily have the same range of meanings and connotations (in fact, it will likely have a different range, like an overlapping Venn diagram).

For instance, see this bit from Litore’s post:

Or the mistranslation of “hupotassomai” as “submit,” as in, wives submit to your husbands, when “hupotassomai” doesn’t mean submit in Greek (there’s a different word for that). Hupotossomai is really hard to translate in English. It means “come under,” which may or may not imply what the Romans think it did. It is a military word for deployment in arranged, battle-ready formation, so the Romans jumped all over the possibility of hierarchy. Romans love hierarchy. But in context, in several places it is used in passages where Paul is talking either about the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in the letters to Corinth), or following passages about putting on the armor of God and resisting the devil (in the letter to Ephesus).

Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. The letters to Corinth speak of non-Christian husbands as vulnerable, still in bondage to old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In context, hupotossomai probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.

This one seems like a bit more of a stretch, but it is still interesting and at least somewhat plausible. The point is that we shouldn’t assume that the word translated “submit” in these passages has all of the meanings and connotations we give to the word submit. Languages don’t work that way. Words aren’t typically one-for-one.

Litore offers another example:

“Hupakoe,” which we keep translating obey, and which is used for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament, doesn’t mean “obey,” either. It means “hear under.” Children are being advised to listen and learn, not blindly obey. Again, context. These are letters urging people not to return to the ways of their parents, to abandon oppressive systems and live in a radically new way that is different from how their parents live. What’s being urged will create a world of strife within multigenerational Greek families. Hence the urging in that letter for parents not to provoke their children to anger and for children to listen deeply in the midst of the strife.

Again, I’d want to explore this more, and read more about what has been written by various language experts. One thing that would tend against this interpretation is that the same word is used when instructing slaves to “obey” their masters. Still, the explanation presented here is interesting, and a good reminder that words do not translate exactly.

While we’re on the subject, check out this one:

Other mistranslations are more sinister, like the popular translation of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals,” which is a bit absurd, as there is a separate Greek word for that. “Arsenokoite” is a cognate of “man” and “bed” and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare. It’s been suggested that it was a reference to gigolos, but that’s an equally unsupported guess. Because the word occurs next to “malakos” (luxurious) it is more likely a colorful reference to the soft-living and pleasure-loving rich (who have a harder time in the New Testament than camels do).

Malakos (soft) also gets mistranslated “effeminate,” mostly in order to support the reading of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals.” But “malakos” doesn’t mean effeminate; there’s a different word for that, too. Malakos means luxury-loving, softened by easy life and too many soft cushions. In Greek, that concept doesn’t carry gendered connotations. Romans associated that with being “like a woman,” and because Romans had issues with effeminacy/masculinity*, we inherited both their commentary and their misreading. But the Greeks didn’t have these issues. (They had other issues.)

There’s no evidence that “malakoi arsenokoites” had anything to do with sexual orientation, gender identity, or manliness or lack thereof. Greece is not Rome. Malakoi arsenokoites are most likely pleasure-loving rich men who loll about on bed eating grapes all day and ignore the suffering of their impoverished neighbors. That’s a type of vice that the New Testament lectures on frequently and at length, and to which the letters in which these words appear devote considerable attention. Rich, luxurious, gaudy living was also a vice that Greeks tended to scorn and treat with mockery. They would have found Trump Tower hilarious.

This I’ve heard about before—that we don’t actually know what the word “arsenokoites” means, because it appears to have been a completely made-up word. How we choose to translate it says more about us than about what the Apostle Paul actually meant when he used that word, because we do not know.

When I went looking for the word “hupakoe”—to verify whether it actually meant “listen under”—what I found in most cases was less a dictionary than a concordance. A concordance is not a discussion of what a word meant at the time. Instead, it is a list of how the word has been translated each place it appears in the New Testament. It appears to be extremely difficult, nigh on impossible, to find lists of how a given word was used in writings outside of the Bible.

Understanding what Greek words used in the New Testament meant to those who used them has got to involve more than looking at how they have been translated into English. And fortunately, there are scholars who do this work. What’s worth remembering, as laypeople, is that language is complicated, and that English versions of the Bible are translations, with all of the limitations that come along with that.

Learning Greek, for those who want to get beyond the English, is good, but not a perfect solution. I studied Greek for many years and became fairly proficient in translating Koine Greek (the dialect the New Testament is written in). Still, I was reliant on dictionaries that were written by someone, and that did not involve a lot of deep reflection on and understanding of word meanings (instead, we simply memorized a list of possible translations of each word).

All of this is really only a problem for those who insist on an inerrant, infallible Bible that is straightforward and easily understood by the average layperson when taken at face value. Language and translation—especially when they involve documents written down thousands of years ago and copied over centuries—is rarely simple and straightforward.

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