Translations of Translations

Translations of Translations December 24, 2014

I am disappointed whenever a student of mine includes in an assignment the profoundly mistaken notion that the Bible we have today is “a translation of a translation of a translation.” But it is all the more disappointing that we find the same idea in Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek article which is titled “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” It is thus ironic that an article about how frequently the Bible is misunderstood gets such basic things wrong.

It does make some useful and accurate points, however. Here’s a quote from the article:

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

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  • OK, I’ll bite. What is the “profoundly mistaken notion?”

    • It isn’t obvious? We do not translate our English Bible from a translation into another language of a translation into another language and so on at some distance from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. There are elements of copying, and interpretation, but not the translation in series scenario that the language used envisages.

      • No, it wasn’t obvious, not to me anyway. There were a few things I thought you might have meant.

        The Newsweek author uses “translation of a translation of a translation” in an imprecise and confusing way. But if we consider how we have the words of Jesus, there can be said to be at least two translations involved: (primarily) Aramaic to Greek to English. The same process is involved with the Old Testament, if we consider the influence of the Septuagint. It’s fair to argue the influence of the Latin Vulgate, which could provide a third translation. Yes, granted, we’re not dealing with a strict series of translations; our modern English translations are made with an eye towards our earliest sources and our best understanding of original contexts. But the influence of the intermediate translations is strong, particularly when we consider that many of our current religious beliefs are based in some part (or are reflected in) these intermediate translations.

        But even if we’re considering our access to our earliest sources, there is something like multiple translation involved. Biblical Hebrew is not a living language. I don’t know much about Koine Greek, but I don’t think that’s a living language either. We can’t translate the Hebrew of Genesis directly into English; we view this language in some part through the lenses of more modern Hebrew as well as through ancient and medieval commentaries written in a variety of languages. We should also consider the interpretation provided by our traditions, which is itself shaped in part by the evolution of language and the series of translations made along the way. (Yes, even this description is too linear; the older languages continue to feed back into the new languages. This is most obvious with modern Hebrew.)

        Yes … it might be better to make the larger hermeneutical point that all language is interpretation, that there is an unavoidable (and probably welcome) creative effort in the formation of any narrative, that every reading adds another interpretive layer of meaning, and that any translation is in some sense a derivative work. But in my experience at least, I’ve found it difficult to make this argument understood, particularly to those who think that language has a “plain meaning.” As a lawyer, I can assure you that there are Supreme Court justices who think that language has a “plain meaning,” so what hope is there for the average person in the pews (or at the magazine rack)?

        Most people “get” that translation is interpretation. It’s an imprecise metaphor, to say that we receive the text of the Bible in multiple translation … but it may make the point more effectively than a more accurate and nuanced description.

        • All these points are valid, but it does not seem to me that the language the article used seems to mean what you are focused on in your comment. If that had been the intent, it ought to have been worded differently.

      • Straw Man

        Near as I can tell, the article is saying that the KJV is a translation of the Vulgate which is a translation of the LXX which is a translation of the Hebrew. That version literally is, more or less, a translation of a translation of a translation. Kinda.

        • Oh, there certainly have been instances of that in the past. I wonder whether the reason this idea seems to be prevalent today is the use of public domain and badly out-of-date sources which know nothing of translations since the KJV?

          • Straw Man

            My read of the article is that he envisions his audience as equating the Bible with the KJV. In other words, I think he’s not confused; he’s patronizing.