Translating Ambiguity and Different Bibles

Jesus and the Children, St. John's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales, Wikipedia

Jesus and the Children, St. John’s Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales, Wikipedia

This is just a short, simple reflection on the problem of how translators deal with ambiguity in the original. It was prompted by one of today’s readings in church: Mark 10:15 “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (ESV).

The ESV, quoted above, decides in this case to leave the ambiguity in, other translations, however, do not, including the one used at church this morning: “I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.” (CEV). You may not have noticed the difference, since the CEV version is in line with the most common understanding of the saying, however it is important to note that this is not the only possible way to take it.

The Greek has: “ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὃς ἂν μὴ δέξηται τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς παιδίον, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθῃ εἰς αὐτήν.” Which, word for word, is “Amen I-say to-you, whoever does-not receive the kingdom of-God as a-child, in-no-way will-enter into her.” The problem bit is the “as a child”: What does it belong with? The standard interpretation assumes that it modifies “receive”, thus “unless you receive the kingdom in the same way as a child does…”. But it could just as easily go with “the kingdom” and then you get something more like “unless you receive the kingdom of God in the same way that you receive little children…”

So the question: As a translator should one leave in the ambiguity and demand that the reader work it out, or do you decide on a “preferred” reading and use that?

The answer, I think, is both. That is to say, I do not think there is only one way of doing it or that any one way is better. How one approaches issues like this depends on why one is making the translation and who the target audience is. As long as one is clear about why one makes certain decisions, there should be no problem. For instance, in a bible designed for those who are outside the faith or very new to it, a more interpretive translation is probably to be preferred. Why make a person work harder than needed to get at the important truths? On the other hand, when I want to research a topic or passage in depth I would want a translation that leaves such things in the text for me to wrestle with (assuming I couldn’t go back to the original).

The problems then become 1)  that people tend not to read the introductions to their translation, and hence are not always aware of the kinds of decisions used by the translator(s) of their version, and 2) people tend not to think about these issues but instead to choose “the best” translation and then get very defensive about it. The first problem leads to the situation where people are not aware that they may be reading interpretations where alternatives exist, the second to debates like that over the KJV. Sadly, both detract from the actual message that we are supposed to be getting across!

It is a simple fact, acknowledged by those who work in translation, that there is never an exact one-to-one correspondence between words, nor in grammar, between one language and another. To demand a “perfect” translation is to ignore this fact. Even very simple words can have different meanings: Take καὶ for instance. It’s basic gloss (first-approximation meaning) is “and” and it is very often used that way. In Koine Greek, however, it is used far more often that we would use it in good English, so it can be dropped in some cases without any loss of meaning, but worse, it can also mean “but”! In fact, it is a connective word that links two phrases together in ways that do not correspond to any single English word, not a problem to a Koine speaker, but certainly one for a translator. And that is a simple word! Other words carry not only the basic meaning but also have clouds of associations and emotive meanings, and these clouds can be quite different from one language to another, even when the basic meaning comes across.

So my recommendation: Read the introduction to your bible, or go online and look up the philosophy of the translating committee. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to translate (well, there are, but I am assuming a basic honesty in the translators and desire for faithfulness). Then ask yourself what you want from your translation: Do you want a bible you can use with non-believing friends? Do you want one you can understand easily? Or do you want one that lends itself to a more labour-intensive in-depth study? All are valid, all are needed, but like any other tool, choose the right one for the job at hand.

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2 Responses to “Translating Ambiguity and Different Bibles”

  1. carnosine eye drops Says:

    the jungles of Irian Jaya or in the halls of the United Nations—the best translation is not a literal one, but one that reproduces the meaning of the text in clear, accurate and idiomatic language. One anecdote may be helpful here. As I was reading through the ESV (in conjunction with another project), I came to the epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews contains some of the finest literary Greek in the New Testament and can be a very difficult book for my Greek students. I expected to encounter substantial problems in the ESV. Instead, I found that the ESV was quite well translated in Hebrews, with fewer of the kinds of problems I was encountering elsewhere. Then the reason dawned on me. The fine literary Greek of Hebrews—with radically different word order, grammar and idiom—is simply impossible to translate literally into English. To do so produces gibberish. Ironically, the ESV was at its best when it abandoned its essentially literal” strategy and translated the meaning of the text into normal English. It is ironic that the ESV’s main marketing slogan—an “essentially literal” translation—is what makes it deficient as a standard reading Bible for the church.

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      Interesting anecdote. There is, in fact, no such thing as a “literal” translation if by that one means one that preserves every element of the original. Something must be lost or changed in any translation. The ESV has tried to be more literal and less idiomatic, which makes it a good bible for study but probably as you say less useful as a book for reading aloud in church.

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