Monday, November 1, 2010

And God Said

And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning
Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (2010, Thomas Dunne Books)

Biblical translations are a mainstay of the publishing industry; there are a staggering number of different editions and translations available. Can any of them be said to be an accurate translation? Joel Hoffman has an interest in the philosophical and religious issues that question raises, but he approaches it from the point of view of his training in linguistics, and there’s plenty of interest there, too.
The short answer is, no translation works perfectly at all levels. The more compulsive one is about translating each word, the more likely one is to miss the sense of the phrase or sentence. Hoffman has some prime examples of such errors from the King James Version of the Bible. At another extreme, he cites some twentieth century versions, like the Good News Bible, that are more paraphrases than translations.
Moreover, in both those cases, and nearly all others, the translators have failed to account for the multitude of tonal registers the Bible presents: some books are history, some prophesy, some poetry, but these distinctions are paved over in favor of a single linguistic tone; in the case of the King James Bible, it’s a language we don’t really speak any more.
Translation always involved compromise. Hoffman says, “...the ideal translation will work at every level--from sounds, through words, and up to concepts and effect. But because this is seldom possible, the translator must choose which level should be given priority. Most people are of the mistaken opinion that the words should always be given priority, that as long as the words are translated correctly, everything else falls into place.”
We need some linguistic imagination to notice that just because ‘blue’ in English connotes sadness, or possibly lewdness, other languages may have no such convention; how would you know that in Germany, ‘blue’ stands for truancy? Such idioms are powerful, and easy to miss. So when we hear that Esau was ‘ruddy’, Hoffman points out that we are probably missing a packet of connotations, of earthiness and strength.
The book abounds in delightful linguistic geekery. For instance, Hoffman takes us through a nice exercise about the word ‘covet’ in the Ten Commandments. Examining other places this rare word occurs, it might just as well (or better) be read as ‘lay claim to’ or ‘take possession of’, which makes a good deal more sense in the Tenth Commandment (or, Ninth and Tenth, but that’s another story.)
Of course, many of these issues are of more than linguistic interest. When the Gospel of Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophesy, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive”, the term ‘virgin’ is an error, both in the King James Version and in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hoffman shows persuasively that the original Hebrew simply said ‘A pregnant woman will give birth to a son.’ What would that mean to everyone, over the years, who has failed tests of Christian faith that hung on the Virgin Birth of Jesus?! Where is the translator with the nerve to render the English that way?
What would it mean if, instead, as Hoffman says, “The sign here is a reminder that extraordinary things can come out of the ordinary”? If a woman having a baby is a sign that God is with us, I call that good news enough. Thanks be to God.


November 2010