Amy Choate-Nielsen: Words of God: The challenges of translation

Published: Friday, Dec. 16 2011 11:00 a.m. MST

The Bible has always been translated and copied, from the days of the Old Testament. Authors wrote their stories through the lenses of their culture and passed the transcripts on until there were no originals, only copies of copies of the transcripts.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but Christians in the time of the New Testament read and spoke Greek, so by then, the Old Testament was translated into Greek. Christians in Rome read Latin, so the Old Testament was translated from Greek into Latin, losing some of the nuances of the original Hebrew language, says Choon-Leong Seow, Henry Snyder Gehman professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

"That's partly why Christians and Jews departed," Seow says. "Even though they studied the Old Testament, Christians read Greek and Jews reclaimed the Hebrew," and the meaning of the two was different.

From the beginning, the variety of transcripts and nature of the language in which they were written have posed a challenge for those — even with the best intentions — wanting to put the ancient words of the Bible into the hands of the people.

"If you read Hebrew, it's like playing a video game," Seow says. "You can see all of those meanings all at once, but you can't capture it. Once you put that in translation, you only have one meaning, so you lose something. You always do."

The art of translation

To scholars of the Bible, even simple conjunctions like "and" or "but" have different meanings, and conveying that meaning correctly is their challenge.

"There's an old Italian proverb that says a translation is an act of treason," says Harold Attridge, dean of Yale Divinity School and professor of the New Testament.

"Everybody is confronted with this challenge in trying to do a translation, in that languages don't map neatly onto each other. There are always choices the translators are making."

Attridge sees how different translations can influence thinking on whether Jesus' mother, Mary, was a virgin, the role of faith in Jesus Christ or if evolution is possible. Depending how the Bible is interpreted, those issues spill over into public debates, shape public school curriculum and surface in platforms for presidential candidacy.

Even if interpretation was a clear-cut process, there would still be differences of opinion on how to read certain texts, Attridge says. That's something that weighed on Joel Green's mind as he worked on translating the Common English Bible.

"If a phrase can be taken two different ways, which way do you go? Because the way you do it has theological implications," says Green, professor of New Testament interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

"I thought a lot about the degree to which I was in the service of God as a part of a translation team, and it was part of the challenge and part of the weight that we bore, to mediate and represent God's word in a way that would be understandable to a new generation of people."

Trusting in the word

As Hayter reads her Bible, sometimes alongside the King James and New King James versions for added context, she says it's important for her to read a translation that was created by "Christian leaders of all denominations (that) share a common view that the Bible is the infallible and unerring word of God."

For Hayter, and many like her, the Bible is essential to communicating with God; it is the way she hears God's word. Through it, Hayter says she is inspired and motivated. It has revolutionized her life, she says.

"I feel more confident and fulfilled knowing I am someone special God designed for a purpose greater than I can ever know," Hayter says. "Paul ends chapter two (of Ephesians) explaining that 'We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.' Bring it on."


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