Translators are Traitors

Earlier this week I made some audacious claims about Jonah.  In that post I promised to begin posting my own translation of the book to support my claims.  But prior to that publication I thought it would be prudent to briefly discuss the nature of translations in order to explain what I hope to achieve.

Translation is a difficult thing.  The title of this blog finds its origin in an Italian proverb: Traduttore, Traditore.  It means Translator, Traitor.  This proverb perfectly illustrates the struggle of translation.  In translating it you lose a bit of its force, since both words are pronounced in a very similar fashion.  What is said in one language cannot be said exactly the same way in another language.

So what does this have to do with the Bible?

English translations are a wonderful thing.  As illustrated by the Italian proverb, translations are not perfect, nor can they be.  Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not as though our translations say that Jesus is Lord and that the original text says he was just a nice guy.  No, there are no huge disparities like that in translation.  But there are issues which are difficult to convey.  Anyone who knows more than one language knows that there are some things from one language that are hard to convey in the other.

For instance, let’s take a common and important phrase from the New Testament: Jesus is Lord.  While the immediately evident meaning is certainly true (i.e. Jesus exercises ultimate dominion), there are several latent nuances within this phrase in Greek that are difficult to convey in English translations.  This is one reason why Study Bibles are so popular.  The notes of a Study Bible for Philippians 2:11 might read something like this:

‘Lord’ was a title reserved for Caesar alone.  Romans would accept innumerable gods, so they could tolerate Christians confessing that Jesus is god.  That was no big deal.  But to confess Jesus as Lord was a seditious act of civil disobedience.  It was proclaiming that your religion worshipped someone who trumped the authority of Caesar.  Christians were killed for this.  Lord (Greek – κύριος) was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (often also called the Old Testament) to translate the divine name YHWH.  Thus Paul is not only admonishing Christians to maintain that Jesus is higher than Caesar, he’s telling them that Jesus is YHWH, the God of the Hebrew Bible.

Both of those concepts would be readily familiar to a 1st Century, Greek-speaking Jew.  It would have been immediately clear what Paul was suggesting.  But it is impossible to create a translation that conveys all of this information.  The available English translations of the Bible are excellent, produced by incredibly well-educated scholars.  But due to the nature of translation, there are inevitably shortcomings in translations.

Another such shortcoming is found when we examine the literary device of wordplay.  Here’s an example from scripture:

Jesus answered,   “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit (πνεῦμα), he cannot enter the kingdom of God.   That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit (πνεῦμα) is spirit (πνεῦμα).   Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind (πνεῦμα) blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (πνεῦμα).” John 3:5-8 (ESV)

Here, Jesus uses the word πνεῦμα repeatedly, but not always in the same way.  So when he says “The πνεῦμα blows where it wishes…” it is clear that he intends πνεῦμα to mean wind.  But in the rest of the passage he intends it to mean spirit.  This helps us understand Jesus’ analogy more clearly, because he’s saying that even though the behavior of πνεῦμα (both wind and spirit) is unseen, it is still tangible.  But this connection is lost in English, because if we communicate the wordplay by consistently translating πνεῦμα, we will actually confuse readers when they read that “the spirit blows where it wishes.”  That isn’t what Jesus is saying.

The point I’m trying to make here is that translation is difficult and often we need supplementary comments with insights from the original language to help us understand what is happening.  This shouldn’t cause us to lose faith in our English translations.  They are wonderful and necessary.  These comments are meant as additions.  They are not meant to replace anything.  This is what I hope to do with my translation of Jonah.

So far, I’ve used two illustrations to help you see some of the struggles of a translator.  The first was the issue of the connotation of the words used.  In other words, what do those words call to mind?  The second is with the repetition of the word while employing different meanings.  Both of these concepts are at play in Jonah.  There are several repeated words, used in different ways, that tie together the story of Jonah.  There are also phrases that are used that have deep roots earlier in the Hebrew Bible.

But there is one final issue present when we translate.  We aren’t just translating.  We’re translating the Bible.  We have certain expectations for what it says already.  Unfortunately we can’t do much to rid ourselves of those expectations, and they affect the decisions we make.  In my opinion this is why the common understanding of Jonah has prevailed.  We assume that we know the story before we read it.  It is my hope we all begin to see Jonah in a new light.  Once we do, I think we will begin to see ourselves in a new light as well.

With that in mind, let’s begin reading Jonah.

Public Domain, courtesy of the British Library.

An Illuminated Manuscript of Jonah, courtesy of the British Library.

One thought on “Translators are Traitors

  1. Pingback: What does the Bible say about ISIS? | Home-cooked Jesus

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