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Dr. Joel Hoffman

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Five Ways Your Bible Translation Distorts the Original Meaning of the Text

Posted: 10/14/2011 9:35 am

From the Ten Commandments to the Psalms to the Gospels, English translations of the Bible distort the original meaning of the text: The Ten Commandments don't forbid coveting. Psalm 23 is not primarily about sheep or a shepherd. And God didn't give his only begotten son because he loved the world so much.

The problems stem from flawed translation techniques that haven't been updated in hundreds of years.

In particular, there are three common ways of determining what the ancient words of the Bible mean: etymology, internal structure, and cognates. But they don't work very well.

Two other factors further degrade modern translations: a general desire not to change historical translations and a misunderstanding of how to translate metaphors like "God's hand" (God doesn't literally have a hand) or "the Lord is my shepherd."

These five issues have conspired to create English translations that conceal what the Bible originally meant.

Familiar, modern languages like English or Spanish illustrate what goes wrong.

The English words "ballot" and "bullet" share an ancient source, but they mean completely different things. Likewise, "grammar" and "glamour" used to be the same word, but most students don't find grammar to be glamorous. These pairs are examples of how etymology is misleading.

Knowing what an office is does not shed light on what an officer does, even though "officer" has the word "office" in it, just as sweetbread is not sweet and it's not bread. These words demonstrate the danger of relying on internal structure -- roots, prefixes, suffixes and so forth -- to discern a word's meaning. (Also, a "strip mall" isn't what some people might suspect.)

There's a word "demand" in French and it confuses English speakers because it means "to ask," not "to demand." In Spanish, "embarazada," does not mean "embarrassed" but rather "pregnant." These kinds of related words (known as cognates) are common in various languages. It stands to reason that if the words are related they ought to mean the same thing, but it's not true. Cognates, like etymology and internal structure, are unreliable.

Proverbs 28:21 in the 400-year-old classic English translation known as the King James Version (KJV) cautions, oddly, that "to have respect of persons is not good." But 400 years ago, "respect" meant "to be partial," and the point was to avoid favoritism. Additionally, the KJV's "turtle" whose voice is heard in the beautiful imagery of Song of Solomon is a bird. These examples demonstrate a fourth problem plaguing modern translations: the power of history.

In part because of the generally conservative nature of religion -- "out with the old, in with the new" is not a particularly welcome sentiment at most seminaries -- these and other familiar but outdated translations often stick with us and continue to influence Bible translators. (One especially grievous case is the well known but widely misunderstood phrase "God so loved the world" in John 3:16. The meaning of "so" here has changed.)

Shakespeare writes that "Juliet is the sun." But even though melanoma comes from exposure to the sun, Shakespeare didn't mean that Juliet is that girl who causes skin cancer. Obviously, he meant that she has some very specific and culturally defined qualities of the sun, such as beauty. This represents perhaps the trickiest flaw in modern translations: missing the important parts of metaphor and other symbolic language.

Unfortunately, etymology, internal structure, and cognates are the three pillars of Bible translation. And with them, the power of history and a focus on the wrong parts of metaphor degrade all English Bibles even more.

So your Bible translation contains flaws as bad as: mixing up "ballot" and "bullet" (etymology), thinking that all officers work in offices (internal structure), mixing up requests and demands (cognates), thinking that turtles fly (history), and thinking that romance must involve cancer (metaphor).

Fortunately, more modern and reliable translation practices are available, though they haven't made their way into published Bible translations yet. Still, more than at any other time since the Bible was composed, we are better equipped now to understand the ancient words of Scripture.

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