Thursday, October 27, 2011

Translational Annoyances

Since I teach one of the Biblical languages, I am frequently asked which English Bible translation I recommend. I sort of cheat, answering that as far as I am concerned, the NKJV, the NASB, the ESV, and (if you pay careful attention to the words that have changed in meaning in the last 400 years) the KJV all have their strengths and weaknesses, but they are all about equally good. The main point here is that there is no perfect translation of the Bible. Those that I have listed do most things well, but no biblical languages scholar would be entirely happy with any one of them. I doubt that even members of the translation team for one of those versions would be entirely happy with everything the version does. Part of that is due to the fact that most translations are committee work, and a translation has to please everyone involved: the editorial staff as well as the members of the translation team. So if one member of the team likes a particular rendering of a given passage, but the other team members do not, he loses out. Likewise, the editorial team may tell a translation committee that a particular passage just doesn’t work and they need to go back and change it. So the editors are happy, but the translators are not. I’ve been told, for example, that the translation team for one particular version was trying to figure out what to do with 1 Sam 25:22 (and the other passages where the KJV uses the now offensive term “piss”). They wanted to do something that would indicate that the word here was not just one of the normal Hebrew words for male. However, they were told in no uncertain terms, “There will be no pissing in my Bible.”

All that being said, probably most biblical scholars have particular passages in particular versions that simply drive them nuts. I call these translational annoyances. One of these popped up for me in recent months as I was reading through the CEB. For a variety of reasons I think the version is a particularly odious translation. As a character in Connie Willis’s novel Doomsday Book said, “The King James may be archaic, but at least it’s not criminal.” So you would expect that I would find a lot of translational annoyances in it. But one in particular stuck out to me. Col 4:15 says, “Say hello to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea.” I realized, of course, that this was the CEB way of saying “greet,” and I figured that the translators thought “greet” was too sophisticated a word for this particular translation. So I looked back to Phil 4:21, expecting to see “say hello to.” Instead, I found, “Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus.” So I thought, “Well, maybe Paul used a different word in Philippians than in Colossians.” So I looked. No. Same word in Greek in both passages. So I looked at all the passages where that same form is used. I found no consistency in translation. About half of the passages have, “Say hello to.” The other half have, “Greet,” except for Matt 10:12, which says, “Say, Peace.” To my mind this is simply fundamentally bad translation. At the very least, all of the occurrences in the Pauline epistles should have read the same. But the careful reader of the CEB is going to think that the Greek uses different words, apparently because the translators and the editorial team of the CEB couldn’t get together on a reasonable consistency in the translation of a simple Greek word.

Of course, the CEB is not the only offender in this. The NLT sometimes uses “greet” and sometimes “give my greetings to.” It is particularly grating in Romans 16, where apparently the NLT translators couldn’t stand the fact that Paul used the same term sixteen times in the same passage, so they decided to change it up for the reader. 

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