A great deal could be written concerning the processes and issues of Bible translation, but in this article, I have one particular goal in mind: I want to talk about how translators sometimes come upon a word or phrase that they just don’t have enough information about—and how they do the best they can based on what they believe to be true about the topic in general.
Before we get into a discussion of what I’m talking about, let’s play a little game and make you the translator in a micro-project.Your Translation Project
We’ll assume that you’re a translator and that you’ve already finished translating most of a sentence in an ancient and dead language that I’ll call Ancientese. You got as far as you did because most of the words in the sentence are well known, having been used many other times in the large document you are translating. The one word that remains, however, has stopped you short of the goal. It is what textual scholars call a hapax legomenon–a word that only occurs once in the document. Nobody knows what the word means, so you have to do your best with what you have.
So let’s have some fun. Here’s a chance for you to try your hand at it. You’ll see your work at the bottom of the frame below, where your blue English words have been entered above the corresponding Ancientese words. (Funny, a lot of people say that Ancientese characters remind them a lot of Urdu characters. You were probably thinking that, too!)
Well, it’s not just a guessing game, of course, so you do some diligent research and here’s what you learn:
So now you definitely know something about the root words that make up our once-only Ancientese word. But you decide that you should be especially diligent and check the context, searching for clues as to how to translate this. Sure, it seems a long shot, but you don’t know what the author was trying to say. It could be, you reason, that he meant to conjure up in the reader’s mind a foot-Planet-Earth, whatever that might mean or a foot-eyeball. Yes, you find this unlikely, and yes, you have another idea cooking that seems much more plausible to you, but you resist the urge to jump too soon at a conclusion. You decide to check out the rest of the immediate context.
The only clue you find is in the next paragraph in the Ancientese text. It translates easily, so you’re pretty confident that it should be understood thus:
“And the multitude of those having come to see the contest were sorely disappointed, saying ‘with this great a loss, we shall surely forfeit tomorrow’s contest!’ Indeed, a search was undertaken, and no replacement could be found.”
OK, so now you’ve exhausted all the information available to you and it’s time to make a decision. While you obviously can’t be completely and absolutely certain as to the meaning of the word in question, you think you’re close enough—and all your translator buddies are right there with you, nodding along as you fill in the blank with the word football.
It just fits. They were able to finish the first game, but then Joe noticed the ball was flat, and the home crowd was quite upset because no replacement ball could be found for tomorrow’s game.
So it is settled. “Football”, you write, and so shall it be understood for centuries to come. Everyone who reads your English translation of this Ancientese text will be able to benefit from the results of this grueling and diligent work you have done in finding a way to solve the puzzle.
Let’s fast forward a few hundred years, though, to the discovery of some ancient documents in a cave in China. Among the documents are ancient versions of After the Great Contest—one in Ancientese and one in Chinese. Scholars note that the Ancientese copy is exactly like the copy that you translated a few hundred years before, and seems to be even older than yours. Meanwhile, the Chinese version of it is searched for your hapax legomenon and it becomes apparent that the ancient Chinese translator did not make the same translational decision that you did. The word you choose to translate as football, he translated as ball of the foot.
“That can’t be,” say the traditionalists who have followed your translation for centuries by that time. “It just can’t be, because they searched for a replacement ball and none could be found. They would not have searched for a replacement for the ball of Joe’s foot because there were no such surgeries being done at that time in history.” With these objections in mind, they flatly reject the Chinese translation, and wish it had never come to their attention, heretical document that it is!
Cooler heads, however, take a more scholarly approach and decide to look into the matter. They realize that the Chinese version paints quite a different picture:
- Summary of Your Translation. After the game, Joe notices the football is flat and the crowds are quite upset because the next game can’t be played with a flat ball.
- Summary of the Chinese Translation. After the game, Joe notices a problem with the ball of his foot and the crowds are quite upset because they are certain that the next game cannot possibly be won without a healthy Joe in the game.
The scholars also find some other passages in the texts of both translations that seem to be consistent with this new model of understanding. Here are a couple:
- “When the crowd had become sore over Joe’s misfortune, many sent up prayers.” (If the “football” model were accurate, why would the author say that this misfortune belonged specifically to Joe? Why not to the whole team, and even to its fans?)
- “Remember and take a lesson from the ancient days when no substitute could be found, for none else was swift.”
Devotees of the traditional translation never quite knew what to make of these passages, so they more or less ignored them. When they would read them, they simply bypassed any analytical processing of them because they didn’t fit the traditional model of understanding. So they had evidence right under their noses all along—evidence that their model wasn’t right in every respect, but they never “saw” that evidence, no matter how many times they read the words.
How Did You Do?
So, dear reader, did you fall into my little trap and choose the word “football”? Perhaps you didn’t, but I did my best to plant this idea in your mind from the beginning of this article. I used the word game twice; I used the phrase, “stopped you short of the goal“; I included two images of a flattened football; I deliberately made up this exercise under the hypothesis that football is much more likely to come to mind in our football-fascinated society than is ball of the foot. Oh, and I “framed” you by offering up the root words foot and ball in that particular order rather than the other way around. Then I told you that the word for ball frequent comes up in the context of sporting events in our document. And if all that weren’t enough, even though I told you that you would be doing the translating, I went ahead and told you what word you chose in the story, manipulating you to “go along”. (Please write me if you like and let me know whether you were mentally OK with “football”, or whether you had any inkling of misgiving, or any suspicion that you were being steered!)
This completes the exercise. Now let’s talk about it.
Whether I fooled you are not in our exercise, you just got a good taste of what translators sometimes must go through. And if you’re like most people, I suspect that you were OK enough with “football” that you didn’t protest too much when I told you that was your answer. After all, it did make sense; it was coherent. And did you notice that I didn’t take the time to walk you through all the other passages that might have had something to say on the matter before I told you that you chose “football”? I wanted to rush you along, and to keep you from reflecting on all the available information because I wanted you instead to exhibit a coherence bias, jumping on what was “obvious”, even if it wasn’t the only plausible possibility.
Many such errors have been made by Bible translators over the centuries. They bring with them a very strong tradition, comprised of the collective understanding of the culture—whether right or wrong—regarding what the Bible says and means. Translators are humans, too, and they can make the same common errors that we do ourselves.
As With the Translator, So With the Reader
Translators and readers alike tend to bring some assumptions to the table with them. Whether one is reading the Bible in English or trying to translate a passage from its original language, the result is often similar in one regard:
When there’s an interpretive decision to be made, the passage is normally going to be interpreted in a way that fits the existing model of the translator or reader.
If we know this before we sit down to read the Bible, we can avoid lots of pitfalls. But if we are ignorant about this tendency in ourselves, we’re quite likely to get up with all manner of misconceptions about the intended meaning of various Bible passages.
An Example, Please!
Everybody knows Genesis 1:1.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
These words are even more famous than the words of John 3:16. And I must note with a bit of amusement that as far as some people know, the words of John 3:16 are “John 3:16”, for the reference seems to be quoted much more often than the words themselves! But I digress.
The words of Genesis 1:1 have been repeated innumerably, and we have heard them again and again, until they are second nature to us. They are the most remembered words of the entire Bible. Even so, the exact translation to which we are so well accustomed is not the best translation of the original Hebrew text. As it turns out, there is a considerably stronger case to be made for this translation of the verse:
When God began to create heaven and earth (JPS–Jewish Publication Society)
Now, assuming this is the better translation, it opens up a whole new can of worms. You can learn more about it in this video if you like (the pertinent discussion starts at 8:35), or simply continue with my article below.
Swimming Against the Tides
If the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1 is simply not what the author intended, then we are left to choose whether to do anything about it or not. If we choose not, nothing further will happen, except, perhaps, that we’ll have a tinge of cognitive dissonance every time we hear the verse for the rest of our lives, because we know that the popular assumptions about it are more certain than they should be. If we choose to look into the matter, however, we have a great deal of work ahead of us, for this means that we need to now reconsider a great deal of what we think we know from the Bible regarding the creation.
See, when we nail down what a verse means (to us), then a great many details and implications tend to trickle down from that decision. If Verse 1 is about the didn’t-exist-before creation of the cosmos, then that sets the framework for how we are to understand the rest of Chaper 1, and probably for how we are to understand a great many other Bible passages as well. So we have not only the tide of popular opinion around us, encouraging us to just get it over with and see 1:1 the same way they do, but we also have the tide of our previous understanding of things. Indeed, we have trained our own minds to see passages in a certain way, assuming that we understand certain fundamental things about those passages. And if we have now discovered that one of those fundamentals was in error, then we have got to deliberately work against our under habit of understanding in order to forge a better model.
We could, after all, just chalk it up as an intellectual curiosity—a puzzle for the overly philosophical types—and then let it go, never to mine out the treasures that exist in these ancient pages. In other words, we could choose ignorance.
Most, however, do not choose such ignorance alone, for they cannot help but to attempt to “justify” or “rationalize” that choice by way of twisted and deceitful words and thoughts. (I put justify and rationalize in quotation marks, for they are used here to indicate activities that are the philosophical opposites of the rightful meanings of these words.) They have a problem with “cognitive dissonance”—the inside-the-mind conflict between competing ideas or beliefs. Many have made religions of cognitive dissonance, counting themselves the more “faithful” the more dissonance they manage to ignore and tolerate. In so doing, they violate the very minds God gave them for reasoning their way through the reality in which our lives are set. They attempt, therefore, to imagine themselves godly while using their minds deliberately to ignore information they have found in the very texts they claim are delivered to this generation from God.
This process of deliberate ignorance requires a strong will. And where strong will may be insufficient, it seems that peer pressure may help to fill in the gap. Indeed, there are some mega-cultures among us who flock together to believe certain notions in spite of many Bible passages to the contrary. For example, many churches are adamant that believers in Jesus will never be judged by their works, but only by “grace“. This they do in spite of overwhelming textual evidence to the contrary. Thus do we see that the model understood by the believers is now considered to be a greater authority than the texts themselves. They have made the substitution of one for the other without even realizing that they’re doing it because they have been framed and primed before they approach the texts, so that they already think they know what the texts are about. In this way, they are able to put off the red flags naturally raised by the reading of a great many passages, in deference to their own flawed model of understanding—and they do it as a way of life, until the day they die, with very few ever figuring out the error of it all, and fewer still deciding to cut it out.
In short, people inside the church culture are framed in many ways with many assumptions that they then take back into the Bible texts. It’s an easy mistake to make. After all, they are told that their church is “The Lord’s Church”, and that it is more or less the same institution that was begun by none other than Jesus himself. So when they look around and see stained glass windows and pews today, it’s an easy mistake to make to think that the original ekklesia of Jesus had stained glass and pews. And a pulpit and a pulpit minister and a teen ministry and a choir or a “praise and worship team” and so forth. And when they chance upon the word “grace” in the Bible, they embellish that word with all the ideas they have been taught in modern times, having no idea what manner of invention they may be pressing upon the original texts.
It is a massive exercise in cognitive bias, compounded by a tragic bent toward cognitive miserliness—the inclination to resist spending on our thinking even a “penny” that we are not forced to spend. In this way, much of the original ideas of the Bible have been replaced by modern surrogates—things that don’t even work very well when put to the test—yet the believers have little idea that it is happening. They believe it’s about “football” because they’ve been framed to believe it. And they are so easily self assured that their “study” rightly affirms their predetermined conclusions.
Imagine the irony of getting the wrong impression about a passage from a translator—or from the reader’s own assumptions—but then crediting that wrong impression unknowingly to none other than God himself. It happens more than you probably think.