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Lost in Translation

In my last post I began to talk about my involvement with the translation committee for the New Revised Standard Version.  My Doktorvater, Bruce Metzger, was the chair of the committee and he asked me, during my graduate studies, to be one of the scribes for the Old Testament subcommittee.  In that capacity I recorded all the votes that were taken by the translators for revisions of the text of the Revised Standard Version, in whichever subsection of the committee I was assigned to.  Normally the subsection would have, maybe, five scholars on it.  They would debate how to modify the text of the RSV, verse by verse, word by word; they would then take a vote by show of hands; and I would record their decision.

This was an eye-opening experience for me.  Bible translation (or the translation of any foreign-language work, for that matter) is an inordinately complicated procedure.  It is impossible to replicate the exact meaning of one language in another, since the nuances of words vary from one language to another.  Let me give an example from the Greek of the New Testament.  In English we have different terms that mean something like “love” – for example, “adoration,” “passion,” “lust,” “like,” and, lots of others.  Each has its own connotations.  Greek too has a variety of words, and they all, in principle, could be translated with the word love.

One Greek word used in the New Testament, PHILIA, typically refers to …

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Inclusive Language in Bible Translations
My Work for the New Revised Standard Version Committee

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    kentvw  December 18, 2016

    Whoopie for you Bart..

    You are pretty cool guy.. that is, until your arrogance comes floating to the surface.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2016

      Uh, hmmm… Thanks. I think.

    • Avatar
      Hume  December 18, 2016

      I get the exact opposite impression of Bart. He seems to be someone who could retreat to his ivory tower and doesn’t. He’s down in the trenches with us and the suffering. I’ve started donating after listening to his problem of evil lectures.

    • Avatar
      stevenpounders  December 18, 2016

      What a bizarre comment from kentvw. How is it “arrogant” to discuss the insights Bart Ehrman gained from being a scribe on for the NRSV committee? If Professor Ehrman were trying to boast he could start with the number of times his books have been on the New York Times Bestseller list; but even that wouldn’t qualify as arrogance, unless he claimed to be superior to other scholars – which he most certainly doesn’t.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 19, 2016

        Yeah, I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to (not that I have the least bit of self-deception about my lack of humility in general!!)

        • Avatar
          fcp  December 20, 2016

          I was compellingly reminded of a favorite cheeky line from Aleister Crowley’s _Confessions_ (an auto-hagiography): ” I have never lost the childlike humility which characterized all truly great men.”

          • Bart
            Bart  December 22, 2016

            Ha!!

    • Avatar
      Triassicman  December 18, 2016

      Read the post twice and can’t see your point…

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  December 18, 2016

      What a ridiculous comment.

    • Avatar
      nwoll  December 19, 2016

      for the record kentvw, you know this current thread is a response to a reader question right? Dr. Ehrman isn’t just bragging here (though on a personal blog, that’s perfectly acceptable). I’m enjoying the more detailed look at how translations work at least.

    • Avatar
      blache  December 19, 2016

      Speaking of Words, the comment above has the odor of sarcasm, patronization and arrogance in and of itself. It is personal attack that I am sure the writer, upon reflection, will eventually regret when discussing serious issues. When asked what he was reading Hamlet says, “Words, words, words…” Perhaps the sentiment behind the words are the most important. I have always felt Christ personified the advice of Proverbs 3:3 “Do not let kindness and truth depart, bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” [There are many other ways to hear that proverb, but it is the one I love the most.] It would seem that the great spiritual traditions have these two hallmarks: Compassion and Wisdom.

    • Avatar
      rivercrowman  December 19, 2016

      I was the one who came up with the question that started this now interesting thread. … And Bart, in my opinion, fails to meet the definition of “arrogant.”

    • Avatar
      Adam0685  December 19, 2016

      The fact that kentvw did not provide an example of arrogance is telling. That suggests to me they are simply trolling.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  December 20, 2016

      Kentvw,
      If you’re going to troll the blog, at least donate more.

  2. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 18, 2016

    I have been studying your interesting posts in on whether peter and cephas are different people?
    1. I have never heard of this issue. The church nearly always teaches they are the
    same.
    2. The ESV says in the heading Peter opposes Paul and then goes on and uses Cephas in the rest of the passage
    Galatians 2:11-12
    Paul Opposes Peter
    But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.
    3. In addition to the strong arguments you make I would add that It doesn’t make sense that Peter ( The strongest and most outspoken of the disciples )would be
    fearing those of the circumcision.
    Thank you again

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  December 18, 2016

    I’ve never read a translation of the so-called Old Testament that truly captures what it’s like to read it in the original Hebrew (or in the case of Daniel, the Aramaic). The KJV is so anachronistic as to sound pretentious. Modern translations like the NIV and NRSV come across as, for lack of a better word, academic, and thus boring. For a while now I’ve been considering doing my own translation of the TaNaKh, which would actually consist of three translations side-by-side: one a literal, word-for-word translation; one an academic translation that’s more meaningful but more stilted; and one a poetic translation that captures the feeling of the Hebrew. (Considering the tremendous amount of work required, it’s doubtful l’ll ever get to it.)

    For example, here’s how I’d do the first few verses of Psalm 23:

    Literal:
    Psalm of David
    YHWH is my shepard; I will not lack
    In grassy meadows he will lay me
    Over easy waters he will lead me

    Academic:
    A Psalm of David
    The LORD is my shepard; I shall not be in want
    He causes me to lie down in green pastures
    He leads me beside still waters

    Poetic (what it feels like reading it in Hebrew):
    A song by David
    With Yahweh as my shephard, I will never be in need.
    He will rest me in lush meadows.
    He will take me across tranquil water.

  4. Avatar
    ncarmstrong  December 18, 2016

    I’d be interested in your comments on the words in the bible that are all translated as “hell”, which most of us picture as Dante’s Inferno.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      Yes, I hope to deal with this in my next book.

      • Avatar
        Esko  December 19, 2016

        When will it be out? 2019?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 20, 2016

          It is now in the process of publication. I *think* it will be out November 2017.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  December 20, 2016

            I doubt the book about Heaven and Hell could be described as “in the process of publication.” Did you mean “The Triumph of Christianity” will really go into that in detail? (If so, there wouldn’t be a need for a book about Heaven and Hell!)

          • Bart
            Bart  December 22, 2016

            Sorry — the question was about Triumph! Afterlife: my hunch is that I’ll have it written in about two years, so it would be available near the end of 2018.

  5. Avatar
    smackemyackem  December 18, 2016

    Well put…and illustrates (in my opinion) why a supreme being revealing itself through written word isn’t very efficient!

    • Avatar
      turbopro  December 19, 2016

      If I may pls: one should think that an omni-*-god should be able to reveal itself easily through written words. one wonders then, how do we come to all the difficulties that we do in arriving at a common understanding.

      which, makes me ponder as to why would it be necessary for a learned Biblical scholar–New Testament and/or Hebrew Bible–to have to write a 1700-page book to explain Paul’s theology? (N T Wright’s tome, ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’)

      and, moreover, after that labour of love, one suspects that other scholars and theologians, severally, will remain recalcitrant that the learned Wright’s main thesis is as wrong as Euclid’s fifth postulate.

      and, moreover, moreover, one may surmise that some other theologian will one day write another 3400-page tome to explain why, if looked at from perspective A, Peter and Cephas are names for the one person chosen by the Christ; whereas if looked at from perspective B, it is abundantly clear that Cephas and Peter are different, and from perspective C, it will remain a mystery as to who were Peter and Cephas, and from perspective D, Cephas and Peter were …

  6. Avatar
    Tony  December 18, 2016

    Good example of translation issues!

    This is why – when Paul writes about “crucifixion” – it does not necessarily refer to the Roman execution method.
    The derivation Paul uses comes from the Greek word “Stauros”. Meaning pole, stake or tree. Paul says Jesus was hung from a tree. Paul never writes that Jesus was crucified by either the Romans or Jews.

  7. Avatar
    mjt  December 18, 2016

    It seems to me that there some translations go out of their way to be pro-Jesus. For example, translating Daniel 9:25 as ‘Messiah the Prince’ rather than ‘an anointed ruler’, for example. Do you think the RSV suffers from any biases?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      My view is that every human on earth — including translators — have their biases!

  8. Avatar
    Esko  December 18, 2016

    What is your view on the concept of sin in the light of the various Greek and Hebrew words translated into “sin”?

    http://www.theopedia.com/greek-and-hebrew-words-for-sin

    Do the original manuscripts really mean whenever a word gets translated into the word “sin” that we/christians/etc. are saved from doing it because Jesus died for our sins?

    BTW, what is the original Greek word for sin in the manuscripts that Jesus died for? Hamartia? And how to we know that “hamartia” in Christian theology should be translated differently from Greek tragedy?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamartia

    I suspect that the “as free as necessary” actually means that idiomatic translation needs to be used whenever the literal translation would contradict the Christian theology or tradition.

    For example, why “basileia” is translated into “kingdom” and not into “rule”, why “Gehenna” is translated into “Hell” and not into “a valley near Jerusalem”, etc.?

    I understood from your blog that you favour these translational choices. Would that be correctly understood?

    (You can moderate the links away if you want)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      Yes, the problem is that there are always multiple English words that could be used to translate a Greek word (sin, transgression, failure) (kingdom, rule, reign, sovereignty) and multiple Greek words that could be translated by the same English word. It’s a tricky business. But a translator has to *choose* a word!!

      • Avatar
        Esko  December 19, 2016

        But isn’t there also the “aggelos” case? A single Greek word where “only the context determines whether a human or celestial messenger is intended.”

        http://biblehub.com/greek/32.htm

        I have had hard time figuring out what that context is? I assume it’s not textual.

        Naturally, John The Baptists (as aggelos in Mt 11:10) couldn’t be a celestial messenger because he was eventually beheaded. But why most of the the other appearances of aggelos need to be translated into angels i.e. supernatural beings. I think the gospel’s stories would be more believable if all the angels would just be human messengers just like John The Baptists. But that would naturally raise the inconvenient question about who these pre- and coexistent Christian (or messianic Jews) were because Jesus was supposed to have started a new religion.

        Is this the context where Raphael, Gabriel and the messenger that appeared to the shepherds on the field as well as the messenger(s) on Jesus’ tomb etc. are better to be translated as supernatural beings? To hid the fact that Jesus belonged to a sect.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 20, 2016

          Yes, sometimes aggelos refers to human messengers, and sometimes to celestial messengers. And the trick is figuring out which is which!

          • Avatar
            Esko  December 20, 2016

            Would you mind opening the tick in some post? That would be really interesting.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 22, 2016

            I’m afraid it’s all based on exegesis (in this case: context!)

          • Avatar
            Esko  December 22, 2016

            Would it be correct to think that the distinction between human and celestial messengers was made between third and fourth centuries when the first latin translations started to appear because both Creek and Hebrew have only one word (aggelo and malak) for a messenger but latin has two different words (angelus and nuntius) for human and celestial messengers for example in Luke 7:24?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 23, 2016

            No, aggelos is used for a heavenly messenger already in the Septuagint.

          • Avatar
            Esko  December 23, 2016

            OK, I see, there are then also other words than malak translated into aggelo in the Septuagint, right? Words that are know for sure to mean supernatural beings for Jews. That would explain. My understanding about malak is that not all Jews consider malak to referrer supernatural beings and even Christians translate malak every second time as a human messenger in OT.

  9. Avatar
    Hume  December 18, 2016

    Why not have endnotes explaining each word in the Bible in context? For instance, if Jesus says the word ‘love’ the endnote says: Jesus means EROS a passionate love, etc.

  10. Avatar
    Tom  December 18, 2016

    I am really enjoying this series on translating the bible.

  11. Avatar
    wje  December 18, 2016

    Good evening, Bart. You have wrote a lot of books and posts here on how the books of the Bible got mistranslated, censored, or just plain copied wrong. Looking back on this episode of your professional life, do you find or think that there were some verses or words that you or that committee got wrong, and are now holy writ? Was there any verses or words that gave that group trouble like the ending of Mark, or that verse in 1 John about the trinity? It is interesting (or maybe deja “vu) that the very same translating problems you have brought up in this blog could have been committed by you or the group you were in.

  12. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 18, 2016

    Does an attempt at literal translation, at least for the purpose of obtaining the intended meaning of a text, rest on an assumption that the author is using proper grammar and vocabulary? I’ve read that the Apocalypse of John was written in clumsy Greek. If John didn’t follow the rules, how can you apply the rules to be sure what he intended to say? Is variation and development in language also a problem? Dialects can vary and languages evolve over time. If you aren’t sure exactly when or where a text is written, does this impact your ability to know what standard to apply? For example, if someone wrote “my friend is gay”, and you weren’t sure if they were writing in the 1950s or 1970s, what would you make of it? I realize this is beyond the scope of a short blog reply, but was wondering if these are issues that come into play. If so, I was wondering if you had anything quick to say about how they are dealt with.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      Yes, it’s a complicated issue what to do about bad Greek when translating into English. Do you use incorrect English to match the incorrect Greek? Almost no one does that, but maybe they should…. And what about outdated language. Big problems.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 19, 2016

        Is the clumsiness of the Greek in the Revelation of John one of the reasons it took the Church Fathers so long to accept it into the canon?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 20, 2016

          Indirectly. For some of them it showed that the book was not written by the same author as the Gospel of John, and therefore it was not by John the son of Zebedee, and therefore it was not apostolic, and therefore it was not canonical.

  13. Avatar
    Triassicman  December 18, 2016

    Etymology must itself make historical documents in English difficult to interpret, let alone a foreign text. Take the word Feminism. It once was understood to mean equal opportunity and now stands for equal outcomes. Or Communism that once stood for economic justice and now stands for tyrannical injustice. I assume a historian interprets text with some context in mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      Yes, both ancient contexts for words and modern contexts for modern words.

  14. Avatar
    mathieu  December 19, 2016

    When you get this much disparity between living languages, it implies a real problem when trying to translate from dead languages.

    Do we know enough about them (the dead languages) to even be able to translate them accurately? And what does that say about a bible that has been translated through several languages?

    With all the other problems you’ve identified, how can we be sure of anything we read in a book that old?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      If there are lots of texts in an ancient language (e.g., Greek and Latin) we can figure them out with almost complete certainty in most cases. (Almost and most!)

  15. Avatar
    godspell  December 19, 2016

    There’s a song Lena Horne used to sing called “Love”, and the lyrics are basically about how we use that word to express so many diametrically opposed (and yet frequently coinciding) emotions.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UK3rdial_uw

    You know, like somebody can use the word ‘cool’ as a passive agressive insult.

    Translation–in the linguistic and the intellectual sense–will always be a dark art, that will not submit to logic. Which is good news for you–very unlikely a robot will be taking your job in the forseeable future. Ever used an online translator? I recommend it highly to anyone who needs a good laugh.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 19, 2016

      By ‘logic’ I meant a cut and dried set of universally applicable rules.

      I was not implying that academic scholars are illogical. Though in some cases…..

  16. Avatar
    JoeRoark  December 19, 2016

    Mr. Ehrman, perhaps I have missed it, but I own 29 of your books, and plan to read those I can understand (trade books first), but I have never encountered you mentioning Kenneth Wuest (or so far on your blog). This post reminded me of him and his ‘Expanded Translation’. May I ask your view of his work?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      Yes, I’m familiar with it, but no, I’ve never discussed it before. I think this kind of translation can be useful for people willing to plow through all the verbiage.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 19, 2016

    These last two posts about translation problems are very interesting. In “Misquoting Jesus” you give several examples of meaningful textual issues. In your work with the Old Testament committee, were there any Hebrew “word” translation disputes that make a “huge” difference? If so, could you give an example or two.

    In reading about confirmation bias, I came across an interesting concept today: “The backfire effect”
    It means that the more evidence you present to a person, the more entrenched he/she becomes in his/her entrenched position despite the evidence against his/her position. Having been convinced of the power of evidence making daily medical rounds where every day diagnoses are made depending on the evidence and this evidence continually grows and changes and can be argued about, I remain very interested in why evidence has such little persuasive power in religious and political discussions. The backfire effect, confirmation bias, and cognitive dissonance reduction seem to explain some of the problem.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  December 19, 2016

      Here’s how I heard it once. Imagine your reality is like a house. You would be quite happy to occasionally paint it, or change the curtains, or get new furniture. Not all the time, but on occasion. But for most people their religious beliefs are the foundation they built they house on. The cost and effort of rebuilding the foundations are just too much for most people. You would do anything else to avoid that. That crack in the wall can be fixed up, it’s held up for all these years, I’m sure it’ll be ok. If the evidence can be ignored, reinterpreted, or just not believed, it’s just easier.

    • Avatar
      Robby  December 19, 2016

      Don’t forget the “illusion of truth” or the “truth effect” where people believe something because they are exposed to it more often regardless of it’s objective truth. In other words, a preacher can tell the church there are no errors or discrepancies in the Bible and people will believe it the more they hear it.

  18. Avatar
    Lms728  December 19, 2016

    You’ve written elsewhere about Matthew’s use of “Parthenos” to translate Hebrew “Almah.” What word did the Septuagint (and other early Greek translations of the Tanakh) use in their translation of Isaiah 7:14? In other words, did Matthew choose the word or was he just adopting the word used in whatever Greek source he consulted or was familiar with?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2016

      Yes, this was almost certainly the Greek form of text available to Matthew.

  19. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 19, 2016

    Having done a fair amount of modern Russian into modern American English translation myself, I know well how easy it is to find “this is what it says, but what does it mean?” problems. A recent one that has been in the news is Russian “yarkiy.” In a literal, physical, photometric sense it exactly translates English “bright.” But it has quite different metaphorical or figurative meanings in the two languages.

  20. Avatar
    Esko  December 19, 2016

    What is the influence of Vulgata (if any) to other Bible translations? Doesn’t it include many (intentional or unintentional) interpretations of the original manuscripts that support the doctrines of the trinity, inferno, supernatural angels etc.?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 20, 2016

      Are you asking about its relationship to other translations or its *influence* on them. Long answers to both. Some other translations were made from the Vulgate rather than from the Hebrew and Greek texts. Yes, the Vulgate was used by theologians in the Catholic church from early times and throughout the middle ages; it did include, for example, the statement about the Trinity (not in the original Greek) in 1 John 5:7-8.

      • Avatar
        Esko  December 20, 2016

        To be frank, I’m thinking of Isaac Newton’s letter to John Locke in 1690 know as “Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture”.

        http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/view/texts/normalized/THEM00261

        There Newton proves to Locke that it is the Vulgata that is corrupted and not the NT manuscripts and older translations. The status quo at the time being the vice versa. Newton never published his thoughts in his own lifetime because it would have been blasphemy with severe consequence based on the law back then. Hence, I assume that also other protestants were “forced” to align their Bible translations with Vulgata for centuries regardless of the sources where their translations were made. I assume you know better when the original manuscripts become more authoritative than Vulgata’s interpretations. Late 18 century, I would guess.

        Well, now we know that there really were two notable corruptions in scripture as Newton wrote. How do we know, there still doesn’t exists some less notable corruptions in the scripture?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2016

          Ah, right — I read that many years ago and had forgotten about it. Yes, there still may be some that we haven’t detected, awaiting new discoveries!

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