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Why Literal Translations Aren’t Always the Best

In this edition of “Exegetically Speaking” . . .

Dr. Douglas Moo, Kenneth T. Wessner Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, challenges the assumption that literal, word-for-word translations are always the best. Drawing upon his experience on the NIV translation committee, he illustrates his concern in Luke 22:31-32, showing the value of translating for sense rather than word-for-word.wheaton-magazine_august-2017-103036-200x225

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The podcast lasts approximately 7 minutes.

A Tale of Two Translations

Dr. Seth Ehorn, Visiting Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, discusses differences between translations of Philippians 2:4. Are we to set aside our own interests as we look to the interests of others? Or, should we consider our own interests as well as the interests of others?Seth Ehorn

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Aren’t Translations All We Need?

Dr. Jon Laansma, Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis, considers the question, Aren’t translations and computers all we need to interpret the Bible?ZZZ Jon Laansma

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Do We Need a New Lord’s Prayer?

Pope Francis is no stranger to controversy.  This week he suggested that Catholics need to re-translate part of the text of the Lord’s Prayer.  Now, before you say, so what?, consider that Christians the world over pray the Lord’s prayer weekly in worship and some daily in their personal devotions. It is part of the spiritual heritage of the ages.

Now, I realize, I’m limited in this post to the English language and more Catholics around the world don’t speak English than do.  But still, it seems, from my limited knowledge of languages, that the idea the Pope is concerned about is reproduced in other western language versions of the Lord’s Prayer. Pope Francis

In particular, the line in question is the one which says “lead us not into temptation” (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:6).  The phrase makes it seem, he says, as if God actively leads his people to be tempted to sin.  Instead, he says, we should translate the line “do not let us fall into sin.”

Now let’s see how three major English translations render that line.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . .  (King James Version)

And do not bring us to the time of trial
but rescue us from the evil one.  (New Revised Standard Version)

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. (New International Version)

Four observations.  First, most western Christians have memorized the King James Version (KJV).  Second, the power of the KJV to shape modern translations should not be underestimated.  Even translations like THE VOICE use the same language.  Third, the NRSV comes closest to the Pope’s suggestion. Four, modern translations view the prayer as poetic and so render it in poetic verse.

The challenge of translation from one language to the next is a significant one.  I’ve written about this problem on this site. But with the NT it is even more challenging because we are even further removed from the original source than we might imagine.  Jesus spoke Aramaic.  The Gospels are written in Greek.  And most of us rely heavily on English translations.

Now, I think the Pope is onto something to which Christians—Protestant, Catholics and Orthodox—need to pay attention.  God does not tempt people to sin. They are tempted by their own desires, or so says James (1:13-15).

The crux of the matter is the meaning of the word peirasmos. It is a word that does not occur outside the New Testament, so we can’t appeal to other Greek texts from the period—what scholars call comparative philology.  Based on the NT itself, it seems the semantic field or range of meanings of this Greek word includes temptation (to sin) and trial or testing (of faith).  If we take the rest of the NT seriously, as it seems the translators of the NRSV, it is best to take this as something like “(to God) do not bring us to a time of testing.”  The opposite is this: “(God) rescue us from the evil one.”

It seems to me that the prayer of Jesus is similar to Jewish prayers from the same period.  They ask roughly the same thing.  “God, do not hand your people over to trials and tests, instead rescue them from evil.”  In the arc of the Scriptural story think of someone like Job, Abraham (and his near sacrifice of Isaac), and the people of Israel in exile.

Whether Pope Francis’ teaching on this makes it down to your average congregation, we will see. If I were a “bettin’ man,” I’d say it will.  In the end, no we don’t need a new Lord’s prayer, what we do need is good translations of the one we have.

 

Avoiding Transliteration in Translating the Bible

There are many words found in most Bible translations that aren’t translations at all.  They are transliterations.  Let’s consider some key words in the New Testament. Words like “Christ,” “baptism,” “angel,” and “apostle”  are not translations  from Greek to English but transliterations, that is, replicating  the sounds made by the words.William Tyndale

When scholars began to translate the Old and New Testaments into the English language, they faced enormous challenges. Not only were powerful people opposed to rendering the sublime texts of Scriptures in a common language such as English, but the English language itself did not have all the words needed to reproduce meaningfully what the original languages were saying. The solution was to invent words which did not exist in English. One example is the word passover .

In the fourteenth century when Wycliffe translated the New Testament into English, the word “Passover” did not exist in the English language. So when he came to those New Testament passages that referred to the Jewish Passover, Wycliffe transliterated the Latin word pascha—which is itself a transliteration of the Greek word pascha—into English as “pask” or “paske.” As you see, transliteration involves representing the characters of one alphabet in another alphabet; it has nothing to do with translating the meaning of the word, only the sound of it. How readers and hearers may have reacted to this new word we do not know. Did they understand what it meant, or was some further explanation needed?

In 1535 when Tyndale translated the Old Testament into English, he decided to invent a new word in English to communicate the meaning behind the Hebrew root pesach:

When your children ask you, “What does this ritual mean to you?” you will answer them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites when we were slaves in Egypt. And although He struck the Egyptians, He spared our lives and our houses” (Exodus 12:26–27).

The Hebrew root of the name of the Jewish festival alludes to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites on his way to judging the cruelty of the Egyptian slave owners. Tyndale combined the two English words—“pass” with “over”—to create a single, new word which carefully and accurately reproduced the meaning of the Hebrew word. Transliteration, at its best, can only reproduce the sounds made in another language not their meaning. What Tyndale did by creating the word passover.  The Voice translation has done for other key words which, until now, have not been accessible to a modern audience.


 
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