Some brief (and non-political) thoughts this weekend about biblical translations. 

Over the years I have done a lot of translation work and have learned that a translator must try to understand the context, meaning, and nuance of the original text and then pass that on in the new other-language version. It is not always easy. For many years I was the ghost translator for a now deceased cardinal, who wrote in French and Dutch. We became good friends and he said he liked my work because I understood what was going on in his head: I understood his nuance and context. 

SAME WORDS DIFFERENT MEANINGS: If one does not understand the contextualized meaning of the original words, sometimes rather humorous mistakes can be made as well. Years ago while shopping in London, I discovered much to my surprise that the word “pants” in British English means underwear. British “trousers” are what Americans call “pants.” I had told the fellow in the London men’s clothing store that I wanted a “nice pair of pants” to visit the Archbishop of Westminster. He just started laughing. 

INTERPRETATION: Translation is also a work of interpretation which can become especially significant if one is translating Sacred Scripture. When the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (what we prefer to call today the “Hebrew Scriptures”) was translated into Greek, there was interpretation. When Jerome translated the Greek New Testament into the Latin Vulgate, he did a lot of biblical interpretation, nuanced occasionally by his own misogyny. 

JEROME: Jerome (c.342 – 420 CE) did profoundly influence the early Middle Ages. He often stressed how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life and, somewhat ironically perhaps, he had close non-sexual patron relationships with prominent female ascetics who were members of wealthy Roman families. Personally, however, he was strictly anti-sex. He advocated and praised virginity. He found women too often vain and demanding and denigrated their sexuality. Here are a couple examples: In the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, where she attempts to seduce him, the original Hebrew text narrates the story in a straightforward, non-judgmental way. The woman says to Joseph “Lie with me,”and the Hebrew text says simply “and he refused.” Not so in Jerome’s translation: “And he refused” becomes in Jerome’s translation “by no means agreeing to this wicked deed.” And then in Jerome’s translation of Genesis 3.16 we read that God has been addressing severe words to the serpent in the garden and God finishes with a warning to Eve in these words: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” While “he will rule over you” makes clear the husband’s predominance over the wife, the impact is softened somewhat by the other half of the verse, “Your desire will be for your husband.” The Hebrew word for “desire” here has a sexual nuance. In Jerome’s version, however, that half of the verse is changed to “You will be under the power of your husband” and “he will rule over you.” The complete subjection and subordination of the woman is now clearly stressed in Jerome’s interpretive translation.

SEPTUAGINT – FROM HEBREW TO GREEK INTERPRETATION: In the Hebrew language version of Isaiah 7:14, we read the prophet Isaiah, addressing King Ahaz of Judah (763 – 710 BCE) promising the king that God will destroy his enemies. As a sign Isaiah says that a specific “young woman” (almah in Hebrew) will conceive and will bear a son whose name will be Immanuel, “God is with us,” and that King Ahaz should not worry because the threat from his enemy kings will be ended. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek however, in what is called the Septuagint, the Hebrew word for “young woman”: almah was translated as the Greek word parthenos meaning “virgin.” And so we end up in Matthew 1:23 with no mention of Ahaz and the re-worked translation from Isaiah 7:14:  “Behold a virgin will conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel.” And ever since the text has been understood as a prophecy about Jesus’ “virgin birth.”

NEW TESTAMENT BROTHERS AND SISTERS: Many New Testament books and letters are written to or about people called adelphoi in Greek. The word is often translated in English as “brothers.” Many translators have argued that, since the Greek says “brothers,” texts using that word should always be translated “brothers” in English. In fact, however, the Greek does not say “brothers.” The plural Greek word adelphoi refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in the Christian community. 

CONTEMPORARY INCLUSIVE PRACTICE: Contemporary biblical translations AND all who read or proclaim the Scriptures in public should always use inclusive language: “humankind” in place of “mankind,” “brothers and sisters” in place of “brothers,” “men and women” or “all people,” when the meaning is clearly about men and women. The practice should be followed by writers of church documents. I once told a bishop friend, when we were both attending a conference, that it would be better if he used inclusive language in his pastoral letters. He thought that was a bunch of  “feminist foolishness.” When I got back to my hotel room and my laptop later in the day, I took the first two pages of his most recent pastoral letter and changed all of his masculine nouns, pronouns, and adjectives to female nouns, pronouns, and adjectives and sent it to him as a friendly “inclusive language meditation text,” starting with his opening greeting “My Dear Sisters in the Lord…” He was not amused.

MOVING AWAY FROM PATRIARCHAL INTERPRETATIONS: Just because the Bible has sometimes been used to reinforce patriarchy does not necessarily mean that that was the original intention of the biblical authors. For many years, the only voices that were heard when interpreting and describing the experiences of biblical personalities were the voices of men. Even passages about women were often interpreted from the male perspective. When one looks at life through male-tinted glasses, one writes about and interprets life in that light. Moreover, women’s experiences can be depicted in such a way as to justify their subordination, as we occasionally see in Jerome. Fortunately today we have a great number of biblical scholars who are women and who are correcting earlier patriarchal and misogynist translations of Scripture.

A FINAL OBSERVATION: Many biblical translations have interpreted words in ways that reinforce an institutional understanding of Christianity. Some items that immediately come to mind: the words ekklesia in Greek and ecclesia in Latin should not be translated as “church” but as a “gathering,” “assembly,” or “community of believers.” The words “episcopos” and “episcopus” should not be translated as “bishop” but as “overseer.” The development of the monarchical bishop in the second century had a big impact on reinforcing what one can call institutional translation interpretations.The historical Jesus did not found an institutional church. He called together a group of followers. After his death and resurrection those followers became an energetic faith community. The institutional church came later and expanded along Roman imperial structural lines.


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6 thoughts on “LOST IN TRANSLATION

  1. Thank you for yet another excellent and important teaching! This is vital to all who read scripture so that we consider the correct interpretation in our discernment.

  2. Dear Jack,
    This commentary touches one of my personal issues with translation. Sometimes, it seems to me, the literal versus interpretive texts make a huge impact on the pew Catholics who get one dose of scripture per week. As an former English teacher, using a simple example, I find it amusing that the creed now uses the word “consubstantial” as a clarifying word when it does nothing to enhance meaning. Under Benedict, it seems that the scholars who loved the old language changed our readings because of their so-called accuracy rather than translating so we commoners understand the texts. I am also amazed at some of the choices of texts for mass which often confuse rather than enlighten. Translations are critical in light of the Bible being used by some as support for sometimes questionable behaviors. Your illustrations of sexist language are perfect to show how “words matter.” (I still laugh at one of my seminary profs using Biblical quotes to prove any point: “And Judas went off and hanged himself with a halter”………….”Go thou and do likewise!”)
    We need you, Jack, to put our translations into meaningful messages for our time!

  3. Excellent! Well done. Biblical translations should be inclusive, since that is what the Bible intends, beginning with Genesis. We humans are created “in the image and likeness of God, male and female.”

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