About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lost in Translation

I spent the weekend reading about the history of the Bible and its translations. The specific books I used were Thuesen, In Discordance With the Scriptures and Berlinerblau, The Secular Bible. I, of course, had a copy of the Jerusalem Bible at hand so that I can immediately read the cited texts.

I learned, for example, that today's biblical scholars believe that scripture as we know it had multiple authors,. A famous case is genesis, where people have identified at least four or more schools who were responsible for Genesis as we know it. The evidence given is based on an analysis of the text (textual criticism) as well as the sobering realization that as time went by, there have been additions and subtractions during the development of the manuscripts used as the basis of translators.

That idea will probably irk a traditionalist who believes that Moses actually sat down to write the Torah. But the evidence is there: we have at least two conflicting creation stories: Genesis 1-2:4 provides one account, while Genesis 2:5-25 provides another account. In the first account, all animals were created before humans, while in the second account, the animals were created after humans. It doesn't make sense to claim that there is a single author here because a single author would notice the discrepancy between the two accounts, or would at least append a disclaimer.

I got interested in the translation battles, and read Thuesen's book to get a better knowledge of why the translations caused such dissension in the protestant churches. The big reason of course, is the belief in Sola Scriptura (in scripture alone). A heckler, such as myself, would then follow-up with "What scripture?". As I've noticed before, translation is not value-free. There are many instances where the Hebrew (or Greek) is unclear, and the translator usually makes a choice on how to render it. I have a copy of the King James Bible at home, and I noticed that it contains no acknowledgement of alternative readings (the only thing in it was a concordance), while later translations provide footnotes, at least, to know where the translator is uncertain.

Another problem of the translator is what manuscript or manuscripts to base the translation on. In the western church (non-orthodox) Catholic or protestant, the basis used is the Masoretic text, a medieval copy (between 7th and 10th century C.E.). The Dead Sea scrolls are a recent find, and are used for comparison in today's translations. Another basis that might be used (and is used by the Orthodox) is the Septuagint, a Greek translation that goes back to around 200 B.C.E.. Incidentally, the oldest complete copies of the old testament in any language is the Septuagint. The difficulty for the protestant is that they would like to use a Jewish canon for the old testament while the Apostles most likely read the Septuagint.

For example, take Matthew 1:23, where a quotation is made from Isaiah 7:14. If you look at translations of Isaiah based on the Masoretic text, you will find "... A young woman (or maiden) (almah) is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel". The Septuagint, on the other hand replaced "young woman" with "A Virgin", and it is this version that is quoted in Matthew. This kind of issue, incidentally, is what led to a bit of Bible burning in the U. S.; some fundamentalists could not take a faithful translation based on the Masoretic text.

I could go on and on with various examples, but would probably write about them at some other time.

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