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Something’s Always Lost in Translation

There’s an old Italian proverb that warns translators about jumping in to the task: “Traduttori? Traditori!” Translation: “Translators? Traitors!” The English proverb, “Something’s always lost in the translation,” is clearly illustrated in this instance. In Italian the two words are virtually identical, both in spelling and pronunciation. They thus involve a play on words. But when translated into other languages, the word-play vanishes. The meaning, on one level, is the same, but on another level it is quite different. Precisely because it is no longer a word-play, the translation doesn’t linger in the mind as much as it does in Italian. Its impact is significantly lessened in other languages.

It’s like saying in French, “don’t eat the fish; it’s poison.” The word ‘fish’ in French is poisson, while the word ‘poison’ in French is, well, poison. There’s always something lost in translation.

This is one reason why pastors need to know Greek and Hebrew. They need to not only tell their congregations what the text means; they also need to explain the details, the hidden nuggets that are lost in translation.

What about when there’s a word-play in English that is not in the original? A classic example is the King James Version’s 1 Peter 5.6–7: “(6) Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: (7) Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” The ‘care’/’careth’ in v. 7 is a word-play in English that is not found in Greek. The Greek of v. 7 reads (with the Greek words for ‘care’ and ‘careth’ underlined): πᾶσαν τὴν μέριμναν ὑμῶν ἐπιρίψαντες ἐπ᾿ αὐτόν, ὅτι αὐτῷ μέλει περὶ ὑμῶν. Not even close. I think this is fine to do with English as a mnemonic device as long as it doesn’t change the meaning of the original. In this case, the KJV got it right.

Another illustration is Rom 12.2. In the KJV we read “And be not conformed to this world: be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” The words ‘conformed’ and ‘transformed’ constitute a word-play in English, but the verbs in Greek are not related to each other (συσχηματίζεσθε, μεταμορφοῦσθε).

But this raises an interesting issue. Several scholars over the years have suggested that Jesus taught in Aramaic, but his words are preserved for us in Greek. In fact, most scholars have argued this. (A growing number of scholars, however, argue that Jesus probably taught in Greek as much as, or even more than, he taught in Aramaic.) One of the ways they go about proving it is to find word-plays in Aramaic that don’t show up in Greek. Some of these no doubt are genuine insights, but a good number of them may reflect more the ingenuity of the scholar than the authenticity of the Aramaic saying.

Further, a few scholars are bold enough to say that the evangelists often got Jesus’ words wrong, and they try to demonstrate this by showing underlying word-plays that are misunderstood when translated into Greek. Evangelicals tend not to buy such arguments because they believe that the human authors wrote inspired scripture. Jesus’ authority is seen in their translations, not in the supposed underlying Aramaic original. What also tends to be ignored by the Aramaic-primacy scholars are the word-plays in the Greek of the Gospels, especially when such are not seen in the Aramaic back-translation. Of course, such Greek word-plays may reflect the translation skills of the evangelists (or Gospel-writers), just like we saw with the KJV translators. Though it is true that something’s always lost in translation, I stand with other evangelicals in affirming that the evangelists got it right, that what the Spirit of God wanted us to ‘get’ was their recording of Jesus’ teaching.

In my next post I will discuss, among other things, whether red-letter editions of the Bible accurately represent the very words of Jesus. Stay tuned.

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10 comments on “Something’s Always Lost in Translation

  1. Interesting thoughts. I believe that Jesus would have been able to teach in any language that he chose. He would have chosen the most appropriate for his audience.

  2. Word plays are hard to translate and footnotes may be the only adequate solution. Though I think word plays in the destination language should be re-worded if they do not exist in the source.

    Relating to translation (but tangential to the above—and not wanting to derail the thread), I would be interested in your thoughts about a modified literal approach to translation. While I favour this over a more dynamic approach, some dynamic translators list exceptions to show the problems with the more (so-called) literal approaches. But exceptions can be shown for any basic translation scheme.

    A solution is to only translate what can be translated and to translate at the smallest level of meaning.

    The latter would mean a word might correspond to a word, or a couple of words. A concept may translate to several words. An idiom will translate to a clause (or another idiom).

    The former would mean that word order would not be preserved as in English it predominantly carries meaning which may be less in other languages.

    I think it addresses some of the complaints that more “dynamic-leaning” translators make against more “literal-leaning” translators.

  3. Problems commenting, apologies if repeat comment.

    Word plays are hard to translate and footnotes may be the only adequate solution. Though I think word plays in the destination language should be re-worded if they do not exist in the source.

    Relating to translation (but tangential to the above—and not wanting to derail the thread), I would be interested in your thoughts about a modified literal approach to translation. While I favour this over a more dynamic approach, some dynamic translators list exceptions to show the problems with the more (so-called) literal approaches. But exceptions can be shown for any basic translation scheme.

    A solution is to only translate what can be translated and to translate at the smallest level of meaning.

    The latter would mean a word might correspond to a word, or a couple of words. A concept may translate to several words. An idiom will translate to a clause (or another idiom).

    The former would mean that word order would not be preserved as in English it predominantly carries meaning which may be less in other languages.

    I think it addresses some of the complaints that more “dynamic-leaning” translators make against more “literal-leaning” translators.

  4. [...] There’s an old Italian proverb that warns translators about jumping in to the task: “Traduttori? Traditori!” Translation: “Translators? Traitors!” The English proverb, “Something’s always lost in t…  [...]

  5. Dr. Wallace,

    What similarities do you see between the loss that we experience in translations and the loss that we experience in textual criticism? John Frame in his book “Doctrine of the Word of God” writes that the loss we experience in both is similar. He says, “But note that in each of those operations [copying, textual criticism, translation, teaching] we may ask why God did not institute perfection. After all, he might have provided not only perfect copies, but also perfect textual criticism, perfect translations, perfect teaching, an so on.” Do you agree with Frame’s assessment?

    -Chance

  6. “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (Jn.16:12-13 TNIV)
    The above verses refer to only the disciples and their subsequent production of the Greek (presumably) record as what we have as the New Testament. This to my mind negates the ideas that the underlying Aramaic is to be sought.

    One crucial section of Scripture that some Roman Catholic scholars will cite an Aramaic word play is the Matthew 16 dialog of The Lord and Peter where Jesus explains upon what He will build His church. The antecedent of “Petra” is The Father’s revelation (my view) whereas the Roman Catholic writers have Christ building on the Apostle Peter due to the word play and thus “an official institutional church” instead of the work of God which is much more consistent with the rest of Scripture in my thinking.

  7. Hi Dr. Wallace. Would it be possible to create a post or comment to list a good order to read the NT Greek in from easiest to hardest, and why? I know it would benefit me, along with I’m sure many others.

  8. […] via Something’s Always Lost in Translation | Daniel B. Wallace. […]

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