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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17 thoughts on “Something’s Always Lost in Translation

  1. 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.

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  2. bethyada

    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.

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  4. Chance Sumner

    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

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  5. “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.

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  6. Kevin

    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.

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  9. Dr. Wallace, what’s the most-impressive rhyming of which you’re aware in the Greek NT? Below is the “Lord’s Prayer” from the Aramaic Peshitta. It seems to me the Greek rendition loses much of its rhyming.

    Ah-woon ** our Father
    d’wash-may-ya ** in heaven
    ===================================================
    nith-qad-dash shmakh ** holy be Your name
    teh’-theh’ ** come
    mal-koo-thakh ** Your kingdom
    neh-weh ** be done
    tsow-ya-nakh ** Your will
    ===================================================
    ay-kan-na ** as
    d’wash-may-ya ** in heaven
    ap b’ar-aa ** so on earth.
    ===================================================
    haw lan ** give us
    lakh-ma ** the bread
    d’son-qa-nan ** of our need
    yow-ma-na ** this day
    ===================================================
    ow-wash-woq lan ** and forgive us
    khow-beyn ** our offences
    ay-kan-na d’ap kha-nan ** as also we
    shwa-qan ** have forgiven
    l’khay-ya-wen ** those who have offended us
    ===================================================
    ow’la ** and not
    ta’-lan ** bring us
    l’nis-you-na ** into trial
    al-la pas-san ** but deliver us
    min bee-sha ** from the evil one
    ===================================================
    modt-dtil d’dee-lak ** for Yours
    hee mal-koo-tha ** is the kingdom
    ow-khay-la ** and the power
    aw’tish-bokh-tha ** and the glory
    l-al-um ail-meen. ** forever and ever.

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  10. Are you aware of any wordplays in the Greek manuscripts where a particular word shifts its meaning, resulting in the wordplay?

    This is from the Aramaic Peshitta for Mk 9:49:
    “For with fire everything netmlakh [will be vaporized],
    and with salt every sacrifice tetmlakh [will be seasoned].”

    Re: vaporized and seasoned, the root MLKh can mean ‘to salt, season’ or ‘to destroy, vaporize, scatter.’ The intended meaning shifted between the first and second lines—Meshikha plays on the dual meaning of MLKh. See Mk 9 PDF of Paul Younan at peshitta.org

    Another instance of Yeshua having fun with varying definitions of a particular word is in Matthew 19:12:
    “For there are mahaymina who were born thus from the womb of their mother.
    And there are mahaymina who became mahaymina by men.
    And there are mahaymina who made themselves mahaymina for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
    He who is able to comprehend, let him comprehend.”

    ‘Mahaymina’ can mean eunuch or believer or many similar words.
    The verse could be translated this way:
    ‘For there are eunuchs who were born thus from the womb of their mother.
    And there are eunuchs who became believers by men.
    And there are believers who made themselves eunuchs [i.e. chose celibacy] for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
    He who is able to comprehend, let him comprehend.’
    See also Acts 8:27.

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  11. In the translation from Aramaic into Greek, the terms “tefillin” and “tekhelet” were lost.

    Matthew 23:5:
    “And they [the Scribes and Pharisees] do all their deeds
    that they might be seen by the sons of men,
    for they widen their tefillin,
    and lengthen the tekhelet of their robes.”

    Tefillin are leather boxes + straps containing biblical verses that Jews bind on their arms and on their foreheads during daily prayer, except on the Sabbath (Deut. 6:8). Tekhelet is the ‘ribbon of blue’ of the ‘tzitzit’ (fringes), as commanded in Num. 15:38. ‘Tekhelet’ is also generally understood to refer to the tzitzit, or even the whole prayer shawl/talit. -PY

    In the translation from Aramaic into Greek, the term “yodh” was lost.

    Matthew 5:18
    “For amain I [Yeshua] say to you that,
    until heaven and earth pass away,
    not one yodh [the smallest letter in the Aramaic/Hebrew alphabet] or one stroke will pass from the namusa [law/ Torah],
    until everything happens.”

    In the translation from Aramaic into Greek of John 1:28, or in the later recopying of that passage, some things got jumbled in that some Greek manuscripts erroneously have ‘Beth-Abara’ instead of Beth-Aniya. Beth-Bara was an OT place meaning ‘House/Place of a Crossing/Ferry.’

    John 1:28 New English Translation (NET Bible)
    These things happened in Bethany [Bethania]
    across the Jordan River where John was baptizing.
    John 1:28 KJV
    These things were done in Bethabara
    beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.

    Here’s that verse from the original Aramaic Peshitta:
    “These things occurred in Beth-Aniya [House/ Place of Dates]
    b’Aibara [at the Crossing] of the Yordanan where Yukhanan was baptizing.”

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  12. The Greek translators of the original Aramaic of the NT made a more ‘politically-correct’ rendition of NT references to non-Jews, and replaced a particular place’s antiquated name with its more-current name:

    Norton, William. 1889. _A Translation, in English Daily Used, of the Peshito-Syriac Text, and of the Received Greek Text, of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, and 1 John, With an Introduction on the Peshito-Syriac Text, and the Revised Greek Text of 1881_ (London: W. K. Bloom), ~140pp. What’s below is from a Google books copy; the book is also at
    https://archive.org/details/translationineng00nort
    In the Introduction, pages l – li:
    In the names of places, the Peshito shows the same independence of the Greek. ….in Acts xxi. 7, the Gk. has, Ptolemais; the Syriac has, Acu.

    Mr. Jer. Jones, in his work on the Canon, 1798, contends that the use of the name Acu, for Ptolemais, is a decisive proof that the Peshito must have been made not far in time from A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed. (vol. i. p. 103.) He says that the most ancient name of this place among the Israelites was Aco, or Acco, Judges i. 31; that this name was afterwards changed to Ptolemais; that some say it had its new name from Ptolemy Philadelphus, about 250 B.C. He says it is certain that the old name Aco, was antiquated and out of use in the time of the Romans, and that the use of the old name Acu, in the Peshito, can be accounted for in no other way, but by supposing that the persons for whom the version was made were more acquainted with it, than with the new name Ptolemais; that upon any other supposition it would have been absurd for him to have used Acu. He says, that until the destruction of Jerusalem, one may suppose that the Jews may have retained the old name Aco still, out of fondness for its antiquity; but, he says,

    “how they, or any other part of Syria, could, after the Roman conquest, call it by a name different from the Romans, seems to me impossible to conceive. . . To suppose, therefore, that this translation, in which we meet with this old name, instead of the new one, was made at any great distance of time after the destruction of Jerusalem, is to suppose the translator to have substituted an antiquated name known to but few, for a name well known to all” (pp. 104, 105.)

    Mr. Jones says that a similar proof that the Peshito cannot have been made much after A.D. 70, is found in the fact that the Peshito often calls the Gentiles, as the Jews were accustomed to do, _profane persons_, where the Greek calls them _the nations_, that is, the Gentiles. The Peshito calls them profane, in Matt. vi. 7; x. 5; xviii. 17; Mark vii. 26; John vii. 35; Acts xviii. 4, 17; 1 Cor. v. 1; x. 20, 27; xii. 2; 1 Pet. iv. 3. The expression is used, therefore, throughout the Peshito. Mr. Jones says, that it shows that the writer was a Jew, for no other person would have called all the world profane; and that after the destruction of the temple, all Hebrew Christians must have seen that other nations were not to be reckoned unclean and profane in the Jewish sense, and that therefore this version must have been made either before, or soon after, A.D. 70. (On Canon, Vol. i., pp. 106-110.)

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  13. trewerw

    Where are your examples of Aramaic not having the Greek word plays? Seems like your just put some words down but didn’t back anything up.

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  14. ilo

    Another evidence of a Greek scholar trying to preserve his status quo. Once people lose their fear of challenging scholars and look into things for themselves, they will find the Truth.

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