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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Meet a translator ... Hall Harris (NET)

Hi Hall. When did the Bible first start becoming important to your personally?
I grew up in a Christian home, so I can remember reading the Bible as a child and teenager (it was the 1952 RSV, the first of the "modern" translations, because that was what our home church used. When I went to
college, I planned to study engineering, but switched to English literature before I graduated, because I had decided to attend seminary. My main goal was to study the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, in order to be able to understand the Bible better. I was frustrated at the time reading Christian authors who would say things about the Bible or based on passages of the Bible, yet without telling me how they arrived at their conclusions. I remember in particular one big discussion I had with one of our campus ministry leaders over the meaning of Genesis 6:3, which in the RSV says "Then the Lord said, 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.'" He was understanding the phrase "a hundred and twenty years" to refer to the average lifespan of humans, which was now to be reduced (compared to the very long lifespans of the antediluvians). I was arguing that the phrase did not refer to average lifespan at all, but to the amount of years remaining to the human race before the flood. (As a matter of interest, in the NET Bible we rendered Gen 6:3 as follows: So the Lord said, "My spirit will not remain in mankind indefinitely since they are mortal. They will remain for one hundred and twenty more years." This makes it pretty clear what is
intended!
What was your role in the production of the NET Bible?
Since its beginning in November 1995 in Philadelphia, I have been the Project Director and General Editor (now we call it Managing Editor) for the NET Bible. I did participate in some of the original draft
translations myself as a contributor (notably the Gospel and Epistles of John in the NT) and did some retranslation and major editorial work on part of the OT (notably Ezekiel), but my main role has been to oversee and manage the entire project from start to finish, including not only the translation but the extensive notes by the translators and editors which accompany the NET Bible text and attempt to explain the translators' choices and the various options available both for rendering the original languages into English and for major interpretive options. (It is important to realize that these notes are so massive there are actually about five times as many words in the notes as in the translated biblical text itself.) My work has extended from chairing the Executive Steering Committee which set out the original principles of translation and made major policy decisions for the translation as a whole, to the very detailed editing of NET Bible text and notes for the entire Bible at the chapter and verse level. Along those lines I'd like to say I have been privileged to work with what I consider one of the best teams ever assembled to translate the Bible into English--we deliberately kept the team small, so we have a total of just under 25 editors and translators for the entire Bible (with the notes). Thus I know all the editors and translators personally and have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with them all. It has been difficult at times to sustain the level of effort necessary to see this project through over 10 years, but my desire to publish the Bible on the Internet for free access to everyone everywhere at any time has kept me going.
What are one or two revisions during the translation process that you remember?
Well, the things which tend to stand out are the things you're glad you found out about, that is, unintended mistranslations that often can be understood in more than one way. One of the outstanding ones in that category is 1 Sam 23:7, "When Saul was told that David had come to Keilah, Saul said, 'God has delivered him into my hand, for he has boxed himself into a corner by entering a city with two doors and a bar.'" (One can only presume that David was enjoying his stay.) Our revision got rid of the "bar" by translating "for he has boxed himself into a corner by entering a city with two barred gates." (I should point out that this was not the only verse where a "bar" appeared in connection with a city gate, and also that other major English versions retain the literal Hebrew construction like we initially did.) Along these lines perhaps the most infamous translation accident occurred in the first 10,000 copies of the NET first beta editon (November 2001), where in a translator's note on Prov 2:16, which warns against the "sexually loose woman," a phone number appeared by accident (an 800 number)! This happened when the editor working on the text received a phone call from a major bank with a credit card offer too good to refuse. Without pencil and paper handy, the editor typed the phone number of the bank into the text he was editing, carefully spacing down about 5 lines so he could find it again. Unfortunately he forgot about it, though, and our automated formatting removed the extra lines and pulled the 800 number right back into the text of the note. I only hope some of our early readers didn't think they could call this number to speak with the woman mentioned above! One more example which we just recently fixed illustrates how Bible translation and culture are intertwined. In Isaiah 30:4 we had "Though his officials are in Zoan and his messengers arrive in Hanes." This was easy enough to fix by changing the English preposition to "at Hanes," to prevent anyone thinking the messengers wore a particular brand of underwear!
How would you like people to pray for the ministry of the NET Bible?
I would ask people to continue to pray for the NET Bible Team as we move forward with new types of notes and with ongoing revisions and
improvements to the translation. I would also ask for prayer that the Lord would use our efforts--all of us who have had a part in this project--to increase people's understanding of the Bible and make it more accessible to them.
Thanks, Hall.


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