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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sins of omission

Back on April 10 in my post on ὁρθοτομέω I mentioned the Russian linguist Igor Mel'chuk. In addition to being very, very smart about language and linguistic matters, he has a lot of wise things to say about life in general. One of them came up in a discussion about having too much at stake. If something is too important, it can make it all but impossible to be able to perform well. His example was this: if you fill a glass of water just below the brim and tell someone to walk it across the room without spilling any, many people could do that. It's not easy, but it can be done. But if you offer someone $5,000,000 to do it, almost no one can. (He said $1,000,000 but that was over 25 years ago when that amount of money would make you independently wealthy, so I'm adjusting for inflation.) It's the same principle that lies behind the laws that prevent doctors from operating on their own family members. If it's too important to you, then you'll mess it up.

Bible translation is like that. Translators can be in awe of the fact that they are dealing with God's Word. They feel that if they are standing between God's Word and the Christian public, they've got to be sure they get it right. So they go looking for something safe. The traditional logic runs: Don't interpret the Word, just tell people what's actually there.

But there is a problem. Because no two languages are alike, telling people what's actually there can be every bit as misleading as putting something in that doesn't appear in the original. What looks the same can be mean something quite different.

The translation of ουδαοι is an example. Here is Packer's quote from Suzanne's interview.
You know very well in Johns gospel it is just 'Judeans' or 'Jews'. 'Jewish leaders' is probably the right interpretation though it isn’t a grammatical. It can’t be said that 'Ioudaioi' means Jewish leaders - it doesn’t, it just means people who lived in Judea. John could have said 'chief Judeans' but he didn’t, he said 'Judeans'. There are various ways he could have said that. He only said 'oi Joudaioi'. The only safe way is to translate it 'the Jews' and explain that translation isn’t a matter of working in your own preferred interpretation of things. [emphasis mine]
How does he know Ἰουδαῖοι means 'Jews'?

Well, in Greek class they teach that it does.

OK. But, how do they know?

Well, because that's what the dictionaries say, BAGD, LSJ, etc.

OK. But, how do they know?

Because they had earlier dictionaries and wordlists (many of which can be traced ultimately back through -- horror of horrors -- Islamic scholarly sources in Spain). And because they compared those lexicographic sources with the texts and with older translations of the texts into other languages. (See the introduction to LSJ.) There's an important point here.

It is the body of original texts that is the ultimate authority, not the dictionaries, wordlists, translations, and the language lessons based on them.

When we treat the dictionaries as ultimately authoritative, we make a serious mistake. The general problem with dictionaries is that making a dictionary is essentially a task of decontextualizing words. Pull the words out of a text and list them in a standardized form. Mark them up to indicate their various word forms and something about their use in sentences, and give them a definition (BTW, definitions in the very best dictionaries run from barely adequate to completely terrible.) The loss of information in this process is mind-boggling. (I know. I've written a dictionary.)

Throw in that we know more about Greek grammar and much, much more about how language works than the best of the 19th century scholars whose modestly revised works we lean so heavily upon, and you can see that there is no excuse in the world for not going back to the texts for everything.

The reason is simple. In actual communication context is everything. The essence of language is that it gives you just enough information to pick out of the context what it is that the speaker intends to communicate. Why do we call red hair red? If meanings were absolute we would call it orange. It's red because it has a reddish cast compared to blonde hair. We say red because that's enough information to enable you to pick out the right class of hair colors. If you order a sandwich in a deli you're likely to say
A ham and cheese on rye, please. Hold the mayo.
I'd like to order a ham and cheese sandwich on rye bread, but don't put any mayonnaise on it.
(And, I should note, that meaning of hold isn't in any of the big dictionaries, Webster's 3rd, Random House Unabridged, etc.)

OK, so I have the texts, now what?

Look at the word in question in the places it is used -- all the places it is used -- and ask how is it used? What is its syntax and what could it mean? What is the speaker trying to accomplish communicatively? (In effect, this is how children learn what words mean, but that's another whole story.)

So for Ἰουδαῖοι. What is the basic word? Ἰουδαίος. It's an adjective form referring to Ἰουδ. Like many a Greek modifier, it can, in the appropriate syntactic context, be used as a noun. (There's a long and interesting story here that I will pass over for now.)

By the standard sources, the word
Ἰουδαίος is used in the NT 240 times. In those uses, four distinct senses can be seen.
  1. Jewish/Judaean as an adjective -
    • Τιμόθεος υἱὸς γυναικὸς Ἰουδαίας (Acts 16:1)
    • μετὰ ταῦτα ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν Ἰουδαίαν γῆν (John 3:22)
  2. a person of the Jewish race -
    • διὰ τὸ διατεταχέναι Κλαύδιον χωρίζεσθαι πάντας τοὺς Ἰουδαίους ἀπὸ τῆς Ῥώμης (Acts 18:2)
  3. a leader of the Jewish faith -
    • οἱ οὖν Ἰουδαῖοι ἐζήτουν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ καὶ ἔλεγον ποῦ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνος (Jn. 7:11)
    • οὐδεὶς μέντοι παρρησίᾳ ἐλάλει περὶ αὐτοῦ διὰ τὸν φόβον τῶν Ἰουδαίων (Jn. 7:13)
  4. to refer to the Roman province of Judea -
    • ἡγεμονεύοντος Ποντίου Πιλάτου τῆς Ἰουδαίας (Lk 3:1)
Now wait a minute, some of you will say. Isn't the fourth sense a separate word? That's what the dictionary says.

Not so fast. Look at the form of the word. It's the feminine form of the the adjective
Ἰουδαίος. To say that ἡ Ἰουδαία means the province of Judea is an interpretation, in just the sense that the literalists are trying to avoid. It's short for ἡ Ἰουδαία γῆ, which actually occurs in Jn 3:22 (cited above). LSJ are explicit about that interpretation (pg. 832). To make it make sense in English, you have to have a phrasing which makes explicit the part about the land -- the very thing that is specifically omitted in the Greek 44 of the 46 times this word is used to refer to the Roman province.

So when we turn to the question of whether οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι can mean 'the leaders of the Jewish faith', all we need do is look at the text. Jesus and his disciplines are Ἰουδαῖοι, but John's Gospel is full of confrontations between Jesus and οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι. In the passage cited in 3. above, it makes no sense to say that it is Judeans that are seeking Jesus, or Judeans that are frightening Judeans. While these things are logically true in the way philosophers calculate truth, the only thing that makes sense to non-philosophers is that some specific group of Judeans are seeking to find Jesus, and some specific group of Judeans are frightening other Judeans into silence. What is the only thing that makes sense as a referent for οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι in this context? The Jewish leaders. There is no theology here, just making basic sense of the text. This is like the deli order example. You say ham and cheeese and they understand ham and cheese sandwich; you say rye and they understand rye bread. The writers of the Gospels were saying what was conventional to say in that same minimalist way. You, as a Palestinian Jew in the 1st century, refer to the leaders of the Jewish faith in Greek by the expression οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, just as you refer to the country you live in as ἡ Ἰουδαία. In supplying the information conventionally missing in Greek we are performing no more or less interpretation with the former nominal use of the adjective Ἰουδαίος than with the later.

To make the logical inconsistency of the position that Packer is articulating clear, consider the key fact. It's a complete accident of history where Greek and English happen to work somewhat alike. If you translate ἡ Ἰουδαία as 'the Jewish thing', then it makes no sense in English. ('when Pontius Pilate was governor of the Jewish thing') so adding the information contextually implicit in the Greek doesn't count as interpretation. But if you translate οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι as 'the Jews' (= 'the Jewish ones'), then the passages all appear to make sense in English, so adding the information contextually implicit in the Greek that this term sometimes refers to a salient subgroup of Jews, namely the Jewish authorities, is committing the sin of interpreting God's Word?!?


Failing to grapple with the meaning in context is just as much an interpretation as adding information that is not fully explicit in Greek. And this has nothing to do with political correctness or hypersensitivity regarding the Holocaust. Or theology for that matter. This is a straight up question about author's intended reference.

The mid-twentieth century Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset had a lot to say about translation. While I deeply disagree with his conclusions about what a translation should be like, he has some of the deepest insights into the nature and problems of translation of anyone I've ever read on the subject. And on the point in question he hit the nail on the head.
The fact is that the stupendous reality, which is language, will not be understood at its root if one doesn't begin by noticing that speech is composed above all of silences. ... And each language is a different equation of statements and silences. (Ortega y Gassett: "The misery and splendor of translation" reprinted in Schulte and Biguenet Theories of Translation, University of Chicago, 1992, pg. 104)
If you fail to examine every form, even those that seem to be straightforward, you are interpreting by default. As I have said before, there is no place to hide. You have to know where the silences are in both Greek and English. And where Greek is silent and English is not, you must supply the implicit information or you've gotten it wrong. By blindly accepting what happens to sound like English, you are committing a worse sin than consciously "interpreting". You are interpreting by not acting. It is a sin of omission.

You've buried the talent in the ground.

You've spilled the water on the first step.


At Tue Apr 25, 07:00:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I wanted to say something to defend what Dr. Packer said.

"John could have said 'chief Judeans' but he didn’t, he said 'Judeans'."

You act as though what Packer said is impossible.

But is it possible that he actually has scriptural backing and was referring to passages like, Matthew 2:6, Luke 7:3, Acts 25:3, 15, 28:17?

And what about passages like John 12:11? Are only the Jewish "leaders" believing, or are Jewish "people" believing (the NET Bible which for the most part has translated "Jewish leaders" as you desire, chooses to translate it as, "Jewish people" here)? I believe this is one of the reasons why Dr. Packer thinks it good to leave it be. The ESV (which it seems Dr. Packer is behind) translates it "the Jews" in most of the cases I have seen.

I am shooting in the dark - I don't know Greek :)

But I think it might just be more complex than you have made it out to be.


At Tue Apr 25, 09:47:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

There isn't just one translation for a given phrase. That's why I pointed out that there are four readings. You need to determine which is right verse by verse by looking into what makes the most sense in each particular context.

You have to argue for both the simple translation "Jews" as well as for the more elaborate translation "Jewish authorities", again verse by verse. Simple this is not.

I'm taking Dr. Packer to task for assuming that you can translate without interpreting by showing that the traditional position on interpretation is logically incoherent.

At Wed Apr 26, 03:54:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

This has been a very helpful post.

I am frequently asked questions about why different translations use the words they do.

Your posts are very helpful to me.

At Wed Apr 26, 06:16:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Great post, Rich. You've addressed the issue well.

At Wed Apr 26, 08:36:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

You said, "There isn't just one translation for a given phrase."

Anyone with any translation experience knows this.

But that wasn't what I was addressing (though it might have been what you were).

What I was saying was that Dr. Packer said the writers in the NT had the ability to be specific but in some cases they chose words that were not.

Is that true, or not?

The verses I gave were to that point.

When an author chooses to be explicit, should we translate what they said implicitly?

If we have a general word or phrase, should we use that word or phrase when the author used a general word or phrase? Or should we "help" the generality of the word along and translate it as a word or phrase that is specific?


At Wed Apr 26, 08:45:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan asked:

What I was saying was that Dr. Packer said the writers in the NT had the ability to be specific but in some cases they chose words that were not.

Is that true, or not?

It's true, but that is only part of the truth. The other part is that less specific wordings sometimes have refer more specifically. Many biblical scholars, including conservative ones, disagree with Dr. Packer on the particular issue that Rich discussed. In the Gospel of John many of the instances of hoi Ioudaioi refer to a subset of the Jewish people, not to the Jews as a whole. If we do not make the original intended meaning clear and accurate, then we have produced an inaccurate translation. Rich's point stands that an accurate translation is not one which matches words from one language with words in another. Each word and phrase must be considered in its original context to determine what is author meant by it in that context. Then that meaning must be accurately and clearly translated.

It is not a matter of translating more generically or specifically, per se, but of translating accurately. To translate accurately we need to study very carefully, always asking, "What does this linguistic form mean in this particular context?"

At Wed Apr 26, 10:30:00 AM, Blogger Steve Puckett said...

Context determines word meanings and not the other way around–that's my two cents worth.


At Wed Apr 26, 11:00:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Wow. I think you've nailed the argument on HOI IOUDAIOI. Your dismantling of the argument from lexicons is very effective. But I'm not sure where the business about "If something is too important, it can make it all but impossible to be able to perform well" fits in. Nevertheless, thanks for this post.

At Wed Apr 26, 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...


The part about translating God's Word being so important that people get things wrong comes from my discussions with folks who have expressed the literalist position to me. There is a fear of, in effect, sinning by getting the meanings wrong, so they look for procedures to guarantee they aren't responsible for misleading anyone.

The fact that Packer used the word safe reflects that attitude to me.

Does that make sense to you?

At Wed Apr 26, 05:04:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Hello Again,

I understand what you are saying I think, "If we do not make the original intended meaning clear and accurate, then we have produced an inaccurate translation."

This is a difficult subject to say the least :)

Let's say I get a text in one language, and translate it into another. As I read it I say, "Wow, this guy was really vague."

But I look for his intended meaning and translate something, that to me is not so vague because I feel I translated what he meant by his vague statements.

The next day, I learn that the text was written by a polititian (no joke!).

What then?

Did I do a good job? Or was the author "vague" on purpose?


At Wed Apr 26, 05:46:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Gotcha, Richard. As usual I suffer from the ailment of not reading carefully and then inflicting you with dumb questions!

At Wed Apr 26, 08:58:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

But I look for his intended meaning and translate something, that to me is not so vague because I feel I translated what he meant by his vague statements.

The next day, I learn that the text was written by a polititian (no joke!).

What then?

Did I do a good job? Or was the author "vague" on purpose?

You've hit on a very important point, Nathan. If (and that's a big if) the original author/speaker was deliberately vague, I believe that the translation should not be any clearer than the original. This argument, of course, is brought up fairly often about the Bible, but there are few passages in the Bible where the author was being deliberately vague. Yes, there is enigmatic symbolism in the book of Revelation. And Jesus' parables were often not clear to his audiences. But that's not exactly the same kind of deliberation obscurity that politicians are so good at.

In any case, the translation principle remains the same: a translation should be no more nor no less clear than was the original text that is being translated. One of the key things to remember, however, is that what might not be clear to us may have been intended to be very clear by a biblical author. We should not translate according to all possible ambiguities and obscurities that we can imagine in a biblical text. We should, instead, try, so far as is possible, to get inside the mind of the biblical author and translate what he intended by what he said.

I hope this helps. In case it isn't clear, I'm agreeing with you on the matter of deliberate obscurity. But I'm also raising the note of caution that we not apply our 21st century standards of clarity or scholarship to the biblical text. There is far more obscurity in most English Bible versions than there was in the original biblical texts as their message was penned by their authors. We need to go by authorial intention (even though that concept is badmouthed in some circles these days), not by our own analytical or subjective standards.

At Thu Apr 27, 07:23:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

sungkhum wrote: Let's say I get a text in one language, and translate it into another. As I read it I say, "Wow, this guy was really vague."

But I look for his intended meaning and translate something, that to me is not so vague because I feel I translated what he meant by his vague statements.

The next day, I learn that the text was written by a polititian (no joke!).

I believe Wayne gave an excellent asnwer. I would like to add to it.

Eugene Nida once asked the UN translators what is the most difficult thing they do. The answer was unanimous: (I'll use my own words here) the ambiguous statements diplomats make in order to "not lie" and yet not be open with the truth either.

I don't think the Bible gets an 'A' for ... ummmmm ... diplomacy (not that I think you do either).

Take a careful look at 2 Cor. 4:1-3. I believe the "renouncing secret and shameful ways" is better translated as "renouncing hidden agendas", but even setting that aside for a moment, Paul's intent of clear communication is...ummmmm...quite clear. He makes the point leading up to chapter 4 that the veil has been taken away. There's an openness with the new covenant that wasn't there before.

So, what about 2 Pet. 3:16?

To really answer that would take too much space here and now. However, I've seriously wondered whether δυσνόητος (DUSNOHTOS) has less to do with the reader being able to know something so to be able to answer it correctly on a test, and a lot more to do with the fact that one's mind has to change (think repentance) so that it is ready soil to receive a true explanation. That is, the mind has to be re-oriented first, then the clear language is obvious. But note carefully that I'm saying discernment is gained only after one practices the truth. There's an unavoidable connection between what one knows and what one does. However, ambiguous language, even with a mental, interpretive framework that is highly oriented by the truth, subverts the understanding of what is written. So, for me, the question boils down to: Would a gracious God have used ambiguous language when he knows our frame?

Note (2 Pet. 3:16) that those who haven't obtained a formal education in the areas of interest (ἀμαθής, AMAQHS) and those who jump from one view to another (ἀστήρικτος, ASTHRIKTOS) are the ones that distort what Paul says. These people are not characterized by having difficulty with the common language. They're characterized differently. It's not a language issue; in this Petrine passage, it's a character flaw issue. Compare Apollos (Acts. 18:18-19:7).

I'm not being very clear here (because of space and time), but my point is that there is a distinction between:
1. content that is difficult to grasp because of what a person holds to mentally and experientially and
2.the difficulty one has in understanding the language as it is used in a text.
This would make a good topic for BBB.

Perhaps a better translation of 2 Pet. 3:16 would be along the lines of: ...It is difficult to grasp these things without the proper mindset.

The bottom line is the Bible is not ambiguous. It is we who are not coherent with the truth. God uses clear and natural language in order to span the great gap between the truth and what we wrongly hold to. If he didn't do that, then there would be no communicative bridge (or ladder as the case is--Gen 28:12,16-17). Without his grace, we're stuck with ourselves.

At Sat Apr 29, 10:55:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I agree with you Mike.

I chose an extreme example for the sake of argument, not because I feel the Bible is vague.

But, it was not without reason - being that we were talking about Ἰουδαῖοι (and its forms) and that for the English language it is many times directly translated as a word that is not very specific - and Richard was arguing that translating it in a vague way was incorrect translation.

Why is the word not specific in Greek - and since the reader in Greek would have to "assume" it was the Jewish Leaders in a certain context - why should English readers not have to "assume"? Since the reader is not told in Greek 100% that it was the Jewish Leaders in a certain text - why should an English reader be told that it is 100% for sure in such and such a verse that it does refer to the Jewish Leaders?

Was there room for error in interpretation when an ancient Greek read the Greek text? I believe one would have to answer - yes, it was possible for them to incorrectly think it was "all" the Jews who wished Jesus dead - but then I believe their interpretation would have been corrected just by farther reading of John's Gospel.

So why should we remove that possibility in the English text if it was present in Greek?

I believe the English language allows for this "broad" word to be used (the Jews) - just like you said, "ham and cheese" - it could literally mean ham and cheese, or it might be referring to a type of sandwich - it is up to the listener to decide or up to the speaker to be more specific - not the translator (unless it is incorrect to say ham and cheese alone, which in English it is not, nor is it incorrect to say.

How is that different than the usage of των Ἰουδαῖοι (I am now talking specifically about "των Ἰουδαῖοι" and not the other forms of Ἰουδαῖοι)?

Would it not be up to the reader, just as it is in English if a translator translates των Ἰουδαῖοι as "the Jews" to decide what it means?

John 4:22 υμεις προσκυνειτε ο ουκ οιδατε ημεις προσκυνουμεν ο οιδαμεν οτι η σωτηρια εκ των ιουδαιων εστιν

Is it the leaders or the people? Tell me how an ancient Greek could know which group the author is referring to more accurately and more easily than an English reader when they read "the Jews"?


At Sat Apr 21, 04:23:00 PM, Blogger Margaret Horwitz said...

I'm greatly in favor of having a more nuanced way of translating "the Jews," as readers tend to forget those following Jesus were primarily Jewish. Thank you for your work on this issue. Also of concern to me are headings within chapters. The NIV translation of John 12 contains this heading, "The Jews Continue in Their Unbelief." This appears to be an opinion of the entire commuity, which is misleading.


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