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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Traduttore tradittore

It is commonly assumed that translation is always a weighing of different compromises--a "pick your poison" exercise in hopeful futility.

Really? How come?

Jesus very likely spoke Aramaic as a matter of daily practice. He also likely spoke Hebrew when the need arose, in a synagogue, for example. Given his upbringing in Galilee, he also very likely spoke Greek. So, when Jesus is quoted in the Gospels, what language do the original authors quote? Is it Greek? Or, as is very likely the case, was it Aramaic. In other words, Jesus spoke in Aramaic and they recorded (several years later) in Greek.

Well, then, what are the original autographs of the Gospels? Setting aside the arguments that the very first originals (whatever that might actually mean) were in something other than Greek, we nevertheless have today, as our guiding and authoritative documents, ones that are translations.

But, Traduttore tradittore ("translator [is a] traitor").


Was the Holy Spirit a traitor to the Christ? I'm not saying translation is easy. But, why is it axiomatic that a translation must be inaccurate in some way--by definition. Is that really the case? In all cases? Without exception? Are the actual words of Jesus and the recording of those words in the original autographs the only occurrence of interlingual communication where the source and destination grammars and associated lexis just so happen to provide for perfectly accurate transfer of all the information?

I believe the original authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit to accurately write the original autographs of the Bible. But if Jesus spoke in something other than Greek, than what we have in the original autographs is, in fact, a translation. And, a wholly accurate one at that! Also, the multiple, simultaneous translations occurring during the event recorded in Acts 2:5-12 add complexity to this observation. We have one speaker and hearers from, quite literally, all over the place. In all these cases the translations are accurate--by the definition of inspiration.

Perhaps all that a translation must accomplish (I certainly don't mean to set the bar low) is to be perfectly sufficient in conveying the originally intended meaning (note the singular). And, may I say, that's hard enough. But, perhaps the problem is somewhere else. Perhaps we create an inaccurate measurement (that is, our measuring device itself is wrong to some degree) when we insist that accurate translations must perfectly render all that can be analyzed in the original. Maybe it's inaccurate to expect that a deep analysis of a text somehow exposes more precise truth.

Let me state what I honestly think is obvious--once you see it: the accuracy of a text can't be measured by capturing every nuance of the original. The original authors did not do that. The Holy Spirit doesn't do that. And, translations can't do that. Texts don't function that way. Every nuance is never intended. Many of the interpersonal misunderstandings I've encountered function within the boundaries of that expectation of analytical precision. And that generates the misunderstanding. How often have you said, "But, I didn't say that!" You didn't expect the hearer to analyze your words to that detail. Or, you didn't expect the hearer to understand you to imply something you never intended to say, an implication arrived at by detailed (though possibly quick) analysis.

I wonder how often God says, "But, I didn't say that!"

So, why, today, do we measure accuracy in terms of detailed analysis? What would be the characteristics of an accurate metric--a metric that accurately measures the fidelity of a translation?


At Sat May 26, 03:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mike posted:

Also, the multiple, simultaneous translations occurring during the event recorded in Acts 2:5-12 add complexity to this observation.

And so do the different tellings of the same event in the synoptic gospels.

You've raised some difficult questions in this post, Mike. But I think that if we wrestle well with them, we may be able to come up with a better understanding of what it means to translate accurately.

I also would not be surprised if there are different kinds of translation accuracy, or phrased differently, accuracy that focuses on different aspects of language.

Wow, we could spend several weeks on the issues raised in your post!

At Sat May 26, 03:37:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Maybe it's inaccurate to expect that a deep analysis of a text somehow exposes more precise truth.

Interesting, Mike. Lots to think about.

At Sat May 26, 04:27:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

First, I wish to note that the points you raise only have force regarding the Christian Scriptures -- we have no tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures being translated from other languages.

Furthermore, there is a serious argument made that at least some of the Gospels were first written in Hebrew, and we have a version of this in the 1380 CE text Evan Bona by the anti-Christian apologist Shemtov Ibn Shaprut. The primary reference for this is the work by George Howard.

Shem Tov's manuscript appears to reflect an independent transmission of Matthew maintained by the Jewish community. Thus Shem Tov's Matthew agrees with Q and Thomas more than Greek Matthew. Furthermore, it preserves puns that make sense in Hebrew, thus Matthew 7:6:

Do not throw your pearls before swine [chazir], lest they trample them under foot and turn [yichazru] to attack you.

This verse then agrees in terms with the Pseudo-Clementine writings such as Recognition and Homilies.

Howard points to a number of ancient sources to argue for an original Hebrew Matthew:

Papias (Eusebius, H.E. 3.39.16)
"Matthew collected the oracles (ta logia) in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could."

Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1
"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews n their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church."

Origen (Eusebius, H.E. 6.25.4)
"As having learnt by tradition concerning the four Gospels, which alone are unquestionable in the Church of God under heaven, that first was written according to Matthew, who was once a tax collector but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language."

Eusebius, H.E. 3.24.6
"Matthew had first preached to Hebrews, and when he was on the point of going to others he transmitted in writing in his native language the Gospel according to himself, and thus supplied by writing the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent."

Epiphanius (ca. 315-403), bishop of Salamis, refers to a gospel used by the Ebionites (Panarion 30. 13.1-30.22.4). He says it is Matthew, called "According to the Hebrews" by them, but says it is corrupt and mutilated. He says Matthew issued his Gospel in Hebrew letters. He quotes from this Ebionite Gospel seven times. These quotations appear to come not from Matthew but from some harmonized account of the canonical Gospels.

Jerome also asserts that Matthew wrote in the Hebrew language (Epist. 20.5), and he refers to a Hebrew Matthew and a Gospel of the Hebrews-unclear if they are the same. He also quotes from the Gospel used by the Nazoreans and the Ebionites, which he says he has recently translated from Hebrew to Greek (in Matth. 12.13).

We have quotations from such a source from Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Origen, Didymus, Clement of Alexandria.

I do not wish to hear endorse or criticize Howard's work in the matter, except to note that if Howard is correct, then the Greek Scriptures are not faithful representations of the autographs.

In this way, if one is willing to sacrifice the notion of fidelity of the original transcription, one may as well translate from the Vulgate, as did Knox or the Douay-Rheims, or from the Peshitta, as did Lamsa. (Analogously, therefore, some Christians cite a tradition that the Septuagint is divinely inspired, citing to the Letter of Aristeas, Josephus, etc -- although it should be noted that these only referred to the Septuagint Pentateuch.)

It seems to me that there are only three ways out of this dilemma:

(a) That we agree that our text is corrupted, and attempt to reconstruct an eclectic text.

(b) That we claim that our text is divinely preserved, and translate faithfully against it.

(c) That we abandon the notion of an "original Scripture", and instead focus on how different faith groups have read the Scriptures, producing translations in accordance with those traditions.

At Sat May 26, 05:25:00 PM, Blogger Glennsp said...

'b' is the only acceptable option.
Anything else would be to declare God incapable of preserving His word through the centuries and that would be an statement of the impossible.

At Sat May 26, 06:11:00 PM, Blogger Psalmist said...

I'm out of my depth here, as someone who's not a trained linguist or translator, but this post got me to thinking.

It has bothered me for a long time that we current-day Western people tend to require the Bible to meet our rather late concepts of accuracy in the first place. For example, we expect that a specific number means exactly that number, not one more or less. We expect named people to be historical people, without exception. We require that the genealogies (even those that disagree with one another) be factual statements, such that the writer could swear on a stack of Bibles that Joseph's grandfather was named Jacob (or Heli), and we'll resort to some pretty fancy footwork to harmonize differing accounts.

I think this shows two problems, among possibly many more:

*We expect the Bible to do our thinking for us, requiring that its "plain meaning" be good enough for us and for everybody else (so long as they agree with us in their particular interpretations of what the "plain meaning" actually is).

*We impose onto the Bible a modern Western standard of information accuracy that was unknown to its writers. This is not to say that they were not inspired by the Holy Spirit--I believe they were. However, they did not stop being the Eastern Ancients they were. Generally, what they recorded were the extant oral accounts of sometimes far more ancient stories.

I think sometimes we Western moderns are content to settle for what we believe to be accuracy, when what the Bible offers us is eternal truth. The two are not synonymous! I think it cheapens the Holy Scriptures to expect them to conform to this recent standard of factual accuracy, when such is not a test of spiritual truth. Perhaps our problem is at least sometimes our unwillingness to permit the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth; we tend instead to lean on our own (modern) understanding when reading the Scriptures. I think when we do this, we understand neither the true meaning of what we read, nor the One who is self-revealed in what we read.

At Sat May 26, 09:05:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

The Psalmist wrote:

I'm out of my depth here, as someone who's not a trained linguist or translator, but this post got me to thinking

Oh, you've done a good job of thinking! That's an even better job than being a linguist or translator. :-)

I think you're right that we so often try to impose our own Western values on the sacred text. I suspect it's not just a Western problem. I suspect it's true of people from any culture. But since we are so "scientific" (or think we are) with our Western mindset, we think we know what accuracy is. I like the way you have rephrased things to what is probably more important, that the biblical writers were focused more on teaching us eternal truth. I don't think that means that the events which undergird the biblical call to faith truth didn't happen. But we need to be careful that we don't put the emphasis in the wrong place, including when translating. It's fairly clear, for instance, that the different gospel authors tailored their account of the story to meet their faith purposes. Lingamish has posted on this recently and I found his posts interesting.

At Sat May 26, 10:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Sun May 27, 01:38:00 PM, Blogger Dr. Qohelet said...

Emanuel Tov, in his book Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, advocates anon's position (c). In the Hebrew Bible, the textual transmition of some of the books is so complex that we can't even speak of an ur-text from whence the MT and LXX came. There was no "autograph." There is no spoon.


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