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Bible Articles and Lessons: T

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Translations, methods of

How translation occurs

It is important to realize -- and most people who have not learned a second language wouldn't know -- that there is no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence between languages. You cannot have a word for word translation that is at all readable, because the word order is different, the nature of the grammar is different and even the sense of a word may cover a wider or smaller range than the corresponding English word.

For instance, the word "house" in Hebrew can mean "immediate family" or "a royal dynasty" besides the equivalent English idea of a building where a person dwells. Therefore to have an accurate English translation you cannot simply translate the Hebrew word with "house"; you need to translate it according to which of the possible meanings is intended.

Idioms, likewise, do not translate across directly: for instance the English phrase "I'm sick and tired of apple pie" if translated literally could give a reader in another language the false impression that the individual in question is sleepy and ready to throw up.

Consider the following "literal translation" of the first verse of the Bible, which maintains the Hebrew word order and phrasing, and ask yourself if it is easily comprehensible:

In-beginning he-created God (definite direct object) the-heavens and-(definite direct object) the-earth.

But even this is not entirely accurate in a word for word sense, because Hebrew does not have a true past tense; but there is no other way to indicate perfect aspect (completed action). However, when one of the prophets makes use of the perfect aspect to show the certainty of the prophesy, to translate it as a past tense can create the false impression that the prophet is speaking of things that have already happened when that is not the case at all! And in front of the single words (they are only one word in Hebrew) "the-heavens" and "the-earth" is the Hebrew word that indicates that what follows is a definite direct object -- hardly translatable into English at all.

Having said all this, one would imagine that this first verse is a complicated sentence. Not at all. It is remarkably simple. It only becomes difficult if we expect translation to be "literal". It isn't. All translation, by its very nature, is paraphrastic and interpretive.

The way translation happens is as follows. The translator learns a foreign language and learns it well. Learning Hebrew or Greek is just like learning French or Spanish in high school. There is nothing mysterious or special about the ancient languages. Then the translator reads the foreign text and understands it. Having understood it, he or she then puts it into the best English possible.

There is no mystery associated with the translation of the Bible, nor are there any significant disagreements between translations. However, by the nature of what translation is -- the work of individuals with their own separate styles -- the wording of, say, Today's English Version is not going to be identical to the King James Version or the New International Version. Not because anyone is trying to twist something or make it say what it doesn't, but only because each translator is going to word it as he thinks best. But the MEANING will be the same. And of course, between the King James and the more modern translations there is also the gap caused by the change in the English language -- we do not speak like the people in Shakespeare's time did, but their way of speaking is no "grander" or any more "eloquent" than ours. King James English was the way any farmer or fisherman of 1611 would have talked, just as Today's English Version or the New International Version is the way an average person speaks today. For all the snobbishness of attitude on the part of some regarding Shakespeare today, in his own day he was considered somewhat vulgar and not a little risque. Shakespeare was like an ordinary television drama or sitcom is for us today.

Textual criticism

One other change since the time of the King James translation, of course, is the improvement in the texts that are available to today's translators. They are older and that much closer to the original (although that fact, by itself, does not guarantee greater accuracy). Moreover, the methods of textual criticism -- the science of comparing the different and sometimes inconsistent manuscripts and determining which one is the closest to the original reading -- have advanced considerably since the 1600s.

The history of the Biblical texts shows clearly that all of them stand far removed from the originals both by time and by the process of transmission. They contain not only scribal errors, but even some actual transformations of the text, both deliberate and accidental. By means of textual criticism we attempt to find all the alterations that have occurred and then recover the earliest possible form of the text.

Textual criticism proceeds in three steps:

  1. All the variant readings of the text are collected and arranged. Of course, this is the very reason textual criticism is necessary at all. If we had only a single copy, there would be no questions, but since we have several, which all say different things, we have a problem. Which text accurately records the original statements?
  2. The variants must then be examined.
  3. The most likely reading is then determined. For the OT, in order to carry out these steps, it is necessary to use the Masoretic Text, which ordinarily serves as the basis from which the textual critic will work. Combined with the Masoretic Text the critic will consult all the ancient Hebrew manuscripts and versions that might be available.
The most important Hebrew manuscripts for Old Testament textual criticism are:

  1. The St. Petersburg (or Leningrad) Codex, 1008 AD. It is the largest and only complete manuscript of the entire OT.
  2. The Aleppo Codex, 930 AD. It used to be a complete copy of the OT, but was partially destroyed in a synagogue fire in 1948.
  3. The British Museum Codex, 950 AD. It is an incomplete copy of the Pentateuch.
  4. The Cairo Codex, 895 AD. A copy of the Former and Latter Prophets (Jos, Jdg, 1Sa, 2Sa, 1Ki, 2Ki, Isa, Jer, Eze, and the twelve minor prophets).
  5. The Leningrad (St Petersburg) Codex of the Prophets, 916 AD, containing only the Latter Prophets.
  6. The Reuchlin Codex of the Prophets, 1105 AD.
  7. Cairo Geniza fragments, 6th to 9th century, AD.
  8. Qumran Manuscripts (the Dead Sea Scrolls), 200 BC -- 70 AD.

The most important ancient translations of the Old Testament into languages other than Hebrew are:

a. The Septuagint (several versions)
b. The Aramaic Targums (several versions)
c. The Syriac Peshitta
d. The Samaritan Pentateuch
e. The Latin Vulgate

Ideally, the work of textual criticism should proceed with all of these ancient versions and copies readily available. There are then some basic rules that help place the textual criticism of the Bible, whether OT or NT, on a firm basis that generally avoids arbitrariness and subjectivity.

For the OT, where the Hebrew manuscripts and the ancient versions agree, we may assume that the original reading has been preserved. Likewise, with the NT, where the various manuscripts agree, we may assume the original text has been preserved. To our great relief, this covers 95 per cent of the Bible.

Where the mss differ among themselves, one should chose either the more difficult reading from the point of view of language and subject matter or the reading that most readily makes the development of the other readings intelligible. In order to make this choice, it is necessary that the critic have a thorough knowledge of the history and character of the various mss. It needs also to be realized that these criteria work together and complement one another. A "more difficult reading" does not mean a "meaningless reading."

However, the critic must not assume that just because a reading appears meaningless that it necessarily is. Scribes are not likely to turn a meaningful passage into gibberish. Therefore, if a passage is not understandable, that is often as far as we can go. We must, as scholars, acknowledge our own ignorance.

With the OT, where the Hebrew manuscripts and the translations differ, and a superior reading cannot be demonstrated on the basis of the above rules, then one should, as a matter of first principle, allow the Hebrew text to stand. With the NT, one will generally choose the shorter reading because of the tendency of scribes to try to "explain" passages.

Where the different mss differ and none of them seem to make any sense, one may attempt a conjecture concerning the true reading -- a conjecture that must be validated by demonstrating the process of the textual corruption that would have lead to the existing text forms. Such a conjecture, however, must not be used to validate the interpretation of a whole passage in that it might have been made on the basis of an expectation derived from the whole.

The Causes of Textual Corruption

The goal of textual criticism is to remove the textual errors and restore the original readings. To aid in this goal, it is helpful if the textual critic has an idea of what sorts of errors he or she is likely to find.

When copying out a text, errors occur in every conceivable way, as we no doubt know from our own experiences. Sometimes it is difficult to explain, even to ourselves, how we might have come to make a particular error. Therefore it is unlikely that we will be able to correct or explain everything that has eluded the scribes over the centuries. A reading that appears doubtful or corrupt to us today may have been caused by a hole or some other damage to the copyist's manuscript. Or maybe the letters or words in a given section of his text were faded and nearly illegible, forcing the copyist to make his best guess. Moreover, a single error can give rise to many others, leaving us with no clue as to how it might have happened.

And of course, as always, the assumption of a textual error may really be only a cover for our failure to understand the language or the idiom.

Beyond these unrecoverable sorts of errors, there are two categories of errors that may be distinguished and often corrected: errors due to an unintentional, mechanical lapse on the part of the copyist (often called Errors of Reading and Writing), and two, errors that are the result of deliberate alteration (called Intentional Alterations).

a. Errors of Reading and Writing

  1. Confusion of similar letters In Hebrew, there are several letters which look very similar to one another: the B and K, R and D, H and T, W and Y.
  2. Transposition of Letters,
  3. Haplography -- a fancy word that means when there were two or more identical or similar letters, groups of letters, or words all in sequence, one of them gets omitted by error. Of course, there is some evidence that some of these supposed "errors" are actually equivalent to English contractions like "don't" instead of "do not" and therefore are not errors at all.
  4. Dittography -- another fancy word that refers to an error caused by repeating a letter, group of letters , a word or a group of words. The opposite, really, of Haplography.
  5. Homoioteleuton -- an even fancier word which refers to the error that occurs when two words are identical, or similar in form, or have similar endings and are close to each other. It is easy in this sort of situation for the eye of the copyist to skip from one word to the other, leaving out everything in between.
  6. Errors of Joining and Dividing Words. This is more a problem in the NT than it is in the OT, for while the Greek manuscripts were written well into the Medieval period without spacing or dividing signs between words, there is no evidence that this was EVER the case with the OT Hebrew texts. In fact, the evidence is very strong to the contrary; inscriptions on walls from the time of Hezekiah actually had dots between each word to separate them from each other.

b. Deliberate Alterations

The Samaritan Pentateuch, as an example, is notorious for its purposeful changes designed to help legitimize some of their sectarian biases.

A more substantive change in the Hebrew text came after the Babylonian captivity in the time of Ezra (fifth century BC) when the alphabet changed from the Old Hebrew Script to the Aramaic Square Script -- in which all copies of the OT except for the Samaritan Pentateuch are written.

It should not surprise us that there have been a certain amount of alteration in the text over time, since the Bible was not intended to be the object of scholarly study but rather was to be read by the whole believing community as God's word to them. Thus, the text would undergo adaptations to fit the linguistic needs of the community. For instance in Isa 39:1 the Masoretic Text preserves a rare word, hazaq, which has the sense of "to get well, recuperate." The community that produced the Dead Sea scrolls altered this word to the more common Hebrew word for "to get well", "zayah". Other examples of adaptation to colloquial usage are likely. The lack of early material for the OT makes it impossible to demonstrate these sorts of alterations on a larger scale. But a few small alterations are easily demonstrable.

The treatment of the divine name Baal is an example of deliberate change for theological reasons. In personal names which included the word "Baal", which simply means "master" or "lord", the scribes deliberately replaced "Baal" with "Bosheth," which means "shame". Hence, Jonathan's son was actually named "Meribbaal" rather than "Mephibosheth" (cp 1Ch 8:34; 9:40 and 2Sa 9:6; 19:24; 21:7).

Another example of deliberate alteration is found in Job 1:5,11 and Job 2:5,9 -- where we now read the word "berek", to bless (with God as the object) even though we should expect to find the word "qalal", to curse. The scribes replaced the offensive expression "to curse God" with a euphemism -- motivated no doubt by their fear of taking God's name in vain.

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