Something’s Always Lost in Translation

by Daniel B. Wallace

hamletThere’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.

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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…

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