Five More Myths about Bible Translations and the Transmission of the Text
by Daniel B. Wallace
There’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. There’s always something lost in translation. 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’ is, well, poison. There’s always something lost in translation.
But how much is lost? Here I want to explore five more myths about Bible translation.
Myth 1: The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.
This myth involves a naïve understanding of what Bible translators actually did. It’s as if once they translated the text, they destroyed their exemplar! Sometimes folks think that translators who were following a tradition (such as the KJV and its descendants, the RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NKJB, NRSV, and ESV) really did not translate at all but just tweaked the English. Or that somehow the manuscripts that the translators used are now lost entirely.
The reality is that we have almost no record of Christians destroying biblical manuscripts throughout the entire history of the Church. And those who translated in a tradition both examined the English and the original tongues. Decent scholars improved on the text as they compared notes and manuscripts. Finally, we still have almost all of the manuscripts that earlier English translators used. And we have many, many more as well. The KJV New Testament, for example, was essentially based on seven Greek manuscripts, dating no earlier than the eleventh century. Today we have about 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, including those that the KJV translators used. And they date as early as the second century. So, as time goes on, we are actually getting closer to the originals, not farther away.
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Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.
Scholars have for a long time recognized that the Gospel writers shape their narratives, including the sayings of Jesus. A comparison of the Synoptics reveals this on almost every page. Matthew quotes Jesus differently than Mark does who quotes Jesus differently than Luke does. And John’s Jesus speaks significantly differentyly than the Synoptic Jesus does. Just consider the key theme of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptics: ‘the kingdom of God’ (or, in Matthew’s rendering, often ‘the kingdom of heaven’). Yet this phrase occurs only twice in John, being replaced usually by ‘eternal life.’ (“Kingdom of God” occurs 53 times in the Gospels, only two of which are in John; “kingdom of heaven” occurs 32 times, all in Matthew. “Eternal life” occurs 8 times in the Synoptics, and more than twice as often in John.) The ancient historians were far more concerned to get the gist of what a speaker said than they were to record his exact words. And if Jesus taught mostly, or even occasionally, in Aramaic, since the Gospels are in Greek the words by definition are not exact.
A useful distinction is made between the very words of Jesus and very voice of Jesus, known as ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox, respectively. Only rarely can we say that we have the very words of Jesus, but we can be far more confident that what is recorded in red letters in translations is at least the very voice of Jesus. Again, if ancient historians were not as concerned to get the words exactly right, we should not put them into a modernist straitjacket in which we expect them to be something they were never intended to be…
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