Another Bible

by thomaslsimpson

Lately, I have been thinking a little about translation of the Bible and interpretation of the Bible. Translation should mean rendering the words of the Bible into another language. Interpretation of the Bible would mean rendering the meaning of the Bible into other words. People often talk as if translation can be done without interpretation. They also speak sometimes as if interpretation is opinion, and one person can interpret into one thing and another into yet another.

This is wrong. It is very hard to translate from any language into any other with a direct word-to-word conversion. In fact, the point of the most direct word-to-word translation would be to get a rendering into another language that is as close to the original author’s intended meaning as possible by using the same words. The problem is that language does not work like this. Change a word in English for the closest word in French can often end up with something that is not what the author intended.

Take, as an example, the word “another” in English and “autre” in French. A “direct” rendering of the English sentence, “I would like another cup of coffee” would go like:

“I would like another cup of coffee.” -> “Je voudrais une autre tasse de café.”

“another” -> “une autre”

But in French, when you ask for “another cup” it is like asking for “a different cup” in English. Instead of refilling your cup of coffee, the server will bring you a new cup, or maybe a different kind of coffee. In either case, the direct rendering was not what you wanted.

This is the simplest example I can think of right off. Many are complex and well beyond my understanding. But I know that Hebrew to English is much more complicated. French is grammatically just like English, with less verb tenses. Most of the words are the the same with slight changes in spelling and pronunciation. So a totally different language like Hebrew cannot even come close to a direct rendering and a direct rendering would be much further than the author’s meaning in many cases.

All translation from one language to another requires some interpretation on the part of the translator. When you read any rendering of the Bible into a language other than the original, you are read the interpretation of the translator. It is simply not possible to do it any other way.

The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is often though of as being special in some way. That is, some people seem to think that other translations are somehow less authoritative. There is no ground for this belief. This version was commissioned by King James of England and came after other Bibles had been rendered into English. In any case, the writers of the KJV were well aware that they were interpreting and written material survives from the period that shows this conclusively. In addition, there were many errors in the original KJV that were corrected in subsequent editions.

Would it not be better to read a Bible that was written to reflect as closely as possible the ideas that the original authors were attempting to convey? There have, of course, been Bibles written with this in mind. And new Bibles come out all the time. This is a good thing. There should be a complete retranslation of the Bible every so often to keep the language up to date for modern readers.

But there’s the rub. If each translation must be interpretation, then each edition is open to misinterpretation. (I believe this is one reason people like to think the KJV came from Heaven: the more translations that are done, the harder it is to think that there are no problems in them.) Each Bible also has the potential to be swayed, even slightly, toward one person’s thinking about the truth of what the author intended to communicate.

The other thing I hear a lot is that one can read the same sections of the Bible over and over and get a different understanding each time. I’m not sure this is what an author of the books ever intended. I’m sure this is supposed to be true of some books, like the books of poetry, but not of the historical books. I doubt if it is true even of Revelation, though I can’t say for sure. One can read a book from the Bible and see things they had missed before, having a clearer understanding, but if the meaning of the entire thing has changed then we should be thrilled to have discovered the truth, but this does not mean the earlier bits we had were also right. It means they were wrong and we know more now.

I don’t mean that there may not be layers of hidden meaning in places in the Bible. But I suspect this is less frequent than some seem to think. I also suspect that much of this would be lost in translation. Much of the “word play” and rhetorical devices that an author uses when writing to get subtle textural meaning vanishes when a translator rewrites the book. And let us not be confused: translation is a rewrite. The translator may get all of the correct meaning or may not, but unless the work is being rewritten by the original author, another person is writing another book from the first book.

If the writer of Job was using a pun, we wouldn’t know. I suspect that all of the humor in the original Bible would be lost since one must have context to understand humor. If I made a joke about being glad it is Friday (the end of the work week) and someone read this a thousand years later, the meaning of Friday in that culture may have lost that meaning entirely and the reading would marvel that I could be excited about an arbitrary day. I can’t imagine all the other kinds of things.

So, what’s to be done about it? Well, in the past, when the Bible was being translated, people used to keep multiple versions around for reference. I like this model myself. I have a phone with Bible apps. I use this to hop back and forth between translations. I read in whichever version I like and if I see something that I think may turn on how the wording is set up, I look at different translation. Sometimes I read a few. Sometimes I dig out the Hebrew words and look them up.

In the end, there’s little to be done about it. We can only read, try to understand, and use our brains. One thing to remember is that pulling out a section, even a large section with some context, can end up getting you to a place you didn’t mean to go. It is the best policy to consider the work as a whole, each book as a book, and so forth. If we have a firm understanding of what a book is about, who wrote, it, the time they wrote it in, and other contextual material, we are more likely to understand what we are supposed to understand.

Of course, if we, like I have heard others do, go looking for something we want to find in the Bible, if we read long enough and are flexible enough in our own understanding, we can find it, whatever it is.