Nazareth's divisive son: 5-2-12
Are we our genes? 5-4-12

Mistranslating the Bible: 5-3-12

When English-speaking Christians and Jews turn to Scripture, they expect to find that the original Hebrew and Greek (plus a bit of Aramaic) is translated clearly and faithfully.

Bible-stackBut that kind of translation doesn't always happen.

Mark Nanos, an internationally known scholar who teaches in Kansas City and focuses on the Apostle Paul, has just posted the text of a lecture he gave last year in which he makes this point with devastating clarity.

As Nanos makes clear, translation choices can have signficant consequences for how readers understand the text. And a poor choice can lead readers astray in major ways.

In the piece to which I've linked you on Mark's site, he focuses on translation choices in the book of Romans -- misguided choices that wind up subverting some of the important messages that the Apostle Paul wants his readers to understand, messages that have implications for Jewish-Christian relations today.

I'm not going to go into more detail about that here. I commend the Nanos piece to you and encourage you to pay attention to what he's saying there.

For my purposes today, I simply want to alert you to the reality that no single translation of the Bible gets everything right. It's one reason I collect different English translations. That lets me compare and contrast the ways things are said because of the translation choices made.

My current favorite new translation is the Common English Bible, but I was distressed to learn that in one of the Romans passages Mark Nanos discusses, the CEB, though a fresh new translation, goes astray in its word choices.

It's difficult for theologically untrained people in the pews to spot translation problems, and perhaps no one expects us to. But at the very least we should be aware that disputes about translations exist and we should make an effort to compare translations, especially when we run across a passage that seems difficult or somehow counter to the thrust of the Bible's main messages.

We also should be glad that scholars like Mark Nanos are out there raising objections to translation choices that can lead us astray.

(By the way, for those of you up on theological publications, you now can find Mark's piece published under the title "Romans 11 and Christian-Jewish Relations: Exegetical Options for Revisiting the Translation and Interpretation of This Central Text" in the Criswell Theological Review N.S. 9.2 (2012): 3-21.)

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As I was creating this post, I ran across this story about Bible translations and how one famous translation group, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, is catching heat for a translation choice that some people think minimizes the Holy Trinity so the Bible will be less offensive to Muslims. I'm not quite sure what to make of this controversy, though I have long admired the work of the Wycliffe folks and would tend to believe their defense of the translation choices they make.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- written from Israel -- now is online. To read it, click here.


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