Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Biblical Translation: Why It Matters

I have said before that the Old Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures are different texts because the Old Testament is already rendered throughout as a translation that prefigures Jesus. People don't simply open the Old Testament and on their own start seeing Jesus parallels. Rather, the Old Testament has been translated with Christology in mind and the resulting text is available expressly to support Christian theological interpretations.

To illustrate this point, let's look at two different translations. Here is a traditional Jewish version in English of Genesis 1:1-16, from the site:
1. In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth. 2. Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. 3. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4. And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness. 5. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day. 6. And God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water." 7. And God made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so. 8. And God called the expanse Heaven, and it was evening, and it was morning, a second day. 9. And God said, "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the dry land appear," and it was so. 10. And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas, and God saw that it was good. 11. And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found, on the earth," and it was so. 12. And the earth gave forth vegetation, seed yielding herbs according to its kind, and trees producing fruit, in which its seed is found, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good. 13. And it was evening, and it was morning, a third day. 14. And God said, "Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years. 15. And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth." And it was so. 16. And God made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day and the lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars.
Here is the same passage, but in the Old Testament. I have chosen to use the New International Version (NIV):
1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2. Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. 6. And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." 7. So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8. God called the expanse "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. 9. And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. 10. God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good. 11. Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds." And it was so. 12. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day. 14. And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15. and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so. 16. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.
There are many differences between these two translations, and the differences go well beyond minor variations or shading in word and sense.

In Verse 2, for example, the traditional Jewish translation does not capitalize the 's' in 'spirit of God.' I suggest that the NIV capitalizes the 's' to foreshadow a concept such as the 'Holy Ghost.' I have seen another Jewish translation, however, that gives "Divine Presence." I have also seen one that uses "wind." It's very interesting because each word/phrase offers a slightly different connotation about God and the nature of God.

In Verse 8, the Chabad version capitalizes 'Heaven' while the NIV gives instead 'sky.' This discrepancy makes for very divergent readings, with the Chabad account establishing Heaven as the domain of god and the NIV associating the sky with our world down here. The NIV verse has our world rather distanced from the creator, with aligns nicely with Christian theology, generally speaking. Many Christian translations do use heaven, though, in capitalized or uncapitalized forms. The point still stands, though: the diction here reflects attitudes toward the topography of the divine universe.

Let's look now at Verse 16. The NIV makes a separate sentence of the clause dealing with stars. Notice how their change to light rather than luminary makes the sun and moon more instrumental than in the Chabad version, where they are almost like living governors. The traditional Jewish text is ambiguous, but might suggest the moon somehow rules the night and the stars. The NIV seeks to clarify, but I guess it also prefers a separate sentence for the stars because otherwise the moon ruling the stars seems odd against our modern knowledge about the moon and stars. This may, in fact, be a weak point, but I think that there is "supposed" to be a continuity in the description of the creation of the two luminaries and the stars. They are all made together, in one gesture. The NIV version breaks that up, for whatever reason.

Finally, notice all of the "and" words at the beginnings of the Chabad verses. When they are removed from the NIV, it's not just a matter of making the text contemporary. The NIV move alters the continuity and style of the text.

Bear in mind that we are only looking here at 16 little verses - and doing so in a superficial way - that we would expect to have far more agreement than there actually is. This is why I press the points that translation matters and that frames matter.

Let me add here a note on biblical translation generally. According to Dr. Joel Hoffman, author of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning, Bible translators can make three big mistakes. One: working from etymology, which doesn't really tell what a word means. Two: working from the internal structure of the words. Three: making use of cognate languages. The problem with these three mistakes is that they miss out on the context and connotations that would have been understood by people closest to the original generations of the sources. Very often, a modern reader uses a contemporary frame that makes textual context and connotations much different for a modern Jew or modern Christian than for a Jew just after the period of the Babylonian Exile or for a first or second century Christian.

This, therefore, is why I insist that a Christian Old Testament is a different text from the Hebrew Scriptures. Now, can there be multiple texts of the Old Testament? Yes, there can. I say that the NIV and the King James Version are different texts. The same principle applies to the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet, I would also posit that the Old Testament and Hebrew Scriptures name two different "families" of text. They are two different families because they derive from two different interpretive frames.

These points relate to arguments I have made before on interpretation and religion-as-interpretation. As I see it, modern religions are interpretations promoting themselves and always referring back to themselves. Why is this important? Because the personal wonders we often ascribe to religion are often the product of practicing a religious interpretation and not the result of the religion’s status as truth or falsehood.

The religious frame is like an organism struggling to survive. It does so as a church, a text, a ritual. Most any religion-oriented social construct exists to establish, reinforce, and perpetuate the frame of interpretation. Whether the frame is a faithful approximation of reality is hardly the point. In fact, it's totally incidental.


  1. Yes indeed these are important differences. Still I do not think they rise to the level that they are not really translating the same book. The differences are not really any greater than the differences between different translations of say Shakespeare into other languages.

    I will also note that you have choosen two relatively conservative translations. If you compared the New Jewish Study Bible with the New Revised Standard Version I think you will find that the differences over the whole Old Testament is smaller.

    But I certainly understand the point you are making. If we are talking about how Jews and Christians have used the Old Testament theologically there is indeed a vast difference and the common holy text has not really translated into big similarities in religion.

    I tend to be more interested in the Bible as literature however and then these differences are not so important. When you read the Bible as fiction the plot is the same regardless of which translation you use.

    On an separate point I find it interesting that they both choose the translation "spirit", especially the Jewish one. My Bible has "wind" in that place, noting in a footnote that the traditional Christian translation "spirit" is implausible.

  2. I think we're in agreement, then, because I'm not saying that "they are not really translating the same book."

    Two different translations/interpretations may indeed come from the exact same source text. I do not know what the precise source texts are for the Chabad and NIV translations.

    But even though the source text is identical, the translators have fundamental differences about the nature of that source. Those differences are made manifest in the translations.

    So, they start with what's objectively the same text, but their interpretive experience of it can be subjective and vastly different.

    This conclusion may be different (even contradictory) to statements I made before. If so, then I hope you can forgive my inconsistency and accept my thanks for helping me better define my view.

  3. Years ago I had an extended email discussion with a Christian women, and I noticed that alot of the quotes she used had the punctuation moved around as compared to the Hebrew versions. Its amazing how chaning where a verse ends can completely change the meaning.

  4. Probably the Chabad are translating the masoteric text while the NIV are translating the text as reconstructed by them using textual criticism.

    The difference isn't great however since the masoteric text is by far the best source there is to the original text of the OT.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.