Lost in Translation?

That translations of any sort are supposed to facilitate communication is rather obvious.  However, to truly make something in one language understandable in another requires much more than a good dictionary.  There are idioms and nuances that make perfect sense in one language that, when translated simply word for word, come across as totally ridiculous in another.  If you have any doubt about that, try explaining a phrase like “I’m just pulling your leg.” to any non-American English speaker. 

         Given that misunderstandings can lead to all kinds of personal and even international conflicts, it is clear that precision in translations is critically important.  The same is true of religious sacred texts.  For example, consider the Commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your might.” (Dt. 6:5), which is part of the “Shema” for Jews, with many references in the New Testament as well. In this context, the question is how to understand the apparently straightforward terms “you” and “your.”  In English, these terms are used for both the singular and the plural.  Since the Commandment is given to all the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the intent seems to be that it is addressed to “all of you.”  In the Biblical Hebrew, though, the suffixes distinguish between the singular and the plural.  As it turns out, these attached suffixes–“vahavta” and “Elohecha”–are in the singular.  The difference may be significant regarding the spiritual message.  If in the plural, the point may be that the entire nation needs to not only accept the Commandment, but needs to have a common understanding as to what it means.  But since the terms are in the singular, it may be that every individual has the right–even the obligation–to come to a personal understanding of what “love” is on the basis of one’s individual relationship with God.  Imagine how a religious community would relate to diversity if it believed that God wanted everyone to have a personal relationship with the Deity as opposed to God expecting everyone in that community to have the same relationship? 

        If the difference between a singular or plural understanding of a term like “you” can be so significant, imagine how world history would have developed with an alternative translation of “almah” in Isaiah 7:14: “The almah will conceive and bear a child who will be called ‘Imanuel.'” In Christianity, an “almah” is usually taken to mean a “virgin” and the “Virgin Birth” and everything that goes with that doctrine is the result (though not the “Immaculate Conception,” which, interestingly, refers to Mary and not Jesus.).  However, the much more common understanding of an “almah” in the Bible is that of “a young woman” or “an unmarried woman.”  The assumption is often that an unmarried young woman is a virgin, but that is not necessarily the case.  When the Old Testament specifies a virgin, the term used is “betulah,” not “almah.” 

       Finally, while people generally refer to the Old and New Testaments as “The Bible,” it is not so well known that the original language of the Old Testament was Hebrew, but the text of the New Testament was written in Greek.  The theological import of the difference can be extraordinary.  For one, the case can be made that the Old Testament–and all its rules and obligations–were intended for the Jewish people, but the New Testament was meant for non-Jews who were generally exempt from those same rules and obligations.  Together, then, maybe this “Bible” was for all mankind, but with different behavioral expectations for Jews and non-Jews.  In any event, the fact that the parts of what is assumed to be one book can lead to incredible linguistic challenges….well, goes without saying. 

     Suffice it to say that there are many language aspects of the Bible and other sacred texts that, properly understood, can lead to wildly different theoretical and practical implications.  Seriously.  I am not pulling your hair.  oh…wait…that is the Spanish for “I am not pulling your leg.””  In other words, I am not kidding….which, by the way, is a term that has little to do with “kids,” but refers to how children “play” and, therefore, is intended to amuse and not suggest anything “true.”   

      Scout’s honor… 


    1. Very true! Once we start thinking in those terms, we start recognizing just how subtle the use of language can be. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *