The Translator’s Dilemma

Sometimes we can’t duplicate in English the literary depth of the Biblical writers.

William Tyndale (1494-1536), one of the greatest English translators of the Bible.

Bible translators have their challenges. How do you put into English a pun in the original Hebrew or a Greek word with a double meaning? That may be impossible. The English translation necessarily loses something of the cleverness or depth of the original Hebrew or Greek. Let me illustrate with three examples.

In Amos 8:1-3, the prophet pronounces God’s doom upon the kingdom of Israel. The proclamation opens with the lines:

This is what the LORD God showed me–a basket of summer fruit.

He said, “Amos, what do you see?”

And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

Then the word from God goes on:

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

            I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD;

            “the dead bodies shall be many,

            cast out in every place. Be silent!” 

What logical connection does summer fruit have with the end of the kingdom? You would never catch it in an English translation. In the Hebrew the connection hinges on a pun. The Hebrew word for summer fruit is qayits, for end is qets.

Missing the pun is not going to undermine the theological message of the oracle. But the English reader is going to miss the pun. As a result we don’t appreciate how clever the prophet–or God–has been in making his message memorable. (We must always remember that prophetic utterances were given orally. Listeners preserved them by memorization.) It helps us understand how the Biblical writers are not just great theologians, but also great communicators.

Double Meanings in the Dialogue with Nicodemus

Equally challenging is translating words that have double meanings, and the author may deliberately intend that both meanings apply to his message. There are two outstanding examples in the gospels.

In the famous dialogue scene between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-21, Jesus says to Nicodemus: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen. This Greek word anothen has a dual meaning. It can mean anew or again. If the translator chooses this meaning, then we get the translation of John 3:7 so hallowed in Evangelical church circles: Ye must be born again (King James Version).

Anothen, however, has an alternative meaning: from above. If the translator opts for this meaning, then John 3:7 reads in the New Revised Standard Version: You must be born from above. No English translation can convey both meanings at the same time as the Greek does.

The Greek text seems to be purposely ambiguous because Jesus wants to hold both meanings together in his discussion of spiritual rebirth. The rebirth of which he speaks is not just a second birth, but a birth that is effected by the Holy Spirit.

If you are going to understand Jesus’ teaching, you must hold both meanings together. But there is no English word that holds those two meanings together like the Greek anothen. The translator must choose one translation over the other, thus risking watering down the fullness of what Jesus is saying.

Two Dimensions of the Kingdom of God

Another saying of Jesus also hinges on the word he uses having a double meaning. This occurs in a passage where Jesus is responding to the Pharisees and their question when the kingdom of God is coming (Luke 17:20-21). Jesus responds:

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.

 A critical Greek word with a double meaning appears in the last sentence. The translators of the New Revised Standard Version translate it as among. The Greek word is entos. And it can indeed mean among. The NRSV translators probably translated it that way because the you in the sentence is plural in the Greek. This gives a strong communal cast to Jesus’ saying.

But entos can also mean within. If a translator chooses this translation (as does the King James Version), he is giving Jesus’ saying a more interior cast. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is to be found within yourselves. Here the focus is more on the believer’s inner disposition.

Once again the use of the Greek entos with its dual meaning seems to be deliberate. For a full understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God means we must perceive both its inner psychological and its communal dimensions.

The call to enter the Kingdom is a call to an inner journey, a journey that will take us deep into spiritual practices and disciplines. But the call to enter the Kingdom will also call us out of our individual selves into working for and living in the renewed society that is noted by its qualities of harmony, service, and peace. The inner journey and the outer journey must go hand in hand if we are to enter fully into that earthly, yet simultaneously transcendent reality that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

But how is a translator to hold on to both meanings in an English translation? It’s probably impossible. That’s why responsible translations will alert their readers to the alternate translations in a footnote (as does the NRSV). But it takes a reader paying close attention to footnotes if he or she is to grasp the richness of the Biblical text. Bible study takes work.

A cautionary note: The two examples I give of the double meanings to words Jesus uses applies to the Greek words in which the gospels are written. Jesus, however, presumably spoke Aramaic when he taught. Could the same double meanings be duplicated in the Aramaic vocabulary he used? I don’t know Aramaic, but I would hazard a guess that the answer is probably not. This highlights the critical importance of the Greek language as a vehicle of revelation in the writing of the gospels.


One thought on “The Translator’s Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Old and newer King James Versions and other translations #12 God Himself masters His Own Word | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

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