Lost in Translation Part 1

Language can be a rather intriguing part of life and also very confusing! Whatever your native tongue might be, there are always certain nuances and subtleties within that language that can impede one’s understanding of a word, a phrase, or especially, an idiomatic expression. Keeping up with the latest slang words or popular catch phrases is a prime example of that. To older people, young people seem to communicate with each other in an entirely different language, even though they are using English words. Have you ever carried on a conversation with someone from Australia? They may be speaking English, but they do it in a distinctly different way. Pick up copy of the old King James Bible, the one printed in the original 1611 form of the language, and you will see just how much English has changed in the last 400 years. Indeed, navigating through a language can be a daunting effort.

When it comes to translating from one language to another, navigating through the grammatical rules, phrasal functions, and linguistic concepts can become an overwhelming task. For example, if I say, “He let the cat out of the bag,” to an American, he/she will probably understand what I mean without much hesitation. But if I translate that, literally, into Spanish and say it to one of my Latino friends, it makes absolutely no sense at all to them. The same is true going the other direction. There’s a phrase I love in Paraguayan Spanish, it is, “Si o Si.” Translated, it means “Yes, or Yes.” Does that make any sense to you? Probably not. A better English translation would be something like, “absolutely; for sure; definitely.” A slight difference in understanding, right?

Translating the Bible

The reason this is important to comprehend is because the original Bible was not written in English. It was written in Hebrew and Greek, Koine Greek, to be exact. That means, “common Greek,” which was the tongue of the average citizen in the first century. Both languages are very specific, but also laden with idiomatic expressions, distinct grammatical rules, and linguistic concepts that do not always translate directly into the English language. That is why it is such a challenge for translators to correctly transmit the meaning of a passage from the original to English. It is also the reason why we have so many versions of the Bible in our language. Not only has the English language changed over the years, which precipitated a need for new translations, but there have also been several individuals throughout history who decided they could make a better translation more easily understood by all.

Unfortunately, translators do not always make the best grammarians. Sometimes a doctrinal bias might even slant their translation of a word, or they may simply ignore cultural variances. For example, the word “Jehovah” is a mis-transcription (mistranslation) made by Medieval era Bible translators which first appeared in A.D. 1381. They took the consonants of the divine name YHWH and combined them with the vowels of another Hebrew word for God, adonai. However, our English Y represents the sound J in certain other languages and we have vowels that are pronounced differently than other languages. The result was the invention of a word that appears nowhere in the original language. It is a classic case of something very important “getting lost in the translation.”