Sunday, May 1, 2011

On a Stack of Bibles (July 3, 2007)

Current mood: contemplative

Over the years, I've come to believe that it is not good enough to read The Bible. Sure, I read it. I've read it cover to cover. I consult it often. What else I've learned over the years is that each translation of a work in a foreign language takes on a character different from every other. This is not a bad thing; one must only realize it, accept it, and comprehend their differences. The Bible is no different in this regard.

Each Bible translation, each such characterization, both adds some value to the original as well as loses some. You've heard the saying "It lost something in the translation"? What is it that got lost? What got added? The latter first: The needs of the moment, at the time of translation, colors in some way the manner of the translation. Who is the intended reader? Royalty? Children? It matters, as the nature of the education of both those who will be expected to use the translation, as well as that of the translators' manner of preparation and means of approach, define that color. This is not wrong, it just is.

As to the former, what gets lost, or can get lost, or more importantly, has been long lost, is the tone of the original. The Bible writers, whose divinely inspired work has come down to us in translation, had an audience whose culture and language differed greatly from those of the scribes and translators centuries and millenia later, and different from our own. Each original writer's shared understanding with his audience flavored that original text, resulting in thoughts and ideas that were embedded and implied, hidden thoughts that would not have been understood and conveyed by the generations of copying scribes and translators over the centuries whose work we rely on to obtain the text of the holy word we think we understand so well. Hence, we may know and understand the words used, but we cannot know all that was meant and implied by those words.

Every new translation takes on at least two additional very important aspects. First is the language of the current time. Words and phrases in our own language change; implied and understood meanings evolve with each passing decade. With practice, a reader of an older translation can begin to understand and appreciate these distinctions, but a great leap of faith and a major error occur when one merely expects the average person to have the same understanding of a passage, with little context and no explanation. Second, with each passing decade, scholarly research and archaeological discoveries allow us to understand more the language and culture that defined the age and writing style of those original authors. Not to use that information, by denying that the knowledge exists or matters, is to do ourselves a disservice in our would-be understanding of Scripture. If that in turn casts new light on certain long-held beliefs, then too bad for them! for we did not fully know what we believed. Our understanding was erroneous, however deeply held.

Given this, when I read The Bible, I employ several translations, each a different attempt to get at the full meaning of that original text. Even with four translations in hand, the task of understanding fully what was said two to three millenia ago is difficult. Allow me to illustrate:

* First, I read through one translation of a passage in order get a sense of what is going on at a high level.
* Second, I read through a second translation, glancing to the footnotes and cross-references, to get a sense of what specific terms mean, and to understand how that passage ties to others in the Bible.
* Using a third (or fourth or fifth ...) translation, I read sentences and paragraphs at a time, referring back to the first two translations for differences and similarities among them.
* Fourth, I seek to understand what was going on in the original recorder's mind. I must sift through all the language differences, peeling back the colors and flavors from the translators. I use my education in having studied literature, history, linguistics, and the history of words and languages, to arrive at some ancestral idea, that first telling that got recorded.
* Fifth, even that ancestral telling is not the full story. As I said before, that too had a setting and an audience, a language and a culture, a historical context upon which it was based. Using again my education, as described above, I try to place the passage into that setting, looking for hooks linking one to the other the original author would have used.
* From all that, understanding the whole point of what the story was originally telling in its original context, I can finally approach the idea that the speaker had in mind when so divinely inspired, and apply it toward the betterment of my own life.

It is not good enough to read The Bible. If we would truly know the holy word, we would employ a stack.

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