Friday, April 1, 2016

Is Anything Lost in Translation?

The first Quest Forums discussion meeting is coming up this Sunday, and I have been thinking a lot about its topic. We are going to be talking about the Bible itself, which seems like a good place to start. My preparation has been to collect some information about its composition, its trustworthiness, and how to read it. The great thing is, there is no way for me to exhaust the subject in one hour. The real difficulty is in knowing what is most important for me to say in such a short time. It isn’t really up to me, though. Not entirely, anyway. The goal is to discuss questions, not just for me to get up and share information. Hopefully we get some interesting back-and-forth going.

But anyway, one possible subject that might come up is how to choose a translation of the Bible to read. With so many choices, that isn’t always easy. And even after you have picked one, it is a good idea to refer to others every so often to look for shades of meaning. I came across a good example I would like to share with you today.

II Kings 17

The biblical book of II Kings is part of a record of the royal history of God’s people, and by Chapter 17, the end has come for the northern kingdom of Israel (not to be confused with the southern kingdom of Judah). In the mid-8th Century B.C., the Israelites were conquered and deported from their homeland by the Assyrian Empire. II Kings 17:7–23 explains why this disaster had come about. In spite of constant warnings from God, the people and their leaders had refused to humble themselves before Him and put aside their false gods. They had abandoned the Lord’s commands, which were the terms of receiving His blessings, and so His blessings were finally rescinded. Keep in mind, this was after 200 years in which God had been patient with them and had sent His prophets to warn them. But they would not listen, and so lost everything.

A focal point in this passage is verse 15:

They rejected His statutes and His covenant that He had made with their fathers, and His testimonies which He had testified against them; they followed idols, became idolaters, and went after the nations who were all around them, concerning whom the Lord had charged them that they should not do like them.

It lays out the real crux of what had happened to them. They refused to be holy for a holy God, and it cost them. But there is a small problem here, and it is a matter of translation.

Lost In Translation

My favorite version of the Bible to use is the New King James Version (NKJV), which is where this quotation comes from. The NKJV is usually pretty reliable, in my opinion, because it attempts to present the meaning of the original words of Scripture as faithfully as possible. Here, however, it makes what I consider to be a misstep.

Now, I am no Hebrew scholar, so I am telling you to take what I say here with an extra grain of salt even over what you usually should. But in verse 15, the NKJV says, “they followed idols, became idolaters, and went after the nations who were all around them.” And the problem is, at least from what I can tell, that is not what the Hebrew actually says. The word translated for “idols” is hevel, and for “idolaters” is haval. They are related words, and in their other uses in the Bible, they do refer to idolatry. However, there is a shade of meaning the NKJV misses and which is present in most other versions.


You see, a hevel is a vain thing. Therefore, to become haval is to become vain. We still have to do some modernizing, though, because it does not mean “vain” in the sense of being infatuated with your own appearance or abilities. It means “vain” in the older sense of being worthless. That is why the New International Version, among others, gives the better translation of “They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.”

This is what vanity really is. Anytime we rely on something other than God, we are worshipping it. And it can be false gods like Baal and Zeus, or it can be things like beauty and money. But none of them can really be relied upon. At some point, in some way, they fail us and we discover they were nothing more than a wisp of smoke on which we tried to lean. When we do, we fall. The more we get up only to try leaning on it again, the more often we fall, and the dirtier we become. And the dirtier we become, the more we take on its character of worthlessness. Eventually, they can lead to our destruction just as the Israelites experienced.

The Value of Comparison

The NKJV still makes this point, but not with the same strength it could have. That is not a reason to give up on it, but it is a reason to make comparisons. Most of us will never master the original languages of the Bible. At most, we will pick up bits and pieces. It is necessary for us to rely on the experts. But we shouldn’t lean entirely on one set of them. Translators vary, and it is a good idea to recognize how. It is also valuable to look into why.

There are a number of factors that go into selecting an English translation of the Bible. I can’t cover them all here, and I know one meeting will not be enough to do it, either, if the topic comes up at all. I do think it is important to have a preference. Obviously, since I have my own. And I would be curious to hear what yours are. But my point is this: No translation captures everything. Using a few is a way to find more than what one offers alone. It does not guarantee you will figure out the absolute correct interpretation. It is simply an accessible way to collect new insights, rather than missing out on meaning. Hopefully my experience with II Kings 17:15 makes that point for you as it has for me.

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