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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Simple Misunderstanding

Anyone reading this who has ever wrestled with translating text from one language into another will know that, sooner or later, major compromise is inevitable. It's not just the differences in [1]syntax, or the subtly-changing inflexions of meaning. Often enough, words and idioms are encountered which simply have no equivalent in the other language. In short: sooner or later the translator is forced to resort to personal opinion. Now consider that the various texts which we collectively call the Bible have been translated from Ancient Hebrew, 1st- and 2nd-century Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Vulgate Latin, 14th-century English and 16th-century German, and from these into many of the contemporary languages in use today, both national, regional and indigenous. How many personal opinions, how many compromises and simple misunderstandings of meaning did a process of translation and retranslation which extended over millennia of time and vastly different cultures involve?

To take just three of the more sensitive examples: In the original texts, Mary the mother of Jesus never actually was described as a virgin. The specific Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah, but the word used is almah, meaning simply a young maiden, a newly-married young woman, with no qualifying implication of virginity. When translated from Hebrew into Greek, however, the word in scripture became parthenos, and parthenos does indeed mean 'virgin'. There’s no denying that the idea of a virgin birth for the Messiah imbues the texts with an aura of the pure and the miraculous. The tradition is by now so deeply entrenched in our thinking that it is taken as read, although it is understandably disturbing to realize that the foundations of Catholicism rest upon a simple misunderstanding of translation. As does...

I recall being triumphantly confronted by someone who, in a bid conclusively to prove to me the accuracy of scripture, gave me a link to a website in which a dive under the Red Sea had turned up what appeared to be the remains of [2]chariot wheels. Clearly proof-positive that Pharaoh's army had drowned there while in hot pursuit of the Israelites! Well... actually, no. Because (assuming the historical actuality of the event) Moses and his followers never in fact crossed the Red Sea. No, not even on foot.

The Biblical location of the renowned crossing as it is now familiar to us is actually a mistranslation of 'Reed Sea' (the similarity of the words in English is coincidental), which was then an area of [3]salty marshlands east of the Nile Delta. The original Hebrew phrase used is Yam Suph (‘Sea of Reeds’), which was mistranslated into Greek, and further mistranslated into English as the [4]Red Sea, known as the Erythraean Sea. Exactly why this marshland region is a more likely location, and how it could tie together with Moses’ famous parting of the waters, is a story for another time, but it does underscore the hazards of language.

But to take things one step further: what if the whole of the Bible begins with a misunderstanding? Is such a thing possible? In Genesis 1:1, we read the familiar opening words: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.’ Except, as is now acknowledged by scholarship, the actual Hebrew noun used is elohim, the plural form. So the text literally reads: ‘In the beginning, the gods created the heavens and the Earth.’ My annotated Apologist [5]Bible skates around this uncomfortable truth by explaining that the usage of the [6]plural form ‘expresses intensification rather than number’ (no, I'm not quite sure what they mean by that either). But this denial is to do a disservice to the accurate portrayal of historical Hebrew religion, whose roots are polytheistic, not monotheistic.

Once I fell into conversation with someone who without question believed that the Bible, being – as he believed – God’s revealed word, has been handed down to us unchanged from the time that it had first been written. I asked him if he had ever attempted any translation work. He said, ‘No’.

Language is the source of misunderstandings.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

[1] The correct order of words in a sentence. My own translation work from Dutch into English offers some great examples. Using Dutch syntax for the English phrase ‘May I borrow a book from you?’ produces the sentence: ‘May I a book from you borrow?’!

[2] These finds are almost certainly fraudulent, and apparently were planted in an attempt to lend credible evidence to scripture. They were removed from the site before accredited marine archaeologists could examine them. The scale of the wheel in the photo at left is misleading – it apparently is quite small, and looks like an ordinary ship’s handwheel with a piece of broken coral placed on top for effect. As someone with professional museum experience of the manner in which marine organisms accrete on submerged metal, I can say that this is not how such marine accretions develop in their natural state, and certainly not after several millennia of submersion.

[2]cont: I also am aware of the claim for the alleged 'chariot wheel' in this photo that it is of gold lacquer, which is the reason given for why coral has not grown upon it. To which the only reasoned response is: please cite the source of an accredited archaeological institution which has conducted impartial metallurgical tests to determine this. Predictably, these photos continue to be presented on various websites as ‘proof’ of Biblical events. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ – except, apparently, when thou art doing so in God’s name.

[3] These marshlands no longer exist; they were drained during the construction of the Suez Canal.

[4] In editions subsequent to the King James Version the name has been changed to the more accurate Sea of Reeds.

[5] The King James Version Study Bible, pub. Zondervan.

[6] See also Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 3:22 for more plural deity examples. The argument sometimes put forward that elohim is simply an example of the singular ‘royal we’ (as in Queen Victoria’s famously-dry comment, ‘We are not amused’), is invalid, as this form of address was not used until introduced centuries later by Augustus Caesar, when he referred to himself and the Roman senate as a single entity.

Sol Abrams: Polytheism in Genesis: Baal and Ashtoreth vs. Yahweh

Elaine Pagels: The Origin of Satan. In this title, Professor Pagels points out that in writing his Gospel, Matthew was in fact reading a Greek translation of the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14, and so was able to confirm to himself and his readers that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. But as this post points out, this is not what Isaiah’s original Hebrew actually says. But Matthew (or whomever wrote the Gospel, because its authorship is unconfirmed) had his own agenda as well, and was attempting to counter claims at that time that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate. The option which he chose was to err on the side of the miraculous.

The images for this post are from the paintings by Rien Poortvliet in his book Hij was Een van Ons, pub. by van Holkema & Warendorf.

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