Translations of Translations?

Richard A. O'Keefe
7 September 2017



Yesterday I read a comment in a fiction archive which I'll paraphrase fairly closely like this:

I'm not giving the exact words, so that you cannot find the comment with a web search, because I am afraid of the laws of libel. If the author of the comment was sincere, then he or she was knowingly spouting off authoritatively without having taken the trouble to ascertain the facts, which is not a good thing. If the author of the comment was not sincere, that's not a good thing either.

Let's start with a quibble, just for grins. Here are three versions of the Lord's Prayer.
Old English Middle English Authorised version
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, Oure fadir that art in heuenes, Our Father which art in heaven,
Si þin nama gehalgod halewid be thi name; Hallowed be thy name.
to becume þin rice thi kyngdoom come to; Thy kingdom come,
gewurþe ðin willa be thi wille don, Thy will be done
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. in erthe as in heuene. in earth as it is in heaven.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg Ȝyue to vs this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce, Give us this day our daily bread.
and forgyf us ure gyltas and forȝyue to vs oure dettis, And forgive us our debts,
swa swa we forgyfaþ urum gyltendum as we forȝyuen to oure dettouris; as we forgive our debtors.
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge and lede vs not in to temptacioun, And lead us not into temptation,
ac alys us of yfele. but delyuere vs fro yuel. but deliver us from evil.

As you can see, the Authorised Version is definitely not in Old English.

That is not the most serious problem with the original claim.

Modern translations into major languages are done direct from the original languages, not from translations of translations.

The Authorised Version (1611) was not the first version of the Bible in English. It wasn't even the first version to be approved by the Church of England: it was the third. It was made after a couple of centuries of the humanist revival, at a time when scholars were keenly interested in languages other than Latin, and Erasmus of Rotterdam had produced new critical editions of the Latin and Greek New Testaments. As the Wikipedia article puts it:

“In common with most other translations of the period, the New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Apocrypha from Greek and Latin.”

In fact the title page of the AV described the AV as “Newly tranſlated out of the Originall tongues”.

Pretty much all of the modern English translations are made from the original languages, by committees from a wide range of denominations, sometimes including non-Christians. There is, for example, a 20th century translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic part of the bible into modern English done by the Jewish Publication Society. There are very few differences between that translation and say the NRSV; where there are differences, there are footnotes explaining uncertainties in translation.

So OK, maybe modern translations are made directly from the ancients texts (literally from photocopies of two-thousand-year-old manuscripts at times), and OK, there isn't much difference between them, but then, everyone knows what previous translators did, so how can we be sure that our agreement with each other about the meaning has anything to do with agreeing with the authors?

The key point is that we are not in the same position as someone trying to translate the Epic of Gilgamesh, with a huge gap between then and now. The Koran, for example, has been in the hands of the Muslims for 1400 years continuously, and we have highly regarded commentaries (tafsirs) from long ago. In the same way, the Tanakh (Old Testament) has been in the hands of the Jews for say 2400 years minimum continuously and they have produced a vast range of commentaries and commentaries on commentaries. And again, the Greek Scriptures have been in the hands of Christians for 1900 years continuously, and the Aramaic (Peshitta) either a little less or a little more, depending on who you believe about whether the Greek or Aramaic version came first. Aramaic is still a living language spoken by some Christian communities (though it wouldn't be if ISIS had their way), and there is a whole nation of people speaking Greek who still use the earliest Greek translation of the Tanakh and the untranslated text of the Greek scriptures as their standard Bible. (They find it a bit the way we find the Authorised Version. Greek hasn't changed as much as English has.) Again, starting in the 2nd century of the common era, people began writing about how they interpreted the Greek scriptures. We have ancient commentaries on older commentaries. There is such a vast stock of ancient writing about the Bible that we have justified confidence in what people of the era thought it meant.

Also, modern translators don't just look at the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic text. They look at ancient translations, such as the Septuagint and Targums, translation into Armenian and Coptic, and so one. When there is a word whose meaning they are not sure of, they look at how it is used in secular documents (a lot of Greek text survives, though much less than we would like). They look at related words in other languages like Akkadian and Ugaritic.

Here's what the JPS have to say about their translation:

“The JPS TANAKH is an entirely original translation of the Holy Scriptures into contemporary English, based on the Masoretic (the traditional Hebrew) text. It is the culmination of three decades of collaboration … In executing this monumental task, the translators made use of the entire range of biblical interpretation, ancient and modern, Jewish and non-Jewish. They drew upon the latest findings in linguistics and archaeology, as well as the work of early rabbinic and medieval commentators, grammarians, and philologists.”

None of that, of course, implies that the Bible is true, or a reliable guide to conduct. All it means is that we have reliable translations. And that is no small thing.