What actually *is* the Bible? (pt 4 – Kidneys.)

In the previous part of this series we looked at three major translation theories – and looked at the complexities of translating even a simple word such as “flesh”.

A few times I’ve found myself in a discussion around how ‘Pauline’ missionaries (like New Tribes Mission) handle translating words into very rare languages (like those uniquely used by small tribes in Papua New Guinea).

The discussion is usually based on a premise like “When translating the word ‘snow’ for a tribe that has never seen, has no word for, and has no comprehension of ‘snow’, should missionaries invent a new word – meaning ‘snow’ – or use an approximation, like ‘Cookaborough feather’?”

I’ve heard some passionately argue for inventing a new word – in the same way that “amen” and “hallelujah” have made it into English. Often their stance hinges on “God’s word”, that it’d be wrong to replace “snow” (which has multiple properties beside colour – including temperature and frozen state) to something which only conveys the colour.

We could reword this question and ask “If there is an ‘unreached’ tribe that sees the ‘kidney’ as we see the ‘heart’ or ‘mind’, can we legitimately translate ‘heart’ into ‘kidney’?”

Well the question is slightly loaded! I asked this on the Wednesday evening, and at least one attendee said “No! A kidney is a kidney.” And they’re right of course, a kidney is a kidney, so I smiled and gestured toward Job 19:27. In fact, I gestured toward a numbest of Old Testament passages:

Job 19:27 (ESV)
My heart faints within me!
Job 19:27 (Hebrew)
My kidneys faint within me!
Ps 16:7 (ESV)
my mind instructs me
Ps 16:7 (Hebrew)
my kidneys instruct me.
Ps 73:21 (ESV)
I was pierced within
Ps 73:21 (Hebrew)
I was pierced in my kidneys
Ps 139:13 (ESV)
You formed my inward parts
Ps 139:13 (Hebrew)
You formed my kidneys
A comparison of Hebrew “kidneys” and the English Standard Version translation.

Obviously I had hoped someone would respond as they did! The Hebrew in these passages would translate literally (formally, in the most extreme sense) as “kidneys”, because to the Old Testament Jews – “kidneys” carried the same sense of “inner being” as heart or mind does to us today (as well as being an internal organ).

The point I’m trying to make is we need to recognise (again!) that most modern English translations compromise on their choice of translation theory – and provided the translators have done so safely, we’re all good. There’s a very fine line between functional and formal equivalences, and the “interpretation” risks I associated with free translations can still exist (and cause problems) in even the most formal translations.

Speaking of Greek… Let’s do some!

Now, this worked best in-person live with a whiteboard, paper printouts, and a Keynote presentation to boot. But we can try here too.

Firstly, I asked if anyone knows any letters of the Greek alphabet. Before you read on, think hard. I can almost guarantee you know at least one.

Mathematics finds much of it’s earliest origins in Greece, so provided you’re at least 9 years old… it’s highly unlikely you’ve managed to avoid either education related or popular culture references to 3.142!

Some others? A major premium watch brand? (Not Rolex, one of the others.) And finally the NATO phonetic alphabet? There’s a few in there too.

OK, let’s see the list. (And for kicks and giggles, there’s fantastic way to learn the Greek alphabet in just 10 minutes. Honestly, it works!) Use the table below to transliterate the Greek text that follows into the English alphabet. You might be surprised how far (with this example) that gets you… (note: this is a major simplification!)

Greek letterTranslitr.
Α αalphaa
Β βbetab
Γ γgammag
Δ δdeltad
Ε εepsilone
Ζ ζzetaz
Η ηetae
Θ θthetath
Ι ιiotai
Κ κkappak
Λ λlambdal
Μ μmum
Ν νnun
Ξ ξxix
Ο οomicrono
Π πpip
Ρ ρrhor
Σ σ ς5sigmas
Τ τtaut
Υ υupsilon (‘oop’silon)u
Φ φphif / ph
Χ χchich
Ψ ψpsips
Ω ωomegao

And here’s your Greek to transliterate! (Jot down on paper the English letter from above for each Greek letter below.)

Σιμων   αγαπας   με ?
συ   οιδας   οτι   φιλω   σε .
Σιμων   φιλεις   με ?

It’s all Greek to me!

Now, on the Wednesday evening, we were able to highlight Normative and Accusative verbs and work out who was doing what based on the word endings – but fear not – fun can still be had here on this blog! If you correctly transliterated the first line, you should have something like this:

Σιμωναγαπαςμε ?
Simonagapasme ?
A transliteration of the first line.

If you did, (did you?!), you might be able to take an educated guess as to what you just transliterated. Simon – looks close to Simon right? The “me” is, conveniently, “me”. “Simon … me?” And the middle word? “Agapas”? Sound familiar?

It was somewhere at this point I got to push a Keynote slide containing my favourite meme ever:

(Because in New Testament Greek, the order of words doesn’t matter.
Yoda speak?
Oh never mind.)

The full three lines become:

Σιμωναγαπαςμε ?
Simonagapasme ?
συοιδαςοτιφιλωσε .
suoidasotiphilose .
Σιμωνφιλειςμε ?
Simonphileisme ?

It’s a (very cut down) excerpt from a conversation between Simon and Jesus. Philo, Agape … words meaning love. One is brotherly, and one is unconditional. John 21:15-17, and this is my point. In the translation from Greek to English – something is being lost.

Now commentators differ on how important they see the relevance of “philo” and “agape” – but I think we have to at a minimum acknowledge that there’s something being hinted at here. Jesus demands, at least twice, unconditional love. And Simon repeatedly commits to brotherly love. But in our English translations – it’s all just the same word love.

Now to wrap up – some other oddities in language for you to mull over the potential translation consequences of:

  • Contextual interpretation
    One of my favourite tech jokes – “Why couldn’t the robot go up the escalator? Because he didn’t have a dog to carry!”
    When a sign says “Dogs must be carried”, we understand it to mean “If you have a dog with you, it must be carried”, and not that “Carrying a dog is a prerequisite to using this escalator”!
  • Hyperboles
    “If I’ve told you a thousand times … you never do the washing up!”
  • Idioms / figures of speech
    “It’s raining cats and dogs!”
  • Generalisations / approximations
    “Cambridge is 30 miles away” when talking to someone from London, and “I live near London” when talking to someone from America!
  • Changing definitions / understanding
    “Policemen” – men and women right? Political correctness, for example. And can you remember when “wicked” meant awesome?!
  • Words with multiple meanings
    “Lead” (to lead someone, or the metal)
    “Lie” (to lay down, or speak an untruth)
    “Fair” (appearance, or reasonable)
    “Bass” (fish, or sound frequency)
    “Tear” (crying, or rip)
    “Bow” (boat, bend, ribbon decoration, or thing which shoots arrows)

Next up, the start of our final section. How do we protect against controversy and heresy?

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