29 Unique Translational Problems
When I was a child, I heard this supposedly true but sad story of this old man who decided to hew in stone with his own hands an eulogy to honor his dear wife of so many years. But he had to fit the words according to the space on the rock he had chosen to be the tombstone. The poor man didn’t pay any attention to punctuation.
Here lies my wife Dot
In Heaven she is not
In Hell, that I know well.
Where man is involved, mistakes are sure to happen, often without the culprit noticing it himself.
There are also unique translational difficulties coming forth from the language, writing material and writing habits of Koine (general) Greek. This is the language used all over the Greco-Roman world since the world rule of Alexander the Great. It was even used in Egypt where the numerous scraps of papyrus containing contracts and ordinary letters, even parts of the New Testament had recently been discovered. The New Testament Greek has numerous Semitisms as an influence of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament dating from around 300 B.C.
In the beginning documents including the New Testament were written in scriptio continua. This meant that no spaces were left between words or even sentences. Bear also in mind that there were no capitals to indicate a new sentence or the first name of a person, even God. When the end of a line was reached, the next letter was written in the next line, dividing words where ever need be. Numerous abbreviations were also used, especially for frequent appearing words like the sacra nomina. To a scribe not knowing the habit of the pervious scribe, this could be confusing.
Punctuation was almost non existing, and yet it could make a huge difference. Consider Revelation 5:1: “And I saw a book on the right of Him sitting on the throne, written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” (MKJV) If we were to place the comma not between “back” and “sealed”, but between “inside” and “and”, the sentence has a different meaning. This is exactly what could happen with translation from the Greek, for there were practically no punctuation marks, and the translator had to decide where to divide the sentence.
This is exactly the difference found in the meaning in Mat.6:10. In Greek the words “as it is in heaven” may refer to either all three petitions, or only the last petition. By not putting a comma after “earth” all petitions are included, like the NIV: “…hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. “ By adding a full stop after “Name” and a comma after “earth”, the rendering of the MKJV makes it applicable only to the last petition: “…Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. “
In Luke 23:43 the positioning of a comma can confirm or reject a theological dogma. Remember, there are no commas or any indication in the Greek. Did Jesus say: “Truly I say to you, Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”, or did Jesus say:” Truly I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” It is obvious that the difference between the two possibilities is tremendous! The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures translates in the second way to accommodate the Dogma of the soul sleep, expounded by the Jehovah Witnesses. One cannot but ask why Jesus would emphasize “today” in this way, for He was talking “today”. If that was the meaning, He could just as well have left out the word completely. On the other hand, if Jesus truly meant that on that very same day the criminal crucified with Jesus would be in Heaven with Him, the emphasis on “today” makes sense. The context leans more to the first possibility.
Sometimes a clause in Greek could be interpreted either as a question, or as a statement. In Rom.8:34 the RSV translates the clause as a question: “…who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?” The MKJV translates the clause as a statement: “Who is he condemning? It is Christ who has died, but rather also who is raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.”
In Mark 15:2 Pilate asks Jesus whether He is the Son of God. Again Jesus’ answer could be translated either as a statement or as a question. The Greek could be translated: “Yes, it is as you say.” (NIV) It could also be translated: “Do you say so?”
In some cases there is no problem with the translation of the Greek, but to what it did mean at that time. Consider Rev.2:23: “And I will kill her children with death. And all the churches will know that I am He who searches the reins and hearts, and I will give to every one of you according to your works.” (MKJV) Reins is the old English word for kidneys. Why would Jesus “kill her children with death” as a result of His searching of the “kidneys and hearts”? Shouldn’t He rather offer a kidney and heart transplant to Jezebel? Here is no problem with the translation, but with the meaning. In those days the kidneys were seen as the centre for love and emotions, and the heart of desires and decision-making. That is why the Contemporary English Version rather translates the meaning: “Then all the churches will see that I know everyone’s thoughts and feelings. I will treat each of you as you deserve.”
Sometimes the grammar of the source language causes a direct translation to be interpreted on more than one way. As an example we look at Luke 21:36: “Watch therefore, praying in every season that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things which shall occur, and to stand before the Son of Man.” The question is how “to escape” should be understood? (second aorist active infinitive of ekfeugo) Some people interpret it as meaning to be raptured. (passive) But is the interpretation correct?
The context of this passage is on actively “standing in the midst of tribulations” rather than being passively raptured from it.
The question is whether this interpretation should be enforced upon the reader in fear of this verse being misused. Like the Good News Bible and the Message, the BBE translates: “But keep watch at all times with prayer, that you may be strong enough to come through all these things and take your place before the Son of man.”
These are but a few examples of how careful and sincerely honest the Bible translator should do his work. The translations by the Bible Societies are above personal influence, but other translations should also be used in conjunction with that of the Societies.
Do pray for translators all over the world!