Why is it so difficult to translate the Bible?
Autumn 2020 Newsletter

During the covid-19 quarantine, it was impossible to hold in-person training seminars, so IBT’s planned seminar on translating two of the Minor Prophets was conducted as a webinar. The texts of Habakkuk and Malachi make up only a small part of the full Bible, only 7 chapters in all. Let us mentally project ourselves into this webinar. Specifically, you and I are taking part in a discussion focused on an even smaller fragment – a single Biblical verse, Malachi 2:2. We see this text through a Zoom-conference window. The selected verse is not particularly difficult exegetically. But it turns out to be quite complex in terms of different perceptions of the same concepts held by different cultures.

Here is Mal 2:2 in the Revised Standard Version: “If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.”

What is a “blessing”? And a “curse”? When using these words today, we usually convey our good or bad feelings about something or someone. But for a person from a Biblical culture, these words were not mere speech, but actions. The curse meant taking away vital force, while the blessing gave vital force to the one being blessed.

On the Zoom screen, our lecturer, Andrei, shows the given verse in a special data-management program for Bible translators called Paratext: first in the Hebrew original, then in several published Russian translations, and finally in Andrei’s own translation. He is reading slowly in Hebrew, giving word-by-word literal translations and stopping at each phrase that may arouse difficulties: “If you will not lay it to heart (to lay to heart is to be deeply determined with utmost sincerity) to give glory to (today we might say “glorify”) my name…” The webinar’s participants remember from the previous chapter of Malachi that “name” (haShem) is a substitute/euphemism for “God” and the tetragrammaton (His name YHWH), which Jews at one point stopped pronouncing aloud. So in this context “to My Name” means simply “to Me.”

The lecturer opens up the discussion: “The meaning of ‘I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings’ is clear, but the translation may not sound too good.” The Dargi translator reacts quickly, “It’s VERY difficult. I have no idea what to do with this as a translator. In Russian it’s obvious, but for my language the word ‘curse’ is tremendously complex.” Although one could argue with the words that “in Russian it’s obvious,” the main focus of the discussion is not on this. The lecturer suggests the interpretation “I will turn your blessings into curses,” and this sounds acceptable for the Dargi ear. The Yakut translator has another variant in her draft – “the things that you bless I will curse” – explaining that “Yakuts would not say ‘I will curse your blessings.’” The lecturer counters, “There are very many things in the Bible that people would not say at all in their everyday life. Through our Bible translation work, we are definitely changing the language. To translate as if these texts were our usual folklore sayings or merely everyday banter is not our task at all. So there is nothing awful if you render a new concept in a new and unusual way in your language – not in a rude or vulgar way, of course, but a little unusual.”

The word-by-word commentary continues: “…because you do not lay it to heart.” What is meant by “it”? How is “it” connected with the previous context? Probably, the Lord is speaking about His earlier commandment concerning animals that are fit for sacrifice, but the commandment may also be understood more broadly, as related to the prophetic message in general.

The word “commandment” (Hebrew mitzva) itself requires a special translation decision. First of all, each translation team needs to decide whether they are going to use the same Biblical key term that is used for the Ten Commandments and in the New Testament. The difference is that here the Lord is speaking about His covenant not with the entire people of Israel, but only with the priests from the tribe of Levi. The second problem is to find the most precise term out of many possible terms with similar meanings. The Yakut translator chooses a word meaning “a very urgent command.” Translators from several Caucasian projects start discussing a word which has “last will and testament” as one of its meanings. They finally decide that this word has to do only with relations between humans, but not between God and man. The shade of meaning which they want to convey is “conditions of an agreement.” In the Dargi project, they try the word meaning “commission” but are not satisfied because it is too colloquial in Dargi. Finally, in Avar and Dargi, the translation team members agree on a mutually intelligible word, amru, which means “command.” We see here an example of fruitful cooperation between speakers of related languages.

And then a lively discussion breaks out concerning a term that is relavant to the whole Bible, not only this  particular verse – how to best translate “the Lord of hosts.” The lecturer tries to avoid this side topic, since it isn’t directly connected with the main topic of the present webinar. But the participants aren’t willing to lose this opportunity to discuss an urgent matter together with members of other translation teams from different cultures. Two suggestions offered are “The Lord of troops” and “the Lord of heavenly ranks.” The Avar translator insists that the best rendering in her language is “the Lord of a mighty army.” The lecturer wonders if this would not be understood as the Lord of the armed services of a specific country, but the Avar translator argues vehemently that her people are too spiritually aware to understand this in such a base fashion. The Kumyk team suggests a well-known Muslim term meaning “the Lord of powers,” but in the Avar and Dargi projects it has already been used to render another title of God – “the Almighty.” A translator from one of the Finno-Ugric languages complains that though their translation team had found a precise term meaning “the Holder of the heavenly powers” a long time ago, and it was well accepted during field testing, their local church authorities warned the team that they would not accept their Bible translation if they use any names other than “God” in their translation, whatever the diversity of God’s names in the Bible may be. After this complaint, several more teams share that their local churches are used to dividing the whole vocabulary of their languages into Christian and pagan words. This is of course a completely unscholarly approach, since even the Russian word for “God,” which is inseparable from monotheism today, was used in the past to denote the deities of the Slavonic pantheon, and the same is true for just about all of the world’s languages.

From the interesting discussions during the Minor Prophets webinar, it became clear that however intelligent and accurate our translators are, it’s impossible to solve all Bible translation problems during a single seminar. This is one of the reasons for inevitable Bible revisions. It’s not only that no translation can be perfect. When first translated into a new language, the Bible raises new questions, reveals previously unfamiliar problems, develops a new conceptual system, and changes word semantics. Things once unacceptable may with time become normal.

The Bible itself is a living text, and so is each of its translations. The Word of God has been shaping the  consciousness of God’s people throughout the centuries, and so does each Bible translation. The prophetic words of Habakkuk and Malachi are no exclusion.

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