Thursday, January 12, 2012

More Thoughts on Different Translations

I know that some of you will have been completely turned off by this discussion of different translations, and translation philosophies! But for those of you who are still with me, I thought you might like one more thing to ponder and to get your brain cells working.


There are lots of verses in the Bible where the original meaning is ambiguous. That may be because the author deliberately set out to be unclear and God wanted them to be unclear, or because we've lost the sense of what those words meant in the original. Where there is ambiguity, then it's important that a "word for word' translation doesn't try and resolve the ambiguity, as that wouldn't be helpful for us in getting back to the original meaning. Instead we then need to look to what the rest of the Bible teaches to help us work out what the verse or passage actually means.

One verse I came across recently which fits into this category is Romans 16:17. In the NIV this verse reads:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

There are (at least) two ambiguities here. 

The first is whether Junia is a male or a female name. The majority view seems to be that Junia was a woman, and probably the wife of Andronicus, but from the original Greek and even from the traditions of the early church we can't say for certain either way.

The second is what does the phrase "outstanding among the apostles" mean? Does it mean that Andronicus and Junia are apostles, and even amongst the group of apostles they are outstanding? Or are they outside the group of apostles, but even when you compare them to the apostles, or perhaps in the estimation of the apostles, they are outstanding? Again the text is unclear, and I think the NIV, and most other translations, well express that ambiguity.

These ambiguities can be important for us to ponder. For instance, in this case if Junia is a woman, and she is an apostle, then that would have something significant to say about the role of women in the church. 

Now in my opinion a good "word for word" translation should leave the ambiguity in. One of the criticisms of "thought for thought" translations is that often the ambiguities like this get removed based on the translators own thoughts, ideas or understanding of what the rest of the Bible teaches. We might like that, particularly if we agree with the thoughts of the translator, but it doesn't help us in getting to the original meaning. Now take a look at how the ESV translates this verse:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

All of the ambiguity around the second phrase has gone, without any footnote to indicate the words could be read a different way (to be fair there is a noet to say that the female name Junia could also be the male name Junias so the first ambiguity is left). The ESV study Bible in it's notes says "The verse seems to be saying, however, that Andronicus and Junia were well known to the apostles, not that Junia was herself an apostle". The two potential meanings are expressed in the study guide, but not in the Bible itself. All of the other translations I've looked at, including the NASB, King James and New King James leave the ambiguity in. 

Now I love the ESV translation, I use it extensively in all of my studying, and I'm sure the translators had a very good reason for translating this verse the way they did. I'm simply saying that we need to be aware that there is great value in using more than one translation, to be aware that no translation is perfect, and ultimately to recognise the value of having people in our community who can take us back to the original Hebrew and Greek - something I'm praying for!

Well done for getting to the end, and for listening to my musings. I'd love to hear any thoughts on this.

Simon.

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