Lost in translation: Why understanding the original meaning matters

greek to meLike all of those in the Presbyterian Church (USA) ordination track, I took courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew in seminary. The rationale is that teaching elders should be able to translate the extant texts of the Bible from the languages in which they were originally penned.

I readily admit that I did not “keep” much of my Greek nor Hebrew, but I have a profound appreciation for the importance of the intellectual pursuit of the original languages. Studying Biblical languages helps a pastor read and understand critical commentaries as well as the cultural context in which the Biblical writers lived. There is much to be gained from understanding what was actually said in order to discern what was meant by those who said it.

Thankfully there are many astute students of the original languages and the Middle Eastern culture who help us translate the text accurately and faithfully into today’s language and context.

The same principle holds true in conversations across a pluralistic world. If I want to genuinely understand what a person who speaks a different language and lives in a different cultural reality means, translation is required. But whom do you trust to do that translation?

This concern has been highlighted recently over controversial translations of Pope Francis. Did he really say some of the things being attributed to him? How can you be sure? Do you speak Italian and do you read Spanish? If you are not in a position to do your own translation, whose translations are you to trust?

Joe Garcia lives in Florida and has been working on his own translations of the Pope’s messages.

Garcia thinks its likely that people in the Vatican whose sympathies lean left have been massaging the English translations where possible to both soften the pope’s moral imperatives and sharpen his social-justice concerns.

“Massaging the English translations,” Hmmmmm.

So many things are lost in translation today. The entire culture war that took place just prior to Christmas sparked by selective comments to a G.Q. writer by Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame is just one example. Whether or not you “agree” with Robertson is not the point. The point is did you accurately “hear” what he said?

Did you go to the Bible to verify his translation and application of the text?

Did Robertson at any point misrepresent what the Bible says on the matters he was asked by the interviewer to address?

I tried to keep count of the number of times that secular media people made reference to “the passage from Corinthians” on December 19th. Between CNN, Fox, POTUS, the AP and MSNBC, the referenced passage peaked at 1,000. When was the last time you recall secular media directly referencing, and in many cases reading, a passage from the Bible on the air?

Many times they added that it was “Mr. Robertson’s interpretation of the passage.” Really? Did they do their own translation from the original Greek or were they relying on a translation provided to them? Did they even look it up? My guess is, if they had looked it up, they would have made more accurate reference to the passage as being from First Corinthians as there is no “Corinthians” in the Bible. A point that was lost on most of those reporting and commenting on the matter.

Does this conversation have your ears or at least your interest piqued?

Many people would like for the Bible to not say what it says about a number of issues. But God has said what He has said. In order to accurately understand what God has said we need to be able to translate not only the words but the culture — all of which is Middle Eastern and ancient.

Sadly, much of that is lost in translation to a post-modern Westerners whose ears have become so itchy that they will only listen to that which already aligns with a particular political and cultural agenda. That leaves many not only unteachable but virtually unreachable with the message of the Good News of the God who came to seek and save the lost.

Hear what I’m saying?

Carmen Fowler LaBerge