Translator Issues

When we read translations of original language texts we are using the work of translators. They tend to have language skills and not theological skills. After Galileo, the church started solving problems by spiritualizing stories and changing the meanings of words. This article explores these problems by giving Greek and Hebrew examples.

The Business Of Translation

Imagine you are an ancient shop keeper in the city of Athens. Your shop sells scrolls to the educated elite of the city.

You have heard about a scroll in Aramaic. You want a translation into Greek. So you decide to hire a translator who can produce a master copy that you will use when your employees make scroll copies for your shop.

What is the skill you want in that translator?

Americans typically do not value high precision in use of American English. We are this way because we are a nation of immigrants. Our own ancestors usually had to learn the local language. We still see many new immigrants who are learning English, so we forgive poor use of the language.

In most other countries and cultures high skill in the local language is expected. Anyone not using the language correctly is in trouble socially.

If you were that shop keeper looking for a translator, you are looking for someone who knows Greek as their mother tongue. They need to have learned Aramaic at some time, but Aramaic skill is not the primary factor in picking a translator.

So in general, the translator will be less skilled at reading Aramaic than they would be in writing Greek.

Once a translator has been chosen, they are even less likely to be versed in the fine theological details of base document. The were raised speaking Greek and they could not have become fluent in the Aramaic text until after they learned to read Aramaic. Even then they may not have had access to the debates over textual nuances in the text.

This leads us to the first problem of translation: misunderstanding of nuanced terms in the source document.

I covered the example in the previous article, but let me repeat the quote here for completeness. The following is from the NIV, a careful translation from Greek. Note the use of the term 'camel.'

FA 24Again, I say to you, it is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of god. (Matthew 19:24 BRB)

While the following quote is from the BRB, a translation carefully audited against the Aramaic.

FA 24Again, I say to you, it is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of god. (Matthew 19:24 BRB)

This is the mistake made when the term 'camel' was translated as 'camel' into Greek. The translator missed the nuance of the secondary meaning of the term, the idea of camel's rope.

This example is but 1 of a family of mistakes when translating. In particular ancient translators were always using hand written copies of source documents. Those documents were all slightly different based on the penmanship of the copyist who made the source scroll. Aramaic is a cursive script. Several of the letters are very similar to each other. Readers not familiar with the source stories can and did make a whole range of errors related to misreading the spelling of the Aramaic.

This level of mistake can perhaps be forgiven. Mistakes in translation created this way can be forgiven because of the lack of skill on the part of the translator.

The process of translation is also ripe for intentional changes in meaning. In other words the translator can be making theological changes at the same time. These types of translation changes are not so easily forgivable.

Galileo Galilei

Galileo is perhaps one of earliest and most important astronomers and physicists. He was born in Italy in 1564 and died in 1642. He is considered the father of observational astronomy, modern classical physics, the scientific method and modern science itself.

Note importantly that he is born into the world of the Protestant Reformation. Luther had unleashed the idea that everyone should study the text of the Bible for themselves. This unleashes a more general idea. Everyone should study the world for themselves. Galileo is perhaps the first full embodiment of this idea.

Though Galileo was Italian, the full fruits of Luther's ideas created the industrial revolution which was curiously based in the more Protestant countries.

By 1615 Galileo was in trouble with the Catholic church over the idea that the earth rotated around the sun. The church held an inquisition on this point. They concluded Galileo was wrong because it contradicted Holy Scripture.

Of course the evidence would mount in Galileo's favor. The church itself was starting to show problems in dealing with truth itself. Is the text of the Bible a trustworthy source of truth?

A limited answer to this question is that it is true only in the topics that it chooses to address. Another strategy is to allegorize everything, so that everything in the Bible can be made to mean anything anyone wants.

Ultimately the post World War II collapse of Christianity can be attributed to how this question is answered.

The first wave of answering this question was for the church to spiritualize ideas that no longer could stand against scientific inquiry. Perhaps the best known early example of this involved the church response to Galileo.

In that response the Church started changing the definition of fundamental terms. They also started translating those terms using their shifting theological framework.

Heaven Or Skies?

To understand this better we turn to 2 passages from Revelation In both cases we will put the NIV up against the BRB for each passage. The NIV follows the church response to Galileo, the BRB is simply audited against the Aramaic.

In this first passage, both the NIV and the BRB are using the term 'sky.' By this the term means the skies up above the clouds. The place where Galileo pointed his telescope.

13 4|6 and the stars of the skies fell to the land, even as a fig tree casts its green figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind, (Revelation 6:13 BRB)
13 4|6 and the stars of the skies fell to the land, even as a fig tree casts its green figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind, (Revelation 6:13 BRB)

To a casual reader the term heaven and sky are synonyms, and the difference between heaven and sky appears to be the case of the translator just picking whatever word seemed right.

In some sense the English definitions of heaven and sky overlap each other, so this is what might be going on. But we can look at the problem more closely by using other passages. With that we can show this is not just a translator's choice, but something more sinister.

In the is next example we look at another passage from Revelation. In this passage the New Jerusalem is coming down. But where it is coming from is now disputable.

10He carried me away FA in the spirit to a mountain great and high and showed me the holy city FA , Jerusalem, coming down from the skies from god. (Revelation 21:10 BRB)
10He carried me away FA in the spirit to a mountain great and high and showed me the holy city FA , Jerusalem, coming down from the skies from god. (Revelation 21:10 BRB)

Note here how there is a difference. The BRB is indicating to us that there is but 1 term in the underlying Aramaic. But the modern NIV translators are using 2 very different words. This is either at the Aramaic to Greek step or it is at the Greek to English step. In this case it is at the latter. Let me explain.

The reason for this is that 'Heaven' in modern church, post Galileo theology is no longer the skies above our heads, but a spiritualized place. Heaven does not exist in physical reality.

By creating this split definition the church deflected the problem that Galileo posed to them in the early 1600s. Splitting definitions like this, when done by individual people, is often a sign of mental illness. The church was demonstrating that they were unable to keep up with understood reality. They cared more about their fiction than about a search for truth. Galileo was undermining the power of the church as arbiters of truth.

You can use the same tools as we used for the Potter and Leper cases to study this problem too. Does the context of this latter quote suggest a physical reality? Or is it just spiritual? For that matter what does spiritual even really mean?

By looking around at the city that is coming down, you will find it has dimensions given. Those dimensions are about the size of a square inscribed in the circle of the moon, if that square is about the same distance from earth.

15He who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold reed to measure the city and its gates and its wall. M Ezekiel 40:3 16The city was laid 4-square the length the same as the breadth. He measured the city with the reed, 12,000 stadia, and the length and breadth and height were equal. 17He measured the wall, 144 cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the king. Revelation 21:15-17 (Revelation 21:15-17 BRB)

That city is not spiritual, but a measurable place.

The NIV and other modern translations are playing a game, they are not faithfully translating the underlying text. The theoretical limits on this secret game cannot be know without much better tooling. The BRB is a good place to start. Complete tooling for solving this problem is the purpose for this website.

The Commandments

The game of modern translators changing the meaning of underlying terms did not stop in Galileo's day. It still goes on. It will likely continue to happen. Perhaps the best way to see this is through a quote from the 10 commandments.

What follows here is the commandment not to kill taken from 7 different translations. Those translations are shown below and are sorted by the date when they were published. See if you can spot this most fundamental of changes.

Can you spot the change?

Of course there are changes in the English. Thou became you. Shalt became shall. Those are just spelling differences. Not a fundamental problem.

But note in the translations from 1611 until 1945, the English world read this commandment as do not kill. After 1945, in the English world, we now read this commandment as do not murder.

The meaning of the English has been seriously softened. Murder is the personal act of killing, either premeditated or accidental. No longer is participation in war excluded by this commandment. Kill is an absolute. Murder is not.

What would have caused this change in translation? What was it about the World War II era that had any impact on the translation of the Bible? How did World War II have any impact on the translation process of individual translators?

This question is harder to answer. But let me suggest that the definition of the underlying Hebrew term was changed. The Bible does not come with a dictionary, so whomever controls the dictionary controls the modern translation process.

Someone with a pressing need for a change in that term decided to change the dictionary. The timing for that change was at the end of World War II with the modern formation of the nation of Israel.

Modern Israel needed to stand an army to defend itself against hostile neighbors. If the army obeyed the commandment fully, they could never use their weapons. So the definition for the Hebrew word behind the English word kill needed to change. The government of Israel and its religious supporters had the power to simply change the dictionary definition of this term, and they did so.

This still does not explain why that change rippled out into Christian translations done after WWII. But, like Luther in his day Christian translators of the Bible are limited to using Jews as the source for the definitions of of terms. If the Jews want to change the term, Christians have no choice but to follow along.

This is like the evil queen in the Alice in Wonderland fables. That queen had the power to make any word mean anything she wanted. Someone is doing that now with the text of the Bible.

This is perhaps the best argument of the King James Only crowd. That group asserts that the KJV English translation is the only trustworthy modern translation.

In some sense they are diagnosing a genuine problem. But their solution is not very good either. KJV is often promoted in ways to misstate the KJV only argument itself.

Surely there must a way around this problem too? There is. Words will turn out to be self-defining. We have a few more steps before we can get to those details. Before that we turn our attention to the history of Paleo Hebrew.