Thoughts about Bible Translations: 2. More on Accuracy

One measure of accuracy, as we’ve already discussed, is whether the translation accurately represents what the source text says. Now this is not to say that the translation cannot account for the meaning of what is stated in the source text, but the translated text should convey that meaning in much the same way that the source text does, by making the same assertion.

Another measure of accuracy is whether the translated text is based on a proper understanding of what the source text is saying, in context. The context of a word or sentence is of great significance. For example, in the well-known and much disputed verse from Isaiah:

{7:14} Propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum. Ecce virgo [Hebrew: ‘almah] concipiet, et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel.
{7:14} For this reason, the Lord himself will grant to you a sign. Behold, a virgin will conceive, and she will give birth to a son, and his name will be called Immanuel.

When translating from the Latin, the translation choice is clear; the Latin plainly says virgo/virgin. However, the Hebrew word is ‘almah, referring to a young unmarried woman of marrying age. This word has no exact equivalent in English. But even if it did have an exact equivalent in English, that word would not be the best choice for translation, because it would not take account of the context.

The context of the word ‘almah is firstly the verse and passage of Isaiah. The Lord God is granting a sign to a king, that a child would be born whose name means ‘God is with us.’ So this cannot be a sinful child, nor can his mother and his conception be of grave sin. For it is a sign from God that God is with us. But an ‘almah is an unmarried young woman. So how can she conceive a child, without sin, and yet be unmarried? The context is also the larger situation, that the woman, as a sign to the Jewish people, is a Jewish woman. And in that culture, society, and religion, a woman who has sexual relations before marriage would be condemned to death (Deut 22:20-21). So in this context, the ‘almah would have to be a virgin.

As confirmation that this approach is correct, we have the example of the translation of this verse given by the Holy Spirit through Matthew:

{1:23} “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in her womb, and she shall give birth to a son. And they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means: God is with us.”

The Greek text, as well as the Latin again, plainly says ‘virgin’.

The context in which the Bible text is read and translated should include the passage in question, and the whole of the Bible, with both Testaments, as well as the doctrines of the Faith. But this approach, which puts faith above scholarship and reason above whatever biases are currently in favor in society, is rejected by many Bible translators. Instead of translating the Old Testament in the light of the Roman Catholic Faith, as a Catholic today would understand the text, they claim to translate the Old Testament as a Jew in ancient times would understand (or fail to understand) the text. This results in a translation that obscures the foreshadowings of the New Testament found in the Old.

For example, the Old Testament describes a type of bread — pure white wheat bread, unleavened — placed before an ever-burning candle in the sanctuary, as a type of sacrifice to God (e.g. Ex 25:30). Sound familiar? This practice was a foreshadowing of the New Testament Eucharist. My translation, ‘bread of the presence’, makes the connection between the Old Testament foreshadowing and the New Testament Eucharist (with the Real Presence of Christ) manifest. Protestant texts translate this as the ‘showbread’. So do some of the modernist Catholic translations, such as the NABRE.

This brings me to another point about modern Bible translations: the secularization of Sacred Scripture. Modern Bible translations have, for some time now, been making changes to the wording, on the excuse that their translated wording is more accurate, which make the meaning less pious, less connected with faith, less effective in teaching morals. The meaning that is pious or that condemns a sin is often narrowed or nullified or obscured by the translation. For example:

“When anyone speaks, it should be like words of God.” (1 Peter 4:11).

The above verse encourages all our speaking to be like words from God: holy, pure, faithful, true, virtuous, etc. But modern translations, like the NAB, change the text to say:

“Whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God.”

So the meaning of the text becomes narrowed, as if to say that our speaking, other than in preaching, can be secular. This narrowing is not supported by the Latin or the Greek text. Both languages use the word that means ‘speaking’, the word commonly used to refer to any type of speaking on any subject, not specifically preaching.

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