Difficulties in Bible Translation


     Aramaic was a language common to Egypt and most of western Asia (which we know today as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, etc.). A common language is important because it speeds up business transactions by people who speak different languages in port cities where shipping and trade is conducted. The common language to the north and west of Israel in the first century was Greek. And that helped communication between those countries. Since that’s the direction Paul went in starting his churches, his letters were written in Greek.

     Aramaic is a poetic language, using rhythm, order, and sound to reveal its meaning…similar in ways to Arabic and Hebrew…and written words on paper or papyrus cannot always give a full range of meaning. Converting a language that is less predictable, more poetic, that uses verbal inflection to convey its meaning and turning it into a language that is predictable and fixed …..doesn’t always mean you’ll get the best of each. Let me show you what I mean

     In my book about the Lord’s Prayer, I compared the Aramaic language to an Arabian horse created to run like the Wind. Aramaic has different levels of meaning. It makes no distinction between the body, mind, and spirit. That means one word can have different meanings. It’s a system that permits interpretation at the body, mind, or spiritual level…while the Greek language is more like a Clydesdale. It’s designed for power and stability. Coming from the Greeks who were philosophical and intellectual, it was a little more fixed or stable in its meanings, but you just saw how there is still the possibility of variation with words.

When you move from Aramaic to Greek you might come out with something as close as this:

This is an over-exaggeration but even Jesus was famous for that.

Or maybe it would look like this:

     Both languages were functional for their cultures…but you can see that to convert one to another is not an exact science.

     Another quick comparison: In my second book on the Beatitudes, I compared the languages to vehicles. I said Aramaic is like a racecar designed for the Indy-500 while Greek might be more like a heavy-duty pickup truck.

    My rough comparison of the languages speaks, not to their function or validity, but to the unlikely prospect that the limitations involved in trying to perfectly convert one to the other—is as unlikely as trying to convert an Indy 500 car designed for speed into a pickup truck that can carry heavy loads across rough terrain.   (racecar/truckbed)

     But then what happens when you try to take the first transformation attempt…and compound the difficulty by…mixing it with another language – Latin, another fixed and predictable language – which St. Jerome did in the late 4th century. And this is how it stayed for a thousand years. (pony)

Then if you take Latin and Greek versions and change them into English — this may be as close as we come to the original language…….at best.   (spotted mule)

So the question is this: Do we know exactly – because we read it in English – what the Bible says and means? Or should step back a little, and offer the translators a little grace?

Who knows, we may be as far away from some of the real meanings as this. (sea horse)

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Found a cool version of the Lord’s Prayer sung in Aramaic – check it out: http://youtu.be/ROM5EpCQUlg

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