Reading the Bibles: Why Translations Differ (Part 2)

May 10, 2012 | 3 comments
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Before looking at the two sample passages in detail,  I want to familiarize you with some basic information about the Old Testament text and translation issues. And in the last part, I’ll make some suggestions about how to approach the text like this when you haven’t studied Greek or Hebrew.

I’ve divided these into four semi-artificial headings, too long to all go in one post.

1) What are they translating from, and (1a) how much is the translation influenced by the versions?

Translators must choose a base text from which to translate.  Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), the best manuscripts of the Old Testament were medieval, i.e. very late and far removed. This traditional Hebrew text is called the Massoretic text, or MT. Scribes copied biblical texts by hand for generations and as with all human endeavors, errors crept in by nature as well as by intention. That is, on occasion scribes would “correct” a text as they thought it should read (e.g. if you’re reading a story about a dog chasing a man, the dog catches him, and the man bites the dog,  and then the man goes to the hospital, you would reasonably assume that it was the dog that bit the man, not the other way around, and “correct” the text.) Scribes also sometimes made changes in pronunciation (to make sure Yahweh was pronounced as Adonai) or bowdlerized the text a little, or made theological changes. Errors are relatively common, obvious corrections much less so. When translators come across a man-bites-dog passage, they may well check the DSS. Whether they ultimately decide to use the MT or the DSS  or both as the basis of the translation is a philosophical decision. Using a different base text will result in differences in the translation.

1a) Ancient translations of Hebrew are called “versions.” These include the Greek translation(s), known as the Septuagint or LXX,  Aramaic translations known as Targums or targumim, and others in Latin, Syriac, etc. In several cases, our mss of these versions predated our oldest Hebrew texts, making the translation older than the original. (The DSS have closed the gap considerably.) In difficult or ambiguous passages, translators often consult the versions because they show how the ancient translators understood the text, and sometimes attest to a different underlying text. ( One classic example is Deu 32:8-9, in which the MT was “corrected” to sound monotheistic, but the versions preserved an older text that was then confirmed by the DSS.) You can also buy translations just of the versions, such as the recent and freely-available New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS)

A good Bible will often include footnotes saying something like “other manuscripts read X” or “Hebrew uncertain.” The NET Bible often explains its translation in terms of the base text. How much weight should be given to the versions and under what circumstances are questions of translation philosophy that can affect the translation.

Link to part 3.

3 Responses to Reading the Bibles: Why Translations Differ (Part 2)

  1. Kevin Barney on May 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Wow, I was not aware of the NETS you linked to. That alone was worth the price of admission!

  2. Ardis E. Parshall on May 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks, Ben. This all probably seems so obvious to you, but I find it enormously helpful.

  3. Martin on May 10, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks Ben — this is helpful. Looking forward to the rest.

WELCOME

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