The role of theology in Bible translation, part 1

Categories: Old Testament

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As the discussion on the upcoming NIV 2011 revision has continued, I’ve been thinking more about translation issues in recent days. (I should mention at the start that my counsel to people who ask for translation recommendations is to recommend having several, and several from different translation philosophies. I usually recommend some mix of the NASB, NIV, NRSV, and ESV; usually a look across several translations gives a good range of potential meaning.)

But on the subject of translation theory, a few subjects have dominated my thinking the last few days: 1) the role of theology (both ancient and modern) in shaping a translation, 2) the problem of specialized terms both in the source language and receptor language, especially theological terms that have a long history and a lot of baggage, and related to that problem, 3) the potential benefit for a “glossary” or something like it for any basic Bible translation. A fourth and unrelated problem I’ve been thinking about for quite some time has to do with sentence structure (especially Greek vs. English) and the problem of verses for a translation. I’ll deal with these one-by-one, starting today with an initial post on the role of theology.

The Role of Theology

Aside from the recent flesh/sarx discussion, the verse that got me thinking of this was actually 2 Samuel 8:18, which says:

וּבְנָיָהוּ בֶּן־יְהוֹיָדָע וְהַכְּרֵתִי וְהַפְּלֵתִי וּבְנֵי דָוִד כֹּהֲנִים הָיוּ
“Benaiah, the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites and David’s sons were priests.”

The LXX is a little different:

καὶ Βαναιας υἱὸς Ιωδαε σύμβουλος, καὶ ὁ Χελεθθι καὶ ὁ Φελεττι· καὶ υἱοὶ Δαυιδ αὐλάρχαι ἦσαν.
“And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was a counselor—and the Cherethites and the Pelethites—and David’s sons were court rulers.”

The Vulgate, Peshitta, and the Targumim are different still (citing the Vulgate here):

Banaias autem filius Ioiada super Cherethi et Felethi filii autem David sacerdotes erant
“Moreover, Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and Pelethites, but the sons of David were priests.”

Of course, the major theological problem here is that two of the three ancient texts says that David’s sons were “priests,” while the third (the LXX) uses a neologism that could very well indicate something similar, given that an αὐλή is hard to define—it is used of the temple court, the court of the tabernacle, of a palace, etc. But the Torah makes it very clear that only those of Aaronic lineage could be priests, so how could this be? This is obviously a problem, and various translations have taken different approaches to rendering it. But before we look at those, we need to consider yet one more ancient rendering:

1 Chr 18:17
‏וּבְנָיָהוּ בֶּן־יְהוֹיָדָע עַל־הַכְּרֵתִי וְהַפְּלֵתִי וּבְנֵי־דָוִיד הָרִאשֹׁנִים לְיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ
“Benaiah the son of Jeohiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites, and the sons of David were chiefs at the King’s hand” (i.e. “the sons of David were the king’s chief officials”).

It shouldn’t be especially surprising that the Chronicler’s witness is a bit different here, as David is quite a cleaned-up figure in Chronicles (try to find the Bathsheba/Uriah incident in Chronicles; you’ll be looking quite a while). It’s entirely possible that the Chronicler was the first to grapple with the problem of 2 Sam 8:18, while coming to his own conclusion of how best to render it. It’s also possible that 2 Sam 8:18 is a corruption (1 and 2 Samuel are not known for the exemplary purity of their textual transmission), while the 1 Chronicles rendering is actually a better transmission of the earlier tradition. It’s hard to know.

What we do know, however, is that many modern translations (e.g. NIV, NASB, NLT, NKJV, HCSB) have essentially copied this verse in place of the more difficult 2 Sam 8:18, alleviating the difficult theological problem (as well as the problem of agreement between books of the Bible, which at least in some quarters is also a theological problem). But is this the way Bible translation should be done? In one sense, I think it’s somewhat irresponsible to cover these textual problems over this way. On the other hand, the ancient witnesses attest to the same difficulties that modern translators are grappling with.

But it’s worth noting that the Bible translations that have smoothed the translation over are all of a more conservative reputation, while the ESV, NRSV, and NET all translate it straightforwardly as “priests.” This would seem to indicate that theological concerns have here very clearly influenced the translation of this verse. Honestly, I’m not sure how this verse should be rendered for a basic reader’s version (though I lean towards the “priests” rendering), but this is the sort of test case that we really need to consider when we think about how much modern theological concerns should be allowed to influence a translation.

Part II to come…

Tags: Old Testament, Translation

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