“Blank Slates” and Poor English Equal Bad Translation

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Joel Hoffman has just observed that he thinks many people prefer the “blank slate” that comes from incoherent translation because it allows them to see whatever they choose in the passage. That is, they can get whatever “feel” they want from it, without having things like the actual meaning getting in their way.

I’ve been thinking about exactly this point of late, especially after putting together a few of my “Misunderstood Bible Passages” posts. It struck me that many of the interpretive problems I’m trying to correct are the result of one or both of two things:

1) Shallow translation. That is, the scholars who translate/write about the passage don’t seem to go beyond a superficial “vocabulary” translation, leading to misguided interpretations, and/or

2) Inadequate understanding of English itself. Many translations are poor, not because they’re bad renderings of the Greek, but because they’re simply bad English—what my old professor John Marincola used to call “dog Greek” (that is, Greek in English words). I’m starting to think that most translations would be better off if, after translating everything into English, they were actively read aloud and the English corrected for better “flow.”

Unfortunately, I’m also not sure that all the scholars doing translations are aware of how English is spoken outside the academy; take a quick read through an academic monograph and it becomes painfully obvious that many (most?) scholars don’t write especially well. And how many scholars really speak the colloquial language? After spending a decade years getting the Ph.D. and reading the work of other scholars more than communicating with the outside world (and this after often coming from upper-class high schools and colleges), are we really to expect that most scholars are immersed in the vernacular? Let’s face it: most of us are, in a manner of speaking, “English as a second language” folks now. I’m starting to regard it as a bit of irony in Bible translation; by the time a person is qualified in the ancient languages, that person has all too often been educated out of his/her own native tongue and struggles to communicate in his/her own language.

As for the “blank slate” point, I’ve observed this also in the way that many people read “devotionally,” having no idea what the various words mean, but loving the associations they connect with the passage itself. That is not to say that all devotional reading is this way, only that many I’ve observed the phenomenon numerous times.

I’ve found it a worthwhile exercise in the past to have students read familiar passages aloud and then ask them to explain what specific words or clauses mean, to paraphrase what is being said. They’re usually shocked to discover that they have no idea what these small units actually mean. It’s a great way to break down the entrenched assumptions students so often bring into biblical studies classes—once they realize they really don’t know what they think they know, they’re more open to examining the text more closely.

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  • by the time a person is qualified in the ancient languages, that person has all too often been educated out of his/her own native tongue and struggles to communicate in his/her own language.

    So true, and it is refreshing to find some of them recognize this, as Dan Wallace has written:

    “At the same time, since those responsible for this new translation are primarily exegetes, our perspective is often so entrenched in the first-century world that we are blind as to how the English reader would look at the text today. Exegetes tend to produce a wooden translation without realizing it.”

    The web address for the entire article is:


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