The Words of the Word

Interesting review over at Books and Culture on Bible translation. In reviewing two recent books, Nathan Bierma finds that translating the Hebrew and Greek of the original scriptures into English (and other languages) is a act fraught with difficulty. Bierma’s introductory paragraphs pulled me in:

I wouldn’t read this review if I were you. They say that there are two things you never want to see produced—laws and sausages. But there’s at least one more: Bible translations. As Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham says in his blurb for Leland Ryken’s The Word of God in English, Ryken’s book is “gripping” but “also most disturbing, for Ryken argues that most modern Bible translations sell their readers short.”

This is hard to hear for believers who have memorized and treasured certain versions of their favorite verses. The translation we’re used to seems as sacred to us as Scripture itself. If something’s not quite right with the sausage, there’s a part of us that would rather not know.

The problem isn’t with Scripture, it’s with language itself. In a recent essay in Harper’s, Kitty Burns Florey remarks that trying to get English to conform to the rules of Latin grammar is “something like forcing a struggling cat into the carrier for a trip to the vet.” Trying to get Hebrew (which is lusciously poetic) and Greek (which relies heavily on context for the meaning of words) to fit nicely into the parameters of English is similarly problematic.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).