translation, interpretation and clarification


Having only recently become fairly fluent in a second language, and having previously lived with understanding of only one language, I’m amazed at the different styles of expression available, even between two quite closely-related languages. As I teach English, I get quite a lot of translation requests from my students for words or expressions that I can’t accurately express in English. Individual expressions that can carry meaning in several situations where in English we would use various combinations of wildly different words depending on the context. Or individual words specific to the culture that can only be translated by a description in English. I guess these are obvious points, but living with it on a day to day basis has really been a revelation to me.

Even in our native tongue, when discussing ideas or stories with someone, it is typical to interject for clarification. The words we utter don’t immediately enter the heads of others with the clarity we feel as they leave our mouths. Our brain interprets and processes information, influenced by our experiences and our expectations of what the person is saying. In a face to face or online discussion with someone the to and fro of clarification can be quite lengthy, even on rather simple matters.

Every major piece of literature that has been written has endless study guides and spin-offs of academics interpreting and clarifying what the original text was saying and why, providing insight into the personal lives of the authors, their motivations, experiences that influenced them and how the culture they were living in affected their writing. They don’t all agree. Everyone has a new angle, and it seems that every generation discovers something ‘new’ that the previous generation misunderstood – as if the further we move from someone’s words, the more clarity we get. However, once the author is dead, no-one can say what the original meaning of their text actually was or what they hoped the reader would understand from their words. It’s all speculation based on our best guess, given the relevant words at our disposal.

Given the problems we have with translation and interpretation, and our constant need for in-depth clarification, I’m thinking that a collection of books written between two and four thousand years ago by around 40 different authors and in three different languages, has the potential to have more than a few problems. There have been 450 translations of the Bible, just into English. Here are some extracts from just three commonly used translations:

King James: If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife.

New English Translation: Suppose a man comes across a virgin who is not engaged and overpowers and rapes her and they are discovered. The man who has raped her must pay her father fifty shekels of silver and she must become his wife

Complete Jewish Bible: “If a man comes upon a girl who is a virgin but who is not engaged, and he grabs her and has sexual relations with her, and they are caught in the act, then the man who had intercourse with her must give to the girl’s father one-and-a-quarter pounds of silver shekels, and she will become his wife

We’re probably all familiar with the idea that if a woman is grabbed, lain hold of or overpowered in a sexual act, this is rape. We might not all be familiar with the idea that she should marry her rapist, but then the rules of a benevolent god might not always make sense to us, or indeed be ‘moral’ in even a psychopath’s universe. The interesting thing to note here is that ‘lay hold’, ‘grab’ and ‘overpower’ are three very different verbs to be using for one language. They convey very different levels of force. Even so, imagine my surprise to be involved in a discussion with a Christian who believes that there is a mistranslation here and the Bible is referring to consensual sex. It seems that translation and interpretation errors know no bounds.

Unfortunately for our society, a lot of Christians these days are oblivious to some very basic facts about language and understanding. They believe that their deity has delivered a book that is divinely inspired – both in its original form and its widely varying translations. The believe it has a correct interpretation of these different yet correct translations, without the possibility of referring to the original authors. Is it just me struggling with a second language, or does this seem rather far-fetched?