Monday, September 07, 2009

The Original Texts (Not Translations) Are What Matters

(My back yard)

Scot McKnight posts about the importance, in historical scholarship of any kind, of getting at the original texts. Translations won't do. Also, Webster's Dictionary is, basically, of no help. "There is a distinction between the text and a translation of the text. The authority is with the former; those who know that text are informed enough to decide about translations."

For example, I took a seminar in my doctoral work at Northwestern University on Aristotle's Metaphysics. My professor was the great Greek philosophy scholar Reginald Allen. I remember there were about six of us in that seminar, and on occasion various Northwestern professors would attend just to hear Allen teach. Allen would come to class without a copy of the Metaphysics. He could do this because he knew the entire text in Greek. This was very impressive. Note, for the sake of this discussion: Allen did not depend on commentaries on Aristotle, nor did he depend on translations of Aristotle, but taught out of the original text. Anyone who wants to seriously understand original texts must have a working knowledge of the original languages, without which they will have to understand they are handicapped to a degree.

McKnight says: "The authority is the original text, not the translation. The original texts are in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The authoritative text is not in English, regardless of how accurate the translation. No matter which translation you prefer, it is not the authoritative text for determining which translation is best. Yes, we need more to devote more time to study of the original languages.
The sweeping conclusion is this: unless you can read the original languages, you should avoid making public pronouncements about which translation is best. Instead, here's my suggestion: if you don't know the languages and can't read them well enough to translate accurately on your own but you want to tell your congregation or your listeners which translate is best, you need to admit it by saying something like this: "On the basis of people I trust to make this decision, the ESV or the TNIV or the NRSV or the NLT is a reliable translation."

McKnight uses James 3:1 as an example. Depending on which English translation you are reading, the word adelphos ("brothers," et. al.) has its tribal spin (because translations are "unofficially connected to tribes). McKnight writes:

"The point is which one best represents the intent of the original Greek, which has the Greek word adelphos? Unless you know what adelphos means in Greek, in the broad swath of the New Testament's use of adelphos and how it is used in the Greek-speaking (not to mention Hebrew-reading world) and about how James uses the word adelphos, any judgment is rooted in theology or theory but not in evidence. If you don't know the Greek, avoid standing in judgment. I'm not trying to be a hard-guy or an elitist, but let's be honest: only those who know Latin should be talking about which is the "best" translation of Virgil or only those who know Middle High German should be weighing in on the "best" translation of The Nibelungenlied. This isn't elitist; it's common sense."

I shudder to think that I, even after three years in seminary, would develop sermons using, at times, Webster's English Dictionary. I've come to my senses on this, and now immerse myself in as much original-language studies as I can, which further entails socio-cultural and socio-rhetorical studies. On Sunday mornings all this forms a background to the preaching of Scripture in, hopefully, a language even a child could understand.