by Michael E. Brooks
“The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. The
king spoke, saying to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever reads this writing, and tells me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck; and he shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.’ Now all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation” (Daniel 5:7-8 NKJV).
The packet of long slender bread rolls purchased in a supermarket in Khulna, Bangladesh was clearly labeled “hot duck bread.” After searching in vain for some hot ducks with which to eat it, we came to the conclusion that what was intended was “hot dog buns” (or bread). As is so often observed, much is often lost in translation.
Our understanding of the Bible is undeniably affected by the necessity of translation. Even those who have the opportunity and ability to learn the original languages in which Scripture was written (primarily Hebrew and Greek) labor with the hardship of working with a “second language,” with which relatively few become truly fluent. The vast majority of Bible readers must think in a language other than that in which the concepts of Scripture were first revealed.
This is not an insurmountable difficulty. Jesus and the apostles, whose native tongue was almost certainly Aramaic, seem to have worked primarily with the Septuagint – the Old Testament translated into the Greek language. The great theologians of the early centuries of Christianity were primarily Latin speakers, though some were obviously multi-lingual. Some great preachers and Bible scholars of modern times are limited in fluency with the Biblical languages. These facts have not denied us access to revealed truths, nor have they made the Bible any less the Word of God, written for us (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11).
The necessity of translation however does introduce possibilities of misunderstanding that we must acknowledge and work diligently to avoid. Words in different languages rarely have the identical range of meanings. Idiomatic phrases, grammatical constructions peculiar to a particular tongue, and other idiosyncrasies produce disparate meanings.
How does the sincere seeker of truth deal with these difficulties? There are many tested methods which give assurance of sound interpretation. First, choose a standard, well-established translation, which begins with the text in its original languages. For serious study of difficult passages, read and compare multiple translations, not just to choose which meaning one likes best, but to assure that all possible interpretations are presented. Only after determining this may one then compare other passages of the Bible and one’s knowledge of the overall Biblical purpose to determine the true interpretation.
Someone has said that the most important translation of the Bible is that into one’s life, rather than into one’s language. Here, too, there may be difficulties of expression. Each one’s efforts to apply Scriptural truth will be to some degree imperfect. Each will make mistakes. Does that invalidate the “translation”? Not at all. God has promised his patience and mercy, forgiving us of our sins, if we continue to repent and strive for perfection (1 John 1:8-2:2).
Just as I can find hot dog buns in a strange country, in spite of imperfect labeling, so can we see the influence of Jesus in imperfect Christians. Let us continue to work to achieve perfection, but let us also rely on the grace of God, and the patience of other Christians. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
by Michael E. Brooks