Translators as Interpreters

BibleHow important is it to know the Bible’s original languages?  Is it good enough to just rely on your favourite translation?  I think it is indeed a good idea to gain some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek.  However, translations are good if you do not rely on just one.

Why do I say this?  Because translators do more than just translate from the original languages to the contemporary language.  Translators interpret the text and that interpretation is usually based on their personal theological positions.  Let me give you an example.  We will look at Romans 16:7 and the relationship between the companion of Adronicus and the apostles.

“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7 NIV)

The NIV sees this verse as being about a male named Junias who was an apostle.  The problem is that this name is not really for a male.  But since the NIV translators know a female cannot be an apostle, they translate the name as a male.

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” (Romans 16:7 ESV)

The ESV translators know that the name is more properly translated as the female name Junia.  However, like the NIV translators, they know that females cannot be apostles and so they translate the second part of the verse as “known to” instead of “among.”

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7 NRSV)

The NRSV translators make Junia as a female (like the ESV) and make this person an apostle (like the NIV).

My point is not to make a statement about women in ministry (although in this case I take the NRSV as most accurate).  My point is that each of these translators  is coming at this verse with a theological position and are interpreting it accordingly.  If you are coming at the passage already knowing that a woman cannot be an apostle, you have to translate either as the NIV or ESV.  If you are open to a female apostle, then the NRSV translation becomes a possibility.

This is only one example of many times when translators are also making interpretations.  The best thing to do is to compare a number of good translations and, if possible, go back to the Greek or Hebrew.

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6 thoughts on “Translators as Interpreters”

  1. Hi Stephen, , , ,

    The biggest ‘whopper’ of all is the name of Jesus !! In order to make it MALE, the Greeks stuck an ‘S’ on the end

    |And don;t forgt that the letter ‘J’ was only invented by the Ennglish in the 16thy century!!!.

    The Welsh IESU is probably closest to the original Aramaic / Hebrew,

    I lived in Wales during WW2

    Love and Blessings



  2. Your post is a reminder to me of why literal translations are to be generally preferred over paraphrastic ones. Literalness removes at least some of the opportunities for introduction of theological bias by translators.

    1. I guess the question a conservative might ask is, “Did the NRSV arrive at the most literal translation of this verse because of its commitment to literalness or because of its theological openness to female clergy?”

      You would know better than I whether the NRSV is consistently and across the board more literal than, say, the NASB or ESV. If it were, however, I can’t imagine conservatives rejecting it solely because a verse like this opened the door to a ecclesiastical view they don’t like.

  3. I think conservatives rejected the NRSV because of its inclusive language. I actually like the inclusive language because words like anthropos do not mean male, but mean people of both genders.

    1. When I was growing up “man” (like “anthropos”) meant people of both genders. That is, it could refer to a “man” as opposed to a woman, or it could refer to a “man” (male or female) as opposed to any other kind of being. At some point along the way, some folks decided to recast “man” as referring to males only and therefore not an “inclusive” term suitable for use with respect to females and males. I think someone who feels that equality of the genders can only be achieved through the use of this newer “inclusive language” would like an “inclusive gender” Bible. However, someone who thinks that equality of genders is self-evident and not needing new language to convey and institutionalize the idea would consider “inclusive language” a distraction. In any case, I don’t think that “inclusive language” has much to do with literalness.

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