How accurate are modern translations of the Bible? Quaker translator Sarah Ruden says they’re often missing nuance. And humor.
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Quaker say, quoting George Fox our founder, that we do not offer what we say as a “rule or a form to walk by.” That is, we don’t speak in terms of rigid rules and unchanging law. We don’t think of the Bible like that at all, or really anything like that.
If you think of the Bible as a rulebook, then you’re going to fight about it, because it’s about allocation of power, and the interpreter is always claiming power by saying, “the Bible says you can do this, and you must not do that.” Well, Quakers do not like to think that way.
Faithfully Translating the Bible
My name is Sarah Ruden. My meeting is Friends Monthly Meeting of Middletown, Connecticut, and my work is that I’m a translator, a poet, a journalist, and a lecturer. I’ve always thought of my scholarly work and my literary work as needing to fit in with Quaker principles and my concern the whole time is to make this literature speak to as many people as possible. I think that’s very important in our present political situation with our divided culture.
Translating the Bible
The great age of the translation of the Bible into English is late medieval period up through the Renaissance and beyond. So we have great English Bibles from that period, particularly the King James Bible; the Geneva Bible, too. They are magnificent works of literature in themselves, and they represent a very advanced degree of scholarship for the time. There are two problems, though. One problem is the fear of God. In the Puritan mind, in the Reformation mind, fear of God is very important. And that makes for a very flat style.
What Gets Lost in Translation
So when you have in Greek or in Hebrew, two really distinct words with distinct tones and functions, you might find them translated in the exact same way in English, so that the flavor of that text is just not there, and that’s particularly the case with humor. Puritans played a big role in Bible translations and reformers like Martin Luther were not really big on humor. But the authors of the Bible were hilarious, they really enjoyed composing these texts, you can tell. They had gorgeous nuance and expressiveness.
The Example of the Good Samaritan
Let me give you an example that I find really helpful and that my readers and listeners have told me means a lot to them.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, in the Greek Christian Bible, the Samaritan, who is just making his way along the road minding his business, he sees a man who has been robbed, beaten and left for dead. This man is not a Samaritan, you can just look at him and tell. So this is not the Samaritan’s business, and he should just continue on his way. But he doesn’t, because he feels pity for the man, and that’s a special verb for “pity,” he feels it in his guts. That’s what the Greek means in this case. He feels it in his guts: “Oh no, I can’t go on because it’s as if somebody has beaten me about the head and shoulders. His suffering is in my body.” So he goes far out of his way, he spends lots of money, he takes all the risks of this cross-cultural context, to take care of this man.
The ordinary Greek word for pity is the pity that the powerful feel for the weak, in a sort of condescending way. So a suppliant comes to you, he grabs your feet. He wants something, and you as a powerful person usually grant it because you can’t get away from him, he puts you on the spot in public. That’s another kind of pity, you have another word. So my attitude is you have to distinguish when you translate. You have to show how very very special the parable of the good Samaritan is in the Bible, how new and shocking this is, that you step over your cultural boundaries because God has grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and he has made this person’s problem your problem. He has urgently called you to help.
So that’s just an example of how the Bible should be translated to make it more accessible and more meaningful today.
- Sarah Ruden quotes George Fox saying that Quakers don’t offer a “rule or a form to walk by.” What does this mean to you? How does this fit with your practice of Quakerism?
- What did you get out of Sarah’s description of the parable of the good samaritan? Does it change your understanding of the story to hear a more nuanced description of the Greek word(s) for pity?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.