THE TOWER OF BABEL, THE PROBLEMS ARE STILL HERE
A friend told me of a time when his father was struggling to build an essential business in Japan and having a terrible time because the English translators didn’t seem to get the words out right. Since he didn’t speak Japanese he had no way to tell what was going wrong. He finally concluded that the Japanese were taking advantage of his lack of understanding of Japanese business practices and of the language.
He knew that Brigham Young University would have ex-missionaries who had served in Japan and learned the language so he went there and chose to hire the biggest, blondest, blue-eyed returned missionary he could find, one no one would expect to speak Japanese. He took him to all meetings but told him to just sit as though he were a go-fer and never let anyone know he could speak the language. Later he would tell the boss what was actually said at the meetings. As the boss began to understand what was really happening his business became very successful.
This story reminded me of the many questions I have had over the years about Biblical translations, and of some things that might be of interest to others about their own questions.
One of the questions that intrigues me most is the story of Lot’s wife being turned into a “pillar of salt” for looking back on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ve always felt that looking on that as a “punishment” for disobedience was questionable at best. Those were her children and grandchildren being incinerated back there. What mother wouldn’t look back in absolute anguish? Also, was it a commandment not to look back or a – what? Recommendation?
At any rate, I was told that the George M. Lamsa’s Translation of the Holy Bible from the Aramaic of the Ancient Peshitta Text had been translated by native Aramaic speakers into modern English. The Eastern Church says that their bible translation, the Peshitta, would be the Old Testament used at the time of Christ and the New Testament as fully preserved from the time of the Apostles. It’s easy to read and clarifies many things.
Reading the story of Lot’s wife shows a footnote that the Aramaic term “being turned into a pillar of salt” is a colloquial saying meaning to be “frightened to death.” Can’t you just see the good King James translators in England staring at their salt cellars and scratching their heads before translating it literally? (And mothers can see a kid in trouble being told, “Get out there and take care of the goats or I’ll turn you into a pillar of salt!”)
I had heard so many explanations of it being harder for a rich man to get into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that I tuned it all out. I heard the one about there being a “camel’s gate” in Jerusalem where they would have to unload the camel, make it crawl through the gate on its’ knees and then reload it on the other side. Sounds like hard work and very inefficient. Why not just go to another gate? It would make more sense. Mr. Lamsa explains that the written word for “camel” in Aramaic has one tiny dot of difference between it and the word for “yarn” or “twine”. The verse in his translation is that it is harder for a rich man to get to heaven than to pass twine through the eye of a needle. Rich people sometimes do have a hard time holding on to their humility, but some of them do. Why should their riches condemn them?
One of the most perplexing questions I had was where Jesus tells his followers that if their right eye offends them it is better to pluck it out, or if their right hand offends them to cut it off. Every few years someone does one or both of those things. Most people know that this is figurative, but I always wondered just what it was figurative about. The Lamsa’s translation has footnotes indicating that the eye is the seat of jealousy, so that part means not to covet. As for the hand, the punishment throughout middle eastern countries was, and in some places still is, having the right hand amputated, so that injunction means not to steal.
Mr. Lamsa’s translation has answered many questions for me. But I still love the formality and majestic language of the King James Version.
There is also a book on translation called IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR EAR? by David Bellos. It has a section on bible translations and how they had to relate to the understanding of people when missionaries brought them the gospel, the “good news.” On tropical islands where the people had never seen snow, how could the term “white as snow” have any meaning? Looking around the missionaries couldn’t see anything white enough to substitute except for a bird, so they translated snow as “white as a cockatiel’s feather.”
Many of the islands are made only of sand and are very swampy, so the natives built their homes on stilts. When the translators got to the part where Jesus told of the foolish man building his home on sand while the wise man built his on a rock, they had to consider that for awhile. They finally translated that part to read that the foolish man made his stilts of soft wood (which rots in water), while the wise man built his home with hard wood.
Some people object to the translation process, but the main objective should always be greater understanding for everyone.