Thursday, February 28, 2008

A proper Bible translation

Dave Warnock introduced me to very recent NT translation by a scholar of Classics who is an expert in ancient Greek Lexigraphy. A Lexigrapher is a person who studies of the meanings of words and writes dictionaries. In my opinion, that is exactly the sort of person who should be writing Bible translations! The translation is (somewhat strangely) titled The Source by Ann Nyland. There is an interesting interview with her here from which I will quote the most interesting parts:
In the late 1880s and again in the mid 1970s, large amounts of papyri and inscriptions were discovered. These impacted our knowledge of word meaning in the New Testament dramatically. Why? Well, the papyri and inscriptions were written at the time of the New Testament. They were non-literary sources, that is, they touched upon all aspects of life - everyday private letters from ordinary people, contracts of marriage and divorce, tax papers, official decrees, birth and death notices, tombstones, and business documents.

Why is this important? Prior to these discoveries, people who made up New Testament dictionaries didn’t have a clue what many of the words meant, as I said. But now, these rare words appeared commonly in different contexts, and everyday contexts too. We would use formal language in a letter to a politician, but we use everyday language in letters to friends. It is this everyday language that appears in the New Testament, and up popped hundreds of examples of these words. Large numbers of previously uncommon words found in the New Testament now appeared commonly in everyday documents as well as on inscriptions. Many mysteries of word meaning were thus solved.

15 volumes of new papyri were published in 1976. This meant that the meanings of a large number of words previously unattested were discovered. In the last 20 yrs, 4,000 inscriptions have been found at Ephesus alone. These discoveries have been largely overlooked by Bible translators. The problem is that laypersons and a significant number of Bible translators alike are unaware of all this as it is tucked away in technical journals. Available Bible dictionaries do not have this scholarship to any useful degree. BDAG has a little of it, but not much at all. In other words, Bible translators rely on dictionaries. The dictionaries are wrong, for many words.

Nearly every recent New Testament dictionary is based on this outdated work while older ones are based on work prior even to that of Moulton and Milligan.

the resources for translation have not been available to the Bible translator. Translators need decent dictionaries, and the current New Testament lexicon project (going on in my town, although work has stalled) won’t be in print for many, many years. As a lexicographer, I had to do my own dictionary work.

every New Testament translation of today, apart from The Source, follows the traditional translations of the earlier versions, which were published centuries before the evidence from the papyri and inscriptions revealed to us the actual meanings of numerous New Testament words!

The disregard of this evidence for word meaning has had a terrible impact on Bible translation. Many words suffer, but technical terms and idioms suffer particularly. For example, the term mistranslated “husband of one wife” is actually “faithful to their partner” and has been found on the tombstones of women. It is also clear that many modern translators have followed the KJV, whether directly or through the lexicons (dictionaries).

The translations of most New Testament versions are based on a lack of understanding of Greek word meaning. Available translations do not sufficiently regard the abundant evidence from the papyri and inscriptions and thus in many cases present a far from accurate translation of the New Testament ... because the tools are not available to the translator – the tools being published lexicons

In many cases, the trouble is that religion based on mistranslation has laid down certain things in the Christian community on the whole and tradition is a very powerful thing.

The Source is different because: The meanings of many words in other available Bibles are, quite bluntly, wrong. These meanings were discovered only recently but have been published only in technical academic journals related to the classics discipline in secular universities. The lexicon to replace Moulton and Milligan will not be published in fascicles [=multiple pieces over time], and is years away from publication. The Source is the only translation to date to take account of these word meanings. My field of research is lexicography.

“Believe in (someone)” is an appalling mistranslation and I would happily mark a student wrong for such a translation.
That's an interesting explanation which explains why I'm so often upset at the poorness of Bible lexicons and translations which seem to ignore evidence. I intend to buy a copy of her translation - which comes in a normal form or as a study bible with extensive notes on Greek word meanings. Apparently her study bible has been vetoed by some Christian groups because she performs the 'unbiblical' acts of explaining why Greek words traditionally translated "homosexual" in our bibles do not in fact mean that and why gender neutral terms are the correct English rendering of Greek words.

Of course, even with the best lexigraphy there's still plenty of translation decisions that have to be made that can be right, wrong or just matters of taste. So I'm not under any illusions that this translation will be 100% right for me, but it should at least be a breath of fresh air.


Blogger Bryan L said...

I'll be honest, the translation sounds like a bunch of marketing hype to me to try to sell books. I'd be interested to see some more reviews of it.


Blogger DaveW said...


Dr Nyland has another book "More than meets the eye: The Campaign to control gender translation in Bibles".

Worth getting.

I have written a fair bit on this (search my blog for nyland gender)

Blogger Andrew said...

What I found interesting were her comments about how Greek papyri have been generally under-utilized by Biblical theologians and lexicons, and that Biblical dictionaries get so many words simply wrong as a result. I have noted the same thing myself with dismay. The New Perspective and the corresponding emphasis on Social Scientific research in NT studies is a welcome corrective to the lack of attention that biblical scholars have historically tended to pay to these important issues.

Blogger Reuben said...

The Source New Testament without notes is available freely as a PDF document from the publishers here. It seems to read more like a paraphrase at first glance. Dr Nyland seems to make her interpretation of the text clear, which may be wrong in parts, but at least it is reasonably clear how she interprets it. I'll spend some more time to give it more than a glance.

Blogger Andrew said...

Thanks Reuben, I've had a look through it. It wasn't quite what I'd hoped (but things never are in life... :p)

In 'theological' passages (which, to me, are the interesting ones) it seemed to just repeat the standard Christianized theological terminology without really translating it into normal words. Using "God's Realm" instead of "The Kingdom of God" seems to be about as exciting as it gets theologically.

I was amused by the section in 1 Cor about women not talking in churches, which she sets as a quote from a letter from the Corinthians to Paul and has Paul responding with "Utter rubbish!".

I read her preface about how she preferred to translate than transliterate, and so was surprised when I read the translation and immediately saw references to John the Baptizer (baptize being a transliteration). She does however use "Annointed One" rather than "Christ".

So overall, it seems to be a project with some admirable goals which doesn't fully deliver on all of them. I still intend to buy the notes version for the sake of the extensive notes on the Greek word meanings.

Blogger semper creditum said...

Surely the issue is complicated by the fact that much of the NT involves attempted translation from the Aramaic; so e.g. trying to figure out what exactly are the connotations of 'charis' in Greek may not be as important as figuring out what Aramaic word or phrase it's being used to translate, and what in turn are the connotations of that word.

Blogger CD-Host said...

I have the old electronic version of the source when the NT used to be freely available. Its a good dynamic translation, but frankly I didn't find anything really outstanding about it. I'd love to see the study version so I knew what verses to focus on and what arguments. It is nice to see a bible translation based on secular evidence and not theology. Guess I gotta add her study bible to my "to buy" list.

Ann Nyland is legit scholar however.


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