Just how much is lost in translation?

A question I am sometimes asked is:  “How important is it to read the Bible in the original Greek or Hebrew?” And another is: “Just how much is lost in translation from Hebrew or Greek to English?”

Unfortunately, sometimes a lot. And sometimes a translator can completely embellish a text to the point it conveys an entirely new meaning.

Lately, I’ve heard that knowing Greek or Hebrew is not important at all.  What is important is being familiar with a number of good English translations. While I can sympathize with that view, and I actually agree that in general, it is not essential to know Greek or Hebrew, I recently had an experience that illustrates what can be lost in translation – and even added, more about that later.

The following analogy that I’ve seen floating around the internet I think makes the point about biblical languages. It goes something like this:

Reading the Bible without knowing Greek and Hebrew is like watching a 20″ television. Reading the Bible knowing Greek and Hebrew is like watching a 65″ LED 1080p HDTV with stereo surround sound. You can understand what is going on with the 20″ television, but the 65″ LED HDTV with stereo surround sound gives added depth and clarity. You are able to see things that you would miss with the 20″ television.

And what most people do not realize is that the problem is actually much bigger than language alone. When moving from one language to another, you also move from one culture to another, complete with different histories, perspectives and often, especially with the Bible different time periods .

I took my first class in koine Greek more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t long after, that I stopped relying on the King James version (KJV) of the Bible. Before that point in time, I don’t recall ever looking at another version of the Bible in English. I had always assumed that the KJV was the most accurate and I think subconsciously I was associating the cadence and Elizabethan English of the text with the holy spirit. It made me feel good. Not too many weeks into studying Greek I realized that if I were going for accuracy, all bets were off, I needed to start examining other translations. The King James version in some ways had let me down. Although it has stood the test of time and had a remarkable impact on the English speaking world and is one of the most influential books ever published in the English language, I would not say it is the most accurate translation of the Bible. And any student of a biblical language soon figures this out. But at the same time, other English versions are not without fault as I have discovered. I might say that they have also let me down. There is no perfect translation.

If you don’t use a language you tend to lose it. So as a way of brushing up on my Greek, I recently joined an internet group made up of people of various backgrounds from around the world who take turns reading and then  translating the New Testament from Greek into English. We gather on Sunday night for an hour. Each of us in turn reads a few verses in Greek and then provides a translation. It is very laid back and has been a great way to strengthen ones understanding of the text. Typically there are maybe 5 to 10 who show up and literally these are people from all over the globe. Theological discussion is minimal.  The goal is becoming more fluent with the Greek text. So far we have read the Gospel of John, the letters of John, Philemon, Mark and we are now working on Matthew. The target is to read through the entire Greek New Testament in a year. We seldom get through more than a few pages in an hour so I expect in the end it will take more than a year. It is slow going, but anyone who has put forth the effort to translate a text from one language to another knows that it takes time and sometimes can be quite puzzling.

So, back to the question – How much is lost in translation? I ran across this in one of our recent readings. The following comes from the gospel of Mark, chapter 7.  The issue here is: Did Jesus declare all foods clean? Here is how the first 15 verses read in the standard King James version:

1 Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.

2 And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.

3 For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.

4 And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.

5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?

6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

10 For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:

11 But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.

12 And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;

13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

14 And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand:

15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.

In these verses, Mark (or whoever actually authored what is known to us as the gospel of Mark) is providing an account of the Pharisees and Scribes taking issue with Jesus and his disciples concerning his compliance with the tradition of ritually washing hands before eating. But when read carefully, there is no discussion of kosher laws. They are being accused of rendering themselves as impure (see verse 2) by not washing their hands. Here we also see Mark adding an explanation for the Gentile reader who may not be well informed about these Pharisaic traditions (see verses 3-4). He basically summarizes the Jews’ problem as neglecting the commandment of God, you “hold the tradition of men” (verses 7-8).

Mark then goes on to provide the following additional information:

17 And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.

18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him;

19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

Now most other English versions also add at this point that “Jesus declared all foods clean.”

New International Version: “For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
English Standard Version: “since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
New American Standard Bible: “because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.)
Revised Standard Version: “since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

If your only contact with the text was through these last four English versions you would be left with the obvious conclusion: Jesus declared all foods clean. It seems pretty clear and straightforward. No more kosher laws. Jesus just put bacon, snails and shrimp back on the table.

But what is really going on here?

When I was reading these verses carefully in Greek, I definitely did not have the impression that we see in English translations of Jesus declaring all foods clean. The last four words of verse 19 in Greek are καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα which may be literally translated as something like “cleansing all the foods.” These words when read in Greek at first came across to me as at most a parenthetical ambiguous editorial comment, perhaps even intentionally ambiguous. If anything, it seemed that this is one that the Greek is closer to the English translation found in the KJV translation than the others, even though frequently it is the KJV that lacks accuracy.

But then, the more I looked at this verse, the more the words made sense not so much as an editorial comment by Mark, but what Jesus actually said and the English was not even close to what is found in the Greek text.  The English versions were  embellished translations by translators who likely had an agenda. There is no word in the Greek text that can be translated “declared”.  It was added, along with other words that can’t be found in the Greek manuscripts.

I did a little bit of investigation and noticed that Mark’s editorial comment is completely missing from Matthew’s parallel (15:17). Furthermore, Codex Sinaiticus (our oldest complete Greek copy of the New Testament) has these words completely missing. Pretty soon I was down a rabbit hole reading about Jewish dietary or kosher (kashrut) laws during the first century and comparing other verses in the New Testament such as Peter’s statements on kashrut in Acts 10 to Mark paying close attention to context.

Without going into all the reasons for my conclusion, let me just say that in the end, it seemed clear to me that Mark has been misread. Jesus did not declare all foods clean in Mark 7:19. Mark’s Jesus did not abandon or abrogate such basic Jewish practices as keeping kosher. The mainstream Christian sense of where the Jesus movement stands in relation to the Judaism of its time certainly could withstand revision.  In short, if the earliest Christians actually saw Jesus as keeping kosher, this adds more weight to those who view Christianity as another contending branch of Judaism.

But, if I had never read these verses in Greek, and in fact had only read the verses from a translation such as the New International Version (NIV) it would never have even crossed my mind.

Sometimes, not only is a lot lost in translation, but a translation can be completely embellished by a translator with an agenda.