Saturday, September 04, 2010

J.B. Phillips on Translating Words in their Context

After reading a large number of commentaries I have a feeling that some scholars, at least, have lived so close to the Greek Text that they have lost their sense of proportion. I doubt very much whether the New Testament writers were as subtle or as self-conscious as some commentators would make them appear. For the most part I am convinced that they had no idea that they were writing Holy Scripture. They would be, or indeed perhaps are, amazed to learn what meanings are sometimes read back into their simple utterances! Paul, for instance, writing in haste and urgency to some of his wayward and difficult Christians, was not tremendously concerned about dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" of his message. I doubt very much whether he was even concerned about being completely consistent with what he had already written. Consequently, it seems to me quite beside the point to study his writings microscopically, as it were, and deduce hidden meanings of which almost certainly he was unaware. His letters are alive, and they are moving - in both senses of that word - and their meaning can no more be appreciated by cold minute examination than can the beauty of a bird's flight be appreciated by dissection after its death. We have to take these living New Testament documents in their context, a context of supreme urgency and often of acute danger. But a word is modified very considerably by the context in which it appears, and where a translator fails to realise this, we are not far away from the use of a computer! The translators of the Authorised Version [KJV] were certainly not unaware of this modification, even though they had an extreme reverence for the actual words of Holy Writ. Three hundred years ago they did not hesitate to translate the Greek word EKBALLO by such varying expressions as put out, drive forth, bring forth, send out, tear out, take out, leave out, cast out, etc., basing their decisions on the context. And as a striking example of their translational freedom, in Matthew 27,44 we read that the thieves who were crucified with Jesus "cast the same in his teeth", where the Greek words mean simply, "abused him".

-from the Introduction to Phillips' The New Testament in Modern English Revised Edition. (See my post on Romans 5:1-5 last week.)

Compare Phillips' statement to this statement in the Introduction to the First Edition of the NET Bible, under the heading "What are some of the distinctive characteristics of the NET Bible translation philosophy?," the penultimate paragraph:

[T]he translators and editors of the NET Bible are committed to following the text where it leads and translating it honestly. The translation philosophy leaves no other options: For the sake of Christ and the truth, the translators and editors are compelled to translate as they have done in the examples above and throughout the NET Bible. The 19th century conservative Christian scholar Henry Alford stated it best: “a translator of Holy Scripture must be…ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.”

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