Saturday, March 24, 2012

Interpretative Translation of the Bible.

Scholarly literature on the Septuagint often establishes to “strains” of Septuagint text. The Septuagint text that clearly reflects an underlying Hebrew manuscript tradition (possibly now lost) and texts which appear to be more of an interpretation of either the underlying Hebrew text or an earlier Greek translation that was, on the face of it, more literal to the original Hebrew.

One of the texts where this tendency can be observed is, as mentioned in a prior post, in the Greek text of Genesis 6:1-4.  For our purposes, we’ll focus on verse 2. The older Greek text, we presume, reads, ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ τὰς θυγατέρας τῶν ἀνθρώπων ὅτι καλαί εἰσιν ἔλαβονἑαυτοῖς γυναῖκας ἀπὸ πασῶν ὧν ἐξελέξαντο. Later Greek texts read οἱ ἀγγέλοι τοῦ θεοῦ, apparently as an interpretation of the sons of God (whether in Greek or Hebrew) in the earlier text.

It is not uncommon to encounter the position that “when in the original language” the Bible is flawless. The existence of interpretative translation so early on should indicate that the “original texts”, wherever they are, are often ambiguous. We can read bene elohim in Genesis 6:1-4 and not readily understand what the term means. We can read the rest of the Bible and determine their functionality. Although, the transition from function to identification of the sons of God as angels is, to one degree or another, an interpretive exercise.

Interpretive translation, if variants of the Septuagint are any indication, happen early on in the history of the Biblical text. Of course, such translation continues today. Two examples from two different Italian translations of the Bible supply us with recent examples of interpretive translation.

The new Italian edition of the Bible commissioned by the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana (CEI) is an overall literal translation of the original languages. Notably, however, the translation of the New Testament features some instances of interpretive translation. The such points of interpretative translation were intended to make the translation literal to the original languages as well as relevant to Italian culture. I have previously written on one such instance as found in John 1:32,

Giovannia testimonio diecendo: ‘ho contemplato lo Spirito discendere come una colomba dal cielo e rimanere su di lui.’

In this example, contemplare (ho contemplato) was used when videre (ho visto) would have sufficed. The reason for this translation was, so far as I’ve been able to determine, the decision to follow a theory of ascending levels of vision in the Gospel of John. Briefly stated, this theory proposes that John uses different verbs for the action of seeing to a) distinguish the “type” of seeing, whether the action is purely physical or whether or not it is spiritual and b) the verbs used for seeing demonstrate the development of a character’s insight into Jesus’ identity. The use of contemplare is meant to indicate that John the Baptist has seen Jesus’ divine identity.

Another instance of contemporary interpretative translation can be found in the inter-confessional Italian Bible. The editors of this bible follow the principles of dynamic equivalency in their translation method. The result is a Bible that utilizes interpretive translation on a fairly frequent basis. This leads to an interesting translation of Deuteronomy 32:8,

Quando il Dio Altissimo assegno` ai popoli la terra, quando distribui gli uomini nel mondo, segno` i confine delle naziono e diede a ognuna un dio protettore.

This translation has some interesting influences behind it. Un dio protettore implicitly rejects the Masoretic tradition of the text and instead sides with the LXX and Qumran. It also subtly assumes a polytheistic background to the text, every nation being proscribed a protective deity.

None of these will probably have the staying power of οἱ ἀγγέλοι τοῦ θεοῦ. οἱ ἀγγέλοι τοῦ θεοῦ was a popular interpretive translation in its day, and also quite successful – in Christian circles, οἱ ἀγγέλοι τοῦ θεοῦ was the definitive conceptual reading of the text of Genesis 6:1-4 for at least the first three hundred years.