Do You Know the Difference?

(   Austin TX November 2003)

It would certainly SEEM that the difference between these distinctly unique linguistic functions is clear to most observers. But, surprisingly and unfortunately, it is not!

This fact can easily be confirmed by simply asking yourself, dear reader, "How many times have [you] heard the old bromide: 'The integrity of the Bible has long-since been compromised because it's been TRANSLATED so many times...' " ?  You KNOW you've heard this more times than you can count...

Such a blurred optic on this matter is undoubtedly buttressed by the fact that common parlance makes no distinction between translation and interpretation. (cf, the mistaken conceptual commonality of the terms: U.N. interpreter / U.N. translator; tour guide-interpreter / tour guide-translator, etc.)

Thus, the very important difference between translation and interpretation, particularly as these functions pertain to the Bible, is clearly NOT understood. This is not a good thing because it has a major negative impact on one's attitude toward the Bible, i.e., in the minds of those who buy into this urban legend, (and most do!) the Bible is not worthy of any serious consideration as the word of God because it has been hopelessly compromised by "translation upon translation, etc, etc..."

AND, the invariably accompanying analogy which is called upon at this point to confirm the "truthfulness" of this unfounded legend is the standard "... group of people (e.g., 10, 20 or more) who are seated in a circle (or a row) and who begin propagating a secret message among themselves, which, after having passed through the ears, minds and mouths of all participants, is so distorted in the end as to be unrecognizable, etc., etc..."   You KNOW you've heard this more times than you can count also...

AGAIN, this nonsense perpetuates itself because there is NOT a clear understanding of the difference between the very common linguistic functions of translation and interpretation. NOTE, that the operative concept ALWAYS called upon in the urban legend is "translation," e.g., as repeated from above, "The integrity of the Bible has long since been compromised because it's been TRANSLATED so many times..." Thus, both the Bible AND the honorable practice of translation get a bum rap here.

A side note: Before proceeding in a discussion of the inherent fallacy of the urban legend, be aware, first of all, that the cited analogy has NOTHING whatever to do with translation! Second of all, the Bible was certainly NOT passed on from generation to generation (for thousands of years of human history!) with the frivolous fly-by-nite "party game" mentality suggested in the analogy! And finally, does one really need to worry that the creator of the universe can't insure the textual integrity of his own word?! Just for grins, compare the crispness of a shiny new leather-bound Bible purchased at with the decrepit state of entire past ancient civilizations (e.g., Egyptian, Assyrian, Medo-Persian, Greek, Roman, etc.) all of which shared the world stage with God's word! Indeed, it is exactly as the Bible itself has said, for thousands of years: pasa sarx wV cortoV kai pasa doxa authV wV anqoV cortou exhranqh o cortoV kai to anqoV exepesen to de rhma kuriou menei eiV ton aiwna   ["For, All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands for ever..."   (1 Peter 1:24,25 NIV, quoting Psalm 103:15) ]

An Instructive Example...

Let's now compare the processes of translation and interpretation as they apply to a simple excerpt taken from the Bible at Revelation 13:1 according to the original Greek. This is a portion of a vision recorded by the apostle John shortly before his death, c.2000 years ago. This vision has been translated and interpreted countless times. It stands, therefore, as a good model to use for our discussion:

Revelation 13:1 in the original Greek:
kai eidon ek thV qalasshV qhrion anabainon econ kerata deka kai kefalaV epta kai epi twn keratwn autou deka diadhmata kai epi taV kefalaV autou onomata blasfhmiaV

Revelation 13:1 in literal (and word-for-word) translation:
and I-saw from the sea a-beast stepping-up having horns ten and heads seven and upon the horns of-it ten diadems and upon the heads of-it names of-blasphemy

For the benefit of readers who may not know Greek, the "word-for-word" translation immediately above provides precise "word-unit" correspondency with its preceding original Greek counterpart. ("word-unit" correspondency means that all words separated by spaces correspond exactly across their Greek and English presentations, in the number and order depicted.) Thus, (for example) the word unit "stepping-up" in the word-for-word English translation corresponds positionally and in meaning with the Greek word-unit anabainon, both words being the 7th word-unit, in order, in their respective contexts. This will enable the reader to make his OWN assessment of translational "trueness" with regard to the popular translations of Revelation 13:1 which are presented below. (Incidentally, for those who appreciate this level of translational scrutiny, there are many "interlinear" Bible translations available on the market for this very purpose.)

Now, before proceeding with this exercise, a VERY important fact (little known to the public at large) must be understood. That is, that the ancient manuscripts which define Bible scripture (such as the above excerpt) stand readily available (by the thousands!) as a positively confirming "muster" for ALL subsequent translations of Scripture. This simply means that if ANY translation of scripture is doubtful (for ANY reason) such translation may readily be compared with available ancient original language manuscript copies so as to assess its accuracy.

Why is it important to understand this? Because, regardless of how many translations are made of ancient scripture, each translation must pass "muster" with the original language testimony which exists as presented in thousands of ancient manuscripts catalogued and available in museums throughout the world. THUS, any translational "departure" from the original language is easily discernable.

Seemingly, this fact may not provide direct warmth and comfort to the public-at-large who cannot make these assessments of translational accuracy themselves - because they do not know Biblical languages. But this is NOT really a problem! WHY?! Because the public-at-large DO have free access to multitudes of Bible translations already made (over centuries of time!) which CLEARLY SHOW that translation of the Bible stands SOLIDLY upon a confirmed and common original language manuscript source. And this source presents itself, through translation, as saying, essentially, the same thing, over and over again, without variation, apart from the stylistic preferences of the translators. This will become evident as we proceed with our exercise.

Thus, there is, in effect, only ONE DEGREE of separation between ANY given Biblical translation and the original language text from which it is derived. Again, this is because the original language "muster" is ALWAYS available for comparative scrutiny! This, of course, flies in the face of the urban legend which would suggest otherwise!

The excerpt of the vision of the apostle John presented in Greek above, is translated as follows (for easy comparison) according to eight (8) very commonly used and acceptable English translations:

King James Version:
and I saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads, the name of blasphemy.

The Living Bible:
And now in my vision I saw a strange Creature rising up out of the sea. It had seven heads and ten horns and ten crowns were upon its horns. And written on each head were blasphemous names, each one defying and insulting God.

Phillips Modern English Bible:
there rose out of the sea before my eyes an animal with seven heads and ten horns. There were diadems upon its horns and blasphemous names upon its heads.

Revised Standard Version:
And I saw a beast rise up out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads.

Today's English Version:
Then I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with a crown on each of its horns and a wicked name written on its heads.

New International Version:
And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.

The Jerusalem Bible:
Then I saw a beast emerge from the sea: it had seven heads and ten horns with a coronet on each of its ten horns and its heads were marked with blasphemous titles.

New English Bible:
Then out of the sea I saw a beast rising. It had ten horns and seven heads. On its horns were ten diadems, and on each head a blasphemous name.

Given the preceding examples of popular and acceptable translations of Revelation 13:1, three things should be immediately apparent to the reader:

1.) These translations all say the same thing, apart from stylistic variation. Thus, the function of translation is seen here to be very solid. This fact may be taken as safely applicable to the very old and venerable Bible translation tradition as a whole. And the following fact needs to be reiterated here: Regardless of how many times Biblical scripture (such as our example of Revelation 13:1) is translated, EACH and EVERY translation can be compared with its original language "muster" ("one degree of separation") for assessment as to its accuracy - as we have just done.. Thus, the bromide cited above falls flat on its face!

2.) Some translations are better (or worse!) than others.

3.) One is at a distinct advantage in one's Bible reading if one has access to multiple translations of the Bible - for the simple purpose of rounding out meaning and getting a more accurate feeling for what is being said. (All translators don't speak to all people! So take advantage of the smorgasbord! It's there! Use it!)

Given the preceding...
We see clearly that the bromidal urban legend alluded to at the beginning of our discussion is unfounded. It is true that the Bible has been "translated so many times." (thousands of times in fact, according to international Bible societies who keep track of these things...) But these translations ALWAYS stand available for comparison with the original language texts. AND they are, despite their minor stylistic variations, a beautiful, sure and multi-faceted confirmation of the solidity of the inspired texts upon which they are based.

In closing this discussion about Bible translation it must be pointed out that there are, of course, substantial issues which arise concerning Bible translation. But such issues as would affect DOCTRINAL content of the Bible are very few and far between. They can, quite literally, be counted on the fingers of one's hands and are generally introduced by the subtle and conflicting theologies of translators. (see, for example the discussion of John 1:1 at this website.) Unavoidably, as the reader encounters these rare issues, he must resolve them for himself. However, he may do this almost invariably by simply comparing a number of translations and seeing what falls out. (And in the case of the very few DOCTRINAL issues introduced by conflicting translations, e.g., John 1:1, the reader may need to do a little extra research - which is certainly far better than parroting thoughtless bromidal platitudes like the one cited above!)

Now, Concerning Interpretation...
At this point in our discussion, we enter into a far different arena: the broad-and-spacious, undulating, swampy and snake-infested realm of Bible interpretation, which realm must be traversed with great caution! THIS is the problem area which generates the REAL confusion for Bible readers, and which lies at the base of the erroneous and unfounded bromide mentioned at the beginning of this narrative. As we have seen above, translation of the Bible is seen to be reasonably consistent, reasonably trustworthy and, in any case, verifiable! Interpretation of the Bible, on the other hand, is a considerably different matter!

For example...
In reviewing Revelation 13:1 above, we have conveyed to us clearly (through consistent translation!) that some sort of creature is coming up out of the sea and it has multiple heads, horns and diadems! NOW WHAT?! Obviously, this is some sort of symbolism! We've had the words accurately translated for us. (for the last two thousand years, no less!) And NOW, like every reader before us (for the last two thousand years, no less!) we stand on the edge of the swirling abyss of interpretation! The poor Bible reader's next task is to determine the underlying meaning (i.e., interpretation) of these words.

Who? or What? is the beast? Why seven heads? Why not ten heads? - or seven horns? (so that things at least match up?!) Why is he (or she!) (or it!) coming out of the sea? What is the sea? When did this happen? Or has it already happened? What does it all mean? etc., etc...

As a somewhat comforting aside, dear reader...
Rest assured that, as you contemplate this ages-old apocalyptic quandary, you stand solidly in the midst of ample good company - because everybody from Chrysostome to Khris Kringle and from Alley-OOP to Augustine has been here!

We see then, that unlike translation, which is a reasonably finite and manageable task, interpretation is much broader in scope and considerably more complex! Furthermore, because interpretation is so freely open to the masses (who routinely confuse it with translation!) it lends itself to hopelessly endless possibilities as to meaning, and beclouds the honorable tradition of translation by assigning to it the nebulous and sinuous characteristics of interpretation! Thus, most, (who are pressed for time and resources) sensing the seeming impossibility of their task, simply throw their hands up and resort to conveniently self-absolving (and Bible-trashing!) bromides - hastily moving on to more important matters in their busy lives(!) tantum panem et circenses - and so little time!

Where does all of this leave us?! (That's right, dear reader!: At the edge of the swirling abyss!) It must be pointed out here, that the simple intent of this narrative was to make clear the difference between translation and interpretation; and by extension, to dispell the myth that the Bible is corrupted by translation and, therefore, unreliable. What has been demonstrated here is that the Bible has been a consistent and reliable document throughout its long and venerable history. AND translation has NOT compromised that consistency and reliability. In other words, the SAME DOCUMENT that was produced by the ancient and divinely-inspired Bible writers is available TODAY to virtually all of mankind, from all walks of life - thanks to translation! The task that remains incumbent upon all mankind who care(!) is to figure out what it means, i.e., how it is to be interpreted...

Thus, if the reader is inclined to embark on this difficult quest, he may AT LEAST start off with the confidence that the foundation for his quest (i.e., the text of the Bible itself) is solid and remains very reliably that which it has always been...