Translation Corner with Sam Freney

Late last year in a translation checking workshop we finished off another book of the Pitjantjatjara Old Testament: Judges. Honestly, the last few chapters were tough going. There’s the dreadful story of the Levite man and his concubine, and the subsequent near total destruction of the tribe of Benjamin by the rest of Israel.

Some of that narrative was just awful to talk about – especially since the translators in the room all relate to David and I as ‘sons’ – and some of it was just bewildering, like the multiple parallel accounts of the battle around Gibeah.
When we read Judges 21:1–4, the translators were simply confused.

Why would Israel say “Why, LORD God of Israel, has it occurred that one tribe is missing in Israel today?” (Jdg 21:3, CSB) when they were the ones who have just finished killing off every Benjamite they could lay their hands on? What’s the story here? It didn’t appear to make a lot of sense.

And the temptation there, like so many other places in Bible translation, was to add in the explanation. We talked it through and saw that amongst other things the Israelites were really wanting to shirk responsibility for what had just happened. And because it wasn’t immediately clear to these translators, they wanted initially to add in some note or reference to how the rest of Israel were passing the buck here.

But a true translation does two things simultaneously: it doesn’t leave anything out (you can’t ignore Jdg 21:3 and not put it in), but it also doesn’t add anything in either. My interpretation of a passage – or anyone else’s, for that matter – is not the same thing as the word of God, and doesn’t belong in the text.

Interpretation sure ain’t infallible; adding it in and over-specifying the text is an over-translation. Even when it’s confounding, we’ve got to resist the temptation to make everything immediately clear by adding in explanation, and just leave it to the preacher or future reader of a translation to read and understand.

Sam Freney is translation consultant with Bible Society Australia. Sam works with heart language translators across Australia with the collective goal to translate the Bible in the most accurate, clear and natural way possible.

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