Translator Bias

Once my church realized that I knew a little Spanish, they asked me to translate ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever’ so they could sing it for an upcoming special. I worked really hard on it – to get it grammatically correct only to discover that they had printed off somebody else’s translation off of the internet and went with that (at the time I didn’t realize that songs didn’t have to be grammatically correct, the movie ‘School of Rock’ educated me as to the value of poor grammar giving a song a little something extra, but it wouldn’t be released until a few more years had passed.)

My translation used the appropriately conjugated word for ‘to dance’ from ‘bailar’ where theirs used ‘danzar.’ What they didn’t know was that while ‘danzar’ does mean ‘to dance’ it’s most often used in terms of ballet and the art of dancing, ‘bailar’ also means ‘to dance’ and it’s used more generally for dancing. So now when I think of that song, I can’t help but think of the imagery: “Oh I feel like dancing … It’s foolishness I know … But when the world has seen the light … They will dance with joy … Like they’re dancing now” in full ballet costume with graceful turns and twirling to the tune of rock guitars.

Listening to the original (Hillsong’s version in Spanish) it’s lyrics are modified – ‘it’s foolish I know’ is gone, but they use danzar, probably because it’s more dignified to dance to God artistically than to dance otherwise. My version was probably the equivalent of ‘Oh I feel like square dancing’ or something more appropriate in a club, but that’s the problem one faces when one English word could mean the same thing (sort of) as two different Spanish words.

It’s also an example of translator bias on my part – I preferred the word ‘bailar’ and that came with it certain imagery. Whether or not it was correct I’ll leave that up to you. Ultimately, when it comes to the Bible, people will tell you that our copies are quite numerous, mostly similar, and therefore our bible is accurate. What they will not tell you is that the translation to English could very well have similar translator bias.

The difference is, your interpretation and beliefs regarding theology do not depend on me being your translator. You depend upon the translations by people you don’t know. (Unless you happen to know somebody actually helped translate one of the translations.) You depend upon their knowledge, their lexicon, and their best guess what the best possible translation is into modern English from three ancient languages.

Some translations try to be literal, some try to capture the meaning by paraphrasing Scripture into the modern vernacular. Either way, very few believers are scholars of ancient Greek, very few have seen the manuscripts from which their favorite translation was copied from. Having many different translations at your disposal means that you have more than one point of view on the proper translation on a specific verse – and given how many ancient words have profound double meanings – (the word for man is also the word for husband, the word for woman is also the word for wife, the word for angel is also the word for messenger which could be used to mean spy) that provides our interpreters with far more perplexing scenarios than ballet or square dancing. Sticking with a single translation limits your understanding by excluding other possible interpretations of some of your most deeply-held beliefs.

It also doesn’t challenge you to consider the difference between something being said or something being meant. In the parables, Jesus says one thing to mean something else entirely. The epistles on occasion make references to something that was said previously as having some relevant meaning, but we don’t always know what was said or what it might have meant. They also use similar imagery to the parables, “land that drinks in much rain produced a bountiful harvest” but it’s meaning isn’t always what it says literally. Even so, keeping an open mind to the possibilities allows for personal growth, and that is a truth that not even bias, mistranslated words, or anything else can stop.

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...Anyway, that's just how I feel about it ... What do you think?

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