Wednesday, September 22, 2004

When is a Paraphrase an Untruth? On translating in order to avoid what the original states

What is a Paraphrase? It is an expression in other words of the sense of a given passage, or, a free rendering or amplification of a specific passage

From Latin paraphrasis & Greek paraphrasis (to tell in other words)

Each Sunday in adult and children’s classes in churches in the U.S.A., teachers use paraphrase to convey what they believe to be the meaning and sense of parts of the Bible. For example, a paraphrase of “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matthew 5:3) may be “How happy before God are those who are inwardly humble…”

Strictly speaking, to provide a paraphrase, the teacher or preacher should first have before him the original text, have studied it and have understood its meaning, and then he should choose an alternative form of words & phrases to convey what he thinks is the meaning of the original form of words. If he does not have the Hebrew or the Greek text, then he must have an accurate literal rendering in English of the original so that he has as direct an access as possible to the original text, and that he faces whatever strangeness it has or oddities it seems to contain, before he makes the attempt at a paraphrase. For the paraphrase is really a commentary upon the original or an explanation of the meaning of the original.

In the profusion of versions of the Bible in English since the 1970s, it is difficult for the untrained eye to discern whether the English version he is given is a genuine translation, that is an essentially literal translation, or is, in part or in whole, a paraphrase. From the NIV onwards and including the REB, the NJB, the NAB and the NRSV most of the serious English versions contain a mixture of literal rendering and paraphrase and it is not easy for the ordinary reader to know the difference. This is also true of all Liturgies composed since the 1970s.

However, to notice fairly quickly where, in such versions as the REB, NJB, NAB and NRSV, that it is obvious that paraphrase is being used one needs to go to those places where (by modern secular standards of judgment) sexism, patriarchy and androcentricism are said to dominate the original text. The easiest place to notice this in the Old Testament is in Psalm 1:1 where the original text in Hebrew begins very clearly and is easily rendered literally into English as, “Blessed is the man…” No serious minded Hebraist questions this is what it there written, and all the serious commentaries on the Psalter make it clear that the opening words of Psalm 1 refer to an individual, male, human being.

However, here are the paraphrases found in modern versions of the Bible:

NRSV Happy are those…
REB Happy is the one…
NAB Happy those who…
NJB How blessed is anyone…

Obviously, what the Psalmist actually and precisely stated is being told in other words and these other words include a tremendous amount of interpretation. Perhaps the reasoning of the translators went something like this. “The word ‘man’ was used in Hebrew both for the male human being and for human beings of both sexes. God loves both female and male and wants both sexes to be happy in his service. So what the Psalmist was really saying – if we remove his cultural skins – is that both sexes are to be happy in God. And this is what must be said today so that women as well as men think that God wishes their happiness. The dynamic and functional equivalent of ‘Blessed is the man’ is ‘Happy are they’ or ‘Happy is the one’.”

Here the paraphrase obviously contains a very heavy interpretation and anyone reading it, who is not familiar with the original text, would never know that it is a paraphrase, unless some footnote admits it is so.

But consider what is lost to worship, prayer, doctrine and devotion by NOT offering a literal translation.

The text states “Blessed is the man…” for according to the Law of Moses, the man, as husband and father, was the head of the home with the duty to care for his wife and family and to set them an example of godliness. When the Hebrew man obeys the Law of Moses/God and walks in his Statutes then he is blessed by God. And the same is true of his wife and children, who, though they have a different vocation it is a related vocation to his and dependent upon his, and their faithful obedience has its rewards as well.

As read by the Christian Church, the “Man” who obeys the Law and walks in God’s ways is pre-eminently the Man Christ Jesus. The Psalter was his prayer book and so the Church worships God and prays to the Father using this prayer book and using it with and through Jesus Christ, the Man, who is at its very center. If “the Man” is removed from the very first words of the Psalter, how is this possible?

Paraphrases occur in many other places as well but to illustrate them would require a very long essay with all kinds of comparative tables!

To conclude. We see that a paraphrase, however well intentioned, makes it impossible to see the layers of meaning and application that are there in the content of the Sacred Scriptures. If the Church or her Ministers cannot read and understand the original texts then what is needed by them is a sound, literal translation, by and from which the varying layers of meaning can be discerned and experienced. We must not confuse translation with commentary and worse still translation with an opportunity to convey an ideology.

When is a Paraphrase an Untruth? When it is incorporated into the text of an English Bible and there prevents access to the full light that the Lord desires to send forth from his Word.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon September 20, 2004-09-20

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