Errors in translation

I grew up in a small town in FL. We were Catholic which meant that I got to pick out my confirmation name and go to catechism. I always understood that we were really “Jesuit,” though, because my father’s family was old San Franciscan, and that’s the way it was. In FL, being Catholic meant you were not really Christian, as the Evangelical and Baptist churches had the highest draw. But, according to my father, Catholic means universal, and according to my mother, climbing trees and being outside meant communion.

I learned more from my parents than I did from most teachers and school systems, and one of their first lessons was that “something you know to be true is likely not.” Language is tricky in this way, and I remember my father talking about the Bible and how the words in King James were highlighted in red as the text that was scripture — the logos — the word of god. Although, well, these words were not something that Jesus said in English, this was one of the first clues that made me grow up to be an archaeologist. It also gave me some insight and made me pretty powerful in my small town.

I learned today that the word “repent” is an erroneous translation of the Greek word metanoia μετάνοια, which definitely does not mean repent. It means to change, specifically a change of the mind, a change of the heart. And this is something I can understand, inspiring me to go back to translating the Septuagint into English. It reminds me of all the things I think I know — and how they are likely not true. The older I get, the less I know and the more interested I become in understanding the questions matter more than the answers.

I also know that words are data as they are artifacts of human behavior.

How do we know what we know?

How can we understand something when we don’t read or understand what the human meant to say in the language they used to say it over 2000 years ago?

What were the humans who used that language, thinking, saying, doing, and feeling?

Are we even pronouncing the words in the same way? (Did we really learned to pronounce languages that are no longer spoken from the phonetic spelling of the graffiti left on the cave walls ?)

How do we even know that our meaning today has survived time, culture, space, agendas, politics, errors, archaeological records, etc.?

The act of translation is an exposure of the translators’ social systems to the world. Today’s language is used to shape the ideas of yesterday.

The English language is an arsenal of weapons. If you are going to brandish them without checking to see whether or not they are loaded, you must expect to have them explode in your face from time to time. Stephen Fry

The Bible, the most printed book on Earth, which has reinforced the dominant paradigm, is accessible in many languages. Imagine how easy it would be to get a single word wrong or have a selah (a pause or exaltation) or a verb tense out of alignment. How can we take anything “literally”? “Literally” is an overused word from my very present-day teenager.

In the beautiful interview with Brené Brown and Father Richard Rohr, I learned something that caused me to remember that we all have access to knowledge if we chose to accept the mission. We all can have our interpretation and develop the information that allows us to go back and explore history. So go back and explore and learn what words mean, how they were “meant,” and, of course, the likely agenda behind how it is translated and of course who the translator is. The joy is in the journey and exploration of language, time after time.

It’s an error in translation that allows us to be surprised by the error or bias in our thinking and our ability to change our minds and hearts, see something from a different point of view, explore, and make discoveries about ourselves.

Words matter the make and make the matter.


Here is the inspiration for this blog — the interview with Brené Brown and Father Richard Rohr.

Here is the other inspiration for this blog — a Vox article about Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey.

Stephen Fry on Language — this is a brilliant beautiful and an essential distraction.



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