Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Translation bias

You've probably heard about it already, but a group of theological and political conservatives have come together to retranslate the bible and bring it more in line with conservative principles.  (You can read more of the details here.)

The stated goal of this group is to comb the bible and remove "liberal bias."  Any lines that make Jesus come across as a social activist, for example (e.g. the part about feeding the poor), are to be rewritten to eliminate what they perceive as contrary to the conservative agenda.  Murder is to be punished, including a new clause to protect the unborn.  The whole thing, in fact, is to be retooled so that conservative principles can be proven to have a scriptural basis.

My first thought was that this was some kind of hoax.  I thought, "Can they really be engaging in so transparently circular an argument?"  Tragically, it is not a hoax at all.  They really believe that the bible's current popular translations have been twisted into a liberal framework, and that it is god's will that they undo the damage.

Of the many problems I see here, first and foremost is: are they really arrogant enough to believe that they, and only they, have enough of a window into the intent of the original writers of the bible manuscripts to be able to accurately portray those intents in English?  I'm sure that some of the current translations of the bible have errors -- either denotative (using the wrong word entirely) or connotative (using a word that is literally correct but gives the wrong impression).   How do they know that theirs is any better?  They admit that many of the people on the committee are not language scholars; they are merely hired to "comb the bible for liberal bias" and to submit a "better translation."  You'd think that they, of all people, would want to be exceedingly careful about doing that.  Aren't they the ones who believe that it's the inerrant word of god?

Of course, the central problem with most of these folks is that they want to focus with wearying intensity on some parts of the bible (such as the prohibition against homosexuality) and completely ignore others (such as the prohibition against usury -- lending money at interest).  Some of the more peculiar prohibitions in the Old Testament, such as the command never to eat pork, wear clothing made of two kinds of thread sewn together, or gather firewood on the sabbath (the last-mentioned was punishable by death), they argue away by saying that "Jesus made a new covenant" which superseded all of the old, picayune laws in the Old Testament -- except, apparently, the ones they want to keep.

Note that I'm not trying to criticize Christianity or Christians en masse.  Despite my own beliefs, or lack thereof, I really don't particularly care what sort of beliefs you choose to have, as long as you don't force them on me.  I'm writing more because I'm genuinely mystified by the thought process that's going on here.  How could any honest scholar look at any book -- much less one (s)he revered as holy writ -- and simply decide to rewrite it to eliminate or alter parts of it that (s)he didn't like?  If there was a rational argument going on, backed up by facts from the people who are the experts (i.e. people who have spent their life studying Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic) -- that I would understand, and in fact probably would never have thought even to comment upon.  But to decide that the previous translators were biased simply because you don't like their translation is an act of tremendous spiritual pride.  And even with my admittedly poor knowledge of the bible, I seem to remember that pride is considered to be one of the more serious sins.

Isn't there, in fact, something in there about how it "goeth before a fall?"


  1. Republicans have lost their god damned minds. Wouldn't be surprised at all if the Bible 2.0 gets an extra commandment:

    "Thou shalt not raise taxes, ever."

    The only thing they prove is that nothing, and I do mean nothing... is sacred anymore.

  2. I'm completely with you on this, and I think most actual SCHOLARS of the Bible would be as well. I looked at their website and all I could think was how completely transparent their OWN bias is.

    I think my parents would be the first to tell you that the Bible is not always clear, often the original intent is ambiguous, and translators often have to take a stab at something provisional - really, their best guess - also because different languages do not have one-to-one correspondences in vocabulary... and they're ALWAYS culturally contingent, every translation (including the original) is.

    1. Exactly. One thing I've learned from my own study of languages is how culturally anchored language is -- there are some concepts that are extremely difficult to translate because the phrase in the original language meant, to native speakers, something that was so steeped in cultural knowledge that it would be almost impossible to convey the concept in another "code." The idea that modern English-speaking Americans can somehow read a TRANSLATION of the bible manuscripts, and from that alone parse what the original authors meant, is incredible hubris.