Lou: Maybe we all need to learn Hebrew and Greek? Is that the best answer to the translation problem; to read it in the original for ourselves?
Graham: I like to say to medical, dental and nursing students that I hope they won’t spend as much time studying Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek as I have. We live in an age of specialization. When I have a pain somewhere, I don’t want their expertise in the biblical languages. I want their help for my specific problem. So let them study their specialty and let me study mine. I’ll go to them when I need their help, and they’re welcome to phone me when they need my help on the biblical languages. But thanks to the existence of these wonderful translations, it isn’t necessary for most people to study the languages. But there ought to be somebody in the community whom you could phone when a technical problem arises.
Lou: You are saying, then, that the multiplicity of versions is a real strength.
Graham: That’s where the safety is. I wouldn’t want just one translation. Sometimes I have almost my whole collection of 150 out on the floor.
Lou: I have heard the question raised: Isn’t it true that the translator’s theological positions are often reflected in their translations? For example, aren’t the Ten Commandments translated differently in the Roman Catholic Bible? Aren’t they numbered differently? Don’t they read differently?
Graham: On the contrary, Catholic translations are very precise. Some of the best translations are of Roman Catholic origin, although they don’t always use the most understandable English. Nevertheless, over time, Catholic translations have become clearer and clearer. They are frankly some of the very best. The Jerusalem Bible is very readable. So is The New American Bible.
To show you how candid and dependable the Catholic versions are, let me refer to the Kleist and Lilly translation. In Romans 6, where there is a reference to being buried in baptism, there is a footnote by these two Jesuit scholars at the bottom. “Paul is obviously alluding here to the early Christian custom of baptism by immersion. The descent into the water is suggestive of descent into the grave. The ascent from the water is suggestive of resurrection to newness of life.” I can’t think of a better note than that.
Coming back to your original question, the Ten Commandments read exactly the same in Catholic Bibles. They do count them differently, as you know. The Sabbath commandment is number three. So if you were to ask a Catholic regarding the Church’s position on the fourth commandment, you’d be surprised by the response. But they are not the only ones. Luther and some others have counted the Sabbath as number three and split the tenth commandment into two; nine and ten. But that doesn’t affect the message of the biblical text.
Lou: Graham, you referred earlier to paraphrases and to The Living Bible. There has been considerable controversy over them. Is a paraphrase a real Bible? Are they trustworthy?
Graham: Well, in the first place, there is no way to translate without paraphrasing. So there is some paraphrasing in every single translation, unless the translator goes word for word literal, as in a Greek/English transliteration, for example. But such translations tend to be quite lame with the words out of proper English order. Have you ever tried to translate French into English word for word? It doesn’t make much sense. So all translations are somewhat paraphrased. That means a re-phrasing of the original text.
Are paraphrases trustworthy? It depends on how far you go. The author of The Living Bible, for example (Kenneth Taylor), departed a long way from the original text. In fact, sometimes he expanded a sentence into a whole paragraph! There’s no way you could reproduce the original languages from The Living Bible. You almost could with Goodspeed. That’s what is so amazing. His is a readable American idiom but without multiplying words. On the other hand, with Taylor’s paraphrases (The Living Bible), when he’s right, he’s clearly and brilliantly right. And when he’s wrong, in my opinion, he’s very clearly wrong. The best thing about it is—he’s clear.
Lou: But sometimes clearly wrong.
Graham: Well, let me show you a time he gets it right, and I’ll skip the wrong one. Psalm 120:1, KJV: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” That’s beautiful. It’s like being in Loma Linda, and looking across the valley to the snow-covered mountains. Very inspiring. But in the Bible, the Psalmist was referring to the fertility cults at the top of the hill. According to Hosea, the leaders of Israel went up into those mountains to sacrifice with the cult prostitutes. They were going up to those groves and engaging in immorality. And so the 120th Psalm actually says in the Hebrew, “Shall I lift up mine eyes unto the hills? Never. My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 120:1-2). So Dr. Taylor paraphrases, “Shall I look to the mountain gods for help? Never. I will look to the God who created the mountains.” I say he is brilliantly right on this text, though it is a rather free paraphrase. I wouldn’t be afraid to use The Living Bible, but in the interests of precision, I would want to have some of these others alongside.