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Fr James Martin explains what can get lost in translating Scripture

Worshippers recite the Lord’s Prayer during Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, New York, on 13 Oct 2017. (CNS photo/Gregory A Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

Pope Francis inadvertently initiated one of the internet kerfuffles he has become famous for earlier this week. During a television interview, he suggested that the Italian church consider tinkering with its translation of the Our Father. The interweb quickly heated up with protests that the pope was trying to rewrite the prayer before cooler theological heads prevailed, pointing out that the pope’s corrective was simply aimed at bad translations, not an effort to put words in our Saviour’s mouth.

Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages—especially since passages and phrases from Scripture end up in Catholic liturgies—will likely always prove hazardous work. James Martin, SJ, editor-at-large here at America and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, says the pope’s efforts to encourage a better translation of the Our Father are a reminder that there are several other Scripture passages that have been seen as problematic in terms of translation.

“It’s important for people to know that Jesus spoke in Aramaic,” Father Martin says, “and maybe a little Hebrew.”

Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages will always prove a hazard-heavy challenge.

The disciples of Jesus passed on the stories of their experiences to the early church before Gospel writers of the first century began their work, employing the lingua franca of the era: Greek. That means there was already something of “a distance” from the words that Jesus actually spoke in Aramaic to his followers.

Those Greek passages were then open to a number of alternative interpretations and choices when they were translated into other languages “as any translations would be,” says Father Martin.

1. Entos hymōn: Within or among? Among the biggest continuing interpretive challenges, one focuses around a familiar phrase from Luke, “the kingdom of God is among you,” according to Father Martin.

The original Greek expression, entos hymōn, could be interpreted in two ways: The kingdom of God could be found “within you,” as if it were an “interior reality,” or “among you,” to suggest “the world you live in,” a spatial expression of the rule of God present among the community of the faithful on earth.

Were Gospel writers deliberately trying to be vague on the concept? Perhaps Jesus was? “These are the kinds of things translators have to look at,” says Father Martin.

Why is it important to get it right? Because, he explains, like the pope’s concern that the current translation of the Our Father might persuade some to believe that God could lead people into evil, these subtle differences in translations can have significant effects in how we understand the faith and live our lives.

“If it’s ‘within,’” says Father Martin, “you have to worry less about the outside world.” But if the kingdom is “among us,” then the kingdom is here, “already but not yet,” he says, using a construct familiar to New Testament scholars.

The expression “kingdom of God” itself has been the source of interpretive disagreement, Father Martin says. Is “kingdom,” in Greek basileia, meant to denote a geographical reality or is it meant to suggest “more of a dynamic reality”?

Father Martin wonders if the use of blessed “tamps down the joy” of the Beatitudes.

2. Anthrōpos: Fishing for the best translation Another major “lost in translation” moment begins in Matthew when Jesus first calls the disciples to follow him, rendered in the New American Bible, Revised Edition, as: “‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” Father Martin points out that the original Greek texts use a form of the word anthrōpos, a gender-neutral term that should be read not “fishers of men,” but “fishers of people.”

“That’s more inclusive,” Father Martin concludes, “and most New Testament scholars would say it’s more accurate.”

3. Makarios: Blessed or happy? In the Beatitudes, many Scripture translations use the expression “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but did Jesus actually say something closer to “Happy are the poor in spirit”?

Were the people who were the object of the Beatitudes—the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, the pure of heart and the rest—blessed, from the Greek, makarios, “like the saints?” Father Martin asks. Or “were they ‘happy?’” another possible take on the original Greek. “If you choose ‘happy’ the Beatitudes take on a whole different meaning,” he says.

Father Martin wonders if the use of blessed “tamps down the joy” of the passage in Matthew: “At the end, Jesus says, ‘Rejoice and be glad,’ so it’s probably more likely that he meant ‘happy.’”

“The choices of the translator influence how we think and what we believe,” Father Martin says. And for Catholics the nuances of ever-evolving translations of Scripture and how Scripture is reflected during Mass and in prayer is of essential importance. “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,” says Father Martin.

How we pray affects what we believe, “and how we live.” – kevin clarke,, 15 Dec 2017

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