April 13, 2006

Translation v. Transliteration: Hypocrites!

A repeated issue on this blog has for some time been the difference between translation and transliteration and the way that the vast majority of Bible translations have failed to actually translate a large number of critical words, simply writing out the original Greek words instead. One such example that I've been thinking about recently is the word 'hypocrite.'

Unlike the other words I've been discussing, this one was not first introduced into English in a Bible translation, but it remains the fact (or so I am convinced) that the English word 'hypocrite' does not have the same meaning as the Greek upokrites and this at the very least kills a very good metaphor (compare my post on 'talents'), and possibly even distorts the meaning of the text.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hypocrite as "One who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined; one who pretends to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than his real ones; hence generally, a dissembler, pretender." Now, this isn't such a bad definition, but it's not exactly the one that I understand by hypocrite as a native speaker of English. I was always told a much simpler definition. "A hypocrite," I was told, "is a person who says one thing, and does another." Indeed, the dictionary on my computer defines hypocrisy as "the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which ones own behavior does not conform" and this is much more like the definition I am familiar with. Now, although this word was interoduced into English outside of the realm of Bible translation, it's English definition is taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, and, as such, Jesus' words take on a certain emptiness in English. For instance, in Matthew 6:16, the HCSB reads "Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward!" Now, why should Jesus say "don't be LIKE the hypocrites" in this matter? Isn't this the very definition of hypocrisy? Shouldn't he just be saying "don't be a hypocrite?" Well, no, actually, in the Greek that's not what hypocrisy is.

The Greek word upokrites means an actor in a play! Jesus is speaking here in a really powerful metaphor, which the transliteration all but totally destroys. Suppose we translate these verses like this:

"But whenever you fast, don't become like the sad-faced play-actors..." (Matt. 6:16)

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, play-actors! Because you travel around the sea and the land to make a single convert, and when he has become [converted] you make him twice as much a piece of junk* [as before]!" (Matt. 23:15)

* Lit. "son of Ge-henna," i.e. one who belongs to the Hinnom Valley, a garbage heap.

The list could continue. Perhaps the translation 'play-actors' could be made into smoother English, but I hope you get the point. Jesus' criticism in these verses doesn't have to do with the high moral standards professed but not lived up to, it has to do with general insincerity, and putting on a show. Jesus speaks in a vivid metaphor, saying that to the scribes and Pharisees "life is a stage." When we transliterate the work into English, we destroy this metaphor and, while we may get the general sense, we certainly miss the depth of what Jesus is getting at here.

Posted by Kenny at April 13, 2006 12:38 PM
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