My father was a microbiologist back in the day when microbiology was more about microscopes and stains and less about biochemistry. He worked in the pharmaceutical industry for Smith, Kline, and French (now GlaxoSmithKline) and helped develop time-release dosing. In the mid-60’s there was a big shake up in the pharmaceutical business and many in management positions were fired, most for highly political reasons. While the rest of my father’s colleagues simply moved to other big companies into the jobs vacated by their friends and former classmates, my father opted out of the big company scene and went to work as the lab director for a small veterinary pharmaceutical start up, Masti-Kure, (although one didn’t call new companies start ups in those days.)
The idea behind the company was simple and brilliant. It’s founder, Dr. Jules Silver, a large animal veterinarian, had come up with a slick solution to one of the biggest problems in the dairy business, mastitis, an inflammation of the udder. If a cow gets mastitis the milk is contaminated with the bacteria that causes the inflammation and if the inflammation goes on too long, the cow will dry up. The problem is that the time to diagnose the cause of the mastitis not only costs the farmer in lost milk, but also risks losing the cow for the whole year.
Dr. Silver’s brilliant idea was to combine all the antibiotics indicated for all the common bacterial causes of mastitis into a single pharmaceutical. It contained a half a dozen drugs, from penicillin to sulfas. Your cow gets mastitis, you don’t waste time figuring out what kind of mastitis she has, you give her one, maybe two, doses of Masti-Kure, and she’s cured.
Now the Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) has long been interested in insuring that antibiotics don’t make their way into the food supply, so the manufacturer has to prove that all the antibiotics were gone from the milk within a certain time. Dr. Silver had tweaked things to get the milk out time down to 24 hours. The farmers cheered and lined up in droves to buy the stuff.
But then the big pharmaceutical companies started doing something that upset the FDA. To boost their profits they started mixing pairs of pharmaceuticals for treating single human ailments, giving the combination a new name, and charging more for it as if it were a new drug. The FDA responded by saying that the manufacturers need to prove that the combination was more effective than simply the effect of one drug added to the effect of the other. This makes perfect sense.
Unfortunately for you, me, and the dairy farmers, some smarty-pants bureaucrat decided that the same rule should apply to mastitis ointments. (If you’re interested and have the patience to wade through the legalese, look at FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine Guideline No. 27. Notice that Masti-Kure is referenced in section VI. A.) He didn’t take into account that the underpinnings are entirely different. Speed is of the essence and it doesn’t matter if the penicillin is only half as effective in combination. The point is to get the bug healed before it can do any more damage.
But, no, the government forged ahead and banned Masti-Kure’s product. (Masti-Kure then promptly moved to Ireland and is doing a land office business in the EU, where they are, in general, much better about drug laws.)
What the FDA didn’t realize is that the barn door was, by then, open. Once the farmers know that the economically smart solution is to throw everything at mastitis, pharmaceutically speaking, then they will do that, even if it means mixing their own ointments. So in an overbearing attempt to ensure that Masti-Kure was not gouging the dairy farmers, the FDA has lost control of the very thing it should be most concerned about, antibiotics in the food supply. If the farmers mix their own ointments, we have no way of knowing how soon the last antibiotic is gone from the milk. We’re in the land of unintended consequences.
I’d argue that that’s exactly were we are with Bible translations. By having influential theologians afraid of tampering with God’s Word insist on translations that hew too close to the original, we are left with versions that are far less clear in English than they should be, and we’ve placed too much of the burden of the translation work on our pastors, who are, for the most part, not fully up to the task. (Rick Mansfield, himself a Greek teacher, goes public on this here.) And it’s not their job, or it shouldn’t be. Wasn’t that the message of the Reformation? Shouldn’t we all have Scriptures that we can read without having to have the clergy explain them to us?
If you know any Greek or Hebrew at all, I’ll bet it’s not uncommon in your church-going experience that you have heard a pastor get it wrong from the pulpit. I will not list the ways—not the times, but the ways—I’ve heard well-meaning and theologically solid pastors get it wrong. The list would be quite long.
We’re in the land of unintended consequences. By trying to avoid making the hard decisions about what gets left out in the triage of translation, we farm it out to our pastors who far too often get it wrong.
Is it really safer to translate essentially transparently? Is there no harm, no foul?