translation gaps

Yesterday I was checking the translation of Romans 11 into another language (through a literal translation back to English). I came to verse 16 and thought about it. I realized that the translation that I was checking, as well as every English translation I know about, had a translation gap. What I mean by a translation gap is that a significant amount of background information for this verse was known by the original author, and, probably, assumed to be known by his original audience. But many (most?) people reading that verse today in translations into other languages would not share that background information with the original author or his audience.

Here is how the passage reads in the TEV (Good News Translation) which our children grew up on:

If the first piece of bread is given to God, then the whole loaf is his also; and if the roots of a tree are offered to God, the branches are his also.

The TEV is one of the most idiomatic translations ever produced in English. Its English is natural. Yet someone without background knowledge of Jewish religious customs would not understand Rom. 11:16 in the TEV or any other translation, for that matter. And we really can’t make an encyclopedia out of our translations, filling in all such large translation gaps.

But somehow we need to ensure that translation users have access to the background information needed to understand translation gaps. We can place this information in Bible study notes, a separate commentary, or have a footnote telling the reader to ask a Bible teacher to explain about first fruit offerings.

Are you alert to translation gaps as you read the Bible? Do you use them as “teachable moments” to learn something you didn’t know before that will help you understand the translation better? If you are a Bible teacher or minister, are you able to walk in the shoes of your class or congregation so that you can anticipate what will be translation gaps for them that need to be filled in.

The translation process is not complete until its original meaning has been communicated to its audience. Partial communication of original meaning is a form of inaccuracy. Yes, as much as I might prefer otherwise, I recognize that we cannot communicate all of that original meaning by filling every gap in the translation itself. No translation, however literal or idiomatic, can communicate every part of  the meaning which was part of an original communication event. But we still need to be alert to what aspects of original meaning need to be filled in, one way or another, for our translation users.

As an exercise for the comments on this post, let’s have some of you mention and fill in the translation gaps that you find in any translation of Rom. 11:16. (Please do not comment on the TEV wording, since the TEV wording is not the point of this post. The point of this post applies to every translation of Rom. 11:16.)

What background information is needed for this verse to make sense to users of any translation of it? Even if the answer seems obvious to you, given your own background knowledge, feel free to do this exercise.

14 thoughts on “translation gaps

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    To fill the ‘gap’, my old Jerusalem Bible suggests Numbers 15:19-21. I see that the first of firstfruits is the first word in the Bible רֵאשִׁית! Maybe the gap is to recognize the first of God’s creation, the light, which is good. If to read Romans, we must include the offerings of Numbers, our first understanding will be limited – which of course it is. Aren’t gaps to be turned into sermons?

  2. Theophrastus says:

    I’m sorry, but I cannot agree with you here. It is not really possible to read Romans with any comprehension without having read the Pentateuch first, and thus the relevant reference at Numbers 15:19-21. One normally begins a book at the beginning and reads to the end; if one begins reading the Wizard of Oz in the middle and complains “who is this Dorothy character?” one has no basis for complaint.

    This is clear — in the book of Romans alone, we find the following explicit references to the Torah: 2:12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27; 3:19, 20, 21, 27, 28, 31; 4:13, 14, 15, 16; 5:13, 20; 6:14, 15; 7:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 14, 16, 21, 22, 23, 25; 8:2, 3, 4, 7; 9:4, 31; 10:4, 5 (note that this verse actually quotes the Torah); 13:8.

    When a student who has not studied algebra opens up a calculus book and cannot understand the meaning of the variable “x”, does she have a valid reason for complaint? Or cannot we legitimately suggest that students study algebra before they attempt calculus?

    However, even if someone decides to read Romans while ignoring the Bible that Paul used, the metaphor is clear enough even without a knowledge of the commandment to give challah. For that reason, we do not require that when an author makes a literary reference in a novel, for example, that he necessarily explain each literary reference. And if further explanation is required, there are no shortage of annotated translations.

    Finally, if you nonetheless claim that “the translation process is not complete until its original meaning has been communicated to its audience”, then you must also tackle many words that appear frequently in the Bible, such as “Christ.” Even if you avoid the use of this term, and prefer “anointed” or “messiah”, these are both terms that require knowledge of Jewish beliefs. Will you forbid the use of “Christ”, “anointed”, and “messiah” in translations of the New Testament?

  3. Theophrastus says:

    May I further ask if you believe that Romans 2:25-3:1 (and so on) is mistranslated because it requires knowing that circumcision is a Jewish custom? Certainly, challah is no less a commandment than circumcision; both are practiced by Jews, both are explicitly commanded in the Pentateuch, and both are referenced in Romans. Indeed, Paul demands that his reader understand far more about circumcision as a Jewish custom; is reference to challah is far more oblique.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    I’m sorry, but I cannot agree with you here. It is not really possible to read Romans with any comprehension without having read the Pentateuch first, and thus the relevant reference at Numbers 15:19-21.

    Well, I’m glad to say that I fully agree with *you*. 🙂

    We cannot understand much of the N.T. without understanding its Jewish background. I hope I have blogged on this before, but I just assumed it in this post. Yes, by all means, someone who just picks up Romans will not understand it unless they understand all the references to Torah teaching. Too much teaching on the book of Romans, for instance, neglects to refer to Torah as a key to understanding Paul’s repeated references to “law”.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    May I further ask if you believe that Romans 2:25-3:1 (and so on) is mistranslated because it requires knowing that circumcision is a Jewish custom?

    I think I must have miscommunicated something in my post. I’m not talking about any mistranslation in this post. I’m referring to gaps in the knowledge of those who are not familiar with the background that Paul had when he wrote Romans. I am saying that those gaps need to be filled in by a variety of means, one of which, you correctly point out, should be Torah study. I did not intend my list of resources for understanding background to be exhaustive.

    The basic point of my post is that we need to be alert to logical inferences in the translation text that don’t work for ourselves or for those we help teach, due to insufficient background. I am saying that we need to fill in those gaps so that we and others can get the full meaning that the original author intended.

  6. Tim Bulkeley says:

    But that’s one of the purposes of a list of cross references! To assist beginning readers of this canon of writings to “hear”, and not miss, possible textual allusion and reference to parts of the same thought world. Any Bible without cross references is “obviously” geared only to ideal readers 😉

  7. mark escobar says:

    Biblical literature echoes countless incidents that explore vision quest that represents a mirror or a test of what it means to be a disciple and what the way of discipleship really means. Those archetypal characteristics in the bible particularly in the politics of survival, the economics of exploitation, and the symbolism of Messiahship correspond to what they represent as the “unfinished business” to which we must attend still.

    The school of humanities enables us to discern, explore, understand better, internalize through our openness to the challenge of repentance and renewal.

    Hope we’re transparent enough to face the harsh realities of life in today’s world. Pace bene!

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Tim wrote:

    But that’s one of the purposes of a list of cross references!

    Thanks, Tim. Yes, cross references are important tools for filling in translation gaps.

  9. Patrick Rietveld says:

    But even crossreferences might be misleading. People might just read the references without the context in which the reference is. But at least it is a good start.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    I wonder if part of the issue is that the translation that Wayne was checking is of a stand-alone NT with no OT, and no intention of producing an OT in this language. I know that Bible translation organisations commonly work like this. While this is better than nothing, it certainly shouldn’t be considered adequate for any people group, in my opinion. Passages like this give a large part of the reason.

  11. Eddie Gonzalez says:

    Patrick: but that is precisely why cross references need to be more than a simple one or two verse reference. The team putting together the translation should recognize the need for the reader to go back and grasp better the context and concept in mind. E.g. instead of Num. 15:19-21, what about Numbers 14-16 (didn’t verify that case in point exactly, just throwing out something of an example). If a reader has a problem reading all of that reference, that is a case for the elders/spiritual helpers of that individual to help him/her understand the importance of doing so.

    Agreeing with what you allude to, the short, focused cross references perpetuate the standard problem of taking texts out of context.

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