There are a number of great literary works that are primarily accessed through translations. For example, if the translations were nonexistent and you wanted to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, you would need to know Greek. If you wanted to read Virgil’s Aeneid, you would need to know Latin. Greek and Latin are the two languages required of every student majoring in Classical Studies.
If you wanted to read Dante’s Commedia, you would need to learn Italian. If you wanted to read Cervantes’ Don Quixote, you would need to learn Spanish. I could go on, but you get the point. A host of great works of literature are written in a language foreign to us.
The Bible itself was written in Hebrew and Greek. A.T. Robertson, a respected Greek grammarian wrote,
The Greek New Testament is the New Testament. All else are translations.
Some things are sacrificed in translation. For example, rhyming schemes and rhythms are typically lost when translated from one language to another. Dante’s Commedia, for example, is a highly stylized and patterned poem. He used a rhyming scheme that looks like this: ABA, BCB, CDC, etc. This is totally lost in English translations. In both the Old and New Testaments, there are lays on words. Those are lost as well.
So, what do we do if we want to access these great literary works of art? Are we “out of luck”? Certainly not. That is precisely what translations are for. Yes, some things are lost in translation, but the ideas an author wants to convey are not lost. Jack Lewis, a Greek scholar compared reading the Greek New Testament with reading it in a translation to watching a TV program in black and white, or color. The story is the same.
The first thing to do in accessing any great work is to hunt down a reliable English translation—or two, or three. I try to find one good translation as my primary source from which I will compare everything else. I, then, read the work.
The problem with reading Dante’s Commedia for the first time is that he mentions so many contemporary names, places and events in and surrounding Florence, Italy around the 1300s ad, and I am totally unfamiliar with all of them. This is, of course, where a good commentary comes in handy.
I have the same problem reading some of the early English classics: Spencer’s A Fairie Queen, Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales, or Beowulf. Better yet, how many of us are comfortable reading Shakespeare? He’s English.
The question arises, what value is there in reading any one of these great works in translation? I would say the value would be similar to the value of being able to read them in their original language. Even though we may lose some of the stylistic values of a work, the message should be essentially the same.
Not many of us know the Hebrew or Greek language which means we cannot read the Bible in its original language. We are dependent on translations. So, let’s begin with a good reliable English translation—or two, or three. And, let’s read and compare often.
That we are dependent on translations is not a bad thing. Many of the writers of the New Testament, or speakers they recorded, relied on a translation of the Old Testament. They quoted from the Septuagint (LXX), which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Sources will tell you that the Septuagint had its problems as a translation, but that did not stop authoritative sources from quoting it.
I wish I had the time to learn all these foreign languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, Italian, Russian, etc. But I don’t. If you are like me, we do the best we can to diligently search out the meaning of these texts. We need to be open to correction as additional information comes our way. And when we get stuck, check with those who have specialized in a particular work.
Do not be put off by the fact that something you want to read was originally written in another language. In particular, and most importantly, do not be put off by the fact that the Bible was written in languages foreign to us. There are a number of very good translations available.