There can be no phony-baloney when it comes to translating the Scriptures. The word, phony-baloney was first used in 1936, or so says Merriam-Webster.com.
I love language, words, and experiencing life from other cultures and with people groups who view the world differently than me.
I’ve learned over the years that translating from one language to another is complicated. And it’s even more complicated when translating in the moment – when a translator struggles to find equivalent terms in one language for another. It can be quite stressful.
A word can easily be misrepresented when two cultures do not share a concept. Humor, as I’ve learned, is not universal, so what is funny to me and my culture may not be humorous at all to another. In fact, it may be downright offensive in another setting.
BUT, when it comes to translating the Hebrew or Greek text for a sacred text, let’s say such as the Bible, additional work is required to find terms that fit with the ancient setting. This isn’t an easy task. It requires committees with experts in translation theory, committed to expend energy and hours and hours of time and research in order to bring the ancient text as close as possible to the text in question.
Incorporating anachronistic terms for an ancient word in my mind, would be unacceptable. For instance, would Jesus tell the Pharisees that their teaching was “a bunch of phony-baloney”? We might understand it like that in today’s vernacular, but of course we would not expect to hear these words come from the mouth of Jesus. I for one would wonder what the translation team had been drinking!
Let’s take another term, for instance – the term John Doe or Jane Doe. These are often used today as an alias in legal documents, or when bodies are unidentifiable, or when an identity is to be hidden. Would this be an appropriate term to use when translating a word from the Old Testament?
I say this to share what I discovered yesterday while studying the concept of friendship. There are about 13 Hebrew words translated as ‘friend’ in the OT and about five Greek words used in the NT. Of those 13 Hebrew words, the word peloni is always accompanied with the word almoni.
This word for friend was not pertinent to my research, but I did think it was fun to pronounce. Try saying it for yourself: peloni almoni. See how it rhymes with phony-baloney!
Anyway I was busy doing word searches for the various ways these Hebrew and Greek words are translated with our English word friend in the Bible.
That’s when I stumbled across a verse in Ruth 4:1 in the NET. And that’s when John Doe jumped off the page!
I was so surprised that I even took a screen shot as the whole translation seemed so preposterous that someone might not believe me.
“Now Boaz went up to the village gate and sat there. Then along came the guardian whom Boaz had mentioned to Ruth! Boaz said, “Come here and sit down, ‘John Doe’!” So he came and sat down.” Ruth 4:1
I prepared to send a message to have Logos correct what I thought was an error. But first I remembered the NET Bible is available online. So I checked them out.
Did the NET translation team decide John Doe (used in the first edition) was insufficient for translating peloni almoni? It is likely so, because the second edition, thankfully, has removed John Doe from the text.
The text now reads:
“Now Boaz went up to the village gate and sat there. Then along came the guardian whom Boaz had mentioned to Ruth. Boaz said, “Come here, what’s-your-name, and sit down.” So he came and he sat down.” (Ruth4:1)
If you’re interested in why the NET translation team chose to use John Doe and currently why they chose to use ‘what’s-your-name,’ for the Hebrew words peloni almoni you can check it out for yourself at netbible.org. Simply enter Ruth 4:1 into the search engine.
Hopefully this more lighthearted post will encourage you as a Bible reader to draw your attention to how the scriptures have been translated in the Bible which you have chosen to read and study. I also hope you have a greater appreciation of the arduous task involved in bringing our ancient Scriptures into our mother tongue.
Better yet, enroll in a Hebrew or Greek language class and join the many who are learning to read and study the biblical text in its original language.