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Having served for a number of years on a translation team, what I remember best about the enterprise was the sheer excitement of detailed discussion of what the text before us meant by focusing on the language of the text. It was often exhausting work, but always stimulating and engaging. It was also revealing how many decisions about the proper translation were made by very narrow votes—often by a single one. In the translation of the Decalogue for the New Revised Standard Version, the committee spent several hours in conversation and split down the middle when the vote came to decide between "kill" and "commit murder." The chair had to cast the deciding vote.

Many interpreters do their own translation work apart from any formal process of public translation, and they are concerned with different things. One concern, of course, is to get the text right, to avoid mistakes and misunderstanding of the text. Equally important, is that the translation process is a part of one's engagement with the text. The goal is not so much to find mistakes in the public translations or make some new discovery about a meaning of a word. The primary reason for working at translating from the original text is to be drawn into the text, to encounter the text for oneself. The interpretive process is not a search for the new or a correction of mistakes; it is one's involvement with the text on the way to an understanding and appropriation of the text.

That direct engagement with the original language includes the exploration of meaning of the particular words and phrases. For this reason, the lexicon is the most important tool in the interpretive process, not simply to get at the English (or whatever language) equivalent but because of the information it gives about usage of a word, its occurrences in other places where the usage may shed light on the text before the student.

Usually, someone has seen what you see in the text and has written about it. But to rely on that is to let commentary become a substitute for the text and to remove oneself from engagement with what is there. Direct engagement with the language gives some handle for assessment of what others say about the text, even if you are not an expert with the language. Critical use of contemporary translation is not possible apart from attention to the language of the text. In fact, attention to the original language lets one know whether or not the different translations, in a particular instance, represent different understandings—and so present an exegetical problem—or simply give varying ways of presenting the language that is there.

There are negative aspects to the existence of multiple translations. The most basic is the absence of a base text familiar to the culture, which can be learned, remembered, and encountered again and again. This is more of an ecclesial issue than an academic one. But both the academy and the market have dominated to the degree that the communities of faith now have difficulty finding a shared sacred text. The learning of Scripture from generation to generation may be helped by the way a new translation catches one's attention, but it is harmed by the absence of a shared text that may be passed on and that one can expect to encounter in the future in liturgy and life.

Patrick D. Miller

Professor of Old Testament Theology

Princeton Theological Seminary

Citation: Patrick D. Miller, " What Translation Is," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:


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