The holy mistakes of the Bible
Many people, especially Christians, would be surprised to learn that the Bibles they keep in their homes and have read since childhood are not entirely accurate. Initially written in ancient Hebrew, the Bible has been translated into more than 450 languages, making it the most translated book in history. Unfortunately, this has made it the victim not only of multiple translation errors but also of printing errors.
This phenomenon is known as Bible errata and is in fact so common that it was portrayed in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's satirical novel, Good Omens (1990). In the book, the angel Aziraphale collects mistranslated bibles, also called Infamous Bibles. Such copies were usually destroyed or suppressed as their contents were considered heretical by many. However, this has not always been the case and some of these ecclesiastical accidents are prevalent in modern translations.
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In Christianity, many have normalised and defended the mistreatment of women based on the content of certain biblical passages. Fortunately, others question the “superficial reading” of the bible and wonder if it is an accurate translation consistent with the original text. The tenth commandment, for example, has been erroneously translated as “thou shalt not covet”. In this case, the structure and etymology of the phrase are misleading, as the words “covet” and "take" in Hebrew come from the same root. It is the second word, “take”, that was originally written in the Ten Commandments.
Approximately 2,300 years ago, the original Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. This text is known as the Septuagint and was the basis for later translations into German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and English. However, it has been shown that there are multiple inconsistencies in the Septuagint, as the Hebrew words for “love”, “mercy” and “compassion” were constantly interchanged and used as synonyms, despite having different meanings. Similarly, no differentiation was made between the words “virgin” and “young woman”.
Thus the story described in Isaiah 7:14, which originally portrayed a young woman who gave birth to a child named Emmanuel, was twisted into a virgin who miraculously conceived. It is also theorised that there is a connection between this mistranslation and the Gospel of Matthew, which describes the virgin birth of Jesus. Although this fact is well known to biblical scholars, many are unwilling to give up the version of history they have known since childhood.
Translating complicated texts into another language is not something that everyone can do. It requires a lot of education, extensive research and objectivity, so most people prefer to use a specialised translation agency or translation company. Some of the challenges translators face in their work are cultural differences, euphemisms and metaphors. It is precisely the phenomenon of metaphor that has caused many inconsistencies and confusion when translating biblical passages.
Pastors in the bible, for example, used to be symbols of power, ferocity and high hierarchy, whereas now they are commonly interpreted as humble and peaceful guides. This could also be considered a mistake due to cultural difference. Similarly, terms such as “father”, “brother”, “sister”, etc. were used in ancient Hebrew to indicate power structures.
With this in mind, the content of the Song of Songs is striking. The translation of a segment, commonly translated as “my sister, my bride” or “my sister, my wife”, is confusing and even contradictory to the ethical principles of Judaism. Many scholars are of the opinion that the original intention of this passage was to portray the woman in question as a companion or equal of her husband.
In this and many cases, context, cultural-historical awareness and continuous questioning bring us closer to the true meaning of the Bible and the teachings of Christianity. The study of sacred texts and their translations can be very interesting for anyone who wants to know more about the origin of religion.
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Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.