Saturday, April 6, 2013

Still Bugged by Semantic Range and Translations

You blind guides! You strain out a tiny bug, but swallow a truck-sized beast!
Matthew 23:24

The story so far …

I wrote a post (prompted by a BBC article on puns) noting that Jesus' saying about straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel in Matt 23:24 works better in Aramaic than Greek. The inference being that the saying originated in Aramaic, and it was not invented by the Greek Authors of the Gospels after the event.

The key words here are

English    Aramaic    Greek
Gnat         Galma         Konopa (κώνωπα)
Camel      Gamla         Kamelon (κάμηλον)

(PS I have yet to find the Aramaic spelling for galma/gamla)

As many people have observed before me, the Aramaic couplet galma/gamla makes a better sounding pun than the Greek couplet konops/kamelos.

Not so, according to a challenger who visited my blog. The Aramaic word for “gnat” isn’t “galma’, it’s “baqa” (בקא ).

Yes, but, I responded, “galma” is a legitimate Aramaic word meaning vermin, louse or bugs in grain, (according to the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon) and some lexicons extend its semantic range to “gnat”.

However, what if the Aramaic galma of Jesus’ time did not mean gnat?

The answer to this is could be found in a sober consideration of semantic range. The late Leon Morris, New Testament Scholar and Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, noted that we tend to perceive words as having a precise point of meaning, such that they can only mean one thing and not another. In reality, they cover a semantic range and its rare to find a word in one language that has exactly the same semantic range in another. Translations, then, might never convey the whole meaning in a text with all its word-plays and associations. However, they can (or they ought to be) be fairly accurate approximations, which may be the best way to understand our translations of the Bible.

In researching this, I also emailed Johan Ferreira of Crossway College in Brisbane. He wrote back to say that he was not aware of such an Aramaic word (galma). He then wrote something that has been bugging me ever since (if you’d excuse the pun) by stating that the Greek text (the original) of Matthew was the inspired version on which we base our English translations.

Whether you believe or not in some Divine impulse behind the writing of the Bible, this observation  is illuminating.

Though I don’t have all the intelligence to confirm it, it is possible that the Aramaic galma does not refer directly to gnat; or, if it does, it’s a bit of a stretch. However, it does appear reasonable that the Aramaic galma intersects the semantic range of the Greek konopa, which is properly translated as gnat. As Johan Ferreira pointed out, our English translations are based on the Greek, not the reconstructed Aramaic, hence the English gnat. Further, the Greek couplet konopa/kamelon does its best to preserve the pun, but it gets lost in the translation from Greek to English. Hence, my rendering at the head of this post.

So, I’ll grant my challenger the benefit of the doubt on galma, but the consideration of semantic range seems to bring us back to the same point regardless – Jesus’ pun still sounds better in Aramaic than Greek, and our English translations have still not obscured his message.

Finally, you may be wondering why I have been laboring over this issue. The principal reason is to counter the skeptics who believe that the Bible’s “translations of translations” have conspired to obscure its message. They haven’t. The reason they haven’t is that we have access to the Aramaic and Greek (and Hebrew). This is important because if we find errors, or slips, or inaccuracies, we have the wherewithal to correct them.

From my understanding, I can see that our English translations are not perfect (the bug-a-bear semantic range precludes the possibility of there being a "correct" translation) but they are a long, long way from being utterly corrupted and untrustworthy. Indeed, a considered approach to the language of scripture and the process of translation brings us closer, not further away, from its source.