Two questions: can translations be biased? and are ancient texts reliable?

I’ve had some correspondence in the last few days, posing a couple of interesting questions which are actually quite hard to answer definitively.  But I thought that I would mention both, and give some thoughts about them.

The first asked about bias in translations of ancient texts.  It’s an interesting question.  Can you actually do an accurate translation, and still introduce bias?  Or does bias necessarily involve deliberate mistranslation?  Of course I have never worried in the slightest about this!  I’m lucky if I can get someone to make a translation.  And if I am translating, I am not thinking about how to smuggle my own views into the text – I want to know what it has to say!

It is certainly possible to create “translations” where the words have been changed; “anthropos” rendered as “human” rather than “man” comes rather readily to mind, as introduced into the text of the bible by modern scholars of a certain political persuasion.  It is quite possible that we live in an era of mass mistranslation, for these political reasons.  There is definitely an agenda at work here; but this is mistranslation, or even corruption; the introduction of a gloss into the text, rather than translation.

The bible has always been a controversial text.  Perhaps a study of the versiones – translations into the vernacular – of classical and biblical and patristic texts would reveal how this works.

But on the whole I would tend to dismiss the idea of mistranslation, rather than corruption.  A word appears in a phrase, which appears in a sentence, which is part of the flow of ideas.  It is really quite hard to deviate without deliberately rewriting the text.  People intent on translating are not likely to accidentally introduce bias.

The second question was equally interesting.  The writer asked, “Are ancient texts reliable?”  He attached a quotation naming Jewish forgeries of texts in the Hellenistic period, for controversial purposes against Greeks.

This is, if anything, a larger subject.  Are any texts reliable?  Is my daily newspaper reliable?  Few of us would commit unreservedly to the proposition that any literature made by men is absolutely reliable.  Even those attempting to be reliable will not escape the unconscious preconceptions of their authors; and then we have authors who write with no other purpose than to promote their opinions, and the facts go hang.  Then there are forgeries, works written under a false name for the purpose of money or advantage.  For ancient texts the question of accurate transmission arises.

Yet, with all this, I would answer this question thus: Yes, ancient texts are reliable.  They are mostly transmitted OK, or at least we have a good idea of to what extent typos may be expected.  They represent the opinions of their authors.  The forgeries we have largely identified, since they were never forged to fool us, but rather their contemporaries.  The authors themselves may not be reliable – O indeed!  this must be determined in the usual way – but the texts as such are fine.

Perhaps I may come back to one or both of these questions at some other point.


5 thoughts on “Two questions: can translations be biased? and are ancient texts reliable?

  1. There are a variety of ways modern translations, expecially the Bible, can be considered bad. But a bias is not necessarily bad, because some religious traditions have developed peculiarities in their vocabulary that differ with others and are necessary for a group to understand it in context, whereas the vocabulary would be obscure to another tradition. Also some bias can be nothing other than a minor red flag but some biases can lead to alterations that are heretical manipulation of the text.

  2. I do think that some amount of bias is expected. A case in point is the passage in Matthew 1:25. In the NIV, which is a distinctly protestant translation, you’ll find “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” In the Orthodox and Catholic traditions Mary is thought to be “ever virgin.” However, protestants oppose this view. They have made this passage very explicit about something that the passage itself is not. The EOB (Eastern Orthodox Bible), while following a different textual lineage, renders, “and had no relations with her before she had brought forth her firstborn son; and he named him Jesus.” Many translations use the word “until,” but the EOB uses the word “before.” The Vulgate uses the word “donec,” which can mean something similar to “until,” but does not carry the implication that it is done after the point in time which it is referring to, unlike “until.” (Sorry, I don’t know Greek so can’t expound upon that). It’s a subtle difference, but a clear indicator of bias in one or the other direction. The NIV takes it a step further and implies much more strongly that the marriage was “consummated” after the virgin birth.

  3. Ανθρωπος does mean human rather than man, man is ανηρ. English is male biased compared to Greek, Aristotle said that humans are political animals rather than men, no one who has ever met a Greek housewife would ever doubt that she is a political animal. Yes there is bias in ancient Greek translations when we are talking about words whose meaning has changed, when Herodotus calls every non Greek βαρβαρος he does not use the negative meaning that the term took in later writers, which is why half the translations in English render it as foreigner, but the other half render it as barbarian. Some writers are super complicated and have a text where entire sentences that can translated several ways, Thucydides comes to mind and yes there is always bias in his translations. When we go towards philosophy interpretation enters in the translation. Honestly, with the exception of bureaucrateese – but then again each bureaucracy does have its own peculiarities – there are often more than one way to interpret a text and hence bias can enter, especially in a language used by sly politicians for millennia who traditionally need to say in one sentence completely different things to different people

Leave a Reply