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The Importance of Diversity for Bible Translation

Should chapter 1, verse 5 of the Song of Songs be translated as “I am black and beautiful,” or should it be translated as “I am black but beautiful”? “And” or “but”? What do you do with that conjunction? Should “bene Israel” be translated as the “sons of Israel” or as the “children of Israel”? And these are just two examples of the questions with which translators contend. When we make decisions about which words to use to communicate particular meanings, we do so from within our own interpretive fields, that is, framed by our cultures, our histories, and by our values and belief systems. This interpretive field also includes our blind spots, our biases, and our prejudices. Unfortunately, in many quarters, there’s this common belief that translation is mechanical, that there is an absolute one-to-one correspondence between words from one culture and language to another. But the reality is that language—that is the signs and symbols that we employ to signify meaning—language is dynamic and meaning is always, always contingent, shifting, and unstable. Not just between languages from one culture to another but even within the same language, in the same culture, from one era to another. And that’s why it’s eminently important that many voices be represented at the table; many voices should be represented in the translation of the Bible. Historically, black and brown voices have been excluded. The communities of faith that reflect these voices have had little to no representation in the translations of the sacred texts from which they read, preach, and study. And so, they have endured the weight of translators’ decisions that have often times been alienating and marginalizing. But when we do justice by widening the space at the table, we can correct the errors of the past, we begin to repair the harm done by histories of racism and patriarchy. And in the end, we produce better translations.
  • Marbury-Herbert

    Herbert R. Marbury is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt Divinity School. His research centers on how biblical texts come to meaning both in the ancient world and in modern US communities. His first book Imperial Dominion and Priestly Genius(Sopher Press, 2012) focuses on Judah under Persian and Hellenistic imperial domination. His recent book, Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation (New York University Press, 2015), recovers trajectories of counter-history in African American biblical interpretation.