Where ancient classic literature is concerned, I am dependent on English translations—but not all translationsare equal. If you do not know the original language, how do you distinguish between a good and bad translation? You can ask someone you trust, who knows the language, and second, you can compare translations.
Stephen Mitchell has translated a variety of ancient works. For example, he translated Homer’s, The Illiad and The Odyssey. I have found that his work makes these old classics very readable. Here is a sample of his work from the opening lines of The Odyssey:
Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning man
who was blown off course to the ends of the earth, in the years
after he plundered Troy. He passed through the cities
of many people and learned how they thought, and he suffered
many bitter hardships upon the high seas
as he tried to save his own life and bring his companions
back to their home. But however bravely he struggled,
he could not rescue them, fools that they were—their own
recklessness brought disaster upon them all;
they slaughtered and ate the cattle of Helios,
so the sun god destroyed them and blotted out their homecoming.
Goddess, daughter of Zeus, begin now, wherever
you wish to, and tell the story again, for us.
He has translated a host of works: Gilgamesh, Tao Te Ching, and more than a dozen other works. Among his translations is the Old Testament Book of Job.
His “translation” of the opening line of Job is disturbing:
Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job.
My ESV translates the opening lines of the book in this fashion:
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
The ESV imitates every English translation I am aware of. None of them follow Mr. Mitchell’s lead, not to mention the fact that other writers in Scripture treat Job as a man who lived in real time. (See Ezekiel 14:14, 20; James 5:11).
If a reader did not know better, what might they conclude by reading Mr. Mitchell’s translation? Answer: that the book of Job is a fairy tale. Mr. Mitchell’s work, at least on the first line of the book, is not a translation. It is interpretation. Even if he translated the rest of the book accurately, he set the stage for a misreading of the book by adding the words, “Once upon a time…”
I am not wanting to say that the work of translation is as easy as pie. It is not. But this is not a translation issue. The original Hebrew comes nowhere close to mirroring Mr. Mitchell’s rendering. Literally, the Hebrew reads, “a man, there was in the land of Uz.” Responsible translators simply rearrange the word order to fit our English sensibilities. But, nowhere is there room for “once upon a time.”
Why could this writer not give the Book of Job the same treatment he gave the work of Homer. Does the text not have the right to be heard?
The translation you read is an important consideration. This is no less true of the Bible. Compare the good ones, and search out someone who knows the original language when there are differences.