In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, we find this exchange about the meaning of words between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
What about Humpty Dumpty’s approach; can words really mean whatever the person saying them wants? Can I say “house” and mean “flower”? The problem, of course, is that if everyone did that, words would end up with no meaning at all.
The people who create dictionaries comb through masses of data including newspaper articles, books, magazines and more. That is how they determine what words mean, and that is how Oxford dictionaries named “selfie” word of the year for 2013. My word processor has not caught up. It is still marking selfie as a misspelled word!
Dictionary makers also track changes in the meaning of words. An interesting case is word “colored” especially in the phrases “colored people” or “people of color” which are now offensive. It was once considered a term of racial pride. But in the 1960s, “black” replaced “colored people” as the acceptable term.
The fact that it used to be acceptable is shown clearly in the name of an organization – the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Humpty Dumpty’s approach is the wrong one. The meanings of words are established by collective use, not by the pronouncements of any one person, no matter how expert. Dictionary makers know this, so they compile how people really use words and they produce new dictionaries to keep up with the changes.
This leads to a difference I have with some theologians who are critics of some translations of the Bible. While they are experts in the languages of the Bible – Greek and Hebrew – their approach to English can sometimes be that of Humpty Dumpty when they declare that this or that English word is the correct translation for this or that Bible word. Sometimes I read such pronouncements and wonder how the theologian can be so out of touch with the way people actually understand the English word (or phrase) in question. That a word used to have a meaning or should have a certain meaning is not as important as how people actually understand it.
A good translation of the Bible uses words as people really understand them, not how a theological tome defines them. The great reformer and Bible translator Martin Luther said that a translator should study how ordinary people speak. He wrote:
“For one must not inquire of the literal Latin language for how one should speak German . . . instead one must ask the mother in the house, the children in the street, the common man in the market about this, and listen very closely how they speak and then translate accordingly so that they understand it and realize that one is speaking German to them.” (quoted in Luther’s Translation of the Bible by Birgit Stolt)
In other words, Bible translators should know how ordinary people use the language into which they are translating. Fortunately, almost all modern English translations take this approach, but some critics use Humpty Dumpty’s method.
It is very good to be concerned that translations of the Bible be faithful to the original languages. But we need to be equally concerned that translation is faithful to English (or whatever language) as people really understand it. When Jesus spoke, he spoke using words as the people of his day understood them, so did the prophets and the apostles. A translation, therefore, dare not use words in other ways.
Divine communication is never in a sacred, esoteric, hermetic language, rather it is such that ‘all of us hear … in our languages … the wonders of God’ – Kwame Bediako
One of the steps used is a solid translation programs is called testing. After a first draft of the translation is created by translators, another group of people meet (usually called reviewers or testers), read it, and comment on what it means to them. If it means something different to them than what the original text means, then the translators have to revise the draft until they find a translation that has the same meaning as the original.