Monday, April 26, 2010

The importance of context

In translation of language, context is of the utmost importance.  Actually, in most things context cannot be ignored - we see it everyday in the media how a simple phrase taken out of context within a speech can vilify an innocent person.

However, in history and language, entire phrases of importance - ones which mean the world to certain people (for instance, important phrases in the Bible or Bhagavad Gita) have and continue to be misinterpreted due to a lack of contextualization.

Oftentimes, we just accept the misinterpretation even though it may seem nonsensical or not particularly clever instead of perhaps questioning and probing past the surface.  To this end, I provide you with an example.  The following phrase was said by Jesus, and is quoted from Wikipedia:

"The eye of a needle" is part of a phrase said by Jesus by the synoptic gospels:
...I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
The saying was a response to a young rich man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, to which the man stated he had done. Jesus responded, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." The young man became sad and was unwilling to do this. Jesus then spoke this response, leaving his disciples astonished.

Now, for a long time this was how this phrase was translated.  Then, someone named Lachman (I think! Don't quote me on the spelling!) came along and said "no no no, this can't be right.  It makes no sense that Jesus would say something like this" and hypothesized that the word camel is extremely close visually and phonetically to the word rope, making the new translation it is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God".  

All because of scribal error!  But this still doesn't quite make a lot of sense...

So finally due to some other people and new research someone realized that around Jesus' time there was a gate or narrow pathway which had a name called "eye of a needle" through which leading a camel through would have been difficult and the correlation makes much more sense.  It's much more subtle and meaningful than the original interpretation, and wasn't a simple scribal error that passed down through was a matter of context and giving Jesus and ourselves more credit.

So simply knowing that Jesus existed during this time and place makes a tremendous difference in the actual interpretation of the phrase.  Alas, context has taken us new and profound well as knowing the name of this gate/pathway...and of course not taking everything an academic says as immediately correct! Especially when it doesn't make much sense!

Just to be clear, this lesson was imparted to me earlier today by Prof. Som Dev Vasudeva. Thanks professor!  And, for a dose of humor: one of my favorite comedy books:

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