Songs, Translation, Oral Culture, and the Importance of ‘Meaning’

David playing for Saul

Doing some reading on the non-canonical gospels today (such as Thomas, the Protoeuangellion of James, etc.) and came across an interesting study from Kenneth Bailey, who did studies on Middle-Eastern oral culture for years, that confirms what I have expected in some ways about oral cultures.

In oral cultures, the kinds of genres that remain most unchanged over time are Psalms (songs) and poems, as well as proverbs. The kinds of genres with a little more play are narratives and parables, with jokes rounding out the list of most commonly changed forms from least to greatest.

It’s easier and seen as more acceptable to change the words to a joke (which has meaning that should be taken less seriously) than a song or an important story.

This makes a ton of sense, that songs are the least changed form of genre over time. As a more modern example, Jerome translated the First Testament books from Hebrew into Latin around 400 A.D., pretty early on in church history (yet 370 years after Christ and ca. 700 years after the LXX translation of Hebrew to Greek) but, to this day, the Latin translation used by the Roman Catholic Church of the Psalms is the Old Latin version, from Greek to Latin, strangely, not Jerome’s translation.

This is because…Jerome could not change the words even slightly from the way people were used to singing them without backlash! (Augustine even writes a letter to Jerome saying he does not like his new translation, calling it the ‘cucumber version’, based off a phrase Jerome rendered in Job).

You see, songs change the least because it is harder to exchange words with about the same sounds. But, part (or most) of this too has to do with the perceived importance of the meaning, which is why the ‘telephone game’ metaphor does not sufficiently describe the reliability of our Bible translation.

People won’t let you change the things that they have invested the most importance in very easily. Songs are hard to change because once it is disseminated among the community, it is hard to change without people becoming upset about the change, because it means something to them.

(How many times have we had the age-old argument over what kinds of songs, hymns, or a cappella singing is better?)

Similarly, when a Bible translator, a scribe, sits down to copy the text, it means something to him or her.

(Yes, there were at times significant numbers of female scribes, as Origen [who lived ca. 150 A.D.] had writing for him ( see Eusebius’ Church History 6.23.1-2).

That is why the ‘telephone game’, where one person whispers one thing to another, and that person to the next through a change whereby the original phrase ultimately changes, actually breaks down because the people are whispering a meaningless phrase.

If you were to whisper something that had meaning, like ‘your father has just died’, and were adamant with what you meant, ‘i.e., that this is not a game and really changes your life’, that person probably would tell the next exactly as you said it, or within some acceptable variant. The meaning would not be corrupted because it meant something to you.

Now, returning to songs, there are some times when people legitimately are prone to, and happen to, misunderstand song lyrics, yes. (I mean, who really knows what was trying to be sung in Blinded by the Light?) But, overall, a song that is taught to a community and that people sing at least occasionally are far less prone to be miscommunicated.

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