Making the most of being confused

Looking back I sometimes think I spent large chunks of my childhood not really knowing what on earth was going on, and being quite aware of it (yet not particularly troubled by it). And I’ve come to realise that being confused, and being aware of being confused is actually quite a helpful thing. In particular, where translation is concerned – and Bible translation is my own focus – I think there’s a lot you can learn from situations where you are confused. And rushing to sort out the confusion may well make you miss a wonderful learning opportunity. Are you confused yet? Let me explain with a riddle:

Living in Nigeria I’ve often heard friends talking about ‘licking an orange’. That just sounds odd to me. But watch someone ‘licking an orange’ and they are really ‘eating’ the orange.

It’s confusing.  But realising I’m confused gives me the opportunity to question what the words mean. Licking to me means avoiding use of the teeth and (if swallowing is involved) only swallowing liquid. But you can’t consume an orange like that. Teeth are required and more than liquid is swallowed. It seems quite likely then that people who say they are ‘licking an orange’ have quite a different mental picture of what licking is. It seems to be the word you use for consuming something which is largely liquid, where using the verb ‘eat’ would seem wrong.

So, let’s try to watch out for confusion with an example from the Bible:

Jesus often slammed the Pharisees as ‘hypocrites’. We all know what a hypocrite is, it’s someone with double standards, a deceiver who advocates one thing publicly but quietly does something different. It might be the politician who campaigns on a ticket opposing independent schools yet attended one and sends their children to one. Or the doctor who publicly denounces Or (as a Nigerian translator described to me) the way politicians come in promising to do one thing, deceive people and then do something different when elected. Related expressions might be: insincere, two-faced, deceiver, duplicitous, etc.

But was this really what Jesus was so angry about? Were the Pharisees claiming to do one thing while secretly acting differently? Actually no! They were completely sincere. They did practise what they preached. Hearing them called hypocrites, of course we may then imagine they were being insincere, but that is a distraction. Really we should read the passages where ‘hypocrite’ is mentioned and get puzzled. We should say to ourselves, “Why is he calling them hypocrites but not pointing out their double-standards? He’s telling them off for going through the motions, being religious all for public adulation.” We should be confused, and we should pay close attention to the fact that we are confused. That is our opportunity to learn something.

If we imagine for a moment that we don’t know what the word hypocrite means and figure it out only from the context (which is how we generally learn what words mean) then we would see that it’s all about doing something for show and to impress people rather than for a better motivation. So if we replace the word hypocrite with “show-off”, “pretender”, (or maybe even change the phrasing quite significantly), then we could read the passages an no longer face the mental crunch of gears. The confusion goes away.

You see the problem was that even though the Greek is literally hypocrites (OK really literally ὑποκριτες) the word in modern English does not mean what it means in Greek. There is an overlap of sorts, but there’s a marked difference in many contexts. And yet we are so familiar with that word that it’s hard to see it as a ‘false friend‘, particularly because it’s really a turncoat friend that started in Greek meaning one thing and has changed its meaning on us later on. To go on using the word in English as if it had its (original) Greek meaning is a recipe for confusion. If we pay attention to the word at the expense of the context and we might well misunderstand what is really going on.

So how are we to know when that might be happening? Pay attention when you are confused. Don’t gloss over it, but pay attention. That’s where there’s something to learn.

Now, if you’ve got this far through the post, let me ask you whether there was any particular choice of word or expression which confused you. Did you have a mental crunch of the gears at any point?

You should have done. At the end of the first paragraph I finished “Let me explain with a riddle” but you don’t tend to explain things with riddles, and although it was a puzzling observation, it wasn’t really a riddle. You should have been confused. I would have been better to say “Let me show you some examples, to show what I mean.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *