1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted A Culture
"This isn’t a plea for people to swap one source of authority for another. The focus is on encouraging us to think for ourselves."

The Bible was first translated into English in 1535. For many centuries beforehand, editions printed in Latin ensured that most Christians were dependent on the interpretations of priests to understand what it said, giving those priests a tremendous amount of power. When ordinary people first began to read it for themselves, the effect was revolutionary. There was a problem, though: they still had to trust the translators.

The word homosexual was coined in 1868, and did not appear in the Bible until 1946. As anybody who speaks more than one language will know, concepts differ between them, and words don’t always neatly match up. That’s even more the case when we try to translates ancient languages, because concepts often change over time. There are multiple versions of the Bible in English, not all of which interpret those passages sometimes deemed to forbid homosexuality in the same way. They all stem from translations of the Greek, which stems in turn from translations of Hebrew, a language with a very different history. Consider this, and it’s easy to see how mistakes can be made.

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Sharon Roggio’s film sets out to explore this issue in a manner which is, itself, as accessible as possible. She engages with the evidence and the experts, not dumbing things down but approaching them step by step so that viewers won’t need academic training to understand the principles at work. This isn’t a plea for people to swap one source of authority for another. The focus is on encouraging us to think for ourselves. This is illustrated by early scenes which explore the triggers that prompted people to ask questions about their religious traditions. What is never directly addressed, but hovers in the background, is the larger reason who those heavily invested in current interpretations might resist this. If people start questioning what the Bible says about homosexuality, why shouldn’t they start to question more of it?

This isn’t a film which sets itself up in opposition to Christianity – quite the opposite. Several of its participants speak of how amazed they were when they first came across the concept of gay Christians and realised that they didn’t have to choose, whether the concern was their own sexuality or their support for LGBTQ+ friends. One expresses horror at the way that a homophobic stance has driven good people away from the Church. There is a strong implication that another began questioning the Bible after finding it impossible to reconcile with the idea of a loving God.

Despite the need to address some political points directly, especially in relation to the AIDS crisis and how that was seen by some as an opportunity to reinforce the idea of same sex relationships being sinful, Roggio makes a determined effort to see the best in everyone. This sometimes comes across as naïve, as with the suggestion that homophobic preachers have simply failed to do adequate research, or that mistranslations were purely the consequence of error. When the team discovers that one member of that 1946 translation team himself argued that a mistake had been made, and stressed that the difference between abusive behaviours and normal same sex relations, they describe him as ‘way ahead of his time,’ unwittingly buying into a revisionist version of history.

This notion is fortified by the suggestion that it just wasn’t the right time for inclusion back then, which not only overlooks a lot of what was happening at the time but implies that society made progress afterwards all by itself, without generations of activists devoting their lives to making it the right time. That said, when it comes to its central subject, the mutability and obscurity of language, it’s spot on. It's nicely illustrated and viewers outside US Christianity may well find its potted history of Biblical simplification fascinating. It clearly understands its core audience, and displays a warmth and sympathy throughout which extends to those still uncomfortable with inclusivity. For many people who connect with it, it will mark the start of a journey of discovery.

Reviewed on: 10 Jan 2023
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1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture packshot
The mystery of how theology, history, culture, and politics led to a Biblical mistranslation, the man who tried to stop it, and the impassioned academic crusade of the LGBTQIA+ Christian community driven to discover the truth.
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Director: Sharon Roggio

Writer: Jena Serbu, Jill Woodward

Starring: Kathy Baldock, Ed Oxford

Year: 2022

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

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