Let Go and Let God

Humans are inescapably subjective. That is part of the human condition, and that is part of the difference between us and God. Yet we act, and we aim to do God’s will, and we even translate. Translation is something done by flawed human beings, yet the product of their work can be used and purposed by God, and a translation of the Bible can be God’s communication to a new audience. A translator doesn’t have to be perfect or have to find just the right formula for God to be able to do His will through the translation. Does that mean that a translation is, or can be, inspired? I would rather not try to answer that question, except to say that God can use our feeble efforts, including Bible translation, to communicate His message and accomplish His will. When it comes to arguing about Bible translations, I say to lighten up and don’t try to put ourselves in the place of God. Bible translation is an essential thing, and looking at history you can see that it is a central component of the Christian faith. Others like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have written about that.

As someone who has been involved in the art and science of Bible translation, I have given up on the idea that we have to do our part just rightbefore God can do His part. Just do your best, trust in God, and let God do what we cannot do ourselves. This goes not just for translations I have worked on myself, but also the LXX, the Latin Vulgate, Martin Luther’s translation into German, the KJV, and modern English translations, such as the one we might personally prefer to use today.

A key passage in this for me is Isaiah 55:8-9, here quoted in the TNIV (not that it matters):

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

If we think of the scriptures as a purely human communication, we have a problem. If we think the original authors understood all the ramifications of what they were saying, well, I don’t think that is correct. If we think we understand the text completely, I think we are fooling ourselves, because it is God’s communication, ultimately, and God’s ways are above our way, and His thoughts are above our thoughts.

This same passage in Isaiah goes on to say, in verses 10-11,

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

This says to me that as the scriptures are translated, God is sending out His word, and it will accomplish what He intends. We have the privilege of participating in this act of communication, but it is not about us. God is reaching out to a new audience, which now has His message.

A little humility here about our limitations, and a little less possessiveness, will help us avoid turf wars, and dismissing other people’s work as inauthentic. It is God’s word, and not ours.

When we had finished translating the New Testament into Gullah, we were humbled to realize that the Gullah audience now accepted it as “the Bible” — not just a translation. And it moved people to now have God’s Word in their language. The translators faded out of the picture. God was speaking to a new audience, and it was deeply moving to them that God would do that. Didn’t they realize that the translators were imperfect humans? Should they know about our questions and doubts in the translation process, and about how we had to simply quit fiddling with it (after a couple of decades of work) and get it out there? It is good to be honest, but this translation wasn’t about us, the vehicles. It began to sink in that God’s message was now there for this audience, and they embraced it as such. Maybe there is something right about that.

3 thoughts on “Let Go and Let God

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    If we think of the scriptures as a purely human communication, we have a problem. If we think the original authors understood all the ramifications of what they were saying, well, I don’t think that is correct. If we think we understand the text completely, I think we are fooling ourselves, because it is God’s communication, ultimately, and God’s ways are above our way, and His thoughts are above our thoughts.

    Wonderful post, David!

    Have you read C. S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms and if so what do you think about his chapters on “Second Meanings?”

    (I really like your thought here that the “original” bible text authors didn’t fully grasp everything they were writing–as we cannot.)

    Have you read Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation and if so what do you think about his assertion that the Bible we translate already comes to us translated? It is not, he claims, an “original” set of documents because its original authors were, often, translating.

    (And I think some of your comments in an earlier post suggest that the LXX is the authorized version of the NT writers. Moreover, the NT writers translate from Hebrew and Aramaic if copying from the translated-into-Greek LXX.)

  2. David Frank says:

    I haven’t read C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms, but it sounds like I should.

    I have available to me The Poetics of Translation but haven’t taken a close look at it yet. Maybe I can do that soon. Meanwhile, if you aren’t familiar with certain writings by Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh that I mentioned, I think you should see them.

    In my first post last week I promised to 1) bring in an important theological element surrounding Bible translation, 2) give my definition of translation, and 3) discuss good vs. bad translation and the variety among things we would consider translations of the same text. So far in my second posting I have only discussed the theological side of things, and I have yet to write up the rest of “part two.” I do have my thoughts composed in my head, but not yet in writing, so I wanted to make it clear that I recognize I have only partly fulfilled my promise, and part two of part two is forthcoming.

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