Obligatory possession and Bible translation

Each translation has its particular approach, and should have an audience in mind. The translators have to ask, “Who is going to read this translation, and how can we render the source text in a way that is suitable for them?” We are blessed in English to have a number of different translations of the Scriptures, and where there are differences among those translations, the differences can be attributable to different approaches, and perhaps different audiences in mind. A big part of this is the translators’ conception of what translation really is, and that leads to different choices in how to approach translation. We can criticize particular “faults” of different translations, but generally translations are the way they are because of the translators’ different conceptions of what is most important to focus on and preserve in translation. In analyzing the differences in translations, rather than focus on perceived flaws, I prefer to deal on the philosophical level, where the real differences lie. I’m fascinated by the question, “What is translation, really?” There certainly isn’t universal agreement on the answer to that question. Once you identify a philosophy of translation, that goes a long way towards explaining why a particular translation is the way it is. I have to add, though, that even if a body of translators shared a common philosophy of translation, they could still produce different translations if they have different subgroups in mind as their audience, and different purposes in mind for the translation, e.g. meditation, study, liturgical use.

In order to talk about what translation is, I want to start by talking about the nature of meaning. Everybody should agree that meaning is a central concern in translation. You want to produce a translation that has the same meaning as the original text from another language. I hope I’m not overstating the situation when I suggest that meaning is universally understood as the bottom line in translation. This is sometimes explained in terms of equivalence. You want a translation that is in some important way — in fact, in every way possible — equivalent to the source text. You want a translation that enables the reader to plumb the depth of meaning in the source text in all its richness.

So here I’m just going to meditate some on the meaning of meaning, and later I can go on to make more explicit the implications for how we translate. In order to consider this very deep subject, I’m going to start with the topic of obligatory possession in Bible translation, and use that as a basis for thinking about the nature of meaning.

Obligatory possession. This is a topic that Bible translators need to understand before working on a translation into a language that doesn’t yet have the Bible. I’m not talking about English here, but the concept is interesting and worth considering. The fact is that sometimes, when one is translating, one needs to actually make the translation more specific, in certain ways, than the source text. It’s not that it is desirable to do that, but rather that it simply isn’t avoidable sometimes. That fact is true even with respect to translation into English in certain cases. But it is most obvious when one is translating into another language that forces choices that the translator may not be prepared for. You may have heard of languages that don’t have a single word for ‘brother,’ for example, but rather words meaning specifically ‘younger brother’ or ‘older brother.’ The translator has to figure out which word is the best choice in each context, and the choice can’t be avoided. More relevant for today’s topic, there are languages that have obligatory possession for certain categories of noun, particularly body parts and kinship terms.

In The Bible Translator 1.4.166-69 (1950), William Thompson describes the Guajiro language in which one can’t talk in detached ways about eyes, arms, legs, fathers, sons, etc. Obviously, each of these things has a possessor, semantically-speaking, and in Guajiro, one can’t talk about these concepts as if they weren’t possessed — though one can in English and in Greek. In languages like this, you can’t just talk about “the heart,” “an eye,” “a father,” “sons,” and so forth, but instead you have to specify “a person’s heart” or “your eye” or “the boy’s father” or “our sons.” It only makes sense, when you think about it, because each of these things naturally has a possessor. Some languages just don’t allow for discussing naturally-possessed things in abstract ways. So the translator has to do some thinking to translate, for example, Matthew 6:22a, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Fortunately, vv. 22b and 23 do get more specific: “So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness” (RSV). Matthew 7:3 wouldn’t be a problem: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV). But what about Luke 10:23, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” or I Cor. 12:14-26, with language like “The eye cannot say to the hand“? Or when it comes to kinship terms, how do you translate Gal. 4:2-6, with language like “…until the date set by the father” (RSV; NIV specifies “his father” for Greek τοῦ πατρός) and “because you are sons” ?

When you think about it, all body parts and all kinship terms are possessed. In English and Greek, we can talk about eyes and hands and bodies in abstract ways, but each of these things is possessed, implicitly if not explicitly. Even if you see a detached hand, you know it came from a body. You can’t have a daughter without having a parent. The point I wanted to get to is that, even though we may talk about meaning in abstract terms, it, too, is something obligatorily possessed. That’s true semantically speaking — just not grammatically speaking. We can talk about “the meaning (of a text),” but that meaning must be in relation to a person. A text means something to a person. Meanings cannot be disembodied. They must go along with a mind, or they don’t exist at all. (I’m going to address the theological side of this shortly.)

It is common to think and talk about words and texts as though they have meaning, and in a sense, this is right. But in a deeper sense, the meanings aren’t really in the language itself, but in the minds of the people who are using that language as a medium of communication. Language is a systematic, socially-agreed-upon way of expressing meaning among individuals. We use language because we want to influence each other, whether it be in the way of informing, comforting, exhorting, bonding, warning, and so forth. Much of language has to do with informing, namely, I have something in my head that I want you to get into yours, so we use the medium of language to do that. Words and grammatical constructions have meanings because we attribute meanings to them.

My position is that all meanings are localized. None are disembodied. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as absolute truth. I’m talking about meaning, not truth. But I equate absolute truth with God’s truth, and we as people should want to get our truth in line with God’s truth. That isn’t always easy, because we are limited in our understanding. Similarly, the closest thing to objective meaning is God’s meaning. It is not impersonal; it is God’s. Let’s not quibble about the fact that God doesn’t have a body. He has a mind, and thoughts. He is infinite, while we are limited in our understanding and perspective. The Scriptures are God’s message, God’s communication to us, and as I have argued before, their meaning is even above and beyond the individual humans who wrote them. Yet God uses human vessels and a human means of communication to express His knowledge and love and will to us.

There are implications of this for translation, but I’ll write more about that soon. This is all part of an overall philosophy of language and meaning and communication and translation that can guide us in how we seek to spread God’s message through translation. Once you have a sound philosophy of translation, choices in how you translate flow out of that.

5 thoughts on “Obligatory possession and Bible translation

  1. Robby Harris says:

    Sir, do you think that even though God’s thoughts are above ours, that He has communicated with us in such a way so that we may completely understand it howbeit difficult or that some things he communicated were never to be understood by us?
    It is my position that we can understand what God has communicated even if it is very difficult for us.

  2. David Frank says:

    Robby Harris — Maybe I sounded more pessimistic than I meant to be about the possibilities of knowledge and of understanding God’s communication to us. I think that God is able to communicate to us those things He wants us to know and what we need to know. But what we are able to understand is only partial for now. My favorite passages on the subject are Isaiah 55:8-9 and I Corinthians 13:2. Isaiah 55:10-11 goes on to talk about how God’s message does accomplish its purpose.

    I agree with you that we are able to study and meditate and respond appropriately and in the process move toward God’s perspective on everything. But we will never fully attain it in this life. We can know what we need to know, which primarily is that we need God, and we exist for Him. Don’t take this to mean that I’m a mystic, because I’m not. I’m just aware of human limitations, or what I’ve referred to as the human condition.

    Back to the topic of Bible translation, I need to clarify that I think that the language of the Bible for the most part is a clear message that should be rendered (i.e. translated) meaningfully in English. It is for us, and it shouldn’t sound like it isn’t. A good translation should accurately provide the meaning of the original texts in language that is clear and natural. This is a good goal but an elusive goal. As far as I’m concerned, the NIV/TNIV and the NLT do a great job of communicating God’s message to us in good balance of clear, accurate and natural translation suitable for a variety of uses. For the person who is capable of it and wants a more in depth study, where the reader moves part-way toward the original texts, the RSV/NRSV is good. The reason that providing the perfect translation is an elusive goal is that there are always trade-offs involved.

    A point I am getting to when I write more is that, popular belief to the contrary, a literal translation is not necessarily a more accurate translation. The point is that the most “accurate” translation is one that communicates well to the user. If the translation communicates the wrong thing, then of course it is a bad translation, but if it doesn’t communicate the right thing, it is still a bad translation. Understanding is possible, and translation is possible, but a translation without understanding is a bad translation, and bad translations are possible too.

    Thanks for your feedback, and I will take your comments and questions into consideration when I write more on this topic.

  3. Jim Swindle says:

    Thanks for a thought-stimulating post. I concluded awhile back that the best Bible translation for a particular person is the translation that best communicates God’s truth to that person. Having said that, there are also other things to consider. For a child, a very simplified version may communicate best, but I’d still have children memorize verses or passages from a “grown-up” version, since the goal is not just communicating today, but communicating throughout the child’s earthly life. For adults, there’s a certain surprise factor or wake-up jolt when words are used in freshed ways. (See, you didn’t expect “freshed,” did you?) A version that takes out all such things may communicate more clearly and more quickly, but may not communicate as deeply or as memorably. John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” wouldn’t be as memorable if simplified to “Don’t ask what the USA can do for you. Ask what you can do for the USA.” Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would be less memorable if he’d said, “Our country was started 87 years ago. Our ancestors started it. It was on this continent. They wanted freedom. They said everybody is created equal.”

  4. David Frank says:

    Jim — When I was young I memorized a lot of scripture in the King James version. I’m really glad I did, and I’m really glad that these memorized verses are still somewhere in my head, if I can dig them out. The next version that I used for memorizing, when I got a little older and this version came out, was the NASB. I don’t read that version any more either, but I’m glad for everything I learned in those translations, and maybe the fact that these verses were expressed in beautiful-sounding or just archaic language helped me learn them and helped them stick in my head. I do agree with you that the most vernacular-sounding translations are not necessarily the ones to use in church or for memorizing.

  5. exegete77 says:

    Thanks, David, for your contribution. Much thought-provoking material, for me at least. Once my travel schedule slows I hope to spend more time digesting what you have written.

    David wrote: “I do agree with you that the most vernacular-sounding translations are not necessarily the ones to use in church or for memorizing.”

    That has been one of my concerns in regard to translations used in worship, especially liturgical worship. Thanks for confirming that point.

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