Why do we make pastors translate?

I’m here in Austria at the moment visiting the two sets of friends I have in Graz. One set are associated with the Linguistics department at the Karl Franzens University, including my colleague of longest standing, Bernhard Hurch, who holds the chair, and is arguably the most insightful German-speaking linguist of his generation — and the very best student ever produced by the brilliant Ulli Dressler in Vienna.

The other set are my friends from the church I attended while I was on sabbatical here three years ago. I’m staying with the pastor and last night’s discussion turned to questions of translation.

To understand the context of the discussion I’m about to report, you need to know that Paul Miller is an American expatriate who planted the church in question here in Graz twenty-five years ago. (Find the website here.) His official reason to be in Austria at the beginning was that he was here studying to be an interpreter, and since then he has done a lot of interpreting. This means his understanding of what it means to translate is both intellectually sophisticated and shaped by years of experience. From time to time he’s called upon to do the live English-to-German translation for Vineyard sponsored conferences in German-speaking areas. This is an unusual thing because the standard for interpreters is to interpret into their native language. The honor of his being asked to interpret into German bespeaks just how close to being bilingually native he is. So when Paul has an opinion about translation, you best sit up and take notice.

Last night Paul was asking questions about why I think that there simply aren’t any major language Bible translations available that are properly translated. So I ran through my litany of complaints, and I thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog if I explained the key one.

The discussion started with his observing that he was using multiple translations in both English and German to try to get at what the Greek meant in a particular passage he was studying. That led to my making the point that it makes little sense for the Christian enterprise to shove the task of translating Greek onto the shoulders of the church authorities least qualified to do so, namely the pastors.

Sure pastors go to seminary and learn some Greek, but most walk away from seminary barely beyond being able to recognize enough inflected forms of words to be able to find them in dictionaries. (But they all seem to remember what their Greek professor said about the translation of aorists.) Furthermore, the gold standard for seminary Greek is being able to parse. The seminarian who can tell you that πληρωθῇ is an aorist passive subjunctive in the 3 sg.  gets an A. But nobody gets points for observing that its use in Matt 1:22 is metaphorical in Greek but has to be translated literally as ‘was fulfilled’ in English, which is actually much more important in the larger scheme of things.

Τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ Κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος (Matt. 1:22)

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet (ESV)

Now I don’t want to undervalue the ability to parse, but in my book that’s merely the price of entry. That gets you to where you can start thinking about the important questions.

What are the important questions?

Well, it’ll take a little doing to get to the bottom of the matter. Let me start here.

I have several times in the past asserted that the meaning of a text is not in the words, for example, here. That is, of course, too simple. (The linked post is, in fact, more nuanced than that.) Still the point is that what we normally think of as the meaning of a word — what the word refers to, what gets into the definition in a dictionary — that part of the meaning cannot  be said to be IN the word in any useful way. If I say dog, your reaction and understandings are in terms of your experiences with and feelings about dogs, the referent of the word.

The parts of the meaning that really are in the word are those that we hardly notice and that barely appear in monolingual dictionaries. There are two. One is how the word makes you look at a situation. Let me repeat an example I’ve used before here.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary killed.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary murdered.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary executed.

The reference is the same. Queen Elizabeth said something to someone and Mary Queen of Scots ended up dead. But each of these sentences gets you to look at the situation in a different way. That’s framing, and that’s in the word.

The other part of the meaning that is in the word is something I’ll call speech level for now. Some words have the property of being slang or colloquial or formal or taboo. For example, obtain and get mean the same thing referentially, but obtain is formal and get is neutral. You can see this if you use obtain in a context that is obviously not formal.

When you go to the store, could you obtain some hot dogs for me?

Well, in my discussion with Paul I noted that almost all of my problems with the various translations center around getting the framing wrong and/or getting the speech level wrong. My stock example is ἐπιτιμάω, generally translated ‘rebuke’. That’s the right referent in most contexts, but very wrong in framing. (See this post and the ones it links to for a full explication of why.) Outside of Jude 1:9, the right framing would be ‘tell/ask [someone] to stop doing [something]’. To figure that out I had to do a lot of fairly sophisticated exegesis, of a kind that linguists and Greek professors do, but is well out of the range of your average pastor.

Yet the kind of translations that are out there hang pastors like Paul out to dry. They often know that there’s a problem, but they don’t have the tools to deal with it. That’s why they consult different translations, hoping that somehow the “real” meaning will emerge as some kind of compromise among them.

No, it’s a problem of wrong priorities in Bible translation. If our translations require our pastors to do the exegesis that the translator should have done, who is God going to hold responsible for the lack of understanding of His Word and the lack of growth among His people?

Hint: It won’t be the pastors.

15 thoughts on “Why do we make pastors translate?

  1. Jonathan Morgan says:

    Off topic, but the links (and in fact all links to old Blogspot posts redirect here in a minute). I don’t usually read links until well after a minute after I click on them, so that confused me. Is there any way to remove that redirect?

  2. Jonathan Morgan says:

    Given that the nature of translation means that there is no one to one mapping between the languages, I’m pretty sure that there can be no one right or correct way to translate.

    It’s a classic weak argument to say “scholars don’t agree about these things”, but does it not contain a grain of truth? While they are probably more qualified to make judgements on the meaning of the original language than someone who doesn’t know it, it is still going to end up what they think it means, which may or may not be right. Most well known people I hear talking about it admit that their preferred version (even one they were on the committee of translation for) doesn’t translate everything perfectly. While I think it would be a good idea to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and make a person’s primary Bible as accurate as possible, I doubt we can completely avoid the need to compare translations. Then we are only left with the problem of how the impartial reader can reconcile these differences in translation.

  3. Steve Runge says:

    You raise some great questions, complementary to the kind I have been raising. I have focused more on grammatical description. In 4-5 instances at SBL, I corrected scholars who had tied some pragmatic effect from the context to a special use of a tense form, leading them to posit a new syntactic force of the form. It is maddening to see really smart people try to stuff every peg into a single hole since that is the only one they know exists. Even if you point out the multitude of others, they tend to return to the same old pattern.

    There is definitely a need for changing what we teach, both to pastors and to translators. Both need some retooling, and only then will the next generation begin to receive the kind of training needed. I have found some current professors quite keen on learning, but there is the little matter of time. Others think they have it all figured out resulting in little interest or motivation for change. I am thankful for the blogosphere to at least help those who are interested in learning. Thanks for making the discussion applied and understandable, and for raising the issue in the first place.

    Also, could you send me contact info for Nick Bailey?

  4. Rich Rhodes says:

    I think I found a fix for the links, but it’s a little bit of a kludge.

    As for your question about translating. While it’s literally true that there is no single correct way to translate a complex text, in actuality the differences between translations can be easily graded in the case where there are bilinguals.

    Good translations are easy to tell from bad ones.

    In the case of the Bible, no small amount of the problem revolves around the deeply mistaken belief that we can’t know what the Greek text really meant. Amazing amounts of the NT are crystal clear — if you are willing to start from scratch. We only think it’s difficult to understand because the translation is so sketchy in the first place.

    A remarkable amount of Bible translation is theologized, by which I mean, the 19th century scholarship did leave a lot of holes in our understanding of the Greek text. Those holes were filled in theologically. Because these are humanistic (in the methodological sense) tools, there is a wide range of opinion about the meanings.

    But, linguistic science has come a long way, baby. It’s now miles beyond Louw & Nida, which, in turn, is miles beyond the underpinnings of most translations. Those advances, if honestly applied to Scripture, dramatically shrink the number and size of the holes in our understanding of the text relative to the 19th century understandings that too much of the contemporary church believes is the way the Bible is.

    When we make advances that shed significant light on our understanding of the meaning of Scripture, we are obligated to toss out the theological arguments, because the meaning of the text is the basis for our theology, not the other way around.

    While there will always continue to be controversies, there is a lot that could be agreed on, if only people in the Bible translation business wouldn’t tie themselves so tightly to their sacred theological cows.

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    I don’t want to give out Nick’s info in a public forum. Would you mind looking me up on the Berkeley Linguistics Department website and emailing me. I’ll put you in touch with Nick.

    On the more substantive matter, every language I know about personally with aspectual morphology does complex and idiomatic things with it (including modern Greek). The literature confirms that experience. Tense is rarely that way. Koine is an aspect language. You do the math.

    This is one part of the great advances in linguistic science. We have a lot of typological knowledge that enables us to tell when guesses about the meaning of the Koine are off-the-wall, based on the unlikelihood of a language doing what it would have to do to get the meaning some theologian thought up to get his ThD at the University of Marburg in 1920.

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Jonathan, I think all posts and comments from our old blog address were imported to this WordPress blog when we moved. But if you and others would still find it helpful to access things on the old blog, I’ll check into changing the re-direct or at least the re-direct time. I know that if you click on a link soon enough on the old blog you will not be re-directed here.

    Thanks for your interesting, wanting to know what was written previously.

  7. Jonathan Morgan says:

    Content may have been moved here, but it still links to the old blog. So when I click on links twice I get to the old site. I’m not sure that it’s worth fixing if it’s not easy, but it is a bit confusing.

    I cannot comment on how well we are able to know exactly what something means in the original. What I do know is:
    1. The mapping between languages is not one to one (though I’m sure it could be closer than it is in many translations).

    2. When different scholars take different views on a passage or on a translation, the “ordinary person” like me doesn’t really have a good idea who to believe and whether it is really certain that the passage means what people say it means and should be translated that way.

  8. Sic says:

    So why translate at all? no.. i said it wrong.. translate but why remove the original scripture from teh bible… the muslims did it right with their koran… they kept the original arabic text then the translations on the side…

    especially becuz this wouldn’t happen…

    Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary killed.
    Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary murdered.
    Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary executed.

    too many people get to distort the bible’s words… its hard to know what parts to believe…

    someone said that the “only begotten son” the begotten wasn’t really there so they don’t have it in RSV… ugh!

  9. Rich Rhodes says:

    I’ve cleaned up all the links that run through “Do we need Biblish?” so you should be able to read the whole series now. A bunch of links didn’t get changed in the conversion (and a bunch of the diacritics come up as empty squares). I’m working my way through this series cleaning it up. I don’t know when I’ll get through, but at least you should be able to follow the links now.

    On the substantive matters, let me try to answer. Just because languages don’t match one-to-one doesn’t mean there aren’t effective (and often unique) ways to solve identical communicative problems. Put another way, you can tell a good translation when you see it, if you know what you’re looking for.

    So last night at the worship service here in Graz, the sermon was on forgiveness and the need for us to forgive one another. At the end of the service the worship leader said:

    Bitterkeit ist Unversöhnlichkeit die über Nacht bleibt.

    OK, a bit too much, but …

    if you want to say that in English, you can’t just copy the German, even though that makes for grammatical English:

    Bitterness is unforgiveness that stays over night.

    To have it hit you in English the way it hits you in German you have to say:

    Bitterness is unforgiveness you let sit over night.

    Any thorough bilingual will tell you that the second English sentence is a much better translation than the first.

    There is an Englishman who has come to Graz to work in the church and he’s just starting to learn German. We were talking this morning about the experience every adult language learner has at the point they become truly bilingual. At some point, you start hearing what people mean. And it happens quite suddenly. You’re listening really hard, trying to keep up and — bam — you just know what they mean. The words are almost incidental at that point.

    Now you don’t understand everything all at once. But there is a quantum leap at some point when understanding becomes automatic for the things you hear all the time. It’s at that point that you stop “translating” like the first English sentence and start interpreting like the second English sentence.

    But, you say, we can’t do that for Koine Greek. True. At least true for most people. But my colleagues who are Greek professors talk about that same kind of aha moment, where they are no longer running to keep up but they start knowing what the writers were talking about.

    Those are the guys we should be depending on to translate, not the pastors. (BTW, not many teachers of Biblical Greek are at that level.)

    And there’s even a way you can pretty well tell for yourself. You can pretty well guess that what the worship leader said was a pithy comment, so the English ought to sound like a pithy comment. The second sentence does, the first doesn’t.

    Does any of that help?

  10. Jonathan Morgan says:

    It helps, and I’m aware of a lot of what you say. Certainly there will be differences between better and worse translations. I suppose my core questions are still:

    1. How do I, or anyone without good knowledge of the original languages (and, as you suggest, that means a lot more than just elementary Greek teaching) decide what is a good translation and what is not? The choices are there and seem likely to remain there for a long time, so how should I evaluate them with fairly limited knowledge?

    2. When scholars disagree on what the actual meaning of a text is, how do I as a layman decide what I should believe the text says. I believe (and hope) that most of the major translation committees have people on them who meet your criteria of understanding the Biblical Greek as another language, and yet they will have different readings. I’m sure some of the choices are theological and some are based on not breaking with established traditions and so forth, but that’s not my point. The point is how do I decide which interpretation to favour? (or should I even try to do this without the knowledge, since part of the contention seems to be that the translator should be making such decisions as the one best qualified to?)

    Even the criteria of sounding like a pithy English translation doesn’t necessarily help me if I find two translations which sound like reasonable English, but which seem to have quite different meanings.

    I could just give it up and pick a primary version and one or a few comparison versions that for whatever reason I decide to trust, and trust that I get the important parts of God’s message. That is after all what Bible students have done for hundreds of years. I just get this feeling that there must be a better way, though I’m not really sure what it could be.

    Do you have any recommendations of particular versions that best meet your principles described here?

  11. Rich Rhodes says:

    For straight up referential accuracy, the translations based most thoroughly on Nida’s thinking are hard to beat, that is, the string of translations Today’s English Version/Good News Bible and the Contemporary English Version. But these all suffer from the problems I am talking about – monotonic style and framing mistakes, largely due to the fact that they tune their English for particular reading levels, which I consider to be a singularly bad idea.

    Still I’ll take referential accuracy over literary quality any day, if I have to make a choice.

    I appreciate that it’s hard to sort out of the welter of voices which are the ones to listen to. I personally tend to discount anyone’s opinion who proposes litmus tests or otherwise thinks that accuracy is a matter of getting some single issue right — like gender matters in translation. There’s not just one place where the issues lie. They are strewn across the pages of Scripture.

    Sorry if that’s not enough help.

    For my own study I have long used the NIV/Message with the Greek near by, but since I got my iPhone there is a bilingual version with the Greek and I’m reading mostly from the Greek for study purposes. Probably not for everyone.

  12. Gary Simmons says:

    I wish I could edit that comment to add something more germane than just talking about friends in Germany.

    One problem that pastors and amateur translators in general face is the rigidity of grammatical categories. Example: a preacher I know once tried to make Matthew 15:26 seem less harsh by appealing to the fact that the word for dogs there is diminutive. He explained that it was actually “little dogs,” — indoor pets.

    Although the diminutive can make a distinction in actual size, and can at times be used purely for affection, at other times it’s used with no significant difference in meaning. Eriphos (goat) and eriphion (“little goat”) are used interchangeably, for instance, in Matthew 25:32-33 and also in Tobit 2:12-13.

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