This under three minute TED talk called “Weird, or just different?” very quickly presents one of the major difficulties in Bible translation. What do you do when the two worlds are just different? That is, the metaphorical world (or mental world) of the original audience is substantially different than the one you want to translate text into.
It’s a knotty problem. While the main point of the video is not my point, it nonetheless does an excellent job at putting the viewer into a different space. Here’s the video.
The psychology of the ancient people is different from ours. That is probably not obvious to you. If you’re like most Biblish users, you’ve wrapped the psychological words into a religious framework. In fact, it’s somewhat startling, and not a little bit stretching, to think of certain words as psychological words. What’s worse–the psychology evident in the New Testament is just different.. For example, how does one translate σάρξ (SARC, flesh), or καρδία (KARDIA, heart)? The assumptions of how the psyche works are just very different. Our psychological models don’t use those terms, nor do the streets and blocks in our mental maps of those models line up with the ancient people’s maps. They’ve got streets where we’ve got blocks.
When a text deals with sin, the NIV translators (arguably theologically influenced, and I offer no opinion here of right or wrong) translate σάρξ by the phrase sinful nature. Their theology, however, prohibits them from following suit in 1 Peter 4:1ff. Why the difference? The theme of dealing with sin surrounds and is embedded in the entire Petrine text. Theology reinforces the translation as sinful nature in one set of cases. And yet, in another case, theology insists it not be translated as such. But (I object), the thematic material within each of those specific texts strongly suggests the mental models assumed by the texts are nearly identical. So, the respective readers would be expected to understand σάρξ in nearly identical ways.
The nature of that contrast between those two translation choices got me thinking. What if the psychology surrounding σάρξ was different from what we expect? (And, yes, my question was mainly motivated by my theological position of a sinless Christ).
My take on it is this: modern psychology doesn’t have the mental spaces and identifiers to allow for an easy explanation of what σάρξ means. Nor does our religious Biblish. The same can be said for καρδία. We’re Westerners next to a Japanese block asking, “Where the heck are we?”
For me, my understanding of σάρξ is it refers to a set of human desires, created by God, that nonetheless must always take second priority to higher priority desires. When this priority flips, sin exists. The priority always must be given to the desires where the spirit rules (joy for example). Ahhhh…there’s yet another mental object that doesn’t fit our modern psychology. What do we do with πνεῦμα (PNEUMA, spirit)? Without getting any further into the details, my mental picture of σάρξ works in a surprising number of cases. But, that mental picture I have has been built up through an extensive study of σάρξ. And that picture doesn’t fit modern psychological models very easily.
I’m not really being purposely vague here. The difficulty I have is how to spell out the mental details which don’t fit the mental world you have. I’d have to develop for you a fully fleshed out psychology (no pun intended). But, my intent is not to develop the meaning of σάρξ. My intent is to highlight the contrast between their world and ours. It’s a lot like when a Westerner asks directions in the Japanese city. The map doesn’t fit. I’d be thinking streets, They’d be talking blocks.
My hope in this post is to simply raise awareness of what translators are up against when our spaces don’t match their spaces. And I suggest that the psychological space is one such space.
Should translators be allowed to formulate a text that will accurately convey the original meaning to an audience whose mental model is rather dramatically different? That’s a huge question. Simplistically, should block 17 be translated as corner of Elm and Mulberry?
Fundamentally, in translation, all words present us with a degree of this type of mismatch. But, I’m not referring to the near hits. I’m talking about what should a translator do when the spaces don’t overlap?