Our spaces don’t match their spaces

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?

2 thoughts on “Our spaces don’t match their spaces

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…Simplistically, should block 17 be translated as corner of Elm and Mulberry?…

    Does anyone have a way to determine what Japanese translations do with this verse?:

    Act 9:11 And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,

    And do we know if it confuses the Japanese?

    As to PNEUMA, SARX, and KARDIA, I have discussed these words on many occasions.

    First let me say that these are Greek words, not “magic” words. They refer to specific things that any Greek speaker, without a divine revelation, would clearly understand. It is when people assume that they have a different meaning within the scriptures that they get into trouble. They should be read as Greek words, not as theological silver bullets.

    For example, the use of KARDIA as the seat of thinking has to be understood to reflect a commonplace of ancient, misinformed anatomy. We know from ancient enbalming methods that the ancients did not understand the function of the brain. So when they were mummifying someone, the first thing that they did was scoop out the gray matter and discard it. Then they would place into individual jars the heart, kidneys and lungs (or some other trio of mechanical, unintelligent organs), and cap them with a protecting deity. There is no hint in scripture of awareness of the brain and its function. All of its functions are ascribed to other organs.

    * KARDIA (the blood pump) – thinking;
    * SARX (soft tissue, muscles) – craving;
    * PNEUMA (the breath of life) – life, self awareness, animus;
    * NEFROS (kidneys) – motives;
    * OFTHALMOS (eye) – coveting;

    The following translations are all an attempt to conceal from the reader this primitive anatomy:

    KARDIA as “mind”;
    SARX as “sinful nature”;
    PNEUMA as “spirit”;
    NEFROS as “motives”;

    I claim that the current shifting of SARX to “sinful nature” serves as a perfect parallel and illustration of the process that PNEUMA underwent in recent history, so that now, the word “spirit” is accepted as legitimate translation of PNEUMA. The link to the bad anatomy of the scriptures has been severed. But lets look at how absolutely physically Paul understood SARX:

    Rom 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
    Rom 7:19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
    Rom 7:20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
    Rom 7:21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
    Rom 7:22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
    Rom 7:23 But I see another law ***in my members***, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin ***which is in my members***.
    Rom 7:24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from ***the body*** of this death?

    I mean, how clear does one need it, that Paul, when speaking of his SARX was speaking of that which is “in his members” and his “body of this death”?

    But that embarrasses those who perpetuate the claim that the scriptures are without error in regards to science, etc.

    Does Paul think that breath is intelligent? Of course. It is what Moses taught:

    Gen 2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and **breathed into his nostrils** the breath of life; and man became a living soul [person].

    This breath of life is ever where in scripture, obscured in translation as “spirit”:

    Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation [death sentence] to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit [breath].
    Rom 8:2 For the law of the Spirit **[breath] of life** in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

    Breath from God dwells within the believer, giving them life, animating them, and striving with his flesh:

    Gal 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit [by the breath], and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
    Gal 5:17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit [breath], and the Spirit [breath] against the flesh: and these [two intelligent elements of your human composition] are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

    Mike, you have opened a *huge* can of worms. Thanks!

  2. Yancy Smith says:

    Now this post is a blue-ribbon post. I have shown the video to my daughter who teaches English rhetoric in university. She loves TED videos. And I shared the post with colleagues in our Bible translation department. We work with a lot of international teams and I have often heard responses to translation problems begin with “well they (translators) ought to be able to understand x” concept. The problem of SARC is the quintessential problem where this sort of deontology breaks down miserably. Western theological formulations of the concept(s) represented by that four-letter word are like unreliable maps that aren’t very helpful in negotiating the territory of Paul’s thinking. Again, we have to be reminded that map is not territory. Here is my maddening summary of ideas (1) SARC is often communal, but sometimes individual (2) SARC is often dealing with human hardware, but just as often dealing with human software (3) SARC is often negative, but sometimes positive (4)SARC is often human, but sometimes non-human and sometimes personified. No wonder a translation team that I heard about, after struggling with what to do, threw up their hands and made every occurrence of the term one word. Unfortunately, that word only meant, to the receptor audience, “meat” as sold in the meat market. A simple solution that was not so simple.

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