It is easier for a hippopotamus to…

I recently returned from Africa, where I was working with a translation of the Gospel of Luke into a language that has had no previous Bible translation and a culture that has had very little contact with Christianity. I was not responsible for producing the translation into this language, but I was responsible for evaluating the translation. This was a very isolated language group, geographically and culturally. But the people were not what I would consider primitive. They are sophisticated in their own way. The traditional language and culture provided some key language for the translation that I would not have expected, including words for “altar,” “priest,” “miracle,” “holy,” “spirit,” “disciple,” “righteous,” “grace,” “savior,” and even “synagogue” (literally, their word for a meeting house).

As to be expected, there were some translation challenges when it came to certain terms for flora and fauna and geography. Though there are sheep and cows, this group has no donkeys or camels, and no words for them. It is possible to say “east” (the side where the sun rises) and “west” (the side where the sun sets), but no simple way to say “north” or “south.” Some concepts in the Bibe have to be translated as a phrase, such as “people mouth of God” for “prophets” and “woman death of man” for “widow.” (I believe these phrases come off sounding better in this language than they do in English.) It is just a fact of translation that you cannot always expect to have a matching target language word for every source language word, but that doesn’t render translation impossible.

I was fascinated to find out that in this language group, people ride cows. And their translation of Jesus riding into Jerusalem had him riding in on a cow. Interesting! Unfortunately, this was not historically accurate. I would only resort to borrowing a word if there is no other good option, because if you are borrowing words, you aren’t translating. However, in this case, we borrowed a word for “donkey” to say what Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The story of the Good Samaritan still has the Samaritan putting the injured man on a cow to take him somewhere where he can be fixed up. Some English translations like the NIV, CEV and NLT have “donkey” there, but the Greek has a more generic word.

This brings us to the verse in Luke that reads, in this language, “It is more easy for a hippo to pass in the hole of a needle than a rich person to accept that God can be king over him.” This is the English backtranslation of Luke 18:25. Interesting! Is this legitimate, or, for the sake of accuracy, do you have to insist that a word for “camel” be borrowed into the language to translate this verse? I have a hard time saying that the translation is not accurate and legitimate. I kind of like it, really. Now, obviously, if you were looking for a match for the Greek word κάμηλος, this target language word backtranslated as “hippo” wouldn’t seem to be a good match. But if you widen your perspective a bit, and don’t just look at words but rather at meanings in context, then in this particular context, a target language word for “hippo” is arguably a good translation of Greek κάμηλος.

In Bible translation, as in any kind of translation, there are norms that govern acceptable behavior. The norms don’t answer the question of what is and is not legitimate translation, which is very elusive to try to answer, but rather what is and is not considered acceptable in a community of practice. Granted, there are different subgroups, and not all Bible translators adhere to the same set of norms. But one norm in Bible translation that is widely–though not necessarily universally–accepted is that it is possible to take a little more liberty in translating an idiom, metaphor, proverb or parable, because the meaning of those language units is more than just the sum of the parts. I would argue that, for a language group that knows about hippos but not about camels, and based on testing with representatives of the target audience, it might be more accurately meaningful to translate Luke 18:25 using a target language word that corresponds to our English “hippo” than to try to find some way to use a word that corresponds to our English word “camel” that is not naturally a part of that language.

40 thoughts on “It is easier for a hippopotamus to…

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    David Frank or literally lingamish hippo lover David Ker? That other David! Your target group will sure get the joke, in contrast to the English of North America!

  2. David Frank says:

    I did think of David Ker’s hippo theme when I was writing this, but even though I like to live up to my last name, I believe David Ker and I are two different people. I hope to meet him face-to-face some day, and also Peter Kirk, Iver Larsen, Richard Rhodes, Mike Sangrey and Dannii Willis. I feel like I have gotten to know all of them pretty well over the years, but the only one of the bloggers that I have actually met is Wayne Leman.

  3. David Ker says:

    Nyungwe uses ng’ombe, “cow,” here although now you’ve made me want to have a word with the translators about using a more vivid term like m’bvuu, “hippo.”

    How far could we go on this? I’m wondering about something like “It’s easier for a hippo to sit in a bird’s nest” or something like that. I think those aware of translations in languages of wider communication might baulk!

    Finally, I wondered about tapping into local folklore. In Nyungwe, Pig tries to attend a party of horned animals in heaven by gluing horns on his head with beeswax. What if we said something like, “It’s easier for pig to wear horns than for a rich person to sneak into heaven.”

    Thanks for an excellent post.

  4. Gary Simmons says:

    I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do.

    Honestly, I think all of the suggested translations are quite good. It should feel ridiculous and funny to even picture the possibility. The hippo-and-birds’-nest image does that. So does the pig with horns, but I still prefer the hippo and nest image.

  5. Kirsty says:

    I do like the hippo 🙂

    In the interests of accuracy, however, it might be better to say ‘a large animal’, instead of changing the animal. This would be completely correct, just less precise.

  6. JKG says:

    what is and is not considered acceptable in a community of practice. Granted, there are different subgroups…. But one norm in Bible translation … it is possible to take a little more liberty in translating an idiom, metaphor, proverb or parable

    Would you say the norm has been around a while when we look at the LXX, or Paul, or the gospel writers (and perhaps Jesus), rendering the Hebrew Bible into (or as) Greek? Isn’t the liberal crux here really what’s considered idiom [colloquial], metaphor [simile], proverb [maxim,] or parable [fable]?

    for a language group that knows about hippos but not about camels, and based on testing with representatives of the target audience, it might be more accurately meaningful to translate Luke 18:25 using a target language word that corresponds to our English “hippo”

    Well, in fact, there was a time when our English-speaking ancestors didn’t “know about” hippos. So, as early as 1398 AD, one J. de Trevisa wrote “Ypotanus, the water horse,” and, in 1563, T. Hill wrote more “of the riuer Horse, named Hippotamon.” And, in 1600, when John Pory translated Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili cheiui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano i (the Italian translation of Arabic speaking Joannes Leo Africanus’ Descrittione dell’Africa) into English as A Geographical Historie of Africa, Pory was able to explain in our English how “The Hippopotamus or water-horse is somewhat tawnie.”

    But then de Trevisa may have been translating Aristotle, who, around 338 BC, wrote:

    “The Egyptian hippopotamus [ὁ ἵππος ὁ ποτάμιος] has a mane like a horse [ἵππος], is cloven-hoofed like an ox, and is snub-nosed. It has a huckle-bone like the cloven-footed animals, tusks which just show through, the tail of a pig, the neigh of a horse, and the size of an ass. Its hide is so thick that spears are made from it. Its internal organs resemble those of the horse [ἵππου] and the ass [i.e., donkey].”

    From these examples, we can see that to “know about” is to be rather idiomatic and especially metaphorical. Aristotle sometimes would rail against the parables [or fables] of Aesop and of the ancient Libyans; but look how he himself is using comparisons to help others know. This is all very, purely, translational. But we since we don’t “know about” translation, or at least not everything about it yet, we might need another metaphor for translation.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Kirsty, good solution, one I encourage when checking translations and the biblical object is unknown. In the business your solution can be called going generic.

  8. David Frank says:

    I’m glad we have some dialogue going here. Kirsty said she liked the hippo image, but, for the sake of accuracy, she would lean toward translating κάμηλος into a language that doesn’t have a word for “camel” by saying something like “a large animal.” Wayne Leman said that using a more generic label like that was certainly one of the options in translation. Gary Simmons said that he, too, liked the image of a hippo, but then he seemed to switch to opting for “a pack animal,” presumably, again, for the sake of accuracy. These comments relate to the principle that I wanted to discuss. Is accuracy in translation a matter of finding the right word-for-word correspondence between languages, or does accuracy require sometimes focusing on larger units of meaning? I did say that for now we are just looking at idioms, metaphors, proverbs and parables. To me, if you translate κάμηλος here by either using an unfamiliar, borrowed word, or by using a technical description like “large pack animal,” you are robbing this aphorism of its impact. I don’t think the point of “camel” was that it was a pack animal, or even necessarily that it was an animal at all, but rather it was the image of something familiar and easily visualized and immediately recognized as ridiculous in terms of going through the eye of a needle. Are we translating words, or something else? I believe that our definition of accuracy in translation is incomplete if it doesn’t take into consideration the effect the translated text has on its audience.

  9. David Frank says:

    JKK, you always come up with some interesting historical research. I just want to make it clear that I didn’t have an English-speaking audience in mind when I wrote about the possibility of using a word for “hippo” rather than “camel” in translating Luke 18:25. For English speakers, the image of a hippo would not be preferable to the image of a camel. We have words for both in English, and both of these are equally foreign to us. No, I was talking about a language group that has an intimate familiarity with hippopotamuses, and who are unfamiliar with camels and don’t have a word for that. As for whether the principle of translating idiom for idiom is anything new, I don’t think so and I hope not. I don’t have the exact quote with me right now, but I recall Jerome protesting, when his translations were criticized, that translating is not a matter of counting syllables.

  10. JKG says:

    David Frank,

    I’ve had the honor of meeting David Ker in person and came to “know about” the hippo a lot more. He’s as fun face to face as he is online. 🙂

    Right, Jerome’s words of protest (and advice to Pammachius) were these: “My version always preserves the sense although it does not invariably keep the words of the original. Leave others to catch at syllables and letters, do you for your part look for the meaning.” This, of course, is not an exact quote but the English translation by Philip Schaff. So, does Schaff, translating, follow Jerome’s advice and also preserve his sense and meaning?

    My own question here is how any of us qualify “metaphor” as if that’s the sort of language we can me more loosey goosey with. But what if “translation” IS “metaphor”? Who gets to decide when something is a “metaphor”? Even our technical and scientific English can be metaphors: our word metaphor is not something linguists and rhetoricians agree on, for example. Likewise, as linguist George Lakoff points out, biological scientists (technically “pheneticists” and “cladists”) disagree about whether the lungfish IS an amphibian (which a hippo IS) or a fish (which a hippo IS NOT); they argue over whether a mountain zebra IS a horse (which Aristotle says a horse river IS LIKE) or a real (Grevey’s) zebra.

    Two examples from recent Bible translation: 1) we have no trouble using precise English 21st century words with measured units of time and space and currency and weight, such as “the 7th hour” (where we’re okay with “one o’clock in the afternoon”) and “stadia” and “shekels” and an “ephah.” 2) But how about the Greek “doulos”? Is that in our English a “slave”? Of course it is. Doulos IS a slave. However, maybe it’s better a “servant.” Doulos IS a servant. But a servant IS NOT a slave in English. Here’s some very recent discussion on that:

  11. JKG says:


    “can me more loosey goosey with” IS “can be more loosey goosey with”

    Thanks for helping me translate. (And when I am goosey am I being a goose? 🙂 )

  12. Mike Sangrey says:

    But what if “translation” IS “metaphor”? Who gets to decide when something is a “metaphor”?

    Interesting question, Kurk.

    Language is the fabric; and the text a garment sewn from the pattern of metaphor.


    But how about the Greek “doulos”? Is that in our English a “slave”? Of course it is. Doulos IS a slave. However, maybe it’s better a “servant.” Doulos IS a servant.

    I’ve often wondered whether a better translation for DOULOS would sometimes, but not always, be “owned by.” For example, Παῦλος καὶ Τιμόθεος δοῦλοι Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ would become, “From Paul and Timothy, owned by Jesus, the Messiah.” (see Phil 1:1).

    We have a different familiarity regarding ‘slave’ when compared to the ‘owned ones’ of the first century. We’re familiar with the slave concept, but in a markedly different way–I know of no one who is one. Back then it was more a part of the economic fabric and the way society worked. Somewhat like a sub-employee. I’m not saying it was only a little bit less than fun. Having no opportunity to extricate oneself from poverty was just as awful then as it is today. But, Phil 1:1 is not about poverty. It’s about who receives the benefit from one’s productivity. If you’re owned, then the master pays your electric bill, but the value you bring is the value you bring to the master. Your productivity accrues to the master. It has absolutely nothing to do with any value you might be able to keep for yourself since that is not where any gain goes. So, I’ve wondered if δοῦλος has, sometimes, more to do with ‘ownership’ than it does with ‘slavery’ or ‘servanthood’.

    This speaks to what David is getting at when he says to, “take into consideration the effect the translated text has on its audience.” A translation, or any text for that matter, doesn’t work with the words on the printed page. It works with the raw material within the minds of the readers and hearers.

  13. Gary Simmons says:

    My preference would be to keep the image of a pack animal going through the eye of a needle. I prefer specifying “pack animal” because that is a type of animal specifically handled by people.

    The image is that a certain animal is too large to fit through such a tiny hole. It would leave 99% of the animal’s being on the outside of the eye of the needle, if the animal were by some miracle to force itself through. In the same way, a rich person can’t bear to leave 99% of his/her existence by entering into the Kingdom.

    The point of the image is on the impossibility of the feat, the impassibility of the object in question. “Pack animal” would probably preclude the misinterpretation of trying to force a wild animal to do anything at all, which is why I prefer it over just “large animal.”

    The idea of a hippo sitting in a bird’s nest is quite good, also. It is not just impossible, ridiculous, and comical, but likewise involves the loss of either the nest, the branch on which the nest rested, and the hippo’s sense of dignity as it falls to the ground.

    BTW: Does anyone know when/where the “Eye of the Needle” gate myth developed? 8th century, or so?

  14. iverlarsen says:

    I am with David Frank on this one. But I agree that some definitions are not clear cut, and that is OK. Is this a metaphor? I would rather call it picture language or a vivid illustration or an idiom. Its meaning is more important than its name.

    Because the whole sentence is a unit, we are not supposed to start unpacking it to find out whether a camel is a pack animal. It is simply the comical and memorable impossibility of a huge and well-known animal passing through the well-known eye of a needle. It is when people take literally what was not meant to be taken literally and start analyzing its components, you come up with fancy ideas like a small gate called “Eye of the Needle”, so maybe if all loads were taken off the camel and it “crawled” on its knees, it could pass through? Why spoil a powerful image that shook the disciples to the core? All such images use well-known ideas. If Jesus had originally been speaking to the group in Africa that David refers to, I am sure he would not have talked about camels, but may well have talked about hippos.

    It is when we are dealing with real camels in real situations, like all the camels of Abraham, that we need to use either a loan word or the generic option of a large pack animal.

    What about Matt 23:24? I am wondering whether David’s groups would say: “You strain your tea if it has a fly (or mosquito) in it, but you don’t mind swallowing a hippo.” Well, maybe we should not use a cup of tea, but just say “the water you drink”. If such expressions do not use well-known, everyday images as the original did, the translator loses some of the power it had in the original setting. The point is whether the hearers get the point as intended without getting dragged away by unknown animals.

    In the African language I am working in, camels are not well-known. We did retain a borrowed word for a camel in Matt 19:24, but that was because it is a large group that are familiar with literal translations in other languages. It is one of those cases, where acceptability (giving the audience what they expect) won over accuracy, clarity, naturalness and powerful language (to my chagrin). To help a bit, we have pictures of camels in the published NT (and the Bible which is being typeset right now.)

  15. JKG says:

    when we are dealing with real camels in real situations

    Was Jesus not talking about real camels? Wasn’t Luke translating using the Greek word for a reason? And earlier in his gospel (2:15), wasn’t Luke writing real shepherds with real flocks of sheep?

    But later in Acts 20 (NIV ©2010), Luke writes translating Paul (into Greek), saying:

    25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”

    Is God’s “kingdom” that Paul speaks of here real? What about the “blood”? The “flocks”? The “shepherds”? The “wolves”? The “men,” the “disciples,” the “night” and “day,” the “tears”?

    The question isn’t whether we all can sift through to qualify certain of these nouns as “real” and the others, then, as merely “metaphorical” and, of course, NOT real.

    The question is If Paul “had originally been speaking to the group in Africa that David refers to,” then which of the nouns would have have found fit to change? Here Luke has us readers in North America and in Europe overhearing Paul talking to Elders from the Church in Miletus. Does that location (where there are real sheep and real shepherd of real flocks with real blood) really make sense to the group in Africa? Does Lamb of God make sense to groups (such as in Papua New Guinea) who’ve never seen sheep? Would Jesus say to such a group, “I am the Good Pig Herder (but, mind you, not a real specific sort of herder)”)? Would John the Baptist say to the group, “Behold the Pig of God (but not a real specific animal necessarily) who takes away the sins of the world”?

  16. iverlarsen says:


    I was just expressing the same thing that David said about the difference for translation when a text uses a figure of speech and when it does not.

    For instance, the shepherds on the field when Jesus was born, were real shepherds who looked after real sheep.

    The shepherds of the church you mention above would have been fishermen, farmers, business men or whatever, but probably not shepherds. But that is not the point. They were to act towards those they were responsible for like a shepherd acts towards his literal sheep. Since it is a metaphor, it should be treated like a metaphor and translated like a metaphor.

    It is one of the first things a translator who deals with communicative translations needs to learn. To distinguish between literal and non-literal usage of language. It is not important for form-based translation since there almost all metaphors are kept regardless of whether they communicate or not to the new audience.

    Of course, there are border-line cases, and we have guidelines for dealing with those, like the Lamb of God.

    There is a story about the first translation of Psalm 23 into an Inuit language which said: “The Lord is my wild-goat-hunter. I don’t want him. He knocks me down on the grass and drags me down to the water.” These people had no concept of a shepherd.

  17. David Frank says:

    I am not completely sure it is a metaphor to say, “It is easier for a (camel/hippo/large animal/pack animal/really big object) to (pass through the eye of a needle/pass through a tiny opening/sit on a birds nest without destroying it) than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” But it seems to me it is a complex metaphor, in that a rich man is compared to a camel, and the kingdom of God is compared to the eye of a needle, and the entering the kingdom of God is compared to going through the eye of a needle. Or maybe it is more of a simile, in that it is explicit that a comparison is being made. I avoided making my argument cotingent on this being a metaphor by lumping together idioms and metaphors and proverbs and parables, treating them all similarly. I agree with you that its meaning is more important than its name. Sometimes forcing things into categories gives us the illusion that we understand what is really going on.

    For the language group I was dealing with on my most recent trip to Africa, they have only translated Luke so far, so I don’t know what they will do with Matthew 23:24. In this case I am not in the position in this case of guiding their translation decisions, but of helping them determine whether the translation choices they have made are in the range of acceptability, which brings us back to the translation norms that I mentioned. NOTE to everybody, but not to Iver, who understands this as well as I do: All translation inevitably involves choices. No translation is possible without interpretation. Translation involves variables. But translation is a good thing, even though it is not clear-cut.

    In St. Lucia, where I was more involved in making decisions for the translation into French Creole, I suggested saying, “It is easier for a horse….” There are generally no large animals in St. Lucia, but there are a few horses, and there is a word for “horse.” But the translation was a group project, and we ended up transliterating (rather than translating) “camel,” based on the preference expressed by church leaders. Interestingly, while the word for “camel” is a borrowed word and a concept that is only vaguely familiar, the same word also means “cable.” So if people understood this aphorism (or whatever you call it) to be built on the impossibility of a cable passing through the eye of a needle, I figured that wouldn’t be so bad.

    And getting a little off-topic, maybe, a few years ago I was doing research on French Creole varieties on other Caribbean islands, and to collect a text in the dialect of French Creole spoken on St. Barths, I asked someone if she could tell me the story of the Prodigal Son in her mother tongue. Her unwritten version of that parable had the father declaring, “My son has returned! Let’s kill a horse, and we’ll have a feast!”

  18. JKG says:


    Owned by and possessions (when thinking about the Greek doulos, especially in the genitive case) is a great suggestion. Here’s some discussion around this some time ago:

    Iver and David Frank,

    These people had no concept of a shepherd.

    There are generally no large animals in St. Lucia, but there are a few horses, and there is a word for “horse.”

    The function of a metaphor, of a translation too, can be to bring in new information. The animals Jesus chooses for his riddles and his parables do have a local and a Semitic, even a Jewish-religious context. Isn’t he telling these as if the animals are “real” animals? Which makes it possible for him to metaphorize, to extend something known into a new and previously known frame of reference. When the gospel writers have translated the riddles and parables into Greek, are they really changing the animals so that Jesus can also speak to Greek readers and listeners who might live far away and might have no familiarity with the animals he mentions in Palestine?

    Or, since Hippopotamuses are not found in English speaking countries outside of Africa, should we change the animal in the following proverbs to make them speak more to us non-Africans? Will the proverbs still be African after the change so that they speak directly to us?

    “Darkness conceals the hippopotamus.” – Zulu

    “Where there is a hippopotamus, be careful when passing with a pirogue.” [and should we turn the “pirogue” into a “canoe”?] – Nilotic

    “Hunger pushes the hippopotamus out of the water.” – Luo

    “You may go upcountry, hippo, but your home is at the coast, in the water.” – Swahili

    “The hippo’s place is on the shore, it will always return to the water.” – Swahili

    “Guilt is like the footprint of a hippopotamus.” – Hausa

    “Look at the head of the hippopotamus, and you will die.” – Wolof

    “An elephant is stronger than an hippopotamus.” – Fulde

    “A hippopotamus is stronger than a buffalo.” – Fulde

  19. David Frank says:

    JKG, I am going to respond to what I can in your comments. As Iver said, one of the most basic things to have to sort out in translation is what is figurative language and what is literal language. I realize as well as you do that the distinction can be messy and illusory. Yet, it is an issue that you have to deal with in translation. In going from one language to another, you have to be able to recognize what seems to be literal language and what seems to be figurative. The point is not at all to change the message, but to translate it appropriately, preserving the message and delivering it to a new audience. You mentioned metaphors for translation itself, and delivering a message is one of those metaphors. It is a pretty good one, I think.

    You then went on to ask, “But what if ‘translation’ IS ‘metaphor’?” There is more to that than you may realize, and I hate to put you off by referring you to a book that is difficult to read, but you might be interested in Paul Ricoeur’s 1976 Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. If you aren’t already familiar with that book, you might be surprised to discover your own personal connection with it. I had been hearing about that book and philosopher from two different corners–Vanhoozer’s 1998 Is There a Meaning in This Text? and writings by Longacre on discourse theory–and I decided it was time to read the book for myself, though it wasn’t easy reading. I got a lot out of it, and even before I actually read Ricoeur’s book, what I knew about his theory of interpretation was already influencing my own personal theory of translation. I hope this is pertinent to this discussion, and I think it is, but Ricoeur says that utterances are ambiguous, or in his words, have a surplus of meaning, and context is what narrows down the meaning. But his argument is that there is a crucial difference between oral discourse and written discourse, in that a written text does not have the same context as the original communication. So the meaning of a text is shaped by the new contexts in which it is found. This may sound wacky to some people, but he isn’t saying that a text (such as the scriptures) means just what you want it to mean. He is saying that context is crucial, as we all know, and there is a crucial difference between live and written discourse in terms of context. And, back to the subject we were discussing here, he brings in metaphor to expound his thesis, saying that he sees an identity between metaphor and any kind of written discourse. Is he using metaphor as a metaphor? Maybe; I’m not sure.

    As an aside, etymologically-speaking, “translation” of course is a metaphor, deriving from Latin “to carry across.” While translation as a concept is intuitive, it can be hard to pin down scientifically, and it is easier to come to explain it analogically (metaphorically) than analytically. For another metaphor for translation, as bridge-building, see this poster which I scanned and put on the internet:

    Back to Ricoeur, in 1976 he was talking about root metaphors, which are metaphors so deeply engrained in our way of thinking that we think of them as fact rather than as metaphor. So yes, we have known for a long time that literary metaphor and extended meanings of words and theories (again, a metaphor involving “looking at,” which you no doubt had drawn to your attention as a student of K.L. Pike) and worldview were all part of the same thing. There’s lots of good stuff about metaphor in chapter 3 of Ricoeur’s book, entitled “Metaphor and Symbol,” but, again trying to come back to the topic at hand, on p. 67 he quotes the 1962 book by Max Black entitled Models and Metaphors: “A memorable metaphor has the power to bring two separate domains into cognitive and emotional relation by using language directly appropriate for the one as a lens for seeing the other.” That brings us back to the metaphor (or whatever you call it) about a rich man entering the kingdom of God. You asked in another comment, why should a translation refrain from introducing new concepts? (This is my paraphrase of what you were saying.) A translation certainly should introduce new information. I hope any reader of the scriptures in translation will benefit by getting new and important information. But what information do people need to get out of a translation? Is the point of translating the scriptures to teach about a different people, geography, culture and worldview? Translation inevitably involves making choices, and one choice a translator might make might be to focus on communicating culture and geography in translation. So, for example, if you don’t already know about camels, you might learn about those and other things from Palestine 2000 years ago through a translation. It might be clumsy, but you could translate by saying, “It is easier for a ‘camel,’ which is a large pack animal with a hump on its back that can go without water for a long time, to go through….” (If the audience doesn’t know about pack animals, you might have to explain it further.) But in terms of my purposes in translation, if you translate that way you are skewing the focus. You are making the focus on one thing when it ought to be on something else. As Ricoeur and Black put it, Jesus was using one thing (the impossibility of a camel going through the eye of a needle) as a lens for seeing something else. Jesus was drawing a picture (to use another metaphor) of an eternal truth by using an example that his vive-voce audience at the time could easily visualize. Maybe there was even a camel in sight when he said this, or else camels probably were not too far away. We can either translate this eternal truth for an audience that doesn’t know about camels by choosing something analogous and familiar to their context, or we can skew the focus by using the translation as an occasion to teach about life in Bible times. Again, remember that I am not suggesting that for an English-speaking audience a translation should say “hippo” in this verse. Camels and hippos are both foreign but familiar animals for us, and we have words for both.

    As I’m sure you are aware, the 1980 book Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson, continues this theme of root metaphors, though this book doesn’t seem to acknowledge the earlier work of Ricoeur or Black. The more I reflect on the cognitive semanticists’ emphasis on the centrality of metaphor in our way of thinking, the more it makes sense to me. It is hard to talk about translation or anything else without using metaphors. They may be live metaphors, or dead metaphors, or root metaphors.

    One final note in closing, JKG…. I think the English “kingdom” can be misleading as the translation of Greek βασιλεία. Our English word suggests a place, and I understand Greek βασιλεία as more inclusive in meaning than that. The English word “kingdom” narrows down the meaning too much, though context does help bring one or another meaning into focus. I prefer to translate βασιλεία in the Bible into English as “kingship.”

  20. David Frank says:

    JKG cited the Luo proverb (translated literally into English), “Hunger pushes the hippopotamus out of the water.” Gary Simmons says he remembers it as “Hunger pushes the hippopotamus to eat marbles.” In St. Lucian French Creole, there is a proverb Mizè ka fè makak manjé piman, or, in English, “Misery makes monkey eat peppers.”

    David Ker mentioned a Nyungwe story about a pig that tried to qualify for a party in heaven for horned animal by sticking fake horns onto his head with beeswax. St. Lucians have an African heritage, and we found a wonderful story in St. Lucian Creole that starts off, La té ni an kaptenn ki té bay on fèsten an batiman’y. I envité tout bèt ki ni kòn…. Chyen pwan dé koubawi, i kolé’y an tèt li èk lagli èk i di sé kòn li i yé. “There was a captain that held a party on his boat. He invited all animals that have horns…. Dog took two branches, he stuck them onto his head with glue and said they were his horns.” Agouti, who was also there illicitly, hiding, told on Dog, so the captain went around testing everybody’s horns, and when Dog’s horns were tested, they fell off and Dog got kicked off the boat. (I won’t tell you the ending.)

    Shakespeare said, “All that glitters is not gold.” There is a St. Lucian proverb that I think must be a translation of Shakespeare: Ou wè i jòn, ou kwè i bè, or, in English, “You see it is yellow, you think it is butter.”

    In these examples, you can see an important identity, even though the cast of characters and maybe some of the details might be different. If you are totally focused on translating words, you might miss some of the more important identities to focus on in translation. I’m not saying that camels have to be translated as hippos, but if someone does translate that way, it is valuable to recognize the sameness that the translator is trying to preserve, which might be missed otherwise.

  21. JKG says:

    it is valuable to recognize the sameness that the translator is trying to preserve

    Thanks David Frank. This, I believe, is the crux of the issue. My concern, when Bible translators start changing animals for deeper meanings, it they’ll be tempted to change the race and the cultures of the Jewish people of the Hebrew Bible for some “deeper,” more spiritual and entirely universal group. This is not a biblical translation principle (which is inherently Semitic); rather it is a Platonic and Aristotelean understanding of language (similar to Chomsky’s). Jewish Bible translators such as Willis Barnstone and David Rosenberg would caution evangelical Christian translators here, I believe. (By bringing in African animals and parables, I’m trying to suggest that a translator can make them not the same, not African at all, by changing the animal. Yes, I understand the principle trade-off in principle. Pike, concerned, sometimes would ask us his students rhetorically, “Is IPA emic?” The issue is whose the Bible is, whose the African proverbs are. If the translator tries to make the Libyan parable teller’s story full of American bald eagles, just so Americans can understand it better, then it’s no longer a fable of Libya at all. The disembodiment of language is my concern. The translator’s notion that language is purely pragmatic, that deep abstraction is all there is, robs the rich heritage of the speaker and writer. But translation doesn’t have to work that way. And the notion of language doesn’t have to follow Plato’s conception of it; or Aristotle’s).

    I’m glad you specified. I thought you were talking about Hungry Hungry Large Pack Animals when you were saying that marble drive them to hunger. The point of the proverb in any language and all cultures is that the animals will love to eat glass bubbles once they’ve escaped liquids. 🙂

  22. David Frank says:

    Gary, I’m sorry for taking your joke too seriously. I vaguely remember seeing advertisements for a Hungry Hungry Hippos game on television a long time ago, but I never had a connection with it, for myself when I was little, or later for my kids. I was wondering what marbles those African hippos you mentioned had come into contact with. Anyway, strike my mention of your proverb from what I said.

    JKG, there are different types of translation, and some translations force the reader to the original source. There is nothing wrong with that, if that is what you want, and if you are prepared to receive a translation like that. But I think that a prototypical translation involves elements from both the original source and from the target. Just don’t try to tell me that a true translation does as little as possible to move the text toward the reader, and instead forces the reader to move to the source. One type of translation does that, but I would argue that it is not a prototypical translation, nor necessarily a good translation. And the purpose of experimenting with the best way to explain things in the source text to a new audience is not just to make the text comprehensible. A reason for doing that is to make the translation “theirs.” According to my way of looking at it, the Bible has been fully translated when the target audience accepts the translation as “their Bible.”

    As for whether or not the approach to translation that I have been describing is Platonic and Chomskyan, I don’t think so. I am a student of Pike, and not a fan of Chomsky and his notion of autonomous syntax. As Pike argued against structuralist approaches to linguistics, I have argued against structuralist approaches to translation. I have given a lot of thought to this in the past, and I disagree with those who say that translation is a matter of detaching the meanings of a text from one language and attaching those meanings to the forms of another language. As a fellow student of Pike, I see language as a system of form-meaning composites, and forms and meanings should not analyzed separately. That doesn’t mean that translation is impossible, or that all translation should be literal. Translation is about finding form-meaning composites in the target language that are analogous to or correspond to the source-meaning composites in the source text. Pike did recognize sameness yet diversity, and emphasized it in his introductory lectures by approvingly citing Heraclitus’ “You both can and cannot step into the same river twice.” [Sorry, at first I had written Hippoclitus; I obviously had hippos on my mind.]

  23. JKG says:

    David Frank,
    You and I could talk about these things a long time, I’m sure. Thanks for the conversation!

    Please know that I do understand your descriptions of “different types of translation.” To bring up Heraclitus and the famous statement attributed to him is a good thing for you to do, I think. (The statement is a kind of parable or proverb or metaphor, I think, of what Pike, Longacre, Ricoeur, Lakoff, Lakoff & Johnson, and Chomsky contended about. Much earlier and more directly, Plato and Socrates ideally and Aristotle in particular had problems with Heraclitus.) When you blog in dialogue here to say, rather directly, “Just don’t try to tell me…”, then I’m at first sad that you’ve read what I’ve said as that, as some attempt to tell you! But reading what your saying less literally, I can lighten up a little to know – with a benefit of the doubt – that you’re using an English colloquialism. You’re also using statements such as a “true” translation and a “prototypical” translation (and here I’m only quoting what I’m reading as salient markers); in certain western academic contemporary contexts, you know, these adjectives are charged with meanings. Please see that I can and do acknowledge various types of translations. Am I really suggesting a translation “force” a reader to the original source always and only?

    No, but, going back to Luke 18:25 (or the Greek translations of Jesus by Mark and Matthew), are you suggesting that Luke is forcing his readers to acknowledge the spoken words of Jesus as source? By using κάμηλος for whatever animal Jesus spoke of, is Luke (or Matthew or Mark) not translating in the true or the prototypical way?

    And if Jesus had gone to Africa and spoken his riddle there, as Iver suggests we imagine, what then? Let’s say Jesus spoke Fulani and used the word ngabu (the referent for “hippo”). And let’s say that Matthew, Mark, and Luke then wanted to translate what Jesus said in Fulani now into Greek for anyone in the Mediterranean region. Would the “true” and “prototypical” translation for Greek readers there — who don’t have hippos — be κάμηλος [kamelos] for ngabu? Is it easier for a Greek reader in Athens and in Jerusalem to understand “camel” even though Jesus was referring in Africa to a metaphorical “hippo”? Is it impossible for the Greek readers to get ὁ ἵππος ὁ ποτάμιος [ho hippos ho potamios]?

    Would it make a difference if Jesus were dark skinned and his mother, by some historical account, was a young woman from Senegal but had had to migrate (because of political and scandalous reasons) to Nigeria? Would such details matter in Jerusalem, Rome, or Athens? Would they even make sense in Greek? And, even if they did, wouldn’t it be all the same, or even more meaningful, just to change all the unfamiliar African animals and characters into Hellene and Hebraic Hellenistic images so as not to force the Greek reader to encounter the Fulfulde source of the African Jesus’ West African stories and proverbs?

    When growing up in Vietnam, I’d play marbles in the dirt with my friends, who called them bi. When we’d chơi bi (or play marbles), it was a distinctly Vietnamese game with rules and a playing field much different from the English and American one. But just as my friends taught me their version, they learned mine. And I think they even learned that, in English, we “lose our marbles” but that it doesn’t exactly mean we “mất bi của chúng tôi.” 🙂 To be sure, we didn’t force meanings on one another, but eventually we shared them, often with lots of laughter and enjoyment of the differences.

  24. David Frank says:

    JKG, I am not angry with you, and I am sorry if my words “Just don’t try to tell me” had an unintentionally angry tone. I wasn’t frowning when I wrote that. Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out what you stand for, and, as you realized, I was carrying on both parts of a conversation myself. I sometimes paraphrase what I understand you to be saying, or put words in your mouth that I sense you want to say but don’t. So what do you stand for? You always bring in lots and lots of data, and sometimes it is hard to see what your point is. I may have come to the wrong conclusion when I thought it sounded like you were saying that a proper translation is a literal one, in that it causes and enables the reader to see things from the perspective of the original context.

    I stand for something, and I have been trying to make that clear in what I write. But I don’t think you have understood me correctly if you think I am Platonic or Chomskyan in my approach to language, linguistics and translation. I will take that as a challenge to explain myself better. Just don’t try to tell me…. oops!

    I realize that in the comments section here, this might not be the place for you to present your manefesto of what you stand for, but I think what you could do is, when you present us with a lot of data, help us out by pointing out what you are seeing in all of that data, and what we are supposed to see, making your point and position more clear. Would doing that be consistent with what you stand for?

    I will ask you to clarify one thing you said. You wrote,

    My concern, when Bible translators start changing animals for deeper meanings, is they’ll be tempted to change the race and the cultures of the Jewish people of the Hebrew Bible for some “deeper,” more spiritual and entirely universal group. This is not a biblical translation principle (which is inherently Semitic); rather it is a Platonic and Aristotelean understanding of language (similar to Chomsky’s).

    Now, I think you got me wrong when you suggested my principles of translation are Platonic, Aristotelean, Chomskyan, but we’ve already dealt with that, and we could try to deal with that more later. What I want to call you on is where you said, “This is not a biblical translation principle.” I disagree with that, unless maybe when you say “biblical” you have in mind only the Hebrew scriptures. I think my approach to translation is overwhelmingly biblical, especially in the words of John (his prologue), Jesus, and Paul, and you have challenged me to work on explaining that, which I may do in the near future.

  25. David Frank says:

    JKG, I hope to meet you some day, and an occasion has come up when that could happen. I just got an announcement for the Bible Translation 2011 conference to be held in Dallas, TX, October 14-18, 2011. Here is a link for the conference: On alternating years these conferences are held in Dallas and in England. I presented a paper at the one in Dallas in 2009 and a couple of times prior to that, and once in England, and I am hoping to participate in the conference coming up in 2011. I know Iver Larsen has presented a paper at the conference in England at least once, and I am hoping to meet up with him one of these days.

  26. JKG says:

    David Frank,
    Thanks for proposing meeting. I like that very much since experiencing many misunderstandings in blogging. Have marked the Oct. dates on my calendar.

    When Wayne Leman and I talk, he often appeals to his personality type (and to mine) as a factor in our communications via blog, fb, and email. So if declaring what I stand for, may I first just confess some strong personality preferences? On the mbti, I’m an NT, which the Keirsey analysts call “rational.” One of the tendencies of us NTs is not to state the “obvious” when we connect things in our heads and to expect everybody else to just follow along anyway.

    Anyway, I want to tell you “I am deeply sorry” for “suggesting” your translation principles are “Platonic, Aristotelean, Chomskyan” or are not “biblical”! Likewise, Thank you for being very clear about your principles here. You might think it ironic that I stand for openness in translation (“why not more open then to Aristotle?”) especially beyond our western conceptions of language and of translation! Pike was beginning, I think, to articulate some useful ideas about language and practices with translation (“emic” v “etic”; “person above logic”; “monolingual demonstration”; “multiple metaphors for [meta/]language[s]” such as particle, wave, field; and “n-dimensionality” of language, where n is infinite). In Sino feminisms, French feminisms, and afrafeminisms, I see much more work being done. What distresses me much is silencing of minorities, of anyone really. And I do think that Pikean tagmemics (and even Longacre’s for the most part) has died in SIL, and in its place is, what I see as, the narrow focus on Nidaean, Gricean and Guttean pragmatics and relevance theory in which language tends to be reduced to the means to the communicative end. Who cares if Jesus referred to a camel in a riddle as long as a hippo in a new riddle communicates something, ostensibly, “the same”? (I also see this as Plato’s and Aristotle’s battle against the sophists, who tended to view language much more like Pike tended to. The sophists tended to be slippery with their concepts of and uses of language.) On translation theory development (beyond communication and pragmatics), I do see some progress being made by some: by Jewish translators of the Bible and by theorists such as Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha. The latter have edited the now second edition (2009) of the spectacular Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. For such a work, Lynnell Zogbo has a wonderfully comprehensive entry on “Bible, Jewish, and Christian” translation, with sections giving “a history of Bible translation” and outlining the major “translation theory and approaches” (reviewing missionary theorists such as Eugene Nida and mentioning Pike) and also getting to issues of “gender” and “language.” Nida, of course, wrote the original entry for the first edition (1998) of the Routledge Encyclopedia; but his scope was narrow as he cites only eight other works, three of his own; and he starts his “Bible translation” entry with “The Bible is the holy book of Christianity.” (Scholars such as Naomi Seidman in one of her histories of Bible translation takes exception to the fact that Nida leaves out the Jews here.) Now, after saying all that, I guess I’d have to say I stand for not just one way of translation and for the agency of women and minority groups to conceive of language in non dominant ways.

    You still haven’t speculated with Iver about Jesus speaking in Africa. I really do wonder whether you think a Greek translation of a Wolof speaking Jesus (referring to hippos) would best be κάμηλος [kamelos] or ὁ ἵππος ὁ ποτάμιος [ho hippos ho potamios], for folks back in the Mediterranean where there are no hippos but there are camels. Yes, I’m smiling while writing, not wanting at all to be contentious. Not at all. Rather, I’m curious, and it seems, given your post, you are too.

  27. David Frank says:

    JKG, I can find some common ground with you. You say, “What distresses me much is silencing of minorities, of anyone really.” If I were to make a statement of what I stand for, I would have included something like that too. But for me, that suggests a type of translation that tries to reach out to diverse groups and speak their language. Maybe I am having hard time reading you, but you seemed to be saying that translations should prompt the reader to move as far as possible to the source text and learn its language. That seems to me to the the opposite of listening to minorities. Keep in mind, too, that I have not told anybody that they should translate “camel” as “hippo.” What I was saying was that, if that’s how they see fit to translate it, that’s cool. The translation seems to be speaking their language then. Maybe I didn’t make it clear that the ones who decided on translating that way were mother tongue translators. My approach in evaluating their translation was not to be heavy handed, not to try to tell them how to translate, and to allow the translation to stand the way they translated it, as much as possible. In the process, I learned a great deal about their linguistic categories and how they see the world, and how concepts in the Bible could be expressed in their own logic.

    I’m an NT too (INTJ), and I don’t know all about what that is supposed to imply, but somehow my natural inclination seems to be different from yours when it comes to being clear. I am always trying to understand things from the perspective of the person I am interacting with, and trying to adjust what I say so that it will be in keeping with what they are prepared to hear. That inclination goes along with my interest in linguistics and Bible translation.

    But I realize there are limits to clarity, and clarity is just one of several–sometimes competing–goals in translation. Entertaining the idea of saying “It is easier for a hippo to go through the eye of a needle” in place of “It is easier for a ‘kamal’ (foreign word) to go through the eye of a needle” has to do with clarity, but, even more than that, I think it has to do with the possibility that the translation is something that the recipients could own, and feel like the Bible is speaking their own language. “Yes, this is our Bible! It’s so sweet!”

    As for other things you wrote, for now I am going to let this discussion wind down, and I’m going to take a pass on discussing translation theory and tradition further. But one thing I do want to say is that if you think Nida’s translation model, Grice’s conversational maxims and Gutt’s relevance theory all share the same narrow focus, well, I just don’t see it that way at all. I see them all quite, quite differently.

  28. JKG says:

    Well, David Frank, you caught me. Not knowing you knew mbti (or that you yourself are an NT), I just spared you the details. But that’s what us INTPs tend to do, really, unfortunately, and the difference in preference between the J and P does sometimes seem significant.

    On significant difference in viewing minority translation projects, I think you’re persuading me that we’re actually not that different. I’m saying this risking more cross talk here but hoping there are many participating (even by reading BBB) that feel (think) the ways you do, and I do too. Yes, we do agree that if a Fulani speaker wants to translate for her people ngabu (hippopotamus) for Luke’s κάμηλος (camel), then very well. If they want to call it “our sweet Bible” then, well also fine.

    Nonetheless, there are some issues as I see it:

    you seemed to be saying that translations should prompt the reader to move as far as possible to the source text and learn its language

    Well, what seems better than a pure movement only toward the source text and language is to move toward bilingualism. Here’s what I meant by saying metaphor IS translation. I think parable IS translation too. Maybe Epstein’s “interlation” is a better term. What happens when a hearer best hears a parable, and gets it best, is not the listener’s coming away with “My sweet story.” Rather, it’s most profound when the listener safely is etic, is understanding the story as not his or hers at all, as somebody else’s, as foreign. Then that story, internally, is something they compare with their own familiar world. And change happens; nothing stays the same. Well, of course, the external story heard stays the same and the new, parallel story heard on the inside doesn’t change the facts. But the hearer changes in response to the unfamiliar and the familiar constants. I’m thinking of the prophet Nathan’s parable for King David, who at first sees the rich man as rather foreign but the poor man as worth empathizing with until he sees himself in his own context as the rich man. I’m referring now to 2 Sam 12:1-4. The parable is never “my sweet story” at first. But unless the two stories interact, there’s not much power for change. (I think this is nearly the whole process of the parable of the seed and the sower that Mark translates in Mark 4. Mark even translates the dialogue of the disciples who ironically see themselves very outside the story and insist on an explanation. Mark cleverly lets Jesus give an explanation that is not very dynamically equivalent to the parable. Jesus’s choice. Or Mark’s. Or the agency of both of them. Hmmmm.) To get back to your question about my view, however, I’m going to have to suggest that the Fulani speaker does well to produce her own sweet Bible but to read it side by side with the Hebrew and Hebraic Hellene it was first written and translated into. The interlation helps prompt change. Otherwise, it’s just a nice, sweet Fulani Bible that borders on being anti-Semitic; is that too harsh? It silences the Jewish authors! The Hebrew and Aramaic translators! Interestingly, many BBB discussions here push for the author’s intent. Did Luke intend camel? Will the Fulani reader with his or her hippo and her African not Jewish Jesus really care what Luke intended?

    But there’s more. There’s something inherently personal about language and languages and literature that Pike got that Nida, Grice, and Gutt don’t emphasize. I’m not saying the three men are the same in their theories. I am saying that the goal of their theories, similar goals, does not respect the personality or the personalness of language(s). Without getting absolutely Whorfian, I do believe those of us who are multilingual profound feel difference when we’re even just “communicating” in one language or another. And yet there are bilinguals such as Jorge Luis Borges who don’t just use Spanish for communication or English for communication but use the one language or the two together for quite different purposes altogether. I doubt you’re disagreeing with this. “My sweet Bible” is not just about clarity and comfort. Unless there’s a grappling with, unless a real struggle with the languages and concepts and histories and cultures and even words, maybe syllables (sorry Jerome) of the Bible so different from my own (and I’m not talking about an artificial struggle or a grappling for grappling’s sake), unless there’s that difference, then I’d say the sweetness is saccharin.

  29. jkgayle says:

    To get back to hippopotamus, isn’t it just fascinating how humans name animals? Aristotle, as noted above, uses his noun phrase for “the river” and makes and appositive by smashing it up next to his noun phrase for “the horse.” What this does is to change the river and the horse, because the two words together now refer to this foreign weird not common animal in Greece. The focus is not the river now nor the horse but on the animal who is like a horse but in a river. So the contrasts and comparisons in the new definition can be and are constantly be made with reference to the know and familiar, the horse.

    Structuralist de Saussure overstates things when he insists that it’s “l’arbitraire du signe.” Aristotle is not and cannot be so arbitrary when naming and so describing the hippo. Aristotle uses what he very much theorizes as metaphor. It’s a process of comparison (though he might like it more boxed up than that, more a Nature’s imposition of a species, a genus, etc.), unknown combined with the known. So as long as your African friends get that Luke’s camel is not their hippo exactly, there’s some real learning going on. Otherwise, it’s likely only a maybe interesting, maybe culturally relevant proverb they’re getting from their sweet Jesus.

  30. Mike Sangrey says:

    This has been an excellent discussion. Thank you.

    Let me try to say what I’m hearing (ummm…reading) and interact with what I’m hearing.

    Kurk, from my perspective, you’re trying to make a linguistic concept which works along one linguistic dimension work along a different dimension. So, let’s see if I can make that abstract statement much more concrete. (And, by the way, this discussion has clarified for me a lot of our discussions. Let’s see if I can go further.)

    I see what you’re saying as the difference between reading about a great wine and actually experiencing it. Or, reading about romance, and experiencing romance. And yet, I hear you saying it is both. Not just experience, I don’t think you’re reducing the translation effort to only that; but I hear you saying it is both-and. And I hear you saying that David (and some of the things that are part of my thinking, too) are focused too much on just the textual and the form. It seems you think we’re conveying that one must merely read about romance and that is sufficient. It seems you think we’re saying ‘hippo’ formulates the idea, but you’re saying κάμηλος blossoms with the original life and you see that as part of the text.

    But, I need to be clear here. I see that you’re saying that the way we can grasp that original is to experience the form-complex. That is, to really, really come to understand the text, one must experience the form-complex. (By form-complex I’m referring to the myriad of interactions the form(s) make within a text and within a language, not only by or with the text, but socio-linguistically, too). And that a translator replacing one form-complex with another form-complex tosses the benefits of experiencing the original form-complex. I hear you say that such a tossing is a losing.

    I agree that experiencing the language will deepen the understanding and traduttori traditori; but, I think that is a dimension of communication which can’t be brought over in translation, nor should we try. It’s a different dimension. Camel today does not do the same thing as κάμηλος did for Luke’s audience. Nor can it. I also don’t think such is required in order to obtain what the sacred text is intending to accomplish. There’s a larger requirement that can’t be sacrificed at an other-dimension altar. So, while I agree that this other dimension is helpful, it’s not required by a translation in order to be an accurate translation. Nor is it necessary in order to obtain in a translation what God intends in a translation (at the risk of speaking for God–though I’m thinking of Acts 2). There is a priority to the dimensions.

    I think there’s a reason for that–this God intended reason. David’s statement fits well here: I think it has to do with the possibility that the translation is something that the recipients could own, and feel like the Bible is speaking their own language. Communication, even a God orchestrated communication, is a communal experience. And it is a God instigated communal experience. The hearer moves toward God as he or she experiences Emmanuel moments, Emmanuel moments which can only be provided by a translated text. A foreign text, one which has God speaking a foreign language, distances God in a way he does not intend. A translated text, if well done, will bring a person face to face with God (John 1 comes to mind). But, it’s a text which by its very translated–its my language–nature gives grace to the hearer to meet God.

    The Bible’s intent, as I understand the Bible, is that the Bible intends a kind of incarnation–one that intentionally seeks for the reader to obtain, in his or her very person, an imitation of God. Obviously, that imitation can not (or should not) be theistic, but must be humanistic (in the sense that humans are constrained by being human). This is glory (the visible expression of perfection).

    So, while obtaining a deep understanding of the original culture and its reality and its experience and its language is quite helpful in understanding the Bible in a deep way, the method of obtaining this by experiencing the text as the original people experienced it is not the intent of the Bible. The text, the translated text, must communicate a transcendent God, but must do so in a way that expresses a God-sized willingness to be perfectly human. To hold our hand. To cause us to say, “This is our Bible.”

    There’s a level of understanding much larger than simply the rational which is obtained by owning the message as one’s own. A high quality translation fosters this. But, that ownership is not, and can not, be embodied within a text. It is lighted by the text, it is spirited by the text. It is not the text itself. It is human. It is the human response to God’s message in my language.

    These are two different dimensions. The one is textual; the other is God-human. A high quality Bible does the former in order to accomplish the later.

  31. David Frank says:

    Saccharin? Ow! I don’t care for artificial sweeteners. If people reading the Bible in their own idiom call it sweet (with an exclamation point), I don’t just think it is fine; I think it means that the translators have achieved their goal in translation. I’m not as cynical as you seem to be, JKG, that they don’t know how to tell artificial sweetener from the real thing. As I see it, as one who has been involved in the translation of the Bible over the past 35 years for people who haven’t had it in their own language, having an end result that people value as “their own Bible” and seeing their excitement that God can express himself in their own language, I don’t think that is a nice but optional add-on to translation; I think it is the essence of what translation is all about. I am practiced in–and motivated to–listen to the voices of people who speak under-esteemed languages, and I am not inclined to think that they don’t know the difference between saccharin and real sweetness.

    JKG, we both value listening to the voices of minorities, and it has occurred to me that I have been focusing on listening to the voices of people we translate for while you have been focusing on listening to the voices of the original authors of a text to be translated. Yes, I do think that the audience of a translation has a voice in the translation. A good translation should speak their language. And I don’t think that for a translation to be successful, the readers have to be acutely aware of the differences between their own culture and the ancient Jewish culture. What enables a translation of the Bible to have an impact on people is an awareness of the commonalities, not the differences.

    Now, it seems to me that you have been conflating the message with the messenger. You seem to be saying that a translation doesn’t achieve its purpose unless it communicates to the new audience all about the messenger, and the messenger’s context. If I’m misreading you, I’m sorry, but I know that is how some people think, and from what you have been saying that seems to be how you think too. I’m saying that the messenger and the message are distinguishable–not distinct, but distinguishable. Sometimes the message and the messenger are hard to tease apart, but one of the challenges a translator faces is in trying to navigate those waters, so to speak. You can’t focus on everything in translation simultaneously, and I am saying that the most important thing to focus on is the message, not the messenger. The message must become the reader’s.

    Yes, reading the scriptures should be transformative, but the illuminating, transforming power should be in the focus on the message with the barriers removed (as much as possible), rather than a focus on the messengers. You said that the key to reading a translation is bilingualism. Hmm…. Many, many people have read the Bible being hardly aware that they were reading something that was originally in a different language. Does that mean that they have been unable to get out of reading the Bible what they should have? I don’t think so. I think it is good thing to be able to read the Bible and see it as God’s message for you, rather than as God’s message for someone else, over whose shoulder you are looking.

    You pointed out, JKG, “Interestingly, many BBB discussions here push for the author’s intent.” I will let you know that I differ from some of my esteemed colleagues, with whom I agree on the most important things concerning translation, in that I do not talk in terms of an author’s intended meaning. I mentioned the Bible Translation conferences, and the paper I presented at the 2009 conference was entitled “Do We Translate the Original Author’s Intended Meaning?” My problem with trying to translate in terms of original authors’ intended meanings has to do with the word “intended.” We don’t translate intentions; we translate texts. There’s more to my paper than that, but that is the essence. So I never answered your question, JKG, about what Jesus might have said if he were Wolof. That is speculative, and I don’t think in those terms. I think, instead, of how to translate what Jesus did say into a new context.

    JKG, you said that Nida’s theory “does not respect the personality or the personalness of language(s).” I have a hard time agreeing with you there. That might be said about Gutt, but not about Nida, I don’t think. And you can leave Grice out of this. Grice didn’t deal with going from one language to another. I love Grice in a way that I don’t love relevance theory. You wrote, “Structuralist de Saussure overstates things when he insists that it’s ‘l’arbitraire du signe.'” I might agree with that, and add that relevance theory, solidly following in the tradition of de Saussure, overstates things when it emphasizes the arbitrariness of the text, saying that the meaning is all in the context.

    Well, I’ve gone on longer discussing translation theory with you than I probably should, JKG, though it is enjoyable. The problem is that our discussion here is so public.

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