mother tongue translation

A Crow Indian lady once told my wife, “If I hear the Bible in English, I don’t have to do anything about it. If I hear it in Crow, I have to do something about it.”

When I hear the Bible in my own dialect of English, I am impacted by it. It grabs my attention more than a Bible translation which does not use English wordings which are part of my mother tongue. When I truly listen to a translation in my mother tongue, I have to do something about it.

Here are some passages my wife and I recently read after breakfast. They made us stop and think. They impacted both of us enough that we had to talk about them.

With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!

So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

How about you? What kind of language moves you spiritually?

13 thoughts on “mother tongue translation

  1. Theophrastus says:

    What kind of language moves you spiritually?

    I am moved by language at two extremes.

    At one end, I am moved by language that “moves” me out of my Anglo-linguistic rut and forces me my thinking to be as close to the Hebrew as possible. Rather than attempting to translate the Bible into a sermon, it tries to “move” my thought into the the mindset of the Ancient Near East, and prepares me for the ultimate encounter, reading the text in the original. An recent example of this strategy is Everett Fox’s translations.

    (Even those who do not like this type of extreme literal translation must admit that by presenting the material in this way, Fox forces the reader to encounter the material afresh. As an analogy, consider the NRSV’s “fisher of people” vs the KJV’s “fisher of men.” While the KJV has the benefit of meter and euphony, the KJV’s phrase has also become a common cliche which we no longer parse but simply hear as a comforting set of syllables. The NRSV’s jarring phrase forces us to WAKE UP and pay attention to the underlying idea, rather than simply be content with the familiar phrase.)

    At the other end, I am moved by language that is extra-Biblical — not even a translation or a paraphrase — but an artful reaction to the Biblical themes. Consider, for example, Milton’s Paradise Lost. In a sense, Milton understands the underlying text better than most translators. By forcing us to deal on an aesthetic, literary, and philosophical level, he gets us closer to the important themes than most translations. When skillfully done, this can be as moving — even more moving — than pedestrian translations.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, Theo. I can understand both of the impacts that you mention. I myself have been moved by re-phrasings of the Bible in English poetry.

  3. JKG says:

    Language that moves me spiritually is language that invokes the personal. Sometimes it’s language that encourages me to “wake up” in my body, by invoking or pointing to our “embodied metaphors,” as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have put it. Often it’s others’ bodies, as in the language, that more wake me up: I’m thinking also of how french feminist Hélène Cixous coined “écriture féminine,” which is both an “embodied metaphor” and also an epistemology, a way of knowing through language.

    Peterson’s “God went for the jugular” and “Band-Aid on sin” doesn’t move me. For me, that “natural” English (if that’s what that is) hardly rings true to the embodied experiences of Paul, or the experiences of the Jews or Greeks to whom he’s writing in Rome. It’s hardly fair to the rhetorical Greek that Paul uses. Much better to me is Willis Barnstone’s Hebraic English for Paul’s Hebraic Greek in the newer empire of the litigious and ruthless Romans, who would legally enslave some and leave most under or out. Here’s Paul, a Roman citizen when he needs to be, writing in un-official Greek, to Jews and Greeks, in the empire’s capital:

    Therefore there is no condemnation for
    Those in Mashiah Yeshua. The Torah
    Of the spirit of life in Mashiah Yeshua
    Has freed you from the law of sin and death.
    God did what Bible law could never do
    Since in it it was weakened by the flesh.
    He sent his own son in the likeness
    Of sinful flesh, and he found sin in the flesh
    Guilty of sin. The requirements of Torah
    May be fulfilled in us who walk not in
    The way of flesh but in the way of spirit.

    Like Theophrastus, I appreciate what Milton encourages “us to deal [with] on an aesthetic, literary, and philosophical level.” But when the language more forces us to think about where our body belongs (i.e., by religious circumcision, by race, by sex, by class, by accent or access because of language), then that wakes me up. I’m reading young Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel Everything Is Illuminated (written when he was just 24 years old) and am pleasantly started at his writerly voices, for the goy Russian protagonist, for himself as a Jewish translator, for both as the story teller of old, ancient Jewish tales. That personal sort of language is what moves me, even spiritually. (Yes, and I laugh a lot, out loud, too, reading Foer’s novel).

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, Kurk. I like body-part metaphors also. There are many in the biblical texts and many in English. Sometimes a body-part metaphor in a biblical language text is a translation equivalent of one in English. It’s nice when there is such equivalence. Of course, English speakers, like speakers of other languages around the world can adopt new metaphors. Translation users can understand new metaphors if the price of the additional cognitive processing within a discourse span is not too high.

  5. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    As it’s not in my own dialect, I regret it doesn’t quite do it for me. I don’t use the expression, ‘use a Band-Aid on sin’, and I don’t know what a ‘red cent’ is.

    Also, for me, there are two many abstract longish words. The images aren’t concrete enough and the language is a bit sociological, e.g. ‘that fateful dilemma is resolved’, ‘freed you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny’ (what’s a fated lifetime?), ‘entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity’, ‘weakened as it always was by fractured human nature’ (why not ‘broken’) or ‘taken up residence in your life’.

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Dru, I appreciate your reactions to my posting of that passage (from Peterson’s, The Message, as some others have figured out).

    You’re right: when the idioms are not in your dialect, they can’t impact you. I suspect that we are impacted emotively and spiritually only (or almost only) in the dialect that is our heart language.

    The two examples in your first paragraph are Americanisms. Here in the U.S. we talk about “Band-Aid solutions” to our national debt. And, of course, when you have a pence instead of a cent, idioms made with cent would do anything for you.

    I listen to BBC News on the tele (!) daily. I suspect that that American version from BBC has announcers who would use fewer Britishisms that BBB announcers speaking to U.K. audiences. But I still pick up a few Britishisms. They don’t sound so foreign to me as they first did, but there is still that bit of foreignness that you reacted to in the Message.

    And, yes, Peterson does more than simply use standard American idioms. He loves to create new words, often long hyphenated word referring to some important theological concept. And sometimes he uses idioms which not even his fellow Americans use. He’s a poet and likes to use poetic license to create new ways of saying things. Sometimes they work for me, but sometimes they don’t work so well.

    All of this affirms the point of the post, I think, that we respond emotively best to language in translation which we like best. For me that is often use of tried-and-true (!) English (or American) idioms that, shall we say, hit the nail on the head 🙂

    For others, such as Theophrastus and Kurk, with their comments above, we find that language that moves them is different yet from the more basic language-I-learned-at-my-mother’s knew heart language that speaks to my heart.

    So the kind of language that moves people seems to be partly subjective. It has been observed very often, however, that when language groups around the world get the Bible in their heart language, the language they learned from their mother and other caregivers, that is the language that deeply impacts them. If their people group has enough time to develop higher register literary and poetic forms of their language, there would likely be individuals who would be impacted by that languages, as, for instance, Theophrastus is. There is a place for different dialects/registers/forms of a language in Bible translation.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Wayne, my British reaction to the passage is similar to Dru’s.

    But I think the issue with the BBC is a bit different. They try to use a high level variety of English which is mostly the same in Britain and America, indeed worldwide, apart from the well-known spelling differences. They avoid as far as possible local idioms and words which have different meanings in different countries. I’m sure their broadcasters and writers have official guidelines on how to do this. So I doubt if you will find many more Britishisms in their formal broadcasts even here in England.

    They probably don’t try to use mid-Atlantic accents even for their US broadcasts, as they know that in North America British accents are highly valued and considered authoritative. Actually this is true probably largely because of the BBC.

    Out of interest, do you see Britishisms in the written news articles on the BBC news website? If you want examples, I often link to these articles at Gentle Wisdom.

    By the way, “BBB announcers” was an interesting typo. Or was it a prophecy that I, your British BBC announcer, will be speaking to UK audiences?

  8. JKG says:

    Many learners of English as an additional language use BBC or VOA as their source, their model for standard English, whether British or American.

    The BBC style guide writers, I understand, are careful to warn their announcers and reporters not to “contaminate” English with “Americanisms.” For example, the first BBC style guide published in 1967 had this:

    “Since it is the English language we [BBC journalists] use, we should preserve it against contamination by trans-Atlantic usages.”

    And as recently as 2003, the BBC style guide had this:

    “Many American words and expressions have impact and vigour, but use them with discrimination or your audience may become a tad irritated.”

    These quotations are from Anya Luscombe’s study, found online here:

  9. JKG says:

    It seems the most recent BBC style guide is that one from 2003. It is written by John Allen, who gives a span of three pages for an apology for the BBC’s “Americanisms … so embedded in our language.” Allen begins:

    “One of the things which most exercises our listeners
    and viewers is our use of words and constructions
    which we are accused of slavishly copying from the
    United States. American English is virtually
    everywhere. It is the language of international
    agencies such as the United Nations and the World
    Bank; American films, music and television
    programmes bring it into our homes;magazines and
    wire services are dominated by it, as is the internet.
    Is it any surprise, then, that journalists adopt new
    usages, vocabulary and pronunciation?

    It is not, but we are not broadcasting for ourselves.
    Very many people dislike what they see as the
    Americanisation of Britain, and they look to the
    BBC to defend ‘Britishness’ in its broadest sense. In
    particular, they demand standard English from us, and
    we should acknowledge their concerns. At the very
    least, we should be conscious of what we are doing
    when we write our scripts.

    We should thank North America for adding greatly
    to our vocabulary. Some Americanisms are so
    embedded in our language that their origin has long
    been forgotten, for example editorial, peanut,
    commuter, nervous, teenager, gatecrasher and babysitter.
    But new words are constantly queuing at language
    immigration control, hoping to be allowed in.”

    More related to Wayne’s post, and the question of heart language for an English Bible, is Allen’s further advice and questions, as if guiding the BBC announcers into field testing their English:

    “Think about the words you use. Are you happy with
    authored as in Tony Benn has authored a book? Or
    guested as in Sir Michael Caine guested on the Michael
    Parkinson Show? Would you welcome diarise (enter
    into a diary), civilianise (replace military or police
    staff), or casualise (replace permanent staff)? Standard
    English has accepted verbs such as finalise, editorialise,
    publicise and miniaturise, but will it be so receptive
    to others? Our listeners and viewers must not be
    offended or have their attention diverted by the
    words we use.

    American speech patterns on the BBC drive
    some people to distraction.”

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Peter asked:

    By the way, “BBB announcers” was an interesting typo. Or was it a prophecy that I, your British BBC announcer, will be speaking to UK audiences?

    Prepare for it, Peter, just in case you are called by BBC instead of BBB 🙂

  11. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think N.T. Wright communicates well. I’ve noticed when I’ve heard him speak and also in his Everyone series he sometimes uses idioms I’m unfamiliar with. However, I’ve never heard him use a dead metaphor. So, he’s easily followed.

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    Mike, does Wright never use words like “member” in its modern sense? If he does, he is using a dead metaphor. Indeed our language is so full of metaphors which are so long dead that we don’t even recognise them that we probably couldn’t write a sentence without them. Of course “dead” in that sentence is a metaphor which is probably dead. Note also your use of “unfamiliar” not about a non-family member, uh, non-kinsperson, and “follow” when you are not talking about physically walking behind Wright.

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