A few weeks ago I invited John Hobbins who blogs at ancient hebrew poetry to guest blog at BBB the theoretical underpinnings of his preferred approach to Bible translation. In response, John has just posted on his own blog “Why biblical literature resists translation.” He has let me know that I am welcome to cross-post to BBB what he written. That is what this post is.
From John’s post it is clear that he shares much of what we emphasize at BBB: John believes, as we at BBB do, in “reproducing … the register of the original.” I don’t want to put words in John’s mouth, but I assume that he would consider accuracy to be the highest priority in translation, as we at BBB do, and that he would share our belief that an accurate translation reflects in the target language the varying genres of the original biblical texts. I’m sure that as I better understand how John’s approach to translation works out where the rubber meets the road, we will likely find points of disagreement. And that is just fine. I want to learn from him as I do from anyone else who takes Bible translation seriously. I hope John can find time to turn his thoughts on translation into a series which will give examples of translation which could be compared with how we might prefer to translate here at BBB.
Well, let’s hear John in his own words from this point on:
My friend Wayne Leman over at Better Bibles encouraged me not long ago to describe the theoretical foundations that undergird my take on Bible translation, since I often find myself at loggerheads with the Better Bibles board of directors, to a man well-trained in linguistics, to a man enamored with translations committed to clarity and naturalness of expression, whereas I prefer translations committed above all to reproducing the wording and register of the original, translating metaphors with metaphors, and sounding strange wherever the thought and language of the source text is strange relative to our cultural matrix.
The first linguistic concept I would like to throw into the discussion – like a Molotov cocktail – is the distinction between lingua franca and vernacular. A lingua franca is an inter-language used as a medium of communication by people whose mother tongues are different. For a short-and-sweet introduction with examples, go here. A vernacular is the mother tongue of defined population groups; a mother tongue is often associated with a father land. A lingua franca is the linguistic coin of an empire, a commercial slash cultural network. A vernacular tends to be the linguistic coin of an (incurvatus in se) ethnos.
Turning now to the languages of the Bible: the bulk of the Bible is written in a vernacular: ancient Hebrew. Never mind that standard biblical Hebrew in particular was also, quite probably, a lingua franca relative to spoken dialects of Hebrew, regional or otherwise, in the late First through Second Temple periods, in the land of Israel and (as time went on, very importantly) in the diasporas of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic periods. The point here: at the same time, and of utmost importance relative to the cultural confrontation of which ethnoi then and now are vehicles, standard biblical Hebrew was a vernacular.
Not just the content expressed in “classical” Hebrew, but the written language per se, form part of an anti-colonial project, in opposition to the culture and propaganda of which (the neo-Assyrian version of) “standard Babylonian” was the vehicle – assuming that (some of) the scribes who gave us the Bible were literate in that language and the “course” or curriculum to which it gave expression (the thesis of people like David Wright and Bernard M. Levinson); in opposition to (content expressed in) the more pervasive (and perhaps less insidious, though one should never forget Jeremiah 10:11, to be read in strict conjunction with Ps 82) the more widely used (and still often unknown, or poorly known) lingua franca of the Assyrian empire, Aramaic. These facts form part of the background of a comment like that found in Isaiah 36:11 and the style-switching that Gary Rendsburg has noted.1 On “the invention of Hebrew,” on Hebrew as a vernacular and vehicle for culture expressive of oppositional political theory (a theology), see the volume by Seth Sanders of that title, introduced here.
Still don’t understand why the difference between a lingua franca and a vernacular is a big deal? Try this article on for size, by Tim Parks (HT Charles Halton for the link). The title alone is worth the price of admission: “Your English is Showing.”
To be clear, in the Hebrew Bible there are parts of the books of Ezra and Daniel that are written in the lingua franca of much of the ancient Near East: standard Aramaic (later: Syriac). But the Aramaic parts of Ezra and Daniel are incapsulated in the ethnic-religious vernacular, Hebrew. The embedment is not fortuituous. It is iconic.
All this changes with the New Testament and the Talmud. The NT is written in a lingua franca: the Greek of an empire (see the article by Parks, and its summary of the theses of Sheldon Pollock). Still, when I read the NT, I can’t help but think, in terms of genres, concepts, and the occasional calque, “Your Hebrew is showing,” or (I’m guessing; if only we had more of it from the right period and places for comparative purposes) “Your Aramaic is showing.” The Talmud is written in Aramaic but encapsulates a tremendous amount of Hebrew. Still, in this instance, one cannot help but think (Saul Lieberman docet), “Your Greek is showing.”
Everyone knows, or should know, that it is not particularly easy to translate from a vernacular par excellence (biblical Hebrew) to the greatest lingua franca the world has ever known (standard [American or Americanizing] English, the language of current Bible translations in the English language). But you might not notice if you read the Hebrew Bible in a post-modern translation, for example, NIV (especially NIV 2011), NLT (especially the first iteration; even more so, The Living Bible), and CEV (GNB was the pomo translation of my youth).2
In pomo translations, so much is made so easy. At what cost?
On the other hand, one might think that it ought at least to be easy to translate from one lingua franca (Hellenistic Greek) to another (standard English). It’s not easy, because (1) Hebrew and Aramaic form a substrate in the Greek; and (2) the New Testament expresses a decolonizing anti-Unitarian theological project within the Hellenistic ecumene – which amounts to the same thing (if you don’t get what I am hinting at, ask me to clarify in the comments).
The Bible resists translation because so much of the Bible’s focus, so much of its Sache, to paraphrase Tim Parks, consists of a mining of the linguistic richness of a vernacular, of a communicative iter tending to exclude, or simply be unconcerned about, “the question of having the text travel the world” across ethnic and linguistic barriers.
And yet the Bible has traveled the world. I blame the fact that no truer prophecy was ever spoken than the one found in Joel 3:1-4 (Hebrew verses) – though one has to know how to read apocalyptic language in order to “get” 3:3-4; and one has to read 3:1-2 in its expansive original sense, so different from the peculiarly religious sense the words are usually given.
1 A classic study: Peter Machinist, “Assyria and Its Image in the First Isaiah,” JAOS 103 (1983) 719-37. See further Gary A. Rendsburg, “Kabbir in Biblical Hebrew: evidence for style-switching and addressee-switching in the Hebrew Bible,” JAOS 112 (1992) 649-651, online here.
2 I am thinking of post-modernism in the sense of Fredric Jameson for whom it is the “dominant cultural logic of late capitalism,” more accurately, of “globalization.” This is my (reprehensible) thesis: the identification and privileging of “barrier-less” translations of the Bible in the language of the empire through fluency testing serves the the interests of the empire, whereas a translation of the Bible in a form of Biblish – i.e. in an ideolect with a narrower and deeper set of cross-references – has the advantage of creating a wedge between two cultures in conflict: that of market capitalism, built around a perverse notion of economic communion; that of the Bible, built around a commitment to the communion of the saints.