Many times on this blog I’ve expressed the distinction between two types of translations: one which is intended to be analyzed by its user and one that is to be synthesized. They are roughly equivalent to translations for study and translations for reading, but the similarity is only rough. The analytic vis-a-vis synthetic distinction is to emphasize the cognitive process by which one uses the translation. The analytical translation enables the “reader” to tear the text apart, to get at the details, to perform word studies, even to hear the underlying original language. Those processes are unique to intentional analysis. The synthetic translation enables the reader to process the text’s meaning, to follow the flow of the author’s thought, to engage in the narrative. Any analysis which is done in these synthetic processes happens subconsciously and automatically. With the synthetic, it’s like the analytical engine is hardwired in.
William Tierney and Stefani Relles, in a Washington Post guest blog, posted four ways to teach students to write. Of those four ways, one stood out to me as apropos to a Better Bible discussion.
Teach summarizing, not analyzing: Critical thinking in and of itself is not a precursor of good writing. Putting thinking into words, sentences and paragraphs is the endgame, and that crucially involves the ability to summarize material, a more concrete and therefore teachable skill. If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.
I think many English Bible translators have preconditioned the resulting text to support critical thinkers. For me to suggest we question such a thing probably approaches heresy. I can hear someone ask, “Come on, Mike, are you saying we shouldn’t teach critical thinking skills?” No, not at all. Perhaps it would be better to end that sentence with the phrase, “…resulting text to support analytical processes.”
But, the point I want to focus on is brought out by Tierney and Relles when they say that critical thinking and good writing are not necessarily concomitant. Might I suggest that our English Bibles show anecdotal evidence to support this claim. Many of our English translations make it easy to do word studies; and painfully difficult to grasp the meaning of a paragraph. And since the hurdle of summarizing a paragraph is so high, the analytical, it seems to me, has not only fragmented the text, it has fragmented the body of readers who love that text. When this whole body is taken as a whole, one is immediately confronted with the unmistakable reality that critical thinking has not resulted in a text that brings us together.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Bible translators should summarize the original text using the destination language. Summarization is the responsibility of the reader. But, I can’t help but think that a good text—that is, a well written one—enables a reader to summarize. And I think the contrapositive also shows this to be true. That not being able to summarize reflects a text that is not well written. It’s like there is a distance between a text and a summary. Good writing presents a shorter distance. A poorly written text presents a greater distance. I think that most English Bibles offer too great a distance for the vast majority of readers (and I fear that too much scholarship is buried in the weeds).
The other point gleaned from Tierney and Relles comes from their last sentence, “If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.”
Which if these two translations is easier for you to summarize?
And he was certain days with the disciples that were at Damascus. And straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God. And all that heard him were amazed, and said, Is not this he that in Jerusalem made havoc of them that called on this name? And he had come hither for this intent. That he might bring them bound before the chief priests.
Saul spent a few days getting acquainted with the Damascus disciples, but then went right to work, wasting no time, preaching in the meeting places that this Jesus was the Son of God. They were caught off guard by this and, not at all sure they could trust him, they kept saying, “Isn’t this the man who wreaked havoc in Jerusalem among the believers? And didn’t he come here to do the same thing—arrest us and drag us off to jail in Jerusalem for sentencing by the hight priests?”
This is from Acts 9 and is a narrative text. And, generally speaking, a narrative text doesn’t lead directly to theology which changes one’s life (narrative texts can, but some care needs to be taken). However, let me ask you, if it is easier to summarize the one over the other, then wouldn’t it be more likely for such a summarizable translation to impact your life in real and relevant ways? Isn’t it easier to “own” it?
If a student is better able to summarize what they have read, then it seems to me they are better equipped to own the text for themselves. Obviously, there needs to be a profound submission to the authoritative text. But, isn’t the effort and the process of summarization the very key to appropriating the text for one’s life? Doesn’t summarization coupled with submission unavoidably lead to a changed life? If the Bible is what I think the Bible is, then when I appropriate it, making it part of me, it positively impacts me—it does not go back to God empty.
If the Bible translation text battles against summarizing, then has not that translation to that degree failed in its God given charter to teach, rebuke, correct, and train?
What do you think?