Overcoming Inadequacies of Words Commonly Used in Bible Translation and Teaching (Part 3 of 3)

This is a guest post by Daniel Boerger. He and his wife Brenda worked on the Natqgu New Testament in the Solomon Islands. He is the translator of the Interpreted New Testament, available in print, ePub, Kindle, and free on Android.

II. C. How Can a Bible Translation or Teacher Compensate for the Mismatch in Meaning?

Translators and Bible teachers must first realize that they cannot change how people commonly use language or words. The culture can and will change what words mean over time, but you as an individual or a particular translation of the Bible cannot and it is naïve to think it is possible. The best you can do concerning a particular word, is 1) clearly teach what the word means in the Bible and consistently remind your readers or audience of that meaning so they are always aware of the difference between common usage and the biblical meaning, and/or 2) use a different term or phrase that more adequately conveys the proper meaning and reminds people (when they look at a more literal translation) of what the word “worship” means in the Scriptures. Most translators and Bible teachers choose option 1 but fail to constantly remind people of the correct meaning. They may teach it once, but to assume that forever after the correct meaning—different from common usage—will come to mind to listeners or readers every time they encounter it is naïve and irresponsible. It won’t happen. Most people will automatically revert to interpreting “worship” as their culture does, in terms of outward actions only.

There are various ways a translation can help to convey the correct meaning of “worship” in Scripture.

1. A minimal way is to include the literal word “worship” as is done in almost every translation, plus include a glossary definition somewhere in the book. In TINT, I included the following glossary entry which I offer as an example.

Worship – Today, most people use this word to mean “to praise, honor, and adore God,” usually with music and singing or clapping or raising one’s hands. And certainly any of these can be valid means of expressing worship, but none of them are the core of worship. In fact, all these things can be done while not truly worshipping at all. Biblical worship is the genuine intentional offering of your life and resources in submissive obedience and service to God. See Romans 12:1. God encourages us to honor and praise people who deserve such, (see Romans 12:10 and 13:7)—but true worship is reserved for God alone (see Deuteronomy 6:13 and Luke 4:8). Many people participate in “worship services,” but remain unrepentantly rebellious against one or more of God’s commands in their daily life (e.g., they may habitually lie, cheat, criticize, gossip, slander, hate, be selfish or unkind, participate in sexual relationships forbidden by God, view pornography, refuse to forgive someone who has wronged them, or some other sin)—so are not truly submitted to him. And their so-called worship is counted as worthless by God (see Isaiah 29:13-14 and Matthew 15:7-9). In the Bible, submissive worship is most frequently symbolized by physically bowing or prostrating oneself before someone. Fake worship is hypocrisy and is also idolatry—i.e., submission to something as more important than God. This can be anything at all, including money, fame, power, a person, a feeling, or one’s own desires. God views idolatry and fake worship as a personal rejection of himself. The more you know about God, the more serious the consequences become for rejecting him and not submitting to him in true worship.

2. Another way to steer readers to a more correct understanding of biblical worship is to translate it with a phrase that at least partially explains what worship is. Multiword phrases can be more accurate to the intended meaning if your translation philosophy does not require that single words in the original text be translated by single words in the translation. But multiword phrases can also be cumbersome, and unless a reader is comparing your particular translation to a more traditional literal translation, they may not realize that the phrase you use is literally “worship” in the original text. In TINT, I compromised by usually using the phrase “submissive worship” or some variant based on that. Since the glossary provides a more detailed explanation, I considered that the word “submissive” gives the reader a reminder of that explanation for those who have read the glossary entry, and a push in the right direction for those who haven’t. I’m sure you can come up with other ways to convey a biblical understanding of the concept. My goal here is not to do that for you, but to urge you to find a way to do it in your translation or teaching.

In teaching and translation, if the words you use do not, in and of themselves, sufficiently convey the correct meaning, your readers or audience will default to the common meaning of the word in use in their culture. Bible teachers should, in my opinion, remind their audience of the proper meaning of biblical worship every time the subject comes up in a Scripture passage. Many churches emphasize the importance of not taking Holy Communion in an unworthy manner, lest people come under God’s judgment (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). The Scriptures also warn us of coming to God with false worship—yet I have no memory of any pastor teaching on this topic, and I have never heard a warning given to people who come together to worship lest they offer false worship. It is not uncommon for pastors to exhort their people to actively participate in worship, but it is relatively rare to hear teaching about what the core of true biblical worship is so people can compare it to what they are doing. This might be because even pastors tend to focus on the current modern meaning of “worship” rather than on the biblical emphasis and meaning. The text of all translations I am familiar with, particularly in New Testament passages, do not remind them of that core meaning, except in Romans 12:1.

In a translation, if you use the word “worship” alone and the common reader in the group for whom you are translating inevitably interprets the word inaccurately, then your translation of that word is inadequate and inaccurate. As a translator you will bear responsibility for knowingly allowing your translation to convey wrong meaning. Translating literally word for word all the time is, in general, a deficient translation philosophy because words can have different meanings in different contexts (i.e. in different passages) and cultures (i.e. biblical cultures versus the culture you are translating for) and time periods (i.e. ancient versus when the KJV was translated versus today). Your translation should adequately convey the original meaning to your current audience, or the translation is not really faithful to the message of the original text. A Bible reader should not require a Bible teacher at hand to cue them as to the correct meaning of words they are reading. The translation itself or some kind of note should do so. The correct meaning of the original text was clear to the original readers, so the correct meaning should also be clear to the readers of your translation without outside assistance.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Inadequacies of Words Commonly Used in Bible Translation and Teaching (Part 3 of 3)

  1. Geoff Husa says:

    Loved reading the article you posted by Daniel Boerger. I’m translating the Bible in the Ma language of the Mibu people in Papua New Guinea and encounter these types of problems all the time. I would be of a very similar mindset as Daniel in how I see the need to translate meaningfully! He explained the problem and solution so well! Our term for ‘worship’ in Mibu is ‘mannyu tung enak’ which is literally ‘lift up his name’. It does not have the same connotations an English reader might associate with lifting up God’s name, but is much more broad in it’s scope in life.

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