Hearts and minds

Mark 6:45-52 is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water, which comes right after the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The narrator in v. 52 concludes that the disciples might have understood how Jesus could walk on the water if they had been able to really understand that he was able to feed the five thousand. In the Authorized Version, verse 52 reads, “For they considered not [the miracle] of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.” Is that a good translation? Well, we all know the language of the KJV is archaic, so let’s look at the RSV: “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Okay, we know that the RSV is a faithfully literal translation, so we can be assured that the original really does say here something about hearts and about hardness. (A look at the wording of the Greek original confirms that fact.) That must be a good translation, right? Because it reflects what the original says. The NIV (both the 1984  and 2011 versions) says, “For they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” Looking also at the New Living Translation, we see “For they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.”

So, what does that mean? My understanding of the expression “hard-hearted” is that it means that someone is callous toward other people’s feelings. Huh? Is this saying that the disciples were insensitive to Jesus’ feelings? Or was it someone else, to whom their insensitivity was directed? To confirm my understanding of the expression, I looked it up, and according to the Random House Dictionary, hard-hearted means unfeeling, unmerciful, pitiless, heartless, merciless, mean, unforgiving, from Middle English hard herted. This means that the disciples couldn’t accept what was going on because they were pitiless, mean, and insensitive. Right?

Compare this with a set of other English Bible translations that do not use the word “heart” in Mark 6:52. Is it possible that these could be correct, accurate, even if they are missing a word that is in the original?

TEV: “because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand; their minds could not grasp it.”

CEV: “Their minds were closed, and they could not understand the true meaning of the loaves of bread.”

GW: “They didn’t understand what had happened with the loaves of bread. Instead, their minds were closed.”

JB: “because they had not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant; their minds were closed.”

Here is what one commentary says about this expression: “This hardness of heart is something quite different from our use of the same words, denoting blunted feelings and moral sensiblities. The Biblical καρδία denotes the general inner man, and here especially the mind, which is represented as so calloused as to be incapable of receiving mental impressions.” If this commenary is right, and I believe it is, based on my own studies, then it is possible that a translation that translates καρδία into English as “mind(s)” is more accurate than a translation of “heart(s)” in this context. Or maybe an analogous idiom like “thick-headed” would be appropriate. Along those lines, we translated this verse into Saint Lucian French Creole (1999) as “paski yo p’òkò té konpwann miwak-la Jézi té fè èk sé pen-an. Tèt yo té wèd toujou.” (I’ll leave it to you to figure out that one.)

The problem, of course, is that in different cultures, different qualities are attributed to different body parts. That’s a simple way of putting it. The translation problem is cultural and linguistic. In this case, it might not be so bad if the resulting translation resulted in no meaning, such that the reader/listener might realize that a proper understanding is lacking and go looking for it. But what is worse here is that a literal translation involving “hardness of heart” would prompt a wrong interpretation without the reader/listener being aware of it. This may be debatable, but I believe that a translation cannot be accurate if does not prompt, or at least allow, a proper interpretation in the mind/heart of the reader.

Now let me back up and qualify that a little. There are different kinds of translations. There are what I consider normal, good translations, suitable for lectionary or devotional purposes or personal reading, and then there are special purpose translations, such as quite literal ones. A literal translation has a purpose of giving a word-for-word rendering, and if this results in an incomplete or inaccurate understanding, that is not their problem. The RSV falls into this category, and I appreciate the RSV a great deal. It is very dependable for certain purposes. I use it for study purposes, to get at the forms of the underlying original texts. But it is a special purpose kind of translation that I would use for study but not for general use. So I am not criticizing the RSV, considering its special purpose, and when it first came out, it was one of the few Bibles available that did not use the archaic language of the King James. What I am saying is that a normal translation is not so tied to the words of the original that it does not take responsibility for accuracy of understanding on the part of the reader, and that accuracy in a translation is tied to an accurate understanding on the part of the reader/hearer. Of course, no translation is perfect.

Translator in the translation

This is an interesting meditation on Bible translation: www.lhm.org/dailydevotions.asp?date=20120430. First, it is a notice about yet another English Bible translation becoming available, and then a commentary on that. I’m not really aware of this new translation from Thomas Nelson Publishing, but Rev. Ken Klaus of Lutheran Hour Ministries reveals a few things he knows about it and then expresses his concern. Instead of “Christ,” Jesus is called “the Anointed One.” Instead of being called “apostles,” the twelve are called “emissaries.” I wrote a blog post here more than a year ago about the translation of logos in John’s gospel chapter one, and this new translation uses “the Voice.” Some of the wordings (or maybe many of the wordings, as I haven’t seen it yet) are not what one is accustomed to.

The LHM devotional writer’s concern is that he senses the presence of the translator in the translation rather than hearing the voice of God: “Wow! I can’t speak for you, but I see a lot of translator and not a lot of God. Now I would not condemn this new translation. The Holy Spirit has managed to accomplish His purpose by using good translations and bad translations. He can do the same here. That being said, I would urge you to use a translation where the Lord shines clearly and without a translator’s filter.”

There is certainly something to be said for familiar, traditional wordings of the Bible as we read it in translation. I think there is also something to be said for starting afresh and saying things in a new way. The only way I can make sense of these comments about the problem of hearing the voice of the translator in the translation is that the wording is non-traditional. The Bible doesn’t sound here they way we are accustomed to hearing it sound.

What is Your Translation Metaphor?

A classic article in communication studies is “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language” by Michael J. Reddy (1979). In our way of thinking about language, we seem to have an image in mind of packaging our thoughts into words and then sending those words across to someone else who unpacks them to get the meaning. Reddy shows how pervasive this conduit metaphor is in our speaking and thinking about language. He is shocked (shocked!) that we so easily give ourselves over so completely to something so insubstantial and illogical as a metaphor to shape how we conceive of linguistic communication. If we really understood the nature of meaning and language better, we wouldn’t say things like “He can’t get across very well what he is thinking,” or “Let me give you an idea of what I have in mind,” or “I can’t find anything of significance in this essay,” or “Why don’t you put your thoughts down on paper?” George Lakoff adds an interesting commentary in his own article in the same volume (Metaphor and Thought, Second edition, edited by Andrew Ortony): “Reddy showed… that the locus of metaphor is thought, not language, that metaphor is a major and indispensable part of our ordinary, conventional way of conceptualizing the world, and that our everyday behavior reflects our metaphorical understanding of experience.” Shortly thereafter (1980) Lakoff, along with Mark Johnson, more completely described the significance of conceptual metaphors in Metaphors We Live By. [I’m probably using the conduit metaphor all over the place here without even realizing it.]

I think this is a fair way of putting this conceptual metaphor concept: In the way we think, the analogical is just as important as—if not more important than—the logical. Well, it’s probably WAY more important, actually. But for those of us who are more analytical, it is good to be aware of our metaphors. Which brings us to metaphors for translation. What is translation? Etymologically-speaking, it is “carrying across.” Isn’t that a metaphor? [Come to think of it, what is metaphor? At its etymological core, isn’t “metaphor” a metaphor as well? How can we escape this!?]

I like how the King James translation says, “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:12-13), and, “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5). Which use of “translate/translation” is metaphor here, and which literal?

I was once privileged to hear the Translation Studies scholar Andrew Chesterman give a presentation on metaphors used to conceptualize translation, and to have a chance to discuss it with him afterwards. He invited his listeners to analyze and tell what metaphors they use in thinking about translation. As I recall, there was not any one answer that was supposed to be correct, nor did Chesterman sniff at the whole idea of conceptualizing metaphorically. He just wanted to get us to think—and I’m trying to get you to think. What about an image of translation as someone carrying something across to someone else, as the Latin suggests? What about translation as giving someone a gift? What about translation as bridge building? That’s cool. See this picture I took of a poster that says, Chi traduce costruisce ponti,” or, “Who translates builds bridges.”

A well known metaphor associated with translation is to think about the language you are translating into as the “target” language. I suppose if you translate well, that means you have hit the bullseye. If we talk about a “receptor audience,” I guess we’re using that conduit metaphor that Reddy wrote about. I have to confess that I use this kind of language all the time. J.K. Gayle outed me in his comment when I wrote in my last blog post about “pinpointing” a target audience. That probably was a poor choice of words. I think I was trying to avoid using a word as ordinary as “determining.” And thanks to Gayle at the same time for pointing out (not pinpointing) that from a Chinese perspective, translation involves “host” and “guest” languages. Another metaphor.

I see interpretation and the reading of a text as having an important connection with translation. In Truth and Method (1975) Hans-Georg Gadamer described the reading of a text in terms of a widening of horizons, and a fusion of horizons between author and reader: “Gadamer said that a text has its own horizon, or vantage point and all that can be seen from that vantage point, and a reader brings his own horizon to the text. Meaning is the result of the reader’s horizon being altered or widened by exposure to the horizon of the text.” This image of horizons coverging brings to my mind the horizon controls I have seen in small airplanes. Paul Ricoeur uses the image of musical compositions and their performance: “Another metaphor Ricoeur uses is that a text is like a musical score that only provides for the potential for music—or meaning—until it is performed—or read. You can either analyze a text (like analyzing a musical composition), or you can try to absorb what the text has to say (like performing a musical piece). A reading of a text is a performance of it, and not all performances will be the same.” (Note that both of these quotes are my own words and interpretation, from an unpublished paper presented at a conference in 2009.)

Back to Italian, we’re all familiar with the saying, based on a play on words in Italian, that “The translator is a traitor.” There seems to be a widespread sentiment among some people in relation to Bible translation to the effect that thinking about what the source text means and expressing those ideas in the garb of another language amounts to betraying the text, and the least offensive solution is to give a word for word literal translation and force the reader to try to see the text from the viewpoint of the speakers of the original language. Maybe the idea here is of someone from one culture, while in another country, dressing himself as a member of the host culture and illegitimately passing himself off as one of them, perhaps for subversive reasons. If you are in another country, maybe the only honest thing to do is to stand out as a foreigner. Or what about the metaphor that a language or a text “resists” translation? I get the picture of the French underground resisting the Nazi occupation. Or a body at rest resisting being put into motion. If resistance is variable, perhaps it can be measured, as in an electrical circuit.

As I understand it, developments in the European Union challenge the basic ideas of source language and target language in translation. In European Union legislature, there is not supposed to be any primary or privileged language, and so when a law appears, it is supposed to show up in all the different languages simultaneously, without there being any particular source language. I get the picture of scattered seeds all growing into plants simultaneously.

When it comes to Bible translation, my guiding metaphor is that of the incarnation: The Word became flesh. I see the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in a lot of different shades of flesh and a lot of different sounding languages, to speak to, and act on behalf of, a lot of different people.

Well, this essay is too long. I should have packaged my thoughts into fewer words.

Vernaculars and Lingua Francas, Part Two: Translation Implications

I have already explained something about vernaculars and lingua francas. They are not two types of languages, but two uses of language, depending on whether or not the language is the mother tongue of the speakers or is an “other-than-mother-tongue” that speakers use to communicate with each other. I wouldn’t say that there is a contrast between vernaculars and lingua francas, but rather that there is a distinction that can be made between language as vernacular and language as lingua franca. The same language can be a vernacular in one context and a lingua franca in another.

So what does this have to do with literature and translation? Recently on this blog, an essay in the New York Review of Books by Tim Parks was referenced that brought the words “lingua franca” and “translation” together. Here, apparently, the term “lingua franca” was used as a sort of metaphor. Parks was drawing on an earlier article by Sheldon Pollock entitled “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History,” where instead of lingua franca, “cosmopolitan(ism)” is used in comparison and contrast with “vernacular.”

I like what Pollock has to say. He starts his article,

Few things seem to us as natural as the multiplicity of vernacular languages that different peoples use for making sense of life through texts, that is, for making literature. And few things seem as unnatural as their abandonment and gradual disappearance in the present. In fact, literary language loss is often viewed as part of a more general reduction of cultural diversity, one considered as dangerous as the reduction of biological diversity to which it is often compared. The homogenization of culture today, of which language loss is one aspect, seems without precedent in human history, at least for the scope, speed, and manner in which changes are taking place.

This common sense view of the world needs two important qualifications. First, the vernacular ways of being that we see vanishing everywhere were themselves created over time…. Second, by the very fact of their creation, the new vernaculars replaced a range of much older cultural practices. These earlier practices, which seemed to belong to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular, affiliated their users to a larger world rather than a smaller place. They were, in a sense to be argued out in this essay, cosmopolitan practices….

This quote agrees with my very democratic beliefs about languages (mother tongues/vernaculars) and my regrets that the major world languages like English might be crowding out the minority languages of the world, along with their associated literatures and views of the world.

Here is Tim Parks’ summary of Pollock: “We needn’t think about the spread of English as necessarily in conflict with the world’s vernaculars; he wants us to avoid thinking in terms of ‘either/or’ and work towards a relationship that is ‘both/and.’” That agrees with my disinclination toward structuralist approaches to language and my rejection of sharp dichotomies (if that is not a self contradiction).

So what does Parks say about vernacular vs. lingua franca in relation to translation? He makes an interesting observation, though it is not about approaches to translation. Rather, it is about original text authorship with translation in mind. Parks says that authors tend to write in a different style when they think of their language as a lingua franca than when they think of it as simply a vernacular. Or, to put it another way, if an author envisions his or her literary work being translated into other languages, that has a bearing on the writer’s style. Using a literary work written in Italian, for example, if the author’s intended audience is mother tongue speakers of Italian, the writing style will tend to take greater advantage of inwardly-turned, language-specific literary devices. However, if the author wants the work to be translated and brought to an international audience, then even if the work is written in Italian, it will be a different sort of Italian, a more easily-translated form of Italian that does not capitalize as much on language-specific literary devices. Awareness of translation and a desire to have one’s works understood as widely as possible will influence how someone writes.

Parks’ intuition (as he calls it) is that the contemporary writers he studied…

had already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things. Naturally, there was an impoverishment… but there was also a huge gain in communicability….

He observes that “there is a spirit abroad, especially in the world of fiction, that is seeking maximum communicability and that has fastened onto the world’s present lingua franca [viz., English] as something that can be absorbed and built into other vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily translated into each other.”

Parks’ essay was about the composition of original texts rather than the translation of those texts into other languages, except where he says, twice, that “the success of translation very largely depends on the levels of complexity in the original text.” His point was that as authors become aware of translation and a wider international audience, they tend to write in such a way as to make translation easier. A way of putting this is that the authors become aware of their language as being not just a vernacular, where the target audience is comprised of fellow speakers of the same language, but as a lingua franca, i.e., they are conscious of their language as a gateway for communication with speakers of other languages, through translation.

So how do we who are concerned with translation make use of this information? While it is not correct to say that some languages are vernaculars and other languages are lingua francas (except in the case of pidgins, which, by definitions are only lingua francas and not vernaculars), I think there is indeed a connection, in that translators, like authors, have to be aware of their target audience and its needs. In fact, translators have to be aware both of the original audience of the original text and of the target audience for the translation. One of the basic principles for any kind of communication is to know your audience. One of the cardinal principles of translation is to identify the target audience for the translation. It is not reasonable or wise to consider all the speakers of a certain language as being the target audience, especially in the case of a language with so many dialects and registers as English. There are translations directed toward children, translations directed toward speakers of English as a second language, translations for educated people who want to get as close to the source language as possible, translations for educated people who want to see the scriptures communicated in contemporary language, translations for reading aloud, translations for liturgical use, translations for very average North Americans without a lot of theological sophistication. It is not a matter of one-size-fits-all. In the case of English, we have so many translations of the Bible to choose from, and different translations each have at least the potential of being valid for their target audience and stated purpose. Obviously, though, translators, when going through so much effort, and publishers, when investing so much, are going to be concerned about getting as large a market share as possible.

Even in the case of languages that don’t have the luxury of multiple translations, Bible translators have to pinpoint their target audience and dialectal variety.

Vernaculars and Lingua Francas, Part One: Foundations

I have an interest in lingua francas (or linguas franca, or linguae francae, or whatever). The phrase means, literally, “language of the Franks.” The explanation is that from an Arabic perspective, all Europeans were “Franks.” In the first half of the Second Millenium, there was a specific language form called Lingua Franca, a Romance-based pidgin spoken in the Mediterranean area. The term has come to be generalized to refer to any language used for communication among a group of people who do not have a mother tongue in common.

Recently on this very blog the matter was discussed of whether one can properly translate from a vernacular into a lingua franca or vice versa. Specifically, the issue seemed to be whether one can translate from a vernacular like ancient Hebrew into a lingua franca like English without compromising the accuracy and integrity of the foreign text. The implication seemed to be that translation of this sort was not really possible. I’ll tip you off to where I am going with this by saying that I don’t see any reason why this sort of thing ought to be problematic. Of course, you have to recognize that whatever languages you are dealing with—vernaculars or linguafrancas or whatever—there is always going to be some compromise in translation. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Italian aphorism, “the translator is a traitor” or “translation is treason.” So it depends on what your purpose is. If the purpose in translating is to examine and appreciate every nuance of the source text, that is basically just impossible in translation. You would have to study the source text itself, and even then, if we are dealing with something as remote to us today as the Hebrew scriptures, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever fully recover all the information in, and surrounding, the text. But if our purpose is to treat the source text as a meaningful message to be shared—something that people need to hear, to bring a text to them that would be inaccessible to them because of linguistic and cultural differences—then translation certainly is possible, whether we are talking about vernaculars or lingua francas. What would be the status of the church today if the scriptures were not translated, because people thought it was not appropriate to do so? The history of Christianity is a history of translation. Some other time we could draw out some quotes from famous people like Jerome, Wycliffe, Erasmus, Luther, and Tyndale about the value of translating the Bible, or more contemporary figures like J.B. Phillips, Andrew Walls or Lamin Sanneh.

I will first explain my qualifications to discuss topics like lingua francas and translation into them. I’m a PhD linguist (1983) with a specialty in creole languages. When we’re discussing lingua francas, we are dealing in the area of contact languages and language contact (two slightly different things). The one language that I speak fluently other than English is St. Lucian French Creole. I speak some French and Spanish, too, and Gullah, but I speak French Creole better than I speak French. I regularly participate in conferences on pidgin and creole languages and have published some of these papers, on the topics of the grammar or the sociolinguistics of creole languages, and other papers I have presented are available in sort of a semi-published form. One of the topics I have dealt with is the translation of the Bible or other literature into creole languages, and I have presented papers like that to groups of creolists, groups of Bible translation scholars, and once as an invited lecture at the National Museum of Language. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will add that I am pretty well familiar with the basic literature on language contact, and personally know pretty much all the major players in that area, and they know me as colleague.

So let’s start by defining our terms. A vernacular language is a language that people grow up speaking as a mother tongue and as the language they are most comfortable with. It’s not a tricky thing to explain. Whether or not something is a vernacular language doesn’t depend on its internal make-up, but rather what use it is put to. English—or rather a specific dialect of Engilsh—is my vernacular. What is a lingua franca? Whenever I hear the term “lingua franca,” I automatically mentally paraphrase it as “trade language.” That is, it is a language that is not the mother tongue of a set of interlocutors, but which they use as a medium of communication. Again, the term “lingua franca” does not describe what a language is like, internally, but rather the use to which it is put.

Here is an important point: A particular language can be both a vernacular and a lingua franca. In fact, that is quite often the case. For me, English is my vernacular, but for other people, English might be a language that they use to communicate with, but it is not their mother tongue. Here’s an example. Once when I was in East Germany (you can tell this was a while back), giving a paper at an International Congress of Linguists, I went on a bus tour to Dresden at the end of the conference and sat next to a woman from Japan. She didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, but I figured out that she was a French professor back in Japan, and I speak some French. So we carried on a sort of conversation in French. For many people, French is their vernacular, but in this case, when I was talking with a Japanese woman in Germany, French was our lingua franca.

I pulled a standard reference book off my shelf entitled Pidgins and Creoles (1989, Cambridge University Press), written by my friend John Holm, and found this definition on p. 607: “Lingua Franca is the earliest known European-based pidgin: the term lingua franca (uncapitalized, often with the English plural form lingua francas) has come to mean any vehicular language used as a means of communication between two or more groups with no other language in common.” Terms like vernacular and lingua franca do not describe types of languages, but rather uses to which languages are put. English is a vernacular to many, many people, especially in North America, the U.K., and Australia, but it is also becoming increasingly a lingua franca for scholarly work, business, politics, etc.

There are two main types of lingua francas: some are languages that are used as vernaculars in other contexts, like the English and French examples I gave, and then there are pidgins, which by definition are nobody’s mother tongue. A pidgin is a language form that is not fully developed as a normal language and has no native speakers but is used as a medium of communication between groups that do not have a language in common. Note that there are some languages that have “pidgin” in the name but which are no longer pidgins, but rather have become creoles, in that over time they have become mother tongues and the language of a community. Examples are Hawaiian Pidgin or New Guinea Pidgin English. A creole language is a vernacular language that has its origin as a pidgin.

When I say there are two main kinds of lingua francas—languages that also serve as vernaculars in other contexts, on the one hand, and pidgins, on the other—I should acknowledge that there are a few exceptions that I don’t think are relevant here. An exception would be artificially created languages like Esperanto, which are not pidgins, and are not, as far as I know, anyone’s mother tongue. A creole language, however, despite its origin as a pidgin, is by definition a vernacular. As I said, creoles are my professional specialty, including translation into creoles.

I’m afraid I’m being too pedantic here, but one point is that vernacular and lingua francas are not two different types of languages, but rather two different uses to which language types are put. Any language can be a vernacular as long as it has native speakers, but it could at the same time be a lingua franca in other contexts, for other sets of people. A pidgin is a particular kind of lingua franca that does not have native speakers. Pidgins, as a specific type of lingua franca, are typologically distinctive. I could teach a graduate level course on this stuff, or give a lecture, or, in this case, try to boil it down to a short, comprehesible blog post.

There is nothing about a lingua franca that would disqualify it from being a language that you could legitimately translate into or out of. However, I will leave that discussion for part two, to follow.

Does a Translation Have to Sound like a Translation?

I raise the question of whether a translation should necessarily and inevitably sound like a translation because there are people who seem to think that this is the case. That is, since the translation takes as its starting point a text in a foreign language–if it weren’t “foreign,” we wouldn’t be translating it, would we?–and probably also takes as its point of departure different historical and cultural settings and a foreign worldview, then, according to this understanding of translation, a translation could not be faithful unless it were to retain some of that foreignness. According to this understanding of translation, domestication does violence to the translation. I disagree. This does bring us, though, to the whole question of what translation is, which we might try to explain in terms of purpose.

Let’s think about this by using a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. This book is very compelling reading. Here is a relevant sample:

By eliminating simple obedience on principle, we drift into an unevangelical interpretation of the Bible. We take it for granted as we open the Bible that we have a key to its interpretation. But then the key we use would not be the living Christ, who is both Judge and Saviour, and our use of this key no longer depends on the will of the living Holy Spirit alone. The key we use is a general doctrine of grace which we can apply as we will. The problem of discipleship then becomes a problem of exegesis as well. If our exegesis is truly evangelical, we shall realize that we cannot identify ourselves altogether with those whom Jesus called, for they themselves are part and parcel of the Word of God in the Scriptures, and therefore part of the message.

I highly recommend this book. And to merely reflect on what Bonhoeffer says would be to do negate everything he says.

But my real point in bringing this up here is to illustrate what I mean about translation. I had gotten past this point in reading the book when I started to ask myself, “Isn’t this a translation? Bonhoeffer wrote in German, didn’t he? Why doesn’t it sound like a translation?” I checked, and on the copyright page it says, “Translated from the German NACHFOLGE first published 1937… by R.H. Fuller, with some revision by Irmgard Booth.” I double checked elsewhere, and, yes, the translator was Reginald H. Fuller, though you have to look at the fine print to get this information.

I was originally hesitant to read The Cost of Discipleship because I assumed it must be very difficult to slog through, especially since so few people seem to actually read it. I’ve been surprised to discover that, whatever problem people might have in reading Bonhoeffer’s book, it is not because of the difficult language or because it reads like something that came from another language. Bonhoeffer is a very clear–though challenging–writer. You literally would not know that this is a translation. I am glad that this book reads like Bonhoeffer is a good English writer, because otherwise I would be distracted by the strangeness, in which case I might not be able to get all the way through it, or if I did, it would be arduous work. This book reads like it was written for me.

Back to Bible translation, I have dialogued in the past with someone who has a keen, though amateur, interest in Bible translation, who says that when reading the Bible (such as in English), one should have the feeling that one is reading a book that was written for someone else. In other words, my friend would insist on a foreignizing kind of translation. I disagree. One certainly could do that kind of translation if one wanted to, especially if one had in mind an audience looking for that kind of translation. But I would not agree that a translation of the Bible should necessarily sound foreign. I believe that the scriptures are for all generations, and that even though the first audience might have lived in a different culture with a different worldview and thousands of years ago, the scriptures were also written for me, and that’s why I am reading them.

I have communicated with someone else who does have a rich background of translation into other languages, and he started asking himself (and us) more recently how it can be possible to translate worldviews in the process of Bible translation. In studying the creation story in Genesis, he realized this worldview issue was so rich and deep, and yet it seemed impossible to do justice to translating worldviews in the process of translating the Bible. My response to him was that, generally speaking, the purpose of translation is not to communicate worldviews, but the text itself. In translating the scriptures, it just isn’t possible to convey everything about the worldview surrounding the original text in the translation, except maybe by using lots of footnotes.

So what is the purpose of translation? In essence, the purpose of translating is to bring a text to a new audience. The purpose of translating the Bible, specifically, is to bring the Bible to a new audience. It is to allow a new audience to “own” the text, to make it theirs. If we are talking about the epistles of Paul, for example, the purpose in translating them would be so the new audience that doesn’t know Greek can understand what Paul was saying. It may be inevitable that sometimes the message sounds foreign, but there is nothing about this that suggests that the translation should sound foreign, generally speaking. Unless, of course, someone, for some reason, set out specifically to make a foreign-sounding, special-purpose translation.

We take the Bible for granted in English. We might say, “I was reading my Bible,” referring to an English Bible, and this is perfectly appropriate. I once heard a seminary student report how the Greek professor held up an English Bible and said, “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.” Again, I disagree. If a translation of the Bible has accomplished its purpose, then the result is your Bible.

I understand that the early, Greek-speaking, church father John Chrysostom said, in reference to the Hebrew scriptures, that even though the biblical text was Jewish in origin, “The text and the meaning are ours.” That’s cool. We should all be able to appreciate the scriptures as ours. Over the past nearly 30 years I have had the privilege of helping produce translations of the Bible into several Creole language varieties. It is incredible and satisfying to hear the reactions. Here are some recent, real testimonials, from bilingual Creole/English speakers: “I had no idea how wonderful and fulfilling God’s Word could be until I began reading those words in my native tongue. It gives me a sense of ownership.” “When I heard the [Creole Gospel of John] recording I felt a personal connection to it. It just went right inside, to the deepest part of me.” “It is SO meaningful!” Here are a couple of other quotes from a little further back, translated from French Creole into English: “The work is ours, the New Testament is ours.” “We see the Word of God in our hands today, and it is in our mother tongue…. And we have already seen that there is understanding. Understanding takes place in our church when we use the Word of God in the language we are most comfortable with.”

Do you read a Bible that speaks your language? You should.

The incarnation of the Logos

There is nothing so profound and so beautiful as the beginning of John’s Gospel. Mirroring the beginning of Genesis but conscripting the language of the Greek philosophers, John begins, “In the beginning was the Logos.” My own style is more like Luke’s: “The time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was not room for them in the inn.” But I just have to marvel at the profound beauty of “And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (I’m quoting from memory here.)

Of course, we are all aware that translations usually say, “In the beginning was the Word…. And the Word became flesh….” And I’m sure we’re all aware that “Word” here is a stand-in for the Greek Logos. Logos means “word” and “word” means logos, right? This is one of those cases where human language seems inadequate, and it is not just that the Greek can’t be expressed well in translation, but that human language is inadequate to express who God is and what God has done for us. Who or what is this Logos? The Greeks knew it was out there. Just as Paul on Mars Hill met the Epicureans and Stoics where they were, and addressed their desire to honor the unknown God, John addressed the Greek sense that there was a logic to the universe, an organizing principle, a master plan, a blueprint, a perfect model from which the cosmos flowed. How to express that? To the Greeks, it was the logos. In English, we have locked in to a tradition of saying “the Word” to translate logos in John chapter 1. Is that what logos means? Well, no, if by “word” we mean a lexical unit, a minimal utterance, what goes between spaces on a written page. It is a little closer to what we mean when we say, “May I have a word with you?” (What’s the longest word in the English language? The one that comes after “And now a word from our sponsor.”) Even just looking at a single English translation–the Authorized Version–Greek logos is translated in different contexts as “word,” “cause,” “communication,” “sayings,” “account,” “talk,” “treatise,” “intent,” “tidings,” “speech,” “reason,” “utterance” and “preaching.” But “word” is used in most contexts, and that works pretty well in English, because “word” has a wide range of meanings in English, like logos in Greek, though the ranges of meaning do not map perfectly from one language to the other.

Heraclitus, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, is credited with starting to develop this concept of the logos. Then Philo worked further with the Greek philosophical concept and applied it to Jewish theology. But the Greeks saw an unbridgeable gap between the logos and the cosmos, which is only right, if you think in terms of the creation’s ability to reach out to the Creator. Philo drew a picture of the Logos as the firstborn of God, the archetype, the interpreter of God’s designs, a mediator between God and humanity who holds all things together, Platonically describing him as “a kind of shadow cast by God, having the outlines but not the blinding light of the Divine Being” (cited in the Jewish Encyclopedia, among other places).

When you think about all the rich history and philosophy behind this Greek concept of the Logos, that makes it an even more daunting task to translate it into English. It seems like “logic” would be a natural English counterpart for logos. Maybe that is too impersonal, though. How about “reasoning” or “intelligence” or “idea” or “order” or “source” or “organizing principle” or “utterance” or “discourse” or “communication” or “narrative” or “statement” or “message“? When you think about it that way, could it give a new meaning to the expression, “The reason for the season”? We’ve locked into a pretty solid tradition of saying “Word” in English, and virtually every English translation translates it that way. An exception is Phillips: “At the beginning, God expressed himself.”

In French, the Logos in the first chapter of John is translated as la Parole. I like that. Again, parole is a little difficult to translate that into English, but it means something like “(the faculty of) speech.” Some Spanish translations translate Logos here as la Palabra, which I believe fairly well corresponds to English “word.” But then these Spanish and French translations switch to using a masculine pronoun in the subsequent context to refer to a noun that is grammatically feminine. Other Spanish translations use el Verbo, continuing in the tradition of the Latin verbum.

So what did John say about this Logos? Was he just plagiarizing? No, he took the given concept of the Logos and turned it on its head: “And the Logos became flesh.” What!? That was considered impossible. Remember Philo: “a kind of shadow cast by God, having the outlines but not the blinding light of the Divine Being”? Compare John: “…and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” We have seen this Logos and have witnessed his glory. He is Immanuel, God With Us. His story is the story John is about to tell.

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.

Accurate but not Clear?

A standard that most of us who are involved in Bible translation hold to is that a translation must strive to be clear, accurate and natural. That is the ideal, though sometimes a trade-off is involved. These are the three criteria for a good Bible translation. Sometimes acceptability is added as a fourth criterion.

I want to examine the relationship between clarity and accuracy. When there have to be trade-offs in how to translate the scriptures, I believe most people would say that accuracy is the highest goal. It is possible for a translation to be clear and accurate but not natural. It is possible for a translation to be clear, accurate and natural but not acceptable (perhaps because the audience expects and wants a translation that resembles another one that they perceive as trustworthy). But I want to challenge the idea that a translation can be accurate but not clear.

I see accuracy and clarity as two sides of the same coin. Clarity always has to be with respect to someone, as in “It wasn’t clear to me.” A text, such as a Bible translation, cannot be objectively clear. The clarity always has to be with respect to a certain audience. A Bible translation might be clear, for example, with respect to an audience of Biblical scholars, but not with respect to an audience of construction workers. So to say that a translation is clear, you have to state what kind of audience it is clear to.

Communication is a two-way street, and Bible translation is a type of communication. If the intended meaning is not understood, then the communication fails. That is why we firmly believe that a translation must be tested, to ensure that the intended meaning is communicated. And to be worthwhile, the testing process requires the further step of refining the translation to the point where the intended meaning gets across.

If a translation is not understood properly by the target audience, then can it be acccurate? I would say no, because in this case the meaning that the audience gets from the translation is not accurate and complete. (Someone could say, I suppose, that a certain translation is accurate to the extent that I understand it.) When you analyze how people use the term “accuracy,” you realize that it is used to denote that what is considered the proper meaning is clear to those who are qualified to judge the validity of  a translation. “Clarity” is used to denote that that proper meaning is accessible to the target audience.

So, really, both accuracy and clarity have to do with the proper meaning being accessible in the text, but accuracy focuses on the meaning that people on the production end see in the translation (including translators and consultants and third-party critics who consider themselves competent to judge a translation), while clarity has to do with the meaning that people on the receiving end see in it. A successful translation is one where the translators’ intended meaning and the audience’s perceived meaning are in agreement, where all parties are on the same page, literally, seeing the same thing in the text.

It would be good to avoid saying of certain translations that they are accurate but not clear. If they are not clear, that means that the translation has not accomplished its purpose in getting the audience to understand the translation the way the translators intended, and that is not good. It means that the communicative purposes have not been realized. The translation then is accurate only for the translators, and not accurate for the audience.

Similarly, it is certainly problematic to say that a translation is clear but not accurate. Something in the text may be clear, but if it is not the meaning that the translators were trying to convey, then communication has broken down, and the translators and audience are seeing two different things in the text.

So accuracy and clarity are the same thing viewed from different perspectives. Let’s avoid saying that certain translations are accurate but not clear. What that really means is that the translators are confident about what the translation they produced means, but other important partners in the translation process, namely the target audience, don’t grasp the intended meaning. Maybe the audience could get the meaning of an unclear translation if it is explained to them, but then in that case you can’t say that the translation itself that is clear and accurate with respect to the target audience, but rather it is something outside the translation, such as footnotes and teaching, that fill in the communicative gaps left by the translation.

Reflections on the nature of Bible translation

I have been strangely quiet on this blog for a long time now. Part of the problem is that I don’t have much that I want to say about the particular wording of English Bible translations. I am much more interested in the bigger issues, like the philosophical, theological, theoretical, cultural and sociological dimensions of translation.

I see trust and competency as huge issues in Bible translation. The average Bible user has to trust that those who produced a certain translation are trustworthy and competent. And in fact, without an expert knowledge of biblical languages and textual criticism, the average reader of the Bible does put a great deal of trust in whoever provided the Bible version that their church recommends. That’s good. It makes sense. Trust is a good thing, assuming you trust in something that is trustworthy.

It is also easy to see a lot of mistrust these days, which is sad. Factionalism seems to be on the rise with respect to Bible translations, as it is with respect to politics. “You can trust the translation that we endorse, but don’t trust that other one. They have an agenda.” Regardless of whether I can be happy that a translation I like is at the top of the best-sellers list, or whether I can be disappointed that a translation that I wouldn’t endorse is at the top of the list, the bigger issue for me is the distrust and factionalism.

A recent development that prompts me to write is a report I heard, that seminaries are starting to develop translation courses that support their distinctive views on translation. I should be happy that translation is being taught in seminaries, but the impression I get is that these new study programs are intended to support a word-for-word approach to translation that I think is misinformed. I heard this from a colleague who is an ordained minister in one of these denominations and who is better informed about seminary and denominational trends than I am.

It looks like, rather than leading to a common understanding on the nature of Bible translation, the trend in the seminaries will lead to further factionalism. I am not an ecumenist, necessarily, but I would hope that Christians could at least agree we are all reading essentially the same Bible, even if it is in different forms.

Certain other religions and worldviews hold that holy scriptures are not translatable. For Christians, translation is integral to our view of the Bible, God, salvation and Christianity in general. The words of the scriptures are not like an incantation. It is the message the words convey that is important. As Lamin Sanneh said in his 2003 book Whose Religion is Christianity? (p. 97), “Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their Scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it.”

I read a story a few days ago that I can’t properly document right now, and it might not even be true, but it was about a woman who was so mad at her husband over their disagreement concerning the interpretation of a verse from the Bible, she scalded him with hot water while he was sleeping. Obviously, in this story, somebody’s missing the bigger picture.

As a professional linguist, I could tell you that one of the most basic things about language is that it both underspecifies meaning, and at the same time is redundant. There is more than one way to say the same thing. The redundancy and the contextual information help make up for the underspecification. There is no perfect language and there is no perfect translation. We would all be better communicators if we made an effort to understand, and didn’t use (one’s favorite translation of) the Bible as something to beat each other over the head with.