Weird books in normal language

John Hobbins recently commented:

It’s important to me that we understand that the Bible is a weird book that teaches things at great odds with the way we believe and the way we do things. A quaint translation like RSV or ESV helps in making that understood. The conclusion many people draw from reading a translation that sounds familiar is that the text is on their side. An unintended consequence, but still: translation FAIL.

I must disagree, and I have an example. Unless you’re familiar with new world order, reptilian and zionist conspiracy theories the following quote from David Icke will surely be one of the weirdest things you read today. The worldview of modern conspiracists is hugely conceptually distant from the worldview of non-conspiracists – a distance that I think would rival the distance we are from the Biblical days. Conspiracists must have a completely different and foreign way of viewing the world around them, of governments and businesses, of the past and their hopes/fears for the future. But despite that distance, David Icke is able to express his views in ways which an outsider like me can understand. I perhaps might not fully understand the total significance of everything he says (significance in the context of his writings and those of others who share his views), but I can understand what this paragraph itself is saying.

The members of this Elite are either direct incarnations of the fourth-dimensional Prison Warders or have their minds controlled by them. The aim of the Brotherhood and its interdimensional controllers has been to centralise power in the hands of the few. This process is now very advanced and it is happening on a global scale today thanks to modern technology. The game-plan is known as the Great Work of Ages or the New World Order, and it presently seeks to introduce a world government to which all nations would be colonies; a world central bank and currency; a world army; and a micro-chipped population connected to a global computer. What is happening today is the culmination of the manipulation which has been unfolding for thousands of years. [Source]

John argues that nonstandard language helps make a text’s foreignness apparent, but I disagree: it’s foreignness will be easily apparent even if it uses standard language. No matter what language is used, if that foreignness isn’t apparent then that is a mark of a poor translation.

What we’re talking about here is the concept of reference: language can be seen as symbols which refer to real world, or conceptual, things (the referent). But one of the beauties of natural human language is that a fairly small set of symbols have the capacity to refer to an almost limitless number of things. And as the purpose of language is to communicate new things, most of the things which we refer to are actually new. Sometimes what is new is only the connection between two facts we already know, or is only the knowledge of a new specific something for which we know lots about the generic something, but often what is communicated to us is entirely new. For example, think about when you learnt about a new gadget, like an iPad. Many gadgets are variations on a theme, but some perform totally new functions for totally new purposes. And while we may need to learn a new noun or two, we can learn about these things with our normal language. But what John is effectively arguing is that weird referents require weird references.

We may have to learn many more new things all at the one time when we read the Bible, but that doesn’t require weird language. All human languages have the capacity to express the new concepts which the Bible teaches, although for convenience’s sake sometimes a few new words, introduced by the language’s existing conventions for introducing jargon, can help. Keep your symbols familiar, even if what they reference is not!

In which the jargon takes over

In general I don’t like Biblish – it’s not the language I speak nor is it the language of those I’d hope to introduce to God. Biblish is marked by strange or ungrammatical language choices and is often insensitive to idioms. And it’s vocabulary? Obscure, transliterated, oblivious to polysemy and maybe even archaic.

But over at God Didn’t Say That Peter Bishop made an insightful comment:

If the Greek “baptizo” had been translated as “submerse” from the beginning–or if it were adopted now and became the accepted standard for a few centuries–wouldn’t “submerse” come to have the same technical meaning that “baptize” does today? “Submerse” would start out as a faithful and accurate translation, but after a while it will become incorrect usage for anyone to talk of submersing pickles, just as today it would be incorrect to talk of baptizing them. The technical meaning of the _act_ of baptism is so ingrained in our culture that when _any_ word is wedded to that act, the act will subsume the entire meaning of the word long before the word has had a chance to shed any light on the act.

This got me thinking: how much has Biblish taken over English? How many English words have become technical religious jargon? How many times has the main meaning of a word become that of Biblish, even for those who aren’t fluent in Biblish? And what does this mean for our attempts at Biblish-less translations? (A related question: how should we translate what was clearly jargon to begin with?)

I’m on the look out now for terms which still communicate clearly and haven’t become religious jargon. I thought I’d start with Wikipedia, though I’ve been disheartened to see how few words qualify. Here’s my list for now (note it’s quite subjective, and you may have a different opinion about what is jargon and what isn’t):

  • blood, as in Jesus’ blood
  • end times
  • eternal life
  • proselyte
  • resurrection

Can you think of other words which aren’t Biblish jargon and still communicate clearly? Which Biblish words can you not think of non-Biblish alternatives for?