Lecture 28: Translation Philosophy
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Translation Philosophy
I. The Nature of Language
We are going to talk about translation. I never set out to do translational work but I got a New Testament chair along with my dad for translating the ESV and that went on for about ten years. Translation work is one giant Bible study. There were fifteen people on the NIV committee that I was on and there were some of the smartest people I have ever met. People who can remember what Hebrew preposition was translated what way in whatever verse. NIV meets every summer for at least a week and they just keep working on text. It is a good process and I enjoy it.
So, what are we going to accomplish today? We need to talk first about the nature of language. Now, it would really help me to know how many of you know a second language. It is really hard to talk about translation if you don’t know the nature of language. I have twelve principles of translation that we are going to cover and then we are going to play stump the translator, which is a very dangerous thing to do because I’m sure you have questions that I do not know the answers to, but I will do the best I can.
How do we communicate? The Bible is communication from God. There are bits and pieces that go together that enable us to communicate, first of which are words. We have to used words; it is not enough to have the words by themselves; you have got to have grammar. You have got to have some way for the words to make sense. Even Yoda from the Star Wars movies uses grammar, even though it is different grammar. You can see how he strings his words together and how they make sense. But there is another vital part of the communication process and that is the context. What is this? There is a verbal context and a cultural context; there is a lot more to communicating than just hearing words; the word in front the verb does the action of the verb and the word after the verb receives the action. But there is way more than that; there is all the culture and the body language and all these things together are how we communicate with one another.
Let’s talk about words; words are not code and this was the first thing I had to learn about in Greek. For some reason, I thought that whatever there was in English, there would be an equivalent in Greek, like Morse code. Bill, for example, in Morse code would be ‘Da, di, di, dit – di dit – di da di dit – di da di dit.’
That is all I remember, but I know that is my name in Morse code. I just assumed in Greek, the beta would be two shorts and a long or something. I just thought that there would be that kind of equivalent between languages. And I learned very quickly that languages are not codes; vocabulary is not code. There are no exact equivalences from one language to another. And that is what starts to make translations difficult. Words have a bundle of meanings; think of all the ways you can use the word ‘can’. My supervisor used to say that Americans eat what they can and can what they can’t. He was Scottish. Think of the way you use the word ‘run’. You can run a race, you can run a company or you can run up a bill. These words all have a very wide range of meanings and the problem is that there is no word in one language that exactly represent the range of meaning of another word in another language has. So we get a word in Greek that has all these different meanings. And what word is getting used to convey that word in English. There isn’t a word and that is the problem. Within the history of the NIV, one of the things we caught a lot of flak with was the translation of the Greek word ‘sark’. This is one of Paul’s primary terms and it can mean meat, it can refer to a human body, it can refer to our sinful nature; Paul has about eight different ways he uses this word. So we look at this word that Paul using in the New Testament and we wish that we could say ‘sark’ in English. Or the word for Holy Spirit, it is parakletos. Parakletos is someone who comes alongside you to help. So, in John, we can translate it as helper. But that is not all there is to it because there are other connotations connected with parakletos. We don’t have the exact word in English. I have seen some translations just say parakletos, because we give up trying to find the correct English word to convey its meaning. So that is the problem we have; we use words to communicate but we don’t have exact equivalences from one language to another language. So this is the first problem.
The second problem is that we communicate with grammar and grammar likewise doesn’t have an exact equivalent. Languages put their words together differently and this introduces all kinds of issues of ambiguity and confusion. For example, when we first translated 1st Timothy, we said ‘in accordance with glorious Gospel of the blessed God’; a perfectly good translation. That is initially how the ESV came out. Well, we got a letter from a certain well-known pastor in Minnesota who is all about the Gloria God. John Piper didn’t like that translation and like any good translation committee, we listen to people. You need to know that the ESV committee does listen to people. When you send your complaint or suggestions to the NIV committee, every single one is looked at. Dug Moo, the head of the NIV translation committee will sift through them. If it is a good suggestion and one that we haven’t looked at, we end up looking at it closer. John wrote us and said that the problem is that this could also be translated, ‘in accordance with the Gospel of the Glory.’ John is all about glory and he wants every verse about glory that he can get in the Bible. We listened to him and in this case, we decided that he was right. So somewhere in the publishing cycle of the ESV, this got changed. Well, what does it say? Does it say glorious Gospel or does it say the Gospel of the glory? The answer is ‘whatever’. It is perfectly legitimate to go either way in Greek. So, when we talk about, not only vocabulary but grammar, they are not codes. And every language puts it words together differently and so it introduces these kinds of ambiguous problems. And then you add to this, the issue of context.
We are two thousand years removed from the New Testament; we don’t live in a situation where there are native ancient Greek speakers. Modern Greek is significantly different from Biblical Greek; in fact classical Greek from about 800 BC is taught as a foreign language in Greece today. The language has
evolved and changed like Chaucer in Middle English which is also a foreign language compared to English today. Languages change; so even if you knew Modern Greek, it would not help you very much with Biblical Greek. And we live in different cultures; all of these things change. 1st Corinthians 11 talks
about wearing hats and the sign of authority. The problem is that culturally hats weren’t the issue; the issue was how a lady wore her hair. You have noticed pictures of Greek ladies and their hair is always pulled back tight. That is what you did to indicate you were married. If you were a prostitute and looking for business, you let your hair go loose; that was the signal that you were available. And apparently, what was going on in the Corinthian church, the people felt that they were free in Christ and that meant free from all restrains and so they were wearing their hair loose, dressing like prostitutes. Now, if you are not aware of that culturally; when you come to 1st Corinthians 11 and the Greek can go both directions. It doesn’t say hats; it has to do with hair and the way you wear your hair. We just live in a different culture and these are just snippets of the kinds of problems we have in the whole area of communication, trying to see what God originally said. So with words, there is the grammar of the culture and how do you bring that into our own culture. There is a Latin proverb that says, ‘translators are traders’ and this is certainly true. Translators are traders to the meaning of words. It is impossible to be exact in taking what was said in one language and say it exactly in another language.
If you listen to instantaneous translators, they always take longer to say it in a foreign language. They are trying to say everything that is being said in the spoken language; you can’t say it with the same words and the same number of words. The problem is that we end up, either over translating or under-
translating. Under-translating has to do with not bringing all the meaning into English. In Roman 6:15 for an example; Paul is dealing with the issue of ongoing sin in the life of a believer. And he asks the question, should we continue in sin so grace can abound. NASB translate 6:15 as, what then, shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? One of the strongest ways to say no in Biblical Greek is me ginoita (means - don’t even think about it). So how do you translate this? The NASB says, ‘may it never be.’ ESV says, ‘by no means.’ It’s not really English; who says ‘by no means?’ The NLT says, ‘of
course, not.’ I think the King James Version has the best translation, ‘God forbid.’ But the word God isn’t in the Greek and forbid isn’t in the Greek either.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we have, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth.’ Did you know that all the verbs are imperatives in the Lord’s Prayer? We are calling on God to act, ‘Our Father, who is in heaven, may your name be hallowed.’ May your name be treated as holly; may you act in my life and through me in my community in a way that people will know that you are a holy God. This is what that means. It doesn’t mean simply, your kingdom come, but instead, ‘God, send your kingdom;’ send your dynamic rule in my life and may it pervade my life and may it affect everyone I touch. May your kingdom grab power in my life and those around me? Every time you say the Lord’s Prayer, you are calling on God to act. So we have these horrible indicatives of how this is translated. I lost the vote on this one. So, we tend to under-translate; we rarely over-translate. Sometimes I would like to say that language strings one ambiguity one after another. That is what it feels like at times. I think sometimes, ‘Paul, can you just say something clearly and precisely?’ The answer to that question is, ‘welcome to language.’ This is the challenge we have with translation work.
II. Translation Philosophy
So what happens is that every committee establishes a translation philosophy. These philosophies will kind of move and shake; it will change over the decades with the different translators. But for the most part, the translations we have, they all have a philosophy. I don’t think it generally stated, except perhaps in the preface sometimes. The ESV has a good statement. The job of the translator is to be consistent. This is why I can do the ESV and I can do the NIV both. These are really different translations. My goal isn’t to convince or push one over the other, but instead to be consistent with the translation philosophy. In considering these philosophies, the question is, what do you want your translators to do? For example, often, people say that they want a literal Bible. The word ‘literal’ shows the basic problem with people's understanding of that word. Most people think in terms of being word for word and also in terms of form. However, this is not the meaning of the word; Webster says it has to do with the primary meaning of the word or words. It is not figurative or metaphorical. In other words, a literal translation translates history as history, metaphors as metaphors, similes as similes, figures of speech as figures of speech, but it is not word for word. Some think that if the Greek has eight words, they want eight words in English. They think of literal in those kinds of grammatical categories. So literal means that the author had intent; the author is trying to say something. My job as a translator, your job as a Bible student is to know exactly what the author intended to say. Now, if you want to go word for word, here is John 3:16 in word for word, ‘in this way, for he loved God the world that to son, to only he gave, so that every, the believing one wanted him not perish, but have life eternal.’ When we say literal, we mean that we want to know exactly what the author intended. So whatever it takes to convey the same ideas and the same meanings, that is the kind of Bible that we want to deal with. That brings up the second important point.
All translations are interpretive. Because of the nature of communication and words and grammar and living in different cultures, all Bibles are interpretive. There are people who think that their Bibles are inspired; it is the only Bible there is. They think that if their Bible is good enough for Paul, it is good enough for us. The idea is that one translation is the inspired translation or version and everything else is a perversion of it. That just isn’t true; there is no Bible that isn’t interpretive. Everyone make thousands of interpretive decisions. In Matthew 2:2, ‘where is he who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’ The ESV says, ‘for we saw his star when it rose.’ But what does this mean? We are not used to that. Well, because of the rotation of the earth, stars do rise in the east. This is probably what the Greek means. In other words, the wise men saw this star when it first appeared on the horizon; it was a new star. They weren’t used to it. Here, you have to interpretive. There is no way in English to explain this; you have to go one way or the other. In Colossians 1, Paul’s prayer, ‘may you be strengthened with all power, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father.’ But, if you read the NIV, it says, ‘being strengthened with all power so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father.’ This is an interpretive decision where the prepositional phrase modifies the preceding or the following. Greek prepositions can go both directions; they don’t care one way or the other. But how much of a decision do you make? How interpretive do you want to be?