Is the Bible Translatable? Part 2


This is part 2. Part 1 speaks of different views of translatability. This part looks at some practical reasons to accept the translatability of the Bible.

St. Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin

A. Since translation always happens anyway, recognizing the validity of translation helps ensure that distortion is minimized. This sounds backwards. Those who support the untranslatability of Scripture (whether it be Bible, Quran or something else) often do so with the tacit assumption that doing so removes or limits distortions. However, translation happens whether one acknowledges it or not. It happens either by skilled translaters or unskilled readers. If a person ls immersed in one culture/language and must interpret a holy writ in another language, translation still happens… but it is in the mind of the reader. The problem is that not all are equally competent of converting a less familiar language, and its associated subtlety of culture, into their own understanding. There are two ultimate choices one can make:

Translation by experts in translation versus translation by amateurs

Translation that is done and honored versus translation that is done and is disregarded

B. The Word of God is, for practical purposes, NOT the Word of God to a person who cannot understand it. When there is a language/culture gap between the Word and the recipient, the communication error is a failure of neither… unless translation is rejected and the reader is expected to do the change. I am not pulling a Neo-Orthodox inspired idea here. I am simply saying that if the message is so distorted in the mind of the reader or hearer, what they have in their mind is not God’s Word, but an untrustworthy distortion of God’s Word.

For example (considering the Quran for the moment), if a person speaks only American English, then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are a hindrance to receiving the message of the Quran. Even if the Quran is “translated” into contemporary American English, it is not considered the Quran but something else. Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the Quran? It had no choice what language it was recited/recorded in. Is it the fault of those who are English-speaking Americans? No. It is the fault of those who won’t translate or won’t stand by their translation… yet do (effectivly) stand by the internal translation of untrained strangers.

Additionally, if a person speaks only American English then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are also a hindrance to receive the message of the Bible, IF the latest “real” Bible is AV-1611 (or perhaps one of its 18th century editings). The cultural (and language) gap between 1611 and 2014 must be overcome to understand the language. In the Philippines there are “KJV-only” churches. Many of the preachers and membership struggle with a dual language gap— mentally converting 1611 English into Filipino English and then into a Filipino heart language. There is a lot of place for error on that torturous route.

C. If the Bible is translatable, it is NOT appropriate to think of certain sacred languages or cultures. While in Islam there may be something sancrosanct in the culture and language from which the Quran was recited (or developed), with the Bible should hold no such sacred status. The Pre-exilic culture of Israel, the exilic culture of the Jews in Babylon, the post-exilic culture of Judea, and the Hellenized-Latinized culture of the Eastern Mediteranean in the first century are no more holy in culture or language than any other (although I do find some Christian groups here in the Philippines who seek to embrace a faux Hebraism because they think it is untainted by cultural distortion… not considering whether labeling a different culture as God-blessed is already a distortion of the message). God gave his message into and through those particular cultures… but the message could have come to and through any culture and have enriched it and have been enriched by it.

D. Related to the prior, if there are no sacred cultures, but find God working in several cultures… PERHAPS God is working in all cultures. And if God is working in all cultures… then translation, drawing as it does from the symbolic wealth of language and culture of a people, potentially involves taking the revelation of God and combining in a positive not destructive manner with the present work of God.

This suggests that if the Bible is translatable, we need a more dynamic view of inspiration. For Option 1A, such as the Quran, inspiration is dictation and occurring only once. For Option 1B, KJV-only, rabbinical view of the Septuagint and such, the inspiration may happen more than once but is limited and people are still likely to have a more passive role in the process. But if the Bible is God’s revelation that is being translated with reference to God’s work in a culture, then for the translated work to be still considered the Bible, the work is a divine partnership. On some level good translation involves divine partnership… a form of inspiration/illumination— a dynamic process of bringing God’s meaning out in different words.

E. Translation suggests that there is a message in the Word that is Supracultural. For example, when the 23rd Psalm describes God as my shepherd and I am one of His sheep, this is an ancient Semitic metaphor. When translated into a different culture, a different metaphor may be more understandable. Yet saying so only makes sense if one understands that language is culturally informed symbolism. Behind the symbolism is a core message. The process of translation helps us separate between the message (God as one who loves me and cares for me personally and sacrificially) and word (God as a Jewish sheepherder).

Now these points may seem strange, but I believe there are reasons, primarily in the Bible itself, for believing that God’s message is translatable. That will be in the next post,  Part 3.

One thought on “Is the Bible Translatable? Part 2

  1. Pingback: A Holy and Wholly Translatable Bible – MMM — Munson Mission Musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s