Is the Bible Translatable? Part 3

Part 1 of this overall topic I suggested options regarding the translatability of the Bible. I suggested that the Bible is translatable, meaning that the Bible translated is still the Bible. Part 2 suggests the ramifications of saying that the Bible is translatable. It is a challenging viewpoint. Abd al-Jabbar in 995 AD (reference “Translating the Message” by Lamin Sanneh) wrote considerably on (against) Christians and the “Hellenization” of the teachings of Jesus. Of course I would argue that the primary underlying purpose of Al-Jabbar’s book is to deal with the fairly obvious issue that Mohammed’s interpretation of Jesus is considerably different from the Apostle’s interpretation. Al-Jabbar argued strenuously that the problem was that Jesus was “Hellenized”— translated into Greco-Roman culture while the Quran portrays a Semitic (although not Jewish) culture. Much of the rest of al-Jabbar’s arguments appear to draw more from his personal aesthetics than logic. In other words, al-Jabbar liked the idea that God’s revelation is not, or at least should not be, translatable. If one does not share such a preference, the arguments become weaker. Since al-Jabbar had been enculturated into a language and culture quite similar to that of the original writing down of the Quran, his aesthetic preference is quite understanable… but would apply to essentially no one in the 21st century.

 

Image result for ibaloi bible
Ibaloi Translation of the Bible

 

The Bible, in my mind at least, argues strongly for God’s message being translatable.

1. Pentecost. It is sad that many miss fairly obvious point of Pentecost. Some like to take the “speaking in other languages” and ascribe it to ecstatics (in part a problem of sloppy application of 1611 lingo). In Acts 2, languages were languages and it is wonderful that this was true. How did the church start? The Holy Spirit came and filled the 120 initiating the church age. The defining character of the Pentecost was that the message of God was given to Jesus’ disciples translated into the languages (and cultures) of the different groups who were present.

The defining characteristic of the church from the start is that God’s words are God’s Words regardless of language or culture.

2. The Gospels. Jesus spoke mostly, if not completely, in Aramaic. However, all four Gospels were written in Koine Greek– the lingua franca of the common people. Church tradition says that the Gospel of Matthew was originially written in Hebrew and then later translated. There would be nothing wrong if that was true, but it seems doubtful. If one assumes that the traditional authors ascribed for each Gospel is correct, Matthew was a Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek.. Mark was a Hellenistic Jew who took the recollections of Peter, a Galilean Jew, and decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. Luke may have been Greek, but still took the eye witness accounts of Jesus life and words and translated them into common Greek. John was another Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. In other words, it is not the case that Jesus’ message and story was taken over by the Greeks. Rather, the followers of Christ, the ones who were to carry the message of Christ to the world, made a conscious choice to translate the message of Jesus into the common language of most of the known world.

The OT (Hebrew Bble) referenced in the Gospels was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The Gospel writers utilized the LXX when they were quoting the Hebrew Bible, and utilized the LXX when Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible. There was no undermining of the LXX by suggesting that it is “a translation of the message of the Hebrew Bible.”

3. Multi-cultural Bible. The Bible was written over many centuries (some suggest 1500 years… some less). During that time three languages were used: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And language even changed during that time. Even more, there were numerous cultures over all of that time (from Pre-exile, to exile, to post-exile, to Roman era Judea, to Roman era Gentile regions). At the very least, this fact rejects the idea of a sacred culture or a sacred language.

4. Jerusalem Council. Acts 15 speaks of the council regarding contextualization, or cultural translation. Can a Christian be culturally Greek and be a Christian, or must he (or she) become culturually Jewish. The council decided that based on the works of the Holy Spirit with the Samaritans, Cornelius and family, and in Antioch and Asia Minor, God accepted Gentiles as followers of Christ without taking on Jewish culture.

It would be hard to make the argument that cultural translation is blessed by God while believing that language translation is not.

This is not to say that there are not risks of cultural distortion. I would argue that the doctrine of the Impassibilty of God has more to do with Greek ideals (and reimforced by Islamicist ideals) than what the Bible actually describes. Present American Christian culture seems, in my mind at least, to see Jesus as a White upper-middle class Republican. We have to be careful of cultural distortion… but such distortion doesn’t negate the value of translation.

5.  Babel Narrative. In Genesis is the story of God confusing the languages. As Evangelicals, we would take this story as historical. Some read the story as a punishment. However, that doesn’t seem to be the big issue. The people were supposed to multiply and spread all over the earth. They refused so God gave them different languages so that they would naturally separate based on different languages, than became the basis, presumably, for language families. But note that language diversity happens naturally when groups are isolated. If they obeyed God and spread out naturally, their languages would have diverged from each other. They refused so God divided their languages and then they spread out. Either way, it was God’s desire for language and cultural diversity.

6.  Revelation 7:9 speaks of the ideal setting of worship— around the throne of God. It is a balancing of unity and diversity. United in the act of worship and the object of worship. They were also united in message, clothing, and at least one aspect of action (waving palm branches). Here however, is where the unity stops. In terms of diversity, the crowd is composed of all nations (ethnic groups), tribes (‘phylon’), peoples, and languages. The last one, languages, could simply point to the diversity. But it also could point out that all different languages are included in the worship. I don’t know, but drawing from the Pentecost event, I would like to see it as evidence of language diversity, not simply diversity of people.

I will stop here. The impact of translation on people’s lives around the world could argue in favor of the translatability of the Bible. One could also point out that cultures often appear to open people up to the gospel rather than inhibit it. But I will leave that for others to consider. Ultimately, The Bible is translatable and still be the Bible. That is a good thing for us since the languages and cultures of the Bible are gone.

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.

Is the Bible Translatable? Part I

Is the Bible translatable? Now when I am asking that, I am not asking whether the words of the Bible can be translated into another language. I am asking:

  • Can the Holy Bible be translated into another language and still be the Holy Bible.
  • Can the Bible be translated and still be reliable?

These two questions are related. If the Bible is reliable and it is remains the Bible after translated, then the Bible is reliable in translation. There are two options. Option 1 is NO. Option 2 is YES.  I divide Option 1 into two sub-options. One simply remains NO while the other is Yes…. but NO.

I believe that the Bible is translatable (Option 2), partly because of internal affirmation of this point. But first it is only fair to look at the options. Then in part 2 I  consider the pretty strong consequences of such a view, and finally in Part 3 I look at why (I believe) that such a view is accurate.

OPTION 1. NO. The Bible is not translatable. There are then two sub-options.

Sub-Option 1A (Simply No). The Quran route. In classic Islam, the Quran is untranslable, inerrant, and always has been (uncreated) in 7th century Arabic. The recitations may be translated in the sense that its content can be put into a different language, but it cannot be described as being truly the Quran. It is now “a translation of the message of the Quran.” Of course, one might actually ask the question of whether the Quran meets that criteria itself of not taking other source materials and translating and redacting them into 7th century Arabic. But textual criticism and the Quran is a touchy matter for some and I will leave that for those who are more skilled in it (and more cautious in their media outlets). In classic Islamic sense, any translation of the Quran is not the Quran. Fairly simple.

Sub-Option 1B. Christians generally are more subtle in this one. Few say that the Bible is the Bible only if it is in its autograph languages (Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). What some Christians do is more of a Yes…. but NO.  For them, the Bible can be translated into another language… but that translation is essentailly part of the Holy Spirit’s work to preserve the message. In line with that, certain translations are blessed with an inerrant quality that puts them above criticism. These may include the Septuagint, Vulgate, Textus Receptus (compiled Greek), and KJV. Consider the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX the “official” Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible was, according to Rabbinical tradition, created by 70 rabbis translating for 70 days. After 70 days each of the rabbis brought his translation of the entire Hebrew Bible out to share with the other rabbis. To their amazement, all of the translations were exactly identical. Now, like with the Quran, we are not considering the historicity of such a belief… but the implications of such a belief. For 70 to all translate identically is absolutely improbable… ridiculous… on a human level. What is being said is that the LXX was not actually translated by man, but “RE-REVEALED” by God. The same logic has been applied to the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the Bible, as well as the Textus Receptus (Greek), and the King James Version (“AV 1611”). The argument is that the translation was not actually a human activity so much as a re-revealing of inerrant divine word. I think you can see why this re-revelation option is still pretty similar to the Quran option. Even though there may be Bibles in different translations, strictly speaking, the Bible (as in God’s revealed revelation) only exists in one, two, or three, or so specially inspired versions. Anything diverging from that is a human construct and not to be trusted. This sub-option is more subtle than 1A, but not much.

Option 2. Yes. The Bible is Translatable. To say that the Bible can be translated and still be the Bible does not negate the possibility of special status for the original revelation. One might say, for example, that the Bible is “Reliable” (or some other word suggesting that the Bible exists as a historic revelation given or inspired by God) in its original manuscripts (in their original languages), but it is possible to bring message forward into new languages accurately enough to be considered Reliable… and not something lesser. Again, I am not going to go into issues of inerrancy and reliability… but rather consider the implications that I believe follow from saying that translation of the Bible is possible and it still being the Bible.

In the next post, we will look at the ramifications of the belief that Yes, the Bible is translatable.