Friday, August 12, 2011

Beware the translator who interprets!!!

Last week a church leader sent out a warning in a sermon
"Watch out for when Bible translators start interpreting the text for you"
"They want to be bible teachers instead of translators".
"Avoid dynamic equivalence!"

The claim that a bible translator would 'sometimes' be just translating, and 'sometimes' be interpreting is absurd.
All translation always requires interpretation all the time.
A (good) translator will always be paying attention to co-textual and contextual factors in the text's language and in the receptor language, and will ALWAYS make interpretive decisions. As a preacher, you may disagree with some of those interpretive decisions, but you cant escape the interpretive process itself.

I pointed out to the church leader that the language teachers at the theological college I attended generally think his warning is absurd. Hilarious. There is no such thing as 'avoiding dynamic equivalence' or 'accuracy to the greek'.

He responded that he was ' just a preacher, trying to teach his congregations from the greek text, and I don't want to take the bible out of my peoples hands'. I understand his frustration. There is always more going on in a greek text than an English translation can render, there is always more that we would love to pass on. I hate correcting a translation, and generally try to avoid it, teaching what I think is going on, without mauling the text. But underlying his answer seems to be an understanding of translation that is outdated and flawed.
It is the idea that there is a direct, one to one semantic fit between greek words and 21st century english. So, if a gar is in the text, there must be a for in the English. The idea is that translators translate words, not texts. It is a philosophical idea that meaning is essentially bound in words rather than in their combination. It is tied into the fact that most readers of koine greek learn greek from flash cards and lectionaries, and then think that by doing so 'they understand greek', (and also think that their understanding of greek is pure, unmediated by scholarship, when centuries of scholarship lie behind their learning).
The reason language teachers laugh at this idea is because it isn't how language works. You can attempt to have a 'word for word translation', the only thing you will lose is any coherent meaning.
And this is (partially) the solution of those who claim to have a 'word for word' translation. They don't really, what they have is a translation into a third language (the church leader called this 'trans-english'), which nobody speaks or hears, which can then be mediated to people by Bible teachers. You either take the Bible out of peoples hands (since it speaks a different language to them, they are foreigners to it), or you teach your people a different language (trans-english) that makes them foreigners to everyone who isn't sitting under this teacher (only when they talk about God, indeed this church leader later lamented that 'we speak a different language' to the people around us. ). That is, when you read a passage of the Bible that is in trans-English, to those who do not understand it, you are speaking in tongues in the assembly. You are a foreigner to them, and you speak God's judgement (go check out 1 Corinthians 14, humourously, this was the passage the church leader was speaking on!!).
One of the key features of the New Testament writings is that they are not esoteric. They seem to be written to communicate, that is, they seem to be written to be understood. Any so called 'translation' that misses this is in no way accurate to the original text, however 'word for word' it may be.


Mike B said...

It was not a happy conference for you, was it my friend?

I also try to avoid correcting the text, because I don't want people to think reading their own bibles would be a waste of time. But man, the NIV makes things hard sometimes (maybe I'd find the ESV does too, if I had to preach from that).

Mike W said...

it was good to catch up with guys and bookclub was great.

The NIV does make it tricky sometimes. I wonder whether you just have to be willing to look like the heretic. That is, preach your sermon from your grasp of the greek, and then when some young punk pulls you up because you aren't sticking to the text, then pull out your greek.

Matt Steele said...

Hey is that me in the back row?