Translators Are Traitors

August 28, 2009

The title is an Italian proverb. It’s a reminder that translating from one language to another often evokes strong feelings. Strong feelings are especially involved when the translation is the Bible. One story from church history illustrates this. When Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was read in one North African church for the first time, a riot ensued. Of course, the Vulgate went on to become a standard translation for more than a millennia and is still used today.

Many of us can remember a time when most people would have been reading from the same translation – the King James Version (although Roman Catholics at that time would have been reading the Douay-Rheims). Now different translations are the norm.

I want us to be Bible readers, but I also want us to be wise students as we deal with the situation of multiple translations. Accuracy is important. It does matter to me whether I’m reading God’s word or the faulty opinion of a translator. The final court of appeal in translation issues is the Bible in the original languages, which is why I study Greek and Hebrew. I realize that not everyone has the time or inclination for that, but many helps exist in English to go back to the original. It is not an impossible task.

Having read the Bible in multiple translations, the good news is that translations agree more than they disagree. You don’t have the impression that you are reading different books. Where they disagree, often they are bringing out different possible nuances in words. Noting differences and studying them can lead to fruitful discoveries.

Two different approaches to translating are used, and it is important to know which approach was used in the Bible you are reading. They are formal equivalence and functional (or dynamic) equivalence. Formal equivalence attempts to be a literal as possible. It attempts to match as closely as possible the forms of the original (word for word, verb for verb, noun for noun, etc.) with the forms of the receptor language (the language of the translation, which in our case is English). Functional equivalence attempts to elicit the same meaning of the original in language forms that are natural to the receptor language.

The extreme end of formal equivalence is found in an interlinear. The English gloss under the original language in an interlinear is extremely difficult to read except for checking a word. Formal equivalence translations can be difficult to read so that we fail to get a meaning or we get the wrong meaning because the language is unnatural to us. The extreme end of functional equivalence is unduly free. Unduly free means that the translator misrepresents the original. I think some paraphrases definitely fall into the category of unduly free. All functional equivalent translations may have places where they have been unduly free. It is important to know what kind of translation you are reading. If it is formal equivalence, you may find some phrases that are harder to understand than normal English. If it is functional equivalence, you may have something that is not faithful to the original.

 What is the English Bible reader to do? I hope to sort some of this out in a series of articles. What should you do now? Keep reading the Bible, and read the preface of the translation you are using. Find out what approach the translators are using.

In the House of Mourning

August 17, 2009

Ecclesiastes has a counterintuitive proverb:

 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2, ESV

Obviously, it would be more fun to go to the house of feasting, and Ecclesiastes is not opposed to enjoyment. In fact, enjoyment is a gift of God (3:13). Yet, the house of mourning teaches us the brevity of life. Death may come suddenly, or it may be expected with the decline of aging or the wasting away from disease. But unless the Lord returns first, we will all die.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a celebrity or ordinary, wealthy or poor, wise or foolish. Death is a reality of life. The speaker of Ecclesiastes struggles looking at life under the sun. I suspect “under the sun” may suggest life from merely this world’s point of view. From that vantage point, we hear him lament:

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.Ecclesiastes 2:15-17, ESV

Although there are frustrations with life under the sun, life in this physical world, Ecclesiastes points us beyond it to a relationship with God. The final chapter encourages, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth…” (12:1, ESV). Especially remember God before the decline of aging sets in. Ecclesiastes paints a vivid picture of aging with imagery from village life. Or at least remember God “before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken” – in other words, before death.

The reason for this command is that there is a purpose to life.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, ESV

 What is the lesson that we should learn in the house of mourning? Prepare for death by living life to the glory of God. Don’t miss the whole purpose of life.