Have you read the Bible?

Most people would say, “Of course I’ve read the Bible.” Some might add something like, “I read it in a different version every year.” But this brings to mind the seminary professor who pointed to a copy of the Bible in English and said to his students, “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.” How do you respond to that? Should we acknowledge, “Well, that’s what I really meant when I said I had read the Bible”?

I’m going to argue that when you have read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible, and it doesn’t have to be qualified. This raises questions, though, that linguists, theologians and philosophers might argue about. It raises questions about the nature of meaning, communication and identity. These are questions that I have been trying to come to grips with, and my first published paper on the subject should be coming out in 2009, for a technical audience. I am coming up with a definition of translation that I, at least, find satisfying, and the feedback I have gotten is that it works, more or less, for some others as well. This isn’t the place to wax too philosophical, but I will get back to the point by saying that, according to my view, when a book has been successfully translated, then the translation becomes a substitute for the original, for a new audience. So a translation of the Bible is the Bible.

I appreciate the insights expressed in the original preface of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible:

“We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession… containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere…. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it.

I would agree with these very self-aware 17th Century translators that, even if a translation isn’t somehow “perfect,” if you’ve read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible. Similarly, if you have read, for example, War and Peace in English, you have read Tolstoy’s book, or if you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls in French, you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Now, I have another point to make about this identity issue that I will get to in part two, and I will just give you a preview here: the message is to lighten up. In English, because there is such a large market, we are privileged to have all kinds of translations of the Bible, sometimes with different translation philosophies behind them. If the Bible in English is the Bible, then how do you make sense of the variety of expressions? Is only one right and all the others wrong? Or do all translations sharing a certain philosophy contend for being called “right” while another set is “wrong”? Or should every translation be considered imperfect, yet varying in degree of closeness to the (unobtainable) ideal?

In trying to answer these questions about variety and good vs. bad translation, in part two of this message I am going to bring in some theological factors that I believe are well-grounded and not speculative. The result may surprise you.

18 Comments

  1. Cam McVey
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with both the 17th Century translators and yourself because, for me, it’s the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment that it the true ‘translation’ bringing meaning to everything from the KJV to The Message.

  2. Don
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Given that there are so many translations out there, and that some disagree with others on some verses, I do not see what point you are trying to make. I do believe God can use anything, even a bad translation, to speak to us; but we should prefer good over bad.

  3. David Frank
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    First, to Cam McVey, your comments lead in to what I wanted to say next. We must be on the same wavelength. Look forward to part two, with more of the theological implications.

    Next, to Don, yes, we should prefer good over bad. And I don’t mean to deny that there is such a thing as a bad translation. But of course there are lots of translations from the same source text that are not necessarily ranked in terms of good or bad, but are still different. I’m going to have to address the issue you raise about how a translation might be judged to be “bad.” Or we might call them mistranslations. I have in mind three ways that a translation can be “bad,” which I will explain, but mistranslations aren’t really what I am intending to deal with here. I might say, though, that I think it is possible for translations to disagree in terms of hermeneutics without one being good and the other being bad.

  4. Mike Sangrey
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Dave, this is great, and I’m looking forward to this topic.

    I have a question given the comments thus far:

    Given the dichotomy between the subjective and the objective, how do I know when the enlightenment is from the Holy Spirit and when it is me injecting into the meaning my own intentions?

    Personally, I think the answer to that question has everything to do with how a text builds up meaning through the cohesive properties of a text and the coherence in the mind that the cohesion develops. Details can differ (though not radically) and yet the result is identical to the original. Thus, I’m in agreement with where you are headed, even though I might arrive there over a different path.

    In other words, I’d love to see you interact with the following:

    God has built language to not work like adding word-brick to word-brick until the meaning-wall is built. He has built language much more like the pouring together of various kinds of somewhat viscous liquids that harden as they mingle and intertwine and even change each other. It’s the cohered result that should accurately match the original meaning even though the details within it can vary. Whether those details be the obvious differences between source text and destination text, or the more controversial differences between translations.

  5. EricW
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a relevant subject for break-time and evening discussions at the ETS Conference in Providence, Rhode Island, next week, as the Conference topic is “Text and Canon.” The NT authors’ view and use of the LXX as an “inspired” text (i.e., the God-breathed text of 2 Timothy 3:16), resulting in it becoming part of their own “inspired” words, seems to support the idea that a translation can be as much the Word of God as the “original.” Kind of a sticky wicket, though.

  6. Don
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    My take is that ANY translation IS an interpretation, in effect the translator(s) is/are trying to get the reader to agree with their interpretation, to make that as easy as possible. So it behooves the reader to know where the translator is coming from, what perspective they have.

  7. David Frank
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Don, you, too, are anticipating what I was planning to say next. I, too, think that any translation is an interpretation. I am very interested in this question of our unavoidable human subjectivity, and how God can work through that.

    In terms of the responsibility of the translators to be honest about their biases, that, too, relates to what I was going to say about the three types of bad translation.

    I’m new to this blogging business, so I am going to have to figure out when to quit dialoguing and when to write part two. Thanks for the perspective.

  8. David Frank
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Mike S — You asked, “Given the dichotomy between the subjective and the objective, how do I know when the enlightenment is from the Holy Spirit and when it is me injecting into the meaning my own intentions?” I don’t think I am going to try to answer that one, except to say that this is a question to be asked of every follower of God, and not just translators. It relates to anything we might do that is done in awareness of God’s call on our lives and purposes for our actions.

    You asked me to interact with the following:

    “God has built language to not work like adding word-brick to word-brick until the meaning-wall is built. He has built language much more like the pouring together of various kinds of somewhat viscous liquids that harden as they mingle and intertwine and even change each other. It’s the cohered result that should accurately match the original meaning even though the details within it can vary. Whether those details be the obvious differences between source text and destination text, or the more controversial differences between translations.”

    Again, I’m not sure I can evaluate that statement. It is a nice word picture. Whether that is a picture of reality, or a picture of how we would like things to be, I can’t say. This probably isn’t an answer to your question, but this makes me think about how different people are different. Some people do think more sequentially, and some, like you, think more in terms of networks. I think that in an ideal world, more people would think like you, and they would wait to form judgments after all the ingredients have been mixed together and had a chance to have the chemical reaction that comes from being mixed. A lot of people aren’t capable of that, and can’t see the forest for the trees. So I don’t think we are really talking about language, per se, but about human nature.

  9. Posted November 13, 2008 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.”

    David,
    I’m guessing you’ve had some Ken Pike tagmemics. If not, you’re likely as familiar with Heraclitus and the river riddle. This does “it is / it isn’t” issue seems as much philosophy and psychology as linguistics and translation. When is the “allo” part of the “emic unit”? Is the river I step into the same river? When does “life” begin in the womb? What are the basic color terms (and when is green blue or can they be the same color, by name, as they are/ it is in Vietnamese)? Pike allows person to be prior to and above formal logic, the kind of Aristotelian logic that would sharply define and naturally classify into a hierarchy. The person gets to decide whether the “Bible” is one book, and whether translated it is the same “book.” (Oh and Bible is Book in Greek no? Same thing, only translated different/ transliterated the same).

    I think your questions “about the nature of meaning, communication and identity” and “a definition of translation” are very interesting!

  10. David Frank
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    EricW — You make me really wish I could be at the ETS conference. I love to interact with topics like that. Linguistics is more my field, but in recent years I have gotten involved with conferences and publications on translation. I haven’t attended an ETS conference, but maybe some day I will. Meanwhile, I would look forward to hearing more about this one later.

    Yes, it is a good question whether a translation can be “inspired.” If a translation can be inspired (which is not necessarily what I had meant to imply), then does that mean that some translations are inspired and others are not? I understand that some people in history have understood the LXX to be an inspired translation, just as some people think of the KJV that way. I’m not sure we have evidence that the NT writers thought of the LXX as being an inspired translation, though I am open to being proven wrong. It seems, rather, that they thought of the LXX as simply being “the scriptures,” without giving any attention to a source text / translated text distinction. If that is the case, then it supports what I was trying to say.

  11. Rich Rhodes
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Dan, for taking another run at a basic misunderstanding about the nature of language itself. We think that language is thought, so if you don’t translate with the same exactitude that the original language bears, then we’ve missed something. Unfortunately, this is wrong thinking at several levels.

    First, even in our native language, the things we say don’t mean exactly what we want them to mean. In ordinary conversation, we mostly ignore these mismatches. But they provide the fodder for the enterprise of literary criticism as well as marriage counseling. (Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher was famous for pointing out that every utterance is both exuberant — it means more than we want — and deficient — doesn’t mean everything we want.)

    And yet we are horrified that we’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of interpretation when we do Bible translation.

    In fact, we are always interpreting when we use language.

  12. Don
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    My take on the LXX quotes in the NT is that they agreed with the interpretation in that case, it does not mean they thought all of the LXX was inspired. Also, they knew the LXX was more readable. But there are some cases where the LXX was not used.

  13. David Frank
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    JK Gayle — You have quite correctly guessed that I was a student of Ken Pike, and I remember him quoting Heraclitus. Most people think of Heraclitus as having said, “You can’t step into the same river twice,” but I remember hearing Pike cite Heraclitus as saying, “You both can and cannot step into the same river twice.” Yes, any time I think of the thorny question of equivalence, Ken Pike and Heraclitus both come to mind.

    I’m going to think more about what you said: “Pike allows person to be prior to and above formal logic, the kind of Aristotelian logic that would sharply define and naturally classify into a hierarchy.” I’m sure you are right about that, but despite my familiarity with and affinity to Pike’s theoretical and philosophical outlook, I don’t think I would have thought to put it quite that way. Good food for thought.

    By the way, as I said, I have developed a theoretical model for translation, which I have presented at a couple of conferences, and I have an article coming out next year. What I haven’t said is that this model is heavily influenced by my exposure to Pike. I won’t use the term “tagmemic,” but I will say that this model is Pikean in orientation like no other model for translation that I have seen.

  14. Cam McVey
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    David: When you say, “unavoidable human subjectivity”, is it possible that would cover the original OT/NT writers? That is, would their subjectivity not have just as strong an influence on the resulting text as the translators’? In a sense, the original texts are a ‘translation’ of God’s word through the filter of man?

  15. Posted November 13, 2008 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Don, I came across an interesting perspective on NT use of LXX and Hebrew when I studied the quotation in Matthew 4:15-16. The words are taken from LXX, but they are carefully edited to delete anything which is not based directly on the Hebrew. But also thoughts which are not in the Hebrew are not added. The result is a text which actually doesn’t mean much – verse 15 is left with no verb, as there are different verbs in LXX and Hebrew. It is clear that the author of the Greek text of Matthew was referring to the Hebrew as well as to a Greek version. Perhaps I should blog on this in more detail sometime.

  16. Posted November 14, 2008 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    Good post, David.

    I’m looking forward to part 2.

  17. Posted November 14, 2008 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    Welcome, David.

    As a BTer I believe translations are the Word of God. But also as a BTer I’ve produced some pretty dreadful translations. Were they inspired? I think the answer is affirmative when the target audience for that translation decides it is authoritative. In other words, God’s body in its many localized versions must be led by the Spirit to recognize that God is capable of speaking to them through that translation. A bad translation of the original is more inspired than the original for speakers of that language.

  18. Don
    Posted November 17, 2008 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    Yes, Peter, make a whole thread for the discussion, it would be very interesting.


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