I’m here in Austria at the moment visiting the two sets of friends I have in Graz. One set are associated with the Linguistics department at the Karl Franzens University, including my colleague of longest standing, Bernhard Hurch, who holds the chair, and is arguably the most insightful German-speaking linguist of his generation — and the very best student ever produced by the brilliant Ulli Dressler in Vienna.
The other set are my friends from the church I attended while I was on sabbatical here three years ago. I’m staying with the pastor and last night’s discussion turned to questions of translation.
To understand the context of the discussion I’m about to report, you need to know that Paul Miller is an American expatriate who planted the church in question here in Graz twenty-five years ago. (Find the website here.) His official reason to be in Austria at the beginning was that he was here studying to be an interpreter, and since then he has done a lot of interpreting. This means his understanding of what it means to translate is both intellectually sophisticated and shaped by years of experience. From time to time he’s called upon to do the live English-to-German translation for Vineyard sponsored conferences in German-speaking areas. This is an unusual thing because the standard for interpreters is to interpret into their native language. The honor of his being asked to interpret into German bespeaks just how close to being bilingually native he is. So when Paul has an opinion about translation, you best sit up and take notice.
Last night Paul was asking questions about why I think that there simply aren’t any major language Bible translations available that are properly translated. So I ran through my litany of complaints, and I thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog if I explained the key one.
The discussion started with his observing that he was using multiple translations in both English and German to try to get at what the Greek meant in a particular passage he was studying. That led to my making the point that it makes little sense for the Christian enterprise to shove the task of translating Greek onto the shoulders of the church authorities least qualified to do so, namely the pastors.
Sure pastors go to seminary and learn some Greek, but most walk away from seminary barely beyond being able to recognize enough inflected forms of words to be able to find them in dictionaries. (But they all seem to remember what their Greek professor said about the translation of aorists.) Furthermore, the gold standard for seminary Greek is being able to parse. The seminarian who can tell you that πληρωθῇ is an aorist passive subjunctive in the 3 sg. gets an A. But nobody gets points for observing that its use in Matt 1:22 is metaphorical in Greek but has to be translated literally as ‘was fulfilled’ in English, which is actually much more important in the larger scheme of things.
Τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ Κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος (Matt. 1:22)
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet (ESV)
Now I don’t want to undervalue the ability to parse, but in my book that’s merely the price of entry. That gets you to where you can start thinking about the important questions.
What are the important questions?
Well, it’ll take a little doing to get to the bottom of the matter. Let me start here.
I have several times in the past asserted that the meaning of a text is not in the words, for example, here. That is, of course, too simple. (The linked post is, in fact, more nuanced than that.) Still the point is that what we normally think of as the meaning of a word — what the word refers to, what gets into the definition in a dictionary — that part of the meaning cannot be said to be IN the word in any useful way. If I say dog, your reaction and understandings are in terms of your experiences with and feelings about dogs, the referent of the word.
The parts of the meaning that really are in the word are those that we hardly notice and that barely appear in monolingual dictionaries. There are two. One is how the word makes you look at a situation. Let me repeat an example I’ve used before here.
Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary killed.
Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary murdered.
Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary executed.
The reference is the same. Queen Elizabeth said something to someone and Mary Queen of Scots ended up dead. But each of these sentences gets you to look at the situation in a different way. That’s framing, and that’s in the word.
The other part of the meaning that is in the word is something I’ll call speech level for now. Some words have the property of being slang or colloquial or formal or taboo. For example, obtain and get mean the same thing referentially, but obtain is formal and get is neutral. You can see this if you use obtain in a context that is obviously not formal.
When you go to the store, could you obtain some hot dogs for me?
Well, in my discussion with Paul I noted that almost all of my problems with the various translations center around getting the framing wrong and/or getting the speech level wrong. My stock example is ἐπιτιμάω, generally translated ‘rebuke’. That’s the right referent in most contexts, but very wrong in framing. (See this post and the ones it links to for a full explication of why.) Outside of Jude 1:9, the right framing would be ‘tell/ask [someone] to stop doing [something]’. To figure that out I had to do a lot of fairly sophisticated exegesis, of a kind that linguists and Greek professors do, but is well out of the range of your average pastor.
Yet the kind of translations that are out there hang pastors like Paul out to dry. They often know that there’s a problem, but they don’t have the tools to deal with it. That’s why they consult different translations, hoping that somehow the “real” meaning will emerge as some kind of compromise among them.
No, it’s a problem of wrong priorities in Bible translation. If our translations require our pastors to do the exegesis that the translator should have done, who is God going to hold responsible for the lack of understanding of His Word and the lack of growth among His people?
Hint: It won’t be the pastors.