Weird books in normal language

John Hobbins recently commented:

It’s important to me that we understand that the Bible is a weird book that teaches things at great odds with the way we believe and the way we do things. A quaint translation like RSV or ESV helps in making that understood. The conclusion many people draw from reading a translation that sounds familiar is that the text is on their side. An unintended consequence, but still: translation FAIL.

I must disagree, and I have an example. Unless you’re familiar with new world order, reptilian and zionist conspiracy theories the following quote from David Icke will surely be one of the weirdest things you read today. The worldview of modern conspiracists is hugely conceptually distant from the worldview of non-conspiracists – a distance that I think would rival the distance we are from the Biblical days. Conspiracists must have a completely different and foreign way of viewing the world around them, of governments and businesses, of the past and their hopes/fears for the future. But despite that distance, David Icke is able to express his views in ways which an outsider like me can understand. I perhaps might not fully understand the total significance of everything he says (significance in the context of his writings and those of others who share his views), but I can understand what this paragraph itself is saying.

The members of this Elite are either direct incarnations of the fourth-dimensional Prison Warders or have their minds controlled by them. The aim of the Brotherhood and its interdimensional controllers has been to centralise power in the hands of the few. This process is now very advanced and it is happening on a global scale today thanks to modern technology. The game-plan is known as the Great Work of Ages or the New World Order, and it presently seeks to introduce a world government to which all nations would be colonies; a world central bank and currency; a world army; and a micro-chipped population connected to a global computer. What is happening today is the culmination of the manipulation which has been unfolding for thousands of years. [Source]

John argues that nonstandard language helps make a text’s foreignness apparent, but I disagree: it’s foreignness will be easily apparent even if it uses standard language. No matter what language is used, if that foreignness isn’t apparent then that is a mark of a poor translation.

What we’re talking about here is the concept of reference: language can be seen as symbols which refer to real world, or conceptual, things (the referent). But one of the beauties of natural human language is that a fairly small set of symbols have the capacity to refer to an almost limitless number of things. And as the purpose of language is to communicate new things, most of the things which we refer to are actually new. Sometimes what is new is only the connection between two facts we already know, or is only the knowledge of a new specific something for which we know lots about the generic something, but often what is communicated to us is entirely new. For example, think about when you learnt about a new gadget, like an iPad. Many gadgets are variations on a theme, but some perform totally new functions for totally new purposes. And while we may need to learn a new noun or two, we can learn about these things with our normal language. But what John is effectively arguing is that weird referents require weird references.

We may have to learn many more new things all at the one time when we read the Bible, but that doesn’t require weird language. All human languages have the capacity to express the new concepts which the Bible teaches, although for convenience’s sake sometimes a few new words, introduced by the language’s existing conventions for introducing jargon, can help. Keep your symbols familiar, even if what they reference is not!

5 Comments

  1. Theophrastus
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 3:12 am | Permalink

    Yep, that’s a weird text. But it is not a difficult text.

    The Hebrew Bible (and even the Greek Bible), on the other hand, is a difficult text.

    An analogy: Both Mein Kampf and Sein und Zeit, are written in standard late 1920′s standard German (Hochdeutsch), and both are weird books that reflect world-views quite different from my own. Both Hitler and Heidegger were members of the Nazi party. Mein Kampf is easy to understand (and to translate). Sein und Zeit is difficult to understand (and to translate).

    Another analogy: both the Narnia cycle and the Alice books are novels describing fantasy worlds, but the former is significantly easier to translate than the latter.

  2. Posted May 2, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    That’s really a separate issue. Of course various texts will be of varying difficultly. What John was suggesting is that regardless of how difficult a text was to understand originally and how difficult it is to translate, all texts from different worldviews should be translated with weird language to emphasise that worldview distance. While some parts of the Bible are difficult texts, others are not. John would have us translate it all with weird language.

  3. Theophrastus
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    John was being colloquial — and I think that what he meant is that the Hebrew Bible is in many places much closer to “Jabberwocky” than it is to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

    There are some translations that try to capture the Hebrew Bible’s strangeness: notably Everett Fox’s translation — I love it, but as you might suspect, others on BBB have differing views.

  4. Posted May 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    hobbins is totally correct. if your teenage daughter can read it without pain it isn’t a translation.

  5. Posted May 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Per guideline 1, can you please explain why you think reading the bible should be a painful experience?


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