Monday, January 25, 2021

Learning the Language

Yesterday, we introduced the concept of biblical language by looking at the way that translators sometimes make their decisions about what words to include in our English bibles. We used the example of one group of translators deciding on 'walking stick' instead of 'staff' because of their fear that the reader might think that a 'staff' is a roster of employees of a person or organization, rather than the kind of staff that a shepherd uses. 

On one hand, no one can argue against making the Bible accessible to as many as possible, and if such a translation helps one person to understand, wouldn't it be worth it? But on the other hand, if that translation loses something of the original intent or beauty of the Bible, it cannot possibly be worth it. As we said yesterday, we know that the shepherd's staff was much more than a mere walking stick, and so we have a case where in an effort to clear things up, we've actually muddied the waters. 

The trouble is that we have a certain language that we speak. We have words that we use every day that come to mean one thing or another to us, and so our natural reflex is to interpret words through the lens of our own language. Where this causes a problem is where our English doesn't capture the same essence of things as the Hebrew or the Greek (or really, any language - this difficulty is not limited to biblical translation alone). Hebrew, especially, has this really deep concept of language where words not only express ideas or objects, but also interactions and emotions. The levels of meaning in the Hebrew language are simply astounding, and the English does not even come close. We often need a whole sentence or two in English to say what the Hebrew says in just a word. 

Because of this, it is vitally important that we get this act of translation right. If we fail, we miss out on the heart of God that is contained in the text. 

As we have seen, one solution to this challenge is to simply choose the English word that is relatively closest in meaning and easiest for the reader to understand, but this approach has left us wanting in terms of truly understanding the heart of the Bible. 

Is there another way?

Certainly, there is. And that way is to teach the English reader the Hebrew heart. That is, to teach the English reader to speak a new language, rather than using the one he already knows. 

This seems harder. It seems heavier, like we're going to just be weighing the Bible down with a bunch of instructions on what certain things mean, but let's just take the case of the current translation that I am reading - the NET. The NET has used a footnote to explain why they have chosen to use 'walking stick' instead of 'staff.' Now, imagine a world where the Bible translation team used a footnote in exactly the same place to define for the reader the significance of the biblical 'staff.' 

Revolutionary, right? 

Imagine a world where our Bible taught us to speak the language of God instead of pretending that the highest goal was to present a God who speaks our language. Imagine a Bible that challenged us to expand our vocabulary instead of trying to stuff God into the relatively small number of words that we already know. Imagine a Bible study where, when you read the Bible, what you discover about God doesn't rest on concepts that you already understand, but depends entirely upon your willingness to learn something new. 

That is one of the major problems that I have with this kind of biblical translation, this kind of translation work that depends upon the 'common usage' of language and the limitations of English - it proposes a God that is as small as our vocabulary. And simply put, I'm not interested in a God that small. 

But there's something else at stake here, too, and we're already seeing it take its toll on our sacred language. More on that, tomorrow.  

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