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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Ahah! God really does speak my language!

We have a friend who was born and raised in Canada. But her first language was a German dialect, rather than English. She grew up speaking a German dialect which is part of a religious community. Although she, her family, and other speakers of that dialect could understand some parts of the Bible which has been translated into High German and Low German dialects, there was much that they could not understand. Fast forward to adulthood for our friend. She received training to be a Bible translator and spent many years helping translate the Bible for a tribal group in Mexico, a group like many in Mexico which did not understand the national language, Spanish, well enough to understand God's Word accurately or clearly. When the people got the Bible in their own language, they laughed. Our friend was most interested in their reaction. Laughter was the way of showing in their culture that they were amazed, impressed, touched deeply.

Our friend completed her work in Mexico. One day she had the opportunity to read another Bible translation that had just been completed, this time a translation done in her own mother tongue. As she read, she laughed. And she fully understood at that point why the tribal group in Mexico had laughed when they heard God's Word in their mother tongue. She could understand the Bible more accurately and clearly than she ever had before, even though by now she spoke English well and had spent many years exegeting the Bible and helping translate it into a Mexican language that she had learned well.

My mother tongue is a standard dialect (West Coast) of American English. I have had that same feeling that our translator friend did when I have read three different versions of the Bible in my mother tongue. The first was when I was about junior high age and I got to read the Living Letters in paperback, distributed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I could not believe this really was a Bible. The English in it did not sound like I was used to hearing and reading and memorizing the English Bible. It sounded just the way I spoke and wrote.

The next time was when I was a student in Bible school. One summer I counseled at the Word of Life Bible Camp in Schroon Lake, New York. Not long before I traveled to New York to counsel, I had purchased another paperback Bible, this time one with covers that looked like newsprint, with newspaper names from around the world. The translation was called Good News for Modern Man. I would walk into the woods on the beautiful Bible camp island and have my personal devotions using this Good News translation. It was so clear. It spoke my language. It did not sound like the more complicated, less clear, English of the Bibles we used at Bible school in our Bible analysis courses.

Fast forward many more years. My wife and I had been helping the Cheyenne Bible translation program for many years. We heard about a new paraphrase/translation called The Message. As each part of it was completed by Eugene Peterson, we purchased it. I was wowed. As I expressed it to some people, it "knocked my spiritual socks off." (And, yes, sometimes I laugh when some of Peterson's wordings impact me so strongly.)

Now, as a translator I am well aware that each of the English Bible versions that affected me so strongly because they were written in my own dialect of English has some issues. Every Bible version has issues. The Living Bible was too free as it communicated the overall message of the Bible so well to millions of people throughout the world. The Good News Bible was criticized for some of the exegetical decisions made by its translation team. Of course, it got the usual criticism that any "idiomatic" or "dynamic" translation gets. And The Message has been similarly criticized. My highest priority for a Bible translation continues to be accuracy. My wife have our family devotions after breakfast from The Message. We notice the places where we feel the translator didn't get the accuracy quite right. But each of these translations did for me what the translation in Mexico did for that tribal group, and what the German dialect translation did for our Bible translator friend who read the Bible for the first time in her mother tongue, after reading the Bible for many years in German dialects which were not the same as hers, and in English, and in the language of that tribe for which she had helped translate in Mexico. These translations did for me what few other English translations do. They cause me to say, "Ahah! God really does speak my language!" And that is a very special feeling. I wonder if Jesus' disciples ever thought back on his ministry after he had returned to heaven and said, "Ahah! Jesus came from God to earth. And he spoke our language!"

I realize that my reaction to the English of various English Bibles will not necessarily be the same as yours. You may have a need for a different kind of English in a Bible that you use. Your Bible study needs may call for you to use a Bible whose English is not contemporary, or as clear as some other versions. But I do hope that sometimes you, also, can have that experience that millions of people around the world have when they realize, from a Bible translation, that God really does speak your language.

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At Tue Jul 12, 04:02:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

My odyessy with English language translations has been simialr to Wayne's. When a teenager I came to faith it was natural to read the KJV given to me when I was six or seven years old. I struggled with it but over a summer break eventually managed to read it all --- unfortunately not much of it conveyed any meaning to me. Then someone mentioned Kenneth Taylor's Living Bible paraphrase to me. With that as a sort of Cliff's Notes I began to understand much of the text. It began to speak to me in something like my own language; found myself reading the Living Bible and not the KJV.

The church I attended used the RSV so along with my new friends this is the translation I used. It didn't quite speak to me in my own language even using an Anglicised edition. For whatever reason I picked up a copy of the New Testament portion of the GNB; the entire translation was not then available. This read more like the English being spoken around me and that my neighbours used.

I dallied with the NEB for a while. This sounded like I wished to speak. Very imposing and difficult English. Sadly we were both pompous. So far a while I returned to the RSV, which my new church was using as its pew bible.

Then marriage, a new location, and a new church. A church that happened to be getting a new minister who wanted a new pew Bible. Almost coinciding with his appointment was the publication of the full text of the GNB/TEV. So that's what we used. It didn't quite have the same aloure as before. The English wasn't quite as "today" as it had been almost a decade before. I persisted with it because it was the pew Bible and the BFBS as part of their marketing materials produced a year-long reading plan.

Another move, another new church, and another new translation. Now we had the NIV. So along with the new church this became my main version though occasionally I would revert to the more street-wise language of the GNB.

The NIV probably lasted the longest as my main Bible but by the time my first edition Anglicised copy fell apart so to did my perference for Bible-like Bibles. As a distraction from a chronic illness (M.E. or CFS) I engaged in a "little" project to understand the theoretical basis of Bible translation. Because concentration is a major problem for many ME sufferers, including me, the NIV became too hard to take. Again it was time for a new Bible.

Almost at the beginning of my little project I stumbled into the Bible translation discussion list that Wayne mentioned in a previous blog. With the first message I read on that list I remember being amazed that a professional Bible translator was using a translation other than the NIV or RSV or even KJV. What was this Contemporary English Version that Wayne was talking about? Somehow I managed to get myself to the local Christian bookshop and found a copy of the CEV.

Opening the CEV for the first time I read my language. Here was English as she is spoken by people I know; not people in church but my neighbours, family, friends who would never darken the threshold of a church for other than hatch, match, despatch events. Even through the brain fog of my ME I could understand this translation. So much so that I committed to fulling a year-long Bible reading plan, similar to the old BFBS one, and went through the entire text despite my illness causing lack of concentration, memory loss, and a hundred other language related issues.

I recovered from my illness but it had been replaced by an addiction ... collect and critique Bible translations for readability and comprehension. Now my bookshelves groan under the weight of 15+ twentieth century English translations: RSV, NRSV, ESV, LB, NLT, NIV, JB, NJB, NEB, REB, Amplified!, JBP, TM, NCV, NASBu, GNB/TEV. Oh yes and the CEV.

Now more than five years on from my recovery I continue to use the CEV as my prefered translation. Okay so there are some documented issues with a few renderings but no more than have been raised for the RSV, NEB, or any other version. I knew my choice was right when leading a home study group one night to which a couple of friends came. They used the NASB because of attending a well-known inductive study course. When it came time to read a passage these two could not read fluently or with comprehension. They stumbled over every word and at each drop of punctuation admitting that they didn't really understand the passage at all (despite their having studied it following the method). Various people read from their translations (NIV, RSV, NLT) without much improvement but when I read from the CEV it was as if scales feel from the eyes of everyone in the room. So I'm sticking with a Bible translation that speaks to me in my own language and the language of the vast multitude of people whom I meet outside of a church setting.

Reading the CEV reminds me of an small incident in a novel by Chaim Potok: "I had never been taught Bible ... that way ... For my teacher, the words of the Bible ... were simply there. Our task was to understand, to memorize, and to give back what we had learned. (But) When Mr Bader was done with that page it quivered and resonated with life." [In the Beginning, p280.]


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