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Friday, July 01, 2005

Translating the "strong man"

One of the privileges I have had while helping to translate the Bible into another language has been getting a Bible education even deeper than the one I got at the good Bible school I graduated from many years ago. I have learned some things from the Bible, while translating, that I probably would never have known if I had not been part of the process of trying to understand the biblical text before we could translate it. Right now I am thinking about Luke 11 which has several narrative and teaching episodes which I have been familiar with since childhood. And yet I had never really understood the cohesion that Luke, the human author, and his Heavenly Helper intended to tied together the various parts of Luke 11.

I learned something new and important from Luke 11:21-22. In the preceding verses Jesus has been addressing the illogic of the accusation that he had been casting out demons through the power of Beelzebul. Then the text has:
When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoil. (RSV)
To me verses 21-22 previously sounded like Jesus forgot what he had been talking about and switched topics. The new topic was, it seemed, about a general principle of how any strong man will guard his household, but can be overpowered by someone even stronger. I didn't grasp the cohesion that "glued" these two important verses to the preceding verses.

... until I read in some biblical helps that Jesus was referring to someone who was strong, someone who was actually part of the preceding context. And this strong person was being confronted by someone even strong, someone, also, who was very much a part of the preceding context.

The "strong man" was Satan, or perhaps, specifically, in this context, Beelzebul. And the stronger one was Jesus. Jesus, the teacher, was wielding rabbinical logic so deftly here. He was being a little subtle, a little enigmatic, yet saying enough that those who "had ears could hear." Jesus was giving a powerful response to his accusers. Jesus was stronger than Beelzebul and his cohorts. And Jesus had come to confront a spiritual kingdom which had held so many people in bondage for so long.

The textual flow now made sense. Verses 21-22 weren't on a different topic, just plopped into the middle of Jesus' monologue. His response was brilliant. His logic was culturally appropriate, very Jewish, very rabbinical, and very on topic, even though I had not previously understood the textual cohesion because I had not understood what all the implicit information was that was behind the overt words Jesus spoke to his audience.

I suggest that if a translation of verses 21-22 into any language, including English, do not adequately capture not only the meaning of the words, but also the meaning of the textual cohesion (which is very much a part of the meaning of a text), then that translation is not yet adequate. Somehow, without giving away so much of the implicit clues that the monologue looses much of its rhetorical power, we have to wrestle with how to accurately convey the cohesion of these verses, as Jesus spoke them in his own language, to others in their own languages. And that, my friends, is not an easy task, especially in today's translation world where there is a proper emphasis on not making things clearer in translation than they were in the original biblical text. Of course, we must never allow this important correction to some "overtranslation" practiced by some advocates of dynamic equivalance (functional equivalence, etc.) in recent decades to swing the pendulum so far the other direction that we translate less accurately and less clearly than was the communication of the original biblical texts. And with that, of course, in our postmodern world, but even before postmodernism, we open quite a can of worms. Still, accurate and clear translation into good quality language is possible. It is something that we believe is possible, even if our minds sometimes tell us that the many translation difficulties are insurmountable, that, as some philosphers of language have claimed, translation is really not possible.

Oh, I haven't told you what solution we came up with for the Cheyenne translation so the text had cohesion. And I may not mention our specific solution--at the moment I don't even recall all the specifics of our solution as it currently stands. But I would welcome any readers wrestling with, and commenting on, the several translation issues which are involved in translation of Luke 11:21-22 in the larger context of Luke 11.

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At Sat Jul 02, 06:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The same problem happens in the Mark parallel passage. In both translation projects I have worked on, we had trouble making this clear enough so that naive speakers could identify the correct "strong man." We ask, "Who is the strong man who is guarding his house?" And they will invariably answer, "Jesus" or "God." And then ask, "Who is the strong man who breaks in and steals?" and they invariably answer "Satan." The problem is the cultural stereotypes and cultural way such figurative language is normally used. I would be interested in what you did. In our new project, we ended up switching the order of verses or combining, putting Mark 3:27 first and making it into a topic sentence. He spoke to them like this, "I am here as the enemy of Satan, to take away his possessions..." Then launched into the parable. Then, and only then, were people able to understand and answer correctly. Phil

At Sat Jul 02, 09:42:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Phil, in terms of inferences to be drawn from parables and other wonderful rabbinical rhetoric, the Cheyennes have consistently drawn a blank. We have had to explicate in Cheyenne what Jesus' hearers could (sometimes!) get because they shared a lot of cultural and religious background knowledge with him. Have I fielded this one well enough? Did I draw the right inference of identity in the preceding question?


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