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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Is Bible English Relevant?

Here is another post on Relevance Theory and Bible translation. This essay comes from my friend, Mike Sangrey, who has graciously given permission for it to be posted on this blog:

Relevance Theory (RT) is based on the premise that a reader will make minimal effort for relevant understanding. In other words, a reader will try a least resistance path to what makes sense.

So, if the text is highly ambiguous, there will be a higher degree of misunderstanding by the reader then what would be obtained if the text was relatively less ambiguous. It's simply what would be statistically probable--the more complex the interpretive effort, the more likely the misunderstanding.

It works like this: If I say something that you can readily understand, you don't have to construct in your head a structure that can hold a meaning. I've used the structures that are already in your head. In other words, I've communicated well. You didn't have to build anything by way of analysis or conscious thought. The text just says what it says.

However, if I communicate badly, then you have to put some effort forth to make sense of it. That is, you have to construct a structure in your head such that the text makes sense. You make assumptions and place those assumptions in the structure. You think, "Oh, he can't mean that, he probably means this" and you stick that in there, too. Eventually, far, far longer than the normal process of obtaining understanding, you put together a framework upon which what I say makes sense. Even though the path to interpretation had a lot of resistance, you've still chosen a least resistance path. However, since so much of the framework had to be constructed in your own mind, you've probably made mistakes in your effort. It's not really your fault; I've communicated poorly.

If we apply this to Bible translation we should see there is a great risk to translating ambiguously. If the translated text is ambiguous, the serious Bible reader goes to a lot of effort to construct the meaning. The danger is that the meaning, as he or she constructs it, is primarily made up of structures they create and bring to the text. In other words, they add to the text. They have to in order to make sense of it. But, has God communicated with them? Or, did they project into God's mind their own understanding? The sad thing is that what they had already believed is more relevant to them than what God really said. And their current error is reinforced with what they wrongly believe God said. In other words, when we couple an ambiguous text with the principle of relevancy, the ambiguity leaves them in their error. Indeed, it reinforces it. And then the relationship with God breaks down because of a lack of understanding.

The other possibility is that they turn away from the text with a sense of failure: "I can't understand the Bible," they say. There is also often a sense of guilt since they believe their inability to understand is their fault. The guilt further intensifies the distance between God's communication and their need to understand. In these cases the Bible appears irrelevant; and sadly the Bible appears to fight with the person's desire for relationship with their God. Again, the relationship with God breaks down because of a lack of understanding.

So, Bible English should not be used in Bible translations. It's not relevant. It prevents the normal growth of a relationship with God that happens when good communication occurs. So, Bible translations should use the normal linguistic structures that form the neural pathways so that communication of God's message is clear, accurate, and natural.
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