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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Why do we translate the Bible?

Every once in awhile I like to ask the very basic question, "Why do we translate the Bible?" If I ask this question to my coworkers in our Bible translation organization, I might sometimes get a blank stare which could express something like, "What kind of a question is that?" or "What's your point?" Some will answer the question on its face with answers such as, "We translate so that Bibleless peoples around the world can have the Good News just as we do in English, French, Spanish, Korean, ..." (or whatever else is the mother tongue of the respondent). Some who have a background in theology might answer, "We translate the Bible because it is our only sure guide of faith and practice." This, of course, is not a totally satisfactory answer for those who come from church backgrounds where church doctrine or the collective wisdom of a community of faith is also considered a good or even "sure" guide of faith and practice.

Sometimes, however, I like to ask "Why do we translate the Bible?" of people who have had more Bibles and more Bible versions printed in their language than any other language, those whose mother tongue is English. Sometimes the answers I get are similar to those I related in my first paragraph. Sometimes I get an answer as basic as "We translate the Bible so that we can understand what God first revealed in written form in other languages long ago."

I like all of the answers given above.

Let's think about that last answer a bit. Here are some logical premises and a conclusion about the Bible and English translation:
  1. The Bible was first written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
  2. Most English speakers do not read these languages fluently.
  3. Therefore, the Bible is translated to English to allow English speakers to understand what was originally written in the biblical languages.
I don't think anyone would disagree with this syllogism.

But I'd like to ask a followup question to the clear, proper conclusion of the syllogism. I ask it sincerely. I do not ask it simply because it is my hobbyhorse. Here it is:
Since the Bible needs to be translated to English for most English speakers to understand it, why is it that the English used in many English translations is not the same English spoken and written by those for whom the Bible is translated?
I don't think I have ever really gotten a very satisfactory answer for that question. And, frankly, it breaks my heart that the presupposition behind the question is true, at least it is true for most people who I have observed, apart from a subset of people who have, apparently, learned to understand a kind of Bible English which is different from the English which they speak and write.

I received an email message this week stating that there are now 2,400 Bibleless groups of people around the world. That is a reduction from the number of 3,000 for Bibless groups that has often been stated. (We are making progress!) Truthfully, sometimes I wonder if many English speakers are among the group of Bibless peoples.

It is not the case that there are not Bibles written in the English which people speak or write. But it is the case that many people use Bibles which are not written in the English which they speak or write. They have a variety of reasons for doing so, some of which are reasonable, including enjoying reading a Bible which has non-standard forms which "challenge" them, which they feel lifts them to a higher "literary" level. For others, there is the sense that a good study Bible is one that will likely not be in some standard form of English, but, rather, will require "effort" to understand (linguistically, as well, of course, as conceptually). I have heard it said by sincere people that "We should not drag the Bible down to our level, but we should be lifted up to its." The the assumption of this last group seems to be that the Bible was written in language which is not spoken or written by ordinary people, but, rather, some special, "higher" form of language. It also seems to be assumed that Bibles which are translated into clear, contemporary English are somehow not faithful to the biblical source texts. I would only want the Bible to be translated to English which is no less clear than the biblical source texts were to their original audiences, and no less contemporary linguistically than those texts were to their original audiences, no more, no less.

Others want a "transparent" or "literal" Bible so they can more easily see the forms of the original biblical languages. I would, of course, encourage such sincere people to see such forms even more transparently and accurately by learning to read the Bible in its original languages. In all the discussions about different kinds of Bible translations, we should never lose track of the fact that the purpose of Bible translation is so that someone who does not understand the original biblical languages can understand it in their own language. Creating more difficult language in a translation than there probably was in the source texts is a barrier to accomplishing the purpose of Bible translation.

I recognize that many who are devout students of the Bible or even defenders of one English version or another do not agree with the presupposition behind my final question, that the English of many English Bible versions is not the English of current English speakers and writers. And it is OK to have a different opinion on this matter, especially if there is some kind of empirical evidence to support the difference. I would encourage us all, however, to be as open as possible to try to discover how well we ourselves and people we hope to effect with the message of the Bible understand the English of the Bibles that we read.

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