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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Can we translate in a theological vacuum?

Funky Dung asked in a comment to my previous post:
IIRC, Adrian Warnock wrote a post a while back asking his readers if doctrine influences translation. Might you be willing to expand more on steps 1 and 2 in answer to that question?
This question is so important that I'd like to turn my answer into a post, rather than just an answer in the comments section.

Let me give a little of my own journey of thinking on this matter. I was raised in a church environment where we emphasized "sola scriptura." The older I have gotten, the more I have come to realize that much of what passes for sola scriptura is often highly influenced by the doctrinal framework of those who are promoting "sola scriptura." Often, especially in my church background, we would condemn doctrines of other church traditions and essentially say that ours was the only right one, and proof text our position with a few Bible verses which we felt supported our position.

When I first began my own Bible translation work, I assumed a fairly simplistic view of the relationship of scripture to church teaching. I assumed that it was possible to understand and translate the Bible without the influence of any church teachings. And I felt that that was the proper way in which Bible translation should be done, that is, without any theological bias of any kind.

Over the 30 years of my work in Bible translation, I have come to recognize that there are exegetical decisions to be made during translation about which it is difficult to remain "neutral" to all theological teaching. On the other hand, I will say that I have tried very hard to resist allowing theological bias to influence how I translate. I recall that for at least one passage having to do with baptism I specifically resisted translating according to the teaching of my church background. I tried to leave that translation less tied to any one particular church tradition.

Next, and perhaps even more importantly, at least for my own journey, I have come to the point of believing that it is not healthy to translate in a theological vacuum. Over the years I have moved from a Reformation position of "sola scriptura"--with its own inconsistencies which demonstrate, as I have said, that often what is called sola scriptura is a way of trying to put a prettier face on what one believes to be proper theological teaching, which, typically, is a part of some church context--to a position which recognizes the value of translating the Bible within a community of faith, with wisdom of church leaders and church tradition to help inform the translation process, and with peer-review from other scholars and people of faith as a check and balance upon any theological biases which may appear in the translated text.

I think it is very important to try to keep a godly balance here, so that one does not simply translate in lockstep with one particular church tradition, and yet does not dismiss all input from all church scholars and leaders.

If, for example, I were translating within the Eastern Orthodox church tradition, at this point I believe I would have little difficulty translating within that confession's textual tradition. I realize that this might mean, for example, that I would have to place a higher priority upon the LXX for step 1 of the translation process, "What does the text say?" that I might normally do. I would be translating for a particular confession and would want the translation to be acceptable to the leaders and communicants of that tradition. On the other hand, I would try to be a gracious voice for including input from the Masoretic Text for passages where there are discrepancies between the LXX and MT.

So, for step 1, I would be willing to submit to preferences of a particular confession for textual choices.

For step 2, I now value more the theological context within which a translation is made. I'm not really sure that any translation can be made simply on the basis of a theoretical blank slate "sola scripture" approach. All of us bring some kinds of theological presuppositions to the translation table. On the other hand, we can be translators with integrity. I know of Roman Catholic scholars who have translated with what would be considered "objectivity" by those from other confessions. I applaud this. I am glad when an interconfessional translation can take place.

There have been many different theological and ideological movements over the past millenia. I am personally concerned that at this time there is a movement to introduce a particular conservative agenda into some recent Bible translations. I recognize that those who are doing so believe that they are trying to "protect" God's Word from erosion. I, however, believe that God's Word is strong enough to protect itself if we truly try to translate without undue bias of any kind, and also if we open ourselves up to inclusion on a translation team of a wider range of scholars than just those who agree with us, especially on one or two "litmus test" issues.

I believe that if we close ourselves off from the wisdom of inter-confessional interaction, we risk creating exclusivist translations which are applauded at the moment for emphasizing some particular theological or ideological concern. But in doing so, we run the risk of myopic biblical scholarship. Again, this tells me that there is value in opening the translation process to input from more than just one single theological or ideological stance.

And, again, as always, there must be balance in all things. And balance does not equate with theological compromise or "erosion" of important biblical values. We need to be careful, in our balance, that we not equate "biblical values" with just our own particular interpretation of what are proper biblical values. Sometimes, in their efforts to protect the Bible from what is considered improper theological or ideological influences, we let the pendulum swing too far the other direction and fall into the same kind of trap that we are trying to avoid in the first place, namely, of imposing a theological or ideological grid upon the translation which fits our own belief systems. Too often we have condemned others who have done so, while not recognizing that in our zeal to correct what we believe to be error, we fall into the same pattern of translating too ideologically or theologically.

From my own viewpoint, the ESV is one of the most recent examples of a translation which has done this. The ESV arose out of a reaction to perceived errors being made in Bible translation by others, but has, in the process, imposed some of its own set of biases upon the text. I would prefer a deeper interaction with wider biblical scholarship than that which is reflected in the ESV. And I say this while respecting the desire of the ESV translators to "protect" God's Word from error. It is a laudable desire. But we need to be very careful what means we use to accomplish our ends. I think there are some passages where the ESV limits the interpretion of the text too narrowly. One such area of concern is the ESV's translation of some Old Testament passages which can be viewed as messianic, but which, most likely, were not written as such by the original authors. Another is the attempt to linguistically solidify in the translation one particular interpretation of the roles of men and women in the church and in marriage. By "linguistically solidify" I am referring to use of masculine linguistic forms for "generic" usage and then trying to draw from such forms that there is biblical teaching for a masculine hierarchy. That process feels like circular reasoning to me. Claiming that something is both generic and masculine and teaching that this union of semantic sets is biblical seems to me to be a logical fallacy, and very close to, if not outright, an exegetical fallacy of the kind which D.A. Carson has written about so incisely.

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At Tue Sep 13, 05:02:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Howdy, Wayne.

Interesting topic. Luther certainly received flack from "the church" for the word "alone" in his translating! Perhaps one of the best translations that reflects an acute awareness of the historic church and cureent scholarship was William Beck's translation (1963 NT; 1976 OT).

This also brings up the issue of Publishing Houses taking over the role of translating rather than the Church. Dr. Ted Letis ("The Excclesiastical Text") addresses this shift in translating (and passing on) the "sacred text". He cautions about the neglect of what the Church has taught by transferring this to what he calls the "academic community" (university and publishing houses).

Again, interesting topic. I will probably write a little more when I have time.

Rich Shields

At Tue Sep 13, 06:58:00 PM, Anonymous Suzanne said...

Well put, Wayne. My sentiments exactly.

At Wed Sep 14, 04:50:00 AM, Anonymous Clay Knick said...

Maybe if the ESV folks had consulted non-evangelicals and
the NRSV folks had consulted
evangelicals we would be happier
with each version. There are
times both frustrate me.

At Wed Sep 14, 04:58:00 AM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Howdy, Clay!


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