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Monday, December 26, 2005

Where is the culture/language boundary for translation?

Kenny Pierce responds to my recent post on Luke 2:40 and raises the important issue of how much of the cultural conditioning of the language of the Bible should be retained in translation. Following is my comment on Kenny's post, slightly revised to be a post on this blog.

Kenny is dealing with an important issue which has seldom been addressed as clearly as he has. He is thinking there are probably statements in the biblical language texts which are even more culture-bound than those in Luke 2:40. I agree. I think this one is a candidate: 2 Cor. 12:2 where Paul spoke of a "third" heaven. Multiple "heavens" was part of his cultural worldview. It is not part of ours. So do we keep Paul's wording and footnote about the worldview difference? Or do we try to find a way of expressing the "underlying" meaning (culture-free?) of what Paul said, to enable readers of our translations to understand more immediately what Paul was saying.

Here's another: How many days went by after the birth of Jesus, or any other Jewish boy, before he was circumcised. The biblical texts say 8 days, but that is based on Jewish reckoning of time. We English speakers count days differently from the Jews and the time between birth and circumcision for us is 7 days. We can choose to "literally" retain their time counting, which results in inaccurate understanding for readers of English translations of how many days actually went by, we can footnote or teach that the number of days in the translation is not actually the number of days for us, but the number of days for the Jews, or we can convert Jews days to our days. One good translation solution is to say "one week" rather than either 8 days or 7 days, since 8 days was one week for the Jews and one week for us.

I think it all largely comes down to some basic questions about what are the most important reasons for translating the Bible to other languages. I suspect that the answers will largely depend on who our audience is for a specific translation. We can be glad that there are different kinds of translations in English (not all people groups have such a wealth of different translations), ones for seekers who know little about biblical cultures and others for biblically literate people who know much more and can convert culturally conditioned wordings to something close to how we, in our language and from our worldview, would express it.

I would never want to remove the historical and cultural context of the biblical texts. But which ones are so "significant" that we risk changing the text improperly if we transculturate them, and which ones are culturally insignificant, such as many of the biblical metaphors. "Bowels and mercies" (Phil. 2:1), is one which Bible translators today, including essential literalists, seem comfortable converting to an English equivalent, even though bowels were viewed as having an important emotional function within the Hebraic worldview reflected in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek of the Jewish authors of the New Testament.

It's often not easy to know where a proper balance is when trying to be true to the cultural conditioning of the language of the Bible and how much of that conditioning needs to be retained for a translation to cultures which have different worldviews, especially if doing do will communicate inaccurately without footnotes or added teaching beyond the translation. I think much more discussion of the topic Kenny has raised is needed. And the discussion needs to enter biblical academia so that the profile of this issue will be raised higher and more people will understand the issues. There also needs to be tolerance expressed toward those who will choose different points on the culture/language continuum in a specific translation.

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At Mon Dec 26, 10:29:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

Off-topic, and please excuse my Biblical ignorance, but...

How did (do?) the Jews count days so that 8 of them make up a week? 6 Days of Creation and then the Sabbath on which all rest. Where does the 8th one come in?

At Mon Dec 26, 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

Thanks for the link, and for your comments, Wayne - always enlightening! I myself have a very "literalist" bias, and I think that anyone who is an Evangelical and either doesn't know the original languages, remembers when he didn't know the original languages, or doesn't know the original languages very well is going to end up wanting this kind of translation, because we want a combination of translation, translation commentary, background commentary, etc. that will effectively equip us to interpret the Bible for ourselves, insofar as this is possible for people with our level of Biblical education (whatever level that might be).

However, my time spent reading this blog over the last few months has increasingly led me to realize that more literal often means less accurate, which is why I'm starting to think that this is really a bias rather than a well justified preference.

Given these considerations, I think I still favor a strict division between "literal translations" and "paraphrases" (although I realize this is not the correct technical usage of the word paraphrase). I think there is a world of difference in the purpose of literal translations like the NKJV or NASB, and the purpose of, say, The Message. This, as you say, is a good thing. What I don't like is when translations mix these two models without informing readers. It has been my experience that the NIV often does this: it translates literally most of the time, but whenever it hits a really difficult spot it gives a loose paraphrase, often without even a footnote.

Thanks again for your thoughts, Wayne!

At Mon Dec 26, 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Talmida, the length of a Jewish week is just as long, of course, as our week. People in some cultures, including that of the ancient Jews, begin counting a day today. If there is any day left today, it counts as the first day. So 8 days of counted Jewish days is the same as our 7 24 hour days, which most of us count starting with the first day beginning 24 hours from the time of speaking.

I hope someone will correct me if I don't have the facts of Jewish day counting quite right, but I think I do.

One week for ancient Jews was "8 days later." One week for us is "7 days later." They can be exactly the same amount of time.

At Mon Dec 26, 11:08:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kenny, one of the things that participating in Bible translation debates has helped me is to recognize that there is value in different kinds of translations. Not all Bible translations serve the same purpose. Some are better for study purposes or scholarly work. Others are better for people who want to read and understand the Bible, as much as possible, on their own.

I always appreciate your thoughtful approach to Bible translation issues. If everyone approaches the issues as you do, there would be far less acrimony over Bible versions than there is today.

At Mon Dec 26, 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Kenny, et al:

I'd like to underscore Wayne's comments regarding the value of different translations. I've come to the position where I think two types of translations are valuable: analytic and synthetic (these are my terms, so I hope they're still helpful).

The first refers to a translation which provides an essentially literal rendition of the original language and requires the reader to perform a significant degree of analysis to obtain the meaning. The second refers to a translation that has properly synthesized the original meaning into the target language and therefore the average reader need simply read the text to get the meaning.

I think both types are needed. The former requires the reader to be properly trained in analysis (IMO, all the popular essentially literal translations of today require this; but, few seem to realize how much analysis--and humility--is actually needed.)

Also, neither of the two types of people is any better than the other. Being able to analyze the analytical translation does not enable you to better understand the meaning. Either type of reader will get that from the synthetic translation anyway.

However, one advantage to the analytical person is his or her opportunity to hold the synthetic translators accountable. Note, however, that requires that the analytical person enter into the scholarly discussion with all of the associated presuppositional issues (ie. bias). I mention bias here since most analytical individuals don't recognize that they bring their own bias to the analysis of an essentially literal translation. The all-too-typical accusation of the synthetic translation being biased, while potentially true, is also reflective of the accuser's bias. Thus the need for the analyst to enter into the scholarly discussion, especially with those he or she disagrees with. It's in community that accuracy is obtained.

There's more I could say, but I won't here and now.

At Tue Dec 27, 01:00:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks Mike,

We all have biases, for sure.

At Wed Dec 28, 05:34:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

On the eight days of Luke 2:21, it is worth looking closely at the wording: ὅτε ἐπλήσθησαν ἡμέραι ὀκτὼ τοῦ περιτεμεῖν αὐτόν, literally "when eight days of circumcising him were filled". But "filled", of days, does not mean refer to the end of the day, as in Acts 2:1 where the day of Pentecost was "filled" (same Greek word with an intensifying prefix) by nine o'clock in the morning! Perhaps we can get the idea better by saying "when eight days had dawned", with the first of those days being the day of his birth (which seems from Luke 2:8 to have taken place during the night, counted by the Jews as part of the preceding day). If Christmas morning was the first such dawn, then the eighth is New Year's Day, the traditional Feast of the Circumcision, which is seven days after Christmas Day.

So the problem goes away if the verse is translated carefully. And the easiest way to do it is "On the eighth day", as in NIV. After all, in our culture also the eighth day of Christmas is not just the day of eight maids a-milking but is also New Year's Day.


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