Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Further thoughts on interpretation versus translation

I'd like to follow up on Mike's post from Thursday. Since I'm new to this blog (thanks, Wayne, for the invitation and introduction), let me say a few things about myself that will help people understand why I say the things I'm about to say.

I've spent 40 years studying the phenomenon of human language. My focus has been on indigenous languages of North America (Chippewa/Ojibwe [Canada/US], Métchif [Canada/US], and Sayula Popoluca [Mexico]), but I've studied -- and speak with varying degrees of competence -- languages from other places around the world, German, French, Spanish, Swedish, and long ago, Latin, Hindi, Mandarin, and, complements of the US Army, Vietnamese. My Army job in Vietnam was as an interpreter.

All of this means that I've spent a lot of time dealing, both practically and theoretically, with how to communicate across language barriers. And it means that I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to coax close and accurate readings from texts in languages that I don’t necessarily speak all that well.

During this whole time I've been a committed Christian and as part of my Christian life have read numerous translations and paraphrases of the Scripture, listened to countless sermons that referred to "what it says in the original". More and more, I've noticed that claims about what the original says (whether explicit from a preacher or implicit in an English Bible translation) leave me rolling my eyes — not because of problems in the basic knowledge of Greek (or Hebrew), but because of basic underlying misapprehensions about the way language works.

Point - The meaning is not in the words.

OK, now most of you are in shock. How can a person who has spent his life studying words, who has published a major dictionary even, think that?

Well, I'll tell you.

Suppose I say, fuzzy dice. What do you think of? If you are from the US — I can't speak for Canada — you immediately think of cars of a particular type, owned, driven, and worked on by particular kinds of people. The words fuzzy dice refer, i.e., they point to, a particular class of object. But that kind of object is closely associated with particular kinds of cars, low riders, if you're from the west, or hot rods, if you're from elsewhere in the US. Those kinds of cars are favored by particular kinds of people that have a particular status in society, and so on. So the thing fuzzy dice means is not simply what the expression refers to.

This kind of association that words have is referred to by linguists as a frame. Enormous numbers of words have associated frames. Most of the time the frames are more subtle than that of fuzzy dice. Take buy or sell. Most of you wouldn’t notice that these words bear a frame because it’s much more abstract than the frame associated with fuzzy dice. It feels almost like it’s part of the reference. But the frame is there and it can be distinguished from the reference proper. With buy and sell it includes money and transfer of ownership and particular “rituals” or “scripts” for how the exchanges take place, not to mention the very basic matter of the participants and the object(s) involved.

Anyone who has dealt with attempting to communicate across a language barrier knows (at least intuitively) that words of the same reference don’t always have the same associations. And it’s the associations that are tricky in a cross-linguistic situation.

Take a simple Scriptural example. The Greek word καθέδρα refers to a class of objects which is reasonably approximated by the class of objects referred to by the English word chair. But the frames for καθέδρα and chair are very different. The prototypical chair is simple wood with four legs, a back, and for most of us, no arms. It is used at a table for eating or at a desk for working. Our homes have lots of them, generally more than there are people living the house or apartment. Most houses and apartments have, in addition to a number of prototypical chairs, one or more less prototypical ones like easy chairs. Chairs are not symbols of wealth or power.

A New Testament καθέδρα, on the other hand, was prototypically a backless affair of a construction that looked vaguely suggestive of an X when viewed head on. Nobody sat in a chair at a table to eat. They reclined. Ordinary houses might only have one. Chairs were a sign of wealth and power. Men of influence sat in a καθέδρα when carrying out certain aspects of their business. (Latin sella curulis.) If the power was political, the specific kind of καθέδρα was often referred to as a βημα. (I’ll have more to say about that word in a future post.) But it counted as a καθέδρα just the same.

What does this difference in associations say about chair as a good (or bad) translation for καθέδρα?

Answer: You can’t tell.

You need to ask a prior question. Is it the intent of the speaker/writer to refer to object itself or is his intent to refer to the associations of the object?

Well, let’s look. καθέδρα occurs three times in the New Testament: in Matt. 21:12 and in the parallel Mk. 11:15, and in Matt. 23:2.

I’d argue that in Matt. 21:12 and Mk. 11:15, it’s the objects themselves, even though the implications of wealth are present in the situation, and that a more appropriate rendering is probably chairs (as opposed to the NIV’s choice, benches, benches were what rowers sat on).

Matt. 21:12 Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the καθέδρας of those selling doves. (NIV)

Μκ. 11:15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the καθέδρας of those selling doves, (NIV)

But in Matt. 23:2, the chair is mentioned as a way to convey the authority associated with chairs. It’s not about the furniture.

Matt. 23:2 "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' καθέδρα. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (NIV)

So dump the referential part and express the association. The passage is more appropriately rendered something more like:

Matt. 23:2 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees bear the authority of Moses. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (NIV modified)

The intent here is to underline the point that Mike was making in his posting of March 9. You have to figure out what the passage means in order to get to the rendering that is the most accurate in conveying what the author intended.

If this sounds akin to dynamic equivalence, it is. But the implication is more subtle.

There is no procedure by which we can guarantee accuracy in translation/interpretation.

(And I’m not just talking about Bible translation.)

In particular, there is no safety in sticking to the words. Words are merely the tools we use to accomplish particular communicative goals, and every language’s tool set is different.


At Sun Mar 12, 03:03:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Welcome Rich,

There is no procedure by which we can guarantee accuracy in translation/interpretation.

Thanks for saying this. I know it is something that people often don't want to hear but it has to be said.

At Sun Mar 12, 06:39:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Excellent post Richard.

Thank you, Wayne, for bringing him on board.

At Sun Mar 12, 07:21:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...


Glad you are contributing. This was well written and succinct. The examples made sense to me.

The end of the post however left me wishing for a "Part 2." I didn't quite follow the leap from dynamic equivalence to "no procedure by which we can guarantee accuracy..." And if you can clear up that connection for me I'd like to hear how that assertion works itself out in actual translation and see some examples.

Again, glad you're aboard the BBB.

At Sun Mar 12, 08:10:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mike said:

Thank you, Wayne, for bringing [Rich] on board.

Well, you're welcome, Mike. I believe it is a God-thing, as our son likes to call such things. Rich was looking for an outlook for the ideas about Bible translation that have been percolating within him for a good number of years. I suggested several ideas to him. The possibility of him contributing to this blog didn't cross my mind under later.

And speaking of our son, he got to experience a God-thing recently. Just before Christmas moved his family from Chicago where he worked for a couple of years back to Spokane where two of his sisters, his mother and I, and his parents-in-law live. He had no job lined up here, but there were the job situation for him in Chicago was not good either. After they moved back, he started looking. He followed up with contacts for working with a Christian youth organization that he had been developing for several months before their move. As part of that process he visited a pastor who is on the board of directors of the youth organization. That pastor and his congregation had been praying for several years for a youth/young adults minister to join their church staff. The church had been through many resumes and interviews with potential candidates. Our son did not know about any of that. As he and the pastor talked, they discovered that they had a lot in common in how they viewed ministry and family. Over a period of time, meeting with the church elders, etc., the church decided that they wanted to invite our son to be join their pastoral staff. He was willing, even though it was a step of faith since the church is relatively small and could not afford to pay as much as our son needs to support his family fully. Our son is now studying for ordination within the denomination. It's interesting how God does things sometimes, working behind the scenes when we are not always aware of it. I hope these comments can be an encouragement to others.

At Mon Mar 13, 09:56:00 AM, Blogger codepoke said...

I am one of the ignorant masses who reads the site to learn a little bit about what "the problem" is. Just thought I'd let you know that I really enjoyed this article. Thank you.

At Mon Mar 13, 10:14:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Add my name to the chorus, thanks for a good clear and concise post. Actually, though my experience across languages is much less I'd go further. Not only is there "no procedure by which we can guarantee accuracy in translation/interpretation." There is no such thing as an "accurate" translation - only a less inaccurate one! Try rendering "The cat sat on the mat." into French!

Male or female cat? Was sitting, sat down, used to sit... etc etc...

At Tue Mar 14, 08:01:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

lingamish said: I didn't quite follow the leap from dynamic equivalence to "no procedure by which we can guarantee accuracy..."

I'll put up another post soon that addresses that.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home