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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Contextual accuracy in Bible translation

I am currently reading The Bible at Cultural Crossroads: From Translation to Communication, by Harriet Hill, published a few weeks ago. I am to write a review of this book by the end of this month. This is a fascinating book with many real-life examples which demonstrate that translating the Bible accurately is often not enough, in itself, to allow people to understand the meanings intended in the biblical passages. Because the Bible is an ancient book about ancient cultures, those who use Bibles must, in one way or another, be provided information which allows them to bridge the historical and cultural gaps between their own time and culture and those of the biblical authors and their audiences. Faith communities have often provided the missing contextual information to fill in the gaps through Bible teaching. Harriet Hill discusses various methods which can be used to provide missing contextual information so people can understand translated Bibles better.

But, she warns that those who provide contextual information for Bible users must ensure that it itself is accurate. She properly states that
contextual adjustment materials should not offer speculative embellishments on the text. For example, in Matthew 21 in the Message, after Jesus runs the "loan sharks" out of the temple, Eugene Peterson adds, "Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in" (1993:52). This implies that the 'loan sharks' were keeping the blind and crippled out by taking up all the space. This misrepresents the situation. In fact, handicapped people were not allowed in the temple because they were considered unclearn, and the fact that Jesus allowed them in was as astounding as the way he chased the moneychangers out.
Now, as with any of our critiques of Bible versions on this blog, we do not dismiss The Message as having no value as a translation, simply because of this and other mis-translations by Peterson. We must deal with each translation wording in any English Bible version on a case-by-case basis and not be dismissive (or accepting, for that matter) in a blanket fashion.

I happen to like reading The Message. My wife and I use it for our morning Bible reading together. But we have to be careful that we do not take every translation wording in this translation, or any other Bible translation, as gospel truth, without checking to be sure that the translation is accurate.

How about you? What parts of the Bible have become more understandable to you once you were exposed to footnotes, an explanation in a commentary, or listened to a Bible teacher? And how do you determine which kinds of "contextual adjustment materials" to trust as faithfully representing the context of the original biblical author?


At Thu Aug 24, 10:02:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Fri Aug 25, 08:28:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


As I looked over the table of contents for Hill's book I noticed a lot of terminology relative to relevance theory. Concepts such as "relevance," "context" and "effects" have very special meanings within that theory. I was interested to discover that although you link to an article on Relevance Theory in your sidebar, a search of your blog brings up no results for "Relevance Theory."

Many of the things that RT addresses seem relevant to the idea of deveoping "Better Bibles." Do you think that this theory underlies the approach of your blog contributors?

At Fri Aug 25, 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Harriett Hill is certainly a proponent of Relevance Theory as important for Bible translation. Others of us are not so sure. A few years ago I wrote a paper "Holy Communicative?", largely about this, which has been published in a collection Translation and Religion. A draft of this (zipped Word document) is available for download.

At Fri Aug 25, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

I'll definitely read the paper. I wonder why translators don't like RT more. Is it that it lacks specific "steps" to produce good translations? Is it because RT is more about communication theory than translation theory? I must admit that it has influenced me a lot even though I don't fully understand the fine points.

At Fri Aug 25, 02:30:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, Lingamish, I can only summarise here. To me, the problem with RT is firstly that it is rather vague and wooly, sounds good in theory but doesn't mean much in practice. And the second problem is the way in which Ernst-August Gutt, in his important work on applying RT to translation, has mis-applied RT as an argument in effect for highly literal translations. A large part of my paper deals with the latter point.

At Sat Aug 26, 10:23:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Lingamish asked:

I'll definitely read the paper. I wonder why translators don't like RT more. Is it that it lacks specific "steps" to produce good translations? Is it because RT is more about communication theory than translation theory? I must admit that it has influenced me a lot even though I don't fully understand the fine points.

David, I can think of several reasons why there has been some resistance to the wholesale incorporation of RT to Bible translation work. Peter has touched on some of them.

In addition, RT is not really a theory about translation. It is a model of communication. I happen to think that it correctly describes the central role of inferences in communication.

But when RT has been applied to Bible translation, there have been statements made which are disconcerting. Several who like RT for Bible translation have communicated the idea that it is not necessary to make implicit information explicit in a translation. But implicit info is part of the original meaning of the text. If we are going to do an adequate job of applying RT to Bible translation, we need to carefully examine how each language group does specific inferences and apply those specific strategies to a specific translation. It is wrong, IMO, to toss the baby out with the bathwater and make blanket statements that sound like implicit info should not be made explicit.

Another reason for resistance is that RT people use awful jargon. That is not necessary. It is off-putting. RT is an intuitively sound description of human communication. It is possible to describe anything, even relativity, in basic, common words. Complex ideas do not have to be described with unnatural syntax or uncommon vocabulary.

Someone would give RT a great gift if they would produce a book describing RT using ordinary human language. Ironically, RT, a model about communication, is itself quite inaccessible to most people because of the linguistic barriers its practitioners erect.

Well, this should be a start. It would be appropriate to have some blog posts on this topic. Unfortunately, those who believe we should translate literally or essentially literally for English have used some of the writings of Gutt to justify their position.

There is *no* connection, as far as I can tell, between a call for more literal translations and RT. RT makes no statements about translation itself.

In fact, if we practice RT well, it seems to me that it is going to call us to make some implicit info explicit in order for people to make the necessary inferences for successful communication. So anyone who uses RT to justify literal translations is misusing the model, IMO.

At Sat Aug 26, 03:34:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, thanks for the expansion. Ernst-August Gutt has in fact been almost explicit in importing theological presuppositions into his Relevance Theory arguments about Bible translation, as for example when he wrote concerning making implicit background information explicit within the text:

Our reverence for the integrity of the biblical texts and our concern for the authenticity of Bible translations require us to abandon this practice as quickly as possible and to solve the problems by other, more acceptable means (Gutt, E-A. (2000b) Urgent call for academic reorientation. Notes on Sociolinguistics (SIL) 5 (2) p.52, quoted from my 2002 paper Holy Communicative?, draft).

However, the authority of the Bible is located not in any translation, but in the original language text, and so is not compromised by making implicit background information explicit. I am not, by the way, advocating adding large amounts of background material, just small clarifications which do not distort the overall balance of the text, as commonly found in modern English translations.


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