Review: The Bible at Cultural Crossroads
The Bible at Cultural Crossroads: From Translation to Communication
Harriet Hill. St. Jerome Publishing, Manchester, UK M23 9HH, 2006, 280 pages, £25.00 ($55.09).
--Reviewed by Wayne Leman.
"We have had the Bible in our language, but we still couldn't understand what it meant." That's what Hill's main assistant said to her (p. 64) when she was conducting the research for this book. Why can't many Bibles, even ones that are translated well, be understood? And what can be done about it?
Hill answers these questions in this major rewrite of her dissertation submitted to Fuller Theological Seminary. She writes from her experience as an SIL linguist in Africa, where she helped translate the Bible for the Adioukrou people of Côte d'Ivoire.
Gaps between the cultural contexts in which the Bible was written and those of people for whom it is translated create problems for understanding the Bible. Hill became so concerned about this issue that she conducted field research in which she tested several translated Bible passages. She presented them to Adioukrou with varying amounts of information supplied about the original biblical contexts. Not surprisingly, understanding of the translation increased significantly as the cultural context of a passage was clarified. More than 20% of this book are rich appendixes of Hill's field tests and results.
Hill describes several kinds of "contextual adjustment materials" which increase understanding, including Bible book introductions, section headings, footnotes, illustrations, glossaries, drama, and Bible storytelling. We could also mention Bible study and Bible background books, and Bible classes.
Hill writes from the perspective of Relevance Theory (RT). RT emphasizes that much communicated meaning is unstated. We figure out unstated meanings inferentially.
This book reads best when Hill writes in her own voice—clear and personable, often with a touch of humor. It is more difficult to read when she quotes from or uses the technical vocabulary of RT. Ironically, while RT is about communication, its practitioners often write in a way that is difficult for others to understand, as when Hill quotes:
"An assumption is relevant to an individual to the extent that the positive cognitive effects achieved when it is optimally processed are large"
Fortunately, it is possible to skip sentences like that and gain a great deal from the rest of the book. It would be helpful if there were a glossary in this book explaining technical terms used.
This book is valuable for its clear, practical suggestions for how Bible translators and other missiologists can better communicate to people who have cultural assumptions different from those of the Bible.
Check these titles:
Gutt, Ernst-August. 1992. Relevance theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, and New York, NY: United Bible Societies.
Weber, David. 2005. A Tale of Two Translation Theories. Dallas, TX: SIL Electronic Publications.
And what is the relevance (!) of this book to English Bible translation? Exactly the same relevance that it has to translation of the Bible anywhere in the world. When an English Bible is translated accurately, following scholarly exegesis, and perhaps is even worded in natural and clear English, and yet its readers do not get the meanings intended by its authors, something needs to be done to help those readers derive the original meanings from the text. Gaps can be filled in with Bible teaching or interpretational helps included with the translation, as footnotes or other kinds of study notes. Some culturally implicit information that was present in the meaning of the original biblical texts can be made explicit, but this needs to be done with care so that the text is not expanded to sound like a commentary. Other "contextual adjustment materials" described by Dr. Hill can be developed.
Bibles which can be accurately understood by their readers are better Bibles.