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Sunday, October 22, 2006

κόσμος revisited

A couple days back Wayne raised a question about how to translate the Greek word κόσμος. This is dangerous ground (as some of the comments showed) precisely because it touches on a well-known and beloved verse, John 3:16. Anytime you propose to translate away from a wording which is so well-known and widely used, you will get a reaction.

It’s worth stopping to talk about that reaction.

As you know, if you’ve been reading this blog, I’m the first in line to argue for dynamic equivalence. So it may come as a surprise that I have some sympathy for those who have trouble with the concept. You see I was raised in church — Episcopal granted, but in a parish that wasn’t theologically liberal and one that gave me the solid grounding which made a full, conscious commitment to Jesus as a young adult easy. Growing up I learned both liturgy and Bible in wordings that may not speak to others but nonetheless still resonate deeply with me.
It is very meet right and our bounden duty that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Thee, O holy Lord, almighty Father
Our Father, which art in heaven
hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory
for ever and ever. Amen.
It’s this emotional resonance that we feel for passages we learned from the KJV that makes it hardest for us to accept dynamic equivalence translations. If I translate:
God loves people so much that he sent his one and only son to make it possible for everyone to live forever simply by putting their trust in him.
We will all still hear:
For God so loved the world that gave his only begotten son so that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life.
And we experience cognitive dissonance.

Wikipedia has a nice informal definition.
In laymen's terms, [cognitive dissonance] is the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time.
For us the conflict is between the wording we are emotionally attached to and one that speaks clearly.

The concept of cognitive dissonance was originally developed in the 1950’s to explain people’s refusal to accept facts plainly in evidence because of deeply held beliefs. Further research has shown that it is a much more general phenomenon. J. S. Atherton, a British expert on teaching, observes something based on cognitive dissonance research that is of further relevance to the Bible translation debate, beyond just the emotional connection.
Ordeal is an effective — if spurious — way of conferring value on an experience. … The more obscure and convoluted the subject, the more profound it must be.[1]
This should cause us to pause and reflect seriously.

Many wordings in the most popular literal translations are obscure and convoluted. Learning what they mean takes some work; it is an ordeal of sorts. Are we reacting to new wordings because they don’t measure up as translations, or are we rationalizing that the familiar, emotionally satisfying wordings are more profound because of cognitive dissonance?

[1] ATHERTON J S (2005) Learning and Teaching: Cognitive Dissonance and learning.

4 Comments:

At Sun Oct 22, 01:14:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

As a person that advocates the use of both formal and functional translations (as I see an obvious need for both) I find the statement "Learning what they mean takes some work; it is an ordeal of sorts..." to be troublesome. Heaven forbid! those Biblical texts, none of which are younger than 1,900 years, should be difficult to figure out. While I advocate the use of easy to read translations and the more intelligent functional translations, I certainly harbor no illusion about the content and variety found within the Scriptures. It seems to me that ANY Bible translation will take some work to understand, even those designed for those new to language. Just because the words are clear, easy and the meanings concise, this does not guarantee that people are cognizant of the Bible. I agree that the literal translations can make the whole "ordeal" more difficult, yet, they still have a place in the Bible students library.

Now, I'm not certain what arguments were brought up in relation to kosmos. I can say, personally, that I see no problem translating the word as "mankind" or "humankind" in John 3:16 because this appears to be the intended scope. I find Wayne’s suggestion of "people" to be insufficient, though fair. In the pursuit of practical Christianity I find that it is necessary to exercise academic honesty when dealing with the text.

I find the term "Cognitive Dissonance" to be amusing. After the term has been coined, the phenomenon can be studied scientifically. Personally, I like to call it the "discord of understanding". Feels more like a human conception this way, rather than a test tube by-product.

As far as the profundity of words goes, there has to be a way to measure this. Perhaps based upon scope and nuance? There should be a way to measure English words to determine their general profundity. "World" may, in fact, be a more profound conception of the meaning than the plain, and most certainly flat, "people." This is why I feel "mankind" or "humankind" would merge the two well, because it retains much of the scope of "world" but portrays the intended meaning "people" well.

These are just my thoughts, as insignificant as ever. (I have my degrees in IT, so my thoughts on science, psychology, language, and religion are as worthless as the opinion of my coffee mug. I must apologize for the burden of the uneducated: though lacking credentials, an opinion still voiced.)

 
At Sun Oct 22, 01:17:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Correction: Wayne's suggestion was "Everyone", not "people".

My bad.

 
At Mon Oct 23, 05:38:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

I intended this as something to think about. There's often more heat than light in the translation debate, and I'm trying to get all the cards on the table.

That said, you have some reasonable points.

Do old texts require study?

Certainly.

But on the other hand, much of the Scripture is very simple. It talks about farmers and seeds, fishermen and nets, honesty, fairness, and love. Not things that have changed much in 2000 years, and all things a child can understand. It's depth comes from the fact that it is true. I think we tend to make it abstract and difficult to understand as a defense against having to deal with the demands on our lives that the Scriptures make. Having a meaningful translation cuts through a lot of that. (It's worth noting Nida's comment about translation testing: "If people begin to open their mouths, you know they're understanding. If they sit there with the mouth closed, you know they don't understand.)

Yes, study the text to see what it means. But I'd say if you want to study with a text that is literal, get yourself an interlinear. My objection is that even the most literal translations have a lot of hidden interpretation. See my piece on the translation of the Greek adjective Ιουδαιος (Sins of Omission) couple months back.

 
At Mon Oct 23, 01:58:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

But on the other hand, much of the Scripture is very simple.

I agree. It is unfortunate that many theologians have done more than their fair share of overcomplicating distinctly simple passages (which, by my estimation, is the majority of the NT).

It talks about farmers and seeds, fishermen and nets, honesty, fairness, and love. Not things that have changed much in 2000 years, and all things a child can understand.

Agreed. The human heart remains the same, despite what burdens a more modernized world may present.

I think we tend to make it abstract and difficult to understand as a defense against having to deal with the demands on our lives that the Scriptures make.

You appear cautious in asserting this, but I would unhesitatingly agree with the joust of your words. We do make it abstract, and we tend to overcomplicate passages beyond what the original authors intended. I have no doubt about this. In fact, my wife and I were watching a teaching the other day, I cannot for the life of me remember what it was, but, when the teacher came to his conclusion, my wife and I both turned to one another and expressed a distinct feeling that the teacher had thoroughly and unashamedly overcomplicated what was a simple though penetratingly true passage. Why did he complicate and theorize so heavily upon this passage? I have no idea. The simple truth of the passage was rather condemning in and of itself, without the "help" that the teacher no doubt felt he was lending to the passage.

But I'd say if you want to study with a text that is literal, get yourself an interlinear.

I fully confer with you here. I am not a fan of translations that claim to be "literal", and then fail to be what they claim. I think fine print is ok in limited quantities, but many of these literal translations should necessarily rely on vast quantities of fine print, were we completely honest. This is why I advocate interlinears, as you mentioned, or the truly more literal such as Young's, Concordant Version and the Analytical Literal translation. Although, many of these more literal translations are based upon the TR, so mileage may vary. However, it should be said that even these translations necessarily must have fine print.

I don't know all of the reasons why we feel the need to overcomplicate what is frequently a simple and direct message. Often, I think it is our desire to avoid necessary action. For example, the word Grace is very frequently not actually comprehended and dealt with in a passage. So, imagine the surprise and prick of realization when they, for the first time, read a translation which translates grace as "God's favor" or kindness. Let me quote a scripture:

But each of us was given grace...
Eph 4:7a (New Revised Standard Version)

I think it is significant when the passage becomes this:

God's favor has been given to each of us.
Eph 4:7a (God's Word)

There are reasons to argue against doing this, due to the fact that grace is both traditional and potentially wider in scope; but, it never fails to amaze, the surprise on a persons face when they first read the passage with the concept or term "grace", translated into an English meaning. Some feel that the carry over of the Latin term was unfortunate from the very beginning.

 

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