Transculturation and Bible translation
there is a spectrum in translation from formal equivalence to dynamic equivalence. I don’t think any translation falls off that line, so to speak. It is appropriate to say that a translation does a poor job, but an excessively loose translation is simply bad execution of dynamic equivalence translation. I suggest a second spectrum on which translations can be placed, one of transformation. Transformation refers to the extent to which a text is altered in form or context in order to express the same message in a different cultural or historical setting. A clear example of transformation would be the Cotton Patch Version, which transposed Biblical stories and peoples into 1960s Georgia. While I would be uncomfortable calling that a translation, I have nonetheless found it useful in teaching, and not just as a source of humor. It lacks timeless value, because these days I have to explain to some of my younger audiences the 1960s atmosphere in Georgia. I can do that because I lived in Georgia during the 60s. But for the place and time, the Cotton Patch Version often transformed the message.Henry started his post by asking:
I’ve been using a term about Bible translation, or rather, about a form of presenting the message of the Biblical text without taking the time to rigorously define it. That term is “transformation.” I want to throw out this post for some comments, and explain why I started using that term. Has it been used elsewhere in a similar way? Might there be a better term to use.I responded at length because I have done quite a lot of thinking in this area. I find it important to think about how we communicate spiritual truths to others. Here is what I commented on Henry's post:
Henry, I think the term you are searching for is transculturation. Missiologists use the term to refer to the communicating the gospel to people using the vocabulary and, to some extent, items of the target culture. I believe some have used the same term to refer to the use of local cultural terms (such as for names of deity) and items in Bible translation. An example of transculturation when the Bible was translated to German (and then other Germanic and Anglo-Saxon languages) would be the use of the name for the pagan deity, Gott. German translators could have borrowed a Greek (theos, which was itself a pagan term) or Latin (deus) term, but they chose to use a term already in the vernacular, Gott. Today English speakers inherit the result of that choice in English Bibles with the use of the word "God" rather than a borrowing from Greek or Latin.Henry replied:
A seminal work was written on transculturation by a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1970s. I'm having a senior moment right now trying to come up with his name and the name of the book. I have it in one of our boxes of books which has not yet been opened up after we moved a year ago. Got it: Charles Kraft (those synapses are amazing, misfiring sometimes, and then firing a bit later!!), book title: Christianity In Culture: A Study In Dynamic Biblical Theologizing In Cross-cultural Perspective, originally published in 1979. I found the book very stimulating.
Building on Kraft's ideas, Daniel Shaw, a later professor at Fuller seminary, and a former Bible translator, wrote the book titled Transculturation: The Cultural Factor in Translation and Other Communication Tasks, published in 1988.
The Fuller seminary bookstore website describes transculturation, as explained in Shaw's book, saying it... is to the cultural and non-verbal aspects of communication what translation is to verbal and literary forms. The application of anthropological principles to understanding source texts and receptor contexts allows for a presentation of the message to people in very different times and places. In this way a translation not only talks right but acts right as well. Transculturation is a process of information transfer that takes the whole communication context (source, messenger, and receptor) into account and allows people to respond in a way that is natural and appropriate for them.More recently Shaw co-authored Communicating Gods Word In A Complex World - Gods Truth or Hocus Pocus? with Charles E Van Engen. The seminary bookstore webpage says of this book that itconsiders a variety of approaches regarding how to communicate the Gospel. The authors suggest that contemporary proclaimers of the Gospel can model their approaches after those of the writers of scripture, who reinterpreted and restated their received texts for their audiences. In this way, communication of the Gospel is impacted by the ways in which humans know God.Some critics of dynamic equivalence suggest that translating by thought units rather than word-for-word is a form of transculturation, but I disagree. I prefer to reserve the term transculturation for the specific use of names for "different" cultural items from those found in the biblical texts. Your example of "salmon" in The Message is a good example of transculturation:Oh, look—the deep, wide sea,I do this just to keep the example small, and it’s also trivial–supplying the names of fish, and fish that are familiar to modern readers. I don’t know if “salmon” get going in the Mediterranean, but they certainly aren’t mentioned. Now my problem is not the supplying of the names. For what Eugene Peterson is doing, that’s just fine. It’s one of the charms of his translation of the Psalms. But there is an element of culturally shifting the message to make it more comprehensible to modern ears, and that element is what I’m calling transformation.
brimming with fish past counting,
sardines and sharks and salmon. (Psalm 104:25)
My remaining question, in those lazy times before I read some of the references, is whether “transculturation” covers the changes of form to which I referred. I see “salmon” as a good example of transculturation, but what about by altering Psalm 46 into a new form, or the translator who reworked Psalm 119 into an English acrostic (I can’t recall his name just now), or even the rewriting of a short Biblical/apocryphal story? That was why I chose “transformation” as the broader term.I would think that transformation would, then, be an appropriate term to subsume each of the changes that Henry is thinking of. The specific kinds of rephrasing of a Bible passage he mentions I would probably just call paraphrase.
I do want to emphasize that transculturation is a different kind of translation from dynamic equivalence, functional equivalence, or even what is typically called thought-for-thought translation, as in the New Living translation. When the original cultural references in a Bible translation remain the same as those of the biblical text, no transculturation has occurred. It is only when references, that is, places, people, animals, objects, or actions, have been changed that transculturation has occurred.
It is not transculturation to translate the Greek command metanoiete of Matthew 3:2 to English as "Change your hearts and lives" (NCV) rather than with the single word "repent." Both refer to the same act. It would be transculturation to translate the Greek command as "get yourselves new spirit guides" since this would not be referring to the same thing as the author of Matthew was referring to with the word metanoiete.
It is appropriate for Bible translators to use linguistic forms which are already in use in a target language to communicate the meaning of the biblical texts. For some English audiences it may be more appropriate to use the word "repent" to translate Greek metanoiete. For other audiences it is more appropriate to translate the command as "Change your hearts and lives" which has the same meaning as that intended by those who use the word "repent". Which wording to use is determined by paying careful attention to the vocabulary already in use by an intended target audience.
Let us not dismiss English Bible versions which translate using current vocabulary of their intended readers instead of vocabulary we are accustomed to in traditional Bible versions. And, most of all, let us always find ways to communicate to others what God wants us to, using words and grammar that they understand best. Jesus, a rabbi who had effective teaching skills, set that example for us.