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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Transculturation and Bible translation

Henry Neufeld has posted another stimulating piece on culturally contextualized Bible translation, Translation, Paraphrase, and Transformation. Henry believes that
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.

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 it
considers 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,
brimming with fish past counting,
sardines and sharks and salmon. (Psalm 104:25)
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.
Henry replied:
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.

14 Comments:

At Wed Jan 17, 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

Wayne,

Thanks for bringing the discussion over here. Since I made that comment I'm asking myself another question. Is it going to be meaningful to combine transculturation and what I'm calling transformation into a single measure? I create this type of measure for my Bible Version Selection Tool, and it seemed to me when I wrote my post that creating such a scale would give lay readers some kind of measuring stick to use.

As it would work, however, I would make a list of 10-20 common types of changes made, and rank Bibles according to how many they make. In transculturation that would include measures, types of creatures, place names, names of cultural groups, etc. In transformation it would include creating target language poetic forms, recreating letter formats, and perhaps a few others. Most of what I would call transformation that is not transculturation does not occur in major translations, only in work on portions of scripture.

I would like to underline your comment that neither transculturation nor transformation is part of dynamic/functional equivalence as an approach to translation. I do see the common conversion of measures as a very light form of transculturation, but it does not provide any pointer to the basic translation method. I did not use it as an indicator in my selection tool.

 
At Wed Jan 17, 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Is it going to be meaningful to combine transculturation and what I'm calling transformation into a single measure?

Well, you've probably heard of lumpers and splitters when it comes to categorization. I tend to be a splitter, I think. In this case I see an important difference between the superordinate category transformation and its subordinate category transculturation. Rephrasing does not change original biblical text reference. Transculturation does.

Actually, to my mind, rephrasing is on the continuum between formal equivalence to "free" translation. Rephrasing is what all Bible translators, including word-for-word translators do, to one extent or another, to get the translation to fit English language patterns. Even the more literal versions such as NASB, RSV, and NASB (the KJV is not as literal as any of them) change word order and literal word-for-word translation when English requires it.

I guess I would have a separate category for transculturation and within that category mark kinds or degrees of transculturation used within a version. For instance, several recent versions translate to modern monetary equivalents. That's a mild form of transculturation. But when Peterson refers to salmon, or in our breakfast reading this morning, to the Alps and Andes, we have more extensive transculturation.

My two cents, I mean, two lepta, worth!

 
At Wed Jan 17, 02:55:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

NASB, RSV, and NASB (the KJV is not as literal as any of them)

OK, I really must protest here. First, listing the NASB twice seems to be girding the loins (oops, I guess readers of the NASB, ESV and other Evangelical translations won't recognize that Prov 31:17 reference -- although readers of the KJV and RSV will certainly grasp it (or at least grasp the hems.)

But I must express wonderment at (a) in your previous post, praising Rick Mansfield for not making sweeping generalizations about the "literalness" of entire translations -- especially without examples -- and (b) then making sweeping generalizations yourself; it hardly seems proper (particularly, since your assertion is demonstrably false). In most of the Hebrew Bible (for example Proverbs 31:17) the KJV translates metaphors and expressions literally, while the NASB almost invariably translates them conceptually. Moreover, the KJV pays sensitive attention to prosody, alliteration, conjunctions (a dominant feature of the Hebrew) while the NASB treats them freely. Indeed, I would challenge an assertion the RSV (when considered with footnotes) was less literal than the NASB.

Finally, the NASB seems to have little presence outside Evangelical circles.

 
At Wed Jan 17, 04:07:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

OK, I really must protest here. First, listing the NASB twice seems to be girding the loins

Or gilding the lily, or something like that! :-)

My fingers are increasingly typing things other than what my brain wants them to (or the language part of my brain, anyway). The second instance of NASB was intended to be ESV. I could also have included NRSV.

As to speaking in generalizations, as you pointed out, I plead guilty. But my generalization is based on quantified studies I have done. It's not simply a gut feeling. There are metrics for measuring degree of formal equivalence. I've tried to be as objective as possible in such matters. My last graduate study program heavily emphasized empirical, quantitative approaches to language. It stuck. But, you're right, I sounded like I wasn't being consistent with what I recently posted.

 
At Wed Jan 17, 04:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Anon., in case it isn't clear what I'm referring to about differences in degree of literalness between the NASB and KJV, I am referring to the fact that the KJV translating use a number of dynamic equivalent wordings. They did not follow a strictly formally equivalent approach to translation. One of the often cited exx. is translation of Greek me genoito as "God forbid" instead of literal "May it not be" (e.g. Rom. 3:4).

In my own quantified studies of degree of literalness, I am pretty sure that the KJV did not rank as literal as the NASB.

But to be more certain, we would need to have even more examplars than I have used, ideally in the hundreds would be better. Ultimately, it may turn out that the KJV is more literal than the NASB, but I would doubt it at this point. I have used both translations for many years. I grew up on the KJV. I agree with you that it has literary beauty and cadence, esp. in the poetic genre material.

 
At Wed Jan 17, 04:26:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Congratulations, Wayne, on steering BBB through the murky ponds of blogdom to the milestone (oops, the metaphor is now mixed, but "harbour" would suggest that this is journey's end) of its 1000th post, with a little help from your friends (as the good book says, well, maybe). And as usual you did so with an excellent post on an important subject.

"the translator who reworked Psalm 119 into an English acrostic (I can’t recall his name just now)", at least the one I know of, is Brenda Boerger. Her (not his!) translation of Psalm 119 as an English acrostic is found in SIL Notes on Translation vol.11 no.2 (1997) pp.35-56.

 
At Wed Jan 17, 04:47:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Congratulations, Wayne, on steering BBB through the murky ponds of blogdom to the milestone (oops, the metaphor is now mixed, but "harbour" would suggest that this is journey's end) of its 1000th post, with a little help from your friends (as the good book says, well, maybe).

Wow, 1000 already? I had no idea. Well, I couldn't have done it without you and Suzanne, Dan, Rich, and Mike.

And may the next 1000 be even better!

 
At Wed Jan 17, 05:06:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Gild the lily? I think not. Perhaps "Gild the pill" (following Boyle's 1674 The Excellency of Theology compared with Natural Philosophy) or "Gild over" (following Shakespeare 2 Henry IV 1:2:169) or "gild" as in cover with blood (following Shakespeare King John 2:1:316 or Macbeth 2:2:56 or "gild" as in clamor (e.g., following Belleden's 1533 translation of Livy's History of Rome "Appius, herand the huge noyis and gilde rissin haistelie amang the pepill . . . rais fra his sait.")

But this was best described as girding the loins.

As to claimed "dynamic equivalence" of the KJV, it is true that the RV was more literal than the KJV (at the expense of style.) However, I am constantly amazed by the claims that the NASB is a literal translation -- it almost seems to me as if I must be reading a different version of it than thou, because I find it to be just another paraphrastic translation. I'm more than a little amazed that it enjoys the reputation it does among Evangelicals given that it is, after all, rather ordinary.

 
At Wed Jan 17, 08:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

However, I am constantly amazed by the claims that the NASB is a literal translation -- it almost seems to me as if I must be reading a different version of it than thou, because I find it to be just another paraphrastic translation. I'm more than a little amazed that it enjoys the reputation it does among Evangelicals given that it is, after all, rather ordinary.

Well, if I may respond, in kind, in broad terms (and I do find some benefit in that, at time), it is true that the NASB is no literary masterpiece at all. Even its advocates sometimes refer to it has having "wooden" English.

But if you take the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible and align the texts of the KJV and NASB with them, as is done with an interlinear, and then compute the percentage of word-to-word matches, I am fairly sure that that NASB would rank higher than the KJV. And that is what is being held up so highly these days in some evangelical circles as one of the marks of a good Bible translation. I don't agree with that desire, but I do know that it is held strongly by quite a few evangelicals.

 
At Thu Jan 18, 02:27:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

This discussion is making me wonder if there are any literal translations at all in English. I can't find any, none of the large selection at Bible Gateway, which translate pateres at Hebrews 11:23 literally as "fathers", rather than the "interpretive" "parents". The latter is chosen even by the explicitly literal Young and Darby, and by those translators who claim that it is a translation error to do exactly the same thing by rendering huioi as "children" even when the referents are clearly mixed gender. And the fact that pater is not necessarily a specifically masculine word has significant theological consequences, as discussed in my latest blog post.

 
At Thu Jan 18, 07:10:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Wayne, Thanks for mentioning Charles Kraft's book entitled "Christianity In Culture". I read it years ago and highly recommend it.

 
At Thu Jan 18, 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Wayne,
Thanks for this post. I had the course based upon this text with Kraft while at Fuller: a real mind-bender!

But if you take the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible and align the texts of the KJV and NASB with them, as is done with an interlinear, and then compute the percentage of word-to-word matches, I am fairly sure that that NASB would rank higher than the KJV. And that is what is being held up so highly these days in some evangelical circles as one of the marks of a good Bible translation. I don't agree with that desire, but I do know that it is held strongly by quite a few evangelicals.

I spotted a gracious and patient comment at the bottom of responses to Mark Driscoll's explanation for his church's switch to using the ESV: the explanation offers a great example of the desire you mentioned. And the comment does justice to the kinds of concerns you cite regarding the contrast between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations.

 
At Thu Jan 18, 04:10:00 PM, Blogger yuckabuck said...

I am currently reading Kraft's book and enjoying it very much.

A former missionary to Papua New Guinnea who studied under Kraft spent one glorious year teaching missions class at Circleville Bible College, and taught us all those "forbidden" things that I rarely hear about elsewhere, such as dynamic equivalence, transculturation, and Don McGavern's church growth theory. The students in the class (including the woman I ended up marrying) were then inspired to ask hard questions about the Bible translations we were used to using, as well as harder questions regarding "dynamically equivalent church services" as opposed to the way the college's denomination did things. The missionary wasn't asked to teach the next year. But there are about 20 more people in the world who understand more about translational principles, and BETTER BIBLES, thanks to Chuck Kraft, and that missionary.

 
At Thu Jan 18, 04:48:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I am currently reading Kraft's book and enjoying it very much.

Good. I'm glad to know it is still being read. I sure benefited from it when I got it soon after it was published.

 

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