What's in a word?
But here’s the problem. The emotional component in the translation debate is very large. But few will acknowledge it. Instead many feel the need to rationalize (or worse, theologize) their preferences. The debates about translations are carried on as if the very Truth of God’s Word were at stake. This approach leads otherwise rational people to say truly incredible things. (See Mark Driscoll’s apology for using the ESV in his church, and an excellent critique of his position by Henry Neufeld) I won’t rehash all those arguments, Henry has done a great job, but I want to emphasize one crucial point. Pastor Driscoll articulates a positon that seems to underlie much of the debate about contemporary translations.
If you change the wording, you’re tampering with God’s Word.Nothing could be further from the truth. These are translations, after all. God’s Word was delivered in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, not in English and no one's saying anything about changing them.
The professor in me can’t resist the opportunity to give a little lesson in linguistics.
The root of the problem here is the view of the linguistic naïf that the meaning is in the words. Sorry, Virginia, this one isn't true. The meaning is not in the words. Hard to believe, but them's the facts. The meaning is not in the words. Most of the meaning we associate with a word is in what the word refers to. The component of meaning that the word brings is the “spin”. A word tells you how to look at the thing it refers to.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good, concise examples that show the difference in these components of meaning, so I pretty much need to use one that is PG-13. So if you’re easily offended by scatology, you can just take my word for it and skip ahead. (Believe me, if I knew a nicer example that worked as well, I’d use it.) Anyway, here goes.
Consider the following list of synonyms:
s**t, crap, fecal matter, feces, stool, poop, caca, doo dooIn one way all these words mean the same thing. That’s what I mean when I say the meaning is not in the words but in what the words refer to. Wait, you say. These are different words, they must mean something different. Well, yes. The difference is in how the words get you to look at the thing they refer to. (In the linguistics business this is called "framing".) S**t is a taboo word. That’s the part of the meaning that belongs to the word and not to the referent. Crap is only slightly better. When one says fecal matter, feces, or stool, one is talking more technically or in the detached manner of a doctor. Poop, caca, doo doo are more children’s words or humorous or euphemistic. I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea. The bulk of the meaning of a word is in what that word refers to. The part of the meaning that’s in the word is how it frames the way you think about the thing it refers to.
But there’s the problem. Not only do the categories of things referred to by words differ from language to language, but the words themselves frame the categories differently, as well. So the translator is always in a trade-off between optimizing the reference and trying not to get the framing too wrong.
Take Mark Driscoll’s example of propitiation. This is a highly technical term in English. To all but the highly initiated it has no reference beyond that we know that sin is somehow involved and that it’s good for the sinner in some way. In English it’s all framing and essentially no reference. But the Greek family of words it translates —
Oh, yes, Pastor Driscoll was not entirely honest with the data. There is not one word translated propitiation, there are three ἱλάσκομαι, ἱλασμός, and ἱλαστήριον. Yes, they all refer to the same root concept, but if you say it’s the wording that is important and not the concepts, you can’t go around using the very same thought-for-thought translation that you railed against elsewhere. (Peter Kirk at Speaker of Truth makes a similar point about the concept justification on his post about Pastor Driscoll and the ESV.)Anyway, the Greek family of words refers to something that eastern Mediterrean culture in Roman times was familiar with. You offer a sacrifice to appease the gods. Details were different in different cultures, but the notion that something could be offered to turn away the wrath of a deity was there. These words were religious – because of their reference. But they weren’t any more technical than the word stool, when the doctor asks you for a stool sample.
This religious concept is not in the consciousness of 21st century Americans, however. So what’s a translator to do?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with spelling things out when no good single word exists in the target language.
I John 4:10 … [he] sent his son to be the sacrifice that turns away his anger over our sin.Don’t try and tell me propitiation is a better translation for ἱλασμός. If you do, it’s not about translating at all, it’s about how you feel about translating and translations and it’s time to admit it.
Oh, and if the exact wording is so important in the ESV, why does Luke 18:13 read:
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful (ἱλασθητί) to me, a sinner!’ (ESV)Hmm.
The point that seems to be missed in this ongoing debate is that the unique thing about Christianity and language is that the God who is the Word, THRIVES on being translated. I’ll say it again. God’s Word thrives on being translated. He wants to speak to you in the most intimate way.
If you are an ordinary follower of another major world religion, you need to learn God's language, Arabic for the Qur’an, Sanskrit for Hinduism, and Hebrew for Judaism. But in Christianity our God speaks our language, not the language of the church, but the one that we carry on our inner dialogue in.
In Christian history times of major revival have often been associated with translation or re-translation of the Scriptures into the language of the common people.
So why are we getting so worked up about translations that speak ordinary English?