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Monday, February 26, 2007

The ever-renewing endurance of the vernacular

As I was recently visiting a Christian college, a book in the bookstore caught my eye (not exactly unusual). The title is "Translating the Message, The Missionary Impact on Culture", written by Lamin Sanneh.

A paragraph stands alone, in more ways than one, at the very beginning of the book. It not only convicts the many historians who have, with incredulous blindness to the obvious, missed how Christianity has shone on the human face of this world, but it shows unequaled perception into how the Lord Jesus has used the common language of people to carry the so freely offered message along that very pathway of history.

Here's the quote--read it slowly, since it's packed with keen insight.

The issue that frequently escapes the dragnet of the historian is the cumulative capital Christianity has derived from the common language of ordinary people. To the secular historian this fact has only political significance as a force for incitement; to the economic and social historian it is a fact that creates social mobility, and perhaps social tension. Yet to a Christian the confident adoption of vernacular speech as consecrated vessel places it squarely at the heart of religious change, and thus at the heart of historical consciousness. The central and enduring character of Christian history is the rendering of God's eternal counsels into terms of everyday speech. By that path believers have come to stand before their God.

To the phrase, "vernacular speech as consecrated vessel," I say, "Amen."

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11 Comments:

At Mon Feb 26, 08:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It should not go unstated that Sanneh knows first-hand what he is talking about. He is an African scholar who grew up observing the impact that the Bible in the vernacular language had. He also saw the contrast when non-indigenous religious forms were used. There is, I believe, an important lesson to be learned here for how Bibles are translated to languages such as English, which already have a long tradition of Bible translation. I suspect that Sanneh would say that English Bibles should be in the vernacular, as well. I would!

 
At Mon Feb 26, 08:44:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Mike,

I also stumbled on this book recently and had only enough time to skim through it in an hour or so. One thing that impressed me was that by using the vernacular it forces missionaries to contextualize the message and also facilitates the acceptance of the message by locals.

 
At Mon Feb 26, 10:30:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

Doesn't "vernacular" just mean "native" as in "native language"?

Am I missing something - isn't that what all translations do?

Latin used to be vernacular for a group of people, but then language changed.

And if "common" is more the term you are emphasizing - I would say, rather than have a "level" as our goal in translation (meaning, trying to make sure that even those who are poorly educated can read and understand), our goal should be faithful translation on the same level as the original, whatever that level may be (I would say it varies).

-Nathan

 
At Mon Feb 26, 10:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Good question, Nathan. My English dictionary indicates that "vernacular" is more than simply "native" language, although it is definitely that. Here is my dictionary entry:

ver·nac·u·lar n. 1. The standard native language of a country or locality. 2. The everyday language spoken by a people as distinguished from the literary language. See Synonyms at dialect. 3. The idiom of a particular trade or profession: in the legal vernacular. 4. An idiomatic word, phrase, or expression. 5. The common, nonscientific name of a plant or an animal. --ver·nac·u·lar adj. 1. Native to or commonly spoken by the members of a particular country or region. 2. Using the native language of a region, especially as distinct from the literary language: a vernacular poet. 3. Relating to or expressed in the native language or dialect. 4. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the style of architecture and decoration common in a particular region, culture, or period. 5. Occurring or existing in a particular locality; endemic: a vernacular disease. 6. Relating to or designating the common, nonscientific name of a plant or an animal. [From Latin vern³culus, native, from verna, native slave, perhaps of Etruscan origin.] --ver·nac“u·lar·ly adv.

My understanding is that if a translation is in the vernacular, it means that it is written the way that most speakers of the language actually speak the language at any particular point in time. Being in the vernacular does not mean that a translation will be ungrammatical, or slangy, or colloquial. The focus seems to be on natural wordings and syntax of how people use their language at any given point in time.

My impression is that Jesus spoke to people in their vernacular. He did not use archaisms, or a classical or sacred form of their language. He's my hero and example for how I would like to be able to do Bible translation, using his kind of language.

 
At Mon Feb 26, 10:49:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan asked:

Doesn't "vernacular" just mean "native" as in "native language"?

Am I missing something - isn't that what all translations do?


Sorry, Nathan, I missed your second question. My answer to it would be "no," many English Bibles are not written in the vernacular language of the people for whom they are translated. Many English Bibles contain unnatural wordings, even ungrammatical wordings (if we include within grammar the lexical rules of a language and all syntactic rules), obscure words not in the vernacular, etc. Many English Bible readers, however, have become accustomed to such language, and assume, I think, that the Bible is *not* supposed to sound like it is in their vernacular. It's an age-old struggle over the role of sacred language in religion and the life of any people.

 
At Tue Feb 27, 10:49:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Many English Bibles contain unnatural wordings, even ungrammatical wordings (if we include within grammar the lexical rules of a language and all syntactic rules), obscure words not in the vernacular, etc.

The original text of the Bible contains ungrammatical wordings, obscure words not in the vernacular, etc.

This is especially true in the Hebrew (which often uses aberrant grammar and obscure vocabulary) but even in the Greek with its many instances of anacolutha, hapax legomenon, technical terms, and obscure Judaic references.

If one holds that a translation should not be literal but rather "dynamically equivalent" it is incumbent on the translator to understand the text she is translating -- but this presents problems when there is widespread disagreement over the meaning of the text (as in Romans or some of the Gospel parables).

Finally, to translate into the vernacular will lose the complexity of the many stylistic features of the original. Again, this is particularly true in the Hebrew, but is also true in the Greek, with striking passages such as the solemn rhymes of 1 Thessalonians 2:15; and the change of mood suggested by Semitic phrases, or the dramatic change in register between Luke 1:4 and 1:5.

Translation into the vernacular gives the reader a false sense of understanding the text.

 
At Tue Feb 27, 11:34:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yikes!

Could someone choose a definition for 'vernacular'. Here is a list of possibilities.

When I refered to the Lindisfarne gloss as the 'vernacular' I certainly didn't mean to score points in this discussion. I think of vernacular as the native or national language.

This definition would be my choice.

(from Latin vernaculus "native, indigeneous"): The everyday or common language of a geographic area or the native language of commoners in a country as opposed to a prestigious dead language maintained artificially in schools or in literary texts. Latin, for instance, has not been a vernacular language for about 1250 years. Sanskrit has not been a vernacular language in India for more than 2000 years. ...
web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms_V.html

 
At Wed Feb 28, 04:00:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anonymous wrote: "This is especially true in the Hebrew (which often uses aberrant grammar and obscure vocabulary)".

What is your evidence for what grammar was aberrant or otherwise, and which words were obscure or otherwise, in vernacular Hebrew of the time of composition of the Hebrew Bible? As I understand it there is no other material in Hebrew to compare it with, apart from a very limited number of inscriptions which would anyway not be in the vernacular.

I accept that there are words and perhaps grammar in the Hebrew Bible which were not well understood by the LXX translators, but they were working centuries later and in an environment where Hebrew was no longer the vernacular. It is a bit like saying that because some colloquial expressions in Shakespeare are not well understood by non-specialists today, they are not genuine vernacular expressions from Shakespeare's time.

If there is other evidence on this issue, I would be interested to see it.

As for "anacolutha" in the Greek, that is a technical term for the unfinished sentences which are highly characteristic of spoken vernaculars anywhere and tend to be a good way of distinguishing them from literary language. But I do accept that there are non-vernacular technical terms in the Greek New Testament, as well as Judaic terminology which was probably in the vernacular of Greek-speaking Jews but not in the more general vernacular.

 
At Wed Feb 28, 05:20:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

One could take, for example, the entire commentary of Rashi, which is primarily an apology for the grammar of the Hebrew Bible.

As far as anacolutha is concerned, it is hardly characteristic of written material such as a story or epistle. But even if it were, many vernacular translations hide it. One only need look at Gal. 2:3-5, a passage that is grammatically incomplete and logically incoherent. What happened because of the false brethren? (One might argue that because of them Titus was compelled to be circumcised after all, but that possibility is excluded by v. 5.)

In the NIV, this passage, which is obviously left hanging in the original, is "cleaned up" so that the English reader does not see the issue at all.

 
At Wed Feb 28, 09:12:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Rashi (1040-1105) was writing what, 1500? 2000? 2500? years after much of the Hebrew Bible was written, and without the benefit of modern discoveries of ancient texts. So (without wanting to denigrate him at all as a theologian) I do not consider him an infallible authority on the grammar of biblical Hebrew. His apology was very likely for the Hebrew of the Bible not matching the literary standards of his own time, which is actually a good argument for it being more like the vernacular.

I take the point that many so-called vernacular translations hide the very features that show that the original Bible text was vernacular. This is sometimes because of translators' over-developed sense that the translation must be formally grammatical, or maybe at the insistence of the target community. All this shows is that the translation is not actually as vernacular as may be claimed, not at all that the original was not vernacular.

 
At Wed Feb 28, 09:42:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

I take the point that many so-called vernacular translations hide the very features that show that the original Bible text was vernacular.

Not a point I was arguing one way or the other. I was arguing that

The original text of the Bible contains ungrammatical wordings, obscure words not in the vernacular, etc.

Regarding the grammar of the Hebrew Bible, can you cite a single critical source that does not remark on its aberrant grammar?

 

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