'Tis the gift to be simple
Note to self: never hit "post" before the second cup of coffee in the morning. I mixed a few thens and thans.
There is a misconception about Bible translations that the ones with the biggest words and the most complicated sentences must be the most accurate. And a corollary error is that simple translations are dumb. On the contrary, 'tis the gift to be simple. Speaking clearly and well is a gift. And in translation it is evidence of a translator who has so internalized the original message that they can express it in natural language. But it's more than that. While translations that try to imitate the sentence length of Paul or the wordplay of Isaiah are valuable, they are prone to failure. That's because the nuts and bolts of languages are so different from one to the next that when we try to dolly up English to look like Hebrew we inevitable end up with something badly dressed.
So, 'tis the gift to be simple when making a Bible translation. Because it gives the reader a chance to absorb the meaning with a minimum of barriers. This happened with us last week in translating the story of the man born blind in John 9 into Nyungwe. We laughed at this audacious man who stood up to the powerful and said, "Do you want to become his disciples, too?" And we had more vocabulary for shepherding in Nyungwe than John did in Greek so our translation of John 10 was what some might call "free" in parts.
A good translation depends on what you're after. If you wish to translate the Psalms as if they were Elizabethan sonnets or head-banger anthems then good for you. If you hope to capture some of the raw language of the Psalms in raw English then terrific. If you hope to produce a translation that gives English readers a feeling for the rhythms and cadences of the original Hebrew then please do so. This is part of the problem in our translation debates. Sometimes we take shots at translations without defining what kind of translation we're after. ESV and TNIV are equally excellent translations with regard to their goals of targeting (much different) ideological and liturgical niches.
I am a great lover of the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I fell in love with his language and thought through translation. However had someone decided to make him sound like William Shakespeare or Walt Whitman I might not have been captivated by Neruda's lines of love. So a simple translation of Neruda is best. And then, if you wish to go further. It's time to learn Spanish. So too with the Biblical languages. A simple translation is best. Otherwise we very often end up exegeting a difficult-to-understand translation rather than the original text behind it.
Fall in love with the message of the Bible. And then dive into the original languages and fall in love all over again.
This post title quotes the first line of a beautiful American Shaker song, Simple Gifts. Here are the lyrics:
- 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
- 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
- And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
- 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
- When true simplicity is gain'd,
- To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
- To turn, turn will be our delight,
- Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Have a blessed week.
Labels: Bible translation