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Leave the Bible alone

Bible scrollThis post is third in a series. The other two are:
Wycliffe wades into wild waters
translating Father & Son

My passion for the Bible being translated as accurately as possible is not new-found. When I was training for the priesthood in the late 80’s, when the presumption still existed that stipended priests would train and be formed at St John’s College, Auckland, I organised a letter/petition that our NZ Prayer Book’s psalter not have the unsystematic removal of “Israel” and “Zion” from its text. St John’s, being where essentially all Anglican clergy went to be trained, had every hue and colour of the Anglican spectrum present – there was little we could all agree on. But every student signed the letter (except one or two overseas students who appropriately felt it was not their business). The non-Israel/Zion psalter went ahead, much to the hurt of the Jewish community who felt that their taonga (treasure) was being desecrated. I do not recall our letter even receiving an acknowledgement. General Synod’s reasoning: people misunderstand “Israel” and “Zion” in the Bible. The Anglican Church’s response isn’t to educate and help people to understand “Israel” and “Zion” – just alter it.

Wycliff, SIL, and Frontiers similarly see “Father” and “Son” in the Bible being misunderstood in Muslim contexts, so rather than translate these accurately with explanations in footnotes, they are altering the actual translated text.

What about liturgical texts with “Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of life”? I get asked. Great. Be creative in our public praying with new texts and new images, “Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver” (Our church found the original “Love-maker” in that prayer an image too far! Obviously, I’m not talking about translating historic Trinitarian texts, the creeds, or those used for baptism – there’s a whole series of posts here on that).

What about inclusive language in translations such as NRSV? Great. If the original is clearly intended to be gender-inclusive, the translation should be gender-inclusive (not the ESV nonsense of translating what they acknowledge to be gender-inclusive in intent with an English gender-specific translation).

Since the first post I’ve been asked privately what about a translation that rephrases the entire Bible to avoid gendered language for God and anything that excludes LGBT? Well, firstly, I don’t think that the biblical writers had the concepts of LGBT that we have, and so anything that appears to straight-forwardly address them is an anachronistic reading back into the text what isn’t there. The word “homosexual” dates from 1870. Using the word “homosexual” in an English translation of the Bible is very recent.

If we are going to “correct” the Bible on one set of criteria – where do we stop? Let’s correct its misunderstanding of Geology, Geography, Biology, Mathematics, Psychology, and the past and future of the planet – to name but a few…

My contention: leave the Bible alone.

That leads to a very important point. I am forever being bombarded by the next translation of the Bible that makes it read like a contemporary story. It isn’t! Such a translation may be safe, useful, and effective in the hands of someone with good training and formation – but generally it reinforces the colossal mistake that we can pick up the Bible and accept what it says at face value in the same manner that we would a contemporary reliable history book. This is not what the Bible is. The Bible is a complex collection of ancient documents from across a period of over a thousand years written in contexts and languages that are immensely alien.

It should be every Christian community’s joy to help people find their way into this magnificent collection, and to find in this collection ever-deeper insight into the meaning of our lives. Clergy need to be thoroughly trained and formed to enable this journey.

Sometimes we will encounter concepts and ideas that no longer apply. We have moved on. We need to move on. Having worked out what the original text really means, and been honest about what it means, we need to say, no, this is something we will no longer accept; this is something we will no longer follow. But to change the translation to fit in with our altered perceptions – I think that is dishonest.

Leave the Bible alone.

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25 Responses to Leave the Bible alone

  1. I agree, point for point, until “Clergy need to be thoroughly trained and formed to enable this journey.” And even that I mostly agree with, except that teaching is not the exclusive province of the clergy.

    Do you not have EfM in New Zealand? How many of your clergy actually lead Bible study groups? I don’t know of many in the USA, but lay-led Education for Ministry is everywhere, based on materials and training from Sewanee, a leading seminary.

    • Thanks, Josh. To clarify: my seeking that clergy be trained does not imply that others not be trained, nor that teaching is the exclusive province of clergy – that is far from my understanding. Yes, we have EfM here. I am not sure how widespread it is here – but I know it is a good process. Blessings.

  2. I mostly agree with your translation concerns, Bosco, but I’m not sure I think it’s entirely fair to say that Wycliffe/SIL/Frontiers are ‘altering the translated text’ rather than translating them accurately. I think they’re taking the perspective that a literal translation of the terms at issue would communicate wrong (or at least skewed) meaning to the readers, and therefore be an inaccurate translation. As you rightly highlighted in an earlier post, the issues involved here are much more complex than the ‘Wycliffe are removing Father and Son from the Bible’ type headlines tend to suggest. Translation is not an exact science, there is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between terms in different languages and some loss is always involved. I believe there is an Italian proverb along the lines that ‘all translation involves betrayal’ – I understand it sounds much more pithy in the Italian, where the words for translation and betrayal are very similar – which illustrates the point exactly!

  3. Your last paragraph was particularly helpful for me: Acknowledging that we chose not to listen to scriptural counsel on certain things (in my tradition, for one example, that would be that we do allow women pastors though Paul said “women are to remain silent.”) I think that is a very helpful way to look at it rather than the exegetical gymnastics one must go through to be a biblical literalist and allow modern conventions at the same time. Yes, just name it: the Bible said this to a particular group at a particular time and we don’t believe it speaks to us in that same way.

    The challenge then with a bit of, shall we name it scriptural relativism (?), is how are lines drawn? What about a Christian community that would think along the same lines about the divinity of Jesus? “Yes, I know the Bible says that Jesus is the Son of God; but that is something we no longer accept. It does not apply.”

    But, I hear that the purpose of this blog post is that that is a conversation that must happen after a faithful translation of the text.

    • Thanks, Joel. Another example that springs to mind is marrying after divorce.

      I am not persuaded that the Bible-alone is sufficient.

      I believe in the full divinity of Jesus – but not solely from biblical proof texts. And I would be against translations that would rework texts that might give the impression that Jesus is not fully divine just to fit in with our beliefs – to extend your example. I also think that earlier ways of understanding Christian truths may no longer make sense in our different times and contexts.

      Blessings

  4. Without withdrawing a cheer or indeed half of one, I might suggest that we need a degree of humility re:
    “Sometimes we will encounter concepts and ideas that no longer apply. We have moved on. We need to move on. Having worked out what the original text really means, and been honest about what it means, we need to say, no, this is something we will no longer accept; this is something we will no longer follow.”
    This assumes that ‘We’ know which way is ‘Forward’ – ‘Progress’ is a notoriously unfaithful master 🙂

    • Quite right, Eric, as the comment from Joel, above, highlights. But “the Bible says so” is not the end of the discussion. And certainly, translating the Bible so it fits with our assumptions – that’s not on. Blessings.

  5. General Synod’s reasoning: people misunderstand “Israel” and “Zion” in the Bible. The Anglican Church’s response isn’t to educate and help people to understand “Israel” and “Zion” – just alter it.

    That, I feel, is the problem behind a lot of attempts to reform something (e.g. the liturgy, the translation of the Bible). Rather than reform ourselves (e.g. through education or — gasp! — mortification) we decide it must be the “other” which needs reforming.

    We act that way in our relationships too, come to think of it.

    • A very good point, Jeffrey, but we must also take care not to press this too far. The NRSV is a better translation than the King James, official contemporary liturgies are better than BCP(1662), your own blog is devoted to the new RC Mass translation being better than the previous one. Blessings.

    • Thanks for the post and the link to it, Victoria. Briefly, I think that formal and functional translation can be misunderstood by those who are not multilingual. Word-for-word translation is generally not possible, and every “formal equivalent” translation has elements of “functional translation”. Blessings.

  6. I’ve been asking people who talk like you, Bosco, why they think Wycliffe is doing these things. Here is a reply that just came in:

    “I have a few theories. 1)Money 2)Pride (because Wycliffe has been around for around 100 yrs). I sense that because they are global and most likely rich, it would be harder to stay true to the gospel of our Lord. Jesus said, ‘It is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Nevertheless, all things are possible with God.” Also, psychological and cultural components come into play. It may be that the present generation rested on the reputation built by their grandfather or great-grandfather. They are the largest translators globally I think. It is thus easier to get caught up in a worldly view and wander far from the gospel. 3) This may be a little far fetched but here goes: Another aspect that comes to mind is that they have some sort of a business arrangement with someone more powerful than Wycliffe or that they simply cannot get out of, at least without serious ramifications. This whole situation of replacing scripture has the mark of Cain on it–thus the spirit of the Antichrist and Satan. I realize that the spirit of the antichrist is discussed in the gospels as whenever someone goes against our Lord. But this situation has the mark of The Antichrist. Wycliffe may not even realize that this is so. Further, I may very well be wrong about it being The Antichrist. Without going into details, suffice it to say, with all that is going on in the world and the fact that prophesy is being fulfilled at a very fast pace on so many levels: I feel strongly that the Antichrist is alive and is already having a significant impact on the world already.”

    There are thousands of these types suddenly enlisted by “Biblical Missiology” in the uprising against Wycliffe. As for you, do you really have any idea of why Wycliffe does such thing? You seem to be drawing on the same sources as the woman I just quoted. Why not try something in a peer reviewed journal: International Journal of Frontier Missions, vol. 28 no. 3 includes some actual discussion of the issues. That might be a better place for you to start. Or perhaps you prefer the sources that you and the woman quoted above and thousands like her have drawn on so far.

    • Thanks for your comment, Auggie. I see no value in second-guessing motivations of individuals or organisations; even people whose motives are good may produce results that are questionable. I am yet to be convinced that it is wrong to be having this discussion.

      Readers here can find the International Journal of Frontier Missions, vol. 28 no. 3 material here. In essence I have responded to many of the points there here.

      It would help, Auggie, if you explained whether you would apply a similar approach in English translations as I have contended, and why or why not.

      Blessings.

  7. Well, Bosco, we should be having the conversation that has been going on for many years in places like IJFM. Unfortunately, the translation problems are explored in far greater detail than your brief “refutations”.

    We definitely should not be having the conversation that assassinates the character of Wycliffe! You don’t want to second guess their motives for wanting to promote heresy. But that makes it easy to hide from the fact that the current accusations are so evidently implausible, indeed outlandish, given the absence of any conceivable motives on the basis of which those particular people, might be wanting to promote such fundamental heresies. So join the respectful conversation, which is also dispassionately discussed at

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/february/soncrescent.html?start=1

    where the author points out that

    “Both sides eagerly long to take the Good News to the nations and make it discernable to Muslims in their heart languages. Both respect Muslims; neither wants to alter Jesus’ message.”

    Instead of the respectful conversation, you’ve chosen to participate in the Horizons-International-inspired conversation typified by the woman I quoted. That conversation was created with sensationalism, alarmism, and hyperbole, capitalising on current hysteria over Islam in the West, and fostering enormous animosity toward Wycliffe, but lacking in serious substance. I don’t think it is where your blog belongs!

    Warmly,
    Auggie

    • Let me be perfectly clear, Auggie, since you are imputing to me certain actions, words, and motives: I have not mentioned the word “heresy” anywhere. I am quite open to reasoned discussion – but please limit yourself to what I actually say, and do not fabricate things I am not saying and then attribute these things to me. Your comments are becoming ad hominem. Please read the comments policy of this site. What I should or should not do on my site is mine alone to decide. If you continue to comment with implications such as that I am part of any “current hysteria over Islam in the West” your comments will not be allowed through moderation. Anyone who knows me knows that such a claim is absolutely false – slanderous, libellous, and defamatory.

  8. I’m disappointed in your threatening response, Bosco. I didn’t at all mean that you personally used the word “heretic”, but rather that that is the tenor of the highly charged Internet conversation that you have chosen to move in, as opposed to the conversation in peer-reviewed missions journals, the Capetown Meeting of the Lausanne Conference, and the Houghton conference on bridging the differences, as well as the Christianity today article that I cited. It is your blog. Do what you want. But the otherwise high quality of your blog seemed wholly to clash with the tenor of the “cyber-scandal”.

    • Might I add that I did a survey of blogs that have gotten into the Horizons Int’l cyber-movement, and most struck me as pretty hopeless. I saw two that seemed really reflective and thoughtful, where that conversation didn’t seem to fit, and I wrote comments to them . Yours was one of those two.

    • In expressing feelings of disappointment in me you continue to be patronising and condescending, Auggie. I read your claim about me that “[I] don’t want to second guess their motives for wanting to promote heresy” in no other way than implying that I suggest they want to promote heresy. I do not imply this. It is you who appear to be bringing here the tenor of some highly-charged internet conversation that you are having elsewhere – and misreading what is written here through that.

  9. O.K., sorry for patronizing you. Could you replace the offending post with this:

    Well, Bosco, we should be having the conversation that has been going on for many years in places like IJFM. People like Rick Brown attempt to spell out the translation problems involved in to huios you theou in meticulous detail, both in terms of the source languages and a variety of receptor language, and your brief “refutations” cannot begin to do justice to that elaborate, painstaking analysis.

    We definitely should not be having that conversation that implies strongly negative qualities on the part of Wycliffe. You don’t want to second guess their motives for wanting to do “translation tampering” and then denying it, intentionally changing the denial to spin words of gratitude, their motives for for translating inaccurately, for following the principles of those people who produce gender inclusive and LGBT- approved “translations”, their motives for (apparently) being dishonest about the texts we have inherited, motives for removing parts of the Bible simply because they offend Muslims, for translating anachronistically, and for changing the translations to fit in with our altered perceptions. But avoiding the question of what could possibly be motivating them to so fly in the face of their own principles is what makes it easy to hide from the fact that such accusations against Wycliffe are so evidently implausible, if not outlandish, given the absence of any conceivable motives on the basis of which those particular people, might be wanting to promote such fundamental malpractices in their translations. (It’s hard to get a conviction without a motive!) Rather than base much or most of your understanding on the attacks on Wycliffe circulating in the blogosphere and the few items they repeatedly linked to, why not join the respectful conversation, which is also dispassionately discussed at

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/february/soncrescent.html?start=1

    where the author points out that

    “Both sides eagerly long to take the Good News to the nations and make it discernable to Muslims in their heart languages. Both respect Muslims; neither wants to alter Jesus’ message.”

    Instead of the respectful conversation, you’ve chosen to draw on the Horizons-International-inspired cyber-conversation typified in the end by the woman I quoted. It is obvious you could not be more out of place than to be among the thousands of people talking like that woman.

    Keep in mind that this cyber-conversation was launched by using sensationalism, alarmism, and hyperbole, capitalising on current hysteria over Islam in the West (in no way suggesting that you personally are doing any such thing), and fostering enormous animosity toward Wycliffe, but lacking in serious substance. I know you don’t intend to be carrying on your comments as part of that discourse, but rather as part of a truly substantive one.

    For my part, all the things you accuse Wycliffe of are simply wrong. At rock bottom, their principles are to accurately, naturally and clearly convey the meaning of the original in the target language. Sometimes one must accept a lower standard for social reasons of acceptability to the intended audience (e.g., translating literally, even though it is wrong), but in a perfect world, you do what you do because you are required to come as close as you possibly can to the meaning of the original. This value permeates the writings that explore the problems of translating to huios to theou.

    As for what the meaning actually is, well, they aim to arrive at the meaning of the Greek text through painstaking study, and they attempt to understand the meaning of any proposed target-language renderings also through painstaking, careful investigation. The translation is written, after all, in their language, not in Greek. If the intended audience understands a rendering in a particular way, that _is_ the meaning of that rendering–not the way that it was understood by the original audience. A serious mismatch between what is taken to be the understanding of the original audience and the understanding of the target audience is a mistranslation. You aren’t allowed to do that if you can avoid it, though as I say, you may lower the standard rather than have the translation rejected. However, you, Bosco, talk as though the meaning is something that might be unknown to the readers, and supplied by a footnote. Can you see the flaw in that sort of thinking? (The understanding of the target audience–e.g. Levantine Arab Muslims, can only be determined through careful comprehension testing with Levantine Arab Muslims. The opinions of ethnic Christian Arabs and mature Muslim Background believers with extensive background in a traditional version cannot be allowed to overturn the results of careful comprehension testing with a good sample of the actual intended audience. It is the language of that audience that is at issue).

    Warmly,
Auggie

    • Thank you, Auggie, for your apology – which I accept.

      You continue, on the one hand, to follow a methodology of: their motives are good so their translation cannot be critiqued.

      And on the other, a methodology of: if the translated text is misunderstood then it has not been translated well. I contend that English translations of the Bible are regularly misunderstood – I do not believe that this necessitates altering the translation. I have been clear I do not hold to a sola scriptura position where the Bible is to stand alone independently of the Christian community.

      Blessings.

  10. > their motives are good so their translation cannot be critiqued

    The point was that we shouldn’t accuse them of tampering with the translation and then denying it, and then intentionally changing the denial to spin words of gratitude, etc. unless we can think of a plausible motive. Their translation should be critiqued by the sort of painstaking exegesis and comprehension testing that they themselves are supposed to carry out before the translation is approved.

    It is not the case that if a translation is misunderstood by a single person, then it has not been translated well.

    If there is a consistent understanding of a rendering by the target group, and it conveys something far removed from what was conveyed to the original audience, then not only has it not been translated well. It has been translated incorrectly. The translation fails to translate what the original actually said.

    This standard applies to professional translation of everything but the Bible. Should we have a lower standard for the Bible? Is its message less important?

    I most strongly agree that the Bible is not to stand alone independently of the Christian community. I could go on at length about that. But if a rendering that is consistently understood in one way by the hoi polloi, while they need to be told by someone with special training that it doesn’t mean what it says, then the translation itself is wrong. You talk as though “accurate translation” is something other than saying clearly and naturally to the target audience (in it’s language) what was said to the original audience in theirs, to the greatest extent possible. Imagine you were preaching “through an interpreter” and in key respects he was frequently telling them something different from what you were saying. That wouldn’t be good translation.

    Greg

    • I do not understand why your name has changed from Auggie to Greg. I remind you, once again, of the comments policy of this site.

      I continue to hold that your obsession with seeking motive misses the point, just as I am not imagining your motives for putting so much energy into responding to my thread.

      You continue to address me condescendingly (“Imagine you were preaching “through an interpreter”…”) as if I am new to (biblical) translation and its issues.

      Having translated the scriptures accurately, contemporary readers will regularly not hear “clearly and naturally … what was said to the original audience” because of the distance of time and culture. This is a key point in my post which you are clearly missing. This is not a fault in translation as you assert. Changing the Bible translation in order to overcome the misunderstanding is the very point that this thread is against. Please leave the Bible alone.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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