Friday, October 28, 2005

Disposable translations 

While reading Ryken's excellent The Word of God in English, something occurred to me about the dynamic translation model. This is the model that seeks to present the Scriptures in language which is in tune with the people it's being presented to. So, figures of speech and cultural references are often either changed into equivalents in the target culture, or simply dropped altogether. This is the model of translation that versions such as the NIV, TNIV, Good News Bible, the Living Translation (and New Living Translation), and the Message all use.

But it occurs to me that this results in what are essentially disposable translations. It will present itself in terms that are very specific to a particular period, with the result that the Bible will become obsolete. A Bible that is written in the '70's will seem very dated by the '90's.

At first, I thought that this was a very foolish thing for the translators to do. But then I realized what a lucrative revenue stream this will create for the publishers, as everyone needs to get brand new re-translated copyrighted Bibles every decade or so.

I really hope that's not the motivation.

I really hope that's not the motivation.

Unfortunately, you're probably right on target. Of course, very few of the players involved would admit as such. Yet, given the propensity our culture has to expect that "our needs" be met, it doesn't surprise me that such an idea would arise. Hence, evangelical capitalism. You see the same mentality in the push to have contemporary worship services in order to, as it is argued, "better reach the culture." In reality, I think, our leaders are concerned that the culture out there won't attend a boring service that isn't relevant to their needs.

My response to that malarkey is that if someone finds God's Gospel message boring and irrelevant, then that someone isn't interested in God's Gospel message. A friend of mine noted that when Jesus' teaching became difficult, and some of his followers decided to leave him, he didn't go running after them...
You do not think that the KJV was written in a way that could be understood by the educated masses?

Ask some one in 1611 what a farthing is and then ask someone today...A Farthing is a British ΒΌ penny where the text says assarion and quadrans (both of which are pre-British Farthing coins which do not equal the measure of the text), but I digress.

There are lots of archaic words in the KJV that do not translate or are not used in present English and, furthermore, are not necessarily indicative of the text. While I am by no means an expert on biblical textual criticism, I have done some in Latin.

From that perspective, the middle English and high English translations of ancient Latin are poor in many respects because of this same problem. I do not think this line of argument will get to where the Author wants to go, however, producing a 'boutique' translation seems counterintuitive to the perspective of scripture.

The concept for concept-for-concept method of translation overcomes some linguistic barriers, but this methodology must not be used with abandon, either academically or for scripture. Word-for-word can make the scripture inaccessible so a happy medium should be shot for, where difficult concepts are translated as a thought in order to more accurately define the meaning vice the definition. But thats just my thought, I am not a biblical scholar, just a Latin junkie.
On the other hand, the KJV was "obsolete" in 1776, but it seemed to serve the "masses" in America well. In fact, it was still a best seller in the 1950's, when this writer was a boy, and everyone I knew read it, although it was more than three hundred years old. Strange. They knew what a farthing was and what rereward meant. But of course, they had dictionaries. But who wants to go beyond the street?
The King James wasn't really part of my argument at all here, Augustine. You happen to know because of a certain conversation over cigars that I have a preference for the KJV, but the discussion is really just about these "boutique Bibles", as you so eloquently put it.

The King James was certainly not an attempt to make the Bible more "relevant" to a particular demographic. It was an attempt to render the original texts as accurately as possible and as timelessly as possible. Certainly they failed in some extremely minor regards. But that translation is close to 400 years old, while the Living Bible is already obsolete.

The issue isn't "concept by concept" versus "word by word". The King James knew full well that the word is not the fundamental semantic unit, but the phrase or clause. The same Hebrew or Greek word gets translated differently depending on context all the time.

The issue is "formal equivalence" versus "dynamic equivalence." That is, do I attempt to render the original statements as closely as possible in the target language? Or do I attempt to translate a given idea into a cultural equivalent? Formal equivalence is a window to the the text, which is what we want from our Bibles. Dynamic Equivalence, used by all the paraphrases, is a window into the opinions and theologies of the translator. If I want that, I'll read a commentary.
What's wrong with combining money with piety? It is an old and honored tradition, from the money-changing in Jerusalem to the selling of indulgences at the time of Luther. A new Bible every ten years is a marketing dream, if you can get anyone to buy them.
The issue is really the philosophy of translation. You can have a good, scholarly, basically literal translation that is accessible by most people. The problem is when a translation becomes more of a commentary on the text. What we call a farthing is immaterial. How we structure a sentence, or interpret that sentence in light of basic theological assumptions is absolutely crucial. It makes the difference between translational exegesis and isogesis. As long as people realize they are reading someones interpretation of Scripture in such "translations" as the NIV and Living Translation, all is well. If they think they are reading a pristine translation of the very words of the Almighty God, they are mistaken.

Having said that, I do not think the King James is inaccessible by the masses. It may take some effort to understand certain passages, but that is a good thing. One should not think that one can simply read the text and willy nilly understand it. It takes effort and the exercise of one's God-given intellectual ability to rightfully divide the Word of Truth. It is a book for grown-ups, as CS Lewis once quipped. Nevertheless, I do prefer the NKJV.

Just one more thing, it is significant that anyone who has done much work in the original languages normally finds the dynamic translations basically useless. Quoting the NIV or Living Bible in a work of biblical scholarship would be rather equivelent to referencing Billy Graham in an erudite theological work.

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