Archives For Translation

Sanctified Languages

January 6, 2015 — 8 Comments

petrusOne major difference between Christianity and Islam is their view of language. For the Muslim, Arabic is the language by which the Quran is to be known. For the Christian, there is a great impulse to translate the Scriptures into every tongue in the world.

In Islamic worship, the Quran is properly recited only in Arabic, whether the individual understands Arabic or not. This is similar to the way that most Hindus chant mantras in ancient Sanskrit.

A parallel can be drawn with the medieval practice in the Western branches of Christianity where Latin continued to be used for worship, even after it lost its role as the shared language.

The fact, however, that the Bible had even been translated into Latin was due to the Christian desire to make God’s word accessible to all people. Jerome, an early Christian theologian, became a linguistic scholar with the goal of translating the Vulgate, into the common language of his day.

It would have been a great shock to him, and to Pope Damasus I who commissioned his effort, to see the Latin so ingrained in the church’s usage that their heirs in leadership lost sight of the desire to bring the Lord’s words directly to the people so that all could understand them.

One of the great successes of the Reformation was the successful translation and distribution of the Scriptures into the vernacular of various language groups. Martin Luther’s translation, in fact, standardized the German language which had evolved into several different dialects.

Coincidentally, Lutherans have remained at the forefront of Bible translation, and Lutheran Bible Translators continue that vital work today. They currently have twenty-two Bible translations in process. LBT works in conjunction with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is an even larger organization.

C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture at the University of London entitled “The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version.” In one portion he addressed the influence of the King James translation on the English language. While not nearly so pronounced as Luther’s on German, it is measurable.

The history of the Authorised Version has been told so often that I will not attempt to re-tell it, and its beauties praised so lavishly that I will not praise them. Instead, I will proceed at once to its influence as an English book. I shall attempt to define that influence, for I think there has been misunderstanding about it and even a little exaggeration.

Lewis’ argument is that the Bible has a profound influence on English literature, the particular translation, less so.

Ideally, all Christians would understand Hebrew and Greek, and be able to read the Scriptures in their original languages. However, there is no stigma in reading a translation. In fact, there are small pockets of people who do not understand the history of the Bible who believe that one particular translation (i.e. the King James Version) is the only authoritative text.

Sadly, I once saw an advertisement in a newspaper inviting worshipers that read: “Are you tired of people changing the Authorized Version of God’s Word with Greek and other languages? If so, come and join us at . . .”

Fortunately, the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples celebrate the translation of God’s word of life into every language spoken today.

Meanwhile, memorization of the Quran in Arabic (even when that is not the reciter’s actual language) remains highly regarded in Islam. Arabic has been regarded as so holy, in fact, that there was great reluctance to contaminate the Quran by using a printing press.

During the Ottoman Empire, until 1729, printing anything in Arabic was a crime. Somewhat ironically, the first printing utilizing Arabic movable type was done by Pope Julius II in the first decade of the sixteenth century. It was created for the benefit of Christians living in Arabic lands.

To provide a powerful illustration of a Christian validation of the authentic inspiration and power of God’s words—in any language—we turn once again to the German reformer.

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. . . .

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. St. Paul declared it to be the peculiar glory and distinction of Hebrew that God’s word was given in that language, when he said in Romans 3, “What advantage or profit have those who are circumcised? Much indeed. To begin with, God’s speech is entrusted to them. . . .”

Similarly, the Greek language too may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation. (Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of Germany”).

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The image above is an illuminated “P” which begins the name Petrus (Peter). The manuscript is displayed in Malmesbury Abbey in England, but was originally transcribed in Belgium circa 1400.

csl bilingualHow many extremely intelligent and well educated people do you know . . . who can actually communicate with those of us possessing normal human intelligence?

That talent is a rarity.

And it is precisely what makes C.S. Lewis such an unusual man. He was brilliant. Yet he could communicate with the common person—even the child—just as easily as he conversed with his fellow university dons.

Lewis, of course, could comprehend a number of languages, so he was more than merely “bilingual.” But that is not exactly the sense in which I am using the word today. I mean it in the sense of my opening paragraphs. It is the ability to communicate (even with the same “language”) to distinctly different groups who would normally not be able to readily understand one another.

In an interview that appeared in Christianity Today, Detroit pastor Christopher Brooks was asked about the challenges of urban ministry.

How have you included both righteousness and justice in your setting?

I think about C.S. Lewis, who had the challenge of building the bridge between the culture of Oxford and Cambridge and the culture of the church. These cultures were worlds apart by his time, but he was bilingual, in a sense: able to speak the language of Oxford to the church and the language of the church to the intellectuals and naturalists.

One of the titles for ancient Roman priests that was adopted by their Christian successors is “pontifex.” It means “bridge-maker.” The Pontifex Maximus was, of course, referred to the greatest of these offices.

In light of Brooks’ words about Lewis as building bridges between elite academia and Christianity, I have added that dimension to my view of him. C.S. Lewis, Pontifex Maximus. (I doubt it would make him happy, so I’ll keep it under wraps . . . and probably never mention it again.) But I am genuinely happy about his skill in building these bridges of understanding.

Before signing off, a special treat. If you call someone who speaks two languages “bilingual,” and someone who speaks three “trilingual,” what do you call someone who only speaks one language? Why, an American, of course.

That joke would not be as funny if it were not so sadly true. While the rest of the world almost assumes that people know at least two languages, most Americans stumble their way through the study of a second language for two or three years and never develop a comfort level with it. But that’s a story for another day.

Confusing Creeds

November 7, 2013 — 6 Comments

Nicene CreedThere are a couple of sentences in the traditional translation of the basic Christian creeds (statements of faith) that lead to confusion.

Due to the literary examples below, Christian readers may find the following discussion more interesting than non-Christians—but everyone interested in clarity versus confusion should find something intriguing.

The creeds offer a prime example of why it is absolutely crucial to ensure that gradual shifts in language do not undermine or blur the intended meaning of a given sentence. To illustrate, consider this line from the Nicene Creed.

. . . [Jesus] who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. (1662, Anglican Book of Common Prayer).*

The potential confusion here lies in the archaic usage of the word “of.” Whose Holy Spirit are we referring to? Mary’s innate holiness and purity? The educated Christian may stumble over that dated phrase—which is still used in some denominations—but a person not acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity might easily misinterpret it as a Maryological, rather than Christological, confession.

Let’s consider two more recent translations, and note how the first restores the intent of the original writers. The second of these commonly used translations reflects the hand(s) of “politically correct” revisers.

For us and for our salvation he [Jesus] came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. (1975 International Consultation on English Texts version).

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. (1988, English Language Liturgical Consultation version).

We will consider a second example momentarily, but let’s first look at something C.S. Lewis wrote about reflecting on the importance of the creeds. He noted that too often we rattle through the words without considering their significance. This is unfortunate.

In an essay entitle “On Forgiveness,” Lewis describes a personal epiphany and offers counsel to those tempted to take familiar words for granted.

We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. “If one is a Christian,” I thought “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.”

But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

As usual, the Oxford don was correct. However, just as good translations possess the power to inspire, so too poor or antiquated translations exercise the ability to confuse.

Here is the promised second example.

And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures . . . (1662).

Ah, I understand, think the uncatechized, the Bible teaches us that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. Well, yes it does, but that is not the sense in which the second phrase is intended. Here, “according to the Scriptures,” means that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were all accomplished in accordance with the promises of the Word of God.

In other words, “just as was promised in the Garden of Eden and foretold by the prophets, Jesus won victory when he rose from the grave in accordance with the loving plan of God the Father.” The newer versions make that fact only slightly clearer.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures . . . (1975 and 1988).

Perhaps a future revision will replace “in accordance with,” using something like “as foretold in” or “fulfilling the scriptural promises.”

Some of us worship in congregations using a variant of the seventeenth century creed, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that most of them have at least replaced “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead” with “both the living an the dead.” After all, we wouldn’t want people to think that one’s salvation is dependent upon their speed.

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* This slightly contemporized version of the creed has already remedied the terribly confusing term “Holy Ghost,” which evokes images of disembodied souls and hauntings.

Translating the Word

March 12, 2013 — 10 Comments

translationsThe science of translation is only partially scientific. It is also an art—with the insight into intuiting the intent of the original author a critical dimension of good translating.

First, of course, the translator must possess a sound grasp of the original language. Second, he or she must know the language into which they are translating the work equally well. With this knowledge, the translator can do an adequate job.

Only with that indefinable intuition mentioned above, is a translator empowered to do justice to a writer’s work when recreating it in a different language.

All translation work is demanding, but those entrusted with transferring documents of faith into new languages face an additional burden. The adherents of various religions typically regard this literature as “inspired,” and therefore to be approached with only the most serious and respectful of intentions.

This is certainly true for Christianity. Transferring the Scriptures from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into Latin, German and English involved devout theologians who approached the task with reverence as well as skill.

That balance remains a constant these many centuries after the earliest translation efforts. Today the Christian Bible is still being translated into languages where it has never been available before. The Wycliffe Bible Translators community is the largest organization working toward this end, although there are many others, such as the Lutheran Bible Translators, who are laboring in noncompetitive venues.

Wycliffe estimates that 350 million people do not yet have the Bible available in their native language. They have been instrumental in putting God’s Word into 700 different tongues, and with various other organizations are committed to continuing their vital work.

Some of the targeted language groups actually speak dialects of more common tongues. For example, De Nyew Testament is now available for speakers of Gullah. Spoken by the descendants of slaves residing in the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines. It is an English-based creole language featuring numerous African contributions. A comparison of a sample verse will illustrate the differences. The first verse of the Gospel according to John reads:

Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, an de Wod been God. Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey wid God. Shru dat Wod, God mek ebryting. Ain nottin een de whole wol wa God mek dat been done dout de Wod. (Gullah New Testament).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (King James Version).

At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. All creation took place through him, and none took place without him. (J.B. Phillips’ New Testament).

Why, you may wonder, have I included the relatively unknown translation by Phillips? Because none other than the brilliant and devout scholar, C.S. Lewis, regarded it highly. Lewis recognized that the archaic usage of the Authorized (King James) Version impeded its use by many people. In fact, in a 1961 letter he wrote: “A modern translation is for most purposes far more useful than the Authorised Version.”

Lewis was one of the readers of Phillips’ initial translation of the Pauline epistles who encouraged him to proceed with the task of translating the entire New Testament. Lewis, in fact, was key in encouraging Geoffrey Bies to publish the new version. Technically, though, calling this text a “translation” is a bit misleading; in many ways it is more honestly labeled a “paraphrase.” Still, it did make the Scriptures more accessible to many younger readers.

Phillips’ New Testament in Modern English is available online at the Christian Classics Library.

C.S. Lewis wrote an entire essay on the subject of translating God’s revelation. It is entitled “Modern Translations of the Bible,” and included in the God in the Dock collection. The following wisdom comes from that source.

The only kind of sanctity that Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion.