Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Experience of Translating

Foreign languages, I realize, are not for everyone. Many can go throughout their whole lives content to read Scripture in their native language. I certainly don't blame them for doing so. Translating Scripture can be like portaging through a swamp—a mire of depth, interpretation, and meaning. That being said, the ability to translate things such as Scripture offers valuable insight into the meaning and difficulty of the text that we take for granted. 

When the language is not our own (e.g., Latin or Greek) it forces one to scrutinize the grammar and the vocabulary and it forces one to reflect on the meaning of the text. Below, I'd like to share not only the experience of translating but also show how anyone, even those who just read English, can get more out of parables and texts that they thought were boring or easy.

I've been doing both ancient and koine [Biblical] Greek for some time. In no way would I consider myself a master of that language. For me, a master would look like some of my professors who can just look at the text, identify it, read it as if it were English, explain it, and teach it. Can I get there in 10 years? 30? I don't know. As it stands, I remain a beginner after almost 7 years. Learning the basics of a language and grammar are different than playing with the language, seeing how the language is used by various authors, and learning from context how certain words should be translated.

In order to translate well, in my opinion, the translator must do a few things: first, he must translate such that he puts the author in his [the translator's] own words, i.e., “Do I understand what I said, and do I understand what he said?” Secondly, the translator must write in such a way that his audience understands, both the author and the author in his transplanted language.

When I translate my goal is not never assume an idea is in the text—it tends to be more fun and accurate when what you expect out of the text is in now way what the text looks like. The words should be allowed to speak for themselves first, especially in Scripture. When the text is before us, however, we inevitably ask ourselves “What does this say?” and “Does it mean what I think it means?”

When interpreting and translating one might say, 'Jesus saved us from our sins and by his blood we are redeemed. Any work I do cannot aid me in my salvation. He died once for all, so when Paul talks about faith he must mean “you are saved by faith.” Moreover he means that we are saved by “faith alone.”'
No other way to look at it, right?

More complicated versions of this way of thinking can produce even more interesting thoughts and reasons for translating something this way or that. Catholics, Protestants, classicists, etc. can all enter in with some very grand ideas about how various phrases are supposed to look.

In the quote I offer below you can see how the same passage may be taken to mean something completely different. I've underlined sections where there is some significant difference, and made bold specific terms.

An example from Ephesians 1:3-6

King James Version
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.

New International Version
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

My Translation
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who blesses us in every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ, just as He chose us in Him from the beginning of creation to be holy and blameless before Him in Love, setting us apart for sonship through Jesus Christ in Him, according to His benevolent will, in praise of His glorious kindness which He freely bestowed on us in Him whom He loved.

Now I'll admit that even I made some mistakes along the way, and these other two translations corrected me. I had written the last phrase “whom He loved” originally as “in love” because I had simply forgotten to translate the participle. This little experience then caused me to reflect: the translators of other Bibles, typically, know their grammar and are careful. How, then, could such drastic differences emerge in translation?

The only key to understand such phenomena is “tradition,” both in the common and sacred sense.

When I translate which dictionary do I use? Oxford's Liddell and Scott or Walter Bauer's Lexicon—typically time period would tell me when, most of the time. Am I using the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd edition? Am I using something else? We as intermediate translators are subject to the texts we use, much like many students of many disciplines are at the mercy of the Encyclopedia they happen to trust.
What do you mean encyclopedias and dictionaries can contain errors or prejudice?

Then there's the matter of who taught you how to translate. Was he a strict grammarian or was he interested in making a readable translation? In all these things, “predestined,” as used by these two translations on Ephesians, is not evident from the text itself, but rather it is an interpretation on the text.

The Greek, in many cases, is a simple phrase or a mixture of concrete images that, over the course of time, became proper and specific terms. How does one determine what these simple terms mean? The truth is that it can only come out of a tradition that lives the faith, struggles with the content of revelation, and then tries their best to pass it on to the next along with all their wisdom and experience.

The tricky part becomes “Which tradition do I follow?” For many Protestants, this doesn't enter their theological reasoning, let alone their historical one (though, sadly, this is true for far too many Catholics). Tradition requires as much investigation and scrutiny as Scripture does.

Tradition is seen by some as only a “man-made” thing and never a thing concerning God. For man, God comes to replace human ingenuity, human thought, and human actions. God either “covers up” our humanity or “puts it aside.”

The Catholic Church teaches from her sacred Tradition that God has always been interested and involved in mankind, existing in human history, never more strongly than when He sent His only Son to live among us. God, for us, “lifts up our humanity” and transforms it by grace, thus restoring our human nature to be as God intended.

The act of translating, and sometimes disagreeing on what the passage means, is not human folly. One word may carry with it a variety of meanings. One phrase may carry with it a variety of effects. Those who are attentive to God's will and who are humble will still hear the same passage differently. Is this wrong, a fault of the listener, or a fault of the text? God gives to each of us what we need. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11). For one his bread is a consolation and for the other a reproof.

The Word of God is not only text, but a voice that permeates all dispositions, lives, cultures, and ages. Translating allows the words to speak more clearly, or less so, depending on what God intends. Indeed “you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to infants” (Mt 11:25).

The first principle of reading or translating Scripture, friends, is humility at the greatness that stands before you. Never be content to read Scripture once or understand it in only one way. “I sought wisdom openly in my prayer … I inclined my ear a little and received her, and I found for myself much instruction. … My heart was stirred to seek her, therefore I have gained a good possession. The Lord gave me a tongue as my reward, and I will praise Him with it” (Sir 51:13, 16, 21-22).

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Faith and not Religion? A Response

This was a response that someone, a non-Catholic Christian, wrote to me regarding my piece One Voice: Concrete Catholicism. I thought it would be worth sharing. I hope it is. The person who wrote to me is indicated by italics. My responses follow below.

A Response

That being said, I've noticed a trend that began years ago—I'm not sure exactly when it was; I personally became aware of it roughly 6-7 years ago. It's the whole "I have a relationship, not a religion" idea. Now, it's not so much the idea itself that I'm calling into question (that's another topic), but more so the motivation behind its appearance.

In effect, it's a trend that has its origins nearly 400-700 years ago. It can be linked to a trust in personal faith, a sort of "faith alone" and "Scripture alone" mentality. Religiously speaking these are primary suspects. Why? Whose faith is "faith alone" regarded as? The faith of the individual. If I only need faith, why do I need religion? Why do I need brothers and sisters in faith? Why do I really need a community, rules, disciplines, etc. if God forgives me anyway? Scripture alone likewise ties into personal interpretation. [Another person who commented on this piece], whom you've seen responding to you here, wrote a comment (that I need to get to) wherein one cannot err "if he has the Holy Spirit with him."

This is a fine sentiment, except it seems 20 people have the Holy Spirit with them with 25 different views. When one approaches Scripture as a rogue, a ronin, or an anti-religious he will almost always fail in interpreting Scripture. He may, and probably will, receive some personal, spiritual edification but Scripture is not a personal book, it's a book of the people of God--written for each while simultaneously written for all.

When we make faith a matter of "me" and the Bible "my Bible" we don't need religion, just ourselves.

Religion has come to have a negative connotation, especially in recent decades. At my university, on much of the television, in numerous academic writings, and in many other places, we learn about how dangerous religion can be. We're told how it started the bloodiest of wars and the darkest of ages.

Despite a rather elementary understanding of human history, where bloodier and more costly wars were waged in the name of the god called "the State" and "the King," the middle ages (so called) and the crusades were labeled as epochs and acts of cruelty in the name of God. In all ages there are cruelties justified by a number of things. Did religion motivate people to violence? Of course. But was all that violence by necessity unjust? Did religion only motivate violence while the indomitable human spirit and human goodwill motivate all works of charity and justice? I think we find these simple categories to be false.

Religion can be dangerous, perhaps, but individuals who are moral agents and who are ruled by either sin or vice are more dangerous. Religion is not harmful unless its precepts are harmful--the problem is that so many people today would rather just redefine what's harmful so that religion and harm to self/others/mankind are the same.

Religion, properly called, preaches discipline, measured thinking within boundaries, morality, and a balance between tolerance and conservation. If others laugh at that statement, I'm willing to bet they're less tolerant than any religion they make fun of.

This sentiment also comes from a hatred for humanity, which can also be seen in the sciences, though we hardly take notice of it. Science soon developed in such a way that our personal experience and perspectives ruined any chance at "objectivity." Science is conducted and perceived in such a manner that human beings more often "get in the way" of 'progress' than anything else. Those who abandon religion for a number of reasons see it as "man getting in the way of God" even though the origins of belief, faith, and the like are rooted in community, the same way that knowledge is linked, in part, to our communal experience of the world. Faith and science alike have communal aspects and individual ones.

A short time after all of this starts up, I see Christians distancing themselves from this by saying that what they have isn't a religion but a relationship with Jesus.

Some of them are afraid of being identified with what is labeled as "bigotry" or "antihumanism" preferring rather the safety of saying "I believe by myself, not any of that stuff." It's party timidness and partly cowardice, but it's likely inherited and cultured cowardice. Christians who distance themselves from a community of believers are not so much Christians as they are individuals who believe some things Christ taught. Christ formed a community, not a confederation of believers.

Perhaps "cowardice" is a bit uncharitable of me. It could also be faultless ignorance or simply a rejection of a communal faith. Any relationship with Jesus is always with His Church too, since the Church is His body. No relationship to the Church, no meaningful relationship with Jesus.

Monday, September 9, 2013

One Voice: Concrete Catholicism

One of the many things I've appreciated about Catholicism as I've grown up is how it concretizes Scripture. For some this may seem like a strange thing. With respect to atheists I believe in a “bronze-age myth” and the only value Scripture seems to have for most of them are some bland platitudes or fuel for a fire. Protestants, on the other hand, are fairly adamant that we are unbiblical hypocrites, whores of a man-made Babylon.

Being cousins in animosity they seem to not only hate what we believe but also how we live our faith. It turns out that many things they hate are what cause the most wonder in me. I'm not talking about their caricatures such as worshiping Mary, being blind adherents to medieval ideologies, or anything like that.

Catholicism embodies “I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18b). I'll offer a few examples that struck me as particularly inspiring:

One day at mass, with some 300 people present, we were all singing. 300 voices united as one voice—not for some rally, not for the new drm-free PS4, and not at some concert—but every voice singing in order to praise God. 

Video game conferences: the new Megachurches

In this particular Church, built to receive such praise, the sound rose up and when we paused you could still hear that one voice continuing. The same was true when we responded: “and with your spirit” and “Our Father, who art in heaven....”

(but video games, such as Civilization IV, can also give us some great music, such as Baba Yetu, the "Our Father" in Swahili)

My voice was indistinguishable from all those present. Indeed, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another … that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rm 15:6). It's one thing to read it. It's altogether different to experience it.
(another example, in a different style)

Secondly, at my candidacy mass we were using incense, another thing that isn't just a distraction, but a reflection of Scripture. The time to incense the altar had passed. The cardinal, the other bishops present, and the priests lined in unity behind the altar of God. The one who held the thurible knelt before the altar. As I looked on the altar, the sanctuary, and the priests were covered in the slightest haze. “May my prayer stand as incense before you” (Ps 141:2).

From the floor to the ceiling everything was covered very slightly with a cloud of incense. Again, it was not only my prayers but the prayers of all of us present rising to heaven.

“And the Lord descended in the cloud” (Ex 34:5). All the same it was symbolic and concrete of God's presence among us, in our gathering and in the Eucharist.

The incense served a dual purpose: the joining of ourselves to God—our prayers rose and he descended.

These are just two things that struck me. Many other things, such as praying the Psalms daily, teaching, and the like bring Scripture alive. Service to the poor, the sick, and so forth are still far superior ways to understand what Catholicism really is. There are others who have dedicated their lives to service whereas my life has been more one of study. They certainly deserve more praise for their silent, word-less work than myself.

That being said, in mass both our voices, when united in purpose and heart, are one voice, the voice of the Church.

I, like so many today, grew up thinking of mass as something you go to and something you sit through. It's this passive way of thinking that drains the mass of meaning and destroys unity in the Church. The mass is not a theater where one is entertained. One goes to mass to give. Some can give money to further the ministry of the Church. Those who cannot give money give their prayers to those who suffer. Those who come give their time to God because it says, “God, you're worth my time.”

Church and mass is not so much a place to receive as is it to give. All the same we receive the consolations of community and the graces of prayer. The mass is something you give to the world and to God. The prayers that God desires from us and the prayers the world so sorely needs. Do not deprive yourself or the world prayer.

A Hebrew Rabbi wrote in the Midrash tradition (Rabbinic commentaries on Scripture) this: “Fear not, O worm of Jacob, O men of Israel' [Is 41:14]. Just as the worm can smite the tree only with its mouth, so Israel's only [weapon] is its mouth. That is: Israel's only weapon is prayer.”