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).