Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bible Translations and Pitfalls of Direct Transferability

My pastor Cor recently started an excellent conversation about the Bible's teaching on gender on his blog. I posted some comments from where I'm at in addressing complementarianism and my thoughts on an interesting blot post on the subject by Richard Beck, but was vastly overshadowed by a colossal and amazing comment by a fellow named Aaron. He successfully does what I usually only try to do with divisive Biblical debates like this one: demonstrate how the truth is not merely an unsatisfying midway point between two extremes, but transcends and incorporates them both in ways only God knows. Seriously, take ten minutes and read it fully before continuing here.

I might post on my thoughts that were inspired by Aaron's comment, but for now I'll focus on a fascinating paper he referred to: "Ideological Challenges for Bible Translators", by Roy E. Ciampa. His final definition of "ideology", though wordy, is worth noting and similar to how I've heard other sources define "worldview", or even "blik":
The complex set of individual and socially-shared conscious and unconscious loyalties (whether philosophical, interpersonal, emotional or whatever) that are influenced and reinforced by my cognitive mapping of my world and which lead me to prefer certain ways of seeing myself, my context and the broader world around me, to perceive some things as problematical and not others (which other people might consider problematical), and to prefer particular ways of addressing the problems which come to my attention.
Ciampa goes on to explain how ideology can affect even the translation (saying nothing of the interpretation) of the Bible: his own assumption that the translation and preaching of the Bible is automatically good; Tyndale's substitution of more Protestant words like "congregation" for "church", "elder" for "priest", "repent" instead of "do penance"; the pressure on KJV translators to minimize conflict between Anglicans and Puritans, and so on. He then warns, "There are many different ways in which the text of the Bible has been and can be used to promote injustice and oppression, and these reflect a translator’s ideology or his ideological blinders."

The main such ideology he addresses in the rest of the paper he calls "direct transferability", or
the idea that readers of Bible translations should feel that the Bible (and God, through the Bible) directly addresses them in their particular circumstances. Approaches to Bible translation that, in Schleiermacher’s terms, move the biblical writer toward the reader (domestication) rather than forcing the reader to accommodate to the biblical writer (‘foreignization’), are most susceptible to the problems I am concerned with here.
Though direct transferability is often seen as highly desirable (and natural) in Bible translation and reading, Ciampa considers it dangerous as it allows us to sever the Bible's teachings from their original contexts and situate them in our own, without even know we're doing it. To illustrate the danger, he gives four examples of groups of people from the New Testament that get improperly mapped onto modern groups without any consideration of the difficulties with drawing such parallels.
  • Slaves from the Roman system of slavery get mapped onto African slaves from the transatlantic slave trade (which, along with some clever hermeneutics, allowed southern Christians to justify slavery from the same Bible that northerners used to denounce them).
  • Husbands and wives from the Greco-Roman world (where the husbands were better-educated and often much older and more experienced outside the household than their wives) are mapped onto husbands and wives today.
  • References to "the Jews" (e.g. in John 5:16-18 or Acts 17:5) are mapped (with their negative connotations) onto Jews in general today, even though in context these phrases could not have meant Jews in general (since Jesus and most of His followers were Jewish) and referred to Jewish religious leaders opposed to Jesus and Christianity.
  • Paul's condemnations of men who practiced sexual exploitation of their male household slaves or prostitutes are mapped onto modern homosexuals—even though "most classical scholars agree that the ancient Romans did not have a concept of sexual identity or orientation (hetero-/ homo-/bi-sexual). Rather, they had a concept of gender identity, one that identified maleness with the dominant position in sexual intercourse." The term "homosexual" appeared in English Bibles for the first time in the early twentieth century.
This danger is interesting because the usual debate you hear about Bible translations is whether they are more "word-for-word" (with the Hebrew/Greek text rendered into the closest possible English representation of it) or "thought-for-thought" (trying to capture the meaning of the original text in English, which may mean replacing some cultural idioms with English ones). But both approaches are susceptible to direct transferability. With thought-for-thought translations, the principle of "dynamic/functional equivalence" (trying to make the response of the modern reader the same as that of the original reader) can facilitate this. Ciampa says:
Ideological/ethical challenges arise (among other cases) when a translator does not give very careful attention to parts of the translation that refer to source text social or cultural realities that will be interpreted in the translation as references to target audience social or cultural realities. That is, the text is expected to function in the same way in the receiving community as in the community of the original receivers, due in part to lack of awareness of the differences between the two audiences and the implications for what we might call “dys-functional equivalence.” Tremendous power is exerted, in particular, whenever a Bible translation is taken to refer to groups in the target culture. This is what I refer to as the “mapping of identities.”
But even with word-for-word translations that focus on "formal equivalence", this is a reminder that no matter how close your translation is to the original wording of the text and how well you avoid injecting your own thoughts into the authors', you still aren't translating the unwritten cultural assumptions and values in the authors' backgrounds. In fact, the goal of keeping translations as direct as possible works somewhat at cross purposes with making this background information known to readers.

Ciampa gives a few suggestions for Bible translators in avoiding the problems of direct transferability:
  • Deliberately "foreignize" the translations of terms that people might improperly translate to their own context. (For example, δουλος, which is often translated to "slave", may be translated to "bondservant" or "bond-slave" to distance them from the modern definition)
  • Incorporate paratextual guidance for reading the text, such as warnings about references that are commonly transferred directly to modern contexts, in a preface or footnote. (I think study Bibles somewhat already do so, but this information is important enough to include in other Bibles as well)
  • In general, give readers a reason to think twice about terms that seem familiar to them but refer to different groups or roles than may be obvious.
In the absence of Bibles that do these things, we Christian readers simply have to be informed about the background of the books we so cherish. You may object, "Isn't this making external resources equally important to the Bible? Isn't scripture alone sufficient to know God?" First, obviously not everything in the Bible is completely filtered through the context of ancient Near Eastern culture, and very much of it is still perfectly understandable to the twenty-first century layperson. No one gets up in arms about sufficiency when you need a commentary to understand a difficult verse, because you can know God through the Bible without knowing the Bible completely.

Second, though Proverbs 30:6 tells us not to add to God's words (which is taken to mean that scripture is sufficient for knowing God), I take this to mean that we are not to disingenuously pass our human words off as inspired—"lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar." But in the sense of providing context to what we read, everyone "adds" to scripture in the process of reading it, in order to understand. Just as a calculus book alone is not sufficient to teach you calculus (because it assumes background knowledge in basic math, algebra, precalculus, geometry, trigonometry, etc.), so scripture sometimes teaches us about God through the distinct human context in which it was authored, and apart from this context its message is distorted or lost. What would have been "perspicuous" to the laypeople of the early church in Ephesus might not be for us despite the best work of translators, simply because our context is totally different than theirs. When we don't understand the original context of parts of the Bible, the door is opened to directly transfer its terms and groups to ones from our own context that we think correspond to them. This is the danger Ciampa writes about.

Hopefully I haven't discouraged you or made you think the Bible is just unintelligible. Obviously you don't have to be a scholar to know God through the Bible. But avoiding the kind of too-direct connections to scriptural terms that Ciampa warns about is necessary for all kinds of Christians. For me, this looks like bringing a healthy amount of skepticism to the text—not doubting it is true, but that my own interpretations of it are really valid, testing and checking the plausibility of my reading. It's become something of an evangelical cliche to say that "The Bible wasn't written to you, but it was written for you," but like many cliches it is true and valuable.

1 comment:

  1. Hi this one is nice thing for translating bible and pitfalls because bible is the holy thing and many people are reading this so nice thing share.

    Spanish Translation | German Translation