Friday, February 1, 2013

Kissing Through a Screen

   Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
-James 1:22-25 (NIV)

There's no better time than today to read the Bible in English. That's not a value judgment, a religious dogma, or even a matter of opinion. It's a fact. And it’s easily demonstrable. 
    There are probably hundreds of English translations of the Bible in print today. Do a search on Amazon, or go to the Bible section of a large bookstore, if you're a little more old school, and you'll see. And if you're looking for digital copies of the Bible, resources like put 50 or so English translations instantly at your fingertips. We can carry numerous English translations on our phones and tablets, immediately accessible anywhere. There are cowboy Bibles, Bibles for hunters (with camo covers), Bibles for men, Bibles for women, Bibles for teens, Bibles for children. There are Catholic Bibles, Bibles for Charismatics, Bibles for Jewish Christians. Whatever demographic or doctrinal persuasion you might inhabit, there’s a good chance that there’s a Bible in English especially for you.
     John Wycliffe, who about 620 years ago completed the first English translation of the Bible (and was burned at the stake for his trouble), would be amazed. 
     Like everything in else in our society, though, Bible translations have become big business. That's nothing new, of course - Erasmus rushed his Greek edition to press in 1516 in part to beat a competing edition to publication. With so many translations, the rights to which are owned by different publishing houses, competition has gotten correspondingly more fierce. Zondervan wants you to buy an NIV, and Nelson wants you to buy a NKJV, and that means differentiating themselves somehow. They do that by publishing editions geared to specific audiences, or by using distinctive, interesting bindings, but they also do it by trying to position themselves as more accurate and/or more understandable than the others. One may pride itself on being more “literal,” maintaining grammar and word order and adding as few words as possible. Another  may emphasize modern language and sell its “readability.” Some translations target an audience that’s looking for gender-equal language, while others focus on an audience who believes that  gender equality in translation is a compromise of the text.   
     The ones benefitting the most from this state of affairs seem to be the publishers.
     I’ve been thinking about all this recently because I was reminded of something a former professor of mine says regarding translations of the Bible: “Reading the Bible in English is like kissing your wife through a screen. You can't feel the full power of God unless you read the Bible in the original language.”
     I get how academic and elitist that statement sounds. The original languages of the Bible being (ancient) Hebrew and (koine) Greek, it’s probably not all that realistic to expect most believers to learn to read the Bible that way. But there’s some truth in the statement. 
     Author Umberto Eco made famous the Italian play on words, “traduttore, traditore”: “Translator, Traitor.” Later in the same essay, he calls the act of translation “admirable treason.” Eco thought that translation was still a worthy project, but he was getting at its main problem. You can say it like this: no one who has ever tried to translate the Bible has been completely faithful to the text. If it was even possible, doing so would yield a jumble of words and syntax that would leave us all bewildered and frustrated. Which wouldn’t be faithful to a text that intends to be understood.* Even the most “literal” of translations takes some liberties in grammar and syntax, and has to make decisions about which meaning of particular words the author most likely intended. Hence translation of the Bible is like kissing your spouse through a screen: it might be something like a real kiss, it might even be kind of nice if it’s the best you can do, but it’s nothing like doing it without that screen between you. You’d do it if you had to. But you’d rather have full contact.
     Muslims believe that the Qur’an in any language other than Arabic isn’t the Qur’an. It may be interesting and even helpful to read, say, an English translation. If that’s the best a person can do, then they by all means should. But that translation isn’t the Qur’an. Enough is lost in the process of translation that, admirable treason though he may commit, the translator is still a traitor.
     Maybe we’d be all better off if all English Bibles had to be sold with a sticker that said something like,  “Warning: This isn’t actually the Bible. It’s a translation. Reader discretion is advised.”
     I still remember, close to twenty years ago, being soundly scolded in front of other ministers by an older preacher who didn’t like my choice of Bible translations. He explained to me, arms waving and volume rising, how the translation I was using was unfaithful to the text and driven by agendas other than accurately representing the originals. Since he was old enough to have known Paul as a boy, I didn’t really want to get into an argument with him. 
     Now I know he was right - about my translation, at least in part. What he apparently didn’t know was that his was equally suspect, for all the same reasons.
     Here’s the thing: unless you’re going to take some Greek and Hebrew classes, you’ll still want to read your English translations. God’s blessing isn’t promised to those who merely listen to the word, but to those who do what it says. Questions of translation - of how we listen - are secondary to questions of obedience. “What do we do with what we hear?”, this is by far the more important question facing believers.
     So read your Bible in whatever translation you choose. Don’t fight with others about their choice of translation, and don’t get too proud of your own. Every translation of the Bible succeeds or fails at the point of communicating God’s word to human beings. Every human being succeeds or fails at the point of putting God’s word into practice in our lives.
     The Spirit of the God whose words come to us through the pages of the Bible lives in us. May we know him without any kind of screen between us. And may he help us put his word to practice in our lives.

*Is it better to translate, in Matthew 10:22, “because of me” or, more literally, “for my name’s sake”? Is it better to translate in 1 Peter 1:13, “gird up the loins of your mind,” and risk misunderstanding, or to translate by using a more understandable (but technically less accurate) English phrase like “prepare your minds for action”? What you would choose in each case, and why you would choose it, is the real work behind Bible translation.

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