Letting go the familiar words and holding onto the real meaning

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Letting go the familiar words and holding onto the real meaning

[This was first drafted in July – well before the C of E cinema ad controversy blew up. Still, perhaps it may inform a little and provoke some more worthy thought.]

Our Father who is in heaven…

What’s the first request of the Lord’s prayer? Can you express it in everyday language that you might genuinely use ordinarily with your 4-year-old?

I’m sure many can, but it’s not something I found all that easy. Still, I think it’s an important exercise. Give me a moment to say why.

How do you know you understand something?

How often have you heard people say “I can’t explain it in any other way”? How often have you heard people who are steeped in some jargon utterly unable to express themselves in plain speech that others can understand?

I think an important test of whether you actually understand something is to put it in your own words, or to rephrase something. That is something which is fairly well taught I believe in British schools in recent times. It’s much easier to mark a memorise-and-regurgitate-verbatim exercise, of course, but being able to reformulate something is vital to check that we really understand it.

Three parables:

  • Only a dynamic backup really keeps an archive.
  • Burying a talent* doesn’t really preserve it.
  • When you’re on an escalator, you have to keep moving to stay in the same place.

I’ll expound the first 2:

Change it or lose it – a lesson from the computer world

There’s a parallel here in the IT world.

Long term storage of data is very important. So how do we achieve it? Hard drives, tape, CD-ROMS all fail at some time. More worryingly even if we keep hold of the data for decades, the likelihood is that we won’t have working systems and applications that can read the data we archived. The problem is that the world moves on. How do we keep a useful archive in the digital world? We actually need to keep it dynamic – keep it living. To make sure we don’t lose data we need to keep shuffling it from one old storage place to a new one. To make sure we don’t lose access to what it actually means (not just bits and bytes but pictures and documents) we may need from time to time to do wholesale conversion exercises. I’ve got tapes, 5¼” floppies and hard drives with lots of old stuff I would like to look at but which I can’t (without a lot of effort) because I didn’t keep it all alive being converted into something currently meaningful.

What’s the parallel with translation, and in particular Bible translation? Well, the world is always moving and which always has been. Language and culture develop. Words change their meaning. Whole language systems come and go, and yet there is in the Bible an archive which is supremely valuable; an archive of God’s family history with his creation. How do we make sure that we don’t merely preserve the bits and bytes, the marks and letters but the meaning of the Bible?

We need to change it so it stays the same.

Remember the parable of the talents?* One chap buried his talent in the ground. Did he keep it faithfully? Legalistically yes, but as far as the master was concerned, no. The talent was not just a lump of metal it had a greater meaning. It meant wealth and the potential to do things. Similarly, hiding our cherished words away from a changing world ends up disconnecting it from what it’s supposed to do.

So why do we cling so tightly to terms that are now meaningless or misleading? I always remember a teacher once pointing out that religion and law resist language change and particularly like to cling to outdated terminology that then needs experts to explain. For the expert, it is seductively ‘safe’ to stick to the proven formulae resisting any attempt to update or change them. Perhaps there is a fear that if we change the words then who knows what might happen? And yet that unavoidably leads to a loss of clarity. (There’s also an opportunity for unscrupulous experts to build a cloister of secrecy and take advantage of outsiders.)

Back to “hallowed be your name”

Almost every time someone expounds the Lord’s prayer they have to explain “hallowed be your name”. That’s a tell-tale sign that there’s something wrong with such a translation; it doesn’t communicate. The word ‘hallowed’ is only used in very limited poetic (i.e. archaic) situations. Unless the original language word was supposed to be poetic or archaic then it rather looks like the (English) world has moved on and we need to find new ways to express it. Here are some attempts:

TEV: “May your holy name be honoured.”
NET, NLT, NIRV: “may your name be honored”
LEB: “may your name be treated as holy”
Message: “Reveal who you are”
HCSB: “Your name be honored as holy”
CEV: “help us to honour your name”
NCV: “may your name always be kept holy”

(ESV, NIV and many others play safe and keep the formula “hallowed be your name”)

Looking at these options we see that name features literally in all but the Message, and generally we have either holy or honour or both delivering more of the content.

Here’s my analysis. For a target audience of young children these three terms are troublesome, unless they have been specially taught their meanings:

  • name: is being used in an extended send, figuratively or metaphorically, but it’s a rare usage which I would only expect older children to become aware of. Younger children will only understand someone’s name as what they are called.
  • holy: it is clearly a religious word, but it’s not frequently used so it could be hard to be sure what the audience would really understand by it.
  • honour: this is fairly straightforward for older children who may have been ‘honoured’ in some way, but this requires more understanding of social relationships than I can really expect younger children to have.

We also have some hidden information underlying all this:

  • This is a 3rd-party request. We (party 1) are asking God (party 2) to ensure that someone (party 3) does something, but what God does (the ensuring) is implied.
    • This is perhaps difficult for kids but is close to the familiar exclamation: “I’m thirsty”, which is a skewed request.
  • We’re asking him to ensure that his name is honoured, or regarded as special… but by whom? And why this indirectness? What do our audience understand if we maintain the indirectness in English?
    • It seems to me that indirectness may throw some people off the scent too much.
    • The danger of making something indirect direct is that we may distort emphases or put the focus on the wrong thing. However, the indirectness in requests seems to me to be more a common feature of Greek and the Aramaic/Hebrew languages than of English, and so might be better represented with a polite request form rather than following the indirectness too closely.
    • By whom? Either the whole world (a default unmentioned entity) or else by us as the praying disciples, or somewhere in between those. I lean towards the ‘whole world’ interpretation.

Putting them all together is troublesome. I discovered this when my daughters let me know they clearly didn’t really understand all the words. So then it forced me to have a bit more of a think. Here is my progression:

  • hallowed be your name
  • → may your name be honoured (by everyone? by us?)
  • → may everyone know/say how great/special you are

My logic is:

  • ‘May’ is a fairly clear introduction for a polite request in English, and we may as well follow the same pattern for the whole prayer. ‘Hallowed be’ is such a poetic request as to be unrecognisable as a request at all.
  • We must treat ‘name be honoured/holy’ as a unit.
  • Who is to honour God’s name? Either everyone or us. My preference is the ‘everyone’ but it certainly includes ‘us’.
  • What is honouring a name, or a name being holy? It means saying how great (closer to honour) or how special (closer to holy) that person is.

The result is that we start off the prayer using words and phrases that mean what they usually mean in our everyday conversation. Have we lost some of the ‘wonder’ or something ‘holy’ in the language of the Lord’s prayer? Does it seem strange to use ordinary words as we speak to our Maker?

So what do you think? Have we gained more than we have lost in that ‘translation’? There’s space for comments below. Or go off and challenge some friends to a game of Taboo.

And really finally, I wonder how many children have thought that God is called Harold?


* “Physician, heal thyself!” OK, yes, if I’m being self-consistent I should have said something like, “remember the story about the master leaving his wealth with investment managers?”


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