Principled Principal Principles

One long term characteristic of Wycliffe Bible Translators (and the field arm SIL) that I appreciate is a drive to continuous reassessment and improvement of what we do as we try to translate the Bible for churches around the world and help communities develop their language along the way.

So over the last few weeks a number of us translation consultants and linguistic specialists have been considering principles for translation. In particular we have been trying to think through the thorny issue of how in training translators we can help them not only learn one way of translating but consider which ways might be more useful than others. While most translators naively come to the task imagining there is one true way to translate something and that our job is to teach them that one true way, most people who have tried their hand at translation at all seriously reflect that there are many ways to skin this particular cat.

Increasingly our colleagues around the world are encouraging translation committees to think seriously about their translation style, or purpose before they do too much translation. So what in the broadest sense are our options? Actually there are very many options to consider, but one angle is the realistic choice between making sure you convey the main point of each part of the Bible, and leaving enough of the scaffolding visible to let someone to gain all valid nuances of any particular passage.

Now of course it would be nice if we could do both – everyone loves a silver panacea bullet. Sadly translation doesn’t really permit that, despite the ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it’ translation philosophies espoused by the CSB’s ‘optimal equivalence’ or ESV’s ‘essentially literal’ principles. That makes it refreshing when a translator like NT Wright suggests using his very useful NT (!) translation alongside others. It’s a translation, and not a paraphrase, he insists:

‘I have tried to stick closely to the original. But, as with all translations, even within closely related modern European languages, there are always going to be places where you simply can’t do it word by word. To do so would be “correct” at one level and deeply incorrect at another. There is no “safe” option: all translation is risky, but it’s a risk we have to take.’

…’No one translation—certainly not this one—will be able to give you everything that was there in the Greek. But I hope this one will take its place as one of the two or three that will help the next generation to do its own homework, to acquire its own firsthand, rather than second-hand, understanding of what the New Testament said in its own world, and what it urgently wants to say in ours.’

I use the ESV a lot; it’s not a bad translation. In fact the translation is much better than the principles which the preface says guide it. It would appear that common sense has largely won over naïve marketing and half-baked theory, and for that I am glad.

How do we read a particular translation?

The problem comes with how we as readers approach and use such translations. If we’re told that a translation sticks so closely to the Hebrew and Greek that it really shows us how those original languages work, then it means we need to proceed with abundant caution whenever we use such a translation, always questioning whether each apparently English word actually means what we would normally think. The turgid (or turbid!) prose of such translations hopefully makes that obvious. And if we are reading a translation like Wright’s or the Good News or New Living Translation that tries – however unscientifically – to use English as it really is used today, then we must read very differently. No longer should we treat each verse as a cryptic crossword clue to mine for obscure meanings, but we really should just take it at face value. We should read it as normal language and use our normal sanity to constrain the meaning we take from the text.

Reading a natural/good English translation as if it’s a gloss (like the ESV) will be an abuse of such a translation and lead to error. And similarly we will err if we read the ESV as if every word, idiom and logical connection is used as in normal language. This is why readers need to read the preface and understand how to use each Bible translation they handle. But it’s also why the translation committees need to think very clearly about what principles they’ll use for their translation and how to tell readers how to use it.

How do we design & stick to a translation brief?

The rubber hits the road here for me as a translation consultant because as part of the quality control and training process, I need to be ready to help committees form a useful and achievable set of guiding principles and then verify that the translation achieves the desired effect. Translators often begin wanting a translation that is for everyone, that makes the meaning of the Bible clear, and which is a great resource for good teaching in the church. Preachers sometimes want something that resembles the English they are familiar with studying at Seminary and which they are familiar with preaching. (Sometimes preachers want something that sounds obscure enough that it needs a preacher to explain.) But if we recognise that one translation cannot ‘rule them all’ then we do need to cooperate with our readership to ensure that we carry out translation in a way that is most beneficial to the church and then encourage it to be used in a way which is appropriate for that translation.

What should local translation committees do then, who likely are only going to have resources to work on one translation? Should they try to produce a translation that will serve all needs? (Even though that is impossible.) I think a healthy look at the multilingual scripture engagement situation is necessary here.

First translations for multilingual people

Very few communities in Nigeria these days seem to be entirely ‘bible-less’. Churches of all stripes have been planted up and down the country. True, there are some communities which have resisted the gospel, but in most places churches have been established with meetings run and the Bible read in English or a major Nigerian language (eg Hausa). Many of the pastors of established denominations undergo some kind of schooling in biblical languages. This means then that most Christians have some kind of familiarity with the Bible in some language or other, even if they can’t read it fluently and can’t grasp the flow of any particular narrative or get the details well. However deficient the study of biblical languages might be we still have some kind of structure to enable each generation to stay in touch with the text.

As I see it we have currently a situation where some people get nothing much from a reading of the Bible, some people distort it since they’re just plucking words out and making with them what they will, and some people can use English or Hausa to get a reasonable grasp of parts. Many have a familiarity with the Bible and a fondness for Christian religious vocabulary without being particularly clear on the meaning of those big words or clear about how those words connect to everyday life, beyond being somehow powerful to meet our common desire for wealth, health and security.

So what kind of translation do people want? What do we think the church needs? How can we check that we are adequately meeting that need in our translation efforts? And how can we help people read our translations adequately? That’s something we need to keep working on.

What I’m thinking the church needs is to have some people stay in touch with the original texts, and encourage others to continue using the Bibles they are familiar with (yet don’t understand terribly well), alongside translations that try to avoid obscuring the meaning of the Bible. The familiar Bibles may be not too easy to understand because they’re in a less familiar language or because they use the words of one language according to the patterns of another, like the ESV. Users of English Bibles in Nigeria find themselves facing the double-whammy of using a Bible written in an unfamiliar language that doesn’t use that language the way English is used in the street, school, newspaper or TV. What is then really missing is a translation that gets to the heart of the Bible’s message which carefully uses the target language in the normal way, so that a straightforward reading (not looking for cryptic hidden messages) can give you at least most of the original author’s intended meaning. And so that’s where I think our modern translations into Nigerian languages fit. We’re not trying to replace other Bibles, but to supplement, so that even those familiar Bibles can be more useful.

There is also the obvious implication that in such a context it’s far better to take time and utilise considerable careful research than to rush a half-baked job out for these poor Bible-less people. If our new translations end up being just as cryptic or misleading as the ones they are to supplement, then we won’t do anyone any favours.

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