Spiritual Beings

My smart friend and colleague Ben Kuwitzky quotes from Martin Luther:

“If God had wanted me to die thinking I was a clever fellow, he would not have got me into the business of translating the Bible.”

…and even more so when you’re working outside your own culture.

Ghost-busters logo
(From https://pixabay.com/photos/ghostbusters-logo-ecto-1-cadillac-1515155/)

I was reminded of one of my own humbling moments as I read some helpful tips on translating the tricky word πνευμα / spirit / ghost Some time in late 2012 I think, I was working with an enthusiastic, impatient and somewhat struggling Ninkyob* translation team, we came across various spirit-related words in Luke’s gospel and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of relying completely on an English gloss given by the translators to understand the words they were proposing for the Ninkyob translation. After all, when you’re discussing key spiritual or unusual terms through a second language there’s a distinct danger of getting trapped in catastrophic circular reasoning that simply conceals and reinforces misunderstandings. So I thought it would be clever (and useful) to step back a bit and talk more generally about how Ninkyob people discuss ‘spiritual beings’.

What could possibly go wrong?

We ended up with a reasonably lengthy discussion all focussed on shape-shifting ‘witches’ — people who would appear to be normal human beings but at night or when they wanted to get up to mischief, would turn into the shape of an animal or something else. (Kind of like Beorn in The Lord of the Rings.)

There is, as far as I can recall, nothing much in the Bible about any such thing and so this discussion showed little prospect of becoming productive for Luke’s gospel. Certainly the translators couldn’t really see the relevance. I remember making some efforts to reframe it along ‘unseen supernatural creature’ lines, but that didn’t work too well.

What had I done wrong in my naïve attempts to elicit aspects of Nkyob worldview (of the unseen realm) and their expression in Ninkyob language?

I can’t be absolutely certain. I didn’t want to try their patience and waste precious time trying again. Probably part of my mistake was just jumping in with direct questions based on English (their 3rd language) rather than beginning by studying things that Nkyob people actually said in the language and asking questions based on that. Otherwise it’s very hard to avoid skewing things by the questioner’s worldview and expectations and ending up with nonsense.

*Ninkyob = the language that Nkyob people speak.

What can we learn from this?

For those in Bible translation

  • Never underestimate the difficulty of finding the best way of finding the best terms to translate the Bible.
  • Don’t just trust a gloss to explain a term.
  • Don’t rely on elicitation (using a 2nd/3rd alien language) to begin discovering deep worldview issues of things that you and your friend don’t share a common experience of.
  • Expect people to begin with what is concrete, and only later move together with them from the concrete to things which are abstract, hidden, general or theoretical. This is certainly true for most Africans I know, and makes sense for most children too. (I have a suspicion it may actually be best for almost everyone on their first pass at an issue. Starting abstract and general just makes things seem boring.)

For Christians in general

  • Caution: Before we read the Bible with friends or launch into an explanation of anything from the Bible, especially anything to do with spiritual beings, we may do well to check or research what our hearers [are likely to] understand by the terms we’re going to use. Otherwise, there is a real danger that our hearers may not hear what we mean, and what we think is perfectly clear, and we would be none-the-wiser.
  • The good news is that we do have a good chance of re-forming an understanding of the world — seen and unseen — but only once we have understood where our listeners are coming from. We may be surprised.
  • It’s often tempting to think that if we just read the Bible and explain everything (in a kind of overwhelming memory dump) then we can reset everything our hearers know and make them just like us. But the truth is that’s not generally how people learn and change their understanding of the world.

Some observational tests

Pop your observations in the comments below.

Make a note of the words/terms for spiritual (unseen) forces and beings that you hear people talking about.

  • What do people seem to mean by these terms?
  • What does that tell you about how they view the world?
  • What followup questions might you have?
  • Are they using personal terms figuratively of impersonal forces?
  • Do these people behave as though they believe in an unseen world?
  • How do you think God’s revelation of himself should reshape or influence these perspectives?

Join the conversation

2 Comments

  1. That was an interesting and helpful article. I realised once again how culturally foreign much that we do in church services is, a couple of years back when an educated young woman in her twenties started coming to some evangelistic meetings at out church. She said she came to faith in Christ through what she heard on those 3 or 4 nights. i spent a lot of time with her and learned that she was from a background of spiritism, where she’d even been used as a child, as a medium for spirits to speak in the spiritualist ‘church’. She decided to come to ‘church’ on Sunday. Unfortunately someone had chosen the hymn Eternal Light as one of the 3 or 4 to sing. I understand the theological sentiments of the Victorian poem but I don’t think we should sing it any longer. She told me she didn’t have a clue what it was on about, and as for the second verse, she nearly freaked out to hear “The spirits that surround Thy throne may bear the burning bliss;” Spirits to her meant a totally different thing to the hymn idea. It’s not just foreign countries and tribes that we need to be relevant to. Most people in the last 2 generations that have grown up here in the UK are totally ignorant of the words and concepts in common use in our churches. And then add in the international students and asylum seekers that join some congregations, and we should ask ourselves, ‘What do they and the younger men and women in the service take home with them from what they have just experienced and heard?’ Surely we can make the gospel accessible without diluting any of its truth and glory?

  2. Spot on, Colette! This really is something we need to take seriously.

    The whole point of Bible translation and communicating the good news to outsiders using their language is based on the idea and experience that against all odds we really can build on whatever experience of life and language people have been given by God so far, rather than needing to teach people a new language. It’s quite fascinating.

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