Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bible Translation - Getting the Word Around the World

The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God, but the Babel debacle threw a wrench into the process. Since that linguistic diaspora, believers worldwide have been left to figure out which translation of this Word to rely on.

As is the case with most American Christians, I have more than a few Bibles lying around the house. I bought a few for different translations, but most are simply the product of years of accumulation in a culture where more is better and a scriptural surplus exists. This is not the case in many other parts of the world. Even where the Word is widely published, translations are sometimes disseminated with faithful intentions but little cultural knowledge or concern. (A domestic case in point: warm-hearted, suit-clad Gideons who continue to distribute King James New Testaments on college campuses in America.)

I recently read an article about the World Bible Translation Center, a 34-year-old organization based in Arlington, Texas, that focuses on getting the scriptures out to literate but little-educated people around the world on a conversational and culturally appropriate level. According to the article, the center has translated the Word into more than two dozen languages - including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Yi - and has completed New Testament translations in 20 more. Such widespread production and distribution is an enviable achievement, considering the fact that the World Center's translations take almost seven years of painstaking study to complete. The Center puts in the effort for clarity on the front end so that those receiving the scriptures aren't forced to do all the work, i.e. making interpretations they aren't educated enough to make. "Responsible translation means communicating the meaning, the ideals, as opposed to the literal words," Ervin Bishop, the senior translator for the center, says in the article.

But some aren't so sure that this is the way to go. King James Only advocates believe that the Authorized King James Version is the closest approximation we have to the inerrant word of God. A translation that has been so well accepted for 400 years should never be put to shame, these critics say. No matter that scholars have shown the King James to emphasize the oratory aesthetic more than literal translation, and don't worry about the fact that it's hard to understand. God doesn't change, so why should the scriptures? they ask.

I see more than a few problems with such a view, almost to the point that I almost don't want to dignify this movement with a response. The first thing to notice is the xenophobia it fosters. One Web site says snidely that a team of scholars were assembled by God "to translate His word into the world's most popular language, English." This statement comes packed with all manner of insincerity, implying that English is the language of God and the Western world is privy to some degree of spiritual privilege. The author of the same article "debunks" the myth that we should go back to the original Greek and Hebrew to translate. One wonders about the lineage of the texts used by the King James translators. And by the way, although English might have been popular at the time, it's arguable as to whether or not it was the world's most popular language. Also, despite the fact that English has already started along the path to becoming the lingua franca of global trade, Mandarin Chinese boasts the most native speakers of any language in the world, and China has its own translation issues, as I point out in a recent post.

Another problem is one I think the World Center nails on the head. King James advocates, and anyone else who makes one translation their sole epistemological resource, value soliloquy more than the soul, the message behind the words, which are the skeleton upon which God adds the meat. Check this quote from the World Center's Web site, from Bishop again, "The Bible is the Word of God. 'Word' in this usage, however, is not the same as 'words.' The Word (logos) of God is His 'Message' conveyed to us, the people of the world using our 'words,' that is, whatever human language we use. This means it has to be expressed differently for different people."

The article cites an example that I think drives home the need for a reasonable degree of innovation in the field of biblical translation. The center's Arabic translation takes the word "Christian," which has a negative connotation in Islam, and makes it "Christ follower," capitalizing on the respect that Muslims have for Jesus while more accurately relating the true meaning of Christian discipleship. If such cultural concern can be replicated throughout the whole of scripture, why should we place unnecessary impediments to understanding in the way of those who could be seeking God?

In fairness to the King James folks, who I think are well-meaning but grossly misguided believers, the center of the debate is the extent to which we can become all things to all people (1. Cor. 9:20-23) without watering down or completely changing the essential message of the scriptures. With the wealth and prosperity message catching fire as yet another American Christian aberration, enough of that is going on already, and the issue is that more translations breeds less uniformity and more confusion. While I believe this may be a valid concern in a liturgical setting, it's hardly a problem in translation. Easier translations will give more people access to the message of Jesus, which at its core has to be received like a child anyway. And with more people reading, more people will discuss the Truth, and the every believer can be pleased with the end: God gets more glory.

Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets by loving the world. He reserved his sharpest critiques for those who were the most well-versed in the letter of the law, but had little regard for the spirit behind it. Although sometimes he spoke in parables to avoid being understood (in alignment with prophecies about him), he also used everyday illustrations so that common people - like fisherman, farmers and tax collectors - could understand the deep truths of God's kingdom. And many times, Jesus is cited as using Aramaic, the vernacular, rather than Greek, Latin or even Hebrew, which were all in use at the time.

The World Center distributed 2 million Bibles last year through missionaries and foreign outposts, but they don't only deal in languages other than English. The government of Uganda, the national language of which is English, is helping distribute 283,000 of the World Center's user-friendly translations to be used in elementary schools, the article said. As long as the Word is not compromised, I welcome the efforts of the World Center and pray that they will be used effectively for the spreading of the kingdom abroad and at home. I continue to collect Bibles from each country I visit to remind me that my language does not have a monopoly on the Word, and that (gasp!) Americans have no divine right to scriptural superiority.

To support the World Bible Translation Center, click here.

For recent posts on Pastor Bill Shorey's blog about the importance of using different English translations to hear the meaning behind the words, click here.

Photo: An Arabic New Testament given to me by a Jordanian believer who had been persecuted for his conversion from Islam to Christianity (left) and a Chinese Bible I bought at a rare Christian bookstore in China. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2007

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