Bible Translation Controversy: The Problem of English

I know it might sound obvious, but when discussing Bible translation issues, it is really important to remember that the Bible wasn’t actually written in English. Not only that, but unless you are talking about the NIV, ESV etc, Bible translations aren’t done into English either. This means that discussions about translation controversies inevitably involve talking about translation from language one (Greek or Hebrew), into language two (the ‘host’ language), using language three (English). Anyone who has studied languages in any detail knows that words in one langauge almost never have the same exact meaning and range as their ‘equivalents’ in other languages. Trying to conduct a debate across three different languages is fraught with difficulty.

Let me illustrate this with something I read on Twitter.

“Father, Messiah and Holy Spirit”. Is this a good translation?

Of course, anyone who reads this would immediately react and say that it is not good. It’s a dreadful translation; really awful! However, I don’t actually know of an English version of Scripture which uses these terms, so it’s not really a sensible question. Whether it sounds right to English speakers, is not really important. What matters is that the term used in the host language (translated into English as ‘messiah’) accurately carries the sense of the Greek term τοῦ υἱοῦ. To judge whether this is a good translation means having a good understanding of both NT Greek and the host language concerned, the English words tell you almost nothing. (I will return to the technicalities of this particular translation in a later post.)

Vern Poythress captures this question accurately.

Words do not match in a one-to-one fashion across languages. The difficulty is a general one, and is not confined to religious vocabulary. But meanings can still be communicated faithfully, provided we recognize a difficulty when it appears. We try patiently to find a way to express the meaning in the target language. But expressing the meaning faithfully may sometimes mean searching for the right expression, rather than immediately choosing an expression in the target language whose words seem to a native speaker of English to match English words at some points.

Cranmer explores what this means for the current online debate about Bible translation:

The notion that translation can be effected by internet petition (by people many of whom will have very little understanding of the host culture situation) seems like the very worst kind of Western Christian arrogance. We may know what ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ mean in English, but it does not follow that they must have the same semantic range in another language. Who but the Greek and the scholar of Greek can know what is meant by huios? Who but the indigenous and the participant observer can begin to grapple with the difference and distinction between biological and social familial terms?

So what does this mean in practice? It certainly does not mean that there is no place for discussion. There must always be a place to question and discuss issues as important as translating key Biblical terms. Translators must always be open to listen to other opinions. Again, quoting Cranmer:

There is drafting and wide consultation with members of the local community to discover if phrases or expressions capture the sense of Scripture. This is rigorous and painstaking, and is followed by revision and further revision. Translators have to learn humility as their scholarship and professionalism are constantly criticised and not infrequently amended or even completely discarded.

However, the important thing is that this discussion needs to be informed. The proper place for these debates needs to be within the host language community, involving people who know and understand the language being used and its implications. Even then, there will always be disagreements (I will return to this question, later, too).

Does this mean that there is no place for mono-lingual English speakers to have a view on this debate? Not entirely. However, if you have, at best, limited knowledge of biblical languages and no background in the host language, it would be wise to take time for some serious study and reflection before expressing a firm opinion on a subject as complex and nuanced as this.