All Together Now: Why Bible Translation is Important II

This is a follow on to an earlier post (sort of).
In the Garden of Gethsamane, Jesus prayed for his followers:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20,21)

There are a number of important things in this passage which I’d like to highlight:

  • Jesus is praying for the people who will believe in Him through the message of his disciples – that’s you and me folks! This is what our Lord wants for us and we can’t afford to ignore it.
  • He prays that we will be one just as He and his Father are one. He wants to see the unity and closeness of the Trinity reflected in the lives of His people.
  • That oneness is a profound testimony to the rest of the world, those who don’t believe, that Jesus really was sent to the world by His Father.

This call to unity is deeply profound. In a world where people naturally split into smaller and smaller groups which become hostile to one another, Christians are called to reflect the unity of the Trinity as a living declaration of the truth of Jesus’ message. Unfortunately, living in unity isn’t something that we are very good at. Clearly, there are times when it is important for Christians to take a stand against doctrinal error, but the capacity for believers to fragment into different camps around theological or cultural issues must cause pain to the one who prayed that we would be one.

Bible translation is one area in which Christians from different confessions can unite in order to advance the Gospel. The Scriptures are above our theological differences; there is no premillenial Bible as opposed to a post or amillenial one. The faithful translator strenuously avoids placing their personal slant or theological spin on their work – and where inevitable mistakes occur there is a rigorous checking procedure to ensure faithfulness to the original. If we are truly Christians, of whatever background, our concern must be to make God’s revealed word available to the millions of people around the world who still can’t read the book in their own language. Placing the Bible and God’s desire to communicate through it, above our own theological and cultural convictions is a liberating experience. It allows Christians who might never meet or who might, in other circumstances, be hostile to one another to work together towards a cause that is bigger than them and their secondary convictions.

I mentioned recently that a number of colleagues from Bible translation organisations across Africa were really encouraged by the way that translating the Scriptures drew Christians from across the spectrum together. It is a tragedy that in taking the Gospel around the world, Western missionaries also exported (and magnified) their denominational structures and divisions. With hundreds of people groups in Africa still without access to the Scriptures in their own language; Bible translation provides a solid opportunity for these divisions to be overcome – and it must please our Lord when he sees it happen.

But, Bible translation doesn’t always draw people together. It also has the capacity to pull Christians apart – quite dramatically at times. While two thousand or so languages in the world don’t have any access to the Scriptures, the English language has more Bibles than anyone could hope to read in a normal lifetime. Yet, despite this (or perhaps because of it) vast amounts of print and internet space are taken up with English speaking Christians criticizing one another for their approach to translating the Scriptures. Some of the attitudes on all sides of the various debates, must cause real pain to the Lord.

Yes, some translations are better than others and there is certainly room to debate the merits of different translation theories, but let’s start from the charitable assumption that people who translate the Scriptures are seeking (to the best of their ability) to communicate God’s Word to a needy world. That being said, I wonder if part of the problem in the English speaking world isn’t simple indigestion. At the risk of being uncharitable myself, I wonder whether it would not be better instead of expending energy on arguing the merits of the TNIV verses the ESV (or whatever) some English speaking Christians couldn’t put their considerable talents to the service of the millions who still don’t have any Scriptures in their own language. I’m convinced that if we worked together on the things that can unite us, rather than scratching at the itches which continually divide us, our Lord would be very pleased.

10 thoughts on “All Together Now: Why Bible Translation is Important II

  1. Pingback: Better Bibles Blog
  2. Eddie, sorry but I changed the title of my post at Better Bibles Blog, so the trackpost link here is no longer correct. The post url is now Bible translation and unity.

    Again, great article. It obviously comes from your heart (spirit?!) and we need to hear it in our spirits.

  3. Eddie,
    Thanks for this. Some of the behind the scenes talk recently over on Wayne’s BBB site has been over the fact that there are plenty of places where the furor over English translations is just a disguise for people fighting what the press in the US calls the “culture wars”.

    Over that maelstrom, some of us are trying to be heard saying that we can actually do better at getting the sense of the original into English, and that the Scripture doesn’t always say what we’ve come to think it says. (As you are certainly aware of from your own translation experience.)

    One could argue that the scrutiny that WBT/SIL gives its translations nowadays makes them uniformly better (as translations) than any available English version, where theology and marketing play outsized roles in determining the content of a publishable translation.

  4. Can’t we just have a basic translation that’s just that – a translation and nothing more? One with no theological bent? I think the ideal translation is the one that takes the text at face value. Not even the KJV could pull that off.

  5. Mollyzkoubou said:
    Can’t we just have a basic translation that’s just that – a translation and nothing more? One with no theological bent? I think the ideal translation is the one that takes the text at face value. Not even the KJV could pull that off.

    That’s the problem. What most people mean by “taking the text at face value” is “give me something that mirrors the Greek”.

    That just doesn’t work. See some of the word oriented threads over at Better Bibles Blog for discussions that explain why.

    All translation, of necessity, requires the translator to understand, i.e. interpret, the text. Ask anyone who has had to actually translate between living languages in real life where there are consequences to getting it wrong.

    But in the Bible translation world, where there isn’t the check of living native Koine or Tiberian Hebrew speakers around, what’s one man’s face value is another man’s interpretation.

  6. Mollyzkoubou said:
    Can’t we just have a basic translation that’s just that – a translation and nothing more? One with no theological bent?

    A further comment to Rich’s, is that it is extremely hard to get theological bent out of translations. My impression is that most translations do attempt to give an accurate rendering of the original languages without introducing theological biases. However, a problem arises because people don’t always recognise that they have a theological/doctrinal agenda. One person’s theological orthodoxy is another person’s doctrinal bias. So even when people set out to do a ‘theologically neutral’ translation (as most people do) they are likely to be seen as biased by those of a different background. It has to be said that this situation is brought into sharper relief in protestant evangelical circles, where people are often trained subconsciously to sniff out heresy at a thousand yards.

    I well remember some people in my church youth group thirty years ago who on seeing a new translation of the Scriptures wouldn’t ask whether the Lord would speak clearly to them through it, but would simply turn to three or four test verses which would prove whether it was a good translation or not.

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