The Wycliffe Global Alliance website has just launched a superb timeline of Bible Translation history. This is a resource which will reward both the casual visitor and the more serious student. Go on, give it a go!
The Wycliffe Global Alliance website has just launched a superb timeline of Bible Translation history. This is a resource which will reward both the casual visitor and the more serious student. Go on, give it a go!
One of the great delights in life is reading a book by someone who really loves what they do and who communicates it well. Over the years I’ve read some fascinating books on subjects as far apart as quantum mechanics and molecular virology. Popular science writing is hard to do, but when it is done well, it is wonderful.
Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche is a superb example of a book written by practitioners who have a gift for explaning their subject. It is informative without being heavy, funny without being flippant; and as much as a non-fiction book can be a page-turner, this one manages to be one.
In my line of work, translation tends simply to mean Bible translation, but this book covers a whole gamut of fascinating fields of translation beyond that of Holy Writ. I have sometimes wondered how sports stars manage to ply their trade in a country where they don’t speak the language – now I know. It would be futile to try and list all of the aspects of translation that are covered in this book, so I won’t try. However, if you like words and you are looking for something good to read on the beach this summer; this should be in your bag (especially if you are involved in Bible translation).
Just a couple of remarks in passing. It was gratifying to read a whole book on translation that never once mentioned dynamic or formal equivalence, These terms which are so often debated on Bible translation blogs (including, sometimes, this one) are simply not a part of the everyday translation lexicon.
One sad omission from the section on literary translation were the two finest translators of great literature; Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, the English translators of the Asterix books. Other opinions on great translators are available – they are just wrong!
I should mention that one of the authors of Found in Translation kindly sent me a copy; however, I’d have been just as positive about it if I’d paid for it myself. It really is an excellent book.
Jesus lived in a world where the public reading of the Bible was only in Hebrew and prayers had to be offered in that language. When Jesus took the giant step of endorsing Aramaic as an acceptable language for prayer and worship, he opened the door for the New Testament to be written inGreek (not Hebrew) and then translated into other languages.
It follows that if there is no sacred language there is no sacred culture. All of this is a natural outgrowth of the incarnation. If the Word is translated from the divine to human and becomes flesh, then the door is opened for that Word to again be translated into other languages and cultures… The long term result is a global church of more than two billion people almost all of whom have a Bible in their own language. Believers are thereby able to break into God’s presence using the language of the heart. We are so accustomed to this heritage that we scarcely notice its beginning, which was Jesus’ choice of Aramaic as the language of theLord’s prayer. Jesus affirmed the translatability of the message when he began this prayer with the great word Abba.
From Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey.
Of course, we shouldn’t be complacent that most of the world has a Bible, their are still millions who don’t have a single word of Scripture in their heart language. If you would like to know how you can be involved in rectifying this, take a look here.
Do you have a vision for the things you do or the reason you do them? It is a question that all Christians need to ask from time to time.
In Christian ministry, the work can be so absorbing and interesting that we easily get bound up in it and lose sight of why we are doing it. When we focus on what we are doing rather than the goal, we become reluctant to change or to adapt to circumstances: ‘We’ve never done it that way before!
When Sue and I joined Wycliffe in the 1980s, we were excited about what we were going to do. We were going to live in a village, learning the local language, doing language research, teaching literacy and helping to lead a translation project. After many years of work we were able to hold a newly-printed Kouya New Testament in our hands.
That approach was typical of many hundreds of Wycliffe workers all round the world. This was how we did things. But the important thing was not what we did, but why we did it. Today, Kouya people are able to read the New Testament in their language and are drawn into a deeper relationship with God as a result.
Our vision is not to ‘do translation’; it is to see people engaging with God’s word in the language they understand the best. This means that we have to be flexible. We work in new and different ways to help people engage with the Bible.
In some parts of the world, Wycliffe members do something very similar to what Sue and I did: living in a village, learning the language and heading up the translation. For those circumstances, it’s the best approach. There are other places where the day-to-day work of translation goes ahead without a Wycliffe missionary anywhere in sight. Local Christians lead the work, with expatriates serving as advisors and consultants.
Most projects still aim to produce printed Scriptures, just as we did in Kouya. But in some situations, the translated Scriptures aren’t actually printed, but are downloadable from the web and shared on mobile phones; persecuted Christians can’t carry around a big Bible the way that we can!
We worked on a book to be read, but millions of people around the world can’t read. They can gather together and listen to the Scriptures read out on an MP3 player – just as the very first Christians listened to Scripture being read to them.
The vision doesn’t change, but the things we do to accomplish it do.
This is an article I wrote for the latest edition of Words for Life: the Wycliffe Bible Translators magazine.
Bible Translation really isn’t rocket science. OK, there are lots of tricky technical aspects to it which are far from easy, but the basic principles about why translation needs to happen are quite straightforward. To illustrate this, I’m knicking the whole of a post from Archdruid Eileen, which captures the issue pretty well:
Just a thought, really.
Let’s take the words of Jesus and consider that they would have been spoken in Aramaic, in all likelihood.
Somebody translated that into Greek. And then St Matthew (let’s suppose it’s the Beatitudes we’re talking about here) gathered and maybe regularised the Greek interpretations of what Jesus said on the Mount.
Or if it were the Matthew, maybe he did the translation himself, from the Aramaic in his own memory.
Modern Bible translators take that Greek translation and turn it into English.
Now if you’re King James to the bone, then you’ve got to then make the act of translation from KJV to your own thought-forms. Although, to be fair, if you’re that much of a KJV wallah your thought-forms may well be 17th Century anyway.
And after those 2-3 acts of translation, chances are you’ll still end up with the words “hunger and thirst after righteousness”, or something similar. So if you want to explain that to a non-Christian you’ll need to do another translation step.
It strikes me the options to improve the situation are this, in descending order of utility in accurately understanding the words of our Lord:
1) Invent the Tardis and go back to the 1st Century Middle East, taking everybody you might want to share your faith with, with you.
2) Learn Koine Greek. Better, learn it yourself and then teach it to all your friends.
3) Don’t keep shouting at your friends in KJV English.
4) Try and think of a good way of saying “hunger and thirst after righteousness”.
I’m currently thoroughly enjoying Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. It is a fascinating and amusing overview of the world of translation. I’ll give a fuller review when I finish it. Those who are interested in Bible translation will be immediately struck by the fact that the authors never talk about ‘dynamic equivalence’, ‘formal translation’ or any of those other terms which creep in whenever Bible translation is mentioned. These categories, so beloved of Bible translation polemicists, are simply not used in the wider world of translation.
In a recent blog post, Simon Cozens picks up on this theme.
And this is what bothers me about the whole discussion over Bible translation. People have got more concerned about literal versus dynamic, word-for-word versus thought-for-thought, and so on that they forget that when it comes to translation, there’s really only one dimension that matters: is it a good translation or a bad translation? It’s possible to do a literal translation really well, especially in languages that are genetically similar. And this is where I think English speakers are at a disadvantage thinking about translation, because their first experiences of translation tend to be of languages like French or Spanish which have similar modes of expression to English, and therefore they’re tricked into thinking that literal translation is necessarily a good idea. But where a target language has a very different mode of expression from the source, for instance when translating from Japanese to English, or from Hebrew to English, literal translation generally ends up being bad translation.
Make sure you read Simon’s full post, it’s well worth it.
Recently, a couple of bloggers whose work I enjoy have been having a little bit of a blogging crisis. Phil Ritchie wrote:
As the discussion on Twitter developed some of us switched to discussing the merits of blogging as Christians. I mentioned that I was ambivalent about continuing to blog and had ‘sort of lost heart’. In part this is because of what I have mentioned earlier in this post. I recognise in myself the danger of firing off self righteous and intemperate posts which do neither myself and those I am writing about much good. I shudder to think about some of what I have written and then deleted before hitting the publish button.
As it happens I have only published one post on my blog since Christmas and to be honest I haven’t missed it as much as I thought I would.
While Doug Chaplin chipped in with a very personal post covering similar territory.
Meanwhile, a popular Christian blog has just shut up shop prompting a commentator to write:
A good decision. As I said to you recently, I think the halcyon days of blogging are long over and now many are just a vehicle for crackpots and the politically disenfranchised who can’t get their odious (and often dangerous) political and social views broadcast by any other medium. What’s more, I’ve noted that few of my friends have ever heard of blogs! I think only a tiny proportion of the internet using public actually read them – and if you notice, on many blogs, over time the people commenting actually change with fairly rapid regularity – and many of those are just as weird as authors of the blogs.
I sometimes think the nasty adage ‘Those who can do, those who can’t teach…’ can be applied to much in the blogging sphere: ‘Those who can, lead their lives in all its richness and with all its challenges – happey to live and let live; those who don’t and can’t, write blogs…’. I don’t think that would have been true a few years ago, but I think it is becoming true now…
Whoa – that’s me put in my place!
With this in mind, I must admit that I’ve been wondering about the future of Kouyanet. This blog is around eight years old, which in the scheme of things is pretty good going and we still manage to post most days.
However, Kouyanet has a fairly distinct niche and it is getting harder to find new and interesting things to say. While I try to avoid getting fixated on statistics (especially that my blog is more popular than yours – blog ranking stuff), I have noticed that we are generally getting fewer readers than we did a year or so ago. Is that significant?
I suspect that Kouyanet will keep on going, partly because I enjoy writing (though it can be a chore trying to think up a subject for a blog post), but also because I still don’t see many blogs occupying the same niche that we do. In the end, I really believe that the work we are involved in is one of the most important things happening in the Christian world today. It doesn’t get the same press as major Christian conferences or the latest initiative from some celebrity or other, but it matters and we have to keep talking about it!
In the early 1980s, Sue and I felt that God was calling us into mission work in a French speaking country. For us, this naturally meant something, somewhere in Europe; Bible translation in Africa was the last thing on our minds. Over a period of many months we sought advice from the leaders of our church and other people we respected. We wrote to a number of different missionary organisations who worked in Europe and had a couple of interviews; but nothing seemed to work. It was all rather frustrating. Around this time, some friends suggested that we should visit Wycliffe Bible translators to see what they could offer us. To be honest, I thought this was a crazy idea, but Sue, who is a linguist by training, was quite attracted by the thought – so we went along. Over the space of one weekend, God turned our lives around completely. It turned out that my background as a research scientist was just as useful for a Bible translator as Sue’s linguistic ability. Not only that, but Wycliffe had urgent need for people to work in French speaking Africa. All of the pieces fell into place; our calling to a French speaking country and our academic background suddenly made perfect sense. Thankfully, our Church leadership thought the same thing.
A little over four years after our first contact with Wycliffe, equipped with some of the best practical linguistics training in the world, we moved into a Kouya village in Ivory Coast, West Africa. The Kouya are a hardy, strongly independent people who live in twelve villages on the edge of a dense rain forest. At the time we settled into the village of Gouabafla, there was a handful of Christians in each of the Kouya villages, though the vast majority of them had been believers for less than five years. We became part of a first generation church; it was like living in the book of Acts!
The Kouya area is home to a number of different people groups, but non-Kouyas seem to find it almost impossible to learn to speak Kouya. Because of this, most Kouyas speak at least three or four other African languages fluently in addition to French, which they learn at school. It is hardly surprising that when we turned up in the village and said that we were going to learn to speak Kouya, that people were extremely sceptical. If Africans who had grown up in the area didn’t manage to learn it, how could a couple of white, outsiders expect to.
I’ve never done anything as difficult in my life. Intellectually, getting my head around a whole new way of thinking and a completly new vocabulary was a huge challenge, but it was the least of my problems. The really difficult thing was going out every day to talk to people knowing that I was making a complete and utter fool of myself. It really isn’t easy being laughed at every day. What’s worse, I found myself thinking some rather unpleasant things. “How dare they laugh at me? I’ve left my nice comfortable home in England to come and help them – they should be grateful.” “Do they realise who they are laughing at? I’ve got a university degree and tons of other qualifications, they are just cocoa farmers.” I’d come to share Jesus with the Kouya, but there were times when my attitudes and thoughts were miles from where Jesus would have wanted them to be. But this is the heart of The Story; God loves men and women so much that he wants them to communicate on his behalf, despite the fact that people are far from perfect. Like all of God’s people, I have a whole series of weaknesses and failings; which makes it all the more bizarre that I would look down on anyone!
It took two years of hard work before we became at all comfortable speaking Kouya, and even then it remained a huge struggle to say things in a way that people would understand what we were going on about. But there is nothing in the world to compare to the thrill of being accepted into a community that is completely different to your own. We used to love the expression on people’s faces when they would realise that we were speaking Kouya rather than French. Complete strangers would stop in market and say “aya, the world has changed, the toubabs (white people) are speaking Kouya”. We became something of a tourist attraction in our village. When family members or friends came from elsewhere in the region, they would be brought to our house to meet the tame Europeans who could speak Kouya. It was hilarious! Mind you, not every one was pleased to see us. There were some people who were very suspicious of our motives. Some thought we were spies and more than one person asked where we kept our radio that we used to report back to our government in Washington: it was hard not to laugh at that one. Others thought that we had come to write a book about the Kouya language that we could sell for a fortune back in our home country. At first we were very defensive about these sorts of accusations, but as we learned more about the Kouya and about the colonial history of the country, we realised that the Kouya had good reason to be suspicious of the motives of Europeans. History wasn’t really on our side. Despite the suspicions that some people harboured, most people were delighted to see us in their village. . The Kouya loved it that people from outside were making the effort to speak their language. They were used to outsiders not even bothering to master the basics, but here was a couple who had come all the way from Europe and who were chatting away in the language. Our being there gave them a sense of value and self-worth. Kouya people would tell us that their language was not a real language like French; it couldn’t be written down and it didn’t have a grammar. Over time, we were able to help the Kouya to write their language down and we could show them that it didn’t just have a grammar but it had a very complex and elegant grammar that was often far richer than the French they learned at school. They loved that!
It took a further twelve years and input from a team of Kouya and Europeans before the Kouya New Testament was finally ready to be published. During that time, we saw the small church grow in numbers and maturity. I’m not sure how much impact we had personally in the process and I’m absolutely convinced that we learned more from our Kouya brothers and sisters than they learned from us. But there is one thing that was clearly communicated to the Kouya through our presence in their village: God cares for them. They may be a small ethnic group, more or less ignored or unknown by the larger groups around them: but God sent his servants to live amongst them and God speaks their language. I loved it when an elderly Kouya said to me that the Kouya were just as important as the Americans, French or Germans, because God spoke their language, just the same as he did for those others.
The Bible Translator is an excellent journal which deserves to be known by a much wider audience. The articles are of interest to translators (obviously) but also to anyone with an interest in the text of the Bible. It is scholarly, but not so scholarly that it is difficult to read.
The journal itself has been available online for a while now, but as there was no easily searchable index it was rather difficult to find any articles unless you already knew the title and date of publication.
However, Rob Bradshaw of Biblical Studies UK has recently made an index of over fifty years’s worth of the journal available online.
Rob’s site is a treasure trove at the best of times, but I really believe that making this index generally available is a truly significant step forward in popular Biblical scholarship. Thank you, Rob!
Three years ago, I wrote a longish blog post (part of a chapter of my unfinished book) which included the following…
Just as each culture brings something new to humanity, so does every language. Each language is capable of expressing some things better than all other languages. Why else to coffee shops sell cafe latte rather than milky coffee? On a deeper note, each language has the ability to express itself in ways that other languages can’t quite manage. There are subtleties of meaning and inference that just can’t quite be transferred from one language to another without losing something. And this is really important, because that means that each language can say things about God and is capable of praising God in ways that other languages can’t quite reach. When God multiplied the languages at Babel, He also gave us the possibility of understanding Him and praising Him in new ways. Babel was a judgement, but at the same time God blessed humanity immeasurably and revealed even more of us to himself.
A recent article in Christianity Today by Jost Zetzsche covers similar ground, but takes things a step further than I did. Jost suggests that the wealth of translations available to us today gives us a breadth of insight that can’t be achieved through reading the text in the original languages.
Every new rendering of God’s Word in a linguistic set of human expression—a language—enriches the worldwide church in her understanding of God, regardless of whether we speak that particular language. Our thinking and imagination are necessarily confined and constrained by our own language and its assumptions. But when we encounter another language—and as it confronts and interacts with the biblical text—it can expand our understanding of God and our world. This is true in our dealings with the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic source texts, yes, but also the more than 2,000 target languages into which the Bible or parts of the Bible have been translated.
Take this example from a number of Chinese Bible translations. We know that God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is confined to he, she, and it. Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility. In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is he, 她 is she, and 它/牠 is it). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that God has no gender aside from being God. This translation discovery was an aha moment for Chinese believers. But knowing this benefits us as well—even if we don’t understand Chinese—because it expands our comprehension of God’s divine character.
There is no automation in this process. Translation is not a magical act where a unique facet of God is unearthed each time a new translation is published or a language is “conquered.” But as each faith community matures, discoveries like the Chinese divine pronoun can add to our understanding of God. In the case of the Chinese pronoun, it took a maturation process of 100 years and a member of the native church to reach this revelation.
Mission scholar Andrew Walls says similar things in parts of his work and the IVP Dictionary of Mission Theology article on language, linguistics and translation says the following (p. 201)
This means that divine revelation is much larger and richer than the capacity of any finite language to contain it. Consequently when the biblical message is translated into another language, whatever loss is incurred in subtle shades of meaning is always compensated by gains in fresh theological insights.
The implication of all of this is that translation is a part of God’s ongoing self-revelation to humanity and not simply a pragmatic add-on to solve the problem of incomprehension.
Whatever you think of these ideas, you should read the original article in Christianity Today and have your thinking challenged.
I’m grateful to Simon Cozens for drawing my attention to this book. Following up on Simon’s book recommendations can be an expensive business at times, but in this case, it was well worth it.
Comprehending Mission: (American Society of Missiology) is an outstanding book. If you consider yourself to be a bit of a tiger when it comes to missiology or mission studies, then you simply have to read it. No ifs, no buts.
Subtitled The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and prospects of Missiology, this book gives the best and most comprehensive introduction to the literature of mission studies that I have ever come across and is destined to become a standard text for students of the subject. If you’ve not read Transforming Mission by Bosch yet, then Comprehending Mission shouldn’t be at the top of your reading list – but it should be close.
The six main chapters could each form a basic introduction to their own field and are worth reading on their own merits:
I’ve already quoted from this book a couple of times and I’ll probably slip in a couple of more quotes in the next week or so.
Bible translation is a theological act par exellence. As a (re)enactment of God’s self-revelation and in synergy with it, it can and should be thus ventured in faith, obedience and hope of God’s promise that He wills to continually reveal Himself to all the nations. Thus a translator acts in hope: in hope that is not seeing – there is no automatic guarantee that he or she will be successful and that God’s self-disclosure will necessarily occur through his or her text. It is an Abrahamic kind of hope – based on a faithful promise, but acted out without knowledge of how things will end up (cf. Hebrews 11:8).