Language Culture and the Benefits of Bible Translation

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 heshe, and it. Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility. In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (), 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: . 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.

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