Lost in translation

During my brief stint in seminary in 2006, I learned things that convinced me that belief in the ‘inerrancy’ and ‘verbal inspiration’ of the Bible was no longer tenable. As I’ve already described, this change in my outlook wreaked havoc on my spiritual and vocational life. It called into question not only my identity as a biblical Christian but also my future as a Bible translator. Making an abrupt mid-flight adjustment, I quit seminary and resumed linguistic studies at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (a school whose staff and students were predominantly SIL/Wycliffe folks). Having stalled and now starting to spin out of control, I hoped that surrounding myself with like-minded people would stabilize my trajectory. To my surprise, the situation only got worse.

Disillusioned and lost, I desperately needed people to hear me out and guide me. Just like at the seminary, though, people seemed threatened by my doubts and questions, and I felt more and more isolated. I looked to my professors to lead me out of the intellectual swamp I had waded into. But many of them were teaching theories thirty, forty, and fifty years old. Many of the theories that had led me out of traditional thinking were more recent developments in anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, etc., so being taught outdated theories just aggravated my predicament. To save my shipwrecked belief system, at the very least I’d need to know that Christian intellectuals had met their opponents and withstood their assault. At the very least. Even better if they could go on the offensive, be proactive instead of reactive. But that’s not what I found, either in my courses or in my frantic reading. Instead, I found a constant retreat into the inexplicable – and indefensible in the secular arena – doctrine of divine inerrancy and inspiration. This doctrine can be summarized as follows: “No matter what you say, we’ll always be right because our source text is from God.” As bizarre as this doctrine is, it underlay the whole enterprise of Wycliffian Bible translation.

It was one thing to feel like a fish out of water at the seminary where the denominational and vocational identities were already foreign to me. But there at GIAL, I was supposed to be with my ‘tribe’. But I didn’t belong there either. There I was, majoring in Bible Translation, yet appalled at the apathy and anachronicity with which it was being taught to us. I realized I profoundly disagreed not only with the theological underpinnings of their translation theory but also the methodological and philosophical ones (which flowed naturally from the theology and yet had been formulated in the mid-1900s).

Our first year in Uganda, I managed to more or less avoid the problem of Bible translation entirely, focusing instead on setting up an outpost in the north of the country, building relationships with the Ik people, and starting research into the sound system of the Ik language. But seeing as how I was recruited to translate the New Testament into Ik, eventually the issue began circling around to me more frequently. In January 2009, while we were down in the capitol at our regional office, I was invited to sit in on a consultant check of the books of Romans (from the New Testament). On January 7th, I jotted down the following thoughts concerning my being “lost in translation.”

It was the same ole translation theory from those ancient textbooks and outdated linguistic theories. More talk of ‘unpacking’ Greek constructions. More insinuation that for Paul’s Greek-speaking listeners, nothing [he wrote] was ambiguous or even imprecise. More caution that if an uneducated, uninitiated, biblically illiterate person can’t understand the translation easily, then it must be changed…

The Wycliffe [Bible translation] enterprise [as taught to me] is founded on some key assumptions: 1) that God wrote the Bible, 2) that he wrote the Bible for every ethnic group in the world, 3) that a translation of the Bible should sound as if it were written in the receptor language and culture, 4) that if a biblically illiterate person can’t understand any given portion of the translation, it must be changed, and 5) that the translation must be ‘clear’ and ‘natural’.

My issue is that I no longer share this edifice of presuppositions. Rather, I think that 1) whatever we mean by “God wrote the Bible” must take into account the full humanity of the authors and their languages; 2) God didn’t ‘write the Bible’ for every language group; the Bible was written first for Jews (Old Testament) and then for 1st-century Greek speaking Jews and Gentiles (New Testament); 3) the translation should sound as clear and natural as reasonable in the receptor language (but obscuring its origin is not the goal); 4) expecting an illiterate rural peasant to grasp the meaning of a biblical text at first hearing is absurd; 5) poetic obscurity and literary strangeness can add to the beauty and impact of an epic translation.

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