Lost in translations?

translation cover imageAt the start of the week, Scot McKnight posted about a new translation of the New Testament. This, by Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart, won’t be published in the UK until January.

I confess that my first reaction is, “Another one?” It is hard not to see the continuous production of published NT translations, meeting some perceived lack of scriptural accuracy, as something of a first-world problem.

In these brief remarks, I’m reliant on McKnight’s post and what little I can see from Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

It seems it’s intended to be something of an alienating translation, eschewing familiar ecclesial translations such as “Christ” in favour of “Anointed”, or replacing “church” with “assembly.” Much as Berthold Brecht used “Verfremdungseffekt”  to make an audience step back from a play, Hart, it seems, wants the reader of Scripture to encounter a text from an alien culture, not a contemporary cultural product.

I have some sympathy. I do think it appropriate that, as best as possible, rough Greek should be translated by rough English, rather than giving a patina of literary quality to a non literary text. Some texts, such as the Apocalypse, were undoubtedly culturally strange to at least some of their first readers. Most, however, were not, even if some seemed not quite literary enough.

Paul’s letters, though the syntax sometimes breaks under the weight of passion and meaning, draw on rhetorical conventions closely enough to be recognisable. The gospels are sufficiently like the ancient “Life” genre to be accepted as such. The texts, by and large, were not alien to their first hearers, and to make them alien to their modern readers is to create an unnecessary disjunction between source and translation.

Hart seems to mimic his sources in frequently using the present as a narrative tense. We certainly do this in English, and more so in spoken than written English. But it is surely a mistake to assume that the tense-forms of Greek convey the same range of moods and meanings as the tense-forms of English. Whole theses have been devoted to such questions without settling them.

All translations are interpretations – but so are all readings, including those of scholars who read the original with a high degree of fluency. I am sceptical of those like McKnight who want to locate the authority of Scripture in the “original text”. Leaving aside the problems of establishing such a thing, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted original. The extent, for example, to which Paul’s word for church is nuanced by the Old Testament congregation / assembly, or by the Greek city political assembly of free men, is going to remain a problem of interpretation however fluently one reads the Greek text.

Indeed, it could be argued that the careful translation of a group of scholars working together (the more common way to produce translations) is more of an authoritative text than the Greek being read by a single scholar who is always more likely to read it in ways congenial to their personal viewpoint, community tradition, or academic theory.

Typically, of course, the New Testament authors themselves seem to find more authority in their Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible than they do in any Hebrew text. Anyone who wants to argue that the source language text is somehow more authoritative than a translation has to wrestle with those texts where the proof of the argument is based on a (dubious) translation or corrupt text. Isaiah 7:14 and Hebrews 10:5 are the most obvious examples. It is one of the unusual characteristics of Christianity, especially when set alongside its Jewish and Islamic siblings, that – despite various attempts to the contrary – it has resisted the idea that the text is only the Word of God in the original language.

In that sense, a new translation is always potentially very welcome, as bringing a fresh voice to the interpretation, and therefore new possibilities of understanding and living. I just can’t help feeling a vague tinge of unease that the number of translations of scripture available in English  seems to be growing in inverse proportion to the influence they have on English-speaking culture. Despite Tyndale’s best ambitions, translation into English is now a long way removed from cultural engagement and evangelistic effectiveness.

Praying for the health service

As part of a diocesan resource to help people pray this St Luke’s tide for the health service, I’ve written these propers for a eucharist (although some of them can obviously be used outside the context of eucharistic worship). I thought I’d post below a slightly edited version here for others also to use as they wish. The full resource is available from our diocesan website. I’m assuming people will use the collect of St Luke’s day. Continue reading “Praying for the health service”

BC, BCE, and the hypocrisy of academic dating

Fighting between dating systems

One indicator of changing attitudes to Christianity is the lessening degree of outrage over the evergreen argument about replacing BC/AD with BCE/CE in dates. Yesterday’s Telegraph had the latest iteration of this hardy perennial. It was a relatively restrained and educational account, despite a word from zombie archbishop George Carey.

A number of [school] authorities have already adopted the policy, while several more are reported to be considering making the switch from the traditional to the more politically-correct chronological form compulsory.

Compare this with the version in the Evening Standard some 15 years ago, and one can see that a choleric splutter is on its way to becoming a resigned shrug. Continue reading “BC, BCE, and the hypocrisy of academic dating”

Biblical Studies Carnival

Phil Long has posted the Biblical Studies Carnival round-up for September. These carnivals – a long-standing blog tradition – are always a good way to discover new blogs or posts you may have missed, and Phil’s is no exception.

But let this also serve as notice that I shall be hosting the October carnival on this blog, which will be posted on 1 November. (I last did one a long time ago, on a blog far, far away, scattered many moons since on the winds of cyberspace.)

If you have posts to which you wish to draw my attention for that round-up, then leave a link in the comments here.

Living comfortably: the fiction of a stipend?

Living Ministry Research Project logo

This week’s Church Times reported “Clergy living comfortably“. However, my eye was caught by the paragraph that suggested all was not quite as well as the headline suggested.

Overall, about three-quarters of respondents indicated that, financially, they were “living comfortably’ or “doing all right’. Eighty-two per cent of ordained respondents were able to draw on other sources of income than that received for ministry. Those unable to do so were “much more likely to struggle financially’, with several reporting dependency on tax credits and benefits.

It took a while to track down the report, which appeared to be referenced neither in the CT report, nor on the C of E website in any obvious place. It turns out the project is on one of the many proliferating branded sites. Continue reading “Living comfortably: the fiction of a stipend?”

Ten: a photographic selection

I’ve taken advantage of a few days’ leave to tackle one of those tasks I’ve never really found the energy to get round to: cataloguing, winnowing, and keywording my photos. Here are ten of those I was pleased (for one reason or another) to reacquaint myself with.

Clubbing together in Corinth (a review)

Detail of Roman banquet

It’s always interesting to read a book which works hard to overturn a consensus. I’ve just finished a scholarly monograph which attempts to do just that: The Pauline Church and the Corinthian Ekklēsia by Richard Last.

Last’s aim is to set the Corinthian church in the context of Greco-Roman associations. He thinks previous scholarship has overestimated both the size and the distinctiveness of the Corinthian church. As he makes his case he pays particular attention to questions of membership dues, elections of officers, and honorific awards. Continue reading “Clubbing together in Corinth (a review)”

Worcestershire Multifaith picnic

I make no great claims for my ability with video, but since yesterday I was filling in, in the absence of professional colleagues, I thought I’d use the opportunity of a very enjoyable afternoon to start learning some new skills.

The event was Holland House’s Interfaith Picnic (co-organised with Worcestershire Interfaith Forum) which included a fantastic vegan buffet meaning everyone could share the same food. The skills I was trying out for the first time were editing in Final Cut Pro X, and recording sound (for the interviews) separately on a Zoom (with a cheap lapel mike) and synchronising it in post.

This is what I made of it:

2017 Worcestershire Interfaith Picnic on Vimeo.