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.

2 Replies to “Lost in translations?”

  1. I recoil a little at this usage of first-world. If the first-world in English is so unsure of its message that it keeps writing for itself, what does that say of the imposition of this message (often translated from first world examples) with all its biases onto the other parts of the world? We certainly have first world problems, but clarifying our theological biases and exposing our sometimes hideous translation assumptions is surely something we must do.

    Looking forward to your carnival by the way – and glad you are doing it. I will try to find some stuff you might not come across.

    1. Thanks for the Twitter links to posts, Bob. I think the reason I class this as a first-world problem is that while there are still plenty of smaller language groups in the Global South without a single Bible translation, we go on multiplying translations and editions for wealthy Westerners wanting to spend their money like there’s no tomorrow

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