Asking Hard Questions about Bible Translation

Basil Grafas
Tuesday, January 1st 2019
Jan/Feb 2019

The work of Bible translation has been an exciting and unifying endeavor for generations of American and other Western evangelicals. Translators were recruited from among our best and brightest church members, and churches themselves went with them by financially supporting this brave new work. We were all in a hurry to gift the world with Bibles they could understand in their own languages. But translation is, to say the least, a tricky business. There are so many variables, so many difficult decisions, and so much to master—maybe too much.

Umberto Ecco’s Mouse or Rat and Robert Fagles’ introductions to his modern translations of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid illustrate, from one translator’s point of view, the serious complexity involved. Bible translators have additional burdens. They are not simply translating just any book. They are trying to faithfully translate the word of God. These are the words of God, the thoughts of God, and the purposes of God for human beings. There were few, if any, evangelical churches in most of the places that needed translations. This meant that translations had to be extremely clear, so that people not immersed in a Christian world and life could understand them. One had to safeguard the intended meanings of biblical texts from being wrongly understood by cultures that were unlike those of either the Bible itself or of the translators. These can all be moving targets. Eventually, all of that complexity erupted into vast specialization: speech pragmatics, relevance theory, semiotics. Translators had to form teams. Being Westerners, we learned more to rely on automation to do the donkey work.

Even more importantly, the translators and the teams that coalesced around them had to create products that filled many purposes. In the Bible, there is no gap between the written word and preachers and teachers who convey it. The Bible was not given to the church so that each and every person would read it independently, making up their own minds about its meaning and imperatives. Nor was it given to be read in a group so that a simple consensus occurred. Nor was it to be read like any other book (pace Gordon Fee). It was given to the historical church that had a covenantal hermeneutic (interpretive framework) we all could understand. Although that framework was not equivalent to the Scripture itself, it could reliably teach the Bible’s contents. In the challenging world of Bible translation into new languages, this meant that translators took it upon themselves to serve as both translators of what the Bible said and teachers or commentators of what it meant. What an immense burden: To be authoritative experts in the theological meaning of individual texts that are part of a larger, theologically coherent whole, and then to communicate that entire content (speech acts) in almost entirely foreign cultural contexts! The more complex the problems, the greater the degree of sophistication needed and the more complex the web of relationships required to get the job done.

Let’s illustrate the point. Let’s say that you are in the work of Bible translation. There are thousands of different languages in the world, and as we know, many do not have a translation of the Bible in their own tongue. How do you choose which to translate? How do you choose whether or not to translate? Who makes the decisions? Why do they choose to pursue some languages over others?

There are many ways in which we may answer these questions. Given the fact that we live in a Western world not only assisted by but often driven or directed by technology (Neil Postman’s Technopoly), perhaps we choose to translate because we can. Machine translations are not magic, but they do help stretch capabilities. Translation agencies are also, to some degree, market driven. They depend on funding derived from donor individuals, churches, and Christian nonprofits (probably not in that order). The more translations you attempt and the more you field, the better your marketing and the greater your sales. I know that sounds crass, not to mention unspiritual, but it is a reality that stands behind so much of what missions do. Some people plead for the universal need to have Bibles translated into everyone’s “heart languages.” Accordingly, translations in other than someone’s birth or even original religious language cannot be heart languages. This is problematic. If Hebrews 4:12 declares that the word of God itself is alive and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, is that not heart language in and of itself? In other words, the Bible is already a heart language. It is written by God, and God brings life. That does not determine whether the Bible should be translated into a given language. It does, however, demonstrate that birth languages are not, at least in a Christian sense, heart languages.

So then, how do we decide and who should decide? If ethnographers do their research and discover a language that doesn’t have its own translation, does that settle the matter? I know from my own experience that new translations are floated because a decision was made that a previous translation was not adequate. But this also leads to another question: Adequate according to whom? “Insider movements” working in Asian Muslim communities, for example, claimed that existing translations were not satisfactory. They were not translated, as the story went, into the “heart language” of Muslims. The effort to create these, however, invariably Islamized the Bible translation itself. “Father,” “Son,” and “Son of God” were purged from these translations. Functional equivalents were substituted, but—as any decent biblical theologian knows—there are no functional equivalents for words that serve as the backbone for biblical Trinitarianism.

Furthermore, who made that decision? In 2005, I sat in a meeting when an irate Bengali Christian asked that very question. When he received his condescending and completely inadequate reply (“Well, if you simply understood that ‘Son of God’ simply means ‘messiah’”), he followed up with another question: “Who gave you the right to change the words of the Bible?” Here is my point. On that day, he represented the silent witness of national Christians and members of visible churches of converts. They are silent, because we do not have the ears to hear them. Translation agencies do not consult national churches. They do their own thing or, to dot every i and cross every t, they ask nationals. The small print, in this case, is that these nationals are not only members of independent convert churches. Most often, they are employees of Christian missions organizations. It is the church that is ignored, and it is ignored at both ends. And while American churches are pursued for funding, they too are ignored.

We ignore the church in contradiction to the Bible itself at our peril. As it happens, I work not only in the Muslim world but also in a Native American church plant: Great Plains Gathering in Billings, Montana. We are a family of ancestral Native enemies, white people, Latin Americans, and African Americans. It is easily the most multicultural place in sight. Each of our separate cultures cherishes its identity, but our common heart language—the one Bible we share—pulls us together. Creating separate translations for each cultural identity would be incredibly self-defeating.

My point in mentioning this is not to say that we don’t need more translations—I am sure we do. I am saying, however, that the decision itself is inherently theological and bound up in the sphere of the church. It is not fundamentally either a technical question or a purely missiological one. Another way to get at this is to ask: What kind of church will this translation create? What will happen to the native Christian community if I produce this new translation? Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT), such as those I described earlier, tear believing communities apart. They scar the bride and body of Christ. Because they do this, evangelical missions must listen to those silent witnesses.

Basil Grafas is the pen name for an American missionary who has spent more than thirty years in cross-cultural missions.

Tuesday, January 1st 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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