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Translations, Translations

In a recent posting regarding his misgivings about the ESV Bible translation, Internet Monk Michael Spencer quotes–but does not give a specific source for–Emerging Church hot shot Scot McKnight’s opinions regarding today’s popular versions of the Scripture:

“NRSV for liberals and Shane Claiborne lovers;
ESV for Reformed complementarian Baptists;
HCSB for LifeWay store buying Southern Baptists;
NIV for complementarian evangelicals;
TNIV for egalitarians;
NASB for those who want straight Bible, forget the English;
NLT for generic brand evangelicals;
Amplified for folks who have no idea what translation is but know that if you try enough words one of them will hit pay dirt;
NKJV and KJV for Byzantine manuscript-tree huggers;
The Message for evangelicals looking for a breath of fresh air and seeker sensitive, never-read-a-commentary evangelists who find Peterson’s prose so catchy.”

Obviously, when you base major theological decisions on the text of the Bible, the choice of a translation stands as incredibly important. By comparison, the choice of a translation is not nearly so earth-shaking when it comes to Homer or Dante or Dostoevsky.

A colleague of mine recently described every translation as already a failure. When we have to move between a poem in Spanish and a translation in English, we lose cultural and linguistic precision. Of course, for the non-Spanish-speaker, the failure of the translation is much more useful than the success of the original. In recent months, I’ve read works originally penned in Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. While there might be somebody, somewhere who can read all of those languages, I would have to suspect that there’s no one who can read with great insight, the insight of a native speaker, in all of those languages.

Let’s consider for a moment the translations of Homer. I might be able someday to leverage my knowledge of Greek to allow me to limp through the Iliad, but for now I have to rely on a translation. However, Alexander Pope’s 300-year-old translation of Homer actually requires a bit of translation itself.  The early-twentieth-century translations I read as a student do not trip easily from the tongue. Even Robert Fagles’ fine efforts require some bridging. I am not Robert Fagles. I did not enjoy his experience, his education, or his vocabulary. His English, coupled with his fine grasp of Greek, will be different from mine.

In short, I’d suggest that the only reading that is not a translation of sorts is a reading of one’s own writing. Reading is difficult if it conveys anything of significance.  Certainly we can hope to understand that Homer wishes to speak of Achilles’ anger, but we lose the nuance and detail of the original. But just as surely I lose nuance and detail when I read the stories of Poe or Irving. Certainly the distance to be bridge between the early nineteenth century and my own mind is narrower than that between the 8th century B.C. and today, but there is a translation to be made.

The question that I would pose to Michael Spencer, as he contemplates Bible translations, or my colleague who considers all translations as failures is to ask what we hope to accomplish with a translation. If my goal is to get entirely within the mind of the original author so my current reader experience is identical with the original reader’s, then I’m sure to be disappointed. If I’m attempting to use the original work as a springboard for a wholly new literary experience, in the way that Pope’s Homer is in many ways a completely new literary production, then I’m probably doing something other than actually translating. Somewhere between these poles, however, lies an acceptable medium, a literary ground that allows us to interact meaningfully with texts that we would otherwise find impenetrable. The very nature of the Bible is as a translation, taking the ineffable, incomprehensible things of God and rendering them in in some form of human thought and language. Is it any wonder that we continue to struggle to find the perfect translation?

Posted in Reviews.


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