07 November 2016

Translating it myself. (And why that’s okay.)

During my church’s services, in between worship songs and sermon notes, sometimes I’ve put bible verses on our video screens. Not as part of the service; just as something to have on the screen in between the other stuff. Something other than a blank screen.

A few weeks ago I got asked,

SHE. “Which translation is ‘KWL’? What’s that stand for?”
ME. “Me. K.W. Leslie. I translated it.”
SHE. “Why’d you use your own translation instead of an official translation?”
ME. “What do you mean, official translations?”
SHE. “Well, like the Authorized Version. The NIV, the New King James…”
ME. “Those aren’t official translations. They were produced by publishers. The bible’s the most popular book in the world; there’s good money to be made by owning your own translation. So publishers hired scholars, and now they have their own translations. But none of them are official.”

(I should clarify: Some churches have made the KJV their official translation, and Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses have produced their own officially-approved translations. But neither our church nor denomination has an official translation.)

SHE. “Well, they were done by churches.”
ME. “They were not. They were done by publishers. Who did hire actual scholars to do the translating, so they’re not bad translations. But they weren’t done by any one church; they wanna sell bibles to every church, y’know.”
SHE. “But why do you do your own translation?”
ME. “As part of my bible study. When I’m studying a verse, I wanna really understand it, so I read it in the original, and translate it. I’m not trying to produce ‘the KWL version of the bible’; I’m just trying to understand it better. Sometimes I’ll use different words than other translations. But I’m not too far different than any of the other translations. In fact if I were too far different, it’d mean I’m doing it wrong.”
SHE. “But why use your translation instead of one of the official translations?”
ME. [letting go the fact she still insists there are official translations] “Certain words I used, which I like better than the words other translations used.”
SHE. “Well I would be nervous about that. Aren’t you changing the words of the bible to suit yourself?”
ME. “I’m trying not to do that. I’m trying to stay true to the original language, the original authors’ intent.”
SHE. “But why do you think you’ve done a better job than the official translations?”
ME. “Because sometimes I did do a better job. Certain translations bend the meaning to fit how popular Christian culture interprets the bible. The new edition of the Amplified Bible does it all the time. The New Living Translation does it a few times. The New International Version tries to hide all the bible difficulties. I tend to compare my translation with the King James Version because I’ve found that translation bends it least. But translators aren’t infallible. Everybody makes mistakes. Myself included.”
SHE. “So how can you put your translation up there like it’s authoritative?”
ME. “’Cause it’s just as ‘authoritative’ as those other translations. Which is to say, don’t take any one translation’s word for it. Compare it with other ones, just in case one of us made a mistake.”

Pretty sure I didn’t convince her, though. When you grow up thinking of certain bible translations as absolute authorities… it kinda bothers you to discover they’re not the work of extra-special anointed creatures, but ordinary women and men. Especially once you personally know any of those ordinary women and men.

The rarified air of the imaginary bible translator.

I actually do know a few of those ordinary women and men. They are (or were) linguists who go to people who don’t have a bible in their local language. They learn the local language, then translate those people a bible. Thus Christianity isn’t limited to just the more common languages; it can spread wider. In some cases these missionaries are creating a written form of the language for these people; they didn’t have one before. (You know, like the Cherokees before Sequoyah created their alphabet and made his nation literate within months.) That’s an awesome thing, as most Christians would agree. Now they can read—and read bible.

Thing is, if these very same linguists translated an English-language bible, these very same Christians, who used to be so impressed by ’em, would balk: “Well… that’s just your translation of the bible. And who are you?” Guess these linguists are holy enough to translate bibles for pagans and foreigners, but not us. Whether that’s just condescending snobbery or full-on racism, I won’t get into today.

See, lots of regular Christians revere the bible. And they believe translating the bible, or even delving into its original-language words, is sacred and profound, and should be reserved for the holiest, most anointed language scholars.

Now, ask ’em what makes a language scholar holy and anointed. Their answers will be all over the place. Some figure you need to be a seminary professor, or have at least one doctorate, or be a published scholar, or some high academic qualifications. Others figure you’ve gotta be a longtime Christian, a devout follower of Jesus, with a monkish lifestyle you’ve practiced for decades. And of course, no matter how accomplished or sanctified you are, you’ve gotta have the very same theological beliefs they do.

Yep, Jesus’s 12 apostles themselves wouldn’t qualify.

I’ve met a few of the people who’ve contributed to “official” bible translations. (And no, I’m not just speaking of my own Hebrew and Greek professor.) Met ’em at conferences. The first one was Bruce Waltke, who translated parts of the NASB and NIV. I was still in high school, curious about biblical languages but not yet serious about them, so I asked where I might learn Hebrew. Any good bible college would teach me Hebrew, he said. In fact if nobody there teaches Hebrew, or even knows it, it’s not gonna be a good bible college. Advice I bore in mind when I later did choose a bible college, ’cause a bothersome number of ’em don’t do Hebrew. (Or bother with accreditation.)

But in my language classes, I learned the nuts and bolts of actual bible translation. It’s not all that hard. I learned Spanish in third grade; biblical languages aren’t any harder. People just assume they’re harder ’cause they use unfamiliar alphabets. Learn the basic vocabulary and grammar, so you can kinda read and translate it without a dictionary.

Which I do. Wanna intimidate the heck out of your bible study leader? Translate the Greek New Testament freestyle, right in front of him. Your bible study leader will definitely do his homework before class from now on. (Learned that trick from my Greek professor. It’s always fun.)

But when you sit down to translate bible, get out that dictionary anyway, and double-check every single word you’ve translated. Compare it with other English translations to make sure you’ve not gone off the deep end: If your translation looks like no other translation, you’ve made a mistake. Maybe several. Find your mistakes.

And yes, any Christian, so long that they’re careful with the grammar, syntax, and context, can translate the bible. Any Christian. It’s not just for clergy, not just for scholars, not just for saints. Just as any Christian can read the bible, any Christian can read the original-language texts of the bible, and try to put them in their language. And the rest of us can judge how well they did. (As we will anyway. And should.)

Fear of a bad translation.

See, that’s the part Christians are nervous about: They’re afraid when “unqualified people” produce “unofficial translations” of the bible, we’re gonna go astray. Or lead others astray.

Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses do with their sloppy bible translation which says in the beginning, the word was a god. Jn 1.1 NWT (They claim it’s correct ’cause theós/“God” doesn’t have an article, o/“the,” before it. Had they stayed consistent with this principle, they really should’ve translated the verse, “In a beginning,” ’cause arhí/“beginning” doesn’t have an article either. But I digress.)

That was the reason the churches persecuted unauthorized bible translators in the middle ages: They feared heresy. And frankly, some Christians think this kind of persecution isn’t so much a bad idea… though they’d make exceptions for Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, and any translator they consider a saint. My sainthood… well, they still consider it debatable.

But even recognized saints, like our pastors, make ’em anxious. When I was a kid, I remember when my pastor at the time was going to graduate school on the weekdays. Suddenly all his sermons were peppered with, “Now, in the original Greek, this word means…” because he went to a good school, and of course he was taking Greek, and learning what they meant. (My notes from the time contain a lot of my guesses as to how to spell these words. He pronounced a number of ’em wrong. But he was trying, which is the important thing.)

Thing is, sometimes he didn’t get the definition right. I mean, he looked it up in the dictionaries, but he made the rookie mistake of many a new student of biblical Greek: When you find a word has five definitions, only one of the definitions is correct. But in the search for knowledge, sometimes you’re tempted to out every single one of them, just to see if one of the definitions fits better. But sometimes it fits you better—not the text. Or sometimes every different definition changes the nuance of the verse just a little bit, which looks profound, but it’s actually rubbish. He fell for that mistake more than once. He eventually stopped, ’cause obviously his Greek professor got to that lesson. But some preachers never do learn that lesson. One prophet I know loves to preach on her “discoveries” where she uses alternate definitions of Hebrew words. Loves it so much, she’s kinda impossible to correct. You can trust her prophecies, but never her sermons.

And some of the reason Christians fear bad translations, is because they were raised Fundamentalist like me. Their churches taught ’em they couldn’t trust any bible but the King James Version; that when anyone starts talking about “the original Greek,” it’s a devilish plot to undermine the holy KJV.

Once you have an infallible bible translation, who needs to worry about original languages? Jack Chick, The Attack 19

So when my pastor trotted out the original Greek, no doubt there were folks in my church who were rubbed the wrong way by this behavior. They knew their Chick tracts: This wasn’t appropriate behavior. When the pastor switched to the NIV, they probably thought it apostasy.

Many Christians nowadays have learned to be tolerant of multiple bible translations. They have their favorites; they consider those favorites absolute and authoritative, but they put up with the fact Pastor’s sometimes gonna preach from a different one, or the various translations in our bible study don’t match. Occasionally some crank’s gonna insist everybody bring the same translation, their favorite; they don’t trust the others.

Why? No good reason. I once got asked a common question among Christian newbies, “Which translation’s the best one?” And someone else in the room piped up, “Oh, the NASB is the most accurate.” How does he know?—has he compared the NASB with the original text of the bible? No. He heard the NASB is the most accurate. In journalism we call this an “unsubstantiated rumor.” Might be true, but we need to hear it from an authority, like an eyewitness or expert; not the NASB’s publisher’s marketing department.

(I actually have compared the NASB with the original text. Relax; it’s pretty good. Most accurate? No. It’s word-for-word, which is too wooden to be the most accurate. Proper translations, as everyone who speaks multiple languages knows from experience, are idea-for-idea. But I digress again.)

That’s why people fret about my translation. They worry about my motives for doing my own translation: What, don’t I trust any of the other bibles? Do I understand the correct principles of translation? Am I bending the scriptures to suit my theology, or pull a fast one and teach error?

I’m not worried about these questions. These are actually really good questions. My problem is Christians don’t ask these questions about all the other bible translations out there. It’s fine with me if they won’t give me a free pass. It’s not fine with me when they unquestioningly accept or embrace the NIV, ESV, NLT, or any of the other translations produced by unknown, unseen bible scholars. By now you probably know about a bunch of my biases. You know any of theirs?

Yeah. You think about that for a while.

So, about the KWL translation.

As you know, I make no claims of infallibility. On the contrary: I am wrong. Trying to be right. Trying to follow Jesus, and accept the Holy Spirit’s correction. I’m a work in progress.

So’s my translations of the bible. As I study the scriptures, as I write stuff for TXAB, I’m gonna read the original text of the scriptures, and translate as I go. Sometimes I’m gonna spend a lot of time and study and prayer on the translation. Sometimes I’m gonna whip it out ’cause I’ve got other ideas in my head at the time. Hence sometimes I’m gonna make mistakes. Double-check me. Click on the verse references; I link everything to Bible Gateway.

My translation is an ad hoc translation. That means I’m not doing it because someday I intend to publish a full KWL bible. I have no such plan. I’m only translating as necessary. When I need to quote a verse, I consider it part of my due diligence to translate it so I know I’m not misusing it. I’m not striving to complete entire books of the bible (although that’s gonna happen as I study entire books). I’m not trying to meet a deadline for getting a translation done. I’m not even trying to format it consistently throughout: Sometimes I’ll translate the psalms so they rhyme, and sometimes I won’t.

I do go back and double-check myself from time to time. If I’m writing an article, and refer to a verse I’ve already translated for another article, I don’t simply quote my previous translation. That’s ’cause I’ve got my Hebrew/Greek bible open, so I’m looking at that text. I might discover I was mistaken the first time I translated the verse. So I’ll fix it. And go back to the other articles I wrote, and fix them. Like I said, work in progress.

Yeah, this means every single verse in my KWL translation is subject to change. So don’t quote it like it’s written in stone. It’s not. You want a translation that nobody’s ever gonna update, you want the KJV, or ASV, or Douai-Rheims, or any of the other older translations. (They do all have updates, though. The NKJV is an update of the KJV, the NASB of the ASV, and the NAB was meant to supersede the Douai-Rheims.) But translations get updated because the translators aren’t infallible, know this, and sometimes go back and fix things. Mine gets updated more often because I’m particularly aware of this.

Yeah, you may not like the conclusions I come to in my translation process. You’ll hardly be the first. No doubt you’ll have similar beefs with other bible translations. Won’t like the words I picked; won’t like the ideas I chose to emphasize. Hey, sometimes I look back on old articles and I don’t like the ideas I chose to emphasize. So I update. Work in progress. There’s no pleasing some people, and I’m one of those people too.

But I’ve found when I do serious bible study, and really wanna understand the scriptures, there’s no substitute for translation. That’s why I do it. That’s why I recommend you give it a shot. Learn the alphabets, learn some grammar, get out those dictionaries, and take a stab at it. Stay humble, and stay at it. You’ll definitely learn something.

Bible translations.