Criticism of translations

Domenico Ghirlandaio : Saint Jerome in his Study (1480 — Church of Ognissanti, Florence)

It is fascinating to see how translations of the Bible are recieved. Books are written about translations of the Bible into English extolling their virtues or exposing their weaknesses. Some give new translations kudos and other castigation. This kind of reception for new translations is not at all new. In fact, the history of what was said about new translations reveals a pattern.

In 382 AD, Euseius Hieronymus, later known as Saint Jerome, was asked to produce a new translation of the Bible in Latin to replace the Old Latin Version which some considered divinely inspired – once for all delivered for all believers. Jerome was highly qualified for the task. But, when his translation appeared it was not widely accepted. It took some time, but his translation was finally recognized for what it was – a work of great accuracy, beauty and skill.

But that was only after Jerome’s death. Then people started saying about his translation exactly the opposite of what its critics said when it first appeared. In fact, they said that Jerome’s translation had all the qualities — accuracy, eloquence, clarity — an earlier generation said only belonged to the Old Latin Version.

In the late 1800s, the Swiss theologian Louis Segond did a translation into French from the original languages because the existing French translations were all over 100 years old. When it first appeared in 1880, it encountered a firestorm of criticism from French protestants, especially from more conservative churches. Nevertheless, it eventually it became the standard translation, occupying a place similar to the King James in English. Revisions in 1978 and 2007 are still the most popular Bibles among French protestants, while the revision done in 1910 is still widely used in French-speaking Africa. When newer translations in French started to appear in the late 20th century, many protestants defended Segond’s translation, saying that it was more accurate whereas their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, often members or leaders of the same churches, had criticized its accuracy.

When the King James Version first appeared in 1611 many Puritans continued to use the Geneva Bible, even printing it after that was outlawed. As late as 1800, almost 200 years after the King James was first published, some Puritan families were still using the Geneva Bible. In fact, it was the Geneva Bible that the pilgrims brought to the New World, not the King James. After the first publishing of the King James Version a renowned Hebrew scholar named Hugh Broughton became its strongest critic. Upon receiving a courtesy copy of the first printing, we wrote a blistering critique. But the opposition died away and the King James Version became synonymous with the Bible for English speakers.

So, it is entirely predictable that when a new translation appears, there will be claims that a well-established older translation is better because it is more accurate, more beautiful and/or more holy.

The same thing is happening today in Ghana. The first translations of the Bible appeared into the Ga, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay), and Twi languages in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Bible Society did revisions in the late 20th century, but some people still come to their sales points asking for the original versions because they believe that they are more accurate, beautiful or holy.

The same will happen, alas, to the translations in which we have been involved when they are revised.

If you liked this, you might also like Why New Translations.

OT perseverance

Woman drying calabashes to sell. Photo: Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance

Once the New Testament was completed in many languages in Ghana, translation stopped. Actually, it only sort-of stopped. It stopped officially. Missionaries or Ghanaians who had come from other parts of the world or of Ghana to translate the New Testament moved on to other things. Salaries stopped for the national translators. So they went back to their other activities such as pastoring, farming or running small businesses. But the translators never really stopped translating. They had to live and take care of their families, so they couldn’t translate full-time.

Regional translation coordinator, Michael Serchie, addresses a church in the Volta Region. Photo: Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance

But they kept at the translation in their free time, working slowly but surely. There was no money for them to attend translation workshops where they would gain additional skills and information needed to translate certain passages or books. But sometimes money was found here or there and they were able to attend. They worked using old computers and got stalled when those computers broke down. . The crucial step of having each translation checked verse-by-verse by a translation expert was scheduled when it was possible to do it without spending much, and sometimes without spending anything. But translated passages and books sat on the translators’ desks for a long time waiting for that crucial step. Even if the translations were checked, publishing was impossibly expensive for the poorer communities. Meanwhile, churches, pastors, Christians and even sometimes community members who are not Christians were asking that the translation resume as before.

It is quite obvious that the translators and the language communities want the Old Testament in their languages. They want it to move forward rapidly, but if there are not the resources needed to make that happen, then they will push it forward at whatever speed they can with the resources they have. Unfortunately, that is quite a slow pace. It will take decades to complete Old Testament. In some cases, decades have passed already and only a small portion of the Old Testament is ready to publish.

I have written several articles on why translating the Old Testament is important. The perseverance of Ghanaians in translating the Old Testament gives us another window into why. Would they work so hard without pay and for so long for something they thought was of no use? Would their churches and fellow believers keep asking and encouraging? It seems foolishness to me to think that their persistence is mistaken. They really do need the Old Testament.

Through a glass darkly

For now we see through a glass, darkly –1 Corinthians 13:12
What does it mean to “see through a glass, darkly”? If we consult a newer translation we find that “glass” actually means mirror.

For now we see in a mirror dimly

1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

It’s not that the King James translators got it wrong, not all. But the word has changed meaning since 1611. Even so, it is not clear why someone would see dimly when looking in a mirror. Reversed, yes. But dim?

The passage is obscure because mirrors have changed a LOT. For most of human history mirrors were both expensive and poor quality. A wealthy woman’s prized possession was sometimes an ornate mirror that would not be as good as a cheapie bought today. Mirrors were often polished metal. The surface would be uneven, and the reflective quality low. And that’s before the metal started tarnishing or corroding. And that was an expensive mirror most people would never see. So when the people of that time looked in a mirror they saw a dim and distorted reflection. When the author penned his words, he was reflecting his experience and that of everyone else when it came the mirrors of his day.

Many teanslators keep the mirror. A few do more polishing. They change the mirror to something that most readers will readily understand.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.- 1 Corinthians 13:12
These different translation approaches are rooted in a philosophical question. What is the translator’s job? Is he or she venturing onto terrain that should be reserved for preachers and Bible teachers? In other words, has the translator left translation and moved on to interpretation? Many would say yes.

The other side worries that making a translation that can’t be understood without a knowledge of ancient times causes people to think that they can’t understand the Bible on their own, and so it harmfully elevates pastors and Bible interpreters while dimming the priesthood of all believers.

They also say that a translation today should be as clear as the original was in its day. When the Apostle Paul’s audience read “through a glass darkly” the phrase was perfectly clear. Therefore the translation should be equally transparent, rather than being like looking through a glass darkly or peering through a fog. You choose.

Greek mirror about 450 BC

Dead-End Translation

Presbyterian Bible translator

Last week, this blog was about how Bible translations done in Ghana in the late 1800s contributed to dramatic church growth in the first half of the 1900s. I also noted that after a first wave of translations carried out by German Presbyterian missionaries, there were no translations started in other Ghanaian languages for 50 years. The churches that grew on the basis of those translations, who used them widely and enthusiastically did not take up the task of translating the Bible for their fellow Ghanaians who still did not have the Bible in their languages.

This situation is not unusual. The Bible was translated into the Ge’ez language (also called Ethiopic) of Ethiopia sometime in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries. It was one of the first translations of the Bible coming just after Jerome did his translation, the Vulgate, into Latin.

It was also followed by a time when no more translations were done, but the stoppage in Africa lasted over 1000 years! Having been blessed with a translation in their own language, Ethiopian Christians did not start other translations. Exactly the opposite! Even when the Ge’ez language died out sometime before the year 1300, the church and Christians in Ethiopia continued to use and revere the Ge’ez translation that no one understood except a few academics. Not only did they fail to translate the Bible into the Amharic language which became the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, they insisted that the incomprehensible Ge’ez translation was the only real Word of God.

Ge’ez translation

History shows that it is the usual pattern that people who receive a translation of the Bible from missionaries and use it enthusiastically, do not then decide to translate the Bible for others. In fact, they might insist that others use the Bible in their language, even when that translation becomes archaic or the language even disappears. In this sense, translating the Bible is often a dead-end task. Oh, it bears fruit in terms of faith and the growth of the church where that language is spoken. In that way it is anything but a dead-end.

But translating is most often a dead-end in terms of prompting the beneficiaries to do a translation for a language next door or in the next country. There are probably many American Christians who are deeply blessed by the Bible in English but who have not thought about making sure those who speak other languages have the same blessing.

Our role in Ghana is to work with Ghanaians to show the churches here the dead-end sign they have erected without thinking about it so that the Holy Spirit might prompt them to take it down and build a continuation of the road missionaries started by translating the Bible into the Ghanaian languages that still don’t have it, and then continue beyond Ghana’s borders.

Translation, Church Growth, Ghana

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that missionaries working with local people completed the first translations of the Bible into the languages of southern and central Ghana. At the time, less than five percent of Ghanaians were Christians. The German Presbyterian missionaries saw their churches grow slowly but steadily.

Then two things happened no one expected.

The first was World War I. At the time, Ghana was then The Gold Coast and it was a British colony. As you can imagine, Germans were not welcome when Britain entered WWI, not even missionaries. The authorities expelled the German missionaries. The church they had started had to stand on its own. It did, and it grew, using the Scriptures and liturgy in local languages.

The second unexpected event was the arrival of Pentecostalism. A layman named Peter Newman Anim left a church founded by missionaries, encountered some pentecostal theology coming out of Portland, Oregon and founded the Christ Apostolic Church. Those who ministered with him were uneducated farmers, laborers, fishermen and even hunters. So they didn’t know English. The Bibles in Ghanaian languages became their only source of faith and truth. They worshiped, read, taught and evangelized in those languages. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostalism reached deeply into the uneducated who were most Ghanaians at the time. They learned to read in church, their songs were full of Scripture and they took the Bible as the Word of God. The results were astounding. Over the first five decades of the 20th century, the percentage of Ghanaians professing Christian faith grew from a paltry 5% to at least 50% (it stands at 60% today). But only where the Bible had been translated. Elsewhere, other religions made headway.

It was quite a combination: the Scriptures in the mother tongue and a church that took both the mother tongue and the Scriptures seriously. They had no doubts whatsoever that God speaks through his Word. Nor did they wonder if their language was up to the task of conveying Bible truth.

Some of my colleagues recently went to visit the head of the church Anim founded. On hearing that they are involved in translation into Ghanaian languages, he spontaneously launched into a historic and theological rationale for the use of the heart language (including the translation of the Bible) to create vibrant churches. He should know; his church has grown to have several million members and although it has many educated members, the backbone is still preaching, singing, worship and reading the Bible in the heart language.

The modern religious map of Africa reveals in a striking way the close connection between the growth of Christianity and the widespread employment of the vernacular. The converse also seems to hold: Christian growth has been slightest in areas where vernacular languages are weak—that is, where a lingua franca such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili has succeeded in suppressing mother tongues. -Lamin Sanneh in Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

The translation of the Bible in Ghana stopped after the German missionaries left. No new translations were started for 50 years.  In the 1960s, a new wave of Bible translation, this one initiated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, started in the north. By the 1970s New Testaments were being dedicated here and there in the North. More recently, and 100 years after it happened in the south, a number of whole Bibles have been dedicated. Just as happened in the south 100 years ago, churches based on the Scriptures in the heart languages of the people are taking hold. But, there was a short stoppage again from 1990 through 2010. We are working to have the third wave of translation in Ghana be the last and be the one designed, implemented and resourced by churches and Christians in Ghana.

Forced changes

I am filling in temporarily as the director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast). If things go according to plan, we’ll be back in Ghana in a few months.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Ivory Coast is coming out of prolonged period of conflict and civil war. During a good part of that time, many missionaries and almost all Westerners doing Bible translation left the country. That left the Ivorian translators on their own. Instead of stopping, most of them kept translating. Coming out of the conflict, we have a very different situation than we had going in. There are still outsiders involved, but like Dayle and I, most of them play limited roles.  Ivorians are the translators, they lead the translation programs, provide expert guidance, do the training and provide quality control.

But the change is more profound than than just changing the faces around the translation table. Churches here are picking up the will to do translation. They sponsor translation programs, choose translators and take care of some of the administrative details. Some have been quite active in doing adult literacy among their members. I am working with a group of Ivorian Christians who want to reformulate how Bible translation is done so that it fits their way of doing things. They think that will give the translations even more impact. I agree.

A number of years ago, the head of a successful African mission told me:

David could not use Saul’s armor. The church in Africa will not do Bible translation the way you do.

David was successful precisely because he abandoned the standard way, the “right way”, the king’s way, the way all the experts advised. King Saul told David:

 “Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.” (I Samuel 17:33)

Africa is considered inconsequential by many, just as Saul thought David inconsequential. Might Jesus’ church in inconsequential Africa devise a way to translate the Bible into its 1,800 languages that no translation expert would ever recommend and yet succeed by doing it their way? I believe that is exactly what will happen. The conflict in Ivory Coast forced some changes in Bible translation. Those changes are opening the door to more profound changes. I say: Be on the lookout for falling giants.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

Why new translations

There are good reasons to update Bible translations and produce new ones in a language. One of the reasons to do that is that language changes. Words change meaning. When they do, the old translation ceases to communicate. Sometimes, old words can even make people laugh. Here are two examples from an English translation first printed in 1984:

‘Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh thongs that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man’ (Judges 16:7)

‘They destroyed all the villages around Gerar, for the terror of the LORD had fallen upon them. They plundered all these villages, since there was much booty there’ (2 Chronicles 14:14)

Thong2

Thong for sale at Nordstroms

The meaning of the words “booty” and “thong” have changed since 1984! Actually, dictionaries still list the following definition of thong:

a narrow strip of leather or other material, used especially as a fastening or as the lash of a whip

But the first definition that comes into the heads of most Americans is quite different.

So, the old translation causes giggles, which was not the intent God had when he inspired these passages. It is good to care that new translations not distort or corrupt God’s Word. We need to also be concerned that older translations don’t distort or make the Bible the subject of giggles because words have changed meanings.

A number of older translations in African languages have been revised because the language has changed. Others are in need of revision. In Ghana, we revise the translation of the New Testament just before printing it with the newly translated Old Testament.

By the way, the King James Translation has this translation of Judges 16:7:

If they bind me with seven green withs that were never dried

While the English Standard Version has:

If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried

PS: These changes in the translations of Judges 16:7 and 2 Chronicles 14:14 were first pointed out by the translators in October 2015.

Interference

PastersA colleague of mine took this photo in Nairobi. The sign is obviously marking aisle 12B in a grocery store. What is not so obvious is that the label on the sign, “Pasters”, should be “Pasta”. The error comes from interference. Interference is what happens when an adult learns a new language. The mother tongue interferes with the new language, causing errors.

In this case, there is a string of errors. First, Kenya (where the photo was taken) is a former British colony. So English there is influenced by the way the British colonists spoke English. For some of them, a word that ends in “a”, like pasta, is pronounced as though it ends in r. So pasta is pronounced pah-ster. One of my dear British colleagues always said “goner” for Ghana.

In the case of the sign, a Kenyan heard the “pah-ster” pronunciation then thought that the word ended in er and so wrote it “paster”. As there are many bags of pasta and many different kinds of pasta in the aisle, the person making the sign assumed that the word needed to be plural.

And that is how pasta became pasters.

This is an example of interference for the sounds in a language. But interference can also happen for grammar and even the meaning of words. I could tell some pretty embarrassing stories of mistakes I have made when learning languages that were caused by interference. I used the word I would have used in English and people responded with shocked looks or blushes.

Interference also inhibits understanding, not just speaking. My Congolese colleagues told me of a pastor who preached on the text “He who has the Son has life”. He explained that every married couple needed to have a son to have eternal life. The problem was that he was preaching from a Bible in a language other than his own mother tongue, and his mother tongue does not have a word that corresponds exactly to “the”. So “He who has the son has life” became “He who has a son has life”.

Banns

Announcement in a church bulletin

Announcement in a church bulletin

In Ghana, some churches announce banns of marriage. Three Sundays in a row there is a public announcement of the names of the couple to be married with the planned date of their wedding. The announcer tells the congregation that if they know of any reason why the couple should not be married, they should inform the church leaders If the couple are from different churches, the banns are announced in each church.

If the church uses a projector, the name of the couple is projected and sometimes a photo. If the couple is present, they are asked to stand. At that point, it is not uncommon that people in the congregation cheer, whistle, clap their hands, trill or otherwise show their joy. There may also be laughter or giggles.

The word “banns” comes from a middle English word meaning “proclamation”. So “banns of marriage” is just an archaic way of saying “public announcement of plans to get married”. One might think that the word banns would be dropped in favor of a more up-to-date word, especially given how close “banns” is to “bans” – the spelling is different, but the pronunciation is the same.

Churches tend to be very attached to certain words, like banns. That can have an effect on translation.

©2013 GospelGifs

©2013 GospelGifs

Imagine a place where the Gospel has never been preached. Missionaries come and preach to the people through interpreters. The missionary doing the preaching uses the word “sin” and the interpreter has to find the equivalent word in the language. Very often and unfortunately, the interpreter has to find the word on the fly with no preparation. So he chooses a word. It might be a good choice and it might not. Unfortunately, few missionaries take the time to consider what words their interpreters are using for key Bible concepts. The interpreter picks words for other key ideas – salvation, savior, heaven, Holy Spirit, etc. using this same haphazard process.

It was in this hit and miss way that specific local words for key Bible concepts were “chosen” in some places. And sometimes those first choices stuck and became tradition, just like banns. In contrast, the method used to chose key terms for English was quite different. Many of them were chosen by an Oxford scholar who knew Hebrew and Greek – the languages in which the Bible was written. That scholar was William Tyndale.

Places where there are Christians, but not yet a translation of the Bible, the accidental process by which words are chosen for key Bible concepts sometimes had the result that different churches use different words than others for the same Bible concept.

Bible translators have to sort this out. Each church may be quite attached to the words it uses. It may not even have thought about the slapdash way the words were chosen nor have considered that there are better words than the ones they use. As we have seen with banns, church tradition in the use of words can be very important to people. If the translators are not careful, some people might reject at translation if it does not use the words they prefer, even when their those words do not have the right meaning. In insisting on their words, church leaders and Christians will say that they are protecting good teaching. In reality, they are protecting their tradition.

Pray for Bible translators. In the matter of key Bible terms, they not only have to find the best words, they often end up having to be negotiators and peacemakers to the get best words accepted over church tradition.

Clusters

When I talk to groups in the US about the accelerated pace of Bible translation, people often jump to the conclusion that the cause of the acceleration is technology. Technology has indeed increased the pace, but other things have increased the pace even more than technology.

One of them is clusters.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

It used to be that the translation in every language was a stand-alone activity. A missionary-linguist moved into each language area and learned each language. Each one did research on the language to which they were assigned, trained local people and lead the translation effort. There was some cooperation between the translation efforts in different languages. It was often sporadic and informal in nature, depending on times when the missionary-translators would get together for another reason.

I’m not sure who discovered it, but a solution to a translation problem in one language can often be used in other languages. I saw it myself vividly. I was at a training course for national translators in Burkina Faso. They were all grappling with the same translation problem when one of the students – not one of the staff, mind you – came up with a solution they all could use. The solution had to do with how the passive voice is used in many of the languages. So the solution was not just for one verse, but for many of the of the times the passive voice is used in the Bible. That one solution could save days, weeks perhaps even months of work because the passive voice occurs many times.

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

From this kind of experience came the idea of clusters – doing translation with a group of languages together, all at once. It looked like that would make translation go faster and cost less. In many cases, it has. But it has done more. In projects staffed entirely by national translators in Congo, we found that clusters increased morale among the translators. Surprisingly, along with increasing morale, accountability was also increased. So we got speed increases, cost reductions, increased morale and increased accountability.

When we came to Ghana, we found that there were lots of opportunities to speed translation by starting clusters.

A word of caution. The clusters sometimes cost less in the long term and more in the short term. The cost of getting translators together on a regular basis meant that the budget for each translation for each year increased. However, the number of years needed decreased. So the cost per year went up, but the total cost for the translations went down. It is my experience that under-funded translation programs actually cost more, sometimes a lot more, in the long term even though they cost less in any given year.