This is an article from the January-February 2002 issue: Which Peoples Need Priority Attention

Translation Issues Relevant to Jesus Movements

Translation Issues Relevant to Jesus Movements

Historical Debates on Translation Issues

The translation of texts is an ancient practice and the discussion and debate surrounding translation date back at least a few millennia. The ancient Greeks spoke of two elements of translation: metaphrase (word for word) and paraphrase (idea by idea). Effective translation was seen as the thoughtful blending of these two aspects, with the Roman poet Horace cautioning against exclusively verbum pro verba (word for word) translation in the first century BC . In later centuries, as translation further developed as both a science and an art, translators began to speak of translation in terms of the dual concepts of fidelity (faithfulness to the meaning of the source text) and transparency (beauty and naturalness in the target language).

In the 20th century, the Bible translator Eugene Nida introduced the terms formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence to refer to the Greek ideas of metaphrase and paraphrase, respectively. Dynamic equivalence communicates the ideas and thoughts of the source text with less reliance on borrowed words or calques (a calque is a literal translation of a particular word or idiom that is unnatural and can even have an incorrect or nonsense meaning in a particular context in the target language text—the kinds of humorous errors often produced by machine translations). It is currently understood that formal and dynamic equivalence are not mutually exclusive and are often employed simultaneously in the same text or even the same context by the same translator. This has given rise to the tripartite goal of Bible translators to produce a translation that is accurate, clear and natural in the language of the intended audience.

Bible Translation and Major World Religions

In Bible translations around the world, particularly in the languages of tribal, secular or traditionally Christian people groups, the appropriate balance and blending of these three elements (accuracy, clarity and naturalness) is considered not only acceptable, but desirable. However, when it comes to communicating the biblical message to people who are from major world religions, tensions in the world geopolitical situation seem to interfere with the process. This introduces controversy that impedes the goal of achieving clear, accurate and natural translations. Local and expatriate Christians have been known to react strongly to the idea of a text being beautiful and natural in the language of their socio-political rivals. Or, they may lobby for a word-for-word translation of key passages that are familiar to them and for the importation of key vocabulary items that are theologically important to them, even at the expense of incorrect or nonsensical meaning in the language of the people group who are the intended audience.

Characteristics of Natural Communication

When local Bible translators seek to communicate the biblical message in a way that is natural to their language community, they take into consideration certain characteristics. These include, but probably are not limited to, the following linguistic features:

  • Proper names
  • Theological key terms
  • The meanings of metaphors
  • Differences in grammar and style
  • Differences of worldview
  • Needed background information for biblical times

Non-linguistic features, like formatting and publication and distribution channels, and choice of communication medium, also send a message to the audience, so decisions on these features are important to consider in the overall communication of the biblical message.

Types of Bible Translations

Bible translations differ on how—and how well—they communicate to their audience. Indeed, they vary in terms of who the intended audience is. For example, does the audience belong to a traditional Christian church? Is the audience primarily made up of believers or of those who have not yet believed? Is the audience deeply rooted in their culture, or are they looking to move towards a more Western cultural outlook or way of life? The type of audience influences the type of translation that is produced for and/or with that audience. Some of the different kinds of Bible translations that can be found in the languages of the major world religions are the following:

  • Traditional Church
  • Transitional
  • Transformational
  • Indigenous Church
  • Community
  • Traditional Church Translations

Many of the translations used in languages spoken by people of diverse world religions were originally developed for Christian minority communities. The underlying assumption of the translators from those communities was often that the Scriptures are only for those who are already part of an established church, and so those who are not from other backgrounds have to learn church language if they want to understand the Bible. Those interested in following Jesus are expected to assimilate to these existing Christian minority communities.

In many cases these ecclesiastical translations are quite literal and use traditional key terms and expressions as used by the national church or by foreign Christians. In some cases, such as in Arabic, the church translations use Syriac or Greek words for many key terms, since at one time these were accessible to churches who used Greek or Syriac liturgies. Unfortunately these borrowed words have never been accessible to Arabic-speaking Muslims. Similarly there is often little to no adaptation of metaphor to the target language or correction of misunderstandings due to audience worldview, since Christian communities have traditionally valued literal translation as a way of being faithful to the inspired text. Furthermore, these Christian communities generally have a well-developed system of religious instruction and initiation, and so it is less important to them that ordinary readers be able to understand the text on their own.

In most major languages of the world, there are different translations for or by different denominations. For example, most European languages have Protestant and Catholic versions available. Many languages also have a translation of the Old Testament for the Jewish population who are native speakers of the language.

Transitional Translations

Many Bible translators have recognized that there are differences between the ecclesiastical vocabulary that Christians use and the vocabulary that people in the wider community use to talk about religious ideas. Transitional Bible translations seek to bridge that gap by using terminology that is more natural for the wider community. This kind of translation is undertaken with the implicit (or sometimes explicit) assumption that non-Christians who come to faith in Christ should eventually assimilate into existing church communities, whether denominational institutions or non-denominational church plants, and distance themselves from their existing family and friendship networks. The underlying assumption is that the Bible is primarily for the established Christian church, but should also be accessible for people of other religions who want to understand it and join the traditional church community. Therefore, more natural proper names and religious vocabulary items are used.

Transformational Translations

In some cases, Bible translators in a community recognize that people from diverse religious traditions do not all want to join an established Christian community when they make the decision to believe in Jesus and follow him as Lord and Savior. Such believers do not seek a break with their family and friend networks, choosing instead to serve God as disciples of Jesus within their communities. In many cases, Jesus communities (what we call churches) have emerged from existing family and friend networks.

Bible translators who serve these Jesus communities recognize that the new believers want a translation they can share with their families and friends. They want their translations to use natural vocabulary as well as natural idioms, metaphors and literary style. Such translations are done under the assumption that the Scriptures should be accessible to people of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, and that different communities often need different kinds of translation.

Indigenous Church Translations

When Jesus communities (i.e. indigenous churches) emerge in a non-Christian religious environment, the communities often seek a Bible translation that can meet their particular social, cultural and spiritual needs, even if there is an existing translation of one of the above types in their language. They sometimes call upon local or expatriate Christians to help them in producing such a Bible translation. Interestingly, it is a common tendency for these communities to undertake a more word-for-word translation, using natural proper names and vocabulary items, but retaining a more foreign style. However, there are some examples of indigenous translations that employ natural idioms and metaphors and a natural literary style as well. Many of these translations explicitly address differences of worldview by providing clarification of biblical concepts and background information, either parenthetically in the text or in accompanying articles or footnotes. When this kind of translation has been done as a collaborative effort between people of different cultural and religious backgrounds, the translation process and the resulting product has sometimes been a means of reconciliation and peacemaking.

Community Translations

Sometimes, in small language groups that are made up about equally of Christians and those of another religion, and in languages in which there is not a long tradition of literature, the community decides together that it needs a translation of the Bible that is accessible to all speakers of the language. The translation committee is usually made up of representatives of both religious groups and both groups share the vision and responsibility for the translation. Those who produce this type of Bible translation seek to communicate naturally with regards to any and all of the features we have talked about, from vocabulary items to literary style to addressing worldview issues.

Translation Preferences of Different Audiences

Most major languages include some examples from each type of translation. Even in smaller languages, it is not unusual to see most of the types represented. This is because in any given language community, there are different kinds of audiences for the biblical message and each audience has its own set of needs and preferences. A group of Christ followers who have left their family and friend networks, and who see Western forms of worship and study as a help rather than a hindrance to their walk of faith, prefer certain features in a Bible translation. On the other hand, Christ followers who want to spread God’s Word within their networks of family and friends have quite different needs. Furthermore, minority Christians whose religious rituals and language have been passed on for countless generations as elements of a separate minority community in a wider religious environment have yet different expectations of a Bible translation.

The needs and preferences of different audiences can also be seen in English-speaking contexts. Many English-speaking Christians have very strong feelings about which English Bible translation is “best” and may consider other translations to be inferior or even heretical. These preferences are sociological as much as they are theological, although many people justify their choices with theological arguments. A recent question on the Yahoo! Answers website asked, “Christians, do you support the Bible translated into Ebonics? [African American Vernacular English]” The answers were mostly negative, mentioning some variant on the theme of “butchering the English language.” For those respondents, the concern is not whether “Yo Big Daddy Upstairs” is an theologically accurate translation of “Our Father who art in Heaven.” Instead, their concern is how hearing a familiar and beloved passage rendered in the language of another socio-cultural group makes them feel.

The emotional dimension in acceptance of a Bible translation should not be underestimated, for it hits us right at the core of our identity! If God speaks naturally in the language of those we look down upon, fear or even hate, then what does that tell us about God? What does it tell us about ourselves? What does it say about our relationship to God and to our neighbor? These are powerful and challenging questions, and the way we deal with them can and does affect how a Bible translation produced by one social group is perceived by those in a rival group.

God is at Work in Many Ways

We can see from the above discussion that different communities often want different translations of Scripture, even when they are from the same language or people group. Some years ago, the United Bible Societies had as their slogan for the year: “God’s Word: Open to All”. This is a noble goal, but its realization depends on how we answer the important question, “Can God’s Word speak clearly and naturally in the languages of diverse communities—even in the languages of our enemies?” Around the world, translators, evangelists and church planters are grappling with this question, seeking to make themselves aware of the particular needs for Scripture in the communities where they work, and to smooth the way for people to access the message of God in a relevant and meaningful way. Such thoughtful research into the needs of each community reflects the message of the Apostle James when he spoke to the assembled apostles and elders in Jerusalem: “…we should not make it difficult…for those who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19).


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