The Nature and Challenges of Bible Translation

In Bible by Hans Combrink

Introduction

In this series of three articles, we will firstly look at the nature and challenges of  Bible translation and how a theology of translation is firmly rooted in Scripture. In the second article, we will more closely consider the place of Bible translation in Biblica’s Mission and Vision, looking at the centrality of Bible translation in all we do as well as its historical development. In the third, we will unpack Biblica’s translation philosophy, strategy and global translation portfolio, while considering how the development of Biblica’s translation philosophy and strategy unlocks Scripture for our ministry purposes.

Translation is a risky business

So, let us start by reflecting on the nature and challenges of Bible translation. I want to do this by gathering our thoughts around a statement by Andrew Walls, who said, “Politics is the art of the possible; translation is the art of the impossible.” He goes on to say what all Bible translation practitioners have found to be true,

“Exact transmission of meaning from one linguistic medium to another is continually hampered not only by structural and cultural difference; the words of the receptor language are pre-loaded, and the old cargo drags the new into areas uncharted in the source language. In the end the translator has simply to do his best and take risks in a high risk business.” (Walls 1990:24)

In the beginning was the Word

Translation is a risky business, because it involves humanity. The Bible tells the story of how God took risks with mankind. So, let us turn our attention to a biblical foundation and a theology of Bible translation. In the prologue to John’s gospel, where the one who is coming to the world is simply called “the Word”:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

We might say that the “Word” was God’s self-expression and that this self-expression of God was his own peer and his own self (Carson 2010:109). This is certainly an interesting way to introduce Jesus. Unlike the synoptics, John does not recount the historical birth narrative. He probably wondered how he should introduce Jesus. He must have reflected on the ways in which God was active in the history of mankind, when God, through his word, spoke the world into being (“Let there be light” Gen 1:3); or how “[B]y the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6); or how God so frequently disclosed himself through his word when the “word of the Lord came to” the prophets. John recognized that God’s word is active and involved in creation and revelation; but John knew equally well that the biblical writers speak of God sending forth his word to heal and to rescue his people as in Ps 107:20 where we read that “[H]e sent out his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.” By his word, God creates, reveals, saves and transforms—and we may imagine John thinking to himself, “Yes, this is how I would like to introduce Jesus—as the Word of God!” The writer to the Hebrews summarizes this beautifully, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:1).

The Word became flesh

Then, a little further on in John’s prologue, we read that “[T]he Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The Word became a human being. This is the origin of the notion of incarnation which is etymologically derived from its Latin origins meaning “in-fleshing”. So, we might ask: what is the theological significance of the incarnation? Simply this: the Word who already existed before as God’s own agent in creation, now becomes a human being. And this human being, as the rest of the chapter shows us, is Jesus. John’s gospel makes it very clear that the Word did not merely take the form of humanity, but became man. Fully God, yet fully man. Still, not all of God was fully exhausted in Jesus, since Scripture portrays God the Father and the Son as distinct persons. John simply tells us that the Word, without ceasing to be God, became a human being. We are baffled by this paradox; yet, this is how John describes Jesus in the opening lines of his gospel. Then, in following verses, John shows the significance of the truth that the Word became flesh in very practical terms when he alludes to five major themes from Exodus chapters 32-34 (tabernacle, glory, grace & truth, grace & law, and seeing God) which all deal with the ways in which God revealed himself to mankind and chose to dwell amongst them (Carson 2010:113-114).

Translation

So, from this passage it becomes very clear that incarnation amounts to translation. “When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language” (Walls 1990:25). Jesus, however, was not translated into a “general” language—he did not become a “general” man; rather, he became a particular person in a particular time and place: Jesus, a first-century Jew in Palestine! Through the incarnation, “the Word becomes flesh, but not simply flesh: Christian faith is not about a theophany or an avatar” (Walls 1990:26)—the appearance of the divine in human form; rather, the Word was made man. “To continue the linguistic analogy, Christ was not simply a loanword adopted into the vocabulary of humanity; rather, he was fully translated, taken into the functional system of the language, into the fullest reaches of personality, experience, and social relationship”(ibid). But the metaphor doesn’t stop here. In the rest of the New Testament, John’s symbol of the Word made flesh is expanded with Paul’s symbol of Christ as the Second Adam, the Ephesian theme of the multi-ethnic New Humanity which reaches its full stature in Christ, and Paul’s concern for Christ to be “formed” in the newly founded Gentile churches (cf. Gal 4:19, cf. Walls 1990:25). Indeed, this expansion finds its culmination when Jesus sends his disciples out to make disciples of all nations! Discipleship means that Christ becomes visible in the distinctive nature, shared consciousness, traditions, thought patterns, and relationships of the nations of the earth! This divine act of translation through the incarnation therefore gives rise to a constant succession of new translations! Christian contextualization and diversity—whether we like it or not—is the normal and expected result of the incarnation!

Salvation

Given the challenges, frustrations, and vulnerability inherent in the translation process, it is really astonishing that God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity. Our Christian faith rests on this divine act of translation when “The Word became flesh…” (John 1:14). And when one thinks of it, really, any confidence we have in the translatability of the Bible rests on this fact: “There is a history of translation of the Bible because there was a translation of the Word into flesh.” (Walls 1990:24) In the other major faiths traditions of the world, salvation does not depend on incarnation and therefore translation in this way:

In Hinduism, where salvation lies in realizing identity with the divine; no act of translation takes place. Meaning is not actually transferred from the divine to the human sphere, for the human sphere has no permanent significance or reality: the phenomenal world is just what Hindu sages have long said it is: illusion, or maya.

In Buddhism, the Buddha (“the awakened one”) is recognized as an enlightened teacher who shares his insights to help mankind end their suffering through the elimination of ignorance and craving. Buddhist schools differ on the exact nature of the path to liberation, but agree on the absence of a Creator deity.

“In Islamic faith God speaks to mankind calling to obedience. The sign of that speech is the Qur’an, the direct speech of God, delivered in Arabic at the chosen time through God’s chosen Apostle, unaltered and unalterably fixed in heaven forever” (Walls 1990:24), and therefore also untranslatable! “In prophetic faiths God speaks to humanity; in Christian faith, God becomes human”(ibid). So, the Bible and the Qur’an do not have parallel status. The “true Christian analogy with the Qur’an is not the Bible, but Christ” (ibid)—eternal Word of God! Precisely because the Word became flesh, the written Word of God (i.e., Scripture – from the Latin scribere: “to write”), unlike the Qur’an, “may and should constantly be translated” (ibid)!

Conversion

In the same way that Christian faith is about translation, so it is about conversion (cf. Walls 1990:26). From a linguistic perspective, these are parallel processes. As with translation, conversion is not substitution, that is, the replacement of the existing by something new (e.g., word-for-word translation). Rather, conversion is transformation, that is, the “turning” of existing culture specific structures into something new as a result of the great act of translation into humanity when the “Word became flesh”. For as the writers of Hebrew said so beautifully: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb 1:1).

This is what we hope for, when we focus on helping people engage God’s Word in life-changing ways: the re-orientation and the transformation of every aspect of culture specific humanity to God. By nature then, conversion is not a single aoristic act—as the Greek aorist verb ἐγένετο “became” indicates—but a process. It has a beginning, but no end… Like conversion, translation has a beginning but no end… and like conversion, translation is not about substitution (of one linguistic term for another), but about transformation (i.e., the re-orientation of the functional system of language to embody the new meaning and expression of Christ)! It follows then that as culture and language dynamically change over time, so must translation, if it wants to continue to have impact! The principle of conversion is therefore also the principle of re-translation or revision!

Mission

Bible translation is foundational to world mission. The Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” can only be realized because “the Word became flesh”—because Jesus was “translated” into humanity as an agent of God’s creation, revelation, and salvation. Bible translation, then, is a reflection of the incarnation as the central act on which the Christian faith depends as well as a realization of Jesus’ great commission (or, co-Mission) to his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”. “Perhaps no other specific activity more clearly represents the mission of the Church”(Walls 1990:26)!

Conclusion

Let us never underestimate the challenges inherent in translation. But let us never shy away from the call to mission! Martin Luther, the great reformer and Bible translator, reminds us of the challenges,

“I have also undertaken to translate the Bible into German. That was necessary for me; otherwise I might have died someday imagining that I was a learned man. Those who think themselves scholars should try to do this work.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 43, p. 70)

Would you like to join with us in giving people the opportunity to be transformed by Christ? Partner with Biblica today.

References

Carson, D.A. The God who is there: Finding your place in God’s story. Michigan: Baker Books, 2010.

Walls, Andrew. “The translation principle in Christian history.” Edited by Stine, Philip C. Bible translation and the spread of the church: The last 200 years. Leiden: Brill, 1990.

Hans Combrink

Vice President of Global Translation at Biblica
Hans Combrink has been with Biblica since 2013, formerly as Area Translation Director for the East Asia Pacific region and currently as Vice President of Global Translation. He served with Wycliffe and SIL in Malaysia, and has been a linguist-translator, as well as a teacher of New Testament and Greek. He spent nearly 15 years in cross-cultural settings, working with local language communities to achieve Scripture translation goals. Hans lives in Stellenbosch, South Africa with his wife and five children.

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