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Translation and Inspiration

In posting recently on translation I’ve noticed that many people connect one’s idea of inspiration with one’s approach to translation. The assumption seems to be that a person who believes in some form of verbal inspiration, especially verbal plenary inspiration, will necessarily favor a formal, word-by-word, or literal translaltion. Of these terms I prefer formal, in that the most literal translations do not manage a word-by-word equivalence, but rather account for the grammatical form and structure of the source language in the form and structure of the text in the receptor language as far as possible.

My own involvement in these debates sometimes tends to foster that very viewpoint. I have a non-verbal view of inspiration, in that I believe God inspires messengers with messages through various experiences, which may include a verbally dictated component, rather than dictating words. In Ezekiel 1, for example, my understanding is that God presented Ezekiel with a vision and Ezekiel searched for the words with which to present what he had seen, accounting for the slightly confused nature of the text. Because of my view of inspiration, one might assume that I would support a theory of translation that is message based rather than individual word based.

But in actual practice, I haven’t found that this holds true. Many translators that I know accept verbal plenary inspiration, and nonetheless support the same approach to translation that I do. I have encountered numerous people whose view of inspiration is more liberal than my own, including some people who have no belief in the Bible at all, who prefer a more formal approach to translation.

What I have never found is anyone who wants a translation to be inaccurate, though I suppose some such must exist somewhere. No matter what their view of scripture, if they read it at all they want to know what it actually says.

Where I do see a distinction is in how each person views accuracy. There seem to be two views. First, accuracy can be conceived as an attribute of the text apart from the process of communication. Alternatively, accuracy can be seen as pertaining only to the entire process of communication.

Let me clarify one point. Accuracy is an attribute of the text, i.e. you can have an extremely clear text that is quite inaccurate, and an accurate text that is incomprehensible to some people. But if a text is intended to communicate, and pretty generally they are, then one cannot speak of the accuracy of communication without looking at whether the intended audience can understand the text.

When somebody tells me the word “justify” is the most accurate translation for Greek forms of the word “dikaiow” I have to immediately ask, “Accurate to whom?” It would not be the most accurate word to use for a Spanish speaking audience. One may object that we’re talking about an English speaking audience because “justify” is an English word. But is anyone naive enough to suppose that there are not dialects of English? In fact, “justify” communicates well to some people, and poorly to others. However much “accuracy” I may attribute to the text in the abstract, in an actual situation of communication, a word that is not understood cannot be accurate.

This seems to me to be the critical distinction. People who are most concerned with communicating the message of scripture are most likely to support dynamic equivalence in translation, whether or not they support a form of verbal inspiration. Of course very few people will admit that they are not interested in communication. We gather that it is not their primary focus, however, when they suggest that people should learn all the difficult terms.

Why should I use another word or even an explanatory phrase for “justify” when the target audience can be forced to learn how to understand what “justify” means? Let them come to the Bible! Let’s not “dumb down” the Bible. But in fact they are not being required to come to the Bible, but rather to a specific form in which the Bible’s message is expressed. Restating the Bible in the dialect of the target audience is not “dumbing down.” It’s simply accurate translation when translation is viewed in the context of communicating the message to a particular audience.

This is why it’s so important to make the distinction between the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic text and the English text. Somebody has to learn the words in which scripture was originally given. Very few people need to learn a particular set of words into which scripture has been translated. The act of translating a particular Greek word by a particular English word does not forever privilege that word.

It strikes me that forcing a particular vocabulary on people before they can receive the message of the gospel is putting a stumbling block in front of people. We make them learn our church language before they can hear the message that Jesus intended to present.

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