Does the Bible need some improvements, if not in content, at least in presentation? That’s one way to put the question addressed by Rev. Steve Kindle in a guest post on Dr. Bob Cornwall’s blog. I want to make some fairly picky comments on this post. As I do so, I want you to be aware that I generally applaud the goals of this post, even while disagreeing in detail.
My previous experience with prettying-up the Bible involves the violent passages. I previously reviewed Jack Blanco’s book (I have trouble calling it a translation), the Clear Word Bible. Some of his renderings are much more comfortable reading than the original, but I haven’t been able to conceive of a paradigm that would allow me to think of them as accurate. I often think, however, that some of the violent passages of scripture are saved from revision largely because so few people read them. Numbers 31 has the advantage of being in a portion of scripture rarely consulted by Christians. When they do consult it, they are often shocked and wish it would go away.
Besides honesty (or accuracy), there is a problem with smoothing out the past. It conceals the nature of scripture, of the experience with God that comes from different people at different times. Seeing trajectories of change in scripture will change our approach to how we get from the words in the book to ethical action in our world.
Rev. Kindle is primarily addressing gender language. This is a fairly controversial topic in modern Bible translation. Translations have been excluded from certain Christian book stores because of the way the represent gender. As is often the case, however, the issue was much more how one was perceived to represent gender. The same store carried other Bible translations that used gender neutral renderings. These other versions were simply less well-known. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is very involved in these issues from a conservative point of view, and are opposed by the Christians for Biblical Equality. In perusing these sites, one can see that there is a great deal of weight put on these issues in church doctrine and politics.
What is unusual in Rev. Kindle’s presentation is that it comes from a progressive Christian who supports equality. He supports gender neutral language in many endeavors, excluding one:
I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.
There is a valid distinction between those fields of endeavor. There is a great deal of difference between determining the way I will discuss God and the way I will translate. Do I refer to god solely with masculine pronouns? Do I avoid the use of pronouns at all? Those questions involve different issues when I am translating the apostle Paul, for example, as opposed to expressing my own theology. I am not a pastor, a liturgist, or a theologian. My studies were in biblical languages, and I’m a publisher. I’m interested in the words.
And that’s where we tend to get into trouble.
Most people, in my experience, view Bible translation as a singular effort, one with a definite, definable goal. I encounter this attitude almost every time I speak or teach or any other time someone manages to connect my face with my book, What’s in a Version?. The question I’m most often asked is: What is the best Bible version? Sometimes there’s a variant: What’s the most accurate Bible version?
But those questions reflect the problem. On the cover of my book I have a one-line answer: The best Bible version is the one you read!
Surely that’s a horrible answer! There have to be bad Bible translations, and I could be reading one of them! And yes, it’s not a complete answer, yet it does make a point. The task of Bible translation is not singular. There is no one “most accurate” Bible translation. There is no single “most readable” translation. In order to answer that common question I have to know who the questioner is. What is the best Bible version for you? I also need to know the activity in view. What is the best Bible version for you to use for devotional reading? What is the best Bible version to use in your study group? What is the best Bible version to use from the pulpit?
The reason is that one cannot transfer the entire meaning of a a source text into any target language. You are going to lose something. The question is what?
Let me take a short digression here. When I discuss loss of meaning I do not mean solely between the text of the source language and the tip of the pen (or the little pixels on the computer screen) of the translator. I mean loss of meaning between what a well-qualified reader of the source language could get from the source text itself, and what a reader of the target language can get from the text in the target language. There is no great value in a text which is accurate in an abstract sense, but is not understood accurately by actual readers. It follows from this that a translation must consider who is to read the text in order to determine how to express thoughts from the source accurately.
Further, understanding comes in different forms. Do I emotionally “get” the story told? Do I comprehend the facts that are narrated? Am I swept away by the literary beauty of the passage? Can I place myself in the shoes of those whose story is told, or who might have first heard the story? All of these things are desirable to various extents at various times, but successfully conveying them is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible to do everything at once. I cannot, for example, convey the rhetorical impact of the Greek of To The Hebrews while also making every point of theology clear to an American audience.
I know readers will object that it is up to teachers and preachers to get the theology right, and they may be correct, but that is a choice in what will be translated. I could then say, “Translation X conveys the theology of Hebrews with great clarity, while translation Y gives one a feel for the literary tour-de-force executed by the author.” The author, however, was intending to convey his (or her, I must concede) theological points in a powerful and compelling exhortation. Where do I compromise?
This is why some have commented on the irenic tone of my book. It’s not that I’m such a peaceable personality, or that I am a great peacemaker, though I would love to be. The reason is that I believe that there are many possible goals for Bible translation and that there are many audiences for which one might translate. Thus there are many possible ways in which one can (and should) translate, so I have less of a tendency to condemn any particular rendering. I do not mean that all translations are equal. I do not mean that there are no wrong translations. I simply mean that there are multiple right translations within various parameters.
I am disturbed when I hear preachers and teachers refer to translations that are supported by significant numbers of scholars as “mistaken” or just as “errors in translation.” This presents the task of translation as too simple. There are many legitimate disagreements which should be referenced as such. Reserve the word “error” for a translation that cannot be justified.
But to get back to the gender issue, Bob, in his introduction brings it up,
Thus, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible will, where the translators deem appropriate, translate a word like adelphoi, the Greek word for brother as “brothers and sisters.”
and Rev. Kindle uses similar phraseology (9th paragraph from the end):
“Member” here is literally, “brother.”
I have been accused of not giving users of the word “literal” the sort of latitude I give with any other word, i.e. recognizing that words have different meanings. The problem with “literal,” especially in circumstances such as these, is that it is extremely susceptible to equivocation. As its use has developed in the language, it is often heard as “accurate” or “faithful” when those who use it intend something more like “simple,” “direct,” or “most common meaning.”
In this case I would disagree with the usage in either case. The Greek word adelphos or its plural adelphoi may have as its referent either a male person (or group of males, as appropriate), or a person of undefined gender, or a group of both men and women. It is probably significant that the masculine form was used in both cases, though it is very easy to take grammatical gender too far in translating a language in which grammatical and natural gender do not match.
Similarly, until recently (change is still in progress) we used “he” to refer to a generic person in English, and “men” and “brethren” to refer to groups of mixed gender. In groups I have been able to survey informally, there seems to be a break right around 40 years of age (adjusted for the passage of time) as to how this usage is understood. Older people will understand “brethren” as including both genders when a group is addressed, while younger ones do not. A pastor illustrated this to me very clearly when he objected to the NRSV because of its gender neutral language. He couldn’t see how “brothers and sisters” was an accurate translation of adelphoi, so he would stick to the more accurate (in his view) RSV. The next Sunday he was reading scripture and he came to a passage in Paul where the apostle was clearly addressing an entire congregation. He stopped, looked up, and said, “And that includes you sisters too!” Clearly he knew some in his congregation would not hear the passage as inclusively as it was intended.
This would apply differently in different passages. For example:
The words “brothers and sisters” here translated the Greek adelphoi. I think it unlikely that James intended men in the congregation to eschew favoritism, while the women were allowed to practice it. He addresses the whole congregation. Yet if I read the usage of the English language correctly, a congregation with people largely below the age of forty would hear the passage as excluding women if we used the “literal” translation “brothers.”
On the other hand, we have James 3:1:
Now here we have a historical decision to make. My belief is that there were many more women teaching in the early church than we have imagined. This is not the place to argue the point. If, on the other hand, one believes that only men were permitted to teach, this would lose historical information as translated by the NIV, as “fellow believers” is here also a translation of the Greek adelphoi. (Another interesting question is whether “fellow believers” or “brothers and sisters” is the more literal rendering of adelphoi. But I will avoid diving into the morass of meanings for the word “literal” that would evoke.)
This is different, however, from the kind of effort made by The Inclusive Bible, which changes many cases in which the original intent of the passage, by which I mean in this case the original referent, is not inclusive. The passage Rev. Kindle quotes from 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, for example, if it is original to the epistle (I believe, with Gordon Fee, that it is not), certainly is not intended as inclusive. That case is very different from either of the cases I referenced in the book of James.
These cases should be handled differently, according to the nature of the audience and the usage in the target language. Right now we are somewhat in transition on inclusive language in English, and that will complicate the work of the translator, and even the liturgist. Something that is heard one way by part of the congregation may be heard in the opposite way by another.
In addition, we need to recognize multiple goals in the use of our ancient texts. We do not translate just to convey data. We also translate for liturgy, for devotion, for prayer, for meditation, and for other goals. The particular way we handle the material at hand must take this different uses into consideration. There are certainly illegitimate translations (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 above from The Inclusive Bible, and many Old Testament passages from The Clear Word, for example) but there are also multiple legitimate goals and multiple audiences to which the translator will hope to convey something of the source text.