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Stories from a life in progress.

Language lost

Last Sunday morning the group I meet with for a bible study class struck a small quandary.  We're working our way through Galatians and made it to the place where Paul calls out Peter for withdrawing from relationship with non-Jewish Christians in Antioch.  (The full story begins at Galatians 2:11.)

I'll say straight away that the quandary doesn't make a large difference to the teaching of the passage -- it really is just a small thing.  I'm not talking about an enormous, doctrine-critical issue.  Just something that niggles me.  

In verse 12, my NIV translation describes Peter's actions this way: "Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles..."

Other people in the class use the New King James Version, which translates the same section like this:  "...for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself..."

In the book I was holding on Sunday morning, it looks like there are cracks developing in the church at Antioch, based on Peter's actions.  In the book other people were holding, it looks like there was a full-blown break in the church.  Which one was the case?

No matter which one is closer to the truth, the situation was wrong and Paul was absolutely correct in confronting Peter over it.  As I said, no major issue hangs on this point.  But the niggle reminds me of something I've been aware of for a while and haven't done anything about yet: things get lost in translation.  Literally lost.  Not only do things get lost, but other things get created.  It's impossible to translate a large work with complete accuracy, because language simply doesn't allow it.

Earlier this year I read a fascinating book called "The Secret Life of Pronouns" by James Pennebaker.  In a section where he talks about how his language research applies to multiple languages, he also discusses how every language presents new issues for the researchers, giving a few concrete examples:

"In some languages, separate words for pronouns are rarely used.  In Spanish, for example, estoy triste literally means, 'am sad.'  The word 'I' is not needed since the personal pronoun is implicit in the verb conjugation."
"Most languages are constructed to identify who in a conversation has greater status or respect.  In Old English, our linguistic ancestors distinguished between you and thou.  By the late eighteenth century, the formal and informal distinction was disappearing.... Other languages, such as Japanese, signal relative status in the conjugation of verbs and other words.  Indeed, it is almost impossible to say 'I spoke with you about the car' without signaling the relative status of the speaker and addressee."
"Some languages, such as Turkish, require you to provide evidence for any statement you make.  If I said to you 'It was very hot in Austin yesterday' in English, you would likely shrug your shoulders and assume that I'm telling you the truth.  In Turkish, however, you would use different forms of the verb 'was' to denote whether I personally experienced the hot weather or am simply relaying this information from some other source."
"Indeed when anything is translated from one language to another, parts simply disappear or are created."  [emphasis mine]

In the process of translation, parts of language SIMPLY DISAPPEAR.  Other parts are created from scratch, based on language rules and educated guesses.  It's unavoidable.

I'm really glad I have a Bible to read in my own language.  I believe the essential message of it survives translation intact.  But when I think about the fact that the translation process has inevitably changed the book, it niggles me.

Even more, I think about the moments when I've been taught about  specific words or phrases which don't translate adequately into English, and how learning about the original words has lit up my understanding of the Bible on those points.  Words like epithumia, palingenesia, logos, even oligopistos!

I can read the Word in my own language, but I have a deep curiosity for the details my language has erased.

There's an answer for that curiosity, one of those simple but not easy answers.  Learn the original language.  Learn to read the words the Bible was written in.

I keep getting reminded of that, from new sermons which tell me about a word I didn't know before to small quandaries in bible study class.  Maybe I should do something about it.