Wednesday, 26 January 2011

As we translate

As we translate the Old Testament, we are not bringing a message from God for the ‘xyz’ people (contemporary people group). We are, instead, translating a message from God for the Israelite people, and allowing the ‘xyz’ people to listen into that message.

What difference does that make? A fundamental one. It means that we do not have the liberty to change that message. The message remains the same (to rephrase an old song title); it is the hearers who have changed. This can be represented diagrammatically. God (agent) inspires author (instrument) like so:

Author writes [Message A] to Israelite people:

Author =[A]=> Israelites

Translator translates [Message A] so that people group ‘xyz’ can understand it:

Translator =[A’]=> People ‘xyz’

In doing so the [Message A] becomes [Message A’] i.e. it resembles Message A but may have some subtle differences due to the fact that people ‘xyz’ live at a different time and have a varying culture (with its associated language). But, and do notice this, Message A is still fundamentally the same message. We cannot and should not change this message to make it communicate more easily. If there are things that people ‘xyz’ do not understand, because of the time and culture differences I mentioned earlier, we should explain those, but not in the text. To do so would change the message – it would no longer be message A but would be transformed into message B.

Therefore it is important that translators understand that they are not in the business of bringing a message of God for their people, as if they were some kind of prophet. The prophet lived centuries ago in Israel or Judah. The translator is a faithful witness to the oracle that the prophet delivered, they do not themselves receive a message for the people, however inspired they feel in their work and by the words they are translating. That’s why Bible translators need to know the history and culture of the books they are translating. They should be encouraged to dig deep into God’s word and books that explain it, in an effort to be able to read the Old Testament book as if they were one of the original recipients of it in Ancient Israel. Only then can they begin to think how they can express that message in their own language, and to people of their own culture. To give a concrete example, when someone in Ancient Israel received some bad news, they would take off their clothes, put on sackcloth, and sit in dust and ashes to show the fact they were mourning. The translator will realise that people of their culture do not do this, but will still want to talk about sackcloth and ashes in the translation. If necessary they will put in a footnote or write some other kind of explanatory text, saying that Israelites used to practice this when mourning. What the translator cannot do is change the expression of mourning to something from their own culture. This is because to do that would be to change history.

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