I just had the amazing opportunity to attend the 9th Biennial Bible Translation Conference put on by GIAL and SIL International. The theme this year was “Tradition and Innovation in Bible Translation.” It was a fantastic time of remembering those who have gone before us, and thinking about what is to come. I heard lectures on Luther’s translation principles, historical surveys of people groups in Africa that have now had the Scripture for a number of years, as well as several presentations about how technology is changing the Bible translation landscape.
The opening lecture was given by Dr. Margaret Muthwii (pictured second from the left), the Vice Chancellor of Pan Africa Christian University. She is remarkably experienced in the translation world having served as a Translation Consultant, Translation Coordinator, and a Global Translation Advisor. She was very well received having experience in translation and linguistics. There were two statements that she made in her presentation that both surprised and impacted me:
1) “Many people groups are asking for new translations.”
According to Dr. Muthwii, the overarching methodology for Bible translation since the 1970’s has been what is called “dynamic equivalence” or, more recently, “functional equivalence.” In this theory, one is seeking to translate the meaning of phrases or whole sentences, rather than the individual words. This is contrasted to the view often called “formal equivalence” which is usually understood as providing a more “literal” translation.
I heard in numerous breakout sessions that national translators who were able to read English were given two English translations to look at: 1) a more “literal” translation like the ESV or NASB, and then 2) the Good News Translation (GNT). The more “literal” version was said to give them more insight into the forms from the original languages, but they were called upon to translate like the GNT.
Dr. Muthwii emphasized that some of the communities receiving these “functional equivalence” translations are now requesting more “formal equivalence” type Bibles. They are comparing their translations to English translations and believing that shortcuts have been taken. Specifically, she mentioned that these Christians were seeing passages where there is some ambiguity in the text in the English version, but the ambiguity had been removed for their mother-tongue translation.
This ambiguity might be, for example, a passage like Luke 11:42 where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of neglecting justice and “the love of God.” In Greek (and in some English translations) this phrase “love of God” could refer to either: 1) God’s love, or 2) the love that one (should) have for God. The GNT flattens this by saying that the Pharisees neglect “love for God.” Translations like the ESV have specifically chosen to say “love of God” so as to allow the reader/teacher to determine the correct interpretation based on their study. The Christians that Dr. Muthwii was referring to wanted the liberty to study themselves, in their churches, which interpretation was best, rather than having those decisions made for them by the translation team.
2) “Pastors and community leaders need training too.”
A second encouragement from Dr. Muthwii was to teach the pastors and the community leaders about Bible translation as well. She has found that such leaders have questions (often very insightful questions) about the translation process. Engaging them and training them is a key to promoting the use of the translations. And it is also key in ensuring better quality teaching when the translations are made available to these leaders. This would include training in: translation methods, hermeneutics, biblical interpretation, and even biblical languages.
The claim that the community must be involved in the project is one that I heard numerous times at this conference. And Dr. Muthwii made it clear that the most important aspect of community involvement (as well as national translator involvement) is training. The training that she referred to was not just for the purpose of translation, but so that the Bible can be rightly used and rightly taught.
I believe that Dr. Muthwii is seeing two symptoms of a major flaw in much of what is being done in the Bible translation world. Specifically, I believe that the responses of these communities reflect a short-sighted view of Bible translation.
The short-sighted view of Bible translation: Evangelism
In another session, regarding the issue of ambiguity, Ben Kuwitzky mentioned that the intended purpose of a translation affects the way that you translate. He indicated that when we translate for the purpose of evangelism, we often flatten the text, removing any potential ambiguities. However, he warned that often these translations become the Bible of the church. As such, they are now being used not only for evangelism, but also for discipleship.
It seems to me that many modern Bible translations have been done with the short-sighted goal of evangelism. The intended audience has been the unbeliever who knows nothing of the Bible, nor has anyone to teach them. In this we have produced what amounts to children’s Bibles which have served well to cater to the newly literate, unbelieving, non-Christian communities. In many of these places we have seen people come to faith, where there were no Christians before. These Bibles have served the spiritually immature, as they came to their first understanding of who God is.
But these spiritual infants have grown up (or are in the process of maturing right now). Some of these translations have now been around for longer than I have been alive. Children in these communities are growing up literate, going to college, and are able to compare the Bible in their mother-tongue with those translations in other languages. And this is leaving them wanting more, not unlike a Christian adult who only has a children’s Bible. So, how would we translate differently if we took a long view?
The long view of Bible translation: Discipleship
To explain the long view of Bible translation, I will discuss two goals that I hope to put into practice:
I have only been working as a missionary for about five years, and I am not sure if I am allowed to coin new terms. However, I believe that the Bible translation community needs to be producing “mature translations.” That is, translations that are aimed not for evangelism, but for discipleship. As I have studied translation methodology I have found the term “literal” to be unhelpful. That is because it is hard to know what people mean. Even in Young’s Literal Translation, the word order is different than the Hebrew (which is often Verb first, then Subject, then Object). The ESV claims to be “essentially literal” and “as literal as possible.” But even the ESV uses the word “heart” in English when translating the Hebrew word meeh ‘belly‘ (see Psalm 40:8).
Instead of saying “literal” I say let’s strive for “mature.” Let’s strive to produce translations that are aimed at discipleship. When Jesus gave us our Great Commission he said,
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).
He did not say, “Go, evangelize the nations” or even “Go, translate the Bible.” Evangelism and Bible translation are vital, but they are not the end goal. The end goal is disciples. I think that if we strive for “mature” translations, there is still freedom for the translators to explore different theories of translation. But, the goal makes it clear that we are not seeking to “flatten” the Bible, or to make difficult passages easy. Instead, we are trying to produce natural translations aimed at the discipleship of Christians.
Now, you might be thinking, “But Dave, if we translate for Christians (and not for unbelievers) the people will not be able to just pick up the Bible and understand it.” And that brings us to the second aspect of the long view of Bible translation:
Practically speaking, when we look at how the disciples fleshed out the Great Commission, it was in planting and strengthening churches. The vast majority of the Bible was not written with individual readers in mind. It was written to be read, interpreted, and taught in community. This should be of no surprise to us, being that when Jesus gave us the Great Commission, he included the words: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Teaching has always been a part of the Great Commission, and not just the teaching of the Gospel. We are to go out and make disciples, teaching them all that Christ commanded.
If our goal is not Bible translation, but strong churches, we will make different decisions. In fact, Wayne Dye (who has worked for over 30 years to encourage Scripture use) said in another lecture: “Sometimes teaching the Bible is more important than translating the Bible.” We need Bible translators that are committed to the long haul. Translators that are willing to stop translation at times when there is a need for teaching. Translators that work hand-in-hand with local churches and teach pastors how to interpret the Scriptures. We need translators that are willing to ask the question: “What is best for the church?”
Philip Noss wrote, “perhaps because we have been oriented toward the task of translating, and of training people to translate, we have paid little attention to what follows translation” (Noss 2002: 331). This is the heart of short-sighted Bible translation. We need to be translating not just for the salvation of others, but for their discipleship. We need to be training up leaders that have access to God’s Word in their mother-tongue and know how to properly study it and interpret it. Bible translation is not our goal, it is only one of the steps to get there.
It would be good to remember that the God of the Bible ordained that there would be evangelists and teachers in his church. Translation of the Scriptures is not the only thing needed for adequate communication of the gospel: God has equally mandated the training and deployment of evangelists and pastor/teachers. Failure to account for this aspect of our task may unwittingly encourage a ‘translation’ that is to some degree a perceived replacement of human agents (Carson 1985: 213).
This quote and more are available in the presentation by Kyle Davis which was delivered at the BT Conference dealing with the reformers and their translation committees. The PowerPoint for his presentation can be accessed HERE.
Carson, D.A. “The limits of dynamic equivalence in Bible translation.” ERT 9 (1985), 213.
Davis, Kyle. “Reformation Translating.” http://bibletranslationfellowship.org/resources/
Noss, Philip A. “Translators’ Words and Theological Readings,” TBT 53, no. 3 (July 2002): 331.
*Image of Dr. Margaret Muthwii from: https://www.edgemagazine.co.ke/2017/04/27/how-pac-university-aims-to-bridge-skills-gap-between-academia-and-industry/