Monday, September 15, 2008

Faith and Consistency

If the original stuff of the universe had been of a completely balanced consistency, well stirred rather than lumpy, then as the theory goes, there would have been no stars, no galaxies, and of course no us. We are made of the carbon that supernovae give off. No clumpiness, no stars, no stars, no supernovae, no supernovae, no carbon, no carbon, no us.

I am writing this post in response to a concern over consistency in translation. You can read the gloves-on-lowdown here. It is quite a complex post and the comments cover both agreement and disagreement. I think my fundamental disagreement is that explanation is not desirable. A translation should not be a circumlocution. Too bad if I don't get it first time. I will just have to ask the Ether. Maybe it's not asleep.

Consistency is a slippery term. Too often it really means reductionism of some sort. In system design, consistency is often touted as the end all for user interface. This is simply untrue. Even in the world of systems, differences are critical and often lead to creative ideas. Consistency of style and treatment evolves into things we thought were the same but in the end turn out to have been different.

There are a host of consistency issues in Bible translation. For example, the Hebrew word nephesh, translated 'soul' in many versions, doesn't always mean 'soul' and almost always cannot be identified with what soul has come to mean in Greek thought. In my thinking, the Hebrew nephesh means the whole of one's life: what one is, was, did, and suffered, joyed, and walked from end to end - all dimensions included. It's me, it's me, it's me O Lord, standin' in the need of prayer... It is inseparable from the body. In the Greek dualistic world, the soul is immortal and the body mortal. The two can separate and supposedly do at death. In Hebrew thought - at least in Ecclesiastes, it is the breath and the flesh that separate - and he says 'who knows if we are different from the beasts'? I have avoided the word 'soul' entirely because it has come to mean something that it isn't.

So when I come to translate nephesh in the psalms, I usually choose a word like being, or life, or even self. Subjectively, I prefer 'life'. But I can't use life in a psalm where the Hebrew for life also occurs. (E.g. Psalm 146) So across psalms I am inconsistent, but necessarily so within the bounds of the approach to translation that I have chosen.

The issue on the Better Bibles Blog is the translation of the phrase 'in Christ'. Is the question 'what does x mean in English' the right question for a translator? No, it isn't. In the case of this fundamental reality - or unreality if you prefer, the question is - why did Paul (and John) use the preposition in this way? What is normally a preposition of location is used as a preposition of incorporation.

The question is never - what does this mean. Even understanding is to be avoided if this means answering the wrong question. The question in reading and translating is 'what is going on here that the author chose this form of words'. And how do I respond to the perplexity. When you bring up children, you give them puzzles and games to play. The difficulty of the puzzles is graded and you chose what is at the right level for their development. But you never explain the puzzle or the child loses interest. You end up being a know-it-all and the child looks elsewhere for the possibility of growth.

So when translating, recognize and keep the puzzles. Do not even attempt to explain them in the translation.

I do not say there are no 'answers' for your ultimates, only that I would not want you or me to stop too soon. The gifts of God in Christ are too good for such a solution. So forget consistency and go for the lumps - that's where the flavour of the redemptive created order resides. When your mouth is filled, you will find his fruit sweet to your taste. The joy is in his knowledge of you. Your knowledge of him will change and grow.

Grow your servant
and I will live and keep your word
Give sight to my eyes
I will see wonders in your teaching
Guest I am on the earth
do not hide from me your commandments
Ground down is my being
for longing at all times for your judgments
Giving rebuke, you have cursed the presumptuous
erring from your commandments
Get from me ignominy and contempt
for I have observed your testimonies
Great princes sat and spoke against me
your servant will meditate on your statutes
Grand are your testimonies and my delight
they are my human counsels


David Ker said...

One of my dutch colleagues is a translator of the highest caliber but he advocates lumpiness. He said that together with the San translators he works with they translate without a lot of concern for consistency and then they go back and see all the various choices and decide if one or the other is better here or there. The danger of innovation is that it can disguise consistency.

Bob MacDonald said...

In my psalms translations I have tried to be consistent where the words are structural markers in a given psalm and where psalms seem to be tightly related to each other. I am sure it can lead me astray, but generally I think it has revealed rather than hidden meaning.

J. K. Gayle said...

Very helpful response! "Give sight to my eyes" "I have tried to be consistent . . . generally I think it has revealed rather than hidden meaning." Thanks for reminding that translation may involve both clumpiness in the original text and in us translators and our texts.

Bob MacDonald said...

Give sight - I think that might be useful in a recent translation I did. Funny how the mind sometimes fails to loosen up when translating.