In an internet conversation which I was following several weeks ago about a particular passage in the Letter to the Romans, a pastor began a comment with, “We must look at the Greek at the beginning of chapter 2.” His comment was immediately answered by another that asked, “Why must we look at the Greek? We know what it says.”
This exchange started me thinking about the nature of language and the challenges of translation. In an essential way, the function of language is to limit. When I say that I am looking at a chair, I have immediately limited the hearer’s understanding of what the object of my gaze could be. It is not a lamp; it is not a ham sandwich; it is not a surfboard. It is a piece of furniture with a seat, legs, and back, upon which someone can sit.
The more language I add, the more limited the image becomes. I could call it a kitchen chair, an easy chair, a rocking chair, or a dentist’s chair. For each of these, a more precise and detailed mental picture of the chair is evoked. A novelist might set a whole scene by describing a chair: He settled gingerly into the old Windsor chair to which she had pointed. Deep gouges in the black paint made him cautious about splinters. As he put his full weight on the seat, the chair rocked alarmingly, revealing a distinct unevenness in the length of the legs. Language allows humans to convey vivid descriptions to others who are far distant from the object being described.
Accurate communication depends on mutual agreement between the writer and the reader on the meaning of the words used. Here is where the challenges begin. Even in the same language, if two people use a word to mean different things, confusion can result. My niece puts a bonnet on her infant daughter’s head before they go out to the beach. My friend in England lifts the bonnet of her car so that a mechanic can check for problems. I hang up on solicitors if they get too pushy in trying to sell me something. My English friend would employ a solicitor to draw up and record a transfer of deed.
The U.S. and England are two modern-day countries that use the same language, yet they experience significant differences in meanings of common words. Additional challenges arise when we try to read a text that is hundreds of years old. In a living language like English, there is constant change. Words lose old meanings and take on new ones. Words that are no longer needed in ordinary conversation disappear, while new words are invented to describe new ideas and inventions. And even when we know the meaning of a word, our emotional reaction to it is governed by its relevance to our everyday lives.
For example, Jesus talked a lot about sheep and shepherds. His audience would have had a very visceral, intimate reaction to those terms. Most of them would have seen shepherds with their flocks every day; many would have spent some time herding sheep themselves. When Jesus said to them that he was the Good Shepherd, they would have had a nuanced and multi-layered understanding of what that meant. The image would have evoked a mental rush of sounds and sights and smells as vivid, perhaps, as those called up in the minds of fans by mention of attending a Penn State football game. Today our mental image of the Good Shepherd is very likely to be that of a beautiful stained glass window or the cover of a Bible story book. Our world is different. Most of us don’t live in close proximity to sheep. We simply cannot experience that language in the same way that Jesus’ followers did.
At least we know what sheep are. Many of us, if we want to, can travel to a farm and see the sheep and lambs. When we hear the traditional words of the Agnus Dei – “Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” – we have some idea of what that means. So do many others of the world’s peoples, so the image “works,” more or less, when it is translated from one language to another. But what about cultures in places where there are no sheep? How does a Bible translator convey the idea of “lamb” to a people who don’t even have a word for the animal in their vocabulary?
Recently I learned that 19th century Moravian missionaries, as they began their work in Labrador, encountered just that problem. So the Lamb of God became, in Inuktitut, “fur-bearing seal.” That might strike us as rather humorous, but a literal translation was impossible. Upon reflection, we realize that choosing a familiar, and culturally important, animal as a symbolic substitute for the lamb makes good sense. In the same way, translators over the centuries have had to make other choices and adjustments.
And this illustrates one more great challenge in communication. Translation is more art than science. Different languages have different vocabularies, and often there is no exact equivalent when translating a word or phrase from one to another. The more different the two languages and the cultures that developed them, the more striking this challenge becomes. When the gap spans both miles and millennia, as it does for Bible translators, the challenge of knowing what the original text meant to the original hearers becomes enormous. Scholars spend lifetimes working with the oldest known manuscripts and still uncertainties remain.
So is it important to go back to the Greek, and to the Hebrew, to gain insight into complex and problematic passages? I would say that the pastor who made that comment is absolutely correct. Assuming that we know all that a verse means simply by reading one, or even several, English translations is a misguided approach to reading the Bible. First we must learn as much as we can about the meanings of the words in their original language when they were spoken or written, and what the historical context was for their uttering. Next we must acknowledge that, no matter how carefully we study, we can never precisely duplicate the experiences and understanding of those first hearers. Only then can we fully open our minds and hearts to hear what the language of scripture is saying to us today.