June 16, 2012

Easy Reads and Milk Seeds (Or, thoughts on translations)

Disregard the milk seeds, I simply felt like rhyming. Just a quick thought on the value of thought and/or meditation and/or wrestling to understand. I want to break my thoughts into to groups of reading, first Bibles, and second, everything else. This post will only cover #1. And perhaps not even that.

So, Bibles. Consider this my critique of paraphrastic "translations" (eg, the New Living Translation), and/or straight up paraphrases (eg, The Message). Before I go too far I do want to be up front and say that part of my frustration with paraphrases is that it can be very frustrating when you know a passage to tun there and find words all out of place or changed. And that frustration can be found even among more literal translations, simply because there are a lot of words that can be translated more than one way. It simply is more common in a paraphrase. Also, I do not claim to be any expert on translations, most particularly because I do not read, write, or speak any of the original languages of Scripture (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). I'm dependant largely upon the help of a good concordance and a few commentaries. I realize that no translation is perfect, because no language perfectly corresponds to another. This is the nature of language.

That being said, when I question people who prefer the NLT, The Message, or to a lesser extent the NIV, as to why they prefer their particular translation over and above what are typically seen as more literal translations (English Standard Version, New American Standard, New King James, King James, Holman Christian Standard) the main reason I hear is a little worrisome to me. That reason, more or less, is that the persons preferred translation is "easier to read" or "easier to understand." Now, at face value there's nothing wrong with that. In fact that reason no doubt is a large part of the reason that not as many people still use the old King James version. This indeed, is the main reason I prefer the ESV over the NKJV, even though my NKJV is the Bible I've had since I was 12 and is like an old friend. The ESV simply flows better, and I can comprehend what I'm reading about twice as fast as my old standby. I don't think there's probably anything wrong with that. But what I sense what some people mean by easier to understand or easier to read, isn't simply that the English flows easier. I think it probably has a lot more to do with our natural human disinclination to ponder or meditate on the Word of God. (Note:this obviously is not the reason for everyone, just something I pick up in some people.) Why do I say we have a disinclination to it? A couple of reasons. First, because sometimes thinking and meditating on Scripture is hard. It can be hard to focus. It can be hard to understand. It can be hard to match up what we're learning with what we already know (or think we know). And yet, this should not hinder us. David says over and over in the Psalms how delightful the Law of the Lord is. The Law. We Christians are all into that grace stuff, but good heavens, keep the law away. Don't make us read through Leviticus, we'd rather have teeth pulled. David said it's delightful. He only knew that because he meditated upon it and God showed Him something of Himself there that was beautiful. It wasn't from a cursory reading.

The second reason is because the Word of God is intended to reveal God. And the more we see of God, the more accurate picture we get of ourselves. And an accurate picture of ourselves is not a pretty picture. And so we are put off by it. (It is important to note here that the grace and love everyone wants to point out and claim is not nearly as beautiful and delightful as it is meant to be until we begin to see something of our ugliness in comparison to God's stunning holiness and justice.)
This is not necessarily excluded when our Bibles are put in simplified language. However, I do think there is a lot more difficulty in wrestling with something that has been paraphrased for us. A paraphrase is, by it's nature, someones rephrasing of a text into their own words. That is, they determine what they think it means, and then phrase it in a way that's easier for them to wrap their mind around. This, incidentally is something akin to what a preacher does on Sunday. Not precisely the same, but he is examining the text in it's context, and then attempting to explain to the people what it means (and how it applies). That's a bit oversimplified, but anyway. My point again, is not that there is anything (necessarily) wrong with taking a passage of Scripture and rephrasing it in order to wrap your brain around the meaning.

The problem comes when I go to the Scriptures looking for the life giving sustenance of God's word, and instead am given a mortal man's paraphrase, which may or may not be right. For an easy example, let's look real quick at John 11:1-6
first in the ESV, and then in the NIV.


1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 
3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill."
4 But when Jesus heard it he said, "This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.
3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it."

 5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

6 Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

Now, if I'm reading the ESV, here is essentially what I see. Jesus is told that Lazarus is sick, he tells them it doesn't end in death but is for God's glory, and so because He loves them, He stays two days longer where He was at. Why? Well, presumably because it was more loving to them to show them the glory of God in the raising of the dead than to simply cure some sickness.
But if I've read that same text in the NIV, I'm not given the word so, but rather, yet. It would seem almost as if there was a conflict between Jesus' love for Mary and Martha and His staying where He is at. I would contend that some very deep meaning is lost, simply because instead of translating the word as so (which not only does the ESV, but also the NASB, NKJV, and HCSB...the KJV says "therefore"), it is switched to yet. That's a big problem because not only do I lose the fact that Jesus' display of His glory is an act of love, I am led to think that His actions were actually in conflict with His love.
 
But perhaps you are thinking I am making a mountain out of a mole hill. I suppose that is possible, I have a proclivity to such things. But I want to challenge you, with whatever Bible you're reading, to quit being happy with just reading. There are novels and chemistry books for that. If God gave us His word to know Him-why in the world are we not going there to know Him? I don't pick up a pair of binoculars in order to chop down a tree. I don't grab a spotting scope to dig a ditch. I use them to try and gaze upon stars in the night sky that my naked eye can't begin to comprehend. Likewise with Scripture. It is not God Himself, but it tells me of Him, and helps my weak eyes see something of His beauty that I could not on my own.
 
As for the translation-I simply want the cleanest and most powerful lens I can find.

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I love Jesus, my wife, and my kids. Writing and teaching are two things I have a passion for. Gardening and fishing are cool, too. I blog @ willdole.com, you can reach me @ contact@willdole.com