Love-Motivated Translation

“Which translation are you using?”

Such a question is so common in some Christian circles that we may be getting used to glossing over the controversy behind it. In the question lay a whole host of potential motives, motives none of us can predict flawlessly. One motive might be to more closely follow the example of a fellow believer, or to expose imposed values we attach to one or another translation. Another motive may be to debate the accuracy of one bible translation against another.

The debate is something that seems to recur in my spiritual life, perhaps in concert with a Church that is “ever reforming” by God’s guidance. But at the moment, the debate seems to be closed to me, because one tiny phrase – used in the bible itself – blows the debate wide open. And it’s probably not the phrase most readily in mind.

In many translations, that phrase is: “this word means.” Found in John 9:3, one would certainly be forgiven for thinking the phrase anything but monumental. Of all criteria, it contains a vague pronoun. But taken as a whole, it signifies something deeply foundational to translation philosophy: the type and level of clarity reproduced in a desired (or “target”) language. And this phrase reveals a desire to clarify something directly.

While I’m aware of the temptation to claim a false dichotomy here, there seem to be two major ways to view the meaning behind this phrase: 

(1)   The author or copier of the text at least believes that everything in the gospel account will already be clear to the audience, and therefore anything that could be misconstrued must be clarified in the text itself. 

(2) That which is unclear will be made clear by the text itself, if necessary.

These two approaches appear, quite obviously, vast in difference. Which one do you lean towards?

I ask because I’m willing to bet that each interpretation would naturally appeal to someone for whom a certain style of biblical translation is also preferable. Those of use favoring a more literal translation probably thought (2) the more rational option; those of us favoring a more conceptual translation probably thought (1) the more likeminded choice.

As a pastoral figure, when I’m asked that question at the top of the post, I’ll always encourage the translation that speaks to the believer’s heart most effectively. That of course is easy to suggest when as a pastoral figure I have 10 translations on the top bookshelf (yes…literally). And I certainly do vacillate between them, but that vacillation is also measured by temperance and context. The bottom line is that not everyone can be, or should feel that they have to be, numbed by and inundated with text up near their eyeballs.

(OK, I guess text does have to be up near eyeballs if a person wants to read.)

Yet if I had to choose one translation…just one…for every single congregant I would ever pastor…actually, I think I’d faint from holding my breath trying to decide. Maybe that’s because people need more than that. We need more than someone making a single choice, or recommendation, an easy way out to settle in and not be challenged ever again. For example: are there more possible meanings in a literal translation? Yes, and over the course of a believer’s lifetime that versatility may prove slightly more edifying, but such a wide range of possibilities opens the door for a variety of misleading or unhelpful understandings, too. See, it’s not about the translation – it’s about making sure the message of the text is clear as far as possible, and that happens through both translation and community. We as the Church exist to “translate” God’s love to one another and enjoy that, all the time.

So perhaps the key is the wider context of John 9:3. No matter what we take as the meaning behind the phrase “this word means,” we can be sure that the bible seeks to be clear to the audience. We can also be sure that such clarity was encouraged and provided for in the community of faith – the author (or a copier) clarified the Aramaic for an audience, a wider community of which the author was part. Therefore, if the bible isn’t clear to someone because of either a lack of clarity in the text, a lack of lived-out translation by the community of faith, or both, such would seem contrary to the heart of God.