Kissing Through the Veil: Can a Bible Translation Be Accurate?
The task of a translation consultant is to ensure accuracy to the biblical source text and clarity in the target language. But can such a thing even be done? Can we trust a translated text to be faithful to the original meaning? Should we be translating the Bible at all?
Kissing Through the Veil
Before a room full of first-year seminarians whose expressions bely a mixture of apprehension and expectation, one renowned Hebrew professor began the semester by confirming his students' unspoken anxieties: studying an ancient language is difficult, and learning biblical Hebrew for the first time may be one of the greatest challenges you face. But it's worth it.
For most seminarians, this provocative image was sufficient motivation to learn their Hebrew vocabulary words and verb parses. Who wants to experience the Word of God through a veil?
But the flipside of this metaphor is not so reassuring. What about the millions of Christians who don't have an opportunity to study the biblical languages? Is their interaction with God's Word in translation somehow diminished? In reading or listening to a translation, is the Bible really speaking to us through a veil?
God Speaks Your Language
The Bible itself sheds some light (and hope!) on this conundrum.
You may remember the Pentecost account in Acts 2. Before he left his disciples, Jesus promised to send a Helper to them. Now after his resurrection and ascension is the moment they've all been waiting for: God's own Spirit arrives.
What follows is the dream of bible translators everywhere.
"And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
It has always fascinated me that the first thing the Holy Spirit does here is empower the disciples to speak in other languages, "as the Spirit gave them utterance." He breaks down the language barriers among an international crowd, and for what? To "tell in our own tongues the mighty works of God."
Did you see it? God does not require his followers to learn Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or any other language. He does not require them to go through special training, earn a certain income, or live in a specific region of the world. From the incarnation (the Word made human flesh) to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), he comes to us where we are, as we are, speaking our language, telling of his mighty works in a way that we can understand.
I think that's pretty good news.
Translation Theology and Theory
So the Bible assures us that God's Spirit speaks every language. In Revelation 7, we see that he also hears every language singing his praises as only they can.
The Theology Bit
The theology of Bible translation begins with the theology of Scripture's authorship. Christian believers who assert that the Bible is God's Word ascribe its authorship to the Holy Spirit, as the Bible itself states in 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is God-breathed."
This doesn't mean that the Spirit of God simply exhaled the words of Scripture in golden font and behold, we have a Bible. The biblical texts are also diverse historical documents by human authors who worked in specific times and places, addressing specific audiences across several centuries.
As Tremper Longman III explains, "God is the ultimate author of the Scriptures, so it must be said that final meaning resides in His intention. Of course, He condescended to reveal His message to the biblical authors, who did not write in a trance but had conscious intentions of their own" (Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 3 p.65).
The Holy Spirit and human authors together composed the text with all of its meaning and form. And yes, that's difficult to wrap our minds around. But just as Christ himself is fully God and fully man, so too is the Word, which has been with God in the beginning.
The Theory Bit
And now, a brief reminder about translation theory: translation is not about transcribing exact words or phrases across languages - it is about communicating the meaning of an original into a different target language. That doesn't mean form is not important - think about the difference between stories, poetry, prophecy, lament, and law, all of which are in the Bible. If you want to delve further into the differences between literal and meaning-based translation, check out this post.
Under this theory of translation, the words themselves are not the point. That's good news for us, because it means there is nothing inherently holy about the original languages.
Theology + Theory = Accurate Translation
Bible translators work analogously to the original biblical authors, asking the Holy Spirit to guide them in translating the original meaning. Bible translation teams each have their own approach and goals for the kind of translation they would like to produce. But even given those variant goals, every translator wants an accurate and understandable translation. After all, that's the point of translating. In other words, the Holy Spirit can and does speak clearly through English (or any other language's) bible translations.
From Genesis to Revelation, God communicates effectively to every target audience in every time and every place in heaven and earth. Because of the Holy Spirit's authorship of the Bible, we can trust that the same Spirit can speak through translation.
Please pray for the Holy Spirit's wisdom and guidance to be with translation teams around the world as they labor to bring God's Word to their language group for the first time, so that they might "hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
Longman III, Tremper. Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Vol 3. Academie Books, 1987.