Sunday, April 26, 2015

On The Translation Of New Testament Texts (Part 6)

TWH: B. H. McLean talks about translation in his New Testament Greek grammar. In that discussion he specifically refers to words he calls "stained-glass words." He writes:
"This grammar has taken special care with some Greek words that I call stained-glass words. These are words that have special prominence in Christian belief and theology but are not employed in everyday English speech. For example, almost all introductions to New Testament Greek will translate Greek words such as λόγος, ἐκκλησία, ἅγιος, δόξα, and χάρις as 'word,' 'church,' 'holy,' 'glory,' and 'grace,' respectively." (B. H. McLean, New Testament Greek: An Introduction [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011], 13). 
He adds something very important:
"These translations are not wrong. However, the preferential use of these particular English glosses has several disadvantages. In the act of creating a one-to-one correspondence between these Greek words and specific English theological words, students do not learn the actual range of their meanings, nor do they appreciate their context-specific uses." (13) 
Now I don't hold the same position McLean has for some of the words that he discusses. For example, his discussion on "grace" not working as well as the translation "generosity" for the Greek word χάρις goes a step further than I am willing to go. But he hits the nail on the head when it comes to "stained-glass words." Μαθητής is one of those words. When we encounter it in translations of the New Testament we almost always see the word "disciple." The only exception is really a couple of translations that offer a different gloss when the word appears in a proverb (e.g., Luke 6:40). When I was working on my doctoral dissertation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, my advisor continually challenged me to think about the Greek without the stained glass. I'm so glad that he did, too. The word "disciple" really doesn't communicate what Jesus intends by the word as much as some other words like "trainee" or "apprentice." In fact, if churches measured whether or not they were "making apprentices" of the peoples of every nation, we might start to reevaluate what we are doing when it comes to the Great Commission.

Think about these words from the pen of A. T. Robertson:
"The preacher cannot excuse himself for his neglect of Greek with the pleas that the English is plain enough to teach one the way of life. That is true, and we are grateful that it is so. The Bible is in the vernacular and has entered into the very life of the modern man. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of the King James Version upon the language and life of the English-speaking world. Prof. William Lyons Phelps of Yale will have nothing to do with recent translations because of the literary charm of the Authorized Version. But words are living things and, like all life, are constantly changing. Dictionaries run out of date quickly, not merely because of new ideas and new words, but because the old words change their meanings. The Psalmist said that he would 'prevent' the morning, not stop the light from coming as one wishes he could do in the short summer nights, but get up before the morning. So 'let' is even used in the Authorized Version for 'hinder' instead of 'allow.' It was for this reason among others that the revisers undertook to make a new translation of the English Bible. The American Revisers have revised that. Then we have Weymouth's Translation of the New Testament, the Twentieth Century New Testament, and Moffatt's brilliant New Translation of the New Testament. We shall have many more. They will all have special merit, and they will all fail to bring out all that is in the Greek. One needs to read these translations, the more the better. Each will supplement the others. But, when he has read them all, there will remain a larch and rich untranslatable element that the preacher ought to know" (A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek Testament [Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1977], 18-19).
Despite the fact that we know how words change their meaning over time and how other words exist in receptor languages that could capture the author's intent a little or much better, translations still pull from a standard set of glosses found in the lexicons. One of the examples is θαυμάζω in Gal. 1:6. Does "I am surprised" or "I am amazed" or "I marvel" really capture what Paul is saying there and the urgency with which he is writing? To be honest, they just don't do it for me. So what would I propose? Well, what about the translations "I'm dumbfounded," "I'm completely blown away," "I'm stupefied," etc. In my Greek Exegesis of Galatians course, one of the things that I wanted our students to be able to do is think past the glosses. English is a vast language, a rich language. There are multiple ways to capture the feeling and emotion flowing out of an author's writing. I think it behooves us to think about our receptor languages and choose whatever word or phrasing that best captures the author's intent. To do so, we really do have to think past the glosses. This might involve having to go against the one-word-for-one-word translation exchange rate. If the goal is capturing the author's intent, then meaning can't be determined or limited to one lexeme for one lexeme. Paul's use of θαυμάζω in Gal. 1:6, for example, might be undertranslated by just saying "I am amazed" or "I am surprised." If it's undertranslated, is the exegete's task successful? Hardly. And, like Robertson, I'm a firm believer that the more translations we encounter in our exegesis, the better our exegesis will be. This includes looking at translations in different languages if you know more than just your mother tongue.

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