December 24, 2005

Where Do Languages End and Cultural Assumptions Begin?

Better Bibles Blog has a discussion of the wording of Luke 2:40 in various Bible translations. The NKJV, the translation I normally use for devotional reading, etc., reads, "And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him."

The BBB discussion centers on the fact that "filled with wisdom" is not very natural English (neither is "strong in spirit," for that matter, but the translations being discussed are all from the Alexandrian text family, which omits "in spirit"). "The grace of God was upon him" is not very natural English either.

I agree with all of these statements, but some of the discussion in the comments has me asking a new question: where do languages end and cultural assumptions begin? Peter Kirk suggests that we get rid of the word grace, replacing it with favour (or favor, as we Americans usually spell it), because the word grace in English has come to be defined by Pauline theology, and the meaning here is not the same. There's also some discussion (in the main post, not the comments) about the CEV rendering "the grace of God was upon him" as "God blessed him." This is not necessarily wholly accurate, as Tim pointed out. Furthermore, "blessed" is still church English.

At some point, I think, we are no longer translating from one language to another; instead, we are transposing the content from one set of cultural assumptions to another. Now, I hold that this kind of transposition is good, but clearly not the job of a translator. Richard Swinburne argues, in his book Revelation, that if a speaker of another language says something that translates as "animals must breathe deforeonated air to live," and he says this because he believes that oxygen is air with the "foron" removed (when in fact there is no such things as foron), his sentence is still true, provided that there's some way we can pick out the referent of "deforeonated air" as being identical with the referent of our word "oxygen." The same will hold for the Bible - it's statements may be expressed in terms of false cultural assumptions and nevertheless be true, so long as the cultural assumptions are the means of communication, and not its content. This means that interpreters of the Bible must attempt to separate the text from its cultural assumptions. But should translators?

Now let me state that I don't think there are any false cultural assumptions in this verse. (What would those be?) What I'm saying is simply that language and cultural assumptions, and in particular standard cultural thought patterns, have enormous influence on one another (in both directions!). As a result, it may not always be possible to render a phrase in natural English while remaining accurate simply because English speakers don't think that way. One example, I think, may be this phrase "the grace of God was upon Him." We can't eliminate grace/favor from the translation of this verse, but English speakers simply don't think that way. We don't think of grace being upon someone. We might say, "and God favored him," but, as Wayne pointed out, this sounds to English speakers as though God favored him over someone else, which is not the point of the verse. I think the "natural English" way to render this phrase is simply "God was pleased with him," but this rendering is, in my opinion, shallow by comparison to the Greek (but then, it is my opinion that English, despite the enormity of its lexicon, is a shallow language compared to Greek). Even though God's favor toward Jesus is not undeserved, as the standard definition of grace would have it, there is definitely a deep meaning to the use of the word grace here. It implies that God the Father isn't merely pleased with Jesus, but is actively benefiting ("blessing") him. Evidently, Greek speakers thought of favor or grace as something one bestows upon others, approving of them and deciding to benefit them. English cannot actually render this full meaning, but only explain it, and to render only part of the meaning is inadequate.

Does Greek have an underlying cultural assumption or thought patter to do with "grace" being something substantive that rests upon a person? Or is this merely empty idiom? Is any idiom really empty, or do they come from tacit assumptions of the culture that develops them? If idioms come from tacit cultural assumptions, it is indisputable that they continue to be in use after those cultural assumptions die. Does that mean we should ignore the literal content of idioms, or might there still be some significance? Personally, I love finding cases where we are able to come up with a good idiomatic English translation that has both the same meaning and the same etymology as the original, but these cases are few and far between. In most cases, rendering idioms literally makes the translation not merely difficult to understand, but positively misleading.

The big question in the present case, however, is at what point these sorts of things cease to be merely linguistic differences and become substantive differences in content. Does a person reading a Bible translation devotionally or liturgically need to know that Greek phrases this in such a way as to imply that something substantive was given to Jesus (indeed, were Greek speakers even consciously aware of this?), or is this something needed only at deeper levels of interpretation? Clearly this phrasing in the language does lead speakers to think in this way. Is this type of thinking integral to the New Testament's mode of communication, or can we abstract away from it?

I don't necessarily have the answers, but I'm sure more extreme cases for this question could be found. These things begin to make me a little nervous at this point, because I fear that translations seeking to eliminate these kinds of underlying assumptions in order to communicate more naturally to English speakers may alter the text to an unacceptably great degree. It is very difficult to distinguish content from cultural assumptions and cultural assumptions from linguistic apparatus, and I would hate to have any actual substantive content removed from a translation due to its being mistaken for a mere linguistic difference.

One last note on this verse: I would like to see the first clause (before the participle) translated more literally; I think the progressive/repeated aspect of the two verbs and the passive voice of the second verb may be significant. This more literal rendering would be something like, "The child was growing and being strengthened." I don't know whether the original text would have left Greek speakers asking "being strengthened by whom?" as this translation would leave me asking (although in this case the answer is obvious), and I actually kind of doubt that it would, since this seems based on the limited degree of "feel" I have for the Greek language to be simply the most natural way to say what is being said, but I think the implication (whether it was on the surface or only a kind of underlying assumption for Greek speakers) that Jesus was strengthened by some agency outside himself may be important to our interpretation. Again, is this merely linguistic, is it a tacit cultural assumption, or is it part of the substantive content of the verse? I don't know, but in this case I'm pretty sure it would be better to preserve it in the translation. So, in light of that, here's my proposed (amateur, in a few minutes) translation of the whole verse: "The child was growing and being strengthened [spiritually], and gaining wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him." My Greek professor would chide me for leaving that participle as "general circumstance." I actually think that if the word pneumati is legitimate then the participle could be of means: he "was growing and being strengthened spiritually by gaining wisdom." However, if pneumati is not legitimate that wouldn't make as much sense to me. It could be temporal, since the participle is in the present, and we could give it a reading like "and all the while he was gaining wisdom," which I think sounds pretty good in English: "The child was growing and being strengthened, and all the while he was gaining in wisdom." But then maybe I just like phrases like "all the while" for the same reason I like to use whence as a relative pronoun: because too much of the stuff I read is either old or stilted or both, and besides, things like that just sound neat. At any rate, the point is that there are many factors to balance in translation, and it requires a lot of work in all cases, and is impossible in some cases, to get them all right at once.

Posted by Kenny at December 24, 2005 02:23 AM
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Where is the culture/language boundary for translation?
Excerpt: Kenny Pierce responds to my recent post on Luke 2:40 and raises the important issue of how much of the cultural conditioning of the language of the Bible should be retained in translation. Following is my comment on Kenny's post, slightly revised to be...
Weblog: Better Bibles Blog
Tracked: December 26, 2005 12:09 PM
Are Linguistic Facts Theologically Significant?
Excerpt: Gerald at iustificare has recently been doing a series on the theological consequences of "gender neutral" Bible translations. Gerald holds that the use of "male-representative language" - that is, the use of male terms to designate mixed gender groups...
Tracked: December 30, 2005 06:28 PM

Kenny, you are dealing with an important issue which has seldom been addressed as clearly as you have. You were thinking there are probably even statements in the biblical language texts which are even more culture-bound than those in Luke 2:40. I agree. I think this one is a candidate: 2 Cor. 12:2. Paul spoke of a "third" heaven. Multiple "heavens" was part of his cultural worldview. It is not part of ours. So do we keep Paul's wording and footnote about the worldview difference? Or do we try to find a way of expressing the "underlying" meaning (culture-free?) of what Paul said, to enable readers of our translations to understand more immediately what Paul was saying.

Here's another: How many days went by after the birth of Jesus, or any other Jewish boy, before he was circumcised. The biblical texts say 8 days, but that is based on Jewish reckoning of time. We English speakers count time differently. We can choose to "literally" retain their time counting, which results in inaccurate understanding for readers of English translations of how many days actually went by, we can footnote or teach that the number of days in the translation is not actually the number of days for us, but the number of days for the Jews, or we can convert Jews days to our days.

I think it all largely comes down to some basic questions about what are the most important reasons for translating the Bible to other languages. And we can be glad that there are different kinds of translations, ones for seekers who know little about biblical cultures and others for biblically literate people who know much more and can convert culturally conditioned wordings to something close to how we, in our language and from our worldview, would express it.

I would never want to remove all cultural context of the biblical texts. But which ones are so "significant" that we risk changing the text if we transculturate them, and which ones are culturally insignificant, such as many of the biblical metaphors (bowels of mercy is one which all Bible translators today seem comfortable converting to an English equivalent).

It's not easy to know where a proper balance is. I think much more discussion of the topic you have raised is needed. And the discussion needs to enter biblical academia so that gains in credibility and the number of people exposed to the issues.

I think I may copy my comments here to become a post on BBB. The more we can encourage this discussion, the better.

Happy New Year, Kenny.

Posted by: Wayne Leman at December 26, 2005 11:35 AM

Kenny, you prefer to translate Luke 2:40 as "The child was growing and being strengthened." I can see your point, especially as I am sure we are not to understand that Jesus' growth had already stopped when he was twelve years old. But in English, and perhaps also in Greek, that verb construction invites the question "when?" For this verb form cannot be used of an event following a previous event, rather it is of a process in progress at the time of another event. Now it could mean that Jesus was growing etc at the time when the family returned to Nazareth, v.39, or at the time when Jesus was twelve, v.42. But I don't think either of these is actually what the Greek means. For in Greek it seems that you can use an imperfect like this for a process which filled the period between two events. But you can't do that in English, unless you signal it explicitly with something like "During the following years". Or you can do it more idiomatically in English with the simple past, something like "For the next few years the child grew and became strong".

Posted by: Peter Kirk at December 28, 2005 08:42 AM

Peter, do you think it would misrepresent the Greek to say, "And all this time the child was growing and being strengthened"?

The wording I originally proposed actually doesn't sound unnatural to me, and adding "and all this time" to the beginning of it doesn't change the meaning - that's what I think the English means to begin with. However, it is true that the Greek doesn't say anything definite about the period of time in which the growing took place, except that it was a period rather than an instant, and it was before the time of writing. We don't know where it fits into the narrative, whether during one or both of the events before or after it, or in the time in between. Presumably, however, since Jesus was a young boy at the time, it took place during all of these time periods.

Posted by: Kenny at December 28, 2005 12:53 PM
Post a comment
If you have never commented on this blog with your email address before, or if you choose not to enter an email address, please note that typing any links or URLs, including in the URL box below, will probably result in your comment being marked as spam. If, after posting, you see a page explaining the the spam filter didn't like your comment, please email to ensure that your comment is approved. Thank you.

Remember personal info?

Return to
Philosophy Blogs - Blog Top Sites