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Posted by Gary Labels: , , ,

Well, I hope the title was very attention-grabbing. My actual subject is my approach to Bible translation in general, which will address my standing on the conservative-liberal spectrum as well as my stance on gender-reference language.

Let me say that this is an incredibly long post. If you're tagged, it's because I think you might be remotely interested. This first part is a bit complicated, though. Oh, and whether you're tagged or not, you're welcome (but not expected) to read it.

To start this discussion, let me briefly explain how language works.
Firstly, language is naturally compact and needs expanding/explaining. [The fact that not explaining further confuses you is enough to prove my point!]
Secondly, language is much like a living thing, and it changes over time. Languages eventually are "born," they "grow" (by becoming more commonly spoken), they change to fit the speaker-population, and they "die" when nobody grows up speaking that as their language at home anymore. They also give birth, as classical Greek sort of lead to Koine Greek (the kind in the Bible), which in turn led to modern Greek. The differences are like eve, evening, and night. Which are quite obviously the same, yet not.

Examples of language changing: 1st Peter 3:1 says in the King James: "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives." Note that at the second half there, it could be translated "without a word" instead of "the word." What most people don't know is that conversation used to mean conduct. So, then, a believing wife may win over her husband through godly submissive conduct without ever saying a word. Yet the KJV seems to imply differently when (mis)read by modern readers. Nagging doesn't help, but some women do it based on this verse.

Another example: the word "online" comes from the phrase "on the line," which meant to be on the phone line, whether for internet or for phone call. We kept the phrase even though very few people use dial-up internet. So, now it means "connected to the internet." This change took less than ten years.

Third: no language is absolutely perfect. The differences between languages, like the differences between people, make them all unique and beautiful. German is simplistic in vocabulary and has a harsh, guttural sound. Japanese doesn't distinguish between singular and plural nouns. Greek and Hebrew can make entire sentences (SIMPLE ones) from one word. No language has a cue for every single grammatical thing, and if such a language existed, it would be incredibly complicated to learn. Therefore, all are beautiful, but none are perfect.

Fourth: Language naturally works by certain rules. These grammar/syntax rules are based in how a hearer expects a sentence to work from previous experience with the language. However, you can break these rules. But, there are rules to how you break the rules. Well, sort of. Once, I jokingly insulted my roommate by calling him "brain-head-face." There are plenty of insults that end in -brain, -head, or -face. I broke the rules by just combining three suffixes. Yet, it made sense and was funny. I followed the rules in how I broke the rules, because it was understandable. If I just slammed my forehead on the keyboard and said "oipjnrfea," that would make no sense.

So, there's my view of language. It is compact, changes (much like a living thing), is imperfect, and works by certain tentative rules, and these rules change over time.

Now with that introduction out of the way, let me tell you about the article that inspired this post. The Conservative Bible Project is an attempt to make a brand-new translation of the Bible online using only about 5 translators. I can't help but shudder at this thought. Having read their attempted translation of Philemon side-by-side with my Greek NT, I think I prefer the KJV over their work. Their attempt to be concise really cuts out a lot of the richness of the original wording. On the other hand, I am all for cutting out the things inserted later on (such as the story in John about the woman caught in adultery), or _either_ ending to the Gospel of Mark, which has no true conclusion. Mark actually ends "and they exited the tomb in flight, for fear and wonder had seized them, and they didn't say anything to anybody, for they were afraid" (16:8). The rest of that chapter was NOT written by Mark, beyond any doubt. It also doesn't fit with the story.

Translation is an art and not a science, and several approaches can be effective depending on the goal in mind. The original NIV was written at the 7th-grade reading level so that even those who do not remember any learning from high school can read it, basically understand, and come to saving faith in Christ. This is absolutely wonderful. It is, in fact, my favored translation since it's what I grew up on. However, it is not perfect, and no translation is. This is because languages themselves are imperfect and, to make it more complicated, languages change. Biblical Greek does not, because it is a dead language. And truthfully, I don't think our understanding of it will advance much further than it is now.

So, we do need a translation that anybody with basic reading skills can understand, and that should be the normative translation (if we have such a thing!) for public use. The King James version was very good for its time, but it was written for people with an education equal to a double BA in English and Latin. Backwater preachers don't understand it as well as they think, as my example above shows.

And yet, it saddens me that the NIV simplifies things sometimes. Usually the basic idea comes across, and often they get the full idea across very wonderfully. However, there's some places where they oversimplify. One example is Titus 1:12. This is a poetic quote of a proverb about Cretins (people of Crete). The NIV translates this as straightforward statements: "Cretins are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." But this fails to capture the poetic flow and transforms the statement completely by inserting a verb. One scholar, in his commentary on Titus, proposed this wonderful translation: "Liars ever, men of Crete. Nasty brutes who live to eat." It flows, rhymes, comes across as a proverbial statement, AND still gets the intended meaning across.

And so, what I long for is 1) a universal translation that focuses on readability, which the NIV does -- or did for its time (1984), and 2) a more precise translation, even if it requires a higher level of reading. Such a translation would try to reflect the original style, including a rich vocabulary. If I were in charge of this effort, the vocabulary would be rich indeed. In fact, I will probably produce my own version of a few books, just for the practice I would gain. As an example word, I would use "jenny" for female donkey, since that is the proper English word. Also, I would include the apocrypha because of its long-standing impact on Christianity and Judaism. Of course, I wouldn't realistically expect anybody to read it if I included those books.

Finally, let me address the more liberal spectrum of Bible translation. Specifically, feminist translation and theology. At its heart, I think feminism stems from the difficulty introduced in the husband-wife relationship by human sin in Genesis 3. God did not actively curse Eve in any way; he simply described the natural consequences of sin's existence in the world. No longer will her husband be perfectly kind. Actually, men can be jerks now. And that causes a not-unwarranted nervousness in females. Females want independence (or do they?) and men want to dominate. I myself must confess. I see this world with all its problems, and I just want to rule it. I want to conquer the world. I can't explain it. Why do cats like fish? Why do dragons like treasure piles? It's just instinct.

But what is good is what was natural before sin's introduction into the world. What is now "natural" is not what once was. Women are afraid of being forgotten, disenfranchised, and hurt. (And if I felt at risk for those things, I'd feel afraid, too. It's not cowardice but genuine painful experience that led to these feelings of vulnerability, and I hold no feelings of superiority over women for it.)

There are several issues in translation that associate quite naturally with these concerns. In most languages other than English, it is perfectly acceptable to refer to humanity as grammatically masculine. It is more authentic to say "blessed is he who fears the Lord," yet some would rephrase it "blessed are those who fear the Lord," so as to avoid giving a gender reference. However, if people wanted to read with authentic Greek/Hebrew syntax, then they can learn Greek or Hebrew. An English translation should reflect English -- at least well enough to be understood. However, since the mind-set of a culture is wrapped in its language's syntax, that does create a problem. How do we faithfully use understandable English to convey ancient culture instead of only reflecting our own culture?

Do women feel excluded by the use of the masculine pronoun? I, personally, find this ridiculous because all the languages I'm acquainted with will refer to a person in general as masculine (German, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish). Whatever movement there may be to neuter the English language will not be able to spread much beyond English at all, I suspect. I would like to attribute this to the American ignorance of grammatical gender, which does not necessarily imply true gender as we understand it. True or not, that's what I would like to explain it away as.

I can't stand referring in plural when it's singular in Greek, or using a singular "they" to avoid gender reference. I find the demand for this, once again, based in ignorance of grammatical gender. But you know what? If masculine singular causes confusion, then it's a problem. We have to make the message understandable and not written in such a way that the writing style itself causes problems for people.

Even if this feminist concern is ridiculous and irritating to me, I must say that saving people through the Gospel is the most important thing. If we demand that they accept masculine singular ("blessed is the man who does not go in the way of the wicked" Ps 1:1) or masculine plural ("brothers"), then we are putting up a barrier between people and the Gospel. I am a nerd who loves proper grammar, but I love the Gospel more.

Again, the reason feminists exist is because people of both sexes are not loving enough. And truthfully, you can't just blame men for this. Men may exploit women sexually, but if the situation is reversed, women may also exploit men sexually (see Gen 39 with Joseph and Potiphar's wife). What's more, women will exploit other women (lesbianism isn't directly in the Bible to my knowledge, but you can bet Greek and Roman mistresses had "expectations" of female slaves as well as male ones). What's even more, women can actively facilitate the sexual exploitation of other women by men (See Gen 16:2). It was Sarah's idea, and she was also the one who said to throw her out into the cold later on.

My point is simply this: sin is the root of this confusion of gender roles and feelings of disenfranchisement among women today. It is unfair to say that men are terrible creatures and are responsible for the world's problems. The problem is that people do not treat each other as humans made in God's image. Sarah acted wickedly toward Hagar because she viewed the Egyptian as less than human.

As one female pacifist said: "Of course, if WOMEN ran the world, you'd see a lot less of this WAR thing going on!"
A male playfully responded: "Nations would just spread gossip around about each other and call each other fat until they collapsed due to self-consciousness."
Her reply: "That's a great idea! Let's do that!" (from the wall of the facebook group "Churches of Christ Peace Fellowship")

While I do not at all like the use of gender-inclusive language in an attempt to make language precise (which by nature language is NOT), it may be necessary for the Bible to be understood from now on, or to not present a stumbling block to the readers. If I had to accept it, I would (though I would grit my teeth with distaste).

To my wonderful female friends who may be uncomfortable with my stance: keep in mind that I am a monk, and I very much prefer the ancient languages and ancient ways. Their style uses grammatical gender, and I like that. I admit my preferences are very quirky, but in the words of Popeye: "I yam who I yam."