Mar 4, 2011

Translating the Bible & the 'human hand'

The translator's introduction to the NIV Bible -- at least in Zondervan's 2001 edition with the blue hardback cover, produced en masse for churches, though I assume the introduction is used in multiple editions -- goes over your basic, scriptural translation issues. It talks about the process, a little bit, how there were teams of translators and also style editors. It talks about a couple of translation choices that were made, what word, for example, they translated as "God," and what "Lord," what "LORD," and what they did when the translation would have read "Lord LORD," which just sounds weird in English and so got translated another way.

All that seems pretty normal, but I was surprised by two things: First, the translator's introduction starts with the claim that everyone who worked on the translation was committed to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I have no idea how they enforced that. I suppose everyone could have been required to sign a document, though that seems unlikely to be enough for those who would want to ask if the translators all really believed the bible was God-breathed, especially as you have denominations where it's thought to be impossible to "really" literally believe the bible and not belong to that particular denomination. I wonder, too, if the statement of faith were strong enough that someone who was a really excellent translator but did not believe in inerrancy (or perhaps even questioned or just differed on what that doctrine means) would have been thrown off the project.

The implication of the claim everybody who worked on the NIV was a conservative Christian and/or an evangelical raises the question: if faced with a choice between a faithful person who's a poor translator or a faithless person who's an excellent translator, which would the NIV choose, and which would the NIV's readers have it choose?

I don't know the answer to that.

It's an interesting thought, though, too, that all the translator's would have concevied of themselves as the 'human hands' who were working over the God-breathed words. Assuming they didn't hold that their translations were also inerrant, they would have been working with this idea that their work was like an error-pocked surface over the inerrant Bible -- the Bible beneath the Bible, or something.

The second thing that surprised me was, deep in the translators' introduction, a little note about the translation of person and case. The introduction points out that the NIV has mistranslated person and case for the sake of consistency. Given that the source texts are copies of copies, collected composites written and transcribed by schools of prophets and schools of monks, there are some basic variations and inconsistencies that, if translated literally, would be confusing. For example, in some places the (composite) scriptural text changes person and number without warning. "I" goes to "we" goes to "he," in irregular ways. The intro didn't say which books these were, but said, for ease of reading, they'd smoothed it all over so the person and number.

This is not a minor edit of a text, and I'd never heard that this was a problem, so it surprised me.

It seems like the logical solution for the translator, but still made me go wow.

It also seems like a bit of a cover-up of what gets called the "human hand" at work in the bible texts, obscuring it in a way that allows the modern English readers to imagine that, while this is translated "from the original," there is a mythically original document out there somewhere, which was breathed by God and signed by Moses of David or Ezekiel. The traces of the text as it is have been smoothed over/massaged out/erased away, and what remains is this document that fits a bunch of contemporary, modern conceptions of what a document should be (e.g. from a single author-genius), conceptions that really don't fit the Bible.

Cover-up might be too strong. I don't meant to suggest there was any intentional deception. There seems to me to be a structural attempt to "protect" bible-readers from possibly challenging questions. An attempt to protect a lay-idea of the text that every scholar knows isn't really right ... I don't think it's malicious, though.

There is a gap, though, between what's know by ministers and Bible scholars and what's know by congregants and bible readers. A distance. The lay-reader ends up basing beliefs about shibboleth doctrines like inerrancy on ideas of a text that doesn't really exist. The professional Bible-reader, on the other hand, ends up having these really basic academic ideas that would shock those on the other side of that distance. That gap hurts both of them, in my experience. The scholars are isolated, and even if they do sign on to the statement about inerrancy, their basic knowledge of what the text is seems transgressive to their fellow Christians, and ends up treated like secret knowledge. The Bible-readers end up feeling like their faith would be shook by things that, really, aren't the foundation of anything.

What are they going to do, though? The gap perpetuates the gap. Translating a composite texts of fragments and different authors as it a fragmentary text written in chunks and pieces would be confusing. Translating the "human hand" would create all sorts of problems.