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On Translating to be Understood

One of the experiences that shaped my approach to Biblical languages and Biblical studies occurred late in my first year of Greek.  The teacher was Lucille Knapp at Walla Walla College (now Walla Walla University), and she really enjoyed Greek and was quite expressive.  She kept us on our toes.  I was translating a verse for the class and used the word “propitiation.”

“Henry!” she exclaimed.  “I am not teaching you to translate Greek into Latin!”

An argument amongst the students ensued regarding how we should translate that word.  Some students, myself included, felt that people could just learn what propitiation meant, since we couldn’t think of a good single word in English to replace it.  The problem was, to our shame, that we really couldn’t do a good job of defining it either.  For us, the word “propitiation” was a black box.  It filled a space, but we didn’t really have it integrated into our theology enough to explain it rather than just repeating it.

I thought about that a great deal after that class and it changed my whole idea of what “translation” means as well as what it means to express theology clearly and effectively.  C. S. Lewis once suggested that all ministerial candidates be required to pass a test involving translating a substantial work of theology (I’d suggest a nice passage from Karl Barth!) into language that their congregation would be able to grasp.  I think both ideas are related.  You haven’t translated if you haven’t managed to make the text comprehensible in the target language.  You haven’t preached or proclaimed the gospel unless you have made it understood.

I was launched into this little note by reading the following today from Dave Black’s blog:

In the course of teaching Greek (both classical and Koine) the past 34 years I’ve found that translating Greek into English is a very different enterprise from understanding what the text means. A translation may at times sound very erudite, but to be relevant and beneficial the text must be understood — and then applied. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher has been to get my students to see the need to give up theological jargon when translating from Greek into English. If we can use simpler and clearer words to express the truths of Scripture, then by all means let’s do so. Why, for example, should we render Rom. 12:11 “distribute to the needs of the saints” when “share what you have with God’s people who are in need” will do the job and is much clearer? Or why should we insist that the purpose of pastor-teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” when we can say “to prepare God’s people for works of service”? If all we do is parrot the standard English versions while translating from English to Greek, I’m afraid we’ll end up with nothing but another secret religious society. If insisting on the use of theological jargon actually helped people to become more obedient to the Word of God, I’d say do it at all costs. But is there any evidence that it does?

To admit this inadequacy honestly can be very intimidating to the teacher. It means, in fact, that we can no longer be content to offer courses in Greek exegesis that fail to include serious self-examination. Somehow we need to move our students from a mere grammatical approach to the text to one that involves them deeply in the Christian pilgrimage. What is the purpose of exegeting Paul’s Christ-hymn in Phil. 2:5-11 if we, the translators, are not willing to model the upside-down kingdom of God in our own lives? Strangely, I am discovering that more and more of my students are asking the “so what” question of everything they are learning. And I am more and more convinced that the joy of living the Gospel in our lives is what should drive the exegetical process in the first place. I may be wrong, but when we talk about “seminary education,” I think we are talking about training students for the adventure of living the Christian life in the real world by doing what is important in God’s eyes. I have found, to my horror, that it is far easier to simply talk about the text than to seek to live it out. Look at the New Testament writers like Paul or John who wrote and taught in the crucible of actual missionary experience. They were willing to follow the Lord Jesus even at the risk of death. They didn’t just talk about the truth, they lived it.

Just so!

If Paul says I am to share what I have with God’s people who are in need, I’d better be doing just that. This pedagogical insight may belong in a fortune cookie, but it’s the best I can do.

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