World Savvy: Biblically speaking

I grew up in a Latvian household and was baptized at 18. I had read chapters in the Bible and as a little boy was convinced that the Bible was first written in Latvian. When I heard sermons at a church in New York City, they always contained references to sheep, shepherds, camels and olive trees — things that you never saw on Broadway. Heck, you never saw any trees on Broadway, period! Now, years later, I have learned I am one of millions of people who had no idea which translation of the Bible their version came from; how other cultures have struggled trying to identify with the geography and culture-based metaphors found in the Bible; or how some brave people have tried to make the Bible understandable.

The Bible has to be the most translated and mistranslated document in world history. The most anecdotal comment about it comes from an evangelical preacher, who, as the joke goes, declared, “If the King James version of the Bible was good enough for the apostle Paul, it is good enough for me.” Trouble was, the King James version was published in 1611. The best journalist of the twentieth century, H.L. Mencken, may have had such things in mind when he wrote, “Deep within the heart of every evangelist lies the wreck of a car salesman.”

A new book by David Bellos called Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, condenses the linguistic history of the Bible pretty nicely. The author states that there are roughly 7,000 known languages in the world, and thus the number of translation language pairs (Latvian to Inuit, Inuit into Swahili) is around 24.5 million. However, most usually, the translations are up (from minor language into a language of greater prestige) or down (from one of greater prestige into a minor one).

Bellos writes, “What distinguishes translating up from translating down is this: translations toward the more general and more prestigious tongue are characteristically highly adaptive, erasing most of the text’s foreign origin; whereas translations down tend to leave a visible residue of the source, because in those circumstances foreignness itself carries prestige.” Thus, in modern Latvian, we use the word marketings for marketing, as there was no equivalent term in rudimentary Latvian save the type of selling that went on at a rural open air market.

A similar process went on with the Bible. The translation journey of the Bible began when the Jewish Torah was translated into a Greek version called the Septuagint. This was probably the world’s first Localization World conference, when the Greek-speaking Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II brought together 70 or so Jewish participants in 236 B.C.E. to come up with the Septuagint (a Greek word referring to 70). We do not know what tchotchkes were handed out at that conference, but I am working on it.

After that, the Bible was translated into Latin. The Vulgate was largely the work of Saint Jerome and was used by the Roman Catholic Church. Five centuries later, there were only 11 language versions of the Bible. Five more centuries passed, and the total came to 19. But today, parts of the New and Old Testaments have been translated into over 2,400 languages. Bellos writes, “Despite its roots in ancient and medieval times, in quantitative terms Bible translation is a preponderantly twentieth-century affair.”

The process of translation cost William Tyndale his life. Tyndale was choked, impaled and then burned at the stake in 1536 — think about that the next time you or your software mistranslates something. He had the audacity to undertake the first English translation of the Bible directly from Hebrew and Greek texts. In so doing, he was taken to be a direct challenge to the hegemony of the Catholic church and was perceived as a threat to the newly emerging Anglican church, though Henry VIII’s annoyance with him seems to have been spurred largely by Tyndale’s remarks about the king’s romantic life.

Tyndale had a huge impact on the English language, as he coined such familiar phrases as “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” “seek and you shall find,” and “the salt of the earth.” His work also introduced such words as Jehovah, Passover and scapegoat, all still much in use in today’s English. We have advanced somewhat since then, in terms of the acceptability of translation, but let’s not forget that the multilingualism we now take for granted has been resisted throughout history by some pretty evil people.

A further step toward modernity was a conference of 54 scholars (the second Localization World), which created the still existent and much in use King James version of the Bible. One estimate suggests that the King James New Testament draws 83% from Tyndale’s work. This time, no one was choked, impaled and burned for coming up with this work. Further translations of the Bible, such as the so-called Wicked Bible of 1631, have created controversy, of course. The December 2011 issue of National Geographic reported that the Wicked Bible has Deuteronomy 5:24 as “the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory, and his great asse” (rather than “greatness”) and Exodus 20:14 is “Thou shalt commit adultery” (the operative “not” having somehow been left out).

Eugene Nida, a founding member of Wycliffe Bible Translators and a linguistic consultant for United Bible Societies who died in August of 2011, tried to bring sense to all this and became the modern world’s foremost Biblical scholar. His concern was not the literal translation and the battles thereof, but rather that the meaning of the Bible be transmitted to all cultures. Had he done this several centuries earlier, he would likely have met the same fate as Tyndale. “Nida made a distinction between two types of equivalence in translation: formal equivalence, where the order of words and their standard or common meanings correspond closely to the syntax and vocabulary of the source; and dynamic equivalence (later renamed functional equivalence), where the translator substitutes for source-text expressions other ways of saying things with roughly the same force in the culture of the receiving society,” Bellos notes.

For example, when Albert Cornelius Ruyl, a Dutch trader, wanted to translate the Bible into Malay, he substituted local customs and words for things that made no sense in the target culture. In the gospels where the fig tree is brought up, Ruyl substituted pisang, the Malay word for banana. Bellos notes that “analogy based substitutions are frequent in non-European Bible translations. ‘White as snow’ in the Bible text may become ‘white as a cuckoo’s feathers’ in languages spoken in areas where snow has never been seen, or ‘white as a cotton boll’ in some languages in South America. In Asmat, a language spoken in a swampy area of Indonesian Papua where houses are built on stilts, the parable of a wise builder who builds on stone and the foolish builder who builds on sand turns into the story of a wise builder ‘who builds a house on stilts made of iron wood . . . while the foolish builder is one who builds his house on stilts made of white wood,’” which is wood that easily rots. If you read more about Nida, there are more examples of this type of cultural adaptation that purists deride.

All the while, the Latvian language Bible has not been changed, and I am still waiting for a shepherd to lead sheep down Broadway so I can understand those parables better. But wait, this did happen once (March 1, 1994) when a sheep herder brought a bunch of sheep to David Letterman’s Late Show — in a taxi cab.