Lost in Translation

Worship BG - Great is the Lord
Creative Commons License photo credit: bemky

Several weeks back I attended a birthday party in honor of an elderly woman who has been coming regularly to a Bible study that I lead at the senior apartment complex where she lives. While this woman has verbalized on many occasions her trust in the Lord, I’m not exactly sure where her son’s family is at after meeting them for the first time at the party. It’s always interesting to hear the first remarks people make once they learn that one is a seminary student.

They asked what denominational affiliation the seminary has. I told them it is Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Southern Baptist school. They then replied that they attend a local Catholic church but are open to “all things spiritual.” I was happy to agree that I, too, am open to “all things spiritual” as far as the plain meaning of the statement goes. I have nothing against spirituality. In fact, a non-Christian ex-worker once remarked to me that he finds it shallow that many Christians while religions aren’t spiritual. I agree.

Their second question was what I wanted to do after I graduate. “So are you going to be a minister or something?” I said that I could be but that I’m pursuing work in Bible translation. “Oh, that’s interesting. There’s a lot that’s lost in translation.” This is one of those statements that people often repeat after hearing because they think it sounds clever, but they’re not actually sure if it’s true; it only seems to be true on the face of it. The idea that a lot is left behind in translation just seems to makes sense.

I wasn’t sure whether to take this comment as a dig at Bible translation or what. I should have asked what they meant by that. I find this to be a good course of action to get to the bottom of people’s thinking. They’ll either be able to articulate a well-crafted explanation of whatever it is you asked them to clarify (rare) or they’ll stumble and sort of trail off (more common). Instead I replied by saying that over and over again in my studies I’m amazed at how well translations are able to reproduce what’s there in the original. For example, I’m doing an independent study this semester on Exodus wherein I’m reading through the Hebrew, the Septuagint, and two modern translations four times each to get a feel for what’s lost and how what is communicated is communicated. So far I’m amazed at how well the message of the text sings loud and clear.

Translation is what it is but I think I can safely conclude that the message of the Bible sings out loud and clear in any language despite whatever may be lost (a topic for another time). That is the point of translation: that God’s redemptive message faithfully sing loud and clear.