Thursday, September 13, 2007

More Interpretive Issues

After getting myself an MP3 Player, I followed up on a plan to utilize the time during my drive to work by listening to an audio Bible, and picked up the TNIV on MP3 CDs for this purpose. Already, I have been able to listen to the whole of the Gospel of Mark and roughly a third of the (much larger) book of Jeremiah during this time.

My practice so far has been to listen to each chapter about three times, so as to make sure that I "get" everything. Even still, I begin to notice some difficulties that had not occurred to me, at least not in this way, while reading the text as usual.

For example, take a look at Jeremiah chapter 12, as it is written out in text form. As with many modern interpretations, the TNIV adds headings to the top of many sections. These are not (and do not claim to be) part of the original text. In fact, a preface to the text version of the TNIV (the copy I usually use, anyway) specifically says that these headings "are not to be regarded as part of the biblical text and are not intended for oral reading." In keeping with this philosophy, the headings are not included on the audio Bible, and so I've been listening to this chapter without the benefit of the information they provide. I found myself extremely confused in the first few verses by the abrupt switch in voice from addressing God (where "you" clearly is intended to refer in this direction), to a switch later where "you" clearly does not refer to God.

If I had seen the text version, where we are told where "Jeremiah's Complaint" begins and ends, and where "God's Answer" takes over, perhaps I might have been spared this difficulty. But, as I mentioned, those headings are not part of the original text. Believers over the centuries, not to mention the scholars who did the work of translating the text into English, have had to contend with this passage without the aid of such outside assistance.

I say this not only to highlight the difficulties that believers must face if they believe in the inspiration of the Bible and want to truly take it seriously, but also to highlight the kinds of choices that translators must make as they seek to make the text accessible to laypersons. Do they choose to avoid adding such headings or other words and phrases that go beyond a "strict" word-for-word translation that attempts to be as faithful to the flavor of the original as possible, thereby running the risk that few will understand what the text says; or do they go ahead and add these interpretive elements in an effort to make the Bible as clear as possible, but thereby run the risk of producing a translation that is too heavily influenced by the interpretive prejudices of the people who created it? As I've said repeatedly, all translation is interpretation, and every translation of the Bible into another language must make decisions that lean to one side or the other this spectrum, although it is certainly possible to be at any of many points along it.

Although I tend to lean toward "accessibility" myself, it must be noted that potentially important meaning may, ironically, be lost in this decision. For example, one of the professors I work for has expressed reservations about the NIV (and, no doubt by extension, the TNIV, although we didn't discuss that) because of some of the choices they make. As an example, he points out that the Hebrew of the Old Testament has a smaller vocabulary than English. One of the things this means is that a single Hebrew word may have several different shades of meaning (and therefore several choices of translation) in English. However, there are certain parts of the Hebrew bible where the writer wrote using the same word over and over again in a text, apparently for emphasis. A more "literal" translation may choose to use the same English word, in an attempt to replicate that emphasis, while the NIV apparently uses several different English words, conveying the meaning the Hebrew word may have most accurately had in each specific instance, but completely eradicating the emphasis created by the repetition of the original in the process.

Clearly, there is no easy answer, and I would certainly suggest that anyone wishing to study the Bible pick up several translations (not to mention learning the original languages!). But for now, for regular devotions, I'm sticking with the TNIV, despite its admitted shortcomings.

3 comments:

  1. YOU'RE GOIN' TER HEEEEELLLLLLLL WITH YER DEMON VERSION!!!!

    Seriously, tho... I've got similar - if not harsher - concerns than you do. I'm not exactly willing to toss out a version where some aspects of the language are more inclusive, but Holy Hoppin' Mohammed...

    It's one thing to translate based on what one would reasonably believe the original intent of the authors was - it's quite another to start up a translation built around an agenda of making people feel more fluffy about the Word of God.

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  2. I would argue that there no such agenda here. I'm well aware that detractors can pull out references to cite otherwise, but I think that they vastly misunderstand what's going on. It's one thing to seek greater understanding, it's wholly another to try to get people to "feel good" about God.

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  3. In fact, assuming that you haven't already read my previous post, you might find the comments on this blog interesting. The guy sets out to deal with issues raised by the TNIV controversy, and does a pretty good job of being fair to all sides. He deals with accusations that the TNIV has an "agenda" far better than I could hope to on my own.

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