Translating the Bible and First Nations Languages

I sat in on Ruth Heeg's paper at the Native American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies Symposium 2013 Friday afternoon. The paper was quite interesting, especially for someone who teaches Greek and challenges students to think about translation. Some sitting near me were less than enthused about the discussion of transitive and intransitive verbs and abstract nouns in Greek, English, and Algonquian languages. At some level, (μεν) I agree with them, but (δε) on the other hand, all of these grammatical details are important for translation, especially when it involves translating a text that means a lot to many people.

In her paper, Heeg focused on the translation of Greek abstract nouns in First Nations languages, particularly Algonquian languages such as James Bay Cree, Ojibwe, and Plains Cree, in New Testament doxologies. One passage she used as an example was Rev 4:11: “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things,and by thy will they existed and were created” (RSV). What is interesting about these First Nation languages is that they prefer verbs to abstract nouns, whereas Greek and English are very content with the use of nouns such as "glory," "honor," "power," and "will." These Algonquian languages would typically use a verbal phrase like "he-is-high-up" or "you-are-being-high-up" for "glory." (Another passage she noted that is full of abstract nouns is Mark 1:4: "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.") The English equivalents of these First Nations languages in the doxologies have the effect of shifting the emphasis of the passage in a helpful way and, in my opinion, bring a fresh understanding to God's glory and working in the world.

Say for instance that Rev 4:11 is translated with a greater verbal sense and fewer abstract nouns. Something like this: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to be glorified, to be honored, to have power, for you created all things and all things exist and have been created because you wanted them to be." (ἄξιος εἶ, ὁ κύριος καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν, λαβεῖν τὴν δόξαν καὶ τὴν τιμὴν καὶ δύναμιν, ὅτι σὺ ἔκτισας τὰ πάντα καὶ διὰ τὸ θέλημά σου ἦσαν καὶ ἐκτίσθησαν.) I don't know if this is the case for everyone, but a translation like this, similar to what a First Nation language would prefer with verbal action over static abstract nouns, offers a broader understanding of God and what he is worthy of. It highlights more significantly God's action and will.

I am more of a formal translation person, but Heeg's paper is a reminder that in translation the target language plays an important role. If we create idioms and use phrases and words in ways that are not idiomatic to a language, the translation is of no help to those native speakers and readers. English is difficult to use as a barometer, since William Tyndale's translation of the NT and the subsequent KJV have had such a huge influence on the formation of English. As a native English speaker, the following verse from 1 Peter 5:1 has a richness to it, but when Heeg used it as an example, I wondered if that richness is due to the way in which the biblical text has informed modern English usage. "So I exhort the elders among you as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed..." (ESV). Does it come more to life as: "So I exhort the elders among you as a fellow elder and as one who has witnessed Christ suffering, as well as one who will partake in the revealing of the one who is to be glorified"? Peter's act of witnessing and partaking become more act and less abstract in such a verbal translation. However, verbalizing glory here is tricky. A choice has to be made about the subject of "glorify." Is it God, Jesus, believers, all of the above? I went with the ambiguous "one," although without a closer look, I would guess it is Jesus who will be revealed as glorified, but I also think there is a sense that believers will also somehow partake in that glorification. How is the glory/glorification to be revealed? When? In order to translate "glory" as a verb, many interpretational decisions have to be made. A closer look at "glory" and "revelation" in 1 Peter would help guide this and keep consistency, but this highlights the difficulties involved in translating.

Translation may seem overly detailed, but it is important. Making bread and wine have to be done in particular ways to. You have to follow the recipes, otherwise you don't have bread and wine. Regardless of translation philosophy, all translations in any language should seek to represent the meaning of the original as closely as possible in the language being targeted. This requires a knowledge of the original, but also a sensitivity to the idioms and flow of the target language.

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