Memo to would-be Bible translators: A little humility, please

15 Dec

The launch of a new online Bible version has been in the news lately: the Conservative Bible Project. The project’s overseer, Andrew Schlafly, even scored an interview this week on the current-events place to be, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

This “translation”  is being spotlighted because it differs from other Bible versions in at least two important ways. First, it’s written by readers. In Internet jargon, the content is open source, a “wiki.”

The theory is that, over time, the best version will emerge. It’s literary Darwinism, the survival of the textual fittest – which is ironic because the host site, Conservapedia, isn’t fond of evolution.

The other major difference is that the editors diligently impose a point of view on the text, vetting passages according to 10 “conservative guidelines.” Renderings must fit into the “framework against liberal bias … utilize powerful conservative terms … express free-market parables” and other criteria.

The results are mixed. Many changes are harmless. Others, however, mangle the meanings. For example, a straightforward translation of Acts 2:44 describes the earliest church in Jerusalem: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

According to the “proposed conservative” translation, however, “Everyone who believed was together and shared values, faith, and the truth.”

That last phrase simply isn’t in the actual text, Greek or otherwise. But as a note of “analysis” helpfully informs us, the original could be “misread as socialistic,” and so the Conservative Bible adds the gloss.

Likewise, when a rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But the conservative version waters down Jesus’ words, almost doubling the word count in the process: “You lack one thing, you need to rid yourself of the desire for earthly treasure to the point that if you were destitute you would still rejoice in the Lord. For doing so will give you the greatest treasure of all, the glory of heaven. Do this and follow my teachings.”

This, despite the Conservative Bible’s claim to favor “conciseness over liberal wordiness” and “not … diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity.”

Apparently, any guideline is trumped by the risk of Jesus actually challenging conservative policies.

And that’s the point. The problem isn’t about being conservative or liberal. For people who take scriptures – any scriptures – seriously, a more important principle is at stake.

The Conservapedia approach turns translation on its head. Instead of coming to Scripture as students to learn what God might be saying, translators turn into dictators, forcing the text to fit their preset ideas.

But the folks at the Conservative Bible Project are not alone in this sort of ideological narcissism. They’re just more obvious. We all want to see what we want. We’re all prone to emphasize some points and then neglect or even bend others that make us squirm.

We can see it on the right, this case in point. We can see it on the left as well when, for example, interpreters go through verbal gymnastics over those thorny passages about, say, homosexual relations, war or the exclusive claims of Jesus. But if we read the texts honestly, we’ll find plenty to upset everyone.

That’s inevitable. We’re all shaped by culture, by personal experience, by the company we keep, by a dozen other factors that affect our reading of Scripture and our response to it. The key is to keep that in mind – humility is the word – and try to compensate. (That is one reason most reliable translations are done by committees of people from various backgrounds, with scholars.) This is not easy work and perfect reading is impossible, but open eyes and open minds can get us closer.

One message of the Christmas story is that God isn’t bound by our assumptions about how the world works. God is clear on that point, according to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Jesus came by stealth, the story says, born to obscure working-class parents, which is not what most people expected. The ones who first recognized Jesus’ birth for what it was (at least without the help of singing angels) were traveling foreigners, probably pagan astrologers, who kept their eyes open. We still sing about them.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Dec 2009.

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One Response to “Memo to would-be Bible translators: A little humility, please”

  1. Craig A. December 15, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    Wow. This is the first I’ve heard of this. Pretty frightening if you ask me. Seems we just keep trying to create the Jesus we WISH was, rather than making a sincere effort to follow the Jesus that IS. Isn’t the worship of one’s own creation the definition of idolatry?

    Also, wouldn’t the quickest way to “rid yourself of the desire for earthly treasure” be to to give everything you have to the poor? The “conservative” translation sounds like a mental game to me. Jesus, more than anyone, would know actions speak louder than words. Let’s be honest, He never said following Him wouldn’t be a challenge.

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