Lost in Translation

Roman Pillars at Jerash, JordanMost people are familiar with the concept of how meaning can often get "lost in translation", but I wonder if people really understand just how much can get lost!  If you have ever tried to assemble a children's toy from a poorly translated Chinese manual, this concept may be very clear!  Or perhaps you have tried to learn a new version on the game of dominoes, based on the translated rule sheet that came with a box of tiles from China.

I don't mean to pick on the Chinese, the same thing can happen when trying to read translated documents from any language.  What most people do not realize is that the problem is much bigger than just language alone.  When moving from one language to another, you are also almost always, moving from one culture to another, complete with different histories, perspectives and worldviews.  

My work takes me to the remote villages of poor countries around the world.  As a video producer, part of my work involves interviewing the people that I meet, through a translator.  I have found over the years that I need to be very diligent in my follow-up questions, to make sure that I am understanding the true meaning of the person's testimony.

A few years ago I married a Vietnamese woman.   Even though she speaks very good English, I often have to ask her to repeat things over again, in a different way, or clarify what she means. Sometimes I might even ask her questions about her culture in order to get a better sense of what she really means, or how she understands things. She will often do the same with me. It adds a whole new dimension to marital communication!

Sometimes my wife’s work involves translating documents from English into Vietnamese, and she will often ask me to clarify something for her.  Many times the difficulty is based on some nuance or cultural reference that has a huge impact on the meaning in English, which would have totally been missed, had I not been there to help. I sometimes wonder what the translation would have turned out had I been off on a trip and she had done it on her own!

Occasionally I am asked to do lectures or sermons to a group that speaks a different language. The success of this really depends on the skill of your translator! Even then, I know that much gets lost. Big general ideas and principles can move across language and cultural barriers quite well, but don’t hold out a lot of hope for your foreign audience getting much from your humor, sarcasm, or allusions to your culture.

When we are developing our doctrines, I believe it is very important to keep this factor in mind.  English speaking people have been blessed with a multitude of excellent Bible translations.  The best ones have been done by a group of professional translators who work together to come up with the most accurate translation possible.  Many of these scholars have spent their entire lives learning the Biblical languages and the cultures from which they were written.  With these collaborative efforts we probably have the best translations of the Bible that are humanly possible. (In contrast to this, Christians in the country of Vietnam have only one translation of the Bible that was done by one man, 100 years ago, using only the King James version of the Bible as his text!  Can you imagine how much may have gotten lost!)

Even with our excellent versions of the English Bible, I believe we still need to be careful how we develop our understanding of what the Bible is saying.  Let's take for example, one of the questions that we are discussing here at Timeless Themes, the concept of an immortal soul.  Most Christians believe that the Bible, at least the New Testament, teaches that people have a body and a soul, and that while the body dies, the soul does not, in fact cannot die, and will go on to an eternal reward immediately after death.

When we search for this concept as an explicit teaching in the New Testament, we find that it is oddly missing! With no clear statement on this important teaching, how is it then that so many people believe this to be true? The problem may very well be an issue of something being “lost in translation”. Even some of the implicit references to the "soul" in our English Bibles might be questioned.  For example, the New testament Greek term "psuché", that most translators render as "soul", can also be understood or translated as  "life" or "mind", "the vital breath", "the self", a "human person" or "individual".1  And yet many of our great English translations trend toward favoring the English word "soul". Why the bias?  Part of the answer may be something of a “snowball effect”. The ground was already rich for a dualistic understanding of the nature of mankind during the time the New Testament was written. Commentators and strong figures in the early centuries of the Church, such as Origen and Augustine, promoted the belief and it has received almost universal acceptance since then. Now, as translators work with the original text of the New Testament books, they will naturally tend to work through the lens of this wide body of belief.

Part of the problem is that while the New Testament does not have any explicit teaching on dualism, there are a number of allusions to the concept of an immortal soul sprinkled throughout the New Testament and these are generally accepted as proof of the concept. Again I would advise caution! When we are developing or reviewing our belief system, we need to always keep in mind the problem of how things can get lost in translation!


My Golfing Buddies
I am not a big golfer, but I have noticed that when I do, the guys that sometimes I go out with love to tell funny stories along the way.  Often the story will be something about the “priest, the rabbi and the pastor” who all die the same day and meet Peter at the pearly gates.  Now, you need to understand that the guys telling these stories believe that the Bible teaches that everyone rests until the resurrection at the last day.  Some of my golfing friends are theologians themselves and have carefully thought these things through!  They do not believe that people have a spirit or soul that can separate from the body, and yet they tell these stories!  As I listen, should I conclude that my friends have changed their mind and started believing in souls that drift away at death to meet Peter in the sky? 

Well I don't and here is why...  There is no chance that I am going to misunderstand them because I know them well, I intimately understand their worldview. Having grown up along side them, attending the same church, going to the same schools, I understand not only the culture but also the sub-culture they are coming from. They are speaking English, the language that I grew up speaking.  I recognize they are using humor and irony.  I know to make more of the punchline than I do the story itself.  Putting all of this together, I know definitively, on the spot, that in spite of the words that are coming out of their mouths, they do not believe in immortal souls!  They do not believe that Peter is alive, let alone the gatekeeper of heaven, and they do not believe that pastors, priests or rabbis go to heaven right after they die! They are just using a common-held belief of our larger culture to construct a funny story.


Now, imagine for a moment that I were to include the stories of my friends in a diary or journal.  I have a hard time remembering funny stories. If I want to ever refer to them again, I need to write them down.  Let’s say that 2000 years from now, some people find my journal and translate it from my 2013 English, to the popular language of their day.  When people read the stories in my journal, of the three clergy at heaven’s gate, do you think they would catch the humor?  Would they catch the colloquialisms of 2013 North American culture?  What do you think they might conclude about the philosophical or religious views of my friends?    Unless I had explicitly stated in my journal that my friends were just joking around, they would almost certainly conclude that my friends believed that people have souls that go straight to Heaven’s gate at death, and speak to someone named Peter!  How might it influence their conclusions if the readers in 4013 themselves were believers in the idea that people have souls that go directly to their reward at death?  I fear my golfing buddies would go down in history as being avid dualists!

So what should we do with the implicit comments on the soul in the New Testament? At the very least, the next time you read a statement of Jesus or Paul about the "soul" (as it may be rendered in your English translation), it might be a good idea to think about my golfing buddies, and how things can get lost in translation!

1. Strong's Greek Concordance