I am endeavoring to learn Nganguela, my fifth language in 50+ years (I’ve all but forgotten German from high school and Creole from years of short-term medical trips to Limbé, Haiti), while most of the rural people here know and use well at least five or six. Along the way, I’ve learned a little about communication through translation, applicable to our (translated) versions of the original Greek and Hebrew books of the Bible…
When translating a passage/message/thought/idea from one language to another, many errantly believe that word-for-word is the most accurate method of translation, but it is actually a poor method, often resulting in a poorly communicated and misunderstood message because different languages use quite variable word orders, conjugations and emphases. Also, languages often do not have a single word translation for a single word in the original, but rather numerous ways to translate one word (all a little different), depending on the context, and a word’s definition can vary significantly depending on how it’s used. Many English bible terms/phrases are misunderstood simply because they are isolated and studied/analyzed word-for-word. It is not difficult, however, to be accurate in translating, or to understand well, a complete translated thought or idea. All people, including our Father, communicate in whole thoughts and ideas and the wise translator/hearer/reader will keep this in mind.
Also, an “accurate” translation is worthless if not communicated in the readily understood vernacular of the hearing population. A 1500 England translation has little relevance in 2000 America. Another challenge to accurate understanding of a message/thought is that every person, family, community, and region bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds to any communication. Apply this to different nations and many English words/phrases have very different meanings in the UK, the USA, South Africa, Ghana, India, etc, because of the radically different cultures speaking the same language (and reading the same translated English bible). Over time, even in the same culture, meanings and word definitions vary greatly or subtly, depending on the particular culture, as experiences and circumstances within a culture transform its languages.
Imagine, for example, the meanings of the Portuguese words for “war” and “peace” to an Angolan amputee with one missing eye and a deformed face (I met him yesterday in our clinic) who was raised in, fought in, and was wounded in the 30+ year civil war (the words are emotional and real) compared to the same words to an Amazon Brazilian who has never experienced anything remotely similar (the same words are imaginary by comparison). The words “hunger” and “thirst” have quite a different meaning to a rural Angolan living in the drought-stricken province of Cunene (where we lived last year) than they have for me…
Using the Portuguese language, I regularly interact with people from the radically different cultures of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Portugal and a high degree of sensitivity (as to how I’m being understood) is required to communicate effectively.
It’s sad to see true seekers in Amazon Brazil and rural Angola struggle to understand the equivalent of a formal, King James-type bible translation (so many phrases simply cannot be accurately understood) because a certain translation is “church-proper” and others are not. We are endeavoring to get the equivalent of a paraphrased, “Living Bible” into as many rural Angolan hands as possible in order for the common people to have a bible translated into their common language.
The English King James translation of the bible and other older translations confuse (many people still don’t know there are varied and modern translations) and are for the most part worthless (though they may have been relevant translations at the time), except for their historical perspective, because word definitions and emphases have so changed with time and cultural evolution. It humors me every time I hear someone quote a King James translation because accurate communication is clearly not the goal (often the person is seeking to bolster their authority/expertise in the ears of the receiver). Many christians quote phrases and passages from the bible without any sensitivity that their communication is well understood. They are passionate about speaking truth, but less than passionate that the truth is well understood.
As disciple-makers, relationship, patient interaction, conversation, asking questions, and listening are mandatory for understanding and good communication.
If accurate understanding of God’s original, spoken thoughts is the goal, translations must be modified over time, as word/phrase definitions and the hearers’ cultural perceptions change with time, and the translation must be in today’s language (or interpreted by the speaker with sensitivity for the hearer) to be best understood by the hearer. This was the intent behind Eugene Peterson’s monumental effort in, “The Message” as he attempted to produce a translation in modern-day, american english. Even though there are many different cultural perceptions of various parts of our language just within our country, his translation has helped bring a greater depth of understanding to many.
Another challenge of communicating through translation is the ever-present bias brought into every translation effort (every human being brings a great deal of bias into every endeavor – most of it unrealized). If I’m translating for someone, the accuracy of my translation is dependent on several factors: how I personally understand and relate to the message; whether I believe the message, its components and the one giving it; and the passion I have for communicating the message. I once was sharing a message with a large group in a river village in the Amazon and, after emphasizing the inclusive nature of Jesus’ invitation into His Kingdom and the impartiality of our Father’s heart (anyone can enter), I said that it doesn’t matter if you smoke or drink or what you’ve ever done, Jesus died for you and is inviting you to walk with Him, to have relationship with Him. My translator then said that if you quit smoking and drinking, you can walk with Jesus (the exact opposite of my communication)! I suspected what she had said and repeated myself slowly and clearly to make the point (this was a major point in speaking to this group living in a highly religious culture)… and she repeated her same translation again. Bias! My statement was outside of her Kingdom worldview.
The most accurate way to understand another’s thoughts/words in translation from another language is to get several translations/opinions of what is being communicated, disregard individual word emphases, and focus on complete thoughts or ideas. It gets even more complicated (where we live in Angola) when a message must often be spoken in one language and translated twice before reaching the ear of the hearer. But the principle applies, and focusing on the complete thoughts of the speaker (rather than on word-for-word) is key to accurate communication through translation. Accuracy of the translated thought has much more significance than accurately translated words. If you’ve ever used the excellent program of Google translate, you know that it is a great example of how accurately translated words can communicate a completely different thought than intended.
One function of God’s Spirit, Counselor, Helper is to bring clarity and applicability to our Father’s words (in the present). All of us have experienced when He moves a thought/idea/phrase or passage from our head to our heart and we know-that-we-know (understand) what God is saying, accept it, and it becomes a part of us. A gifted bible teacher does well not when he entertains or persuades, but when he translates/interprets our Father’s words into language understood well by his listeners, sometimes from and to the same language.
Some languages do better than others in translating with accuracy. The Portuguese language, for example, has wisely developed two words for what is one word in English, the word “know”, and this greatly helps with translating our Father’s thoughts and intents about “knowledge”. “Saber” means to know, as in information. “Conhecer” means to know as in relationship. This distinction is hugely relevant in bible translation (and lost in our English translations) as each word communicates something quite different when speaking of “knowing” a person or knowing God. Knowing information about a person or God (saber) is quite different than knowing (intimately) a person or God, in relationship (conhecer). You can know much about me (saber), my thoughts, my passions, etc (by reading my blog posts) without ever having known me (conhecer), and it is the same with our Father and His letters to us.
When reading isolated verses in the bible that speak of “knowledge” of God or knowing Him, many seekers and whole denominations misunderstand and believe that informational knowledge about God (saber) is the key to our quest for life and “truth”, when throughout the old and new testament, our Father indicates over and over that knowing Him (“I am the truth”) in relationship (conhecer) is what we were created for, is His desire for us, and is the key to life. Of course, knowing about Him helps in knowing Him intimately up to a point, but a life lived in pursuit of a surrendered, humble, intimate relationship with Jesus is quite different than one lived in pursuit of knowledge about Him.
So many of us know about Him (and constantly seek more – an inexhaustible pursuit), yet haven’t begun to humbly walk closely with Him or to intimately know Him. Pursuing more and more knowledge about God (theology) is one of many ways that genuine, thirsty seekers can dig and dig where there is no water. Life is in Him and in knowing Him (conhecer), not in knowledge about Him (saber). Perhaps the greatest error in the evangelical, bible-focused, American church today is that we have modeled and emphasized knowing (saber) the bible ahead of knowing (conhecer) the living Jesus, and have evangelized people to the bible and more and more knowledge about God (saber) instead of modeling and inviting people to humbly and intimately walk with Him and to know Him relationally (conhecer). This was Jesus’ obvious emphasis, as illustrated in so many of His words, commands and invitations, including His passionate, pre-death prayer in Jn 17. The present-day American tragedy is that so many church-goers (in every denomination) study, hear and know (saber) so much of the bible and will one day hear, “I never knew you.” (conhecer)
I’m reminded this morning that our Father’s confessed enemy (Satan, devil, Lucifer, etc) knows (saber) all about God (he knows more theological information about Him and His words than you or I ever will), believes in God (he’s interacted with Him directly many times), believes that Jesus is Messiah and the Son of God (Mk 5.7), confessed that Jesus was the Holy One of God (Lk 4.33), etc and has no intimacy (in relationship) with our Father (conhecer). Knowing God in a surrendered, intimate manner is, in fact, what the enemy has rejected and he (and others who have rejected relationship with the Father) will be given over to their choice of an eternal existence without God. Parenthetically, if one doubts that God is a god of freedom rather than control, note the freedom (always within His reign) that He has given to the author of destruction for thousands of years. This same freedom is extended, in love, to every one of those created in His image.
In the modern church age, we glorify information and saber-type knowledge and we define the bible term “knowledge” as (saber) knowing information about God (study, memorize, information) when, in fact, throughout history He has been pursuing, knocking and inviting us to know Him (conhecer), in relationship (togetherness, union, trust, surrender, intimacy…), in this life and for eternity.
Which “knowledge” of God (“saber” or “conhecer”) will you and I pursue today?
jn 17.3, phil 3.8, 2pet1.2, 2pet1.8, 2pet2.20, 2 pet 3.18