Bible translation has affected my life since day one, literally. When I was born my Dad was in Norman, Oklahoma, teaching linguistics. He was working with the Wycliffe Bible Translators, whose mission was to translate the scripture into all the languages of the earth.
I have always been fascinated by the stories of the radical movements throughout history, that brought us the modern bible that we read today. Many of these men were martyred as heretics for their opposition to the established authority.
One of my favorite characters is John Wycliffe. Born in the 1320s Wycliffe survived the Black Death and faced a society that was dominated by an evil church structure. The Dark Ages were ruled by a string of bad popes from 767-1534. These men committed every atrocity forbidden by the 10 Commandments. In 1378 there were two popes ruling simultaneously and a third was added in 1409.
John Wycliffe was a priest in England that opposed the corruption of the ruling leaders and the church of the time. He became increasingly vocal about the excesses of clergy and and the godlessness of the church. He began translating the scripture into English from Latin so that the common people could read it.
A council was convened in 1414 to select a single Pope. They also declared John Wycliffe and his follower Jan Hus in Prague heretics. Wycliffe had already died but his body was exhumed and burned. Jan Hus was burned alive. All of their followers were hunted and persecuted and many executed by being burned alive. Wycliffe's writings fueled the Reformation movement almost 100 years later.
In 1917 Cameron Townsend visited Guatemala to sell Spanish Bibles to the locals. He found that most of the local people spoke other native languages, rather than Spanish. One man even rebuked him when Cameron tried to sell him a Spanish Bible, "Why, if your God is so smart, hasn’t he learned our language?". On this challenge Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organization dedicated to translating the scripture into native languages.
In 1975, I met some Wycliffe missionaries that were working in northern Canada.
Marshall and Jean Holdstock were working with an Indian tribe called the Beaver
people. They described themselves as Pacifists & Anarchists. They had moved to
the wilderness over 100 miles from any civilization to live a simple life.
Soon they met some native people there that helped them survive in "the bush".
They began learning how to communicate and learned their language.
Winters were spent with the Beaver tribe and summers were spent in relative comfort in a town of 100 people just 40 miles from a town of 10,000. The long winter nights were spent interacting with the locals and learning vocabulary and grammar. During the summer months they would begin converting the knowledge into translation of the scriptures in the Beaver language.
They had been at it for years when I met them and had completed the book of John. The book of Mark was next on the agenda. I was able to talk with them extensively about their work. I was fascinated to learn about what motivated them and also the technical details of producing an accurate translation of scripture.
Marshall Holdstock taught me about how important it was to capture the original meaning for each passage. This involves understanding the historical, cultural, and political context of the time in which it was written. Then words are chosen to reflect the true meaning of the passage to match the different context of the Beaver people. If Jesus were to visit the Beaver village this afternoon, what would he say to them?
Good bible translation requires transforming the words while preserving the cultural meaning. This is far different than the concept of linguistic accuracy that most people seek out. When God became a man, he was completely what we are, in every respect. He had our life, with all of its frustrations and heartbreak. He spoke our language and learned skills and how to get along with others. Yet, in our minds we see Jesus as a religious figure. But he was not.
The bible was not written with the religious and scholarly language of the day. That type of language was used for legal and educational purposes. The language the bible is the language of streets, marketplace, and workplace. God meets humans where they are at, coming down from a place of glory to become lowly in order to close the gap.
It seems rather ridiculous to me, that groups would favor archaic translations of scripture because they are seen as being more accurate. This desire for religious distance puts a barrier between us and true understanding of God's truth. Relevance of the concepts (and words that ring true in our hearts) are the real test of accuracy. While a word-for-word translation may seem accurate and scholarly, it has little value in communicating truth. God speaks to all people in their native tongue.
Good translation provides an interpretation with the same literal, moral, allegorical, and prophetic meaning that the original authors intended for their audience. Hermeneutics is the fancy word that is used in Seminary for this concept of cultural equivalence and relevance. It requires a deep understanding of the context of the author: History, Culture, Language, Worldview.