Monday, June 27, 2011

"A Translator is a Traitor"

This phrase first attacked me from required reading for a Second Temple Judaism course I took in 2005. The book was about the Dead Sea scrolls, and I was caught off guard. I didn't like it.

"A translator is a traitor" is from the Latin play on words traduttore, traditore, literally "translator, traitor." Now I doubt that the one who thought of this brilliant combination intended to attack. His or her  point was probably a bit simpler than challenging my "life calling" and deepest desires to be involved in Bible translation. All the same, I felt conflicted.

I was reminded of the phrase again when I saw and retweeted this quote:

"Reading the Bible in translation 
is like kissing your new bride through a veil."

Haim Nachman Bialik (Jewish Poet, 1873-1934)

Both phrases have a similar message, as does the Hungarian fordítás: ferdítés, roughly "translation is distortion." You lose something in translation. Form and meaning are meant to work beautifully together in an original work. In translation, they're often in conflict and form bows to meaning, at least in a good translation.

I love studying linguistics and everything that goes with it - translation theory, hermeneutics, exegesis, discourse analysis, semantics, pragmatics, Greek, Hebrew, and all kinds of subjects to better understand what it takes to take a message in one language and communicate it in another. But when I hear these phrases, I'm intimidated.

These may be obvious truths, but often intimidation clouds truth and leaves fear and doubt. So I have to remind myself from time to time that...

  1. God intends for the Bible to be translated. Ever since before the Scriptures were compiled into the form we have today - the Bible - God has supported translation. The Ethiopian eunuch read from the Septuagint translation. Jesus quoted from it.
  2.  God uses translation to help us understand Himself.God came to earth through Jesus in a form we could understand and recognize.
    And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, ESV)
  3. God wants to communicate with us. God wants to communicate with us today, not just a couple thousand years ago.
    For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
  4. God loves the variety in languages.
    Though the variety in languages came out of a curse, God has brought Himself glory in it all.
    After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”(Revelations 7:9,10) 
  5. God gives us the ability to learn and is with us!
    Though the earth was cursed at Babel with what has come to be thousands of languages, God has given us the ability to learn another language or several languages. He is able to communicate with us, we are able to communicate with Him (because of Jesus), and we are able to communicate with each other.
    And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)

Is a translator a traitor?


Translation is a used to communicate life-giving Truth.
And I am thrilled to play a part... whatever that might be.

If God spare my life, before many years I will cause a boy that drives the plough
to know more of Scripture than you [priests] do. (William Tyndale, 1494-1536)

 The worldwide status of Bible translation (2010) - Wycliffe Bible Translators


  1. Something that has helped me is the idea that God spoke through His Word then, within the limitations and capabilities of both Hebrew and Greek, but dreamed of a day when He would be able to express those ideas in new ways, in new languages in the centuries to come. As in God speaks in new ways through His Word through the process of Bible translation, each new language gives Him the opportunity to express the deepest meaning of what He said the first time in new richness, fulness and diverse beauty. Translation is the convergence of God's complete Word, not a divergence from it.

  2. Eshinee - Thank you for the feedback. You've given an interesting perspective. I would love to hear more of your experience with this in Botswana.

  3. Wow! Great post Ruthie. I love the way you laid it all out. It's amazing - the power of the word of God in your heart language

  4. Melanie, thank you for your feedback. This post comes out of my own experience of being impacted by the Word. Powerful stuff.


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