How We Got Our Bible -- Part 5: An Inside Look at Translation

Introduction:  Larry had planned to be gone this week, so he asked me to fill in for him with a lesson on Bible translation, to supplement this series.  Unfortunately, his wife Pat broke her wrist quite severely, requiring surgery this week.  So their trip was cancelled.  But Larry asked me to go ahead with this lesson that we planned several weeks ago.  My name is Dave Westley, for those who may not know me.   My claim to fame is that I went to Mexico with Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1968 and translated the New Testament into a language that had never been written before.   So Larry thought I might be qualified to talk a little bit about the translation process, so we can better appreciate what it took to get us our Bible.


Larry has already talked about the source languages: Hebrew for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament.   We know that there are no known original manuscripts -- that is, "autographs" written by the Bible writers themselves in their own handwriting.   All we have are copies, and most of those are incomplete, some in fragments.   We know that there were no printing presses, so the scribes who hand lettered each copy had strict rules about copying the Scriptures, and rigid tests for accuracy.   Yet over the centuries, minor variations still crept in. I say minor, because none of them affect major points of doctrine concerning our salvation and our daily walk.   The amazing thing is that our Bible survived to reach us at all.   So scholars have done their best to figure out, from studying these copies, which ones were probably closest to the originals.   Because it is those originals that we believe were inspired by God.   Not the copies, and not the translations.

This is one of those copies, surviving from about 350 A.D.   It’s called the Codex Sinaiticus, because it was discovered in 1844 in the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai.   I understand the monks there had a whole room full of manuscripts like this one.   But they didn’t grasp their significance, so they used them to light fires.   So many of them were lost.

Translating from the Source Documents:

Over the years, scholars have pieced together from these manuscripts what they consider to be an “accepted text”, of the New Testament, or the Textus Receptus.   That compilation is what was used, to translate our English New Testament, and it’s what we used to translate the New Testament into the Tepetotutla Chinantec language of southern Mexico.

Straight from the Source:

We didn’t translate from English.   English itself is a translation.   Have you ever made a copy of a tape recording?  And then a copy of the copy?   What happens each time you do that?   You lose fidelity, don’t you?   So translating from English would be a copy of a copy, with further loss in quality.

Today's Lesson: An Inside Look:

So without getting bogged down in the details of village life, I will try to give you an idea of the steps a translator goes through, using just the New Testament, and the language I worked with: Chinantec of Tepetotutla -- ("Tep" for short).

The village of Tepetotutla is in southern Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca.   As you may know, the Aztecs had conquered most of Mexico before the Spaniards came, and gave Aztec names to all of those villages.   Tepetotutla was the Aztec name meaning “Mountain Bird Place” or “Pheasant Country”.   And even today, people of surrounding towns call Tep people “Bird People”.   When the Spaniards came, they added the name Santa Cruz, or “Holy Cross”.   So it’s Santa Cruz Tepetotutla.   Village folks just call it Dsi-ju+g [say, "Jee-fwug"].

These folks are my friends who recorded the voice track for the Jesus Film in their language.   Some of them had been working in the field all day before this picture was taken, so you can see they look tired.   Esther, on the right, was just bitten by her stubborn mule that day.   (She was the voice of Elizabeth in Luke 1, when her cousin Mary came to visit her.   “Blessed are you among women”, she said, “and blessed is the child you will bear!   But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me?   As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy”.)

Hurdles to Overcome:

Scholars who translated our English Bible for us had to deal with different kinds of barriers, to render Biblical texts into our language.   To give you some idea of this process, I will share with you some of what I faced trying to translate the New Testament into Chinantec.   Each language has its own unique set of problems, so I'm sure our translators into English faced a different set of problems.   But try to keep them in mind as we go through these, and that should give you the idea. I'll list them first, and then we'll expand on each one:

Linguistic Barriers:

You’ll remember that in Acts 17, the Apostle Paul spoke to a group of philosophers while he was in Athens.   These philosophers were known as the Stoics and the Epicureans, members of an elite group called the Areopagus who met on “Mars Hill” and discussed philosophy.   These were the guys who “…spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” --the Bible says.   And Paul told them he saw an altar “To the Unknown God”, and said “He’s the one I’m now telling you about”.   So the Greek language developed a rich lexicon of philosophical terms and abstract nouns.   (An abstract noun is one you can’t draw a picture of: salvation, grace, redemption, joy, etc.)   God in His wisdom chose Greek to communicate His message to mankind.   But that presents a problem…

Pre-literate rural people don’t stand around talking philosophy.   So their language hasn’t developed words having to do with ideas, theories and abstract concepts.   That doesn’t mean the language is primitive.   There’s no such thing as a “primitive” language.   People pushing evolution tried to promote that idea, until they found that many of these so-called primitive languages are actually richer and more complex than our so-called major languages.   Chinantec has developed rich vocabulary in other areas.   For example, Chinantec folks spend hours hiking out to their field, or to other villages.   So the verb system has become rich in terms having to do with “coming and going”, “bringing and taking”, depending on where you live. If I live here, and I want to say “I’m going” (away from home), the word is nei.   If I don't live here, and I want to say “I’m going” (toward home), the word is né'.

My friends there in Tep are alert and intelligent.  One of our first days in the village, in 1968, when we were just trying to get settled in this remote place, where these “ignorant natives” lived isolated from the rest of the world, a neighbor came to the door and said, “Guess what!   Russia just invaded Czechoslovakia!”   He knew some Spanish, and had heard the news on his radio.   Soon after that, another joker came to the door, held up his hand and said, “How!” -- Somewhere he had learned that Apache greeting, and decided to greet me like an “Indian” would.

But the language hasn’t developed the rich set of abstract nouns that Greek developed.   About the only abstract nouns in Chinantec are “sin,” “sickness” and “death”.   So we had to figure out how to communicate abstract terms into an earthy language.

Semantic Domains:

In linguistics, there’s a thing called “semantic domains”.   Larry touched on this a couple of weeks ago.   It means that you rarely get a one-to-one equivalent word, from one language to another.   There’s the main kernel of common ground, but the spillover gets lost, so there’s no such thing as a perfect translation.  This is why you would lose even more, translating from a translation.


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