A Justification for Translation
Why Every Christian Should Care About Gospel Resources in Languages Beyond Their Own
English is the most dominant global language ever. So why are we at Desiring God doing so much work to translate our resources into other tongues? Why not just spend the same amount of time, money, and effort teaching people to read our English resources rather than doing the hard (and sometimes messy) work of translation?
To answer this question, we need to back up and consider another: What warrant do Christians have for translating at all, whether it’s a sermon or, more importantly, the Bible itself? We are aware of another religion in which translation of its holy book is theologically problematic. Where do Christians get the idea that it is not only permissible, but even a good idea to translate?
Profound answers to these questions have been set forth by Andrew Walls, a man once dubbed by Christianity Today as perhaps “the most important person you don’t know.” In 1996 he published The Missionary Movement in Christian History in which he argues that translation work is both permissible and necessary to the Christian faith. He gives two main reasons for making this claim:
- translation is a central component of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and
- translation is God’s means for sustaining and maturing his people.
1) Translation is a central component of the gospel
Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation: ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) ... Incarnation is translation. When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language. (Walls, 26-27)
Walls makes the case that translation is central to the gospel because the incarnation of Christ is itself an act of translation. Jesus, in becoming a man, translated the fullness of God’s person and character into human form. As the author of Hebrews states, Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (1:3). Or as Paul says in Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God” (1:15).
But the glory of Christ’s incarnation, his translation, isn’t just in the fact that God became a man, as incredible as that is. The real glory is in why he became a man. The author of Hebrews explains:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. . . . Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:14-17)
In other words, Christ converted his heavenly, spiritual life into the currency of earthly flesh and blood so that he could die in that flesh and blood and thereby pay the debt of sin that was due on man’s account. Jesus became a man so that he could satisfy the wrath of God against men (“make propitiation”) and redeem them from the power of Satan and death. The real glory of Christ’s incarnation is in what he used it to express: incomprehensible mercy, faithfulness, and sacrifice—in sum, love—for the sake of sinners.
There are at least two parallels between Jesus’ incarnation and the task of translating the Bible and other Christian texts.
A. Incarnation occurs through translation
Lamin Sanneh, in his article “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex,” acknowledges the distinct power of human language. In speaking about the history of translation in Western missions, he states, “The importance of vernacular translation was that it brought the missionary into contact with the most intimate and intricate aspects of culture.”
Sanneh is suggesting that, rather than being an impersonal, inanimate system of symbols for transmitting a message, like math or computer code, language is more like blood in a culture’s body. It is a unique, native, and living medium that pulses in and out of every area of a culture. As it does so, it influences and is influenced by—and sustains and is sustained by—the other parts.
Like blood, language is as unique as the body of the culture in which it lives, reflecting its nature and experience. It houses the people’s knowledge, containing those categories, terms, and concepts that have been acquired through collective education. It also retains their history, being filled with idioms and allusions that all point to some prior cultural experience or expression. It reflects a people’s lifestyle and geography (Sami has hundreds of words for snow, for instance). It is the material of their prayers, their stories, their music, and their conversation. Sanneh is right in saying that language touches “the most intimate and intricate aspects” of a culture.
SIL International affirms this reality in their Linguistic Creed: “As the most uniquely human characteristic a person has, a person's language is associated with his self-image. Interest in and appreciation of a person's language is tantamount to interest in and appreciation of the person himself.”
Therefore taking on another’s language is, like Jesus’ incarnation, to share in their “blood.” Translation enables you and your message to move into the lives of individuals and cultures to depths and extents that would otherwise be impossible from the outside.
B. Translation communicates to commoners
Sanneh spells out another way in which translation mirrors the incarnational ministry of Christ. Instead of just addressing the religious elite, Christian translation takes the message of the cross to the common folk.
In many traditional societies, religious language has tended to be confined to a small elite of professionals. In extreme cases, this language is shrouded under the forbidding sanctions of secret societies and shrines, access to which is through induced trances or a magical formula. The Christian approach to translatability strikes at the heart of such gnostic tendencies, first by contending that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and second, by targeting ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.
Marvel at this last sentence. The message that is implied when we translate the story of the cross into the common languages of the world is 1) “the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language” and 2) ordinary men and women are worthy bearers of the message.
Amen! Is this not the glory of our gospel, and the sweet reality of our own salvation?
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
Our Savior affirmed the everyday and the common in his incarnation. He came as a poor carpenter’s son and spent his life ministering to women, children, fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors. He spoke in parables that communicated the deepest spiritual truths in terms and concepts simple enough for any farmer or family member to understand.
Modern day translation of the Christian message continues Jesus’ work of coming to the common. People are saved, and their faith is nurtured, when they encounter Jesus in the language they know best.
For a recent example of this, see the BBC’s magazine article and corresponding video, “Jamaica’s patois Bible: The word of God in creole.”
2) Translation is God’s means for sustaining and maturing his people
So, zooming back out, we’ve just made the case that translation of the Christian message is permissible because, as Walls suggests, Jesus’ incarnation was an act of translation that allows, yea, demands further translation. A second reason Walls gives for why Christians can and should translate is that translation is essential for sustaining and maturing God’s people.
A. Translating for the church’s survival
Regarding the way in which translation sustains the church, Walls argues that if in the last 2000 years the Christian faith had not continued to traverse new cultures and languages, then it would have long since perished from the earth.
Christianity . . . has throughout its history spread outwards, across cultural frontiers, so that each new point on the Christian circumference is a new potential Christian centre. And the very survival of Christianity as a separate faith has evidently been linked to the process of cross-cultural transmission. Indeed, with hindsight, we can see that on several occasions this transmission took place only just in time; that without it, the Christian faith must surely have withered away. (22; emphasis added)
To illustrate this point, in the second chapter of his book Walls chronicles how, in its early days, the church went from being mostly Jewish in ethnicity to mostly Greek just before the fall of Jerusalem; and then how it transferred from the Greeks to Europe’s “barbarians” just before the Roman Empire fell; and then how, just as the faith began to wane in Europe, it spread to North America; and how, now, as it wanes in the Western world, it is spreading to South America, Africa, and Asia.
History has shown us that, as much as we wish it weren’t true, the Christian message does not flourish indefinitely in one place or culture. Over time either the culture or its acceptance of the Christian message weakens and is overtaken by another culture or belief system. Therefore, if we wish to see the church survive into the future, we must continually be looking ahead to what languages and cultures and locales it has yet to penetrate, and then we must support that work.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that the survival of the church is entirely or even ultimately in our hands. Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her still stands (Matthew 16:18). Nevertheless, God does use means for sustaining her, and translation appears to be a primary one. Indeed, one can see how the need for the faith to move from one language and culture to another in order for it to survive is in God’s wisdom. Through designing it this way, he has implanted an urgency and a necessity for the gospel to go forth and make a home among every tribe, tongue and nation.
B. Translating for the church’s maturity
Regarding the way in which translation leads the church into greater maturity, Walls begins with the premise that, by God’s design, every culture has its own distinct perspectives, concerns, patterns of thought, etc. that set it apart from others. These distinctives inevitably make the work of translation difficult, but the results are of benefit to everyone.
New translations, by taking the word about Christ into a new area, applying it to new situations, have the potential actually to reshape and expand the Christian faith. Instead of defining a universal “safe area” where certain lines of thought are prescribed and others proscribed or ignored (the natural outcome of a once-for-all, untranslatable authority), translatability of the Scriptures potentially starts interactions of the word about Christ with new areas of thought and custom. (29)
Walls is saying that, as Christ is incarnated through translation into other cultures and, therefore, into entirely new spheres or corners of life and thought, we learn more about him. We’ve never seen him in that garb before; and as he fills these new cultures (which he inevitably must do, if believers in that culture are to submit all things to him), we are going to notice new things about him. And in doing so, our knowledge and imitation of him is going to mature.
To give an example of this, I need to quote Walls at length:
The Synoptic Gospels, rooted as they are in the soil of Palestine, set forth the Good News of Jesus in terms of the themes he himself preached, the Kingdom of God and the work of the Son of Man. But how rarely the letters of Paul, addressed to the Hellenistic world of West Asia and Southern Europe, employ the term Kingdom of God; and they never once speak of the Son of Man. Such Palestinian titles had little immediacy in the world of the new Christians; they required footnotes. In order to explain in the Greek world who Christ is and what he did and does, a new conceptual vocabulary had to be constructed. Elements of vocabulary already existing in that world had to be commandeered and turned towards Christ. And once that happened, and Hellenistic people began to see Christ in their own terms, a host of questions arose that Palestinian Jews, even those who had had a Hellenistic education and were at home in the language, felt no need to raise. Christian preaching and Christian understanding moved beyond the category of Messiah—which for many of the earliest believers must have seemed the heart of the Gospel—to embrace such categories as Logos and Pleroma to explain the significance of Jesus. (xvi-xvii)
Walls sees reference to this process of church maturation in the metaphor that Paul introduces in Ephesians 4:13. In the same manner that local church bodies are built up, so too the global church matures through the collaborative contributions of each member, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Another way Walls helps to illustrate this idea is to picture the world as a theater. Jesus is on the stage, and the audience is composed of all the world’s people groups, each seated in their own unique seat in the house.
Others seated elsewhere in the world theatre will see the same action, hear the same words; but their seating will enable them to see parts of the stage that we do not and will obscure some things which may seem to us crystal clear. (46)
If Walls is right in his understanding here, then he is also right in concluding that the church is in a more privileged place than ever before.
Since none of us can read the Scriptures without cultural blinkers of some sort, the great advantage, the crowning excitement which our own era of Church history has over all others, is the possibility that we may be able to read them together. Never before has the Church looked so much like the great multitude whom no man can number out of every nation and tribe and people and tongue. Never before, therefore, has there been so much potentiality for mutual enrichment and self-criticism, as God causes yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. (15)
Though more could be listed here, and even these could be expounded much more fully, I conclude by listing two implications of the understanding of translation that I have developed in this article:
- As individuals, families, churches, denominations, missions boards, etc., we should care about and prioritize translation work, especially Bible translation. This work is at the heart of our faith (embodying the method of our Savior in saving us), and it is essential to the church’s survival and growth in maturity.
- In addition to the Bible, we should value and translate John Piper’s (and others’) content, because of how it helps people read and understand Scripture for themselves. (Reflect, for instance, on how Piper’s and/or other non-biblical-authors’ works might have helped you in your understanding, though you already had the Bible in your language.)
For some of you this application means that you should take an incarnational dive into one of the unreached languages of the world, learn to speak it, develop a writing system for it, teach other speakers how to read it, create a dictionary, and translate the Bible into it. Organizations like Wycliffe, for example, are doing the church a great service by spotting which languages still lack the Bible and then equipping people to go and meet the need. Or you could go through an organization like The Seed Company, which is focused on developing the capacity of local church leaders and mother-tongue translators to translate the Bible for themselves.
For others it means that you should take the fluency God has already given you in another language and get down and do the tough, loving work of translating gospel material into it, whether it's an updated translation of the Bible, a classical theological work, or a modern sermon. Gospel Translations has a good thing going in this regard. And, of course, this doesn't mean translating only from English into other languages. Translation should be happening in every direction.
For the rest of us it means that we should encourage and honor those involved in translation, and support them prayerfully and financially as much as we're able.
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