Friday, 24 April 2009

The problem of "translation"

There was a strange story in Sydney Morning Herald yesterday about Manly local council honouring the artist Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo with an exhibition and website. On the website his self portrait has been edited to remove the cigarette from his mouth in line with the councils anti-smoking policy. (See the pictures at the right).

The story doesn't explain exactly how the picture contravenes the policy, in fact it says that the instruction had been to remove the whole painting! This story seems ridiculously extreme, but it is a real problem. How do you present something from one culture in another one in which some aspects of it will clash?

I remember being at a production of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" in which the "comedy" had members of the audience on their feet booing its misogyny. Do we change the play so it is a comedy for us, or do we try to explain to people how it would have worked, or do we just let them boo?

We sometimes struggle with the same kind of issues in translating the Bible. How much do we tidy it up for contemporary audiences? Do we get rid of gendered language? How about expressions that seem crude to us? (On that compare 1 Sam 25:22,34 in the King James and the NIV.) What about terms that might seem confusing for us, such as 'flesh' (Gk: sarx) which most modern translations will now translate as "sinful nature" (e.g. Romans 7:5,18,25).

There is a bad argument for moving to gender nuetral language (people are offended by gender specific language) and a good argument (people actually don't get gender specific language). But of course it isn't as simple as those two arguements make it sound.

Have you got good, bad or amusing examples of the problems of translation between cultures?


D and M said...

"Have you got good, bad or amusing examples of the problems of translation between cultures?"

Nope, sorry.

But I do know that gender-neutral language is a big issue with the newer NIV version, the TNIV.

Grudem talks about it here:

John McClean said...

"A big issue", it sure has been!

Don Carson endorses (and I believe continues to use the TNIV). He puts the debate into perspective and concludes that "I am not always persuaded that the TNIV has taken the best option. But that is rather different from saying that
the TNIV is theologically compromised". See his article at

John Davies said...

Jesus’ reference to Herod as a ‘fox’ in Luke 13:32 illustrates the point. We hear ‘crafty’; Jesus means something more like Herod is an insubstantial nuisance — no lion, so perhaps ‘possum’ might capture his intention for us Aussies.

Kristian Hartberg said...

I remember a Wycliffe bible translator giving a talk a church about the difficulty a team faced in translating Isaiah 1:18, "Though your sins be scarlet they shall become white as snow", to a people group who had never seen or even knew what snow was. From memory they resolved to translate the verse "white as teeth".

Has it become any less the word of God because of the need to culturally adapt the language in order to communicate the truth of the verse?

Here is a funny clip about language confusion :)