When preachers are translators

Hope you had fun with the babelized Bible text on Tuesday. (The mystery phrase, by the way, was “you must be born again”) At the very least, it gives an appreciation of the complexities involved in translation and the challenges faced by Bible translators. Next year’s Biblefresh initiative will swing the spotlight onto the publication of the King James Version in 1611, and the preface to the original edition is certainly worth a read. In it Bishop Miles Smith writes that:

Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place, that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.

Since then the science of Bible translation has grown and developed, with translations  tending either towards formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence. Advocates of formal equivalency aim for a word-by-word accuracy which stays as linguistically true to the original text as possible.  Dynamic equivalence translators, on the other hand, aim to capture the sense or impact of the original words in their finished text.

I believe that every preacher acts as a translator.  We seek to understand our source text (the Bible) as well as we possibly can by studying the source culture from which it emerged.  We then seek to study the target culture of our congregations and the language which they speak in order to transfer the impact of source text to target culture.

Here’s the question, though – are we formal or equivalent translators? In other words, do we lean more towards Scriptural accuracy or cultural accessibility?  Most preachers put an enormous amount of time into scanning the cultural airwaves in order to produce a dynamic translation of the Bible in the pulpit. The danger, though, is that we can over-translate the Bible to the point of harmlessness.  No matter how carefully researched our illustrations may be, the Word of God is always a word from another place, isn’t it?

In his book Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the baptized, William Willimon considers this very issue and concludes that try as we might, Christian preachers ‘talk funny’ because the word of God is a word from outside, impacting on our little worlds.

Do we agree with him?:

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