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The Saxon Gospel

I first came across the Saxon Gospel or Heliand some eighteen months ago. I then touched on it briefly in the missions chapter of Who Needs Words. However, it has been awaiting a proper public airing, and will receive it at the midnight service on Christmas Even this year.

As you read the excerpts below there are a number of things to note. Firstly, there are oddities such as Mary adorning the child with precious jewels. Secondly, there is a real tenderness to the way God addresses his creatures. Thirdly, and most importantly of all, we see the Gospel dressed in the linguistic and cultural clothing of its age.  God is the Protector, Jesus is the great Chieftain, and the shepherds are horse-guards. Whenever we address full churches at the great festivals we need to take a leaf out of the Saxon Gospel’s book. We need to express the core of God’s message in the language and idiom of those who sit before us…even at midnight!



It was not long thereafter that it was all accomplished just as the almighty God had so often promised mankind – that he would send his heavenly child, his own son, to this world to free all the clans of people here from evil.  There in hill fort Nazareth the angel of God addressed her face to face, calling her by name and saying to her from God ‘health be with you Mary. Your lord is very fond of you. You are precious to the Ruler for your wisdom, woman full of grace.  You are to become the mother of our Chieftain here among human beings.’


At that time it all came to pass, just as wise men had said long ago: the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by his own power, to visit the kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took him, wrapped him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though he had the power of God and was the chieftain of mankind.


What had happened became known to many over this wide world. The guards heard it. As horse-servants they were outside, they were men ion sentry-duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field. They saw the darkness split in two the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards in the fields.

Angel speaks

‘I am going to tell you’, he said, ‘something very powerful: Christ is  now born, on this very night, God’s holy child, the good chieftain, at David’s hill fort. What happiness for the human race, a boon to all men.. You can find him, the most powerful child, at Fort Bethlehem. He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder crib – even though he is king over all the earth and the heavens and over the sons of all the peoples, the ruler of the World.’

The father of dynamic equivalence

Back in 2002, I was researching a Masters dissertation on: ‘the preacher as translator: a model for preaching in the 21st Century. At the time, Eugene Nida was my constant companion. Last week, in a hospital in Brussels, he died. If you read the Bible in your own language, in a modern and accessible translation, he has probably been your companion too, even without you knowing it.  Nida’s concern in Bible translation began from a mission perspective, wanting to put into the hands of cross-cultural missionaries a Bible which would ‘do the job’. In order to do this he honed the translation technique known as ‘dynamic’ or ‘functional’ equivalence.

Dynamic equivalence seeks to assess what the source text did in its source culture, and then to reproduce that same effect by the target text on the target culture. In other words, it is less concerned about reproducing a word for word equivalence, and more concerned about reproducing a blow for blow impact. Nida himself said that the aim in all this was that the reader of the eventual translation would be ‘transformed by its [the Bible’s] message.’ This technique led to some spectacular translations, for example:

  • ‘No-one puts old opossum fur onto new opossum fur’ (Mark 2 v. 21, Aboriginal Bible)
  • ‘Place your light on a grain bin’ (Mark 4 v. 21 Korku New Testament)
  • ‘Your sins shall be made as white as the snow of a seal pup'(Isaiah 1 v.18 Inukitut Bible)
The latter comes from a translation for the Inuits which took 24 years to complete. Using the principles of dynamic equivalence, the word ‘snow’ could not be used – since snow is like the dirt under your feet for those who walk on it all day long. Hence the use of ‘seal pup’ to demonstrate purity instead.
Closer to home, the work of Eugene Nida had a huge impact on the Good News Bible, which has now sold over 218 million copies worldwide.
When I teach students about these principles of translation, I tend to talk about the ‘tale of two Eugenes’, using the image below.The man on the left is the one people are far more likely to recognise: Eugene Peterson, translator of ‘The Message’. When Peterson first wrote down his translation of Galatians, and then was persuaded to write down the rest of the New Testament as well, he expressed his surprise about the request. So far as he was concerned he was just writing down what he had been doing in the pulpit for years- expressing the truths of Scripture in the ‘language of the parking lot’.  In so doing, whether consciously or not, he was embracing the principles which another Eugene had laid down before him.
Today I thank God for the life and work of Eugene Nida.

When speakers should be listeners

Of course the word should be “converse”, and I have slipped briefly under the spell of The Apprentice’s Melissa Cohen with her unusual brand of English. The trouble is, some preachers have as much difficulty with conversing about preaching as others would with spelling it. We are so accustomed to being listened to that we have lost the rules of engagement when it comes to genuine conversation.

Earlier this week @overcommunicate drew my attention to this with a post regarding conversations about worship. As that posts points out, a perfectly reasonable discussion about the way worship is led can be ruined by some bright spark saying “I think the Holy Spirit should lead it”.

The same thing often happens with conversations about preaching. A discussion on styles of presentation or techniques of preparation is utterly short-circuited by somebody entering the conversational arena in shining spiritual armour with the words “I think the main thing is to let God speak through you”.  Of course that is what we all want. Training as a preacher and studying different techniques of preaching are all about giving God the best possible raw material with which he can work. Not only that, but they help to heighten our awareness of those areas where our personality both enhances and inhibits that process.

One of Melissa’s other malapropisms on the Apprentice was “manouevrement”. It appeared to be some kind of conflation between ‘manouevre’ and ‘movement’. I’m not sure about the English, but when it comes to conversations about spiritual things we could all do with some room for manouevrement.

Mr Tickle rides again

Some of you may remember that this is not Mr Tickle’s first visit to this blog. He first appeared in a post entitled “Mr Preacher”, along with a number of his colleagues.

The British library has now harnessed his talents for another purpose entirely.  They are about to launch a  project entitled “one language: many voices.’, which will encourage members of the public to read from  the first chapter of Mr Tickle’s story in order to analyse how regional accents are changing. This sound archive will then be studied to map the different pronunciation of words across the country. Never can Mr Tickle have thought he would be involved in such a scholarly exercise! Hopefully the results will be a celebration of the diversity in voice, accent and pronunciation which this country has to offer.

A year or so ago I got into a conversation about preaching with my local Sikh pharmacist.  He was amazed to hear that different sermons would be preached in different Christian churches.  His understanding was that in Gurdwaras an ‘official’ message was passed down the line to be disseminated across the country.  One of the glories of Christianity, surely – is our diversity…as celebrated by Pollock and Seurat in a previous post? Even in those church traditions where the Lectionary means that the same passage will form the backbone of the sermon on a Sunday – the approach in every church will be different.  This is a cause for celebration.

Because ours is a living word, its interpretation is an organic, changing, evolving thing. The task of preachers as word-interpreters, is surely to open up its meaning rather than to close it down? This has been one of the reasons for Rob Bell’s popularity as a preacher, I believe. He has sought to recover a Rabbinic tradition of constant reinterpretation of God’s written word in the organic and messy lives of God’s people. Those people are glad to be involved in the process, and pleased that their theological ‘accents’ do not debar them from participating.

No wonder we are confused!

After yesterday’s post on competing narratives, the wonderful KOREuk directed me to this video by German Artist Garvin Nolte

If  “a picture paints a thousand words”, how many does such a video paint, I wonder?

As a man quite prone to navigational error, I have always rather fancied a sat-nav, but now I’m not so sure!

Richard Littledale

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