Sometimes we may think we have thought of something for the first time and it turns out that someone else got in there before us. In Bible translation work nowadays we are committed to using local languages to express Biblical concepts, but in modern English a lot of our key Biblical terms are very Latinate: jusitification, sanctification, redemption, resurrection. It almost looks as though, when Christianity was taking hold in Britain that English wasn’t seen to be sufficient to express these ideas. Or was it?
I’ve been having a look at Christian vocabulary in Old English and that really doesn’t seem to be the case at all. (Old English was spoken for over six centuries and the precursor of Modern English, with some Latin, French and other languages thrown in along the way.) Old English, a bit like modern German, could easily make new words by combining old ones; and it seems that Christians of the time often used words that were already in the language to express Christian ideas in ways that would be clearly understood. Then somewhere along the line people lost their nerve, decided that English really wasn’t the proper way to talk about these things and we have been left with Latin ever since.
Have a look at the table below.
Modernised Old English
righting (we still have the word ‘righteous’ from the same root)
to make holy (holy and hallow are both from Old English)
infleshness (or perhaps inbody-ing)
giveness (the Old English word is closely related to ‘forgiveness’ and ‘gift’)
Now some Old English words have stuck. We still talk about church (cirice), but something to do with the church is ‘ecclesiastical’ and not ‘churchly’ (in Old English they had ciriclec). We have ‘heaven’ (heofon), ‘sin’ (synn), ‘holy’ (halig), ‘forgiveness’ (forgifnes) and ‘worship’ (weorþscipe – a noun denoting something with worthiness or excellence), and ‘God’ (God).
And, of course, we still have ‘Gospel’. The Old English for that was ‘Godspell’, made of god (‘good’) and spell (‘news, account or story’). But nowadays we have an ‘evangelist’ rather than a ‘gospeller’ (godspellere). The ‘gospeller’ might go around ‘gospelling’ (godspellian).
So many of our Christian terms are fairly meaningless for the unchurched in modern Britain. Most people don’t think of ‘undeserved favour’ when they hear the word ‘grace’, for example. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out the Anglo-Saxons’ book and consider how we can express the good news in really down-to-earth language, in English as well as in many languages throughout the world where the speakers don’t yet have Scriptures or key Biblical terms. That’s one way for us to be ‘gospelly’ (godspellic).
It’s good to look back on what we hoped to do when we first went to Nigeria in 2011 and assess our progress. My hope had been that I’d go with my English, knowledge of Bible and theology and Biblical languages, and meet translators who spoke some English, as well as their language and rather than me learning to speak their languages (badly), I’d just help them in whatever ways they struggled to understand the Bible, point them in the right direction and check their work before publication.
That still is my goal in many ways, and it’s what many of the translators expect but we’ve come to recognise 2 major flaws in that approach:
It’s 12 years, 4 months and 19 days since we were commissioned in the Buchanan Street building just before we headed to Kenya. Much has changed since then hasn’t it? We went to Nairobi to begin 2 very useful years of study and training in Bible translation. We were overjoyed when Rebekah joined us after a year, putting paid to Julie’s study plans. Rebekah was 9 months old when we came back to Glasgow. Elizabeth’s arrival slightly delayed our departure for Nigeria but finally with a 2 year old and 6 month old in tow, we headed out in February 2011, arriving as unpredictable elections loomed. We always remember those who came to see us off at the airport (along with all our baggage). We felt very loved. We looked forward to the ministry that we had ahead of us but it was hard to leave friends and family behind. Especially church family.
Every so often we listen to that commissioning service from 1st of July 2007 and we’re inspired by our pastor Willie’s message that day. We had been looking at what a true missionary church is, and looking at 2 Timothy 4, Willie said a true missionary church actually prepares and sends missionaries. It would have been very easy for the church in Antioch and in Ephesus and elsewhere to turn in on themselves, leaving outreach to far-flung places to a later time, perhaps when everything was more stable. But no, Acts makes it clear that Jesus wanted his followers to go into every nook and cranny of the world, no longer just waiting in Jerusalem for people from all nations to come by, but going out. And when the first apostles seemed to neglect that, then God forced them out with a bit of persecution and then the prompting of the Holy Spirit to propel Paul and Barnabas on several surprising trips.
It’s all about the wood and the trees, but especially the wood.
We all know the meaning of a sentence is greater than the sum of its words, and there’s more to the packaging of words together than syntax. We know you can’t safely match a word in one language with one word in another, or to do that with syntactic constructions.
Choice implies meaning: What we want to do instead is understand the choices an author had, and reconstruct why the chose the options they had rather than another. Every language has its own mix of syntactic requirements and permitted ‘stylistic variation’. We vary the style to help our hearers or readers understand well what we’re trying to say, how the parts connect, what our main point is and what’s part of the background or the basis.
Did you know, that… a corner of Nigeria featured on a British banknote for many years all because of a lass from Dundee?
Over the years in Nigeria as I’ve got to meet people from different places and we have talked about where we’re from, it’s been notable how many people know (roughly) about the tiny and insignificant nation of Scotland. They know Scotland because of the notable Scottish missionaries who came and made a big impact in Nigeria. In Kagoro (Kaduna state) everyone talks about Mr Archibald who was Scottish and who set up the Boys Brigade in Kagoro as an early way of sharing the gospel with children and families.
But few Scots have had quite the lasting impact on Nigeria and have built there for Scotland a greater reputation than Aberdonian/Dundonian Mary Slessor.
The simple word keep couldn’t easily be confused could it? And yet in Nigerian English it refers to storing something somewhere — putting something away.
So a friend told us about a time when a neighbourhood child came to her house and was playing with a little toy and the friend said she should keep it. It turned up again in a cupboard because the child had carefully ‘kept it’ away where they thought it might go.
Here we have the two competing definitions then:
keep: to put something away where it belongs.
keep: to maintain possession of something.
Just think about that every time you use keep. At least when I’m in Nigeria I have to think about it!
“What I like about English,” a student pastor told me at the end of one class, “is that you have so many special words for things, so that means you can think and talk about so much more than we can in our own languages.”
This sounds fairly convincing. English has a word ‘justification’ and so it’s easy to talk about it — easier than trying to talk about the same thing in a Nigerian language, at least. It’s not just religious terms but science too: how would you teach people about hydration or polymers or anatomy. This is commonly a justification for rushing kids to English in school and abandoning the foundational languages they come with. There are no words for these ideas in the home languages and we have no textbooks (and don’t intend to write any) in local languages for children to memorise. So far, so convincing, but of course that’s only part of the picture. Leaving aside the slightly questionable Sapir-Whorf exaggerations, the argument relies for its adequacy on two questionable assumptions which no-one really questions.
Education is chiefly about learning big words and regurgitating their definitions to pass tests, get a qualification and thus get a salaried position.
If we all use the same terms, then we’ll all understand the same thing. Shi ke nan! (Kinda Hausa for Slam Dunk!)
I’ll leave aside the educational philosophy issue for now and tackle the second.
“Go hand your head in shame, Apple: you’re still not doing software engineering right.”
Now, when you’re lambasting someone for doing something stupidly wrong, wouldn’t you try to make sure you don’t do the same thing yourself? Of course in true Dave Gorman fashion I turned to my live English Corpus (Twitter) to check and sure enough “Hand your head in shame” is a thing. Well, I guess if you can’t get the hand of English idioms, it’s not a handing offence is it?
(PS: In case you don’t know, it’s supposed to be Hang your head in shame. But maybe face-palming is more common these days.)
In a fascinating lecture from my alma mater (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Professor John Clarkson talks through how he cut his teeth on engineering challenges that gave him a ‘systems approach’ to all kinds of other problems. He applies what he’s learned to a process for improving healthcare.
I think there’s something here for Bible Translators to learn from too, since often we are aware that we could and we must do things better.
One of my favourite quotes from this is around 40 minutes in: ‘Common sense is not common’. The other quote I love is ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ I think that’s often what I as a translation consultant am trying to do when translators propose a particular translation. ‘How could someone possibly misunderstand or misuse this?’
It’s rather easy for us to forget that some things very familiar and obvious to us are not so widely known. So we’re going to start a regular ‘did you know’ section to our newsletter, so you can show off to your friends be well informed.
Did you know, that…
A hundred years or so after John Wycliffe stirred things up with his translation of the Bible into English, a young priest from he English countryside called William Tyndale picked up the baton translating the Bible into English which is much more modern, punchy and accessible to a modern audience than Wycliffe’s. The language had changed a lot, Luther had set a reforming cat among the established church’s pigeons and the printing press enabled his translation to spread far and wide. He was tracked down and murdered before he had finished his translation, but like many reformers he prayed for God to change the hearts of kings and within a few decades his translation was the basis of much of the best parts of the ‘King James’ official translation.
Here’s a fascinating interview with Ben Virgo and Melvyn Bragg who are both fans of Tyndale: