Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Power of Language

I have written before about translations and it is easy for those of us who do not have to actually do the translating to sit back and criticize. Yet, that is exactly what I intend to do. We are probably ignorant of most of the issues and dilemmas that translators have to face.

I am certain that one of their concerns is the push toward "softening" sometimes harsh language or language that might seem crude to us today. In this latter regard, I note the sort of amusing way that the OT refers to men as "any who pisseth against the wall." To us, this is crude, but it apparently was not to the ancient Hebrew mind. So translators now use milder language. They just translate it as "men". I have no problem with this since the meaning is exactly the same. The same point comes across to us.

Unfortunately, this tendency to soften language can actually take away from the meaning, or at least the intended impact, of the text. I like a more literal translation, which may require more notes, because it is less interpretive. We need to have understanding about how language affects us. A good writer or speaker will use certain words or phrases to get the readers attention and cause them to think.

Jesus, of course, was the master of this. His parables and teachings were designed to be memorable. Even those who have never picked up a Bible or even heard a sermon know about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. To avoid sin, one might need to "pluck out one's eye" or "cut off one's hand". Nobody takes this too literally, but you won't forget it. Language is meant to have impact.

In a politically correct age, when our translators have to make every advocacy group happy, I think that this has been largely forgotten. I know one passage, Revelation 17:1, that has been a victim of this softening of our translations due to the delicate, modern sensibilities. The old KJV uses the term, "great whore" to describe "Babylon". The NASB uses "great harlot".

Both the terms 'harlot' and 'whore' are bit out of date, but they are not archaic. We know what they mean. And they are, especially the latter, very harsh terms. But the whore/harlot of Babylon is supposed to be harsh, even offensive. We should not soften the language because it might offend. The Harlot of Babylon is offensive! Our translations need to reflect that.

But I was surprised by what I discovered. I expected that the more politically correct translations like the NRSV would soften the language and the more literal, conservative translations like the ESV or HSBC would keep the older language. It turned out to be the opposite!

The ESV and HSBC both used the term 'prostitute' instead of 'harlot' or 'whore'. The NRSV used the term, "great whore". So, I am actually on the side of the NRSV on this one. The ESV and HSBC muffed it. Using "Prostitute of Babylon" instead of "Whore of Babylon" takes away the impact that the author intended to convey. We need to keep the stronger, more offensive, image to get across to the reader/hearer what this 'Babylon" truly is.

I think the only thing that is being 'prostituted' is our language. We err too much on the side of being "nice" and trying not to make someone feel bad or excluded. Frankly, we could all be a little less sensitive and, perhaps, grow up a bit.

Now I am not saying that we do not need to update the translations and make them more palatable, especially when meanings and culture changes. But, please, let us not forsake the power of the biblical languages and images that are meant to convey more than mere words can. They are images, either positive or negative, that are intended to stick in our minds and which may arouse either admiration or disgust.

Let's set aside our cultural agendas and get back to using language in such a way that we can grasp the full reality of what God has revealed to us in His Word.

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