I love languages. Speaking in tongues. The whole nine yards. In the narrative of scripture, the curse of Babel, the confusion of language into mutually incomprehensible species (Gen 11), is not reversed by way of conflation into a unitary language. If one reads as far as Acts 2, the reversal consists of their preservation and sanctification. One fine Shavuot (Pentecost), the great variety of languages became, one language at a time, vessels of the word of God, media of truth and salvation.
According to tradition, the Torah was given on Mount Sinai in seventy languages so that the nations would be without excuse for not adhering to it (Talmud Bavli Shab. 88a; Exodus Rabbah, ad loc; Tosefta, Sotah, 8). Acts 2 appears to be a deliberate reprise of that tradition. The preaching of the Gospel is marked by the Pentecostal gift of speech in the languages of all the nations of the world. This time, in contradistinction to what occurred when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, the linguistic miracle serves to do more than leave the Gentiles without excuse. It symbolizes the Gentiles’ effective acceptance into the covenant.
David Frank over at Better Bibles wants to discuss the big issues of Bible translation. Here is one large issue to mull over. History shows that it is a huge mistake to cut off a vernacular language from its roots in a literary language of generations gone. For example, Judaeo-Spanish (JS), often referred to as Ladino, has been impoverished in the switch from writing it in Hebrew script to Roman script. As Ora Schwarzwald notes, the replacement “has a negative effect. It has prevented speakers from enriching their vocabulary with the wealth of written literature in JS. A language without literature is a living language, but cannot be as affluent as a written one” (2002: 575).
That’s my thesis: translations like the Good News Bible (GNB), CEV, and NLT – NLTSE, with good cause, retreats from full-throttle disregard of the literary/ theological/ liturgical matrix in which the Bible has traditionally been read – impoverish the text they translate by shunning translation equivalents which have become part of the target language over the course of the text’s history of reception. Translations like these allow the text to be heard afresh, but at what cost? A language without literature is a disemboweled corpse. Is a pure vernacular the sort of language we want the Bible to be received in? Was the Bible written in pure vernacular? Not at all. The language used in the Old and New Testaments is steeped in traditions of expression which are incomprehensible apart from enculturation within the matrix that gave them birth: Hebrew and/or Aramaic and/or Greek literate Judaism.
I tend to approach the question via cooking metaphors, since I am blessed to have an excellent cook in my household, of the Mediterranean persuasion, the chief principle of which is stated by Deb who gives us a marvelous JS recipe: “it’s all about tasting the base ingredients.” That’s what makes lasagna, polenta, pasta alla carbonara, gnocchi alla gorgonzola, pizza fatta da zero, wonderful to the palate. The same goes, I’m sure, for the yemistas of Deb’s family tradition (thank you, Cocina de Mama, for allowing Deb to present the traditional recipe).
If that is the criterion – it’s all about tasting the base ingredients - then it has to be said that there are translation jewels in all translations of the Bible on the market. In terms of full-bodied flavor, translations in the Tyndale-Geneva-KJV tradition are hard to beat, though ESV, the most recent heir to that tradition, would benefit from a revision that removed unnecessarily clunky syntax.
I fully admit that a lot of people just want a big Mac, fries, and a chocolate milkshake. Fast food prepared for them. They won’t find it in translations like KJV, ESV, and NAB. (T)NIV is middle of the road.
To be sure, here and there, translations like CEV and NLT translate full-figured metaphors with full-figured metaphors, or otherwise strive successfully to allow the reader to “taste the base ingredients.” More often than not, however, they fail. At least that is what I see happening in the translation of ancient Hebrew poetry.
Those who think it’s possible to disassociate form [metaphor] from content [propositions] do not know the first thing about language, communication, or cooking.
Another pet peeve: translations of all kinds nowadays seem to think it’s their duty to add “sugar” into the mix. NRSV, thankfully, is a partial exception to the rule. The God of the Bible, in translation already, gets coated in sugar. This is typical of American cooking. After years of living in Sicily without soft drinks and sugar added everywhere, I remember returning this side of the pond and being unable to stomach the simplest of things, like bread and tomato sauce as consumed in the US.
I get the same queasy feeling rather often when moving from source text to translation in the case of the Bible. It’s as if translators give themselves permission to present a kinder, gentler God than that found in the text before them. In the long run, it's not clear that this is an advantage.
Deb introduces Ladino, one of “the seventy languages” which vector a full-bodied, untranslatable, God-blessed culture, very beautifully:
All of my "family recipes" are favorites from my Ladino side -- mostly from my maternal grandmother and great aunt. The Ladino people are essentially Greek Jews from Spain -- when Ferdinand and Isabella had their little party they called The Inquisition, they basically told all the Jews living in Spain that they could leave the country, convert to Catholicism, or be killed. So yeah, the Jews left the building. Many of them settled in what was then the Ottoman Empire and later became Greece. And despite the intervening 500ish years, modern-day Sephardic Jews in Greece still spoke Spanish at home. (In fact, my grandma spoke 4 languages before coming to the US: Ladino at home, Greek in the streets, French at school, and Hebrew in synagogue. English kinda stayed a big hot mess for her in her late adulthood.) Ladino itself is a funky mix of circa-1500 Spanish, and Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew. It's actually written in Hebrew script and read from right to left just like Hebrew ... but when you actually pronounce the words, they sound like Spanish. So reading a Ladino prayer book or poem is kinda trippy!
Ladino culture is defined by its songs, poetry and of course FOOD. The food is very mediterranean; Greek dishes with a turkish or spanish influence. In that vein, you don't see a lot of spices or added seasonings in Ladino food -- it's all about tasting your base ingredients. 500 years of Ladinos could totally roll with that; fresh meats and veggies from your local butchers & farmers, backyard or windowbox gardens, and a general affinity for fresh, high-quality foods (at the best price possible, of course -- we're still jews! ;^) really makes the cuisine pop. If you're just shopping at a local big box market like Coles or Safeway, your flavor mileage may vary. You've been warned; shop at your farmers' market for this dish!
End quote. Check out Deb’s recipe, of course. The article in wikipedia on Judaeo-Spanish is full of interesting detail. BTW: if you really want to shop for a Bible in a farmer’s market, you have to savor the biblical languages, and in order to do that, you have to learn them.
Ora Rodrigue Schwarzwald, “Judaeo-Spanish Studies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (ed. Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen, and David Sorkin; Oxford: OUP, 2002) 572-600.