Translating The Culture As Well As The Language

By David Stringham, Old Testament Consultant & Director of African Languages

Translating the Bible presents a lot of challenges. There is the constant concern with accuracy-always struggling to find just the right phrase; one that not only sounds right, but also communicates the fullest possible meaning of the original.

There is also the concern that the translation communicates theologically and doctrinely sound teachings. And in struggling to find the phrase that feels right, we must also avoid readings that might teach or imply the wrong things. But one of the difficulties that at first is a little unexpected, is the prominent role that culture plays in the translation process.

Being so far removed from the life and times of the Bible characters, we tend to throw them all into the same “cultural basket.” In fact, there is a real difference between the culture(s) of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament.

Each culture has its own symbols and attaches its own significance to the things around it. The bumper sticker, “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you have to work with turkeys” is funny to us because we see an eagle as a symbol of majesty, power, and freedom. And a turkey is – well, a turkey! But in many cultures an eagle is thought of as nothing more than a vulture! In fact, that is probably behind the image Jesus uses in Matthew 24:28, where the “vultures” gathering around the dead body of Jerusalem probably refers to the “eagles” pictured on the standards of Rome.

We think of a donkey as stubborn, dumb animal. But in Old Testament imagery, a wild ass was the symbol of a free spirit-untamed and indominable! Eating pork was as nauseating to Isaiah as eating cockroaches would be to most Americans. All of these things are part of each culture’s heritage.

This means that when we translate God’s Word from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek to English, Russian or Tamil, we are also translating one culture’s ideas and images to those of another culture.

Where the cultures and languages are similar, we face fewer problems. But where they are different, the difficulties can be tremendous. We must be aware of not only the Biblical language and culture but also that of the intended audience.

We must determine that an image communicates the same meaning to the modern reader as it did to the ancients, and if it doesn’t we must find a way to do so. We can’t simply pass that responsibility on to the reader. Why? Because many times the problem is impossible for the average reader to recognize.

Four hundred years ago “evil communication corrupts good manners” was a good translation of the Greek. But because our culture and our language has changed, it no longer carries the proper meaning. I have actually heard this used as a warning against foul language in polite society when what it really means is, “bad friends will ruin good habits.”

Seeing the cause of the difficulty was fairly easy. Finding solutions is what we must do each and every day that we translate the Bible into modern languages. It is a challenge we face with a strong desire to accurately communicate God’s message to people around the world accompanied by many prayers for the wisdom that comes only from God.