Page 105 of 105

Idiomatically Speaking

Idiomatically speaking

by David B. Capes

I’m working on a book entitled The Story of the Voice.  Thomas Nelson will publish it in spring 2013. It will tell the story of how the Voice Bible came to be, talk about the people and the process, and discuss some of the translation decisions we made.  As I was researching for the book, I came across a paragraph in a book by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss entitled How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Zondervan 2007).  It is a terrific book, one I highly recommend if you interested in Scripture.

In a section on translating idioms I found a fun paragraph I want to share with you.idioms-full

First, let’s talk about idioms.  Every language has them, some more than others.  English has a lot.  Hebrew and Greek, the major biblical languages, have them as well.  They present one of the greatest challenges for translators.  So what is an idiom?  Here is the definition given by Fee and Strauss: “an expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the combined meanings of the individual words.”  If a person stays too late, he might say before he goes: “I need to hit the road.”  Now native English speakers will know exactly what that means: “I need to leave now.”  But a person who is taking each word literally might ask, “Why do you need to hit the road?  What has it done to you?”

I remember one of the first idioms I came across while studying Greek.  In Mark 1:32-34 the writer says—if we read it literally—that Jesus healed “those having badly.”  Now you might be able to figure out what that means but that would certainly not be the way we’d say it.  The Greek idiom “those having badly” means “those who were sick.”

Here is a paragraph which is a lot of fun (if you are a word-geek like me).  How many idioms do you see?

My career has seen better days.  I was skating on thin ice at work, scraping the bottom of the barrel, and ready to say uncle.  The boss and I did not see eye to eye, and he told me to shape up or ship out.  There was no silver bullet.  It was a safe bet that I was going to sink or swim.  Nobody could save my bacon.  My smart-aleck colleague was a stick-in-the-mud and a snake in the grass who would sell me down the river as soon as shake a stick at me.  I could smell a rat, so I steered clear of him. I had one slim chance.  It was a shot in the dark, but if I could keep a stiff upper lip, stick to my guns, and sail close to the wind, I would get a second chance.  The saving grace was that at the last minute I got a second wind and was saved by the bell.

Now don’t look too deeply for any great meaning in that paragraph.  It only illustrates how many idioms we use on a regular basis.  Those of us who translated The Voice had to be aware of the Greek and Hebrew idioms.  We had to figure out how in English to express their meaning to our modern audience.  Often you can figure out what an idiom in another language means, but you have to think about it.  It is often like a riddle.

So now it’s your turn.  Can you think of an idiom you have heard in English?  Do you have a favorite?  Have you ever used an idiom (in English) and had a non-native speaker look at you as if you had lost your mind?  By the way, how many idioms have I used in this blog?  If you have a lot of time on your hands, rewrite the paragraph above and say plainly what each of the idioms mean.  See if you can do it.  It is harder than you think.

The Gospel in 4-D

The first 3-D film I recall seeing was Avatar (2009).  I sat down in the theater with a big, icy Dr. Pepper at my right hand, a big, steaming bag of popcorn at my left, and a big, clunky pair of 3-D glasses wedged onto my forehead.  When the movie began, I slid the glasses over my eyes and for the next 171 minutes I was caught up in an amazing bit of science fiction, driven by stunning visuals. I watched as bugs and bits of debris seemed to hang in the air between me and the screen.  I flinched more than once as objects appeared to fly in my direction.

Avatar posterSomewhere in the middle of the movie, I slid the 3-D glasses up and looked at the screen with my naked eyes.  What I saw was a series of hazy images layered over top of each other, rimmed in blue and red.  I realized, “I have no clue how this works.” But that didn’t bother me. I just slid the glasses back down over my eyes and everything became crystal clear again. 

The New Testament gives us the gospel in 4-D.  Four distinct stories—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John–tell essentially the same story but they do so in ways that are quite unique. From the outside it may appear a bit hazy, but with the right tools everything comes into focus.

Other Bible translations seem to flatten out the Gospels.  Mark reads like Luke, Matthew like John, and the distinct voices of the different evangelists (the Gospel writers) are lost in translation.  Experts in the New Testament can guide you to the particular themes of each Gospel, but people without a guide are left with a rather flat story that seems fuzzy around the edges.

With the Voice New Testament we have tried to recapture the authentic voice of the original authors.  We did that by making a series of strategic decisions.  Let me give you two examples.  Since Matthew is the most Jewish Gospel, it made perfect sense to assign a large part of the work to a person with a Jewish background.  Since Luke represents the most universal and sophisticated Gospel, it seemed right to assign much of the effort to a well-educated, articulate member of the translation team. As a result, the Voice New Testament contains Gospels that don’t sound and read the same.  In other words, we get a better picture, a 4-D image of Jesus.

About 1800 years ago a Christian named Tatian tried to make one Gospel from the four.  It was called the Diatessaron (literally, “through the four [Gospels]”) and frankly it never caught on.  For lots of reasons the Church preferred the four traditional Gospels to Tatian’s single story.  Today, I think the same dynamics are in play.  The Jesus who lived then and lives today is no one-dimensional character.  The four Gospels in the Voice New Testament provide us with a rich portrait of the most interesting person who ever lived.

The Invisible Children of Uganda

Perhaps you saw or heard of the movie “The Invisible Children” released a few years ago about Joseph Kony.  Kony is the self-appointed, charismatic leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerilla army waging war in several central African states especially Uganda.  He has been accused of abducting children and turning them into sex-slaves and soldiers.  Approximately 66,000 children have been stolen from their families and turned into soldiers and over 2 million people have been displaced by Kony’s guerilla tactics.  The International Criminal Court has indicted Kony for crimes against humanity.  You can seen the movie on YouTube.kony-2012-2

In the aftermath of Kony’s scourge and attack on children ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries) has been working to bring healing to Africa.

Dr. Karl Benzio established the Lighthouse Network in 2003.  It is known around the country as the premiere Christian addiction and mental health referral service.  It is a non-profit organization with a simple mission: to give people guidance through the storm’s of life.  So when people are dealing with drug or alcohol addiction or any kind of psychological or emotional troubles, they turn to the Lighthouse Network. 

Dr. Benzio believes that the war is not over until the children of Africa are healed.  So he and other associates were invited by ALARM to Gulu, Uganda this past summer to work with those traumatized by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  When I heard about the effort to bring help to the poor and powerless in Africa, I called Dr. Benzio and asked them if there was anything we could do.  He told me that they needed Bibles to give to the 50 mentors whom they would train to work with the children.  Well, I put in a call to Blake Aldridge at Thomas Nelson and asked: “Is it possible to get 60 Bibles into the hands of Dr. Benzio and his staff before they leave for Africa?”    Blake went to work and made it happen.  Thomas Nelson donated and shipped 60 copies of The Voice New Testament to the Lighthouse Network for its mission to Uganda.   

In July Dr. Benzio and seven other associates traveled to Uganda to work with these dear people.  As they went, they carried with them the love of God, the skills they possess as  gifted counselors and therapists, and The Voice New Testament. In a few weeks I’ll share with you some images from Africa from their mission.  You will see for yourself the faces of the innocent who bear uniquely the image and likeness of God.  They shared hope and healing with over 480 children and many more adults there dedicated to making their country whole again.

This will not be the last trip for Dr. Benzio and his troop.  They will go again and again until the job is done and the children of Africa are healed.  My hope is that next year they will take even more copies of The Voice New Testament with them.  If you’d like to help the effort in Africa, go to their website and help the children.

Word for word and/or thought for thought translations

WordsI’m often asked whether The Voice is a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought translation.  That phraseology has become a standard way of delineating the more formal from the less formal translations.  I wrote about this more thoroughly in a  book called The Story of The Voice.  It was released in spring 2013 by Thomas Nelson.

The categories are themselves problematic. To state the question as an either-or implies that there is a strict dichotomy between a word and a thought.  It assumes there is little to nothing in common between them.  In fact that is not true in the slightest.  When you think about it, every word is a thought expressed. People can keep a thought to themselves; but when they speak, they have expressed something they have thought.  We’ve all laughed at someone who speaks before they think because what comes out is nonsense. For those who know only one language the point is hard to illustrate but consider what it means to translate one word into another.

Take the Spanish word más.  What does it mean?  Well, you get a Spanish-English dictionary (assuming your target language is English) and look up más.  What do you find? You find the English word “more.”  So más means “more.”  Well, not exactly. Más means what English-speaking people mean when they say “more.”  That is quite a different thing.  Spanish people don’t think “more” and say más.  They think más and say más. “More” might be equivalent to más in meaning, but a Spanish-speaking person doesn’t hear más and think ”more.”  Are you confused?

How about this?  Have you ever searched for the right word to express a thought?  As people get older sometimes they have trouble coming up with the right word.  It could be a word they know well, a word they’ve said thousands of times, but for some reason at that moment they can’t come up with it. You’ve heard people say “it was on the tip of my tongue.”  What was on the tip of their tongue?  The right word to express what they were thinking.  It is very frustrating for people to have thoughts they can’t express clearly.

We’ve all had the experience of thinking only to discover we are “talking to ourselves.” We try not to do that out loud too much or people might think we have lost it.  In fact in some languages the word for “think” means essentially to talk to yourself.  Leaving aside for a moment that some people are more visual thinkers than others, thoughts do arise from our conscious minds and are expressed in words.

My point is that there is no strict dichotomy between a word and a thought.  Every word is a thought expressed. Those who distinguish strictly between a word-for-word translation and a thought-for thought translation exaggerate the difference and are trying to privilege one over the other.  Generally, the word-for-word translations are considered superior to the thought-for-thought.  But every translation team has to wrestle with words, their meanings, and the thoughts behind them. Unlike Islam, the Christian tradition has never held that God’s Word is inspired only in a specific language. Though we urge ministry students to read the Scriptures in their original languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic), we do not regard these texts as somehow more inspired than Luther’s German Bible or King James’ English Bible or any other translation.  God can and does speak through the words of the Scriptures whether they are in Mandarin, Dutch, Swahili or English.

So when people ask the question: “is The Voice a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought translation?” Say, “yes.”

Spontaneous Prayer

OransI come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks suspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand.  According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart.  I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.

One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine.  He was a famous Christian recording artist.  Because I was a budding musician, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith.  As I looked for the guitar pick, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God.  Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully.  Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering.  One minute he was praying.  The next he was thinking about something else entirely.   I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too.  What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.

On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon.  The prayer went something like this:  “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings.  Be with the missionaries in foreign fields.  Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening.  Bless the gift and the giver.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”   This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before.  As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,

let Your name remain holy.

Bring about Your Kingdom,

Manifest Your will here on earth,

as it is manifest in heaven.

Give us each day that day’s bread—

no more, no less—

And forgive us our debts

as we forgive those who owe us something.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13; The Voice)

Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this.  One is scripted.  The other is more spontaneous.  Peter Davids, one of the scholars who worked on The Voice, has written a wonderful piece recently on the Lord’s prayer.  You can read it here.

One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does.  Perhaps you will agree.  I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.

Here is a good prayer exercise.  Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer.  It may help to write it down on a piece of paper.  In any case make it your own.   There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.