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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.