Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: translation

Two keys

I have two keys that, to my eyes at least, appear to be identical. One was made with a state of the art key cutting machine; the other was made by an elderly gentleman using a grinding wheel. Guess which one works?

The machine-made key goes into the keyhole just a little bit roughly and will not turn. The man-made key slides in smooth as silk and turns to open the lock. This guy obviously knows about keys.

Years ago an acquaintance of mine decided to visit Québec. He didn’t know French but he was filled with confidence and enthusiasm because he had this marvelous hand held phrase translator. All he would have to do was find the phrase or question he wanted, press a button and the little electronic marvel would speak it in French. Then he was supposed to hand the device to the French-speaking person who would find the right phrase in French, press the button and it would be spoken aloud in English.

I probably don’t have to tell you that my friend’s enthusiasm took a severe hit when he tried to actually use the marvelous little gizmo. I believe it remained in the bottom of his suitcase after the first day.

I have used computer translation programs off and on over the years. I figured the first ones were about 40% accurate. Google translate has doubled that figure; it puts out readable text, but still doesn’t quite get it. Words in every language have a range of nuances and shades of meaning and to expect a machine to pick a matching word in another language with exactly the same shade of meaning is not realistic. Sometimes such a word does not exist in the other language. People don’t think the same in one language as they do in another. You are not fully bilingual until you understand the way of thinking and expressing oneself of both languages.

Some folks think about Chrisianity as a matter of learning to conform to an outward pattern. The pattern can range from dour conservatism in life and attitude all the way to pertetual joyous enthusiasm. Neither of those keys will unlock the door to heaven, unless they are accompanied by a genuine personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.

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Darkness and light

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1:2-3)

The Scriptures speak of two kinds of darkness: the one a natural darkness which is simply the absence of natural light: the other a spiritual darkness that is opposed to God and which is the dwelling place of spiritual beings opposed to God. The original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible use different words to differentiate between the two forms of darkness. Many languages have two words for darkness, English has only one and that can lead to misunderstandings of the text.

In French Bibles the underlined word in the above text is rendered ténèbres. The dictionary defines this word as profound darkness, most often considered to be a material environment; in a religious sense, that which is opposed to the light of God.This captures well the meaning of the word used in the original Hebrew.

Understood this way, the verse is telling us that the forces of spiritual darkness were present on the earth from the beginning of creation. It also explains why God created light on the first day of creation, but the sun was not created until the fourth day. The light of the sun cannot drive away spiritual darkness, only the light of God’s presence can do that.

The next verse tells us that God divided the light from the darkness. The conflict between light and darkness has continued from that day and will continue until the end of the world. Natural night and day are realities that should remind us of the deeper reality of spiritual darkness and light.

Many cultures confused the light of the sun with the light of God and worshipped the sun. God showed His judgment of Egyptian sun worship by bringing darkness on the land of Egypt. The word used in Hebrew (and in the French translation) denotes spiritual darkness, but it also manifested itself as natural darkness. The land of Goshen, where the children of Israel dwelt, had light, both natural and spiritual.

Later on, when God called Moses to go up Mount Sinai, we are told that the mountain was covered by a cloud of thick darkness. The word used here simply means natural darkness. In French it is rendered obscurité. When Moses climbed up the mountain he was obscured from the view of the people below. When he reached the top of the mountain, the natural light of the sun was completely obscured and he was illuminated by the light of God’s presence.

Moving on to the New Testament, the gospel of John, speaking of Jesus, tells us: In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:4-5) Here again, the underlined words are rendered ténèbres in French, an accurate translation of the Greek word in the original.

Here are a few more New Testament passages:

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness (ténèbres)rather than light, because their deeds were evil. John 3:19

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness (ténèbres) of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Ephesians 6:12

He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness (ténèbres) even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness (ténèbres), and walketh in darkness (ténèbres), and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness (ténèbres) hath blinded his eyes. 1 John 2:9-11

(This is a good verse for discerning those who profess enlightenment in social, environmental or spiritual matters, but react angrily to anyone who dares to disagree with their enlightenment. It should be first and foremost a standard to prove our own spirit in these and all other matters.)

Finally, there shall be an eternal separation between darkness and light:

Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness (obscurité) of darkness (ténèbres) for ever. Jude verse 13

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. Revelation 21:23

Hazards of cross-cultural ministry

At a worship service in Québec the visiting minister rose to begin his message. He had just heard us singing in an unfamiliar language but the melody was familiar and he felt he had found a common thread to connect  with the congregation. He began by referring to several words of the English hymn he thought he had heard.  The brother who was interpreting first explained in French that the minister was referring to an English hymn, then gamely tried to express his thoughts as clearly as he could in French.

As the minister continued with his message, he kept coming back to the words of the English hymn and the interpreter valiantly tried to create something coherent out of those thoughts in French. Those of us who were bilingual smiled inwardly, others listened in respectful bafflement.

That is a common stumbling block in cross-cultural ministry. Every major language has a number of hymns that are unique to that language. Some hymns have been translated into many languages. How Great Thou Art is a Swedish hymn that is familiar to people in many other languages. A Mighty Fortress is our God originated in German and is likewise known to many people in their own language. However, differences in grammatical structure and rhythm often make it  next to impossible to create an exact translation. Thus, new songs are written in other languages, expressing more or less the same thoughts.

More hazardous yet for a preacher venturing to speak to people through an interpreter, often a completely different hymn is set to a tune that is familiar to the speaker in his native language. That is what happened in the incident mentioned above. The words of the song we had been singing bore no resemblance at all to the words that had been playing in the preacher’s mind.

Just a little reminder that in cross-cultural ministry we first need to try to understand before we try to make ourselves understood.

Confusion of tongues

For about a year now our congregation, in addition to our old hymnal, has been using a supplementary collection of gospel songs. Sunday evening we sang one of those songs for perhaps the second time. The English words were not familiar to me, but the melody was. I realized it belonged to a familiar French hymn, but the words escaped me. Today it all came back. The hymn was originally written in German and has been translated into both English and French. The English title is Day by Day, and With Each Passing Moment, in French it is Chaque instant de chaque jour qui passe.

It is not really accurate to say it has been translated into French. Because of the difference in language structure between French and English (or German), a word for word translation is often not possible. In most cases the French version conveys much the same meaning, but not in quite the same way. For instance, the third line of Day by Day says: Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment, and the second line of Chaque instant says: En Jésus je puis me confier. The idea of trust is there in both languages, in English it is trust in the Father, in French it is trust in Jesus. This is not a difference in theology, simply a difference in what works poetically to fit the same melody.

A few hymns have come into English from French: Les anges dans nos campagnes became Angels We Have Heard on High; Minuit chrétien became O Holy Night, and Gloire à Dieu notre Créateur became Praise God From Whom all Blessings Flow. Angels We Have Heard on High is pretty much a direct translation; O Holy Night not so much, but still has the same basic themes; Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow uses the melody written by Louis Bourgeois many years ago in Geneva, but the words bear very little resemblance to what he wrote.

Sometimes it seems that when the original was in a language other than French or English the translations into the two languages are closer in meaning that when translating from English to French, or vice versa.  How Great Thou Art is the English translation of a Swedish Hymn and the French version, Comme tu es grand, is very similar. A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the English translation of Martin Luther’s hymn Eine Feste Burg, and it’s French counterpart, C’est une rempart que notre Dieu are also very close.

There are also cases where a totally new hymn has been written in French and set to the melody of a familiar English hymn. This can lead to some complications when a minister who knows only English speaks in a French-speaking congregation. He hears a familiar sounding hymn and when he gets up to speak, he starts by commenting on the spiritual message of the hymn that he heard in his mind. This places the interpreter in somewhat of a quandary: does he try to interpret what the minister is saying and add some explanatory remarks? or does he interrupt the minister and inform him that the congregation did not hear what he heard? Sometimes the latter course might be advisable, as the minister might seize on the one thing he thought he understood and refer to it several more times during his sermon.

I have an abiding love for French hymnody and regret that I am now living in a place where, if I want to hear them, I have to sing them myself. I doubt that anyone else would be blessed by listening to my singing, but I am blessed by the messages.

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