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the invisibility of English

April 19, 2015

Bible translator Yancy Smith (and a dear friend of mine, who I first met in the classroom and then again online) has posted his published academic essay, “The Mystery and Mirage of Equivalence: Bible Translation Theory and the Practice of Christian Mission.”

It is written in English. It is not written in Mossi nor in Dyula or Jula or Dioula or Bobo or Samo or Marka or Fula or Gourmanché or Bissa.

And yet early on in his article, Dr. Smith includes the following from John Morton:

God wanted to possess the earth so much that he sent his only son so that whoever was deceived by him would not perish but would become a wandering ghost forever.
— John 3:16 (First draft, local translator, Ziga translation, Burkina Faso)

Morton has written the above in English. He has not written or even quoted in Mossi or in Dyula or in Jula or in Dioula or in Bobo or in Samo or in Marka or in Fula or in Gourmanché or in Bissa.

Neither Smith nor Morton give the language of the translator. Morton only specifies that the person is “a local translator” who “did [this translating] with John 3:16” with absolutely “no theological education” and while distantly “working from a trade language—not the original Greek” as but a “new believer” who “didn’t have the opportunity to work alongside trained Bible translators.” And Morton also adds:

We don’t mean to knock his work. He wanted to translate God’s word, which is a great endeavor. He just didn’t have the training.

And Morton gives the fact that he himself has made this “Strange Bible Translation” or “Ziga first draft” into something “translated back into English.”

Notice that English user Morton is writing to English readers (presumably including those English users who are

1. the most theologically educated and are

2. those who work directly from the original Greek as both those who are

3. the most mature believers and also those who are

4. the best trained Bible translators).

Morton is having with his English readers, a “Fun Look” in English only. He and they do not intend to “knock” the “work” of this Other, who is Not.

Smith uses this “back into English” translated John 3:16 to talk about “translation” as Eugene Nida conceived of it. “Equivalence” is a critical term for him, for Smith, that is.

He brilliantly asks questions, in English, like this to assert what “we know,” which is, rather, what, in English, we don’t know by any means or other language:

Perhaps both the Creole and French translations are “equivalent” to the Greek text; however, neither translation is equivalent to the other. If the original text is equivalent to two translations not equivalent to themselves, the notion of equivalence becomes problematic. This is true even if we accept a careful caveat about “equivalence”: that perfect equivalence is impossible. What we really have is polyvalence with a certain correspondence. Is the text’s ambiguity the point? Would an ambiguous translation of the passage, then, be an equivalent translation? We have no way of knowing.

He troubles, or critically thinks through, Charles Kraft’s and Eugene Nida’s English understandings of “equivalence”:

Both Kraft’s and Nida’s practical ideas about audience-oriented translation have been robust and proven in the field. Yet, the theory of equivalence is a stone of stumbling. One suspects that Nida’s introduction of “equivalence” was a tactical move against literalists. Equivalence claims authority over against literal translations. Since that time, so-called literalists matched dynamic equivalence with a formal “equivalence” of their own.

One of my favorite English sentences of Smith is the one in which he starts to get outside of English by using our loan word “meta-phor” and another one “math-e-matics”:

Nida himself did not believe perfect equivalence was achievable. Rather, he recommended “the closest natural equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” The first indicates that equivalence must always remain approximate—more or less equivalent. The second phrase suggests that equivalence might depend upon the assumed purpose the equivalence is to achieve. In either case, borrowing the word equivalence from mathematics as a metaphor for translation has the effect of creating the expectation of a more dependable kind of outcome than translation can achieve.

When I say “our” loan words, I’m talking about us as English speakers, writers, listeners, and readers of English. We also borrow into English the word “translation.” We act like this is a stable and grounded word. We neglect how it was used in Latin. We, using English, don’t much think about how Chinese conceive of what we in English call translation. We don’t think about, in English, how women might differently conceive of this English. And I’m thinking, in English, of what Lydia He Liu might think in English or in Chinese, yes, and in Chinese:

What’s Your Translation Metaphor?, David Frank once asked, in English.

Why not speak less of translation and more of interlation? What is the difference in English between international and transnational? Between transexual and intersexual? Between translingual and interlingual? I think we have these English words and coinages or possible neologisms.

But we rarely think in some Burkino Faso language without actually “translating” it “back” first and always and only into English. As if English is invisible. As if English is our necessary air on which we depend for life.

“And Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet,” Steven Kellman once observed for us, “switched languages, from Fulani to English, under duress, after being abducted from West Africa and sold to a Boston merchant at about the age of seven.” Kellman, of course, and we too, of course, and that man from Boston, of course, all speak English. Kellman writes, in English, of translingualism. What are the implications?

And what if Phillis Wheatley, or this untrained new believer translating John 3:16, could read Smith’s article in Fulani?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. yancywsmith permalink
    April 19, 2015 5:25 pm

    Many thanks for the shout out and the critical reflections around the article on Nida’s version of “equivalence.” This piece was an invited piece in an issue of Missio Dei about missional hermeneutics, and I was invited to write about translation theory as it relates to engaging Christian scripture inter-culturally. These days, Nida’s notion of equivalence is an easy target among translation studies scholars. And so, naturally, I took my pot shot as well, but in a congenial manner in the spirit of Eugene Nida’s practice of creating spaces for dialogue among a great diversity of people(s) around the topic of translation. I sought out critique on the article from some who are more serious and knowledgeable about translation studies: James Maxey and Erny Wendland, both of whom had some very pertinent criticisms. Unfortunately, I did not receive Erny’s comments before publication.

    Kurk, your reflections are very significant and, as usual, astute. And, I must say that I take his comments about invisibility of English are right on the money. Indeed, I wanted to put the French and Creole texts in the article, but was unable to do so, but they were ultimately deleted as immaterial to the case! Really a case of the invisibility of invisibility!

    I am painfully aware of the limitations of the translatable. In Fugitive Pieces: A Novel Anne Mitchel writes about a deeply traumatized child of the holocaust who grows up to be a translator. The main character says at one point, “The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both, like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications.” In order to identify that “invisibility” our own language must become visible to us—how it distorts our thoughts and lashes them to assumptions that carry them hither and yon on the open seas of meaning must become visible and problematic to ourselves. Some fear that without “equivalence” translation becomes a “drunken ship,” But too often it is like a grog that keeps us from seeing that our own (English) constructs of the meaning of an original text (however schooled they may be), are failed and incomplete attempts and the best critique of a translation is, precisely, another translation! ¡Calavera no chilla!

    That is why I appreciate the critique of logocentric translation that is so much a part of postmodern attempts to understand what is going on in this field. “Interlation” is a good term. I hope it catches on. Interlation, if I understand the term rightly, must mean that our texts have a future because the past cannot contain all their meaning. For, in the early Church, “tra(ns)latio” was the removal of a saints bones from their humble resting places to places or sanctuaries more dignified by the church authorities of a later age. The very act involved an appeal to the bones of yesterdays saints to enhance the authorities of the present. In translation of texts perhaps we should probably be asking: “How shall these bones live?” And that is why I argue that the production and “interlation” of Biblical texts, for Christians, has been an extension of the liturgical, canonical life of the Church. There is both give and take in that process. That is, it has no real “logos” (meaning) apart from its incarnation in the communal and very enfleshed, local lives of Christians who, by their lives, gestures, generosity bear witness to the “translation” God made in sending his Son in the flesh. And the meanings these texts elicit cannot be mere repetitions of past meaning. Someone from another language, another time, another culture will discover new meanings in these texts. As such, the production and translation of Biblical texts supports and informs that inexhaustible witness to the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

  2. April 20, 2015 7:36 am

    Many thanks for your article and now for engaging its ideas with me and perhaps others here at BLT.

    How important for any of us to understand the context in which you researched and wrote it:

    Missio Dei about missional hermeneutics, and I was invited to write about translation theory as it relates to engaging Christian scripture inter-culturally.

    May I just attempt for readers, including myself, a bit of an unpacking, an explication of sorts, of some of the things this might mean. First and foremost, I like how you stress for us that this is a theory piece, not entirely different from the theory of evolution as, for example, put forward in a work by Charles Darwin entitled, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

    You are providing a lens, a focus, a hypothesis for ways of theorizing, or seeing. And, most critically, you are attempting to make connections. The connection is for readers of a journal who might be more interested in “engaging Christian scripture” than in “translation theory.”

    This somewhat reminds me of what one of my teachers, Kenneth Lee Pike, would do in discussing language. He would have us, his students, relate his theory of linguistics, “Tagmemics,” to just about anything that interested us. In most cases, as I observed us, his students, we were initially much much more interested in us and our thing than in his language theory. (In a seminar on Tagmemics that he taught, my research at the time was on Christian missionary strategies — coincidentally — from the perspectives of a missionary kid — that would be me — around the invisible notions these visceral, human experiences that co-here societies and cultures of humans that sociologists and psychologists and anthropologists, not necessarily religious at all explicitly, would label with English terms such as “shame” and “fear” and “guilt.” This was rather informative of my later much more rigorous and on-going inter-cultural and then inter-national research on implicit bias among learners and users of English as a second language, their prejudices and preferences toward speakers of different varieties of this lect we all label “English.” I am digressing slightly from your paper. And yet I am convinced your paper speaks to things that are, and have been for a long time, pretty important to me, on both a professional, academic and also on a profoundly, personal level.)

    What I’m suggesting is that readers found drawn to articles in Missio Dei will be a a very particular tradition: “the rich tradition and ongoing practice of participation in the mission of God among the churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.” “The Mission of God” as the mission of this particular Christian group might sound to outsiders as a rather presumptive way of looking as their mission. And yet anybody who tracks the history of Restoration intended by this group will understand how ecumenical it is and has been, even if limited in and within the catholic church of Christianity. You, of course, in your comment, didn’t need to say all of that. I did, however. And I say it because the words “missional hermeneutics” can be very charged.

    Evangelical Christianity broadly and its foreign missionary enterprise has not had a pretty history, in the view of many. We academics tend to disparage the advance of westerners (i.e., Europeans and Euro-Americans) over the peoples of the rest of the world as that advance manifests in colonization and perpetual legalized slavery and orientalism and mission establishment. The irony is that “we academics” have our own advancing mission all too often. And we use our own language: English, or as we teach it in a program I run at a largely Euro American and a Christian (by name, i.e. Disciples of Christ) it is “academic English.” Our mission sometimes is the advance of knowledge, which requires the advance of our lens, which necessitates the use of our language.

    Hermenuetics, as discovery, is one thing. Missional hermenuetics is another, and the demands of an other hermenuetic, the hermenutics of suspicion, might be welcome as we continue to talk.

    But you bring us to something else, other than just Missional hermenuetics. You use the adverb “inter-culturally” with the hyphen there, stressing the inter-play and inter-action between.

    You explain the erasure of “the French and Creole texts.” and call this “Really a case of the invisibility of invisibility!” And you punctuate that, exclaiming!

    An easy target? Is that what Eugene Nida’s notion of equivalence and especially his act of separating varieties of equivalence to promote one to the exclusion of the other has become?

    You have done readers of Missio Dei and now of BLT and of other places in the Internet a service. Of course you will have to use dialectic, to continue to revise and to explain and to dialogue with others as they accuse you for taking pot shots at someone who has offered up a theory and praxis and who has now passed on from us. I think we must continue to think about Eugene Nida. As you know, I’ve thought and blogged and blogged and thought:

    When we read something like the following then what are we to do with it?

    Ἀσπάσασθε ἀλλήλους ἐν φιλήματι ἁγίῳ.
    Ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς αἱ ἐκκλησίαι πᾶσαι τοῦ Χριστοῦ.

    The text conveys a conclusion and also a beginning, a command and a valorization of good practices, doesn’t it? If we don’t speak its old, first-century Greek, during the old Roman empire that was unable to eradicate the use of that old Hellene in favor of the new imperial Latin, then do we have to see this as “the Word of God”? And if we do see this as Manu Dei written by the manu hominis, then is the command for us? Or let’s say we “know” a little Greek (dangerous) or even a lot; couldn’t we recall how on Aristotle, who taught the Greatest of Alexanders to advance Greek knowledge and colonization and Empire, would neglect to mention anywhere a woman named Aspasia? (It’s also peculiar that Aristotle would neglect writing anything whatsoever about Aspasia because so many others who impressed Aristotle actually wrote and talked about how impressed they were by her. These other men include Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Pericles. Aristotle knew, for example, that Plato’s Socrates claimed that the woman Aspasia taught him rhetoric. Perhaps Aristotle didn’t like that because he thought she was a prostitute of sorts.)

    Her name means, quite literally, Embrace or Hug or Greet or Welcome. It’s the verb fronting the two Greek phrases above. It was, among Greeks, quite a common thing to do. It would be, therefore, strange for us to call this a “command”; or to call it a Christian thing might also be a bit prescriptive, limiting and narrowing. Paul, as we all know, is writing to Jews first and also to Greeks (even in the Romae of the Barbarians).

    We English readers, especially those of us who can appreciate an Easy to Read version of the Bible, should really appreciate what your Bible League translators have done with Romans 16:16 –

    Give each other the special greeting of God’s people.[a]
    All the churches that belong to Christ send their greetings to you.

    [a… the special greeting of God’s people Literally, “a holy kiss.”]

    You have not erased the common culture of the Greeks, their language of Aspasia. Nor have you erased the special and holy culture of the Jews, their practice of φιλήματι ἁγίῳ.

    The translational “equivalences” here do not erase English entirely. They are inter-lations as well as trans-lations. Your article helps us to get that a bit.

    What were the French and the Creole texts that you might have included in your article?

  3. April 20, 2015 11:41 am

    Yancy, Thanks for letting me know that you’re not able to reply here yet for a little while. When you do have time to comment further, I’d be interested in your take on Ernst Wendland’s proposal – if “not a perfect solution” he says – to reduce the English (or target language) translation to its easiest or most common or most demotic meaning perhaps in English (or L2) and then to offer to English readers a footnote to explain the literal and the cultural of the Greek (or Hebrew or Aramaic or other L1 in the biblical text original).

    In anticipation of your answer, I did already note (above) how the ERV translator(s) have made Romans 16:16 easy to read (with the footnote then to explain).

    Why not, I asked Ernst, keep the Jewish cultural norms in the text? Yes, the English reader will object to the initial queerness of the ancient custom perhaps. Yes, the English translator will chafe at the woodenness or the syntactic-lexical Greek-laden constraints.

    But I did want him to imagine reading To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Poisonwood Bible, in, say, Latin American Spanish, or in Islamic-influenced Malay Malaysian. Would the Spanish elide the tough words like the following from the originals, for the purer easier more-understood meanings? Would the spanish translator and the malaysian language translator do best to figure out the deeper meaning of the odd forms and to convey in the translated novels those deeper meanings (and then to explain the odd and difficult and culturally-based English forms in footnotes)?

    Here are some examples from the respective American (English language) novels:

    “pass the damn ham, please”

    “what’s a whore-lady?”

    “’Do you defend niggers, Atticus?’ I asked him that evening. ‘Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.'”

    “Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet.”

    “I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house. You wind up walking on eggshells, never knowing which… is at home at the moment.”

    “To market to market to buy a fat pig! Pigfat a buy! To market to market! But wherever you might look, no pigs now… In the way of herbivores, nothing left here to kill.”

    “I am one score and seven years old”

    Ernst comes back to suggest that we not make a hard and fast rule that overgeneralizes. He is wise. And yet the choice, the best one that he and the ERV translators seem to believe, is to put the culture down in the footnote.

    That choice seems to pass fine for the Bible, since it is presumed to be God’s word, which has some deep message that is not en-culturated or in-carnated in real human language.

    But when we turn to texts of human languages, like American novels set in the deep south or set in Congo, then what? We Americans would like our American(isms) retained in the Argentine Spanish version and in the Malaysian version, wouldn’t we? Let the Spanish readers and the Malay readers get in the footnotes a clearer-for-them meaning, right?

    Again, I’m interested in how we privilege our Western positions, including our language, which for most of us is English. (invisible English.)

  4. April 21, 2015 12:04 am

    borrowing the word equivalence from mathematics as a metaphor for translation

    For, in the early Church, “tra(ns)latio” was the removal of a saints bones from their humble resting places to places or sanctuaries more dignified by the church authorities of a later age.

    In mathematics, a translation is a simple shift in a given direction. For example, the functional form of a parabola is y = Ax**2, but it’s written in generality y = Ax**2 + B to indicate a translation with respect to the origin of the coordinate system.

    The constant term B, denoting the magnitude of the translation, is the only thing that reveals the origin, of the reference frame.

    Interesting ideas to rattle around together, in the context(!) of the invisibility of the normed/privileged/centered perspective.

  5. April 21, 2015 6:11 am

    How very astute to shift our attention to “translation” in two other contexts, so very different, where the emphasis is on a shift in location. And you locate them side by side. Like a parable of Jesus locates the listener’s context to the context of the story. So that the hearer with ears to hear translates, or interlates, relating the one to the other and both back to the self. And the listener herself or himself begins to change in the hearing of the story.

    Thank you for the formulas, the algebra, in mathematics. And thanks for recalling the movement of the relics, the bones of the saints, as early Christian shifts to more sanctified, dignified places.

    The former context, which relies on abstractions, on regulations and rule, uses our (invisible) English term. Interesting how Yancy is showing how “translators” like Nida would borrow from this context, of ostensibly stability, of regularity and predictability, to abandon the “literal” in favor of an “equivalence” seemingly more “dynamic.” Or purely, essentially dynamic. I love how here you note “the … system.” And you talk about “the … frame.” Coordinates, and reference.

    The latter context, the holy resting place of the bones of the saints in post-translation also reminds me of using “position” to frame and to discuss the ambiguities in English.

    I’ve for some time thought of how we use the English word translation, to mark positions. And it seems that we in the West especially tend towards four alternations:


    Respectively, we might reframe this in other terms:




    A literary critic like George Steiner (and C.S. Lewis) might talk about poetry reading difficulty as

    epiphenomenal (or contingency)
    tactical (or strategic)
    modal (which Steiner attributes to the great C. S. Lewis, and I just had to throw that in)

    And a professor of business management might discuss CEO world-changing strategies (and even those of Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK Jr) as alternatives:


    Back to what you’ve done in the act of your comment. You’ve brought together two seemingly disparate uses of “translation” to bring them together also around “shifts” of “place (or location).” In my own view, you’ve “translated” in the appositive sense.

    That is, you’ve done more than just give a proposition; you’ve not simply only just described or given information. You’ve actually had us readers consider some non-English, extra-linguistic examples that impact our own contexts. Math is not English. The Church’s Latin takes us beyond language to human remains and to holiness. These two together take us would-be English-only users back to our own English. Wait. Now what? What is it that we mean by “translation”?

    Pardon me for going on and on. I think about how Shakespeare had his audiences link “change” and “translation” in (his English) appositions. I’m thinking particularly of this one from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I’m not suggesting that apposition is the only way to understand “translation”; but when we humans appose with our languages, we do change and do come to deeper meanings, don’t you think?

    Yes, “rattle around together”; I love that, Vicky! Here’s the Bard’s rattling (and how could we translate that into any of our other languages without smiling?) 🙂

    Why do they run away? this is a knavery of them to make me afeard.
    [Re-enter SNOUT]

    O Bottom, thou art changed!
    what do I see on thee?

    What do you see?
    you see an asshead of your own, do you?
    [Exit SNOUT]

    [Re-enter QUINCE]

    Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.

    I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir
    from this place, do what they can: I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.

    The ousel cock so black of hue,
    With orange-tawny bill,
    The throstle with his note so true,
    The wren with little quill,–

  6. yancywsmith permalink
    April 23, 2015 1:56 pm

    I am always fascinated by the webs of verbal and thoughtful connections that you, Kurk, are able to weave from your rich experience of literature and life! Let me address a few of the questions that have come up as a result of foregrounding Nida’s Dynamic Equivalence. But first let me say that I just returned from several days conference with the Forum of Bible Agencies International where the topic was “Vulnerability in Translation.” The principle speakers and conference leaders are, I would say, quite happy to leave the “Equivalence” paradigm behind. Other paradigms have been and are being explored. For example, for several years now “hospitality” has been important. That is, in the dual relationship of the Latin “hospes” (host, guest, visitor, stranger; foreigner), and the ambiguous relationship of hostis as “stranger/enemy” from which we get “host,” “hostel” and “hostility.” Translation, or as you suggest, “interlation” is essential in the development of these relationships and can be seen as basic to the intercultural processes in human cultures as we know them. How does the invisibility of English affect this process? One of the speakers referred to the use of the English KJV Bible (or, alternatively the Kiswahili Union version) in Kenya as, for some, the preferred text for “Evangelism” in churches. “Evangelism” becomes something one does in a language of wider communication, a colonial language. In effect, it is part of the habitual practice of colonialization of minds with preformed categories in which to insert messages that cohere with the continued colonialization of human bodies. Part of the angst that leads to such practices is the awareness of and profound fear of variety and multiplicity of meanings in “mother tongue” translations. The use of a standard version is an effort to control those anxieties. Now, one has to ask, however, whether one actually comes into contact with “Jewish culture” when one reads “ἀσπάσασθε ἀλλήλους ἐν φιλήματι ἁγίῳ. ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς αἱ ἐκκλησίαι πᾶσαι τοῦ Χριστοῦ” or “Berilah salam satu dengan yang lain dengan cium kudus. Semua jemaat Kristus di sini mengirim salam untukmu,” since the effects of the intercultural process, at first, at least involve constructing the Other either in terms of “vulnerable insider” to be welcomed and defended or “outsider” to be ignored or even defended against. I would see an English “DE” translation of “hearty handshakes all-round” as part of an ongoing negotiation between cultures. The effect of one translation is often the request of another, where the participants are AWARE of the possible effect of the assumptions and postures on the exchange of messages in the interlocutors. I like the thought of Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, that points out the effect of establishing one language as the medium of exchange. There are always winners an losers in that sort of game. For example, today a Northamerican friend of mine who worked for the Honduran government as an education consultant was called in to be a second interpreter between the Honduran legate and the U.S. Ambassador, precisely because the Hondurans were aware that the “official interpreter” was giving a “diplomatic” translation that obscured many crucial nuances of the information that was passing between the two government representatives. Eventually the U.S. interpreter was recalled as well as the ambassador. The Hondurans begged my friend to seek to have himself appointed as an ambassador to Honduras! They understood, however, despite the flattering proposal, when he said: “That will never happen! I don’t have wealthy family or friends who could have purchased such an appointment form me. So, I do not have the requisite political “creditials.” So, I would forestall the judgment on a given English translation in favor of a more systemic approach. How does the given translation function within the system of translation interaction and the literary system of the host culture? Nevertheless, when English is invisible, the key is to make it visible and, as you are doing, query the translation choice for its implied habitus. One question down, more to come.


  1. the invisible American English erasure of the Jews | BLT

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