The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Mar 24, 2011

Guest essay by John R. Himes: "Is Translation Possible?"

John R. Himes is a veteran missionary to Japan and currently involved in a new translation of the Greek New Testament into Japanese

Is Translation Possible?
By John R. Himes

We sometimes hear it said, “Translation is really impossible. You can’t completely get meaning from one language to another.” Is this true, or a sort of linguistic myth? My money is on the myth and here’s why.

First of all, let’s track down the sources of the myth. There are apparently two original sources of the idea that translation is impossible: a linguist (and his disciple) and a philosopher. The linguist was Edward Sapir (1884-1939), one of the pioneers of scientific linguistics in the early 20th century, whose disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) embroidered and expanded Sapir’s teachings into what came to be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also called the principle of linguistic relativity. The philosopher was Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), influential in the areas of existentialism and logical positivism.

Let’s consider the linguist first. Sapir didn’t write a whole lot, but his influence far outweighs his output. He is best known for his 1921 book Language, with the subtitle, “An Introduction to the Study of Speech,” in which he referred to Benedetto Croce saying, “Croce is therefore perfectly right in saying that a work of literary art can never be translated” (Edward Sapir, Language, 2004 reprint. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004, 183). Notice that Sapir was speaking of literature in particular, but his disciple Whorf apparently expanded his teaching to include all translation. Whorf’s hypothesis was that language shapes thought, rather than the other way around. Therefore, translation is impossible because one cannot truly break free of his language and culture. An interesting application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is in 1984, the famous novel of the future in which George Orwell has the oppressive government invent Newspeak, a language used to indoctrinate and imprison the people.

Now, if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true, and language affects thought rather than the other way around, then true translation is truly impossible. Culture through language becomes the arbiter of truth, and universal truth or revelation from God is a non starter. Kwame Anthony Appiah put it this way: “If that (the SWH) were true, it would affect what thoughts you could intend to express also. If what language you speak determines what thoughts or intentions you can have, translation, thus conceived, will always be impossible” (“Thick Translation,” in The Translation Studies Reader, 2nd ed., ed. by Lawrence Venuti. New York and London: Routledge, 2004, 392)

However, this hypothesis was formulated in the early days of the discipline of modern linguistics. It is largely debunked nowadays, according to Daniel Chandler: “Whilst few linguists would accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its ‘strong’, extreme or deterministic form, many now accept a ‘weak’, more moderate, or limited Whorfianism, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use” (Daniel Chandler, The Act of Writing, Aberystwyth: University of Wales, 1995, 18)

In particular, the concept of a universal grammar posited by Noam Chomsky and others has effectively opposed Sapir-Whorf’s linguistic relativity. Discussing German translation scholar Wolfram Wilss, Edwin Gentzler explains: “Wilss reacts against the Sapir/Whorf school of thought, which denies the a priori existence of universal categories of thought and whose followers have a skeptical view of the possibility that two languages might share a common core of experience. To dismiss this line of reasoning, Wilss cites first Chomsky and then Eric H. Lenneberg, whose The Biological Foundations of Language (1967) posited biological universals in language. Wilss suggests that the Chomsky/Lenneberg view of language universals ‘proceeds from the hypothesis, undisputed to date, that there are semantic and syntactic universals, including universal pragmatics; this holds true in many if not all natural languages’ (Wilss, 1982: 39)” (Edwin Gentzler Contemporary Translation Theories, Revised 2nd ed. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2001, 64).

The other primary source for the belief that translation is impossible was Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is harder to track down anything definitive about Wittgenstein’s view of translation than it is for Sapir. Professor Mark Farnham of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary supplied me with the following Wittgenstein quote which shows his view of language as relativistic: “For a large class of cases—though—not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 43. Much thanks to Prof. Farnham). A relativistic view of language makes real translation impossible.

Furthermore, the rejection of metaphysics as meaningless by the logical positivists such as Wittgenstein was makes it a philosophy virtually impossible for a Christian to accept (Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith. London: Tyndale Press, 1969, 168-176). Therefore Wittgenstein’s view that translation is impossible is also unacceptable due to its dependence on logical positivism. Also, from a practical point of view, one is forced to wonder if “linguistic analysis” (what logical positivism developed into) as done by non-linguist philosophers is even partly valid!

Unfortunately, unlike Sapir-Whorf, the influence of Wittgenstein continues in the polysystem theory of Israeli translation studies scholar Gideon Toury. “Borrowing from Ludwig Wittgenstein the concept of family of resemblances, Toury now views ‘original’ texts as containing clusters of properties, meanings, possibilities. All translations privilege certain properties/meanings at the expense of others, and the concept of a ‘correct’ translation ceases to be a real possibility” (Gentzler, op cit, 126-127).

So, are they right? For our purposes, is Bible translation even possible? Let’s consider that from the Scriptures themselves. First of all, remember that the Bible is inspired by God to present His truth to us. As Christ Himself said, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17, KJV). It stands to reason from a theological standpoint that truth from the omniscient God is universal, and thus ought to be communicable in any language. Compare this thought to what Sapir said about the possibility of translating scientific truth: “A scientific truth is impersonal, in its essence it is untinctured by the particular linguistic medium in which it finds expression. It can as readily deliver its message in Chinese as in English” (Sapir, op. cit., 184). Truth is translatable!

Again, consider the issue of translation within the Bible itself. Remember that the writers, as moved by the Holy Spirit, included various words and even sentences, complete with their translation. Notable examples include the cry of Christ on the cross, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani” (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34), and “Talitha kumi” (Mark 5:41). Therefore it is obvious that in God’s eyes translation is completely possible.

We can go further and say that the translation of the Bible is desirable because it is the will of God. We can base this on the Great Commission, particularly the version in Matthew 28:18-20. If we are to make disciples out of the nations and teach new disciples all that Jesus taught, we must have translators who will make available the Bible in every language. May their tribe increase!

Mar 17, 2011

How to Care and Pray for Japan

     As a missionary kid from Japan whose parents are still ministering over there, I'd like to share with any readers some specific ways to help and pray for Japan.
     Ministry in Japan: Disaster opens up opportunities for the Gospel and compassion. One missionary, a friend of my family since the early 80s, is planning to load up on relief supplies and Gospel tracts and head down to the Sendai area. In addition, I can only imagine the witnessing opportunities that may spring up as people grapple with the questions of life, suffering, disaster, and eternity.
      I trust that any who were planning trips to Japan specifically for the sake of ministry will continue with the plans despite what has happened; while the dangers are real, so are the opportunities and Japan now than ever needs willing Christains to come along side and both live and proclaim the Gospel. I am grateful that I know of at least one ministry, a camping ministry,  which is going through with its plans to visit and work in Japan, despite the disaster.
     In addition, financial aid is always needed. The Red Cross, of course, seems to be relatively quick to respond to disasters (http://www.redcross.org). My parents' mission board, Baptist World Mission, has also been organizing its own relief effort (http://www.baptistworldmission.org/component/content/article/1266-japan-earthquake-relief-effort.html) Although giving should never be viewed as an opportunity for "getting off the hook" as far as mission work goes (i.e. we still have an obligation to get our lives, not just our wallets, involved in missions), nevertheless we know from Philippians 4:15-18 that giving in of itself may be considered a ministry, especially when it is done sacrificially.
      Prayer for Japan: 1. First of all, pray that the Gospel may gain a foothold. As I was flying home the other day, the man in a chair in front of me was reading a paper where the headline ran something like "In time of distress, Japanese rely on traditional beliefs," a headline flanked by a picture of a Buddhist temple. This naturally leads us to think of 1 Peter 1:18, "your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors" (NET). Japan has always placed a heavy emphasis on tradition, and Christianity has been viewed with suspicion as a "foreign religion" (never mind that technically Buddhism would also be a "foreign religion"). Nevertheless the Spirit possesses the power to make inroads into the heart with the news of Christ's death and resurrection.
     2. Secondly, prayer is needed for the survivors, both those that are safe but lacking many of the basic conveniences of modern life, and those that may still be awaiting rescue. Continued safety should also be prayed for, as the potential for nuclear meltdown looms ominously on the horizon.
     3. Thirdly, pray for those involved in the rescue effort, especially the JSDF (the Japan Self-Defense Force). One of my Japanese friends from my high school days, "Toshi," is in the JSDF and has currently been deployed to the Sendai area. I pray that the Lord will grant the JSDF both courage and safety as they seek to help those in need.

Mar 12, 2011

Prayer and Compassion for Japan

     I trust that believers all around the world are praying for grace in the midst of the great catastrophe that has hit Japan. This is also an appropriate opportunity to remind Christians that prayer and works of compassion reflect the very character of God. In other words, Christians are not just supposed to help others in hopes that wet get the opportunity to witness to them (though all the better if that happens!). Rather, Christians are to help others, expecting nothing in return, because that is a reflection of the character of God himself! Thus, "be merciful, even as your father is merciful" (Luke 6:36, ESV).
     Clearly the Christian is not to allow concern for physical or socio-economical needs trump spiritual needs. Our job first-and-foremost is to be heralds of the kingdom. Neglect of proclaiming the gospel (Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptrues, and was buried, and rose again) is inexcusible.
     Nevertheless, often we as Christians have become so caught up in proclaiming that we forget about doing. Christ performed acts of kindness throughout his ministry not because it caused people to listen to him more, and not because it helped his ministry. Rather, Christ performed acts of kindness because he was the Son of God and consequently "had compassion on them" (Matthew 14:14, ESV)
     My challange, then, is this: whenever we hear of a disaster or whenever we see those in need, our first reaction should be to pray and to ask, "How can I help?" It is the Christian's duty to show compassion for the sake of showing compassion, because compassion itself is a character trait of God the Father. If the Lord allows us the opportunity to help somebody, then we can rejoice that we are reflecting the ethic of God.

Mar 7, 2011

Resources for Greek students

     One of the things I admire about many of those on my blogroll (e.g. Dr. David Black, Nick Norelli) is their willingness to take the time to direct students to helpful resources. In light of that, I'd like to share three resources here that have been especially beneficial in my own studies, beginning with my college days through doctoral work.
     1. Sakae Kubo, A Reader's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975). It goes without saying that, for any true student of Biblical Greek, actually reading one's Greek New Testament on a consistent basis is paramount. Here, then, is where Kubo's Reader's Lexicon provides an invaluable service. Unlike regular lexicons, Kubo deals with Biblical words on a verse-by-verse basis, providing definitions for the rarer Greek words as they appear in a particular New Testament book. If a student has memorized all words appearing 50 or more times in the NT, then you can read the entire Greek New Testament with Kubo at your side, without having to read through a massive, alphabetized tome such as BDAG.
      2.  This next source is not one you're likely to find in most lists of Greek reference works. Yet for practical value, it is hard to beat the Langenscheidt Pocket Greek Dictionary: Classical Greek-English, ed. by Karl Feyerabend (Maspeth, NY: Langenscheidt, n.d.) While not concerned with Biblical Greek per se, the Langenscheidt dictionary can help you study any ancient Greek source, whether classical or Koine. The other day I used it to help me work through Chrysostom's brief discussion of First Peter 1:6-8; 1:18-21; and 2:7-8 for my dissertation. To my surprise, I had significantly less trouble then expected. Granted, Chrysostom not exactly on the level of Philo, but neverthelss, considering the fact that this is a "pocket size" dictionary, I believe it's worth more than its retail price. The interested reader may also note that Langenscheidt also produces pocket dictionaries for modern German and French, though so far I have found the German one less helpful than the Greek and French dictionary.
      3. For research purposes, I am beginning to become more and more excited about the possibilities of AbeBooks (http://www.abebooks.com). Time after time they have come through for me with a rare German or French book which is important to my research, a book that is difficult to find in the States. A few months ago I purchased and received Ceslas Spicq's French commentary on 1 Peter (his commentary on Hebrews is common enough in the US, but his 1 Peter commentary, so far I can determine, only exists in one library outside of Europe). Two days ago I purchased a German dissertation (H. Goldstein's "Das Gemeindeverständnis des ersten Petrusbriefs," Münster, 1973), a work that appears to possess great value for my own dissertation and which, so far as I could determine, does not exist in the US (ah, if I only I had the money to travel to Europe!) For the doctoral student pulling his or her hair out trying to track down rare German or French sources, give Abe a try. Like Amazon Marketplace, Abe deals with a multitude of individual dealers, so discretion is advised. So far, though, I have not had a problem with either prices (generally reasonable) or delivery.

Mar 1, 2011

Book alert for students of modern church history! Andrew Himes provides a unique perspective on fundamentalism in the 20th century

     My uncle, Andrew Himes, and my father, John R. Himes, are both grandsons of noted fundamentalist evangelist John R. Rice (founder of the Sword of the Lord publishing company). Despite their shared heritage, they have taken two significantly different paths in their lives. Now my Uncle Andy is set to publish a unique take on fundamentalist Christianity in the 20th century with his forthcoming book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalistm in an American Family (see http://www.amazon.com/Sword-Lord-Fundamentalism-American-Family/dp/1453843752/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298981236&sr=1-1)
      The book is currently in its prepublication stage; once it's published, I hope to do a full review on it, possibly with further discussion on the identity and influence of fundamentalism within broader evangelicalism. For now, suffice it to say that  Andrew Himes provides a well-researched (including primary sources as well as ph.d. dissertations, etc.), intimate look into one of the major influences within both fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalsim of the early-to-mid 20th century. In addition, he deals with such divese topics as revivalism in the early 20th century, race and religion in the South, the early years of the National Association of Evangelicals (of which both Rice and Bob Jones played a part in), etc. At the least this has the potential to provide a welcome companion piece to George Marsden's works for any student of 20th century fundamentalism and evangelicalism.