Precious Death

This post originally appeared here on August 17, 2008. But I’m reflecting on it again in light of Good Friday. I have proposed below that the death of God’s servant is precious to him (Psalm 116:15) perhaps because it is a rare and costly thing. It is costly because it means that faithful servant is no longer serving the Lord’s purposes on this earth. How does that apply to the death of Jesus? Jesus’ public ministry on earth ended with his death, so we can again say that the death is costly. And it cost Jesus so much more, too. Insults, beatings, the agony of a slow murder. Despised by men, forsaken by the Father, he who knew no sin becoming sin for us. And yet the death of Jesus is also precious because it accomplishes so much! Victory over sin, death and the devil! Jesus died so that I don’t have to die. Yet through his death, I too can die to self, sin, my sundry precious idols, and yes, I too can die to death in the death of Christ.

Okay, the post from August 17, 2008, entitled “Psalm 116:15 – My ‘Precioussss’…

We learn a good lesson from Tolkien’s Gollum and the ring he calls “My Precioussss.” Indeed it is the things we consider most precious that have a way of sucking us into their power to control us and blind us to their dangers and to the value of other things.

Even our approach to the word of God can become that to us if we lose sight of the living God who speaks that word (see NT Wright’s recent lecture to a group of Anglican bishops concerning the theme of his book Scripture and the Authority of God ). We students and scholars of the Bible also come to the word of God with our interpretive “Preciouseses,” and we allow these perspectives–as well-intentioned as they may be–to control our reading and application of the text.

In light of these dangers, I appreciate the fellowship of community–including this biblioblogging community–and how we seek to fulfill what Edgar Krentz (The Historical-Critical Method, 53-54) has described as the virtue of the biblical historian:

The critical biblical scholar will not only question the texts, but himself–his methods, his conclusions, and his presuppositions–and the others who share in the same task. For he knows how often men are captive to their own prejudices and limitations…. On the one hand the historian remains critical of his own critical abilities…. But in a more profound sense he recognizes that in judging a text he also places himself under judgment of the text. And where the text deals with the profundities of man, that calls for a submission to the autonomy of the text that calls the historian forth for judgment and knowledge of himself. Then history performs its humane or (in the case of biblical texts) its theological function.

And thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to re-examine my own approach to the text and translation. The discussion has centered around the legitimacy of some translations to interpret the word יקר (yāqār) in this context to mean ‘too precious’. And so instead of a more literal translation stating that the death of the faithful is precious to the LORD, they either say that the death of the faithful is somehow grievous to the LORD (NAB, Tanakh, TEV, CEV), or the verse focuses completely on the value of the life of his faithful followers (NET).

What is my translation philosophy for passages like this where the meaning is either ambiguous or perhaps evenly debated? (This questioning of allegiance to my own translation philosophy is how the discussion of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 relates to the image of Gollum and his ‘Precioussss’ and the lesson of being self-critical.)

Even though I have argued that the death of the faithful in Psalm 116:15 may be precious to the LORD precisely because he finds great value in their continued faithfulness in life, I feel quite uncomfortable losing the reference to the preciousness of death in a translation. Although I appreciate the NET Bible for getting at the potential underlying significance of the verse–the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers–it unfortunately removes any reference to death at all, and so the translation fails to show what this significance is in application to. In other words, the original expression of this verse is not a statement about life, but of death.

The value that God places on faithfulness in life may help us to understand why he considers the death of one of his children such a precious thing, but the statement about the preciousness of death should not be lost too easily. Something is precious when it is rare or when its value is high. We are willing to spend a large fortune on something that is most dear to us. And the great cost to the LORD of seeing the death of one of his faithful servants is that the person is no longer serving the LORD in the world. That is one way in which the death of the faithful may be understood to be a precious thing to the LORD. But to merely say that the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers says nothing of those lives coming to an end in death nor of the LORD’s view of such a death. Furthermore, such a translation precludes any other possible explanation for the LORD’s perspective on the preciousness of death among his faithful.

When a passage is debated like this, or when its meaning is truly ambiguous, it is a worthy goal of the translation team to express the meaning with an equivalent dose of ambiguity. However, inasmuch as the process of translation is an arduous and complicated process, the attempt at translating a double meaning or an ambiguous meaning is exponentially more difficult. It may be easiest to do if a highly literal translation reflects the same indeterminacy or multiplicity of senses as found in the original language text. But that is often unlikely.

I know it’s impossible to avoid interpretation in translation, and many times it’s necessary and important to choose the best understanding of a text to be reflected clearly in a translation. But we certainly don’t want our translations to over-interpret the text. When a translation comes down heavily on one side of an ambiguous, unclear, or debated text, that may be over-interpretation. If that interpretation is something that we hold dear–perhaps a “My Precioussss”–it’s more difficult to let it go. But even as we apply the tools of exegesis and communication to the processes of interpretation and translation, we must allow the Voice of the text to do his theological work in us.

Psalm 116:15 – My ‘Precioussss’

We learn a good lesson from Tolkien’s Gollum and the ring he calls “My Precioussss.” Indeed it is the things we consider most precious that have a way of sucking us into their power to control us and blind us to their dangers and to the value of other things.

Even our approach to the word of God can become that to us if we lose sight of the living God who speaks that word (see NT Wright’s recent lecture to a group of Anglican bishops concerning the theme of his book Scripture and the Authority of God ). We students and scholars of the Bible also come to the word of God with our interpretive “Preciouseses,” and we allow these perspectives–as well-intentioned as they may be–to control our reading and application of the text.

In light of these dangers, I appreciate the fellowship of community–including this biblioblogging community–and how we seek to fulfill what Edgar Krentz (The Historical-Critical Method, 53-54) has described as the virtue of the biblical historian:

The critical biblical scholar will not only question the texts, but himself–his methods, his conclusions, and his presuppositions–and the others who share in the same task. For he knows how often men are captive to their own prejudices and limitations…. On the one hand the historian remains critical of his own critical abilities…. But in a more profound sense he recognizes that in judging a text he also places himself under judgment of the text. And where the text deals with the profundities of man, that calls for a submission to the autonomy of the text that calls the historian forth for judgment and knowledge of himself. Then history performs its humane or (in the case of biblical texts) its theological function.

And thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to re-examine my own approach to the text and translation. The discussion has centered around the legitimacy of some translations to interpret the word יקר (yāqār) in this context to mean ‘too precious’. And so instead of a more literal translation stating that the death of the faithful is precious to the LORD, they either say that the death of the faithful is somehow grievous to the LORD (NAB, Tanakh, TEV, CEV), or the verse focuses completely on the value of the life of his faithful followers (NET).

What is my translation philosophy for passages like this where the meaning is either ambiguous or perhaps evenly debated? (This questioning of allegiance to my own translation philosophy is how the discussion of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 relates to the image of Gollum and his ‘Precioussss’ and the lesson of being self-critical.)

Even though I have argued that the death of the faithful in Psalm 116:15 may be precious to the LORD precisely because he finds great value in their continued faithfulness in life, I feel quite uncomfortable losing the reference to the preciousness of death in a translation. Although I appreciate the NET Bible for getting at the potential underlying significance of the verse–the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers–it unfortunately removes any reference to death at all, and so the translation fails to show what this significance is in application to. In other words, the original expression of this verse is not a statement about life, but of death.

The value that God places on faithfulness in life may help us to understand why he considers the death of one of his children such a precious thing, but the statement about the preciousness of death should not be lost too easily. Something is precious when it is rare or when its value is high. We are willing to spend a large fortune on something that is most dear to us. And the great cost to the LORD of seeing the death of one of his faithful servants is that the person is no longer serving the LORD in the world. That is one way in which the death of the faithful may be understood to be a precious thing to the LORD. But to merely say that the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers says nothing of those lives coming to an end in death nor of the LORD’s view of such a death. Furthermore, such a translation precludes any other possible explanation for the LORD’s perspective on the preciousness of death among his faithful.

When a passage is debated like this, or when its meaning is truly ambiguous, it is a worthy goal of the translation team to express the meaning with an equivalent dose of ambiguity. However, inasmuch as the process of translation is an arduous and complicated process, the attempt at translating a double meaning or an ambiguous meaning is exponentially more difficult. It may be easiest to do if a highly literal translation reflects the same indeterminacy or multiplicity of senses as found in the original language text. But that is often unlikely.

I know it’s impossible to avoid interpretation in translation, and many times it’s necessary and important to choose the best understanding of a text to be reflected clearly in a translation. But we certainly don’t want our translations to over-interpret the text. When a translation comes down heavily on one side of an ambiguous, unclear, or debated text, that may be over-interpretation. If that interpretation is something that we hold dear–perhaps a “My Precioussss”–it’s more difficult to let it go. But even as we apply the tools of exegesis and communication to the processes of interpretation and translation, we must allow the Voice of the text to do his theological work in us.

Translation Day 9: livering things that make you happy

18-27)

Advisor Notes - Wolwale Onnele (Luke 9:18-27)

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 9 of this celebration of checking Luke in the Onnele translations last month. Thanks to everyone who viewed the posts and the few who left comments. This is taking too much of my time right now, so I will not keep this series officially going. But I will continue these posts as often as I can to relate more of the 70+ translation stories that I took note of last month.

When we came to Luke 9:24, that was a verse that was hard to translate. Here is what the NASB says…

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.

The first draft of the Onnele translations all looked something like this (with literal English back translation)…

Le mana samo wola ye laip wone’ni, laip wone’ni ese fafaile. Mana fei samo wola ye laip wone’ni ka yupene ki, laip wone’ni ese uporo.

If a person really livers [= thinks] continuously life of him/her, life of him/her will be ruined. Person [who] not really livers [= thinks] continuously life of him/her and follows me, life of him/her will be good.

A couple notes on this first draft…

  • This followed pretty literally the Tok Pisin source text that had been prepared from the back translation of another vernacular translation in the region and had gone through an exegetical check by three translation advisors.
  • The biggest differences from the pidgin source text is the lack of prepositions and equivalent conjunctions in Onnele.
  • Another main difference is that the pidgin source text for “wishes to save his life” was wari tumas long laip bilong em, which means something like “is very concerned/preoccupied about his/her life” (tumas means ‘very’ and does NOT mean ‘too much’). However, the way the Onnele languages express this idea is with the word wola ‘liver’ used as a verb. It is generally used as a verb to mean ‘think about’. Note that the constraints of the Onnele language make it very difficult to talk about ‘saving’ even when it is talking about one person saving another person from immanent death, although that is a little easier. It is more difficult when the meaning, as in Luke 9:24, refers to saving oneself. However, Papua New Guineans are masters of implied information. To “really think about something” clearly means in Onnele that the person is placing a priority on the preservation of his life or on the things that contribute to a good life.
  • Note that the Onnele first draft uses the word laip a total of four times. That is a borrowed word from Tok Pisin that obviously comes from the English word ‘life’. Onnele has many such pidgin words that have come into their vernacular languages, just as Old English incorporated words from Scandinavian and Norman contact. However, in our translations we aim not to borrow words from Tok Pisin if there are perfectly normal ways to express the meaning in the Onnele heart languages. So I wanted to ask about ‘laip’.
  • Finally, although the Tok Pisin source text may carry the correct meaning and may be sufficient for producing that meaning in some of the 11 languages in our translation project, it was questionable if this first draft clearly expressed the proper sense of this verse. The biggest concern was the part that read “Person [who] not really livers [= thinks] continuously life of him/her and follows me…” What exactly is being negated in that clause? Is it just that the person doesn’t really think a lot about his/her own life, or is it that the person doesn’t think continuously about his/her life? The true sense of this verse should be that the person actually loses all concern for this present life on the basis of following Jesus. The first draft of the Onnele translation left too much room for ambiguity, excuses, and rationalizing one’s (dis)obedience to the call of Christ.

The revised draft of the Onnele translations now reads more like this…

La mana samo wolaye ommo ese yangke wone aiyem, mana namo ese fafaile. Ka mana fina empo samo wolyumalo ommo ese yangke wone waiye uporo ka yupene ki, mana namo ese waiye uporo.

If a person really livers [= thinks] continuously the things that will make him/her happy, this person will be ruined. And the person who really liver loses [= purposely forgets] the things that will make him/her exist good and follows me, this person will exist good.

A few notes about the changes…

  • Le was changed to La. Both words mean something like ‘if’, but this is why Papua New Guineans are in the driver’s seat and I’m not. They know intuitively what sounds right to their ears even when both words would carry the right meaning.
  • The continuous marker -ye was combined with the verb rather than being written separately. This is simply a spelling convention that we are trying to follow consistently. For any linguists out there, this morpheme always seems to hang with the verb. For another morpheme -pu which might seem at first glance to be structurally equivalent to -ye since it means [+completed] rather than [+continuous], we are writing that separately because it does not always hang with the verb. It can actually come at the end of the verb phrase or the end of the whole clause. Some might analyze it as a clitic.
  • Notice that we are no longer borrowing the word ‘laip’. The Onnele translation now refers to the person who “livers the things that will make him/her happy,” and it talks about the person himself/herself being ruined or existing good. The original Greek text has a sort of play on words with multiple senses of the word ψυχή psuche ‘soul/life’. In talking about seeking to save or losing one’s own life, the meaning seems to point not primarily at the preservation from death, but of a certain quality of life that is self-seeking at the core. But regarding the result of either seeking to save or losing one’s status in the good life, the ultimate end is self-ruin or preservation from death, respectively. This is made clear in the following verse: For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:25 NASB) Therefore, the translation is now a bit less literal in terms of word-for-word correspondence, but it is much more clearly meaningful and accurately reflects the significance of the original.
  • The conjunction ka was added. Ka literally means ‘and’ so that is why it wasn’t originally included for the Tok Pisin conjunction that means ‘but’. However, the Onnele translators later realized that ka fits appropriately here, and its usage is a bit more broad than English ‘and’ and Tok Pisin ‘na’.
  • The relative pronoun fina ‘who’ was added. It was probably okay without it, but this makes the sentence flow more smoothly and clearly.
  • The verse now reads samo wolyumalo ommo “really liver loses [= purposely forgets] the things…” The meaning now is clearly an intentional activity of the person and cannot be confused with a more passive experience of life that may have been a possible interpretation of the first draft.