I came down with a flu last week and just did not have the mental focus to do much of anything for the first few days. Which threw-off my typical Bible study routine and therefore my blog post plans. I did, however, feel good enough to read. As I perused my bookshelves, I realized I’d never actually read The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel translated by G. Ronald Murphy, which I’d been very excited about when I discovered it existed a few years ago.
The Heliand is an Old Saxon epic poem from the ninth-century A.D. The author is unknown, but based on clues in the text itself Murphey’s introduction suggests that we can assume the author thought a cultural translation of the gospel into a form Saxons could identify with would be a better conversion tool than Charlemagne’s forcible Christianization. This resulted in a gospel account that’s more of a retelling than a direct translation, with some interesting results.
For example, when Gabriel announces John the Baptist’s birth in The Heliand he says the All-Ruler sent him to say “your child will be a warrior-companion of the King of Heaven. He said that you and your wife should care for him well and bring him up on loyalty” (Song 2). Murphey’s footnote points out this is the “earliest known blending of Germanic warrior virtue with Christian religion,” and a likely origin for Medieval notions of knighthood.
In this version, all the disciples are called Christ’s warrior-companions. On the one hand, this is an inaccurate translation. It misses the Hebrew concept of a learner following a teacher and modeling his behavior. On the other hand, it’s not wrong to describe the original 12 disciples as “a picked group … for a special expedition or mission” (footnote on Song 14) or to say that we can also join Christ’s chosen warrior-companions. So maybe it’s not a mistranslation so much as a choice to emphasize a different Biblical aspect of following Jesus that will connect better with the audience. Then, after they’re interested in learning more, you could talk with them about what else it means to be a disciple.
What Makes A Good Translation?
As I think about The Heliand, I remember another book I read that talked about modern challenges with translating the Bible for some cultures today. There are still many languages in our modern world that don’t yet have a Bible translation. That’s something I don’t think we often think about as English-speaking Christians. The Bible has been available in English for over 400 years at this point and there are a dizzying array of translations available. At times, it can almost feel like the Bible has always been in English or has always been part of Western religious tradition.
I also get the sense from many American Christians that we expect what we read in our English Bibles to accurately reflect what’s in the Greek and Hebrew versions. I spend a lot of time looking at Greek and Hebrew words when I’m studying, so it always surprises me when I hear someone teaching from the Bible or writing an article about a Bible topic focus on one of the English words in a verse. For example, it might be helpful to know “disciple” comes from the Latin word for “learner” and it’s related to the word “discipline,” but the same link isn’t there between the Greek words manthanō and paideia so that tells us more about the translators than the New Testament writers.
Many of us opt for “literal” translations that are word-for-word, or as close to it as possible, like the New King James. “Dynamic” translations that aim to be thought-for-thought, like the New International Version, are also popular. The “free” or “paraphrase” translations like The Message are typically viewed with more suspicion (and rightly so, I think, since there’s more risk that the author’s opinion and modern culture will influence the text). (Click here for more on the different options with English translations.) However, despite the cautions with paraphrase translations, sometimes there might not be the option to translate word-for-word, or even thought-for-thought, depending on the language.
I think the other book I remember reading that talked about some of the challenges translating the Bible today was Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg but I don’t remember for certain and I don’t have a copy here to check so I’ll need to reference it from memory.
In many cases, translators begin with the New Testament when translating since that seems like the most relevant for new Christians. That choice can, however, have some drawbacks. One of the stories I remember is that some well-meaning translators working on the gospel accounts left out all that boring genealogy information at the beginning. It wouldn’t mean anything to the people reading it anyway; they had never read a translation of the Old Testament in their language so they wouldn’t know who Abraham, David, and all those other people were. But then later, when the people they were working with found out about the genealogies, they said something like, “Oh! You mean Jesus was a real person? We thought he was made-up because he didn’t have a family.” In this case, the thing English-speaking readers thought was boring was essential for this non-Western audience. A literal translation was better.
The other story I remember involved the challenge of translating Paul’s letters into a language that didn’t have abstract nouns. How do you translate 1 Corinthians 13 into a language where love is always an action, not a concept to discuss? A direct translation is impossible; you’d have to paraphrase or introduce an entirely new concept to the target language. Obviously, it would be much easier to say, “when you’re loving, you’re also being patient and kind” than to try and explain abstract nouns. This is similar to what the author of The Heliand chose to do. He probably could have done a closer to literal translation from Greek into Old Saxon, but he evidently thought a paraphrase would make a whole lot more sense.
Cautions and Tips from the Word
When Jesus told His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations,” He didn’t tell them precisely how they were to translate when “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, NET). But we do know that when He filled those same disciples and others with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, “a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2: 6, NET). God is perfectly fine with translations. And one of His most accomplished servants, Paul, modeled the importance of becoming relatable to people when preaching to them (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
Yet there are also cautions. James has this line, which ought to keep any of us teaching up at night: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NET). In addition, we have very strict cautions not to add to or take away from the things which God delivers to us (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19). In other words, don’t take out the “boring” or uncomfortable bits, and don’t add things to make it more palatable either.
There’s a difference, though, between adding/taking away and making strategic decisions on what to emphasize first. If you’re writing an epic to be sung in Saxon mead halls, it makes sense to emphasize the fact that God is a warrior before talking about Him as a shepherd. If you’re translating into a culture that’s collective and family-oriented, you focus on God’s work building His family before talking about an individual relationship with God (actually, this is probably an easier translation than making it clear to individualistic Western readers that God sees His church as a whole collective).
There’s a lot to think about when considering how to translate God’s word, how to use the translations we have, and how to share the gospel across cultures. It’s even an increasingly relevant concern right here in the United States, where we can no longer assume people we talk with have any background in Christianity. Maybe there’s something we can learn from The Heliand about how to talk with people who may only have seen Christianity as something hostile to them. Maybe considering how the Bible is translated and taught cross-culturally can help us figure out how to speak with people who don’t have Christian backgrounds in our own cultures.
I am finally feeling better, so hopefully we’ll be back to a more typical sort of blog post next week. I hope you got something out of my musings on The Heliand this week, thought. If it made you think of any stories you’ve heard or experiences you’ve had sharing the gospel cross-culturally, I’d love to hear them.
Featured image by Peter H from Pixabay
“Song” Recommendation: It’s not sung in this version, but the reading by Dr. Shell gives us an idea of what The Heliand sounded like.