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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Towards an Ethic of Liberation for Bible Translation; Part 1: Ideology

This two-part study attempts to analyze the issue of ethics and Bible translation by looking carefully at specific real-life translation situations. Within the methodology of case studies, two main realities are addressed: ideology and marketing. The study delves into the pressures and influences that these realities exert on the process of Bible translation. Bible translation is never totally free from these two impending pressures, and thus the ethics of Bible translation is affected by these. In the final analysis, the study seeks to propose a Bible translation ethic that is flexible but at the same time liberating. It proposes that human need must be placed front and center in the development and articulation of any Bible translation ethic.

The Bible is considered by many in the Western world as the most important book of all. One can perhaps say that no book or collection of writings has been translated more often and with more care and into more languages than the Bible. This of course has generated a myriad of opinions, not least of which is that repeated saying traduttore traditore. Consequently, one immediately asks: "traitor to what, to whom?" Who or what are we as translators betraying? This reality is further complicated by the forceful suggestion that translation is indeed impossible, not to mention the impossibility of Bible translation. Rabbi Simlai once affirmed that translation is an impossible task: "He who translates is a heretic but he who refuses to translate is a blasphemer." If this is true, I must suggest that when it comes to the practice and profession of translation, "you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."
Walter Brueggemann has coined the phrase "Texts That Linger, Words That Explode" referring to the traditioning process present in the Bible, particularly with reference to the prophets.[1] He suggests that at certain times in the history of the community's embracing of the biblical text something new happens.

What has been tradition, hovering in dormancy, becomes available experience. In the moment of speaking and hearing, treasured tradition becomes present experience, inimitable, without parallel, irreversible. In that utterance, the word does lead to reality.[2]

If indeed Brueggemann is correct, and I believe that he is, not only is the translation of the Bible a difficult exercise, but developing a translation ethic for Bible translation also becomes a very complex endeavor. In fact, at the outset I will suggest that an overarching definitive ethic of Bible translation is an impossibility. And yet, the pursuit of an ethic, rather than the ethic, is in my estimation a worthy task.

It is not my main goal at this time to discuss the many and diverse problems that the Bible translator faces.
My main goal here is to explore various issues that are pertinent to the development of a Bible translation ethic. It should be obvious by now to any reader thatI consider that any theoretical framework construed in this exercise is extremely provisional in nature. At the outset, my methodology will be dialogical.  A dialog will be developed with Towner, Pym, Chesterman, Lyotard, Dussel, Wittgenstein, and Spinoza.
This dialog will focus on two significant issues, namely, ideology and marketing.

The discussion around these issues will be illustrated by real examples that come from translation projects in the Americas. None of the examples or situations that will be presented is hypothetical or fictional. Rather they are concrete and real; one could perhaps categorize them as historical. Some of these examples will serve as case studies that can help hone some ethical issues that bear upon Bible translation.
After considering these two main issues that most certainly bear on the development of a possible ethic for Bible translation, I will attempt to work through a proposal that will suggest some alternatives and guidelines for articulating a very flexible model of Bible translation ethics. I emphasize flexibility because I consider that culture in its various forms and expressions mitigates any attempt at developing a rigid, fixed, and closed model. If culture can be understood as a set of realized categories or structures, actual and conscious, that provide lifestyles and meaning to a particular society,[3] then any ethic must be flexible enough to embrace this complex reality.

Ideology and Bible Translation

I have written in other studies that no translation of any text is ever "neutral" or objective. By this I mean that translations of texts never take place in a vacuum. They are produced in specific places, at specific times, under specific conditions. This means that a number of factors play into the exercise of translation. Among these factors, I suggest that the more critical ones are realities of race, class, gender, life histories, theological persuasions, political alliances, cultural distinctives, and, last but not least, marketing issues.[4] All of these factors contribute to the "ideology" of any given translator or team of translators.
And yet, what do I really mean by "ideology"? Put rather simply, ideology can refer to that systematic body of concepts that exist, characterize, and define human life or culture. In one sense, it can be compared to "world view." It has to do with the way an individual or group understands and defines reality.
For purposes of this study, I will differentiate world-view from ideology. Our main distinction will be based on the assumption that any given person is more aware of his or her ideology than of his or her world-view. Ideology is many times something one chooses and consequently it is much more permeated by subjectivity and interest. There are many kinds of ideologies that individuals and groups embrace. I can speak of political, religious, epistemological, economical, and social ideologies, just to name a few. These ideologies are never innocent or neutral, but they are always present. Thus, no translation of any given text is innocent or neutral. There is no such thing as an "immaculate translation." This reality, which I admit, has been stated in somewhat forceful terms, inevitably bears on any discussion of an ethic for translation, and particularly for Bible translation.  I consider that Stanley Porter is correct when he observes that, "The history of Bible translation is charged with ideological issues."[5] It is for this reason that I suggest that the articulation of a Bible translation ethic must take into consideration the constant and unrelenting presence of ideology. If a Bible translation ethic does not wrestle with this reality or chooses to ignore it altogether, it will be an ethic that is devoid of credibility. I admit at the outset that this is not an easy task, nor is it a matter that I have resolved. At most, I can say that I am in the process of engaging the reality of "ideology" in the exercize of articulating an ethic. Final and definitive answers are not in the immediate horizon. Given this situation, I will proceed to consider some actual examples or case studies that will illustrate and provide elements that should be evaluated.

Case Studies

Example 1
In 1990 I began work on a new translation for the International Bible Society. I was elected to be chairman of the Old Testament team. This was to be a translation of the original languages into Spanish. The exegetical, stylistic, and format guidelines were to be the same as those followed by the team that produced the New International Version for the English language. In terms of translation criterion, it was to try and forge a middle road between a literal translation and a totally functional equivalence translation. I had four maxims that I worked under, which were accuracy, beauty, clarity, and dignity.
Soon after the translation began, a debate developed around the issue of capitalization. Spanish is a language that is quite stingy with regards to the use of capital letters. Titles of books, articles, and so on, capitalize only the first word. Names of languages, months, and days of the week are not capitalized. In the process of producing the Nueva Versión Internacional, the issue arose of whether to capitalize the word "spirit" in the Old Testament, particularly when it clearly referred to the spirit of God. There were some marketing issues that surfaced, but they were not the most powerful ones. The discussion became polarized because the New Testament team argued in favor of capitalizing the word "spirit," whereas the Old Testament team unanimously preferred to leave the word uncapitalized. Soon in the discussion, the ideological factors came into play. One of the most important ones was the presupposition that the Old Testament needs to be interpreted in light of the New. This means that one reads, interprets, and translates the Old Testament with New Testament eyes. On the other hand, the Old Testament team that I represented argued that it was incorrect to read into Old Testament contexts the New Testament concept of Holy Spirit, which is surely elicited by capitalizing the word "spirit." A critical context that generated much heated debate was Gen 1:2, which obviously provides other alternatives as well. The discussion continued for several years. Eventually, the New Testament ideology won the day. The final decision was not based on careful exegesis of an ancient text. It resulted from a clear ideologically based interpretation. A final vote was taken, including all the translators. Since there were more translators on the New Testament team than on its counterpart, the word "spirit" was capitalized almost always throughout the NVI Old Testament.
Was this the correct ethical decision? Or perhaps we should ask, was a correct ethical process followed? What factors influenced the decision and final outcome of the debate? Certainly, the ideological factor was an important one. However, one cannot dismiss the marketing issue (which will be discussed in the second part of this study). It became quite evident that the New Testament members of the translation team were far more concerned about the possible negative reactions that might be provoked by not capitalizing the word "spirit." I will say more about this later, in conjunction with the Reina Valera 1995.
But the question remains, What ethical criteria should be invoked in this kind of a situation? Perhaps we should recognize that we have issues of divided loyalty in a case like this. In fact, it seems that many "loyalties" come into play: loyalty to the Old Testament, loyalty to the New Testament, loyalty to translation tradition, loyalty to the sponsoring society, and loyalty to the consumer, among others. Pym has correctly stated that translators are rarely above suspicion.[6] I would say that Bible translators are never above suspicion and decisions like the one just described will generate even more suspicion particularly among certain communities of faith. So, are there ethical rules that can be followed here? In my own personal case, do professional ethics take precedence over personal ethics at this point? It must be obvious by now that I have more questions than answers.

Example 2
In this same NVI translation project, another heated issue surfaced. In more traditional and historic Spanish translations, John 1:1 reads: "En el principio era el Verbo." ("In the beginning was the Verb"). When Reina translated logos, he used the Spanish word for "verb." For centuries this became the accepted translation, both in Catholic and Protestant circles. However, in the twentieth century, many new translations, such as Dios Habla Hoy, El libro del pueblo de Dios, and Cantera Iglesias, decided to translate logos as palabra (word). Now it must be recognized that the tradition is so firmly embedded that when one looks up the word verbo in the most prestigious Spanish dictionary, which comes from the Real Academia Española, one finds as the first meaning for verbo: the second person of the Most Holy Trinity (segunda persona de la Santísima Trinidad).
Many years prior to the NVI translation project, scholars concluded that the most accurate and preferable translation for logos was palabra (word). Hence, the most logical and exegetically accurate translation of logos for John 1:1 would have been palabra. However, once again ideological matters and tradition came into play. The word Verbo carries such theological and spiritual weight that it becomes very difficult for translators to change it. Consequently, after all the discussion and debate, when the vote was taken, tradition prevailed. Whereas the NVI prides itself as being based on the most recent and contemporary scholarship, at this point it caved into tradition and ideological pressures.
The ethical issues surface once more. Pym speaks much about teamwork. He advocates for a prohibition of solitude.[7] I quite agree, and yet in the cases just discussed teamwork did not help in liberating the translation process from ideological conditioning and pressures. On the other hand, if indeed a translator is authorized to do the work based on his or her skills, then one wonders about the ethics of what I will call "skill suspension." The translator places his or her skills on hold, as it were, and privileges ideology, inherited or otherwise, when choosing a particular way of translating. I am not sure at all that translational quality is achieved in this manner.
By way of further illustration, it is important to mention that United Bible Societies in the Americas took a bold step when the revision of Reina Valera 1960 was undertaken. This revision is now known as the Reina Valera 1995. In this edition, Gen 1:2 reads "espíritu de Dios" (spirit of God). The exegetical decision to write "spirit" without a capital "s" caused much conflict and debate. In fact, it became quite a marketing issue because for many years this revision was rejected. Today, more and more leaders and National Bible Societies are accepting this 1995 edition, but it has been a slow process. As will be seen below, issues of marketing and competition also enter into the arena of ethical decision making in translation work. The NVI, published in 1999 by the International Bible Society, presented itself as a version that competed with the UBS Reina Valera 1995. Capitalized the word "spirit" in the Old Testament gave it a certain edge among conservative Protestant communities in Latin America.

Example 3
The case study that follows presents the situation where different cultures and ideologies come into play. As I began work on a translation project of the Old Testament with the Toba community in northern Argentina, I was immediately confronted by the cacique (chief). He had been the one who worked on the translation of the New Testament, which was published in 1981. Apparently, over the course of time, a theology of a benevolent God developed within the Toba community. Upon translating the Old Testament and finding that at times God was depicted as a jealous God or as an angry God, the cacique told me that this was unacceptable for the Toba community. He therefore refused to translate these adjectives that described God in a very anthropomorphic way because they diminished God and God's reputation would suffer tremendously in the community.
Facing this situation, I certainly echo Chesterman's questions: How are we to decide where the ethical responsibility of the translator stops—or does it stop at all? In this case, where does the ethical responsibility of the translation consultant/translator stop?[8] It is cases like these that lead me to question the ethical model offered by Chesterman. He develops a theoretical framework based on virtues such as trustworthiness, truthfulness, fairness, and the courage to take a risk in caring for others. He then suggests that all of these must be subordinate to "understanding."[9] But one immediately asks, Whose understanding? Is it the understanding of the cacique that must be accepted? Or is it the understanding of the translation consultant? In either case, it seems that there is another issue at stake as well, namely, "improving the source text." Pym argues correctly that improving the source text lies outside the responsibility of the translator. The source text should be considered a fait accompli.[10] This would suggest that if the source text speaks of a jealous God or a God who can get angry, this should not be changed or even nuanced. On the surface, this may seem to be an easy decision or solution for the translation consultant/translator. However, it is a well known fact that if the cacique does not approve of the translation project and the final product, no one in the community will read the translation. So, issues of power enter the arena of ethical decisions, along with matters of ideology and source text improvement. But perhaps the most important question is, Do we want the text to be read by the community? I submit once again that the questions continue to appear at every corner.

Steven M. Voth, Beth Seminary San Diego

Part 2, on Marketing, will appear in a future issue of The SBL Forum.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, "Texts That Linger, Words That Explode," Theology Today 54/2 (1997): 180-99.

[2] Brueggemann, "Texts That Linger," 181.

[3]  Aram Yengoyan, "Lyotard and Wittgenstein and the Question of Translation" in Translating Cultures (ed. P. Rubel and A. Rosman; Oxford: Berg, 2003), ch. 1.

[4] Steven Voth, "Righteousness and/or Justice–A Contextualized Analysis of ‘tsedeq' in the KJV (English) and the RVR (Spanish)," in The Challenge of Bible Translation (ed. Glen Scorgie, Mark Strauss, and Steven Voth: Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), ch. 14.

[5] Stanley Porter, "The Contemporary English Version and the Ideology of Translation," in Translating the Bible: Problems and Prospects (ed. Stanley Porter and Richard Hess; Sheffield:  Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 18.

[6] A. Pym, Translation and Text Transfer (New York: Perter Lang, 1992), ch. 7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] A. Chesterman, "Proposal for a Hieronymic Oath," The Translator 7-2 (2001): 139-54.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A. Pym, Translation and Text Transfer (New York: Perter Lang, 1992), ch. 7.

Citation: Steven M. Voth, " Towards an Ethic of Liberation for Bible Translation; Part 1: Ideology," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2008]. Online:


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