Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thoughts on Translation & Interpretation

Scripture must be interpreted, and this activity is always shaped by the theological and cultural context within which interpreters participate. It is simply not possible to step back from the influence of tradition in the act of interpretation or in the ascription of meaning. Interpretive communities that deny the reality of this situation and seek an interpretation unencumbered by the “distorting” influence of fallible “human traditions” are in fact enslaved by interpretive patterns that are allowed to function uncritically precisely because they are unacknowledged (Franke, 2001, p. 201).

A lot can be gleaned from the above insightful reading, and as I have been reflecting a lot recently on the epistemology of special revelation, I found this to nicely summarize my thoughts on the relationship between interpretive matrices and translations.

In my recent posts, I have made a deliberate distinction between the terms “interpretation” and “translation.” These words contain overlapping semantic ranges, and, depending on the use, are highly interchangeable. In my recent use, I have reserved the term translation for the act of moving linguistic communication from one language into another. I have similarly limited my use of the term interpretation to the act of constructing meaning from a text. I have emphasized recently in both my posts and responses that the act of moving linguistic communication from one language to another (translation) is inherently an act of constructing meaning from or applying meaning (interpretation) to a text. To state this in simpler terms: Translation is an act of interpretation.

Franke here acknowledges the indebtedness of the interpreter to her interpretive matrix. One’s interpretive matrix is inherently limited by her propriospect. Propriospect is the totality of one’s experience (and knowledge) of the world as used to communicate and to interpret the communication cues of others. Franke here asserts that it is impossible to divorce one’s propriospect from an interpretive community, and to refuse to acknowledge the ideological influences that inhere to one’s reading of the Bible is to allow the same to operate unrestricted, unacknowledged, and unregulated.

Unacknowledged matrices are unregulated matrices. The act of metacognition is to practice awareness of one’s mental processes and to self-regulate the same. Acceptance of the Bible as special revelation does not eliminate the need to pass the same through the interpretive matrices of one’s propriospect. Uncritical interpretation ensues when one is unable or unwilling to assert metacognitive awareness.

The use of the Bible by English readers is encumbered by two significant interpretive trappings. First, the use of English itself limits, obfuscates, and creates unwarranted trajectories in a reading. These limitations, obfuscations, and trajectories are created by the biases of the translator(s), and the reader must acknowledge the indebtedness of the translation to the same. Second, the reader is encumbered by her own propriospect and metacognition.

It disappoints me to observe how many Bible readers take their reading of the Bible as the infallible message of God. Ironically, in so doing, they are asserting that their propriospective matrices and the final interpretations themselves are infallible. Special revelation in the form of a written text is useless when the horizons of understanding are recognized and applied.


PeterS said...

Now that I have probably completely confused the reader, I ask for Eric to construct a simple aphorism to summarize what I said. I have a tendency to overly complicate matters.

Cack Man said...

Peter wrote: "It disappoints me to observe how many Bible readers take their reading of the Bible as the infallible message of God. Ironically, in so doing, they are asserting that their propriospective matrices and the final interpretations themselves are infallible."

A provocative thought, this. In claiming my Bible infallible, I'm claiming my own viewpoint infallible. Too true.

Peter, congrats on defining propriospect in the article, and on not throwing in a gratuitous "sitz-im-leben" :) If you're asking for one of my standard oversimplifications, how about: all exegesis is stained with eisegesis.

Here's another thought that I'd like to tie in. If one has read the Bible many times over, and believes with unwavering resolve in the tenets of her faith, what harm would it do her to approach the text, just once, as completely alien? What harm is there in performing an epoché (that is, a suspension of belief)?

If a person picks up Homer's Odyssey, she doesn't do so with the assumption that there is a personal message in it for her. She doesn't assume that Homer has revealed some deep mystery about life, or provided a path to salvation. She doesn't wonder if the translator has perverted Zeus's intended message or, for that matter, if Zeus even exists.

She simply reads, enjoys, and peradventure learns some insights about Greek myth and culture. As Peter has pointed out, it's not possible to approach the text completely baggage-free but, to the other extreme, reading the Odyssey from a standpoint that Zeus is using it to communicate a personal message to you would result in the most ludicrous interpretation imaginable.

Did I just say peradventure? Damn you, King James!


Tandi said...

I believe this post was made by Peter. It is obvious by the vocabulary, the tone, the linguistic style, and the philosophical slant that this post was made by Peter. The intrinsic evidence is apparent to anyone who knows Peter well. If I save this post to my computer and read it again ten years from now, I could say that these words have been preserved and that I still believe it is the writing of Peter. However, this does not mean that I understand it fully or that my interpretation of it is correct. In fact, I don’t really understand it at all. Yet I am completely convinced Peter wrote it. My belief is unshakeable.

Believing in the ultimate Authorship and preservation of the Bible, even via translation, does not translate into thinking my understanding is inerrant. I recognize my propriospect. Your quote seems to be from an Emergent source.....this explains the ambiguity.

I do see that, while helpful, something is lost in Eric’s translation. Yet you admit that your writing needs translation to be understood by the common man. What is required, though, in translation work, is not a loose paraphrase, but a faithful rendering of the original language by careful and reverent scholars.

Peter, I much prefer your former writings when you were a believer in the perspicuous, plenary inspiration of Scripture. Some of those writings at your first blog were awesome, maybe even inspired (not in the strict Biblical sense). They were meaningful, insightful, and well worth the stretch to understand them. I cling to the hope that you will find your way back to the path of life from the brambles of your current explorations.

PeterS said...

Hello Tandi,

I appreciate the thought you put into this. You are obviously thinking about these issues, and I would like to reflect on what you stated.

First, this is not an Emergent source. The author is an Evangelical professor of theology at Wheaton near Chicago. He penned this prior to the popularization of the Emergent Church movement. His sentiments, though, do coincide with some that I have read from other Emergent Church writers.

A text that cannot be understood is meaningless. If the text is believed to be infallible, but is not understood or interpreted, it has no meaning. However, if one interprets it and posits that her reading or interpretation is wholly correct and completely faithful to the text, she is asserting that her interpretation is infallible.

If “careful and reverent scholars” were democratically sampled from an array of denominations, each one would have a different translational bias. The more extreme a denomination is, the more obvious the bias would be—though all would be equally biased. The seventh-day Adventist would prefer to have the Hebrew word for “hell” always translated as “Sheol.” The Pentecostal would rather have the word “in” for the “baptism in the Spirit” of I Corinthians 12:13. Some would argue strongly for the subjective genitive for Galatians 2:15 (“faith of Christ”) where others, more in line with a Reformational understanding, would posit the objective genitive for the same (“faith in Christ”). And, yes, all of these translational issues matter to the theology of these groups, and many of these readings can be defended quite well. However, it will remain forever impossible to convey the semantic range into English or any language.