Lost in Translation

Article by   September 2005
"In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth."-Genesis 1:1

The above translation of Gen.1:1 is taken from the hippest new version of the Bible to date. Does the language look familiar? Well, it might for some of you. If you are among the millions who use their cellular or mobile phone to not only talk but text message, then chances are you recognize the lingo.

According to a press release last month, the Bible society in Australia has managed to convert all 31,173 verses of the Bible into the language of text messaging. It's an attempt to make the Bible more accessible, available to those who are technologically oriented, to bring the Word into the 21st century.

George Rodriguez, the Scripture Director of the Australian Bible Society and the visionary behind this project, understands the innovation as the beginning of something really big, something on the scale of say, the printing press! As he is reported saying in one interview, "The first ever book published on a printing press was the Bible, and we're doing the same thing with text messaging."

Now, the presence and use of cell phones has grown exponentially over the past decade. Similar to many advances in world of technology, cell phones, which were originally enjoyed by the privileged few, quickly became mainstream and eventually (not very long actually) became a kind-of modern necessity. Today, people of all ages, nationalities, and economic strata are not just encouraged but expected to own a cell phone. It's just the way things are.

It would make sense, then, from at least one vantage point, to accommodate the Bible to the vocabulary (is "vocabulary" the right term?) of one of the most widely used mediums of communication in the modern world. Imagine the good that will come of it. It's a no-brainer, right?

Well, the ability to translate the Bible into the language of text messaging does not mean we should. Wisdom, I would contend, would teach us to pull back on the reigns of "progress" and consider what unintended consequences might result from this adaptation.

To begin, we must come to grips with a belief many of us hold about technology, namely, that it is good. This presupposition is rarely challenged today, since it is so widely held to be true. For many of us this belief is not a conscious choice or intention, but something we have assumed true--largely because the culture has so successfully shaped our thinking. It is these assumptive beliefs, however, which so easily take root in our subconscious and exert decisive influence on the way we live. This is why the news of a text message Bible strikes almost everyone as good news.

With that caveat aside, let me offer a few suggestions as to why the text-message Bible may be contributing to the problem it is attempting to alleviate.

First, we should challenge the proponents' claim (not to mention their excitement) that the new text-message Bible is an innovation that overcomes certain language and cultural barriers and provides a "translation" that younger generations will embrace. Why? The answer is simple. Accessibility to the Bible has not produced a culture more interested in the Bible. In fact, there are more Bibles in print in differing languages and translations today than ever before in church history. But the excitement of that reality, at least in the American and European fronts, is quelled by the pandemic of biblical illiteracy. Facing the hard facts in this matter should give us reason to question the claims of proponents and simultaneously challenge us to ask a better question. Is accessibility to the Bible, if indeed that is what this new innovation provides, the real problem? Could there be something deeper, more serious lying behind our biblical ignorance?

On a similar line of thought, if we assume for sake of argument that the text message Bible does make the Bible more accessible, should we be concerned that such widespread familiarity will actually diminish our appreciation of divine truth? There is a tendency, a temptation you might say to trivialize the importance of something so easy to come by. It is a temptation we face daily in modern America, where the number of Bibles in the average American household has risen as knowledge of the Bible's content has steadily fallen. You see the dilemma. Those who own a cell phone and would want access to the text message Bible already own a Bible for themselves, possibly two or three and all in differing translations! But if the truth was found out, I'm afraid we would often find those Sacred Tomes stuck on the shelf in some forgotten corner of the home with a full inch of dust on top!

And if the above concerns are not enough, there is the important question of respect and reverence for the text of Scripture. In the rising tide of technology, many prognosticators have been concerned that today's machines are becoming increasingly more human-like, but the bigger concern, however, is that humans are becoming more machine-like. Indeed, what Winston Churchill noted about architecture may be equally true of technology. We make the machines; then the machines make us.

Now, with respect to divine truth, such anthropological and sociological propensities should not be too quickly dismissed. For the permanence of the Word, the very infallibleness of truth is being adapted to mediums that are most often characterized by short, trivial, and easily forgotten communication. There is something mystifying even distressing to the human psyche to own an instrument by which the holy Word of God can be accessed in one minute and a pizza ordered in the next. The potential to misappropriate the value of God's Word is high. The temptation to cheapen and make light of the enduring and eternal quality of divine truth is possibly unavoidable.

Oh, and while we are talking about technological tendencies, one other observation seems appropriate here. E-mail and text messaging, among other communicative technologies, have often reduced the complexity of language to a status of mere information swapping. The notion that says, "So long as the information gets across, communication is successful," may contribute or at least maintain the false belief that truth is synonymous with data. Such delimitation in communication has done much to forward a cultural mindset that perceives information as the only goal, and reckons the way or means such information is expressed as, for the most part, irrelevant.

The danger, it seems, with the text-message Bible is that the message of Scripture, the corpus of divine truth, is being reduced to information. Scripture verses are treated as little more than aphorisms of inspiration, on par with your average holiday card. This delimiting in the nature of truth could very well further stunt our ability to comprehend the message of Scripture. But this is just the beginning; we have said nothing of how such "advancement" would wrench verses from there God-given contexts, divorce us from the aesthetic sensibilities in the text, smooth over the literary intricacies and nuances of the text, etc., etc... The list could go on.

Respect and reverence for what God has said in his Word should drive all attempts at making the Bible more accessible. For in truth, the Word is not only to be accessed (a word we've picked up from the techno-world) but lingered over and savored. It is to be read, studied, memorized, meditated upon, and enjoyed for its depth and profundity. In other words, it is to be treated in a manner and communicated in a means that upholds its holy character. We already see through a glass darkly, adding a second piece of glass is too risky, too dangerous. There is simply too much at stake.


 

 

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