Lost and found in translation

Last night we were greeted with the tragic news that the person killed in Jerusalem by a terrorist bomb was not only a British citizen, but a Wycliffe Bible translator. Mary Gardner was there to learn Hebrew in order to improve her skills in translation work. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and colleagues at Wycliffe.

Why would someone risk their life, or at least suffer considerable personal sacrifice, for the sake of translation? The answer is that translation of the Bible is at the heart of Christian faith, for two reasons.

The first relates to the Christian faith’s unique global vision. There is no ‘Wycliffe Qur’an Translators’ or ‘Translation Committee for the Bhagavad Gita.’ This is because, from the very beginning, the followers of Jesus had a centripetal (rather than centrifugal) desire to make the good news relevant to others. The roots of this can be found in Jesus’ restlessness to move on to other villages early in his ministry in Mark 1.38, and in John 10.16 in his declaration that ‘there are sheep who are not of this sheepfold’, a reference not to other religions but to other ethnic groups who will come to believe. In the early Christian community, it finds expression in the ‘Great Commission’ in Matt 28, and specifically Jesus promise in Acts 1, that his disciples will be his witnesses ‘in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’

But it finds its specific expression in the need to translate. In John 1.35-39 John the Baptist has pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples, and they follow:

Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which being translated means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

We often miss the significance of this. Here, John (the gospel writer) is clearly telling the story to people of a different language and culture from those in the story. In order to make the story known and understood, he must translate. In other words, the Christian understanding of mission puts at its heart the task of translating good news from one culture, context and language into another. In other religious traditions, the would-be believer must go to the culture and context of the faith. But in Christianity, the faith comes to the culture and context of the would-be believer.

The second reason why translation is at the heart of Christian faith is because of its vision for (for want of a better word) democratisation. The vision we find in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere is of God at work, not through a religious elite (be that a priestly caste or a scribal profession) but through the whole people of God. There is no doubt that this was a key attraction of this new faith to the whole social strata in the Empire, and it was something rediscovered at the Reformation. Indeed, the movement for the translation of the Bible into English was driven by this concern to give the Bible to the common people. In Tyndale’s famous saying:

I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!

For his pains, he lost his life.

I believe that all ministry has at its heart this costly task of translation. It might not be of quite the same kind as Mary Gardner or William Tyndale, but we are all called to make the message of this first-century Jew Jesus, and what God did in and through him, understandable and accessible to those around us. But like Mary and William, it means we have some challenges ahead.

In the end that is why I believe that, whatever its faults, residential training must form an essential part of the church’s equipping of its future leaders. To be a translator, you must be immersed both in the world you are translating to and in the world you are translating from. This second is going to involve some serious study, which is why people need to take time aside to be equipped.

Here is Tom Wright on what he considers the three essentials in training for ministry—study, prayer and love:


(Thanks to John Byron for highlighting this.)

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

5 thoughts on “Lost and found in translation”

  1. You’re so right: the “translating” (contextualizing) of the gospel is seen at work right in the NT itself, as Paul and John (and Hebrews?) seemingly leave behind the “kingdom” language of the synoptics to express the same gospel faithfully in new contexts.

    As for residential training, I couldn’t agree more. As a long-time resident in America’s “Bible belt,” I often see a kind of pseudo-contextualizaion going on: for the unwary, the culture not only can shape the expression of the message but can also shape the message itself in ways that effectively blunt the radical nature of the gospel. This is what enabled generation upon generation to listen Sunday after Sunday to the “good news” of personal salvation but ignore the (pesonal as well as social) ethical demands. Concentrated training in a theological college/seminary should help future leaders to think through both the proper ways and the pitfalls of “being all things to all” people.

  2. The last chapter of my dissertation is about contextualizing the gospel. Before now I’d never really thought of the link between this and translation but I guess any process which opens up the gospel to people who otherwise would not hear it (or understand it) is a form of translation. Also Tom Wright is ace. I couldn’t agree more. I just need more time at SJC to become fluent in Greek and Hebrew now!

  3. Thanks Louise. In fact contextualisation, translation and interpretation are all part of the same thing. The word in John 1.38 is ‘met-hermeneuo’ and you know what word we get from that!

  4. Thank you Ian. An interesting post. ‘…we are all called to make the message of this first-century Jew Jesus, and what God did in and through him, understandable and accessible to those around us.’ This makes also for such enriching work. I have been reading about how our explanations of what happened at the cross work so differently somewhere like Japan which operates a culture with a weighty honour/shame theme. Ideas about what we think signifies ‘hospitality’ differ there too. It takes a real ‘love’ of people and a willingness to really ‘live with’ them for the ‘translation’ process to bear fruit, so we must continue to raise people’s awareness to the roles people like Mary Gardner were called to play.


Leave a comment