Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Batman and Alfred. Image source.
When I first started studying Chinese, I was in college in the US. I made friends with lots of international students from China, and practiced Chinese with them. I really admired the international students- they were so awesome and courageous, moving to a whole new country, a whole new culture, having to learn how things work in the US. I wanted to be like them.

Their English was very good, but I noticed they had weird words for things like trash cans and bathrooms. Bizarre, creative terms like "dust bin" or "wash room." I'm sure the first time someone said to me, "Can I take the rubbish?" I had NO IDEA what they were saying- both because of their accent and because who even uses the word "rubbish"?

As it turns out, the answer is British people. British people use the word "rubbish." Apparently, it just means trash. (I moved to China and taught English for 2 years, and I learned more British English in that time than I had in my entire life before. Chinese students all walking around saying cookies are "biscuits"- it's just madness over here.)

All this talk of "rubbish" reminds me of a sermon I heard many years ago, on Philippians 3:7-11.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
(The above excerpt comes from the ESV. The current NIV version uses the term "garbage" rather than "rubbish" in verse 8 there, but the one I read growing up, the 1984 NIV, said "I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ." And I'm pretty sure that was the version used in this sermon.)

The speaker- an American, giving a sermon to an American audience, in the United States- pointed out that word, "rubbish." She said, wow, such a unique word, we rarely use it. When you think of "rubbish" you think of a British butler with his nose turned up, holding a trash bag at arm's length, like he's so high-class and these things are so beneath him.

Her point was, the apostle Paul felt such disdain for his "gains" in his life before Christ, that he needed to choose a special word to properly convey that feeling. The apostle Paul wanted the Philippians to know that his feeling was the same as that of a proper British butler.

And like, when I phrase it that way, the anachronism is pretty obvious- like obviously Paul didn't hold stereotypes about what British butlers are like. Actually, the speaker was just trying to tell us that the word "rubbish" has a different feel than "garbage", like it's a term reserved for especially awful garbage. And that's true, in American English, but only because of American culture's idea of British butlers. It's still an anachronism.

If you're a British person reading "I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ," there's no shockingly unique word that stands out and demands us to question why it was chosen. It's just the same thing as if an American read "I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ."

(And I won't even go into how, if you look at the actual Greek word that Paul used, it should probably be translated more like "shit" or "crap.")

That sermon is a good example of how Christians of the "bible is inerrant" persuasion put so much emphasis on every individual word in the bible, and they find meaning that isn't even there. It's a translation of an ancient book- you can't take the individual English words too seriously. I often have to write English translations of Chinese documents for my job, and, you guys, translation is hard. For some reason, four sentences' worth of stuff somehow becomes all one sentence in Chinese. I have to decide where to break it up. And sometimes there's a word or concept that doesn't translate directly into English, because you'd have to understand some Chinese culture in order to get it. I have to decide whether to preserve individual words or just write a completely new sentence that gets the same point across and sounds much more natural to an American reader. And there's no "right" way to do it.

When you read an English version of the bible, you can be pretty sure the English translation matches the general idea of what the passage said, but oh my, DO NOT get stuck on individual words. (Maybe the best way to avoid this problem is to read several different translations- if a specific word gets translated in a few different ways, maybe don't put too much emphasis on that exact word and how it feels to you, a native speaker of American English [or whatever your language background is]). Really, it's kind of deceptive how the bibles we read are full of English words we understand and sentences that make sense to us. It hides how completely foreign the bible truly is.

Here's another way that Christians get stuck on individual words in the bible: I've often heard people say things like "This bible verse has the word 'trust' in it, so I looked up 'trust' in the dictionary, and one definition was [definition that isn't the one being used in this verse], and wow, isn't it amazing to think [whatever the conclusion would be if that was the definition that the writer meant, rather than the definition that's more likely based on the context]."

So bizarre. The translator just chose the word "trust" because it was the English word with the closest meaning to what the writer was saying. That doesn't mean every possible definition of "trust" in Webster's dictionary applies to that verse.

Or there's this: "The word that's translated as [whatever English word] comes from the same Greek word they used for [some interesting imagery about farm animals or whatever]. So really, the writer meant that we [do whatever thing] in the same way that [a donkey pulls a cart or whatever]."

Uh, not really. (This is really the same mistake as the "I looked it up in an English dictionary" thing, except you used a dictionary from the original language instead.) Just because the same word is used in multiple circumstances doesn't mean that, when we use it in one context, we're always thinking about how this situation is similar to another context where that word would also be used. It would be like if someone read "we were kicked out" and started teaching that "this word 'kick' is the same word they used in their sports games, so the original audience would have imagined big, strong athletes when reading this." Yes, in some cases it's true that a word has a certain special "feel" because of the other ways it can be used, and that affects its meaning- but sometimes it totally doesn't. (This is especially true in Chinese, where more complicated words are often made of smaller, simpler words, but nobody is thinking of the meaning of those smaller words when they say them. Like "小心 [xiǎo xīn]" means "be careful"- but "小 [xiǎo]" means "little" and "心 [xīn]" means "heart." Why on earth do they mean "be careful" when you put them together? Who knows? But when you tell someone to be careful in Chinese, you don't involuntarily think of little hearts.) You really have to have a deep understanding of the language and culture to know when those other situations would affect the meaning or "feel" of a word, and when they wouldn't.

Don't take individual words in the bible so seriously. It's just a translation, and maybe they picked the best English word but that doesn't mean it has the exact same meaning as the original Hebrew or Greek. Translation is hard.

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