Translation and Interpretation

By Andrew Gale, Executive Director of Global Strategy

Anytime we translate something, we are interpreting. This is an important concept in intercultural studies because it recognizes the role and bias of the person doing the translation. When someone says something in English and I translate it into Spanish, I am communicating in Spanish what I believe the person speaking English intended to say. Certainly, I can directly translate words, but this can cause confusion, for instance, when there are idioms or context-specific ideas. Asked to translate the phrase “this person is driving me up a wall” into Spanish, I could choose to directly translate those words, but it would make no sense. Speakers of Spanish don’t use that phrase. But knowing the context of the English phrase, I would interpret the phrase as “this person is bothering me” or some variation of that.

The same is true for biblical translation. When we read the Bible in English, we are reading a translation from Greek (which is often a dictation from the likely original Aramaic). We trust those who do the translation to interpret the meaning of the text accurately, but they are always interpreting with their own context, history, baggage, and bias.

Most people have no quarrel with the idea that translation is interpretation, but it is important to go a step further: reading is also always interpretation. When reading, I am taking what the author has written and trying to understand it through the lens of my own context and knowledge. Consider what happens when we read emails or texts. How many times have we misread context or tone in an email, causing us to understand something different than the writer intended?

The same is true when we approach Scripture. When we read Scripture, we are reading a translation—and we are reading it through our lens. Knowing this doesn’t make Scripture any less powerful or reliable, but it should cause us to approach our reading and understanding of Scripture with humility. Holy Spirit gives us insight as we read the life-changing words of the Bible through our biases—cultural and personal.

For those of us engaged in cross-cultural work, we live in the intersection of translation and interpretation all the time. We know how hard communication is in another language, even if we can speak the language fairly well. For me, this means that listening to the ways that my sisters and brothers around the world interpret Scripture is an important part of my spiritual formation and learning as a Christ follower.

How has interpretation shaped your understanding of Scripture? What global leaders are shaping your understanding of Scripture?

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