The Bible at Cultural Crossroads: From Translation to Communication

Harriet S. Hill St Jerome Publishing, Manchester, UK April 1, 2006
Purchase

Hill, a translation consultant with SIL (the Summer Institute of Linguistics), has produced a volume that is both a thoroughly documented argument in favor of a new Bible translation method and an interesting account of Bible translation work in a missionary context.

The impetus for this project was Hill’s own experience with Bible translation work among the Adioukrou people of Côte d’Ivoire. Despite the existence of a translation for the Adioukrou, she felt that something was missing. There was more to the message than was contained in the translation. Hill suspected that background or contextual information could fill in the gaps for the readers of the Bible. This makes sense. Shared ideas, concepts, culture, and so forth, permit communicators to economize their use of language. All aspects of a message do not need to be explicitly communicated. Implied information is assumed and thus communication is more efficient. This position is explained and defended in chapters 1–3. The basis for this approach is relevance theory, a communication theory introduced and described in these chapters. Relevance theory departs from traditional code model explanations of communication in favor of a model that among other things emphasizes inference and intention. This approach leads Hill to explore both the original contexts of the biblical books and that of the modern receptors in order to determine which aspects of these contexts are shared and which aspects are different. In addition concepts that receptors assume are shared but in reality are different are explored in order to minimize misunderstanding based on false assumptions. Hill believes and models an approach that attempts to bring the context of the original to the modern audience. Relevance theory provides a powerful method that incorporates proven observations about communication into the translation and interpretation processes.

Hill has found that when translators focus on only the text, communicative success is hindered. However, when the focus is on the recipients and their needs, success is more likely. This does not mean that the translation is less important. Rather, out of concern for communicating the Bible, the translator must consider the needs of the reader.

Chapters 4–5 are packed with research. To demonstrate her thesis Hill produced a number of studies with three different types of translations: a straight translation, a translation with footnotes providing contextual information, and an expanded translation that provided contextual information within the text itself. To her surprise (and to this reviewer’s), she found that the translation with footnotes resulted in the best comprehension. She tested about three hundred respondents in detailed survey interviews, which provided strong evidence for her findings. She discovered that when readers had contextual information about the background of the Bible, comprehension more than doubled (pp. 63–64). Although the Adioukrou prefer oral communication, Hill found that the use of the written word resulted in better comprehension (pp. 68–71). Written literature in Adioukrou is primarily religious in nature; therefore those reading the language may be more inclined toward religious matters. Thus those with the ability to read may be more interested in the Bible, which may result in greater comprehension of the Scriptures (p.71).

Chapters 6–9 are concerned with context and its importance. Chapter 6 opens with a discussion of the use of cultural data and then proceeds to explore both the first-century Jewish culture of the Gospels and the modern context of the Adioukrou. This is crucial to Hill’s method. Knowing both the culture of the ancient book and the culture of the modern reader, translators must then determine similarities, differences, and potential misunderstanding. With this information they must attempt to understand the book in its context (interpretation) and consider the best way to communicate as much of the meaning as possible (translation). In chapter 9 she applies this to John 13:1–30.

The book includes five appendixes, a bibliography, and an index. The appendixes include translations and other examples of the model’s results. Each chapter concludes with study questions that will benefit those involved in Bible translation.

Some readers may not agree with all the details in this book. For example, although acknowledging the risk, Hill advocates using local terms when possible (pp. 42–46, 126–54). Some may not agree with her choices. Opinions may differ over specific terms, but as long as each case is taken on its own merit with the goal of accurate communication in mind, the results should be positive. Hill arrives at her own conclusions only after careful consideration. Also some may not be sympathetic to Hill’s openness to different types of translation (functional, idiomatic, etc.; pp. 53–54). However, she is correct here. Different needs demand different translations. These are minor issues, and those who disagree will find that this does not affect the argument of the book.

This book is well written and engaging. It persuasively argues for an approach to Bible translation that should provide better comprehension for the readers. A criticism is that the use of the ancient background material did not always reflect most recent New Testament scholarship and methodology. It could have been more thorough, up to date, and/or accurate. For example a more critical and nuanced discussion of ancient sources such as Josephus and the Testament of Solomon is necessary before they can be used effectively to reconstruct the context of the Gospels (p. 111). Secondary sources also need more critical evaluation (e.g., p. 115). And variations in Judaism should be considered. Hill is not a New Testament scholar, however, and she has not written a New Testament monograph. More thorough work in first-century history and culture will enhance the results of her method (as she acknowledges, pp. 48–49). This is an opportunity for biblical scholars, linguists, and translators to work together for a common goal.

This volume is certainly helpful for anyone considering (or already involved in) Bible translation work. Other methods of Bible translation are available and are widely used (much more so than relevance theory approaches). These theories have a lot to offer. However, because Hill’s relevance theory method is based on the nature of communication itself, prioritizes contexts, and is not limited to the linguistic aspect of the process, to this reviewer it seems preferable.

Bible translators are not the only readers who will benefit from this book. Although there is a lot of detail about the research related to comprehension that may be most interesting to specialists, there is much more here. The insights and method in this book are of significant value for exegetes, pastors, and anyone interested in understanding and teaching the Bible. Much of the information in the book can easily be applied in teaching the Scriptures. The conclusion that contextual information impacts comprehension certainly applies to teaching. Also the book is an encouragement for readers who wish to know more about missions and/or Bible translation. The book is filled with information about the Adioukrou, their Christian history, and how their culture impacts their beliefs. The volume is full of stories from Hill’s own experience, which make the book read like a story. It is refreshing to read a book where passion for Bible literacy is so prevalent.

Unfortunately the book is not easily available in the United States. One source is the publisher’s website http://www.stjerome.co.uk/.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

Subscribe Today