Translating Culture

There is no good way to communicate the concept of the χαριτ* word group in Western Culture at least in some texts- or a lot of texts.

Yes, Yes, we have the word “grace.” But that word is misses the point too often today. Unmerited favor? Close, but not close enough. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary is helpful on this point:

1 elegance of movement.
2 courteous good will.
(graces) an attractively polite manner of behaving.
3 (in Christian belief) the free and unearned favour of God.
a divinely given talent or blessing.
a person’s favour: he fell from grace with the tabloids.
4 a period officially allowed for fulfilment of an obligation.
5 a short prayer of thanks said before or after a meal.
6 (His, Her, or Your Grace) a title or form of address for a duke, duchess, or archbishop.
v. lend honour to by one’s presence.
be an attractive presence in or on.
be in someone’s good (or bad) graces be regarded by someone with favour (or disfavour).
the (Three) Graces Greek Mythology three beautiful goddesses, daughters of Zeus, believed to personify and bestow charm, grace, and beauty.
with good (or bad) grace in a willing (or reluctant) manner.
origin ME: via OFr. from L. gratia, from gratus ‘pleasing, thankful’; rel. to grateful.
Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Now, definition #2 is closer to χαριτ* than the “in Christian belief” meaning, though perhaps “a person’s favo[u]r” works well too. But the way meaning works, we get the rest of the baggage too. That’s right, while we know there’s only one meaning in a give context, all the various meanings impact each other (unless they’re homonyms, which is not the case here).

But the truth is that grace as a translation of the χαριτ* word group has more to do with history than it does with meaning. It used to be a very accurate translation back when it functioned as part of the West’s system of patronage. Patronage was when someone higher up showed favor to someone of lower standing and in the Greco-Roman world as David deSilva and Frederick Danker have shown. That’s gone in our world and now to patronize someone is a horrible thing to do!

But look at the idioms that use the word grace:
a person’s favour: he fell from grace with the tabloids”
This sort of statement would have originally been a metaphor that portrayed the tabloids as the patron and this person as the client (another word which as changed).
“You grace us with your presence.”

This was a much more flattering statement 150 years ago because it basically means: You’re better than anyone else here and even simply by entering the room, you’ve shown us favor and become our patron[ess].
All of this isn’t to say that we don’t have patronage systems today. Okay, so maybe we do, but we don’t call them that. We have sponsors, supporters, and at least when it comes art, we still call them patrons – unlike the rest of Americans, apparently Artists (though probably missionaries too) don’t mind being patronized.

But what do we when we come to places like Ephesians 1.7, where we’ve received redemption “κατὰ τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ“? And no, “according to the riches of his grace” doesn’t work. Because no average person can tell you what that means. And if you have explain it, its not a good translation. Its failed translation. We might have as well have left the Bible in Latin 500 years ago.

So as Nida said at some point somewhere…the majority of translation problems arise from cultural anthropology, not theology.*

*Unfortunately, I cannot remember where that is from – other than that is posted by the chalkboard in room 7 of the Mahler Building at GIAL, but I haven’t been at GIAL since the beginning of June 08 and am trusting my memory to get it right.

7 thoughts on “Translating Culture

  1. Well, before the Latin, there was the Greek Septuagint. Here’s one of many passages:

    καὶ ἤρεσεν αὐτῷ τὸ κοράσιον καὶ εὗρεν χάριν ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ,

    It’s Esther 2:9. Karen H. Jobes translates that (“Old Greek”) into English as “The girl pleased him and found his favor.” (And Jobes also translates the “Alpha Text” of the LXX as a parallel: “Esther found his personal favor and compassion.”)

    Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton translates it: “And the damsel pleased him, and she found favour in his sight;”

    Esther is a nice place to look for non-theological senses of χάρι* as (before the LXX anyway) it has no mention of God.

    If you go back to far (as to Homer) or too far forward (as with “Ephesians”), then there’s the theological, metaphorical mix. You’ve given Paul. Here’s Homer (Iliad 5.874):

    χάριν δ’ ἄνδρεσσι φέροντες.
    we try to ferry grace to mortals
    we try to give favor to mortals
    we try to give gratitude to mortals
    we try to delight in mortals

  2. Well said on the difficulty of “grace.” It’s a jargon word now, with it’s own historical development. Nevertheless I would say that putting the bar for translation at ‘requires no further explaination’ may be too high. I often have to explain my English sentences and word usage.

  3. Kurk: You’re quite right. I’m going to have to spend some time in the LXX – which I’ve been meaning to do anyway.

    Vlad: So maybe I was a little hyperbolic. But I’m sticking to my point. Translation is different than normal speech in that we have the opportunity to make things clear. Confusing in conversation arise normal off the fly speaking. Translation intentional and thus has not excuse for being obscure.

    David: How many times was it really? 5? 6? 23?

  4. I happened to be reading Ephesians 3 this morning in NLT and saw a consistent use of “special favor.” CEV normally opts for “kindness” in these situations but “special favor” actually sounds better to me.

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