Lost in Translation: Authorial Intent and Localization

Today we’re joined by Kaze as we continue a final series of Throwback Thursday posts to run through the end of 2020 and celebrating our 10th anniversary! Enjoy his temporary return to “Lost in Translation,” and continue to stay tuned as other former and current writers revisit their own past columns in the coming weeks. Warning: As always, Kaze’s thoughts are likely to stir things up and you may disagree with his assessments, but I have no doubt that they’ll give you pause and consider important aspects of faith.

When it comes to translation, a big topic that often comes up is authorial intent and how to localize that properly to a new audience. Contrary to the idea of literal translation, localization is about translation of what the author intends to convey into a different culture. Due to things like cultural context or language specific idioms, localization will significantly change the words in order to convey the same feelings and get the same reaction from the audience that the original intended to. In other words, localization aims to prevent meaning from being lost in translation; in exchange, the original text is lost instead. A well known example among anime fans might be the English dub of Pokemon changing onigiri into jelly donuts. A lot of people have said that this localization was silly as the rice balls were obviously not donuts. However, I can say that when I was 10 and heard that, I understood through context that they were talking about a snack to eat and you can be sure that I didn’t really think too hard about how strange those donuts looked. Perhaps something in between may have been better? Maybe to be more accurate. But localization considers the audience, and if the audience is a bunch of children, then maybe donuts is a pretty good choice. Either way, localization is difficult with no easy answer. While there are many good options that can be argued for, it is much harder to argue that something is the best option.

There was another example that happened relatively recently which stirred a lot of drama. The well known term tsundere was translated to “fragile male ego,” which is extremely different from a literal translation perspective. However, when looking at the actual context of the conversation, the sarcasm involved and character personalities, and the actual author’s opinion on the translation being accurate, it was a very good way to localize the word. But of course, there was some strong criticism over the word choice, and most of it completely ignored or went against the public opinions of the original author. It didn’t matter to people if the localization maintained the intended meaning of a sarcastic insult; people became overly focused on the literal translation and insisted that the words were left unchanged even if the contextual meaning was lost to the audience as result.

Translations are always controversial no matter what. People prefer literal translations, others prefer localizations, and still others prefer something in between. When it comes to the Bible, it does not matter if the original text was ordained, inspired, or directed by God; there will always be a group which points at a translation and says “that’s not the right way to translate it.” In many ways, that’s exactly why there are so many different translations of the Bible. And yet, we’ve built up a culture that looks at Biblical translations as a perfect reflection of God’s words. How can this be true in a world where so many different translations exist of the same text, where language evolves over time, and with people who will inevitably interpret identical text differently depending on society and cultural context?

Martin Luther has a lot of interesting quotes when it came to his German translation of the Bible. “Your reader must be able to read God’s Word as though it were written yesterday.” And “I endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew.” While I obviously have no clue what his German translation reads like to a native German, it is clear that Martin Luther believed in localization of the Bible rather than a literal translation. But more importantly, if we follow the localization belief that it must be read “as though it were written yesterday,” that would mean the Bible would continuously need to be re-translated as society changes and progresses. In a world where we can instantly talk to anyone in on earth and scientifically explain nearly every disease that afflicts us, many of the concepts in the Bible appear as archaic ideas that we have no use for anymore. If Martin Luther made Biblical figures German, then what would the Bible look like if the people were American? What if they were Japanese? These answers are completely different if you localized it to the 1800s versus today, and it will surely change again if you look at people 100, 200, or 500 years from now.

To go back to the earlier example of fragile male ego, perhaps that makes for a good translation now. But imagine a world 1000 years from now where the concepts of male and female do not even exist anymore. (While I realize this is a sensitive topic, just think of how quickly ideas on gender and sexuality have shifted in the last 50 years. 1,000 years is a long time for everything about language and concepts to change) In such a world, the translation would simply not be understood even if it’s recognized as a “concept that people used 1,000 years ago.” At best, people would probably argue about what the original meaning was…hmm that sounds familiar.

The Bible may be our only source of God’s truth, but it is influenced by the translations over time and the interpretations of each individual’s culture. To claim otherwise is to argue that every translation that exists is equally true with no differences and ignore the countless denominations that arose out of disagreements surrounding the text yet exist under the umbrella term of Christianity. We’ve reached the point where the disagreements between fellow Christians are so expansive and varied, that it is hard to imagine how we could all be using the same text as the source of our beliefs.

All of this culminates to one big point I’ve pondered about lately. I think a lot of people can accept that the generic idea that the Bible should be localized so we can understand its intent easier, but what if the very idea of laws and rules which God gave Israel and the Jews were reflective of the specific time period and culture rather than laws which transcended time? Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor, but when it came to many of the questions people asked him about specific situations and laws, he always responded in parables. Unlike strict rules to follow in any situation, parables are more nebulous and generic ideas to apply to how we live and treat others. In fact, unlike many of the Biblical laws that atheists tend to disagree with, the parables often teach life lessons that do stand the test of time and people of many different theological beliefs can agree on. Following this train of thought, perhaps loving people like Jesus means to localize the laws themselves to fit the current culture and society. Rather than thinking about what is needed to maintain the morality of Biblical laws, we should consider what kind of laws will create and foster a loving society that imitates Jesus.

Unfortunately, Biblical laws are often taught as an absolute where breaking them would be considered sin, the ultimate evil. Yet, Jesus was the one who broke many Old Testament laws and completely upended the religious teachings of the time. It seems plausible to me that fixation on laws rather than love is something Jesus wanted to end. Christians are always focused on what constitutes sin or not, but in the same way that we claim good works are a product of love, perhaps sin is more of a concept that involves the absence of love rather than a list of specific actions and nothing else. If this is truly the case then it would mean the archaic Old Testament laws which we no longer follow are indeed a byproduct of the time period and culture from thousands of years ago—laws which God gave which would foster a loving society at the time but no longer did once society had advanced to the time of the Romans. And so when we apply this logic to today’s society, it means we must think about new rules that will create a loving society in the culture that we live in without restricting ourselves to merely following an unchanging set of laws. For example, one could imagine a society where legalizing murder creates a less violent society.  As society progresses and humanity changes its views on life, laws which seem immoral now may make for more loving people a thousand years from now. If we don’t continuously localize the love of Jesus, then we are keeping a literal translation of the law but losing the authorial intent of them in translation.

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