Disability Conference part 2

Some more ideas coming out of the disability conference that I was at last week. If this doesn’t make any sense, then you may want to read the other blog entry relating to this conference, or drop me an email.
Today I am writing about theology, disability and Bible translation. These thoughts are being developed out of an exposition of the encounter between Jesus and the disabled woman in Luke 13 which was probably the best session of the entire conference. It was given by a Brazilian woman, Iara, who is a pastor, a gifted speaker, an insightful theologian, and has a physical disability.

Iara brought a totally fresh perspective to the text, my inadequate summary goes like this: She started by painting the context from the perspective of the woman, who probably had a form of scoliosis, which generally starts at about age 12, i.e. also around the time that a Jewish girl would have been preparing for marriage. So this girl probably couldn’t have married. Marriage signified status, rights, land, descendants, inheritance; but instead she becomes an outcast, with no status; in the narrative she is not even given a name, identified only by her disability. Contrast this with the moment where Jesus calls her a “daughter of Abraham”, making her the only woman in the Bible who is given this title. To be a daughter of Abraham signifies belonging, rights, land, descendants, inheritance; a restoration of all that she has lost, and inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

Listening to Iara reminded me of a quote from Martin Goldsmith at All Nations College. He said “It’s not that our theology is insular in any way, it’s just that the only theologians we study are Westerners…” To which we might add white, middle class, middle aged, non-disabled, male… The Bible is so rich with different characters, voices, and perspectives, how much richer our experience of studying it becomes when we can hear from those voices and perspectives, rather than the familiar homogenous approaches of always.

Anyway, from here, we found ourselves dealing with technical issues. In the translations we were using, disability is conflated with sickness, both in the text, and in the title added by the editor. The conference therefore decided to write a letter to the Bible Society on this point, which I don’t agree with. The reason why I don’t agree is that this letter is a reaction to one passage with one editorial problem. They have not asked themselves whether there are related issues to be addressed throughout the Bible, and what really needs to be done about this. This means that over time, they are likely to find themselves re-sending this letter each time they find an unhelpful piece of editing, and over time they will probably see some similarity in the responses they receive… “Your comments have been noted”, code for “and we plan to take no action whatsoever”. I think in their rush to say something/anything, this conference has missed a real opportunity to have an impact, to become comprehensively involved in making disabled voices heard throughout the wider processes of translation and editorial of the Bible.

Bible translating and editorial are the subject of much scholarly debate, and I’m not about to add very much to that here, but I’m pulling out the issues which I see as being specifically related to disability.

On editorial. As an oversimplification, editorial additions such as titles, are outside the text of the Bible, and therefore an editor has freedom to say what they want. Obviously it helps if titles added by the editor have some relation to the content, although this is not always the case! Where an added title uses unhelpful terminology, this could be due to the version being outdated, where language has changed over time, (this highlights the need to be producing new translations to take account of evolving language). Or it could be due to the editor not being aware of the issues, and thus in need of some education or access to a team of consultants. An example of this is in Marks gospel, chapter 2, where the story of the disabled guy being lowered through the roof is given the added title “Jesus heals the paralytic” even in most modern versions in both English and Spanish. People who are older than I am might remember a time when “paralytic” was a helpful term to describe someone with a spinal injury, I don’t remember that ever being the case. In fact we have a friend in the UK, who happens to be a wheelchair user, who the first time she read the story in Mark 2, honestly believed that it was referring to a drunk, because she and I have never used the word “paralytic” to mean anything other than “eight pints too many”.

On translation, as another oversimplification, translators have less freedom than editors. The job of the translator is to act as a bridge, to be accurate to the ancient text, and to render it into language which is clearly understood by the contemporary reader. SIL (Wycliffe Bible Translators) say that:

The ideal translation should be…

  • Accurate: reproducing as exactly as possible the meaning of the source text.
  • Natural: using natural forms of the receptor language in a way that is appropriate to the kind of text being translated.
  • Communicative: expressing all aspects of the meaning in a way that is readily understandable to the intended audience.

Going back to the guy in Mark 2, he is referred to as “the paralytic” within the body of the text as well as the title. When I pointed this out, I was reminded that it is more complex to change the text than the title as we have to be true to the original documents. I totally agree, and my knowledge of Greek is pretty limited, so I would need help to figure this out. We need to look both at the Greek, and at the social context of the time. If the word in the original was also outdated, inaccurate, and offensive to its audience of New Testament times, then “paralytic” is exactly how it should be translated in order to preserve the same impact. If however, it was merely a neutral term used to describe the guy as having a spinal injury, then “paralytic” would be the wrong word, an inaccurate translation because it is negatively loaded in a way that the original text is not.

Now I’m about to get into a philosophical area that I don’t know anything about, so please read this next bit as a question which I would like to dialogue on rather than a fully formed opinion… I am wondering about the interface between the text and the translator, and how they impact on one another. The reason why I am wondering this is because in the Bible, Jesus goes out of his way to include the excluded, and he reserves his harshest criticisms for the establishment and hierarchy. For someone to have done enough studying to make a contribution to translating the Bible, it would seem to me that even if they started life in an “excluded” group, the process of attaining that level of study signifies becoming assimilated into the establishment and hierarchy (this is as much the case here as in the UK, especially since Latin Americans will often do their doctorates in “the West”). Hence, I am caused to wonder how far Bible translators are really able to identify with Jesus in being a voice for including the excluded, and therefore what impact this has on the translations which we hold in our hands today.

All of which leads me back to the point that I made in the first place, which is that we need to be hearing from the full richness of the voices in our midst; in theology, in translation, in all aspects of church and mission, and until we find ways to do that, we will continue to confine ourselves to an impoverished gospel.

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