Saturday, January 30, 2010

Culture and the Bible

Question: What do the English and Korean cultures have in common in regard to the Bible?

Answer: Both the English and Korean Bibles had to be translated into their respective languages as neither of them was the original language of scripture..... This means that (1) the historical period each were translated in and (2) the language reflecting the particular time period that they were translated in and (3) the religious persuasion of the translators ALL affected the translation and how people read that text in the present.

"Language reflects culture, culture reflects language."

Linguistic Difficulties in Translating
The King James Version of the Bible was translated into English in the early 1600s, the beginning of the age of Modern English, although many people question how modern are such phrases like "Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father's house" (Psalms 45:10) or "Lord, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled" (Psalms 30:7). A reason for another English translation was because earlier English translations had inaccuracies according to the Puritans, a faction of the Church of England; therefore, the new translation was to reflect the ideologies of the Church of England. [hmmmm, wonder what an example would be!] Another reason for the translation was to also make the book more accessible to the commoners who, with little schooling, did not have extensive vocabularies. A contemporary to this era was Shakespeare, who in his broad collection of writings, used between 32,000-33,000 words, so with the KJV Bible only comprising about 8,000 words, a quarter of what Shakespeare used, it was definitely more readable for the less-educated classes.

The Korean New Testament, on the other hand, was first translated into Korean [probably from English] in 1900 by a Bible translating committee with Presbyterian Horace Underwood and Methodist Henry Appenzeller, among others, on the committee. Here's a reflection on how culture clouds translation in similar yet distinct theological difference between 세례 [baptism by sprinkling] and 침례 [baptism by immersion]. In Matthew 3:16 the KJV reads "And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him." While many Protestant religions [Presbyterian, Methodist] believe in baptism by sprinkling, others [Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist] believe in baptism by immersion, but in the Korean translation, Jesus coming "straightway out of the water" has been translated as 세례, baptism by sprinkling, semantics which follow the religious persuasions of the translators. This reflects the problem of words and phrases being imprecise in translation and which unwittinly affect readers' present interpretation of the Bible.

Also, idiomatic expressions that are appropriate in the English language do not have parallels in Korean. For example, I Corinthians 3:2 (KJV) "I have fed you with milk, and not with meat". Koreans were a non-dairy eating culture and until very recently made claims of being lactose-intolerant, and meat was rather a rare tidbit to add to the meal. Korean peasants frequently suffered from beriberi as they were a rice (or grain) dependent nation historically. So in the translation, 'milk' was specifically referred to as 젖, 'mother's milk', and 'meat' became 'rice' the staple of the nation. [Other cultural idioms like "sackcloth and ashes" would be interesting to research, especially as Koreans did not do cremation and their mourning was ritualized like the Jews but extremely different, most notably in that Koreans aimed to both appease and nurture ancestral spirits and the spirit of the dead while the Jews had/have no concept of an afterlife for "the dead know not anything" Ecclesiastes 9:5]

As for the Bible being watered-down via translation through a chain of languages, the concept of "love" most certainly has been watered. The Greek language, the original language of the New Testament, has 4 very specific words for "love": agape (God's love), phileo (brotherly love), eros (erotic love), and storge (love of possessions). However, English basically has "love" and "like", words not showing distinction between people and/or relationships. So, in translating "love" into English, vital relationship concepts were lost. Even more were lost when translating the English Bible into Korean as the Korean language until very recently virtually did not use the word "love" and until the last couple of decades sarang, what English speakers translate as 'love', was translated by Koreans as 'consideration'. Concepts of "love" were felt (and indirectly understood) but not to be put into words. Therefore to explore how much was lost in the translations, a person would actually need to compare the Greek, the English and then the Korean texts!

When the KJV Bible was conceived, the Dark Ages were over but God felt very distant, so in translating the Bible God needed to feel like a familiar friend, especially as He (Jesus) is portrayed scripturally as an older brother. At that time of translation 4 centuries ago, 2 words for 'you' existed: 'you' and 'thou', and 'you' was the pronoun implying respect and of elevated position while 'thou' was the commonplace term for familiars to address each other with. In the KJV, God was to be made accessible, friendly and familiar with people and so in translating the text, the familiar 'thou' (and all its declensions: thee, thine, thy) was used when referring to God. In the subsequent 400 years and very much due to familiarity of God implied in the translation of reference pronouns, the respectful connotations of 'you' and 'thou' became flip-flopped and somehow 'thou' became obsolete in common language while 'you' was retained and now connotes a neutral meaning balancing our familiarity and respect.

In the Korean language, the king held the highest position in the land. There was no concept of God or a creator as the king, 王, was the link between heaven (the sky and cosmos), people, and earth as represented by the 3 respective parallel lines. People did not address the king, the king addressed the people and gave them orders. Society was very hierarchical and so to say 'you' to a person having higher rank, when the Bible was first translated into Korean, did not exist; however, 5 forms of 'you' did exist: taek ('you' polite but to equals or strangers), tangsin ('you' blunt to lower adults), chane ('you' familiar), chagi ('you' intimate) and nuh ('you' plain as to a child). The respect for God, thus, could not be adequately portrayed through available words but had to be culturally taught when preaching or teaching Biblical concepts. The Korean language did, however, allow for respect to be built into the language via the verbs. At that time, there were 6 distinct verb endings which reflected the hierarchical relationships of Korean society. When speaking to or of God, the highest verb form ~나이다, for example, 하나님께 기도하옵나이다 (do prayer to God), was used. [This form is still used but only in religious prayers, poetry and classics.] At present, the highest respect offered is now 하나님께 기도드리옵니다 (give prayer to God), which uses the most respectful of the 4 distinct verb endings in present use.

Cultural Differences in Translating
Translating the Bible into Korean must have been taxing as 'God' did not exist to the Koreans and 'heavens' was the cosmos which foretold good or evil. Religion itself did not exist although there were some tiny isolated pockets of Catholicism. The religion of the land was a philosophy in fact, Confucianism, and one of the greatest books of Confucianism was I Ching (The Book of Changes) purportedly written by one individual between 2800-2737 BCE while the Bible was God-inspired and written over 1400 years by more than 40 individuals. The concept of 'sin' did not exist in Korea at that time because if people followed correct behavior then they were 'good' people. I Ching was a book about correct behavior and the great book, the Bible, was a book about building relationships with the Creator God and His created man. Respect and egalitarianism were combined in the English Bible, but with the latter being nearly non-existent in the Korean society of the strictly vertical Confucian society, cultural concepts of equality with a God, the King of kings, who is a brother must have been perplexing indeed.

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