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The Steadfast Translator – Part 2

The Steadfast Translator – Part 2

Dr. Loren Bliese retired in 2006 after 44 years of serving in Ethiopia as Bible translation consultant and trainer of translation workers. Click here for Part 1 of the interview.

EthChurch: So you come home to your land after 40 years of traversing Ethiopian highlands and deserts only to find biblical standards you once took for granted are being challenged on every front by your children’s generation [especially in Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - ELCA]. Where do translation and interpretation of the bible fit in all this?
Dr. Bliese: Although Bible translation continues to emphasize accuracy, it is sad to see that current interpretations of the Bible have incorporated methods used to invalidate the clear intent of specific passages. The Bible is consistent in condemning homosexual practice in both the Old and New Testaments. However, theologians have set up principles of Biblical interpretation that try to paint the relevant passages as irrelevant. For example, Old Testament ritual laws that are no longer followed are used as support for doing away with laws regarding homosexual activity. However, there is a difference. The New Testament teaches freedom in Christ from ritual laws such as circumcision and not eating certain foods, but it continues the efficacy of the laws in regard to “sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 5.1). Paul’s condemnation in 5.1 of the “man living with his father’s wife” upholds Leviticus 18.8. This is in the same chapter as 18.22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Paul interprets homosexual activity as “degrading” and “shameless” in Romans 1. 24-27. Those who promote blessings of homosexual unions and making partnered homosexuals into models by ordaining them, in my opinion come close to those Paul refers to in Romans 1.32: they “even applaud others who practice” such things.

On the other hand, Ethiopian Evangelical [Lutheran] Church Mekane Yesus [EECMY] has come out recently to declare it is not going along with ELCA more specifically on its interpretation of teachings on sexuality. What would you suggest EECMY should learn or not learn from your choices in ELCA community?
ELCA has voted to accommodate a significant part of the membership who no longer see homosexual activity as sin. Since there are also many who continue to believe that God’s Word condemns homosexual activity, the assembly asked that their position also be honored. The term “bound in conscience” describes the impasse. Each side is asked to continue in fellowship in spite of the difference. However, an ELCA December 2010 news release reports that 290 congregations have left because of the assembly’s actions on sexuality issues. There are also around the same number among the 10,000 congregations who are still in the process of voting whether or not to leave ELCA. Financial support for the church has also been reduced significantly. Many congregations that chose to remain with ELCA have added statements in their By-Laws that they will not accept partnered homosexual pastors, or allow blessing of homosexual partners, which was the ELCA position before August 2009. EECMY can learn from this experience that opening ways to undermine Biblical interpretation is not a good solution for dealing with social issues. The goal of Biblical study is to understand and apply the meaning of the text, not to find ways to accommodate popular world views that oppose the Biblical message. The historical-critical stream of Biblical analysis should not be replaced by a cultural-critical analysis. Reinterpreting the Bible in order to deal with prejudices against homosexuals makes public opinion the judge of Biblical ethics. The Good News of the Gospel is not doing away with unpopular Biblical definitions of sin, but offering forgiveness of sin through Christ’s atonement. The Law leads to the knowledge of sin. The Gospel is the assurance that Christ saves the repentant sinner. We need to work to right the wrongs of injustice by loving action, not by bringing into question the Lutheran principle that the Word of God is the basis of our faith and life.

Another valuable point is to distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual practice. Sexual practices such as adultery are clearly identified as sin in scripture. However, sexual orientation is a biological preference toward either males or females, and in itself is not sin. It should not be a cause of rejection or persecution. A person’s sexual orientation influences how a person is tempted. Some are tempted with heterosexual lust, adultery or violence, others with homosexual lusts. Around five to seven percent are estimated to have homosexual orientation. My observation is that those on the opposite ends of the sexual orientation scale are tempted sexually more than those in the moderate middle. Recognizing this can help the church to understand that those who are strongly tempted sexually in one way or the other should not be rejected because of their orientation. Instead the church should offer support and counsel to help them deal with their specific temptations. We are all “bound in sin,” as the confession in the liturgy of the church affirms. No one fulfills God’s law. Whoever confesses and asks for forgiveness is accepted by God through Christ. We need then to accept each other in love as fellow sinners saved by grace, no matter what the sin, or whether or not the person has been freed from being bound in some particular sin.

You are a technical guy – I mean you are into words and their construction, their meanings and shades of meanings, etc. You are also a spiritual guy. I mean you do love Jesus, don’t you? So what does it mean for you to love Jesus?
Jesus loved me enough to die for me so that I can have forgiveness of my sins and eternal life with him. I respond with grateful love. I make efforts to nurture a loving relationship by prayer, worship and service. Remembering the description of Enoch and Noah, I keep the goal of “walking” with him in constant companionship.

Out there in the desert what were some instances that you became particularly aware of God’s presence? Do you want to share an observed miracle in the sense used in the Gospels?
During recent trips to the desert I have experienced God’s protection in remarkable ways. A year ago after working for several days on Bible translation, we took down our tent to move on. Under the tent was a six-inch scorpion. We recalled the words of Jesus in Luke 10 to the 70 disciples that he sent out to preach and heal. “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions.” Some months later when we went back, we put the tent in the same place. When we took it down that time there was a ten-inch viper under it. We saw these not as coincidences, but as signs that because we were God’s messengers, he was continuing his protection to us from both physical and spiritual dangers. We saw it as spiritual warfare where we were experiencing opposition when we showed the Jesus film with the Good News of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross. God gave assurance that he wants the message to be given to those who want to hear it.
We have been seeing lots of church/ministry activities within Ethiopian communities scattered across the globe over the past two decades. Influences of contemporary culture on the language we employ, on spirituality, on consumption habits, etc are becoming very evident. You observe a distinct style of preaching [reminiscent of TV-personalities] or sermons in a mix of English and Amharic or an inclination to not declare the uniqueness of Christ in order not to appear intolerant, etc. Could you talk on this?
As you point out, the dangers of worldly culture need to be recognized and dealt with. Remaining faithful to Christ is a special challenge when coming into a culture that is more indifferent to spiritual concerns. Ethiopian Christians have a deep concern for the eternal salvation of those in other faiths who don’t know Jesus as the crucified Savior. They need to work to continue this concern when they go abroad where the teaching of tolerance puts pressure on believers to not share their faith. Ethiopians can be an inspiration for Western Christians to respond to Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations.”
What would you advise a new believer by way of helping him or her understand the bible better? Are there few fundamentals for interpreting the bible?
The most important reason to study the Bible is that it proclaims Christ, as Martin Luther pointed out. The principle that “scripture interprets scripture” helps in difficult passages. If some interpretation goes against the rest of scripture, be wary of it. As I noted above, another fundamental is that scripture is both Law and Gospel. The Gospel is the goal, so keep Paul’s warning in mind so as to not interpret the Law as a means to gain salvation. Another good guideline is to begin interpreting a passage by asking, “What did it mean to the original audience?” This requires reading the whole context around the passage, and checking study Bible notes and commentaries in order to clarify the original situation and other Biblical passages related to the text. This will help to give an interpretation or application that is in line with God’s original message.
What have you been up to lately?
My granddaughter Marie and I were in Ethiopia in October and November. I served as a consultant for the Kambaata, Hadiyya and East Oromo Bible translation projects. I also spend 17 days in the north, including showing films and sharing friendship in the desert.
Where does your wife fit into all this [other than keeping you from losing your way in the desert]? And how are the children translating the Word now?
Edith has not accompanied me during the last two years on my semi-annual Ethiopian trips because of back pain. She supports me with prayer and keeping things in order. My daughter Laurie and grandchild Sarah are planning to join me in January - February 2011 for another Ethiopian trip. They experience wonderful opportunities of service by relating to people in Ethiopia as well as in their own church in the US.
Which among present English translations would you consider a good translation? Why?
The New Revised Standard Version is good for showing the original text with its idioms. The Good News Translation is good for showing the full meaning, especially where the original idioms and original meaning would not be clear to a modern audience. It is useful to read both together in Bible study to know what was originally written and to have a guide to help make implicit knowledge explicit. The New International Version combines some of both of these features, and is especially liked by many evangelical Christians. Various other translations can serve one or the other of these functions, so comparing them is helpful in Bible study.
What is wrong with the Haileselassie Amharic version [1962]? Could a glossary or a commentary have helped without going into the trouble of doing a new translation? Do you think the process of newer translations could deprive the generation it is intended for of the use and richness of certain words and their historical-cultural meanings?
The 1962 Amharic version is good. It is like the Revised Standard Version or New King James Version in its methodology. That means translating the original words and idioms consistently wherever possible. It needs to be noted that even the most literal translations must use different words when the various meanings of the original word are too far apart. The Bible Society of Ethiopia is now working on a Study Bible for the 1962 version, which will help readers understand the literal text. Although there is a loss in modern translations in that Hebrew and Greek words with multiple meanings are not as consistently translated by the same words, the greater gain is that the translation can be clear and natural. The principles of Bible translation include the rule that Biblical terms should be translated consistently on the basis of their meanings, not on the basis of the root.
We’ve certainly observed the translation one adheres to has influences on one’s attitude to life in general. We can cite Scofield’s or Darby’s bibles on end time teachings. What are some ways one could keep ‘balance’?
The Bible Societies appoint consultants who check translations and sign for them before they are published. One of the reasons is to correct places where the theological position of a translator has influenced the translation so that it is not accurately representing the original meaning. Efforts are made to include all denominations in a language area as either translators or reviewers so that sectarian interpretations will be identified and corrected. Readers of published scriptures are encouraged to send in suggested corrections when they find errors so they can be dealt with in future editions. Doing Bible study with several versions helps to identify problems and have input on what the original meaning is when there are questions.
Let me make a string of statements and have you react to them. Missionaries [from evangelist Philip to Frumentius to Johann Ludwig Krapf to Thomas Lambie] have sacrificed a great deal to bring the whole gospel to our land – they helped build not only churches but also schools and clinics. This is not to say the missionaries were not greatly encouraged in their work, especially, by Emperor Haileselassie and many ordinary Ethiopians. We look back over the past 100 years and we are deeply grateful to the Lord as well as deeply troubled. We are grateful for individual and social transformation that the preaching of the gospel wrought and troubled because the missionary enterprise by and large did not succeed in developing native leaders. Rather, it created cultural distance between local leaders [by carving out theological turf], nurtured resource-dependence, imposed a somewhat western-orientation [Dallas’ Way over local or regional understanding and theologizing] and, as a result of globalization, introduced a disconcerting proliferation of ‘short-term’ and portable para-church groups that are accountable to no one or to organizations of their choice. Resource-dependence has now become the instrument for raising funds and demanding compliance of target populations to a theological/ideological position.
The principle of wholistic/holistic ministry--serving both the physical and spiritual needs of the community-began with Christ and continues throughout Christian history. Missions, and the churches that grew out of their work, are rightly proud of their heritage and of the medical, educational, and community development services they are giving. However, as you point out, the dependence on foreign money that missionary work of the last century has created is truly a danger. Goals of "self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating" have been compromised as missions and the churches they established became agencies of humanitarian service. The pressures of local needs and of meeting requirements for government approval have resulted in missions and churches becoming funnels for foreign aid. The large amounts of money involved have undermined the goals of self-reliance for the church in that the local contribution is often lacking or insignificant. Members are often turned off from stewardship when they see their own poverty in comparison to the big money of the projects. Para-church organizations with their large budgets from donors in the West sometimes have the added negative influence you pointed out of serving their donor groups' aims and theological positions more than the needs of local communities. On the other hand, I have appreciated that workers in many para-church organizations become active leaders in local congregations where they serve. EECMY has struggled with self-reliance throughout its history, and goals were repeatedly delayed or changed when not met. It is gratifying to see that EECMY is making significant progress in recent years toward breaking from dependence in its spiritual ministry.

The importance of training leaders has been recognized by churches and missions. They have furthered literacy programs and educational institutions at all levels. Bible schools and seminaries have trained many pastors and evangelists. Many lay leaders are being trained in extension programs. However, the problem you refer to is real in that missions and churches teach their own theology, and thereby cause separation between local leaders. Hopefully, the training also includes the importance of mutual respect for other Christian groups, and instills a desire to work together with those from different denominations for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ. Another point is that the problem of brain-drain has plagued the efforts for building up leaders. The attractions of Western standards of living have meant the loss of many who were trained to be leaders. We continue to pray that God will "send laborers" to serve where the harvest is ready.

Culture: A major reason that I was called to Mekane Yesus Seminary as principal in 1970 was because of the criticism that the seminary was not integrated with Ethiopian culture. Dr. Immanuel Gebre-Sillassie complained that the graduates knew the English Bible better than the Amharic. The board inaugurated the Theological Education by Extension program where texts were produced in Amharic and the training was done in the synods without the students being uprooted to Addis Ababa. Aleqa Meseret Sibhat-leab had been teaching courses in Amharic, Geez and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from the beginning of the seminary. Other efforts were made to integrate Ethiopian culture into the program. For example, I taught my courses in Amharic. Having more Ethiopian staff now is a big step in integrating local culture and developing a culturally sensitive theology.
What role does expository preaching play to further the purposes of bible translation? Conversely, how does deficiency in expository preaching compound the problem of biblical illiteracy that is bound to result in confusing biblical standards?
Bible translation and expository preaching go hand in hand. Both seek to bring God's Word into the lives of people to inspire faith in Christ and faith's response to be "active in love." If preaching departs from a Biblical basis, hearers will be less interested in searching the scriptures to find God's truth (John 8.31-32). There will be less concern when biblical standards are replaced by culturally popular views.
You said something about seminary students in the early 1970s knowing the English bible more than the Amharic and measures taken to correct the problem. There are new realities pertaining to language[s] that have emerged especially since the early 1990s that I want you to address. It is not unusual to hear sermons routinely laced with English phrases, mannerisms, and biblical verses. In fact, one could say it is fast becoming the norm. There is evidence that Christian lingo is shutting out those outside the church community and forcing those within to conform indiscriminately. Mother-tongue language policy in some cases effectively introduced the idea that it is ok to not worship together as each now has their own language. It used to be division along induced denominationalism and now along language rights. What should be the appropriate theological/biblical response to all this? Is there a Christian perspective on languages?
St. Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 9.19-23 ending with "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some," is a good place to start in looking for a Christian perspective on languages. The goal is to meet people where they are. In language this means the way people communicate on a general basis. Bible translators call this the "common language" that people use when the educated and uneducated get together. Technical and foreign words are usually avoided so as not to appear to be showing off or making oneself out to be superior. If they are used, they are explained in order to include all hearers. I agree that using English words and phrases in sermons should be discouraged since it excludes those who don't know the terms in English. Using the language level of the educated people in the audience may be good for them, but should be avoided when other levels of language use are present.

Language policy often causes splits in communities, as it did in EECMY. We thank God that the division there has been overcome, and unity is being restored. The point you make for joint worship in a common language is good when done in tandem with the use of mother tongues among those for whom different mother tongues are the primary means of communication. Government policies play a big role. During the time of the Emperors and the later years of the Derg the use of Amharic was furthered and even imposed in the interest of the national unity. Missionaries were required to preach and teach in Amharic. In contrast, the Derg in its early years and the present government emphasize the development of local languages. This has opened the way for Bible translation in many languages. It has also furthered the use of the vernacular in worship. However in places where Amharic is the common language of a diverse local community, using Amharic still makes sense when worshiping together. The government and EECMY both make use of Amharic to work together on a national level. In order to further the goal of unity in the one body of Christ, Christians do well in making use of whatever common language they have, as well as joining in worship with those of their mother tongue.
How would you define generations of Ethiopians over the years you had the privilege of observing, so to speak, from the first row or back row?
It is a joy and inspiration to see the steadfast faith of the Ethiopian people through several generations. Western culture has moved into an era where spirituality is low among many, and it is more of a challenge to express ones faith. Ethiopians in general continue seeing life in view of eternity, and seeing Scripture as the guide in both this life and how to find eternal life in heaven. Believers are sincerely concerned to share the Good News of salvation through Christ with others so that they also may find the Way, the Truth and the Life.
You helped translate the bible into some 20 Ethiopian languages. How diverse are Ethiopians and how homogenous? What concepts or cultural mores cut across those groups? Any anthropological insight there?
Ethiopian culture is very diverse, but also has common cultural mores. A lot of the diversity is based on religion, whether a person is a Christian or a Muslim. Marriage customs show such differences, with monogamy versus polygamy, and emphasis on permanency versus the ease of divorce in Islamic marriages. I see continuity in the emphasis on community in Ethiopia, in contrast to individualism in the West. Most western marriages are not as much a community event as Ethiopian weddings, whether Christian or Muslim. The social structures include longer participation with the wedding attendants, and returning to the bride’s home for a post-wedding feast. Similarly, in the desert the time for the consummation of the marriage is around a week after the wedding and also involves the wedding party. The young desert bride usually stays at her parent’s home for around a year after the marriage, and if she already left, returns for the birth of at least the first child. In the West the bride normally stays with her husband, and her mother may come to her away from the original community.
What would you say are the major points of difference between the newest Amharic translation [medebegna] and one by Ethiopian Orthodox scholars?
The Medebegna Amharic is based on the New International Version, which has a double goal 1/ to keep the original idioms especially in well-known passages, and 2/ to clarify passages where a literal translation might be misleading. It’s value is shown in that it has replaced the Haile-Sellassie version in many protestant groups. The Old Testament in the new Ethiopian Orthodox version published by the Bible Society of Ethiopia is a translation of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures done around 250 BC. It also includes other books as in the Ethiopian Orthodox 81-book tradition. The Geez Ethiopic text is also noted in footnotes when it differs from the Hebrew or Greek. Since the Septuagint was used by the early Christian church and Geez translators, this new translation was done to make it available in Amharic. The New Amharic Translation should also be noted. It was translated in 1988 by translators from the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and a revision with other translators from these three churches was published in 2005. The first draft was based on the Good News Translation. The revision has kept the goals of naturalness and clarity by filling in implicit information known to the original readers, but is more literal in many places where the first published interpretation of the text excluded possibilities supported in other translations and commentaries.
Do you think missionary societies [and more recently, para-churches now on the verge of supplanting churches] should get together and discuss ways of not sacrificing the unity of target populations for their own “little agendas”? Or probably finding ways of coordinating their efforts and thus make effective use of fast shrinking resources?
Cooperation between different denominations is very important in mission, both in outreach and in service to the community. In places where there is strong opposition to the Christian message, denominational divisions make acceptance more difficult. Coordinating efforts makes it possible to do more in order to better reach target populations and encourage them to focus on their own cultural expression of their faith. In the last half of the 20th century when many outside missions came to Ethiopia, they formed an intermission committee that gave advice as to where to locate and what common work could be done. The Evangelical Fellowship is fulfilling some of these functions now. Further cooperation with para-church organizations should be pursued. The goal of ethnically based indigenous churches should be encouraged in mission outreach.
How do you say “thank you” in Amharic? And the response? Do you mind signing your name in Amharic down there?
“Thank you” in Amharic has different meanings than in English. “Egziabiher yistilign” means “May God reward you on my behalf.” It is a prayer for God to bless the person who has done something good to you. However, it can also be used negatively when putting off a beggar, implying “I won’t give you anything, let God do it.” It can also be used sarcastically with the idea of “You should have done this sooner, or better.” In fact using it as often as Americans use “Thank you” every time you receive anything sounds sarcastic, or at best out of place. “Egziabiher yibarekih” is a popular version used among some Christian groups. It means “God bless you” and avoids the negative connotations. However, it too would not be appropriate when what was done would normally be expected. Another form is “Amesegginehallehu” with the basic meaning “I praise you.” (The masculine -h- for “you” changes to –sh- for feminine, and -ccihw- for plural.) It fits very well with thanks/praise to God such as in “Egziabiher yimesgin” “Thanks be to God” used in greetings as well as prayers. However, it also sounds out of place if used as much as Americans use “Thank you.” Who would praise someone for handing you the potatoes being passed around the table? In such cases a simple “Isshi” “ok” is sufficient.