Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Translating tongues

Let's just agree to stop it.

That is, it makes no sense that Bible translators continue to translate γλώσσαι as 'tongues'. The reason it makes no sense is that we simply do not speak English like that anymore.

Across a number of languages, the word for 'tongue' and the word for 'language' is the same. Greek in the Koine period is one of those. Mongolian is another. In some older forms of English, 'tongue' is readily understood to mean 'language', but in contemporary English this is not standard usage.

If I were to say, "I speak five tongues", I may well be understood, but I will sound archaic. But if in some kind of Christian context to say, "I speak in tongues", the meaning will be entirely different.

Here's my point: translating as "tongues" prejudices the interpretation of the passages in the NT that talk about gifts of languages. Without our peculiar post-Pentecostalism understanding of tongues as 'unintelligible sound-making', we would never have had much warrant for talking about 'tongues' as anything different than 'languages'.

Could this kind of activity be what the NT means by 'tongues'? It remains possible, but I'm beginning to wonder if the continued archaic translation of 'tongues' is blinding us to the obvious, that native speakers of Koine would simply, readily, and uncontroversially, understood it to mean "languages".

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