Steve Fortosis. The Multilingual God: Stories of Translation. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012. 205 pp. Paperback. $13.99.
In this work, Steve Fortosis, who has no real expertise in the field of Bible translation (xi), has collected stories of the joys and the difficulties of translating Scripture from the original languages into various receptor languages. He recounts stories of the ridiculous, the incredulous, the heretical, and the humorous that translators encounter in the tedious process of Bible translation.
After his introduction, the author divides his collected tales into sixteen topical chapters followed by an epilogue that promises “nuts and bolts” of Bible translations. The book closes with a bibliography and two indices, one for content and the other for Scripture references. The book’s major contribution is the stories it culls from published sources. The use of actual field reports of Bible translators is rare, but the author does include some private correspondence with Bible translators among his sources. Because he lacks training in Bible translation, all stories are secondhand and lack a sense of immediacy at times.
As a translation consultant, I value Fortosis’s stories about the difficulty and challenges of Bible translation. Even the move from ancient Hebrew/Aramaic or Greek into English requires great skill, though there is a long history of English translation. Bible translators who move from the original languages of the Bible to a receptor language where no written system of symbols exist, therefore, deserve our admiration and support.
Most the author’s stories revolve around the reality that Greek or Hebrew/Aramaic concepts are not readily available in a receptor language. This gap sends the translator on a mission to discover how the idea might be conveyed in the receptor language. Eventually, the translator makes some accidental discovery in the use of the receptor language that gives them a way to say what had eluded them. These stories have the possibility of firing the imagination of would-be missionaries and translators and, for this reason, I commend Fortosis for collecting and organizing stories that might inspire others to become missionaries as Bible translators.
Fortosis, however, works out of his league when relating the actual practice of Bible translation, especially in his epilogue. Here the author makes unsubstantiated claims, such as those regarding Roger Bacon’s role in purifying “corrupted text by emphasizing an intimate knowledge of the original Greek and Hebrew” (164). While not to understate the importance of Bacon, his primary concern was with Latin and the Vulgate, particularly. Consequently, Bacon is not mentioned in two standard works on textual criticism of the New Testament.
The author makes some wide-ranging statements about tendencies or inclinations one might find in Bible translators, such as the temptation to “improve” or fit a translation to one’s theological convictions (165), or assume “they understand the theology of the Bible better than most” (166). These and other similar comments lend themselves to anti-intellectualism (see, e.g., 178) from which the author speaks at times with an unwarranted certitude. For instance, he speaks of “adding and subtracting nonnegotiables from the Scriptures” (163), that the “word of God must be readily understood” (168), and of “doctrinal consistency” (169), though, “totally accurate transference of meaning in translation is impossible” (169). In claiming that “only half of one percent of its content is in question,” to cite another example, the author hides the complexity involved in the text-critical work involved in sorting through the many variants in the transmission of the Greek New Testament. Citing an apologist rather than a textual critic does not strengthen his case.
More problematic, to me, is the author’s final sweeping jab at “liberal Bible translators” (182), though he never names them or cites sources. The false dichotomy between conservative and liberal (particularly in the area of translation work) hinders the quest for best practices in Bible translation by dismissing cavalierly those with whom he might disagree. In the end, readers should enjoy the stories but go elsewhere for theory and practice.
Stanley N. Helton
President/Professor of New Testament
Alberta Bible College