On dinosaurs, hens and translations

By , 27 December 2008 6:08 pm

I suppose I could be seasonal and entitle this blog ‘three French hens…’ as in that most cryptic of Christmas songs, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. The general background is that I have sitting on my desk two fat volumes: the NLT Study Bible (thanks, Tyndale) and the ESV Study Bible (I bought this one myself). At some point I will talk about their respective merits but not today: simply note that I have been reading both and have therefore been exposed in an inescapable way to the curiosities and difficulties of Bible translation.

The more specific background is that I was reading the French newspaper La Monde on my iPhone last week (as one does) and there was an interesting article on some new dinosaur discovery which suggested that far from being vicious carnivores they may have been papas-poules. (‘Des dinosaures d’avantage papas poules que les mammifères’). ‘Papas-poules’ makes no sense whatsoever in English; it is almost literally translated as ‘Father Hens’. With it being Christmas and me having nothing else to do but write a book or two I did a little bit of reading around. What emerged was that the French and English clearly had very different ideas about what hens represent so that translating almost anything to do with poultry is extraordinarily complex. (And possibly dangerous; I am still unclear whether to call a woman a poule is to show affection, infer that she is a prostitute, or both.)

In English, the hen may mean either the domestic fowl as a genus, or the female of the species in particular. (I’m not going to discuss the male for fear that the diminutive of cockerel may trigger your adult-site-warning software.) The young are generally known for cowardice: as in ‘you chicken!’ however female hens are allowed a certain protective bravery. Yet mysteriously only 20 miles away across the Channel the species morphs. Thoroughly aggressive and very macho French football teams happily display the chicken as a logo; indeed it is even an approved symbol for the French state. Let me quote from the website Gallic Rooster:

History of Le Coq

The Gallic Rooster (Coq Gaulois), or cockerel, is the French national emblem, as symbolic as the stylised French Lily. From the very roots of French history, the Latin word Gallus means both ‘rooster’ and ‘inhabitant of Gaul’. The French rooster emblem adorned the French flag during the revolution. With the success of the Revolution in 1848, the rooster was made part of the seal of the Republic. In 1899, it was embossed on a more widespread device, the French 20 franc gold coins. The Coq Gaulois has often been the symbol on French stamps over the years, although now (in 2006) the generic French stamp depicts a stylised ‘Marianne’.

Anyway, it seems to be the consensus that the only real way of translating papa-poule is by using something like ‘devoted father’ or ‘doting father’ but by doing so you lose all the imagery that was present.

It is faced with something like this that you realise the real difficulty of translation: if we can’t easily translate hen-speak from French to English how on earth can we do anything serious? I have no doubt that there are those people who would argue on such a basis that translating the Word of God is impossible. (Islam, of course, gets round it by saying that the Qur’an is untranslatable and you must learn seventh-century Arabic. At the risk of courting controversy I refer them to the three letters Alif, Lam, Mim, which occur widely as a heading to the suras and point out that no one knows what they mean.) The Christian answer lies a) in God’s sovereign superintendence of all things so that he controls even translations and b) the Holy Spirit who can speak through even a poor translation. But I refer you to textbooks on theology to work that one through further.

Anyway whatever Bible translation you use, have a happy and blessed New Year. And be careful when you talk about chickens to the French.


In which our blogger confesses himself bemused

By , 19 December 2008 6:12 pm

One of the things about being a blog writer is the implicit assumption that you know what you’re talking about. Ideally, one likes to come over as something of a guru, a discerning and reliable guide to a confusing and perplexing world. I live in hope that, around coffee tables and water coolers the world over people are saying ‘You know the British and Americans are different; I’ve been reading some really excellent blogs on this by Chris Walley.’ What follows therefore is something of an embarrassing revelation and I hope you will forgive me.

The fact is I was in our local W H Smith (a big British newsagents/booksellers) the other day when I came across something that stopped me dead in my tracks and which frankly dear reader, I do not understand. It was an entire section simply labelled ‘Tragic Life Stories’. I should at this point have taken out my iPhone and taken a photograph for myself. However just to show you that it isn’t a delusion I have borrowed a photo from Flickr from someone else who was obviously as stunned as me.

Notice the exploitative titles such as Please Daddy No! and He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes. Note too the extraordinary similarities of titling and imagery. Apparently this sort of thing is called ‘Grief Porn’ and it is quite obviously very big indeed.

Readers, I find myself doubly troubled. I think – no, I know – there is something very badly wrong here. But I am equally troubled because I don’t quite understand exactly what’s going on. Who reads this sort of thing? What is the motivation? Do readers enjoy feeling sympathy with the victims? Or – heaven forbid – do they take some deep (and possibly unacknowledged) vicarious pleasure in the acts that are perpetrated? Isn’t there enough real misery in the world that we need to read about it? (Perhaps that’s the point: we can close the book at the end and put it all behind us.) And isn’t there something grotesquely immoral about people making money out of misery? Oh and, incidentally, why are all the children white? Well if anyone has any clear answers or biblical insights I’d be interested in hearing them.

You may well say this is a miserable thought in the run-up to Christmas. In one sense it is; but isn’t this precisely the point about Christmas? That in the darkness of a very dark world, the Light shone? ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

Wherever you are and in however deep a darkness, may you know Christ’s love at Christmas .


Why we loved Obama

By , 12 December 2008 6:07 pm

I really ought to leave American politics alone and I promise this will be my last post for sometime, but someone did ask why Europe was so fond of Barack Obama. Well without endorsing either him or McCain, let me offer some suggestions.

  1. Obama appealed to what most Europeans consider to be core values. As most Americans are aware (they certainly should be), Europe is somewhat to the left of the USA. Even at their most liberal your Democrats are often to the right of our socialist parties. Obama was presented over here as enlightened, tolerant and flexible. He certainly came over as literate, fluent and cosmopolitan. (The other week I failed to mention that one point about Sarah Palin which alarmed everybody here was the fact that she had only had a passport for two years.) He sounded sensible on issues such as the environment and global trade.
  2. Obama looked good and sounded good and I’m prepared to concede that in Europe image trumps any amount of character and track record. Certainly the President-Elect is not deficient in the area of image. He was portrayed as what we in Britain would call ‘a decent bloke’; a label which, if you can get it applied to you, covers over a multitude of sins. For us Evangelicals, his preparedness to talk of having a living faith in Christ allayed any concerns we might have had over his liberal social agenda. That was barely covered by our media anyway.
  3. If he wooed us by what he affirmed, Obama eased our fears by what he shunned. So we heard nothing of America triumphant, there was minimal flag-waving and references to God’s own country, there were no half-baked plans for imposing global democracy and no clumsy and Russian-irritating references to missile shields. (American readers should note that over here there is a widespread belief that missile shields might work for America but not Europe: we are too close to their most likely points of origin.) In fact, for most of the time Obama sounded like a European. (Actually the thing that concerns me and others is his resemblance to Blair, a man who had a total mastery over words but who was utterly defeated by reality.)
  4. In a world in crisis, Obama came over as the man most likely to fix the mess. He was portrayed here as a man of intellect, vision and discernment and someone who, if the 21st-century demanded them, was prepared to take new paths.
  5. Quite simply, Obama was depicted as the man who was not George W Bush. He was (quite definitely) someone who could string a sentence together and (quite probably) someone smart enough not to be lured into an Iraq style quagmire.

One minor point. Race is a very different issue here than in the States. We have no all-too recent struggle for equality and no ‘Civil Rights’ back story here. Oh yes there are racial and cultural issues here aplenty but they are quite dissimilar to those across the Atlantic. In other words, I do not think his racial background was of note in Europe.

Anyway, I titled this blog ‘Why we loved Obama’: the choice of the past tense was deliberate. You should also have noted how frequently I have used the terms ‘depicted as’, ‘came over as’ and so on. We must now see how the man bears up in the reality of office. It would be an unpleasant (and, dare I say, rather un-Christian) attitude to wish and pray for him anything other than success. In these dark days (and they may easily get darker still) no one needs a failure for American president.

On the American right

By , 5 December 2008 6:12 pm

In a moment of folly some weeks ago I promised that I would try to deal with the vexed issue of why British evangelicals are wary of the American Republican Party. I am aware that for many American Christians this seems like a stab in the back. Aren’t Republicans the true upholders of the faith? Isn’t it a given that to be a conservative evangelical means you must support Republicans? Aren’t British evangelicals concerned about the way that the Democrats seem hellbent (possibly literally) on legalising gay ‘marriage’ and unfettered abortion. I tried to tease out some of the issues for you weeks ago and now want to make some general comments on the problem. I warn you though, it would, in reality, require a book and at least a year of research to truly do justice to the issues.

As I reminded you, for all the similarities of language, Britain and the States are very different countries. And although there is much that resonates favourably with us about the Republican Party (personal freedom and family values to take but two) there are many other things that are a turnoff. As I hinted we are very uneasy about appeals to religion in politics. There are very few American churches without the Stars and Stripes at the front; there are very few British churches with the Union Jack even visible. (If it is present at all, it will be somewhat mournfully draped over a memorial plaque to the fallen.) God may be little honoured in the UK but we do our best to make sure that what slender glory he has is not shared with Caesar. In fact, we prefer to keep the Almighty at arm’s length when it comes to politics. A number of people have commented that, in the manner of claiming divine support, some American politicians seem to imagine that God somehow transferred the Old Testament covenant with Israel to the United States of America. Perhaps. Of course it is perfectly possible to go the other way and not invoke the support of God for even the most necessary and blameless military action. Here, I think we in Britain, plead guilty.

Part of the problems is that republicanism seeks to press buttons which, in the British psyche, are not wired up. So appeals to frontier/homestead/’Little house on the Prairie’ ideals fall on deaf ears here. It is probably half a millennium since we had any sort of frontier in the UK. Equally the right to bear arms worries us a lot. It is probably no accident that the lethal range of the average military rifle is probably considerably greater than the distance between the average British village. Ever since we killed the last wolf, around 250 years ago, the only dangerous animal roaming the British countryside has been Homo sapiens and we would prefer not to see him armed. Appeals to defending the constitution also arouse only apathy here: we have no constitution, only conventions and concessions. Given these things, it is no surprise that, whatever her undoubted virtues, Sarah Palin aroused only two attitudes in the UK: amusement and unease.

We also rather wary of republicanism’s claims that the private sector should be involved in everything. There are very few things in Britain that we are in any way proud of, but one of them is the National Health Service. The fact that no British hospital (yet) demands that you open your wallet the moment you enter Accident and Emergency is generally held to be a very good thing. Since Mrs Thatcher privatised as much as she could nearly 30 years ago, the results have not frankly been very impressive. We have railways that would shame a developing nation, a power system that could easily fall over given a week of cold weather and a secondary education system that is probably inferior to that of urban China.

To be honest, if you are an American Christian of a right-wing political persuasion I really wouldn’t let it worry you. I see it all as being like some tense stand-off in a saloon bar of the old West. Grey-haired Great Britain, propping up the bar, watches on, with air of sceptical world-weariness, while our younger nephew takes his turn to challenge the bar’s unruly inhabitants. In short, we wish you well, but don’t ask us to join in the fight.

Have a good week. And if you must burn my books, do it in front of TV cameras!  

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