Monday, February 7, 2011

Mark Twain and Bible Translation - Can we learn anything from Huckleberry Finn?

Over the last six weeks a news piece has surfaced here and there in between other, and perhaps more worthy, news items. It seems that a revision of Mark Twain's classic story Huckleberry Finn has been released in a version that is more reflective of 21 st century sensibilities. This new version has been stripped of the "N word" that Twain used to refer to African-Americans and other offensive terms like "injun" when referring to Native-American. The logic behind these changes to Twain's work is based on the fact that the use of such terms to identify people is no longer acceptable. Some schools were no longer including this classic on reading lists lest children be exposed to archaic, narrow minded thinking. Now, school children can once again read a classic American story.

The response has been interesting. While some can see the point, others are not convinced that this the right thing to do. Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist and African-American, wrote that censoring Huck Finn is wrong, wrong, wrong. Part of Pitt's argument is that "it is never a good idea to sugar coat the past."

The irony in this story is that Twain and ole Huckleberry are strangers neither to controversy nor book bans. When the book was first published in 1895 it was banned in the USA by libraries due to its crude wording like a reference to Huck "scratching". There were no problems with the "N word", even though it appeared over 200 times. In fact, if there was any race controversy it was aimed at the relationship Twain created between a runaway slave and a young white boy. The two experience a host of adventures as they travel down the Mississippi together.

Some labeled Twain's book as subversive to southern way of life and the order of the races. And they may have been right. While Twain was certainly a man of his society, he did not necessarily support it. Twain was a critic of society and often used his writing to stick a finger in the eye of society's assumptions.

So should we censor Twain? Probably not. As Pitts argues, it prevents us from appreciating where we were as a nation and to learn from it. I am not suggesting that we begin using the "n-word" again. But removing it from a book that was written over 100 years ago inhibits our ability to teach about and learn from that period in our nation's history.

Which leads me to the second-half of this post's title. How can or should this debate inform us about Bible translation? To what degree should we "revise" and "rework" the Bible to make it more palatable for today's readers? What do we gain and what do we lose?

Any easy target in this discussion is gender inclusive language. I have already made it clear in other posts that I support efforts in this direction. For instance, I think it is a good and acceptable idea to add words like "sisters" to Paul's address to"brothers" in his letters. I also think translating the Greek word anthropos as "human being" rather than as "man" is not only a good idea, it is more accurate.

But I also have asked what are or should be the limits of our efforts. For instance, to what extent should we do away with all male centered language in the Bible? Should we remove or change every masculine pronoun that refers to God? On the one hand, this will remove a potential barrier to female readers who have either been taught or concluded that God is a man. On the other hand, it also eliminate an opportunity to interact with the humanness of the Bible.

What I mean is, I am not aware of any theologian who would suggest that God is a man. But what we see in the Bible is that the authors, presumably all men, projected their gender bias and assumptions on God. They described God in ways that make God seem like a man. If we change this then we also erase a period of history and are unable to learn from it. We limit our ability to learn from our past and recognize that people have an ongoing history of interaction with the divine and that sometimes (often) we get it wrong. We make God to reflect who we are.

So I wonder what Twain can teach us about Bible translation. Of course there are many differences between Huckleberry Finn and the Bible. Twain wrote in English, not Hebrew and Greek, so there is no need for translation. I am also unaware of any major religious movement that uses Huckleberry Finn as a source of inspiration and guidance.

But what do we lose when we change that which is or appears to be archaic and narrow minded? Do we limit our ability to learn from our past? Do we make it impossible to see how the people of God have, at times, projected wrong ideas about God? Are we in danger of doing the same thing? What will others say about us hundreds of years from now as they study our efforts to update the bible and make it more acceptable to twenty-first century sensibilities? Will they say we sugar coated history and the Bible?


  1. I agree with the premise of this article and I am not in support of sugar coating language for our 21st sensibilities. I think people are smarter and more adult than that and can understand the use of the N-word within the context of Huckleberry Finn. When I get to the Bible, I am even more adamant that the translation be as accurate as possible regardless of whether the paternalistic language bothers or offends some of our 21st century members. The point is, The Bible is the book of our faith, the teachings that we should live with. Those tenets should be translated as accurately as possible regardless of how others may feel about those tenets or the language which presents those tenets.

  2. I think one of the big dangers is indeed that readers of English translations can end up with a "sugar coated" (or perhaps better "inerrancy-coated"?) impression of the Bible. Once every difficulty has been removed in the process of translation, we end up with readers who believe it is not only possible but straightforward to "take the whole Bible literally" and "believe every word as written" because all the difficulties in doing so have obscured.

    Thanks for posting on this important topic!