Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Teh Bibel in lolcat. Srsly.

The process of translation is not limited to trans-linguistic situations. This is to say, one does not simply translate from ancient languages into contemporary ones and be done with it. Franz Rosenzweig asserted that "everyone translates, and everyone must." It is actually a continuous, constant intra-linguistic process, as well.

For a good example of this in action, try to get your hands on a British and American version of the same Harry Potter book. While both are targeted to a language we loosely refer to as "English," there are distinct and forceful differences. The word "boot," for example, will be used in distinct and differing ways in the two versions--one referring to the heavy shoe and the other to the rear storage compartment of a car.

You don't even have to compare the King James to the New King James to see this in action. Merely go to a library archives and look for a King James from 300 years ago. Yes, it is in "English," but not really an "English" we contemporary readers understand anymore. The letter "s" is more often than not an "f" in those versions, and the spelling and grammar is remarkably obtuse to modern readers.

Or consider that the New International Version has now been updated to Today's New International Version. s they describe in the TNIV website, "Although a basic core of the English language remains relatively stable, many diverse and complex cultural forces continue to bring about subtle shifts in the meanings and/or connotations of even old, well-established words and phrases." When these shifts occur, we have no choice but to translate between them. Everyone translates, and everyone must.

Language is mastered, after all, not in its grammar but rather in its idioms. One is fluent when one can swing with the nuances of pronouns--knowing, for example, the important difference between "coming up" and "coming on" to someone.

Idioms are often regional, and sailing among them can be informative. For a good example of this, pick up any of Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch versions of the Gospels and Paul's Letters. The regionalism and idiomatic English allow readers to experience some of the geography, ethnic tensions, and revelation of the Gospels in a striking manner. No doubt about it, idioms can be informative.

So, despite my academic pretensions and the urging of several of my friends, I am not going to dismiss the lolcats Bible project out of hand, tempting though that might be.

For the three of you out there unfamiliar with the phenomenon, "lolcats" (a neologism for "Laugh Out Loud Cats" or somesuch) are a fictional posse of felines that exist mainly through text-modified photos on the web. It works roughly like this: find a cute photo of a cat or kitten (other animals will work, too, if the context is appropriate), add some garbled English-esque text, and post it to a site (or many; these things tend to get forwarded).

The lolcat Bible project is ambitous. It is a wiki-based endeavor, involving many multiples of contributors, and its intention is really and truly to render the whole of the Bible into lolcat-ese. Why I find this so interesting is partly because it is an English-to-emergent-argot-of-English sort of project. In other words, the lolcatters are not (so far as I can tell) working from ancient languages (unless you consider Standard American English ancient, and I guess some do). There is a grammar at work in lolcat, and it is relatively stable (in much the same was as grammar is stable for English speakers from the Bronx, Trinidad, Wales and Liberia--that is to say, there is fluctuation).

Even more interestingly, there is a theology at work in lolcat. God is the "ceiling cat." Good things are cheezburgers, bad things are wet. There is even a nascent eschatology (though the editors scorn technical theological language or anything approximating it). This theology is important to watch--it is dynamic equivalence at work. In other words, if you are of the belief that "meaning" can somehow be moved from language to language with no real regard to grammar and structure (as some advocates of dynamic equivalence seem to suggest) then the lolcat Bible project is a perfect test case. If "meaning" is truly above all culture and context, then we can even make fictional cats understand, right?

I am not saying I agree with any of this. Rather, what I am suggesting is that things like the lolcats Bible project are live test cases, unfolding right before our eyes, of some of the theoretical positions that have governed biblical translation and distribution for over a century. We should pay close attention.

And, at the end of the day, reading the lolcats Bible project is a more worthwhile undertaking than, say, paying any attention at all to Rob Lacey's The Word on the Street. Srsly.

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