On publishing theological translations

Before moving into my lectureship at New College, I spent three years in the Netherlands, where I worked at the Theologische Universiteit Kampen. When I arrived there, I had finished my PhD on Bavinck, which meant I had a good reading knowledge of late nineteenth century theological Dutch. My spoken Dutch was much more limited: I could work through complex technical material (although I had never heard much of it pronounced), but my everyday vocabulary and range of expression were not extensive. My early attempts to converse dried up quickly and required a lot of patience from my Dutch conversation partners (bedankt voor jullie geduld, Marinus en Wolter!).

Three years in a Dutch university context transformed that. I seized every opportunity to improve my Dutch: I went to language classes, absolutely refused to speak English to my colleagues, watched Dutch TV, read Dutch newspapers, read a lot of Dutch theologians (in Dutch) other than Bavinck, went to Dutch church services (twice!) every Sunday, and got to know our Dutch neighbours. At the end of my first year there, I gave my first public lectures in Dutch, and started to preach in Dutch church services. By the end of my time in Kampen, my home life was in a mix of English and Gaelic, but the rest of my life took place in Dutch. It became comforting and familiar – almost like a second mother-tongue, something I could play with and enjoy. It became a big part of my identity and experience. When I first returned to Edinburgh, I felt bereft of the language. I remember the palpable sense of relief upon meeting a Dutch postgrad and being able to have a long conversation in Dutch.

Getting to that point of familiarity with the language did not happen overnight. It took years of investment – in my case, one year of private Dutch study prior to beginning my PhD, three years of doctoral work, and then three years of hard graft in the Netherlands. Having returned to Edinburgh, it was important that I continued to use my Dutch as much as possible. I didn’t want it to atrophy, and was keen to use it to make a distinctive contribution to my academic field (as native  English-speaking theologians who read and speak Dutch are rare). One way to do this was by producing English translations of some of Bavinck’s lesser known – but nonetheless intellectually significant – theological texts. So I decided to take on the task of translation as a side-project that would ensure I kept my Dutch active whilst developing my interaction with Bavinck’s untranslated writings. Over the last two years, I have spent a few hours a week working on translation.

The fruit of that is two soon-to-appear publications: the book Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers (Hendrickson, 2017), and the article ‘Herman Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America” (to be published in Dutch Crossing: Journal for Low Countries Studies, 2017). In Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers, I have translated and introduced his book on preaching (Welsprekendheid), which is accompanied by my translations of a selection of his shorter writings on preaching, and his only published sermon. I hope this book will be useful to the many preachers who draw on Bavinck as a dogmatic theologian, but who are nonetheless unfamiliar with him as a fellow preacher. In ‘Herman Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America”, I have translated a short book written by Bavinck after his 1892 journey in North America. (The Dutch original, Mijne reis naar Amerika, edited by George Harinck, won the Koninglijke Bibliotheek’s 2010 prize for outstanding Dutch travel writing).

My translation work has had a particular goal – the production of texts that are publishable and of an acceptable standard for use in scholarship on Bavinck. In working towards that end, my thoughts on the nature of the task have developed a fair bit.

Foremost amongst my thoughts it that is unfortunate that UK-based humanities academics are not encouraged more to devote time to the task of scholarly translation. This is so because the REF (a major six-yearly assessment of our research outputs) values original writing far more than scholarly translation. The production of REF-worthy publications dominates what UK-based academics produce, which has a direct effect on the relative significance afforded to translation work. I think this is a shame, because the production of a scholarly translation is a complex task that requires a highly developed skill-set.

To produce a publishable piece of Bavinck translation, you need: (a) a nuanced grasp of late nineteenth century Dutch language (including archaic grammar, vocabulary and idiom), (b) the same level of nuance in your awareness of theological language and concepts in Bavinck’s particular context, (c) a strong overall sense of Bavinck’s biographical, socio-political, historical setting, (d) an awareness of how you are interpreting what you think Bavinck means as you render his words in your target language (as translation is always an inexact science and an act of interpretation) which necessitates an overall impression of his thought as a theologian, and (e) a high level of fluency in choosing an appropriate register and style in your target language, in order to convey appropriately how you think Bavinck should read in that language. On point (e), I think that two years of regular practice have led to the development of a ‘Bavinck in English’ written voice in my translations. This voice is quite different to my own written style, but I think it works in rendering him in a kind of English that corresponds to how he wrote in Dutch. (And to translate some texts there is also point (f), the ability to decipher Bavinck’s handwriting).

A common misconception about bilingual people is that they have the same level of fluency in both languages – the implication for translation being that any bilingual can translate anything between their two languages. While some (probably a minority?) of multilinguals have the same level of literacy, grammatical nuance, and depth of vocabulary in their respective languages, most multilinguals have different strengths in their various languages. Because I grew up in an anglophone country, I am confident in using my English in all settings, professional, cultural, expressive and informal. I grew up with Gaelic in a family setting, but in an English-speaking town, so while I feel comfortable using it in the home, I couldn’t produce publishable written Gaelic. In Dutch, I can conduct friendships, give lectures, preach sermons, publish academic writing, write for a national newspaper, and live my life enjoyably in Dutch culture. I couldn’t write emotionally convincing poetry or songs though. The same is probably true of my French, although it became a lot weaker through lack of use during the Kampen years. C’est dommage. I am more confident at reading a range of historical varieties of Dutch, whereas most of my exposure to French is in its contemporary state.

In that regard, I am like most multilinguals, with differing strengths (representing investment of time and practice) in each language. Many native Dutch speakers can also speak English very well – but that doesn’t mean they could produce a scholarly translation of an archaic and conceptually complicated English theological text. Even a native Dutch-English bilingual would struggle to translate Bavinck well without a lot of specific training in the aforementioned skills. For the theologian, a translation project is an excellent task in maintaining and developing one’s professional skills. It would be great if the REF encouraged that more.

I have blogged before on the Dutch seminars I do with my PhD students in going through untranslated texts. In the previous academic year we were working through Bavinck’s Modernisme en orthodoxieIt is wonderful to see the fruit of this in an excellent English rendering, Modernism and Orthodoxy by Bruce Pass. Goed gedaan, Bruce!

4 thoughts on “On publishing theological translations

  1. Couldn’t agree more with what you write James! From the perspective of a Dutchman who has struggled and is still sometimes struggling to write sound English and to have some of my Dutch work properly translated into English, this is all zeer herkenbaar… I admire yout tenacity in wanting to keep up with your Dutch, and I can confirm to any Scotts who might doubt this that your proficiency is really staggering!


  2. Reblogged this on Hendrickson Publishers Blog and commented:
    James Eglinton, author of the upcoming book Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers being released in 2017 from Hendrickson, wrote this blog post about how he came to translate Herman Bavinck’s works from Dutch to English. Read about his journey to becoming bilingual and the struggles that came with it here:


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