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Monday, April 25, 2005

Domesticating vs. foreignizing Bible translation

Translation scholars have long debated whether or not a translation of any text should bring the cultural and linguistic information of that text more in line with the culture of the target audience (domesticating approach) or leave the foreign text sounding foreign to the target audience, retaining as much of the source text's linguistic and cultural forms as possible (the foreignizing approach). This issue has entered the debate over what are the best ways to translate the Bible, which is a collection of books written by men of cultures and languages different from most who read the Bible in translation.

Some believe that a translation of the Bible should sound as "foreign" as possible. As far as I can tell, retaining the foreignness of a translation is equivalent to "transparency" in Bible translation, a translation principle promoted by Dr. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, as well as Dr. Raymond Van Leeuwen of Eastern University. Others seem to believe that it is better to make a Bible translation as if the Bible were written directly to us today.

Is the Bible a foreign book? Yes, it is: The Bible is a collection of books which were written by authors who wrote in languages which are no longer spoken today-- although Modern Hebrew is related to Biblical Hebrew and Modern Greek is obviously related to the Hellenistic (Koine) Greek of the New Testament as well as other ancient Greek dialects. The biblical authors lived thousands of years ago, in cultures different from those of many cultures today. The cultures from which they wrote were strongly patriarchal. There was slavery. Marriage sometimes included polygamy and concubines. In general, women were not formally educated.

Should Bible translators "transculturate" any of the content of the biblical source texts so that it sounds more "modern." One of the most extreme examples of Bible translation transculturation was the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament, "translated" by Clarence Jordan during the 1960s, the time of the major Civil Rights conflicts, in the U.S. Dr. Jordan changed the placenames in the Bible to placenames in the southern U.S. where he lived. He changed historical and cultural aspects of the Bible to be like those in the South during the Civil Rights struggles. In his transculturation, Jesus was born in Gainesville, George. Jordan has Paul addressing his letters to believers in southern cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, and Selma. Jordan produced his transculturation so that others could get a feel for what it was like to be a part of the Civil Rights struggle in the South. He wanted people to think of that struggle in biblical terms and so he brought the Bible into that different time and culture in actual translation.

The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version, published by Oxford University Press transculturates the primary biblical masculine imagery of God as Father in the Lord's Prayer to "Our Father-Mother in heaven." It makes other cultural changes to the biblical source text, also, to make the translation more acceptable to various groups within modern society.

Is it legitimate to alter any of the historical or cultural facts of the biblical source text when doing true Bible translation? I say "no;" this is what I was taught in my Bible translation training classes and workshops and I still believe it. The Bible was not originally written for peoples and cultures of today, even though many people informally speak about the Bible as if it had been. The books of the Bible were written for people who lived a long time ago, who faced specific cultural problems different from those which most English speakers face today, such as how a slave owner should treat his slaves, or whether or not an observant believer should eat meat which has previously been offered as a sacrifice to idols. But, of course, by application, we today have much to learn from how the biblical writers addressed the issues of their day.

Does this mean we should put the application of scriptural principles in a Bible translation itself? No, I don't think so. I think we should allow the historical and cultural context of the original biblical source text to say just what they said, to refer to issues of slavery, meat offered to idols, levitical dietary practices, etc.

Does that mean that a Bible translation should sound foreign? To the extent that it accurately reflects the context in which the source text were written, yes. And to the extant that it accurately retains the various original literary genres in which the biblical books were written, I believe the answer is, again, yes.

Does this, however, mean that we should also import as much of the syntax and lexical rules of the biblical source languages as possible into English or any other target language? Here I think the answer should be "no." I find no compelling reason why any English translation should not be written in good quality grammatical literary English, which follows the rules of standard dialects of English, including semantic rules which state what words can combine ("collocate") with each other. The English language can clearly reflect the poetic and gospel epistolary genres of the biblical source texts, and do so in proper, grammatical English.

In my opinion, it is not necessary for the language of the Bible to sound foreign, to have constructions which are not indigenous to English, to have wordings which sound strange and may have no meaning at all to English speakers, in an attempt to retain a "foreign" sound in the language of the translation. Many of us have read technical manuals for electronic appliances which were obviously not written by native speakers of English. For the most part, we can figure out what the instructions mean, but they are harder to understand than if those manuals had been written by native speakers of English who can write well.

Using good quality English does not mean changing any meanings of what is said in the Bible. It is possible to translate using good quality, natural language while retaining a very high level of translation accuracy. In fact, I would maintain that if we do not use quality English in a translation, we actually reduce accuracy in a translation, since using poor quality English reduces the ability of those who use a translation to understand the original meaning.

The RSV, NRSV, NASB, and ESV state that "the Most High uttered his voice" (Psalm 18:13). But that wording is not proper English. No one native English speaker "utters" their voice. The English verb "utter" only collocates with a few other words, and such sanctioned combinations are part of English grammar, in particular, the semantic (lexical) component of English grammar. For instance it is a proper English collocation to speak of "uttering an epithet." We can "utter the last word." But we do not, in English, "utter a voice." The verb "utter" and the noun "voice" do not collocate in English. The Hebrew words underlying these English translations could collocate together in Hebrew grammar.

Is it necessary to use the foreign-sounding phrase "uttered his voice" to make Bible translation be "transparent" to the original linguistic or cultural context? I don't think so. I may be wrong, and I would be glad to be shown how using such a non-English wording enhances the integrity of the translation. There is loss of accuracy, in my opinion, if instead of translating Psalm 18:13 as the ESV did, with its English which breaks a lexical rule of English, one translates as "the Sovereign One shouted" (NET). The two different wordings have the same intended meaning. But the NET uses gramamtical English here, while the four other versions do not.

Hundreds of other similar examples could be given where the language used in an English version is not English. It has English words, but they do not relate to each other properly according to the rules of English grammar, which includes the rules of semantics (the lexicon).

To try to clarify, I am not talking about matters of literary style here. I love the great literature of the Bible and its variety of genres, which should be preserved in translation, as much as possible. What I am concerned about are not unique wordings that come from the pens of creative writers. Rather, I am concerned that so many wordings in English Bible versions do not follow the rules of English grammar. Rampant breaking of English word order, syntax, or lexical rules is not required to make a translation be as transparent to the source texts as possible.

Let us not make understanding the Bible any more difficult that it already is by adding to it an unnecessary linguistic burden of not having its translation follow the rules of the language into which it is translated. The Bible remains a "foreign" book because it talks about foreign things. But it doesn't have to sound like a foreign book as it tells us about those foreign things. And, with the help of Bible teachers, we who read the Bible today in our own languages can apply the teachings of the Bible to ourselves within our own time and cultures.

What do you think?

Category:

7 Comments:

At Tue Apr 26, 08:41:00 AM, Anonymous Michael Marlowe said...

I will comment on the specific example you give from Psalm 18.

This is poetry, and if someone is going to criticize poetry, he must have some critical tact in poetics. When you complain of "wordings which sound strange," and which could be replaced by others of "the same intended meaning," you are really approaching the text in a non-literary way. Unusual collocations are nothing to complain about in poetry. Your complaint here really boils down to a complaint against poetry as such -- you want it to be more prosaic.

In Psalm 18 the NET Bible (which you prefer) fails to reproduce the poetic form of the verse.

The Lord thundered in the sky;
the Sovereign One shouted.

The ESV reproduces the poetic form more adequately:

The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice.

Notice that in the ESV the lines are more balanced because there are two nouns and one verb in each line. "Voice" is here parallel to "the heavens." This is what makes it poetry, a parallelism of members. But the NET Bible omits the word "voice," which leaves the second line defective in terms of the parallelism. Also notice that in pronouncing these lines in the ESV we have three stressed syllables in each line, whereas in the NET Bible there are are only two in the second line. That is another poetic feature. Further, notice that in the ESV two of the stressed syllables in the second line are jambed together in the hrase "Most High," which makes that phrase very emphatic. The lips and the mind dwell on it, almost as an act of worship, because of the way in which it is pronounced. The NET Bible fails to be impressive because it lacks these 'poetic' characteristics, and it also happens to be a less accurate translation.

Your analysis of the matter leaves all of this out of account, because you are not sensitive to the poetic features of the text. You are approaching it as you would the "technical manuals for electronic appliances" which you mentioned by way of comparison, and you are using principles of linguistic criticism which are not adequate for the criticism of poetic texts.

Michael Marlowe

 
At Tue Apr 26, 08:53:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Thank you for your response, Michael. I very much do understand poetry and love it, including
biblical poetry. I am a student of Hebrew parallel poetry, as well as English poetry. I write poetry myself, including poetry which breaks some English lexical rules, but not rampantly so, as do some English Bible versions. I have studied English poetics. I have written in different meters. I agree with your observations about the poetic parallelism in Ps. 18:13.

My concern is with the ungrammaticality of the translation wording I cited in my blog entry, not about the poetics. In English one does not "utter" a voice. One can utter a sound, utter the last word, utter an epithet, perhaps even utter a shout. Poetry does not require us to break English rules as the RSV > ESV wording does in this verse. As you point out, poets do break English collocational rules (I love to do it as I play with words in my poems), but they do so purposefully and typically set up a context so that it can be done. We can find other ways to retain the balance of the members of the Hebrew poetic parallelism than by breaking English grammar rules. If this were the only such example, we might be able to allow the cited wording of Ps. 18:13 to pass as an example of poetic license, but this is only one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples in the RSV > ESV tradition where English grammatical rules are broken. And in many, if not most of the cases, I do not find any poetic or other sound literary reason for doing so.

See comments on this blog under the various Bible versions for other examples where proper English rules are broken.

 
At Tue Apr 26, 10:15:00 AM, Anonymous Michael Marlowe said...

Wayne wrote: "In English one does not 'utter' a voice."

Are you are descriptive linguist or not? It seems to me that you are being rather prescriptive now, because we have attestation for the phrase right here in the English Bibles that you are criticizing. Some of these Bibles have been in use for over a century.

On what basis can a descriptive linguist maintain that the English in these English Bibles is not English?

I perceive that your real problem with the phrase is that it is *unusual.* It does not correspond with the familiar and ordinary usage of colloquial speech. But again I say, this is poetry. It should not be mistaken for colloquial speech, nor judged according to any custom of colloquial speech.

Michael

 
At Tue Apr 26, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, you responded:

"Are you are descriptive linguist or not?"

Yes, I am.

"It seems to me that you are being rather prescriptive now, because we have attestation for the phrase right here in the English Bibles that you are criticizing."

We only have attestation in translations, and translations are notorious for target language wordings which are contaminated by importation of non-English patterns from a the source text.

We descriptive linguists would look, instead, for extant usage of wordings in transcripts or literature produced by native speakers of a language, such as when you or I post an email message. We do not look in translation corpuses because they typically do not have good examples of indigenous language patterns, which are what compose the "rules" of a language.

"Some of these Bibles have been in use for over a century."

True, but that does not mean that all of their wordings are proper English. What is proper English is determined by careful observation of how native English speakers speak and write, including how good authors in the language write great literature creatively. For purposes of translation, or widespread media such as newspapers, radio, or television newscasts, the language is typically in some standard dialect. (I have listened to TV news anchors in the South of the U.S. and it is clear that they have been trained to speak in "broadcast English" rather than using their own Southern dialect.)

"On what basis can a descriptive linguist maintain that the English in these English Bibles is not English?"

On the basis of natural, normal usage by native speakers of English. Corpus linguistics is such an endeavor, analyzing sometimes millions of words in large corpuses of a variety of genres of language.

"I perceive that your real problem with the phrase is that it is *unusual.*

No, the collocation of "utter" with "voice" is not simply that it is unusual; it is *ungrammatical* in English. You can discover this for yourself by field testing outside of a Bible context (which would, naturally, distort the objectivity of the test.) Simply go around, asking people to give you objects which can follow the verb "utter." Or you can give them a list of sample sentences with collocations with "utter" and include "utter his voice" in one of the sentences. Ask the test subjects to mark any sentence which doesn't sound grammatical (or "correct") to them.

"It does not correspond with the familiar and ordinary usage of colloquial speech. But again I say, this is poetry."

I don't think any Englis poet would collocate "utter" and "voice." They could "utter" a sound. They could utter an epithet. If they were writing anthropomorphically, they could use a metaphorical collocation such as "he uttered a river" which would make sense in the context of that poem.

The issue is not whether or not the RSV > ESV wording comes from biblical poetry. Obviously, this is part of a poetic passage. But breaking rules of English does not maintain biblical poetry in English, unless it is done so in the way that English poets do so. Some other adjustment must be done in the process of translation to maintain the biblical poetry as well as be true to the rules of English.

It is possible to do the careful analysis of the original poetic lines, as you have done, and then translate to English which maintains the poetry but is grammatical English. This can be done without resorting to dynamic equivalent translation. It can be done without making the translation less transparent.

Now, I need to emphasize that the wording of Ps. 18:13 is simply one example among a huge number of ungrammatical expressions in many English Bible versions. It was probably unfortunate that I happened to use an example from a poetic passage. It would have been better if I had used an example from some other genre, where poetry would not have been a factor. I would invite you to read comments under the various English Bible versions on this blog to see what other kinds of ungrammatical expressions are found in many English Bibles.

We can do better in English Bible translation. We need English stylists working on Bible translation teams who are just as sensitive to the rules of English as they are to the rules of the biblical languages. We need English stylists who have experience writing good English. We need English stylists who are able to detect when an expression does not conform to the standards of English which you and I and all other native English speakers follow when we speak or write (obviously, allowing for our typos and occasional grammatical infelicities, which we would recognize if we (I, anyway!) would slow down enough to allow our tongues or fingers to keep up with our minds.

Prescriptive linguists, in contrast to descriptive linguists, require speakers to follow language rules which may have no basis in actual language usage. Prescriptive linguists tell people, for instance, not to split infinitives (a rule which came from Latin grammar, where an infinitive could not be split since an infinitive, by definition, in Latin was a single word) or not to end a sentence with a preposition (something to which even the great English orator Winston Churchill objected, saying, ""This is the kind of impertinence up with which I shall not put."

Descriptive linguists observe how people actually speak and write. Prescriptive linguists tell people how they should speak and write. But you know this already. There is a place for a certain amount of teaching about "proper" language usage, since many people need to learn to speak or write in a standard dialect for their own benefit, to get a better job, etc. But I don't think we need to teach people to follow language rules which, few, if any, believe should be followed anyway.

 
At Tue Apr 26, 01:09:00 PM, Anonymous Michael Marlowe said...

Wayne wrote: "We only have attestation in translations ..."

Are you sure? I just did a Google search and found some non-biblical usages of the phrase "utter(ed) his voice" Here is one:

"He looks about him to see whether, even now, he may safely utter his voice, and he timidly asks pardon for venturing to break the reigning silence"

http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Germany-and-the-Agricola-of-Tacitus3.html

And another:

"My crew were extremely rejoiced to find they had again recovered their hearing, though every man uttered his voice with the same apprehensions that I had done."

http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/fowlerjh/chap5.htm

Honestly, Wayne, it doesn't sound so strange to me. I think you go too far in calling this "ungrammatical."

Wayne wrote: "... translations are notorious for target language wordings ..."

And why shouldn't literary English be enriched with "target language wordings"?

" ... which are contaminated by importation of non-English patterns ..."

"Contaminated"? Yikes! You're sounding like a linguistic puritan.

"I don't think any English poet would collocate 'utter' and 'voice.'"

The second example I gave above was from an essay by the famous English poet and critic, Joseph Addison.

Michael

 
At Tue Apr 26, 03:39:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

>"Wayne wrote: "We only have attestation in translations ..."

>Are you sure?

I thought I was. It sure didn't sound good to my ears, but you've done good sleuthing, Michael, and now I must eat crow. I've never eaten it before and my wife left for a trip this morning, so I have to figure out how to cook and eat the crow by myself. Sigh!! :-)

Thanks for your good work on this.


> I just did a Google search and found some non-biblical usages of the phrase "utter(ed) his voice" Here is one:

"He looks about him to see whether, even now, he may safely utter his voice, and he timidly asks pardon for venturing to break the reigning silence"

http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Germany-and-the-Agricola-of-Tacitus3.html

And another:

"My crew were extremely rejoiced to find they had again recovered their hearing, though every man uttered his voice with the same apprehensions that I had done."

http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/fowlerjh/chap5.htm

>Honestly, Wayne, it doesn't sound so strange to me. I think you go too far in calling this "ungrammatical."

Oh, for sure, I agree, now that I've seen this evidence. I just had never heard this phrasing before and it truly sounded ungrammatical to me. I suspect that not many other English speakers have heard it, but that doesn't matter now. It has been used and that is the main point for this particular example.


>Wayne wrote: "... translations are notorious for target language wordings ..."

And why shouldn't literary English be enriched with "target language wordings"?

Oh, but it can and has been. That's not the issue. The issue is whether or not translations should be ungrammatical or not. It's a broader principle. The English language itself has been greatly enriched by literal borrowings from English Bible translations (from even before the KJV), as well as from Shakespeare and other great English writers who have used some unique phrases.

My point is that in some English Bibles, the English syntax and lexical patterns are so non-English that I have to call them ungrammatical. And when we make English too strange too often it creates a significant barrier for people to use such a translation. On the other hand, I have seen English translations which are highly accurate, yet which had English stylists who knew English well, and who ensured that mostly natural, grammatical wordings were used throughout the translation. Obviously, there is always room for the unique literary phrasings, which I have addressed previously, such as in the blog entry on Translation elegance.

There is a big difference however between unique phrasings which enhance literary elegance and phrasings which are so rampantly non-standard English that it is like reading something written by a non-native speaker of English. If we want to read something like that we might as well use an interlinear :-)


" ... which are contaminated by importation of non-English patterns ..."

> "Contaminated"? Yikes! You're sounding like a linguistic puritan.

I think sometimes I am. Many of us have puritannical characteristics that come out in areas of our lives which are particulary important to us. I do believe in allowing for variety and linguistic creativity, but I also believe that there is value in some kinds of linguistic standardization. I am far from being a linguistic relativist, I guess you can see by now! :-)


"I don't think any English poet would collocate 'utter' and 'voice.'"

> The second example I gave above was from an essay by the famous English poet and critic, Joseph Addison.

Well done!

Now I have to go find a crow and figure out what to do with it. Do you have any recipes?

 
At Wed Apr 27, 07:37:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, I really don't want to prolong these particular exchanges, because I think there are broader principles at stake here than just something in a single verse. However, we must deal with the specifics of a verse and my claims about it and the evidence you have brought to bear upon the discussion, since specifics added up do lead to broader conclusions.

In thinking back upon the citations you found containing "utter(ed) his voice" I note that none of them are in contemporary English. Addison's comment came from 1710 A.D. if I read the webpage correctly to which you referred me.

I'm sorry I was not clearer in my comments about translation, but it has always been an principle of Bible translators throughout the ages that they translate into the vernacular. The vernacular is contemporary language. Bible translators do not translate into a previous stage of a language.

Your citations from Google are important. They contradict my claim that "utter(ed) his voice" is not extant English, or at least it would contradict the claim that it never has been extant English. As I did in a previous post in our exchanges, I would still call for citations from literature or transcripts or oral speech from contemporary English. I am, of course, referring to contemporary English, not necessarily colloquial English. I like good literary English, and there are good literary authors today who write using contemporary English.

I awakened this morning thinking about a linguistic tool which is used to evaluate wordings. It is the tool of linguistic productivity. If "utter(ed) his voice" is currently extant, we would expect to find similar collocations with the syntax of [speech verb]+[voice]. So, for instance, we should hear people saying or find contemporary instances in literature of examples such as:

He shouted his voice.
He whispered his voice.
He spoke his voice.

These may exist. I hope I learned my lesson yesterday not to make such bold claims that some expression simply does not exist or has never been used by any native speakers.

BTW, the crow casserole wasn't too bad, actually. But I wouldn't care to eat it too often! :-)

 

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