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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Translation elegance

I have occasionally encountered the description "elegant" to refer to how some Bible passage or an entire Bible version is worded in translation. I've never been quite sure what was meant. Often the translation being referred to was written in a form of English which is not used today, either in spoken or written form, and probably never has been used in previous stages of English. It isn't, as far as I can tell, high quality literary English, such as might be written by a novelist on the level of a contemporary Charles Dickens.

Clearly, many who evaluate Bible translations have a sense that the King James Version is "elegant." And I would agree. There is a beauty to the language of the KJV. Part of that beauty comes from the fact that the language is outdated. We often like things which are from the past. But part of the beauty comes from the fact that the KJV (and its predecessors on which the KJV translators greatly depended for translation ideas) was written in smooth cadences. There is a pleasant rhythm to the language of the KJV. There is interesting figurative language which many of us can understand, to some degree, because we have grown up on the KJV.

But I also find beauty in concise, pithy, tight English, such as the famous phrase of the philosopher Descartes, "I think, therefore I am."

And I find beauty in many of the phrasings of Shakespeare, such as in the often quoted line: "To be, or not to be: that is the question" and the lines that follow.

As the great Swiss-German theologian, Karl Barth, was nearing the end of his life, he was asked after one of his lectures, ""Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?" Barth's answer was profound in its simplicity and truth, ""The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!" I, personally, consider that an elegant answer. And, in my opinion, the line from Sunday School song which Barth quoted is, in its own way, elegant English.

I also know that there are others who find literary elegance when reading something which is written simply and concisely, yet powerfully, using words and syntax which they themselves use. I, myself, find literary elegance in some poetry and other literature which is written with strong, active verbs (typically of Germanic rather than Latinate origin) and a minimum of flowery description. That's the way my college English professor taught his class to write. I like find some elegance in a Bible version that is worded the way my professor taught us to write. There are some English Bible versions written that way. And there are some passages in several other Bible versions written that way. That kind of writing "speaks" my language. It gets through to me. It uses only grammatical English. It is clear and crisp. It does not use run-on sentences.

What are some Bible translation wordings which sound elegant to me? Here are some excerpted from a webpage I wrote once on good style in English versions:

Psalm 23 (KJV)
1. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Psalm 119.11 (The Message)
I'll never forget the KJV wording which I memorized as a child, and have tried to follow in my life:

"Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee."

but today I find Eugene Peterson's metaphors for this verse powerful and, of course, priceless:

"I've banked your promises in the vault of my heart
so I won't sin myself bankrupt."

Wow! This captures the essential meaning of the original accurately, and does it with great style. Biblical Hebrew was full of powerful metaphors and idioms, and Peterson makes his translations of the Hebrew come alive with equally powerful word pictures which are natural to English. This is truly translation which can speak to anyone who has ears to hear, to use a wonderful idiom from the KJV. The challenge to any translator is to transfer original meaning accurately, but stylize it so that speakers of the target language can hear it as powerfully as, presumably, the speakers of the original Biblical languages did; the goal of including gripping style with accurace is often not met but it is still worth trying to reach for that goal. Too many English versions are stylistically bland, with long run-on sentences, uneven social levels of vocabulary, and linguistically awkward logical connections. We don't need gimmicks or blinking neon lights in our translations, but we do need God's help to be sensitive to original meaning as well as the beauty of each language into which we translate, so that each translation can speak to people as effectively as God intends for his written word.

Jer. 18.1-5 (TEV)
Overall, the TEV is stylistically flat, but I sense a nice rhythm here. Calling the building a "potter's house", as opposed to the more bland names used in other versions, makes this passage stick in my mind:

1 The LORD said to me, 2 “Go down to the potter's house, where I will give you my message.” 3 So I went there and saw the potter working at his wheel. 4 Whenever a piece of pottery turned out imperfect, he would take the clay and make it into something else. 5 Then the LORD said to me, 6 “Don't I have the right to do with you people of Israel what the potter did with the clay? You are in my hands just like clay in the potter's hands.

Zeph. 3.17b (LB)
I love the singing metaphors and effective contrast here:

"Is that a joyous choir I hear? No, it is the Lord himself exulting over you in happy song."

Rom. 12.2 (Phillips)
Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

1 Cor. 13.4-7 (Phillips)

I am moved to change with J.B. Phillips' wording of one of my favorite parts of the Bible:

"This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience--it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive; it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance."

Eph. 3:17 (NLT)
And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust in him. May your roots go down deep into the soil of God's marvelous love.

Eph. 5.1-2 (The Message)
The following is one of many passages in The Message which startle me out of any lethargy I experience from becoming too familiar with Scripture. I can't close my ears or heart to this message:

"Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn't love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that."

Eph. 5.6-7 (The Message)
Ephesians must be a favorite book of Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message. He does such a good job translating it. We can't ignore this message:

"Don't let yourselves be taken in by religious smooth talk. God gets furious with people who are full of religious sales talk but want nothing to do with him. Don't even hang around people like that."

Eph. 5.8-10 (The Message)
In the very next verses, Peterson continues to enlighten us:

"You groped your way through that murk once, but no longer. You're out in the open now. The bright light of Christ makes your way plain. So no more stumbling around. Get on with it! The good, the right, the true--these are the actions appropriate for daylight hours. Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it."

Phil. 2.5-11 (ISV)
The ISV translators obviously love this ancient hymn of the church and so worded it as an English hymn. The poetic style is dated, including use of the inversions, "existed he" and "did he possess". The ISV team tells me that they chose this older style to reflect the antiquity of this hymn:

"The poem's 2000 years old! That's why we deliberately used the inversion technique! ... This was a deliberate choice of the translation team."

It makes great sense to me. Well done!

I grew up on traditional evangelical hymns and so I enjoy the allusion to the "matchless name of Jesus", from the hymn "That Beautiful Name," in verse 9 of the following:

5 Have the same attitude among yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus:

6 In God's own form existed he,
And shared with God equality,
Deemed nothing needed grasping.
7 Instead, poured out in emptiness,
A servant's form did he possess,
In human form he chose to be,
8 And lived in all humility,
Death on a cross obeying.
9 Now lifted up by God to heaven,
A name above all others given,
This matchless name possessing.
10 And so, when Jesus' name is called,
The knees of everyone will fall,
Where'er they are residing.
11 Then every tongue in one accord,
Will say that Jesus Christ is Lord,
While God the Father praising.

Phil. 3.17-21 (The Message)
The word choices are powerful in this rendering. Notice how well the running metaphor is maintained at the beginning of this section. Then notice the sharp contrast between "easy street" and "dead-end street." Then there is the fun b-word alliteration of the next sentence, in "bellies" and "belches." Next delight in the short, crisp exclamations of the following two sentences ending with the glorious words, "We're citizens of high heaven!" Feast on this verbal cuisine; you'll be left with a good taste in your mouth, not belches from a belly filled with fast food:

"Stick with me, friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal. There are many out there taking other paths, choosing other goals, and trying to get you to go along with them. I've warned you of them many times; sadly, I'm having to do it again. All they want is easy street. They hate Christ's Cross. But easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live there make their bellies their gods; belches are their praise; all they can think of is their appetites.

But there's far more to life for us. We're citizens of high heaven! We're waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He'll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him."

Phil. 4:6 (New Living Translation)
Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

James 1.2-4 (Phillips)
I doubt that the power of Phillips' images of crowding intruders and welcomed friends will ever be equaled by other wordings for these verses. This is one of my all-time favorites for good style in Bible translation. It continues to speak to my inner being, when all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into my life:

"When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence."

Hebrews 12.1b-2 (ISV and NLT)
I like the alliteration of "Pioneer and Perfector" in the ISV. Such alliteration draws our attention to the words, then to the one described by those words, Jesus, upon whom we need to focus:

"let us keep on running with endurance the race set before us, focusing on Jesus, the Pioneer and Perfector of faith"

The NLT rendering is similar:
"looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith"

So, what do I conclude from several years of contemplating the notion of translation elegance? I conclude that elegance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We consider elegant what strikes us as elegant, as circular as that sounds.

I do not like to read awkward English, with convoluted syntax, foreign-sounding phrases, collocational clashes, and pronoun antecedents which are difficult to identify. I personally do not find such language beautiful or elegant. And I regret to say that many English Bible versions are written like that. Some of these English versions are sometimes lauded as being "elegant." Sometimes I think people call elegant language which is foreign-sounding, which we do not understand easily, and which does not sound "common-place." In contrast, I think most who care about English quality, including those who may call foreign-sounding English translations elegant, would agree that elegant literature has English which is grammatical also also often has wonderful turns of phrases, powerful verbs, and other attractive literary devices such as emphasis, rhythm, judicious repetition, active metaphors, and phonetic choices for words (such as alliteration).

I agree with many others that the language of the KJV and Shakespeare and the novels of Dickens is elegant. But such literature does not have nearly as much non-English syntax and lexical combinations as are found in many English Bible versions, including some produced recently. If you are not sure what I am referring to, look for posts under some of the English versions on this blog and find comments from me where I note collocational clashes wordings which do not sound like English to me.

Some claim that the collocational clashes and use of non-English systax is a sign of poetic beauty in recent English versions. Yes, it is true that good English poetry often has some unique collocational clashes, but poets usually do not fill their poetry with collocational clashes. There may be one or two word clashes which stand out, and often a poet will have set up the poem to accomodate the clashes and cause us to think "outside the box." Such is not the case with the rampant non-English wordings found in many English Bible versions today. It is difficult for me, on a visceral level, to read these versions; it is just not a pleasant experience. Fortunately, there is also good English in recent Bible versions, and I like to point it out.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think elegance is also. And I would encourage others to consider if what they sometimes sense as being "elegant" in Bible versions is actually not elegant, but, rather, strange English, which sounds "elegant" to some ears because it is "different" from how we normally speak and write.


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