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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Proper English

Those of you who know me or those of you who have read a fair amount on this blog know that I am passionate about proper English being used in Bible versions. It hurts my ears (and eyes) to hear (or read) the English found in many English Bible versions. Sometimes I wonder if their translators set aside their own sense of what is good literary English when they translate the Bible. We should not be surprised if we give our child or a new believer one of these Bibles, and after reading it for awhile, they ask us, "Can't God speak good English?"

I, personally, find no reason, logical, philosophical, theological, or theoretical (such as in translation theory) that would call for not using well-formed, grammatical English sentences in English Bibles. The English phrasings should be worded in proper order, according to English syntactic and rhetorical rules. Antecedents of pronouns should be clear. Word combinations should obey the conventions which are followed by speakers of standard dialects of English.

Poor quality English has no relationship to anything we hold sacred about the Scriptures, such as accuracy or a desire to have a "dignified" or "sacred" sound to the Bible. Poor English actually reduces accuracy, since accuracy can, truly, be defined as the degree to which the original meaning of Scripture is transferred to the target (translation) language. That "degree" will vary, of course, depending on who is the user of the translation.

If someone reads "sons of the prophets" (1 Kings 20:35 and elsewhere) in some translation and gets the meaning from that wording that male children of the prophets were referred to, then that reader has not gotten the meaning of the original Hebrew phrase accurately. I don't think we can say anything other than that that for that reader, "sons of the prophets" is not an accurate translation. That is, accuracy does not primarily reflect meanings intended by the translator(s), but, rather, what people actually understand from how a translation is worded. (And I state this as one who continues to believe that there is objective meaning in the biblical source texts, not a variety of meanings relative to readers.)

It is not the fault of readers if they struggle to understand phrasings which do not use proper English for current speakers, where proper English would include normal word order, syntax, and word combinations (collocations). It is up to translators to use accurate, good literary English in their translations so that their translations will communicate as accurately, clearly, and beautifully as possible.

We need to translate for readers in such a way that they will get from our translations the same meanings that were in the original biblical languages for the books of the Bible. It should not be necessary for us to have an additional "translator" to translate inferior English to better English so those who do not understand the English can understand it (I'm only referring here to understanding the meanings of the words and how they relate to each other, not to understanding all of the concepts behind the wordings.) It is not the fault of readers of translations if they get the wrong meanings from wordings which do not accurately communicate the meanings of the biblical source texts, no matter how sincerely translators believe that they have translated accurately.

Is there any literary beauty in the following wording of Isaiah 1:9?
Unless Jehovah of Hosts had left to us a remnant, Shortly --
as Sodom we had been, To Gomorrah we had been like!
Perhaps I am wrong, but I would think that most current speakers of English could easily tell us that something doesn't sound or look right about that wording--it is from Young's Literal Translation, not a recent translation, but it sounds like some recent translations. (I quoted from Young's not because it is a literal translation--the issue in this blog post is not about how literal a translation is, but about its quality of English. I chose Young's because it is not commonly used today. I wanted to avoid direct analysis of a recent version at this point.) In Young's rendering, "as Sodom we had been" is not in proper contemporary English word order. I'm not sure if it would have been in proper word order for any stage of the English language. Proper word order calls for something like "we would have been as Sodom." The next clause may be even uglier English, "To Gomorrah we had been like." Native speakers of English simply do not speak or write like this, not even when writing poetically, or trying to emulate Elizabethan English or English from some other previous stage of English. At a minimum, that last clause needs to be reordered as: "We had been like Gomorrah" or "We would have been like Gomorrah."

As Jesus' ministry neared its end, he told his audience, according to one English version which has been considered for many years to have high quality English, "I will give you a mouth and wisdom" (Luke 21:15). What?! Who would ever tell someone else that they are going to give them a mouth? The only person I can think of who could say this would be a plastic surgeon who is talking to a patient who has lost a mouth in an accident or was born without one. Am I being too much of a literalist here? I really don't think so. We don't even say "I will give you a mouth" when we are speaking figuratively in English. So I can't see any way that this wording with its collocational clash of the verb "give" and the object "mouth" can be considered good literary English.

Do all English Bibles have wordings that have such poor English as the two examples I have cited? Fortunately, no. And most English Bibles have at least some proper English wordings. But many English Bibles have many wordings which would never have been given a good grade by my Bible school English professor, who challenged me and my fellow students to write well. I wish that he could have graded the wordings of all English Bible versions before they are published. Some English Bibles clearly show the touch of well qualified English stylists who understand how to take "seminary English" and transform it into good quality, proper literary English. I wish that more English Bibles displayed good literary quality.

I am baffled by that fact that for a language like English, with such a rich history of Bible translations that goes back hundreds of years, with the beauty of Elizabethan English in the King James Version working its way into the very fabric of the English language as spoken by millions of people, and a long church history, we are still producing Bibles which do not sound like they were translated by people who are native speakers of English. Surely, with the example of all the great literature which has been produced by English authors, and all the technological advances with computers and other aids which can help us catch grammatical and stylistic problems in our English writing, one would think that the last thing we should be seeing today is poor quality language in English Bibles. But such is not the case. We can do better. And this blog is dedicated to raising the consciousness (no, not "consciousness raising" rituals!) of Bible users to the quality of English in the Bibles which they are reading.

I must end on a positive note, since there was so much negativity in what I have said so far. Let us consider some above average quality English for Bible versions:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you are involved in various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But you must let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-3)
It's not perfectly styled English, but it is quite good. I don't spot any decrease in accuracy that accompanies the increase in English quality over that of many other English versions. Let us work for better English in the Bibles that we use, so that they will be as accurate and pleasant to read, at least in terms of literary quality, as possible. (Oh, for those of you who are curious, the version from which that wording from James was taken is the ISV, not well known in the English Bible reading world.


At Fri May 06, 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

While on the whole I probably agree with you, I think you are unfair to literal renderings.

At least where these are NOT intended to be everyday reading, but to allow readers with no Hebrew or Greek to get an idea of what was going on in the original language. You cite an example from Young's Literal Translation, it is indeed excruciating - as an example of English. But that was not the intention. Young's preface to the very first edition makes this clear in the first words: "THE WORK, in its present form, is not to be considered as intended to come into competition with the ordinary use of the commonly received English Version of the Holy Scriptures".

In short: on translations for everyday use - I agree with you; BUT where the purpose is didactic (i.e. to uncover what was going on in the original) I can see a role for literal renderings - as my TempEV of Amos is!

At Fri May 06, 02:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim said:

"While on the whole I probably agree with you, I think you are unfair to literal renderings.

At least where these are NOT intended to be everyday reading, but to allow readers with no Hebrew or Greek to get an idea of what was going on in the original language."

I completely agree with you, Tim. I tried to make it clear in my post--which, by the way, did not address the issue of literal renderings--that I was referring *only* to the quality of English in translations. I can see that I still have not been able to communicate clearly enough the difference between a translation which claims to be written in "elegant" English or English with "literary excellence" but which actually has quite poor English throughout much of its wordings, and translations which make no claim to literary excellence, but, rather, serve an important purpose, such as the didactic use that you explain so well.

My concern is NOT with how literal a translation is or not. It is possible for a translation to have a high degree of literality as well as being written in good quality English and have "literary excellence." It is also possible for a translation to be literal and be written in quite poor English. And it is also possible for a translation to be non-literal (idiomatic, dynamic equivalent, whatever term is preferred) and have poor quality English, or at least English which lacks literary excellence.

Each of these translation parameters needs to be considered on its own terms.

I think it is going to take many more posts for me to somehow be able to clearly communicate the idea of what it can mean for a translation to be both literal and to have literary excellence. I have had others assume from my writings about Bible translation that I am "against" literal translations. But such is not the case. I am against translations in any language not being written in a way that speakers of that language would consider good quality, grammatical, eloquent, elegant literature. I am especially against such translations if they advertize themselves as having literary excellence, when they do not. The public is mislead by such promotion, and often the public comes to believe the promotion. We who have become accustomed to "Bible English" have become "numb" to good quality English, at least when it comes to the Bible. We can recognize good quality literature outside of the Bible, but do not recognize it within a Bible translation, *unless* we deliberately sensitive ourselves to it, or unless we resist the "sacred jargonization" of our language.

I wish more English scholars would write scholarly reviews of English Bible translations, wrestling with the quality of English in them.

It *is* possible to have our cake (accuracy) and eat it too (the delicious eating of good literature). But it is seldom seen in English Bible translation. I *hope* that this can be changed. I hope that this little blog can be a small catalyst for that change to occur.

We need to teach every English translation team how to write in good quality English before they begin translating. And English stylists on their teams need to be empowered to make the changes necessary to move inferior English to superior English.

At Sat May 07, 10:14:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim, today (Saturday) I added a few more words to the blog post to explain why I quoted from Young's rather than some more recent Bible version. I hope it helps address your important question in these Comments.

At Sat May 07, 01:13:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I didn't think you were trying to argue against literal translations, rather I was trying to point out that one must ask about the intended purpose of a rendering. In the case of some "literal" translations the intent IS to be read as English. For these your test of English quality does apply. But others - like I think Young's - do not aim to be read as English, they aim to be barely comprehensible, but to show the structure of the thought in the source language.

So, I'd argue to criticise the NRSV for lack of English quality is fair - it aims to be read as English.

To criticise my TempEV would be marginally fair as I tried to produce something readable as English. (As betrayed by my sound files!)

But I don't think Young's was aiming to be read as English, but to be just or barely comprehensible to an English speaker, which even the example you quoted achieves!

It's all a question of purpose...


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