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Saturday, May 28, 2005

An uncertain sound in the ESV

1 Cor. 14:8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? (KJV)

I think that this verse, in its context, has application for Bible translation. If Bibles have wordings which are not written in the vernacular, the mother tongue of the target audience, how can people understand them? When Bibles are written in English that emulates a distant stage of our language, or, worse, in wordings which have never been part of literary English, there is an "uncertain sound." For sure, such Bibles will not be understood by those outside the church. And my experience is that many inside the church will not understand them either. For that matter, I, who have grown up on the Bible (starting with many years only in the KJV), do not understand well such Bibles that have many wordings of an "uncertain sound."

I consider it a tragedy that some are still producing Bibles today which are not written throughout in the vernacular. This defeats the purpose of Bible translation which is to allow those who do not understand the original biblical languages to understand what those languages said (and meant) in their own mother tongues. Translating in the vernacular does not mean putting translators' own interpretations in a translation. It does not mean translating according to dynamic equivalence or any other translation philosophy with which one disagrees. It does not mean translating in sloppy language, or using colloquialisms. The gift of Bible translation has always been to translate into the vernacular, that is, the language of the people. Using some other kind of language in a translation brings an "uncertain sound" to those who need to hear "certain" sounds.

Here are some wordings (there are many others) from the ESV, one of the most recently produced English Bibles, which have an "uncertain sound:"

1. Is. 64:7 "You have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities" (This is, I think, meaningless in English. What is "the hand of our iniquities"?)

2. Eccl. 9:8 "Let not oil be lacking on your head." (Surely this could be worded in vernacular English without losing literary quality. Why not something like: "Be sure you have oil on your head"? Or, "Don't forget to put oil on your head!")

3. Eccl. 9:2 "As is the good, so is the sinner" (I get no meaning from this; something is missing in the English to connect the two clauses so that the entire sentence makes sense.)

4. Eccl. 10:10 "If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed." (The word "iron" here does not mean 'iron' as current speakers understand it to mean. For many years the English word "iron" has meant to most speakers either a kind of metal or an appliance used to smooth wrinkles out of clothing. Instead, what is being referred to in this verse is an "ax." Why not just say "ax" in the translation since the original Hebrew meant "ax"?)

We can do better; we can make better Bibles (the theme of this blog). Surely, we must do better if we hope to communicate something other than "uncertain" sounds to people today who need to hear God's Word accurately and clearly. Using proper English, with a "certain" sound, will not detract in the least from accuracy or literary quality. In fact, I would contend that both accuracy and literary quality improve when we avoid using an "uncertain sound" in our Bible translations.

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At Sat May 28, 11:51:00 AM, Anonymous Mike Sangrey said...

I couldn't agree more, Wayne.

Let me push this a little further. If the majority of English Bible translations are unclear, what would we expect to see? I suggest the following:

1. People would preach from small texts. Speaking as someone who preaches and does so with a lot of pastoral concern for those in the audience, preaching from large texts is hard. Very hard! It would be easier for me to preach from a Dickens' novel.

2. Our seminary libraries would be filled with explanations. Many of them disagreeing with each other. See the answer to an objection to this point immediately next.

3. We would see a considerable number of denominations. Each disagreeing with the other about what the text means. Note that the objection that experts in each denomination are "looking at the Greek" is not a strong objection. The vast majority of these experts have not had training in cross-linguistic hermeneutics from a linguistic perspective. For example, Greek grammars present very, very little about linguistics. And, in fact, foster an unclear, literalistic view of translation that virtually determines a bi-valent text (ie. a text having the features of two languages). Bi-valent texts are inherently ambiguous and unclear.

4. We would live in a society experiencing general moral decay. While the fact that sin is a strong enemy is a very good argument against this point, it is also certain that God's word "will not return to me empty." (Isa. 55:11) Would not our mission to evangelize the world be much more effective if we had translations that were clear? What does fall short of the glory of God mean to a beer drinking, Sunday afternoon football fan?

5. We would hear deeply commited christians saying: "I don't understand the Bible." Frankly, when I hear this, it hurts! And I hear it way too often. And I'll be so bold as to say that those who don't hear this cry, and are in a position of leadership, have built that wall between themselves and these hurting people with their own words. Under-shepherds are to lead the flock for which they have responsibility to green pastures where they can feed themselves, not to dried brush that is too difficult to digest.

Well, that's enough for now. The Western world is quickly becoming a mission field. It will be ironic, will it not, when those for whom we've helped with accurate, clear, and natural Bible translations return the favor for us?

At Sat May 28, 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

On the "uncertain sound" phrase, it is fascinating how many translations have followed the KJV rendering of αδηλον φωνην σαλπιγξ, perhaps it is because if the text is read as "high literature" it does work? (Even though it may not be exactly what this text means... My Greek is not good enough, but I'd assume the issue is volume rather than clarity.)

On the monstrosities from the ESV, making a literal rendering that will work in English is really difficult, as I found with Amos! But these ought not to be alowed... Even if in 4. we change "iron" to "ax" it still does not work... "If the ax is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge" is fine, but what does "he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed" mean, sounds like the wisdom of the mysterious East to me!

At Sat May 28, 01:01:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

PS, I quite agree with Mike. We need translations that are really English, the big danger though is (to disagree with you, Wayne) that that does precisely mean "putting translators' own interpretations in a translation" for one can almost never retain the ambiguity and nuance of the original in a real vernacular translation!

So, 90% of the time, I say vive le Message!

And, therefore, the $64,000 question is what can/should we do about the other 10%? (That's in old money by the way - should we translate the images as well?) Perhaps in an electronic world we could have a multi-translation that offers alternative readings...

At Sat May 28, 03:39:00 PM, Anonymous Mike Sangrey said...

I think an electronic media would be great.

To push Tim's comment a little further...the alternative readings could be assessed via a sort of open review process (ie a peer review, but with a community driven defintion of peers, not just the in crowd). The peers would be accountable to the larger community by being limited to simply assessing--and supporting--how each alternative rendering coheres with the surrounding literary context. Better coherence would result in a higher score. If there are two high and relatively equal scores, then that's actually pretty good evidence that the understanding of the surrounding literary context is well understood since it is supportable multiple ways.

With an electronic media, this is doable.

At Sat May 28, 07:29:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Now that could be seriously interesting, multiple translation options (at sentence level, verse level or higher...?) which could be "judged" not only by each according to their lights, but by an open public "vote". I'd see Mike's sugestion as a wicked way to work towards a translation (a genuine Temporary English Version ;) - as an inveterate authoritarian (Really? My students and family will never recognise me!) I'd still like to see the options regarded as both "good" in a scholarly sense, and also good by popular vote, offered as alternatives in a "final" version (1.12?), to capture the ambiguity or openness of the original...

At Sun May 29, 01:04:00 PM, Blogger Aslan_kin said...


I don't think the translation philosophy of the ESV would allow them to make the adjustments necessary to put the language in the vernacular.

There are a number of translations whose goal is not necessarily to put the bible in the language of the people. The goal with some, such as the ESV, seems to be to render as close as possible to the original language using the words of today, but not necessarily the grammar and/or expressions of today.


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