An uncertain sound in the ESV
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.
Categories: Bible translation, ESV