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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Open my eyes that I might see

A couple of days ago I blogged about the ESV children's Bible which will be published in August.

Here is one of many wordings which, I suggest, will not be understood correctly by children (and perhaps many adults, as well) reading the ESV text, without additional teaching:
John 9:17: So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?" He said, "He is a prophet."
This wording occurs in the first page view of the children's Bible on the ESV Bible blog.

What is the problem with the ESV wording? Can you spot it?

It is use of the words "open eyes" when the intended meaning is "heal eyes." We (myself included) who have grown up within the KJV tradition find it difficult to think anything other than that others will get the proper meaning from "open eyes." But the standard English meaning of "open eyes" is that someone's eyes (or eyelids) are physically opened, not that there is healing from blindness. The phrase "open eyes" reflects the Greek words which apparently did have the extended meaning that included healing of eyes. Although the context in which "open eyes" is used might enable some readers to recognize that these words are being used figuratively, rather than literally, not everyone will get the right meaning from the context.

I realize that my statements here will be jarring to some. It is difficult to think anything other than that this traditional English Bible way of referring to the healing of the blind man's eyes is correct. But the issue at hand is important: It is the critical issue of accuracy, as it is communicated through a Bible translation.

To address the issue, we must do what needs to be done for any English Bible version to find out if the meanings we intend by our translation wordings are accurately communicated to users of the translation. In this case, simple field testing among a wide range of individuals who the ESV team hopes will use its translation, including the children using the children's Bible, can be done. The field test question can be as simple as "What does it sound like is happening if we say that a person's eyes were opened?" If all (or, at least, a huge majority of) children (or adults) answer, "It sounds like the person is getting their eyesight," then we know that the ESV (and all other Bible versions which use the same expression) have accurately communicated the biblical meaning here. If the test subjects say, "It sounds like the person's eyes were opened, maybe his eyelids had been shut before," then the translation is not accurate for those test subjects, and needs to be revised until it is accurate--unless we are willing to have translations which are not in the vernacular, that is, the common mother tongue of the people for whom we are translating, requiring additional teaching to correct the misunderstood meanings of the translated words.

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At Wed Jun 08, 12:32:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Does the Greek actually mean "What do you say about him?" as in "What are you speaking about him?" or should it be "What do you think about him?" (This is a genuine question my Greek is not good enough to know!)

At Wed Jun 08, 04:16:00 PM, Blogger Paul W said...

I dislike the ESV, but I believe it would be artificial to have a test where just this verse was quoted and respondents were asked "What does it sound like is happening if we say that a person's eyes were opened?"

As an isolated unit, the expression "opened your eyes" is ambiguous and potentially misleading. However, in the narrative context of John 9:1-41, it makes sense as an idiom. From this context, I suggest many readers would understand what was being referred to with "opened your eyes," namely, the healing of your eyes.

In this context, the imagery of opening eyes is very important. Not only are the blind man's eyes "opened" when he's cured of his blindness. His eyes are also "opened" to see the significance of Jesus, which is something the Jewish leaders are blind to, even though they can physically see. By translating 9:17 the way it does, the ESV is trying to provide a transparent rendering which allows English readers to see these connections. To translate the idiom of "open eyes" as "heal eyes" is potentially to deprive readers of the opportunity to make these connections, although it wouldn't be inaccurate as a translation.

I'd be very interested in a test where people were given John 9 to read and asked about their comprehension of the idiom in verse 17. Maybe the literal "since he has opened your eyes?" could be rendered something along the lines of "since he caused you to see." This communicates more clearly to readers of English; and it potentially preserves the literary connections of this story in translation.

Thanks for the stimulating post.

At Wed Jun 08, 04:40:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Paul, your point about the context for field testing is important. And I think that at some point the field test would need to include all of John 9, as you stated. But I think it is also important to test to see if anyone today has a meaning of 'eyes healed' for the wording "open eyes." That test is most objectively done without the biblical context. Both kinds of tests are important. Ultimately, if children and adults get the intended meaning from the traditional meaning of "open eyes" within the context of John 9, then the translation passes and is accurate. One of my greatest concerns is that the objective testing has not been done. There are too many opinions offered stating what translators (or others) think that people will understand from a translation wording. But we need to put the course before the heart, so to speak! We need to "test all things," as the Good Book itself says, in a different context, of course, but the same principle is true. I have done extensive field testing and the results are often quite interesting. In our own tribal translation program the accuracy and clarity of the translation would not be nearly as good as it is (and we know it is not where we want it to be, but it is the best we can do at this point) if our mission had not required us to do field testing. That was one of the breakthroughs that make the translation better.

Thanks so much for your comments. Clearly, you are thinking seriously about these matters and that is what needs to be done.

At Wed Jun 08, 04:45:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim asked:

"Does the Greek actually mean "What do you say about him?" as in "What are you speaking about him?" or should it be "What do you think about him?" (This is a genuine question my Greek is not good enough to know!)"

Good question, Tim. The Greek literally says "say about him," as you probably already know. My Greek lexicons do not clearly indicate that legw can be semantically extended to include 'think about him,' although Louw & Nida indicate that legw can sometimes be used to mean 'mean about.' I think the ESV probably has it right here.

At Wed Jun 08, 06:44:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Paul, it is now some time later and I have thought more about your comments that the words "open eyes" need to be tested in the context of John 9. As I stated in my first reply, I agree with your underlying assumption here--I hope I am guess right, if not, please correct me--that words can make sense in context better than out of context.

I'd like to suggest a further refinement in both of our suggestions about testing "open eyes." Many of us, myself included, are accustomed to hearing "open eyes" in the context of healing of blindness in the Bible. We have learned "Bible English."

What we need to do is set up a larger context for the isolated words "open eyes" so that we are fair to the readers of such words as well as fair to the Bible words themselves. One such context for a better field test would be something like the following:

"A group of ophthalmologists(eye doctors) are traveling overseas this coming summer to visit a number of hospitals around the world where blind people have come for treatment. In their fund-raising literature about their trip the doctors ask, "Please help us open the eyes of blind people around the world."

"What does it sound to you will happen to the eyes of these blind people?"

Such a context and followup question will allow us to discover if "open eyes" is or is not an idiom that is a part of the English language, overall, or just a part of the subset of English speakers who have been taught "Bible English."

BTW, I don't know what the results of this field test question would be, but as someone who has developed and used many Bible field tests, I would love to find out how people would answer the question. Maybe I will post this as a mini poll on my blog someday. One problem is that I suspect that most who visit my blog are already bilingual, understanding some dialect of standard English as well as a dialect of Bible English, so it would be difficult for them to answer only on the basis of their knowledge of a standard dialect. We really need to administer such a test to a wider range of speakers, such as people in a Wal-Mart parking lot. :-)


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