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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

What's my agenda?

A couple of days ago "anonymous" posted a comment under my blog post, both of which can be read by clicking on the title to this post. I have been waiting, hoping that "anonymous" would give me further details so I would know how to address his question about my blog polls being "loaded." I will still address that issue if "anonymous" returns and answers. Until then I will say that I have been field testing for different aspects of Bible translation adequacy for a number of years, including translation accuracy, readability, literary quality, etc. I realize that it is not easy to design polls which do not have some problem. Polls typically call for a trade-off among different options, thoroughness on the one hand, requiring more words which take longer for busy Internet surfers to read, and conciseness to try to attract website visitors to take a poll. Internet polls also suffer from the statistical problem of self-selection. Poll results only reflect answers from those who choose to answer. And those who choose to answer are part of the pool of those who visit a website with a poll. My Better Bibles Blog is not well known in the blogosphere, so the statistical significance of the results from, say, 50 people who choose to vote can be off by several percentage points.

I suspect what "anonymous" was especially concerned about was the wording of my polls. I do not know specifically what this person's concerns were, but they may have felt that I put a certain slant on the questions. I try hard to be as objective as possible when I word my field test questions. I am well aware of the problem of questioner bias in polls. Like many of you who visit this blog, I am not happy about the way some polls are worded on various issues in the U.S., and, I assume, the problem is similar in Canada, the U.K, and other places where polls are conducted.

Here is how I responded to "anonymous" in the comment section:
anonymous said: "Your poll questions seems to be pretty loaded and is contingent upon how you define "good, quality, proper English". What's your agenda?"

Dear anonymous, you ask important questions. First, if you perceived my poll questions to be loaded, that is important and I need to address the issue. I would like to address this and your second comment as well as your question in a blog post, since the points you raise are important and it is easier for more blog visitors to read answers in a blog post.

Would you do me a favor, please, to help me before I blog on your comment? Would you please give me some specific examples where you believe my poll questions are loaded. Please give the wording of the poll questions and explain how you feel they are loaded. Thanks.

You asked about my agenda. It is the same passion that Luther had when he translated to German [a German, he said, that the "hausfrau" (housewife) could understand] and that Tyndale had for English [so that "even a ploughboy could understand"]. My agenda is stated in the header to this blog. It is the desire to help improve the quality of English Bible versions, in all areas, most of all, accuracy, but also removing ungrammatical wordings, and any other wordings which do not reflect the wordings of the biblical language source texts to current English readers as well as they could. Thank you for asking.
Now, I'll try to address the question "What's your agenda?" further in this blog post, but, as with the issue of "loaded" poll questions, it would be helpful for me to have some clarification from "anonymous" so that I might respond as accurately and to the point of the question as possible. Still, I'll do my best to try to state what my agenda is about Bible translation, in general, and English Bible translations, in particular, including the role that I hope that this blog can play.

I have been a missionary Bible translator for 30 years. My wife and I began translation work among the Cheyenne Indians, at the request of their church elders, in 1975. We are completing our fulltime work with the Cheyennes this year. It has been a long, but very worthwhile, learning experience for us. It has also been a fruitful time. And I have learned a lot about Bible translation on the job.

The quality of the Cheyenne translation, in particular concerning the major issues of accuracy and language naturalness, improved significantly a few years ago when we began field testing the translation with Cheyenne speakers who had not worked yet on the translation. Why choose checkers who had not worked on the translation? To keep the quality checking and answers received as objective as possible. Each of us, myself included, know what we want to accomplish by the things we do. All Bible translators, including those who produce English versions, work very hard to produce the best quality translations they can. Yet we each often assume that those who will use the translation will get the same understanding from the translation that we think is in the translation already. But such is often not the case. Many products, including household appliances and computer software, are field tested before sale or distribution to the public. Some of us have used Beta test software on our computers. This is computer software which is in good condition but is still being tested before final revisions and subsequent release to the public.

One of the steps in translation which has usually been omitted from major national language translations, including those in English, has been field testing. It is not the translators' fault that there has been this omission. It has only been in the past 30 or so years that it has become clear to Bible translation theoreticians that field testing can significantly improve the quality of translations. This fact, however, has not filtered down very far into seminaries and other places where biblical exegetes work who are chosen to help produce an English Bible version. And even if these exegetes have read a Bible translation textbook which discusses field testing, it is sometimes assumed that this is a procedure which would only benefit translation among Bibleless tribal groups, not among English speakers where there is a long history of Christianity. Some English Bible field testing has taken place, and for that I am very glad. Results from field testing by myself and others have demonstrated that such testing is of great value. It helps translators discover where their assumptions about the translation do not align with the realities of how the translations are understood by those who use them. It also can help translators discover where the wordings they have used are not in a standard English dialect, which is English which most clearly and accurately communicates God's Word to English speakers. We do not, generally, need Bibles in "sub"-dialects, street language, slang, etc. But we do need Bibles written in language which is recognized by all speakers, from English professors to bus drivers to lawyers and preachers, as being good quality, proper English.

So part of my agenda is to encourage the faith communities, and, in particular, their Bible translators, to understand how valuable it is to field test their translation work, just as other products are field tested. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that those who know less about the Bible than the exegete-translators determine how the translation is worded. No. The purpose of field testing is only to discover where the translation does not communicate as accurately, clearly, naturally, or rhetorically as well as the translation team desires. Test subjects do not determine, then, how a translation is worded. The wording always remains in the hands of the biblical scholars. But the biblical scholars get feedback from the public which helps them produce a better quality product for that public.

I admire the NET Bible team which, from the start, posted its translation on the Internet and invited comments from the public. This was one form of field testing. The ESV team is posting through the ESV Bible blog, being transparent with the public about their translation. They have accepted and benefitted by comments submitted to them since the ESV was first published. I admire that kind of openness to feedback. Surely it will benefit everyone in the end.

Another part of my agenda comes from my backgound in English language studies and editing. I am a natural editor. So was my mother. And my father was a natural linguist, with a great fascination for languages and how they work. I love good English. I appreciate reading good quality English literature, with grammatical wordngs, with good metaphors and other vibrant figures of speech. I enjoy the figures of speech used in the original biblical languages.

As I have studied English Bibles over the years I have been deeply concerned that so many of them have poor quality English. And I have been dismayed that my concerns are not shared by more people, especially church and seminary leaders. Every new English Bible which is produced gets glowing statements of support from church leaders. Yet, when I read, as an editor and longtime student of English, some of the versions themselves I often wonder how much of them has been carefully read by the great leaders who have endorsed them. Or else, if they have read a fair amount, I wonder how much their sense of good quality English is the same as that which is enjoyed by those who like good quality literature, such as books chosen for Nobel prizes in literature or the Pulitzer prize. The English found in some English Bibles is, I hate to say, fairly bad, in many passages. Yet we in the church have become accustomed to the sound of that kind of language in our Bibles and many of us do not recognize it as being of poor quality, outdated, obscure, sometimes ungrammatical, or breaking a number of important rules of proper English language usage. I really do not like talking or writing like this because it sounds so negative, and I do not want to be negative about something in people's lives which is so important to them as the Bible version they use. The Bible is a precious book, rightly so, to millions of people. And which Bible version we use is a very important matter to many. Some believe the only legitimate version to use is the KJV (AV). Others believe that the only proper Bible is one produced according to one translation philosophy or another. But little is done in the way of objectively trying to find out what Bible users understand from what they read in their Bibles. (I am not talking here about understanding of difficult concepts such as election, sanctification, justification, etc., but, rather, of linguistic understanding that comes from reading words and linguistic forms in any piece of literature, including a Bible in translation.)

I often speak about the quality of English in Bible versions. But I am just as concerned about exegetical accuracy, although with the fine exegetes on Bible translation teams most English versions do not suffer so much in the area of accuracy. We often read criticism, some of it justified, of more idiomatic ("dynamic equivalent" and "thought-for-thought") translations that they are not very "accurate." Well, I want to encourage people to be specific about bettering the accuracy of such versions. I have admired the openness of Mark Taylor, the final literary stylist of the New Living Translation, and son of Ken Taylor who produced the Living Bible, to receive suggestions for improving the accuracy of the NLT. Before the NLT first came off the presses, Mark and the rest of his team were already at work on revisions for the NLT, which have resulted in an improved NLT2 (second edition). So, another part of my agenda is to help bring greater accuracy to the Bible versions which have more natural English. I have posted a number of comments of my own on this blog under various versions about passages where I believe the accuracy can be improved. I hope that other visitors to this blog will do the same.

In a sense my agenda is to kind of stand somewhere in the middle of that big seesaw (teeter-totter?) that represents the continuum of highly literal to highly paraphrastic Bible versions, and call for improvement for each version, whether the improvement is for greater accuracy or better quality English.

My agenda is to try to make a difference, even if it is a small difference, in the world of English Bible translation. I have a passion, that same passion Luther had for German speakers, the same passion Tyndale had for English speakers, that the "housewife" (I forget the German word Luther used) and Tyndale's "ploughboy" might be able to hear and understand God's word clearly in their own language. Too many English Bible versions are not translated into the English spoken and written by native English speaking people. I find this tragic. The original biblical texts, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, were not written in a classical form of those languages. They were not written in slangy, colloquial language, either. They were written in the dialects of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek which were spoken by contemporaries of the human authors of the Bible. The writers of the Greek New Testament did not write in Attic Greek. They did not write in Homerian Greek. They wrote in Hellenistic (Koine) Greek, which was the common language spoken throughout the Roman Empire at the time that Jesus was alive. It was a real language. Important archeological discoveries have demonstrated that it was a language dialect used for writing. There were, obviously, different styles of Greek which the different authors of the New Testament wrote in. Luke has a more polished Greek, not surprisingly, given that he likely had more formal education that fisherman Peter, for instance. But all of the Greek of the New Testament was understandable to the many who spoke Koine Greek. They did not have to have a special tutor or Bible teacher explain to them the meaning of obscure words to understand those words. Yes, there were things which were difficult to understand. Peter makes that clear when he wrote about things difficult to understand in some of the writings of Paul. But they were not difficult because Paul used words or syntax which were not known by ordinary speakers of Koine Greek. They were difficult because of how Paul structured his ideas through his words. The concepts he wrote about were complex.

So, that's my agenda. I have created the Bible Translation website because I want to have some part in helping my fellow English speakers get better Bibles. I co-moderate email discussion lists about Bible translation so that there can be better Bibles. I started this blog a few weeks ago as one more forum where ideas could be shared for improving the quality of English Bibles.

I have no desire to be negative about any English Bibles. My wife and children can attest to the fact that I am a tender-hearted fellow. I try to avoid conflict. I do not like noise. I do not like it when Christians shout (and shoot!) at each other. Yet I feel so strongly that English speakers deserve to use Bible translations which are as clear and free from obscure, strange language as were the original biblical language manuscripts that I am willing to speak up as best as I can to lobby for better Bibles. I try to find gracious ways of pointing out problems with some Bible versions which can be repaired. My preference is to do so quietly. But there is also a place for creating forums (fora?!) where the public can participate in the process of calling for better Bibles, a forum such as this blog, with its sections where blog visitors can cite specific examples of inaccuracies or English quality problems in Bible versions, or the posting section where I try to stimulate people to think critically (a positive exercise, not the negative kind which we have often seen) about Bible versions.

I have no desire to tell people what Bible versions they should use. These are choices which individuals needs to make within the context of their own faith community, with the help of their pastor or elders, and after considering the different uses they will make of Bible versions.

But I do hope I can have at least some small effect upon helping bring better quality to English Bible versions. And all along, I do not want to give the idea that any English Bible versions are bad. I just would like to see them better. That is why this blog has the corny alliterated title Better Bibles Blog. I am totally serious about wanting to help better Bibles be produced.

I don't want to be a burr in the saddle of any English Bible translation team. But I deeply enjoy fellowshiping with translation team members and sharing ideas with them. I am glad when some of my ideas for improvement are accepted. I am also glad when I learn that I have been mistaken about something in a Bible version, because just as I want there to be better Bibles, I want to keep becoming a better person, including in my understanding of the Bible. I have learned from my exchanges with members of English Bible version teams.

Well, for not being sure exactly what "anonymous" was asking me in his comment, I sure have given a long answer!! A word to the wise: if you want me to give a concise answer, ask me a very clear, explicit question. :-)

I have enjoyed these few weeks of sharing ideas through this blog. I have appreciated feedback from others. I love God's Word. It has been important to me all my life. At one time it may be that getting to know God's Word was nearly as important to me as getting to know God himself, I say to my own shame. But God has not given up on me. He has helped me move from a more cognitive approach to the Bible, where I knew the content well, to regognizing that the Bible is s tool, a most important tool, for coming to know God himself. And I'm finding out that he delights that I am getting to know him better. I have a long ways go go. I sometimes think it would be helpful to be able to go off somewhere quiet and live the contemplative life of a spiritual ascetic. But such is not my lot in life, at least not right now. I am wired to work with words and do a lot of that work. I just don't want to lose sight of the wonderful incarnated Word of God in my efforts to help translate and help others translate the written Word of God. Please pray for me, that I will maintain a godly balance, and that my passion that others might be able to read quality, accurate, well-written English Bibles can be channeled properly. There is much of good in English Bibles which we already have. I believe, as do many others, that we have enough English Bible versions for this time in the changing history of the English language. I think we need to move more of our Bible translation resources, including the wealth of exegetical resources and personnel into the task of translating the Bible for the 3,000 Bibleless language groups around the world. But even though I believe this, I cannot forget about my fellow speakers of English. I want them to be able to undertand the Bible accurately. I would like reading of the Bible to be a rich literary experience for them because the English they read is of a similar quality to the languages written in the original biblical texts.

Finally (at least I didn't have several other "finally's" preceding this one, in Pauline fashion!), I want to stress that I believe, along with John Piper (I saw a statement of his along these lines) and others, that the best Bible is the one we use. No English translation is perfect, nor will any ever be. But some of us can help make Bibles better. And at all times, we can take seriously what we can understand from the Bible versions we already have. We English speakers are indeed rich, yes, we are very, very wealthy, in terms of Bible translations. Now, when we have the opportunity, let us help make them better. And let each of us become better, for God, and his Kingdom, through the Bibles that we read.

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1 Comments:

At Sun Jun 19, 08:34:00 AM, Blogger language said...

Just discovered your very interesting blog; since there's a later post about the descriptive/perscriptive issue, I won't go into that here, but will simply answer your question about Luther's language: he says "man muss die Mutter im Hause, die Kinder auf der Gassen, den gemeinen Mann auf dem Markt drum fragen und denselbigen auf das Maul sehen, wie sie reden, und darnach dolmetschen; da verstehen sie es denn und merken, daß man deutsch mit ihnen redet." (Emphasis added; he refers later in the same piece to "die Mutter im Haus und der gemeine Mann.") This is from his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, which addresses many of the same concerns you deal with. (I was raised Lutheran, so I have a deep-rooted fondness for Luther despite his well-known failings.)

--language hat

 

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