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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Can this be understood, or, is this the way it's said?

Sometimes when someone has pointed out how unnatural a wording is in an English Bible version, the response comes back, "Well, but how it is translated can be understood." I suggest that the metric of "Can it be understood?" is not sufficient for adequate Bible translation. We need a higher standard, namely, "How is it said in English?"

Here is a simple example. In the Greek of the New Testament someone's relationship to someone else is typically indicated by three nouns, first the name of the person referred to, second, the kinship relationship, and third, the person to whom the first person has this relationship. The grammatical connection between the kinship relationship and the third noun is indicated by the genitive case on the third noun.

So, for instance, in John 1:42 when Jesus meets Simon for the first time, he (Jesus) says to him:
Su ei Simon ho huios Ioannou
you are Simon the son John-of
Simon is the person referred to. The kinship relationship is that of sonship. Simon has this relationship to John.

I have scanned my desktop programs which have Bible versions and all except one translate what Jesus says as English:
You are Simon (the) son of John.
Some versions omit English "the" which is not required in English for this sentence.

Now, I suspect that everyone who reads this post can understand this English wording just fine. We know from it that Jesus is indicating Simon to be the son of his father, whose name is John. Most, if not all, of us are used to hearing this standard translation wording. In the rationale for many translation wordings, "It can be understood" just fine. Should this be the end of the story? I think not. We need to ask further, is this traditional wording how Jesus would has said it, if he were speaking as a fluent speaker of English? I found one version, The Message, which says it closer to the way I think most fluent English speakers would say it:
You're John's son, Simon?
Actually, because Simon is the one who Jesus is speaking about (and to), I think that he would more likely have said:
You're Simon, John's son.
The English "possessive" form (which actually encodes more than just possessive syntax in English) is used most often in English to indicate the relationship someone has to someone else. Now, I'm speaking intuitively here, but I believe that corpus linguistics, with its quantified studies of large databases of natural English speech and writing, would show a marked preference for the English "possessive" form to most often indicate the semantics of the Greek genitive of relationship, not the English "of" prepositional phrases.

Is this a big deal? No, not in this particular case (pun intended!). But there are many other syntactic constructions where it is a much bigger deal, where the form used in an English Bible is simply not what any fluent speakers or writers of English would ever say or write. Can such forms be understood? Sometimes, yes, and sometimes, no. Does any of this matter, especially if someone can (perhaps eventually) figure out what meaning was intended by the wording of a translation? I think it does. I think that translating into natural English supports the cohesive flow of English narrative and logic, reflecting that original cohesion of the biblical text, much better than do non-standard constructions.

Translating with natural English has an important sociolinguistic effect upon those who use the translation, namely, that they can tell that those who made the translation were good English writers. Often, there is a further sociolinguistic step beyond that, based on theology that many of us hold, that "God must know English well" if the Bible sounds this good. And, one step beyond this, yet, is the wonderful sense we can gain from the preceding that if God knows English this well, he must want to communicate to me in the kind of English I know well. And that must mean that he cares about me. And this is good news!

There is absolutely no difference in terms of accuracy between the two translation wordings of the Greek sentence at issue in John 1:42. I think most of us who are fluent speakers of English intuitively sense that "son of John" means exactly the same thing as "John's son." It is possible that there would be some linguistic (including literary) contexts in which "son of John" might be preferred for some pragmatic reason, but I can't think of any such contexts at the moment. Perhaps some of you can.

Now, please don't take from this simple example that I am suggesting that The Message is a Bible version to be preferred over others. When I began this post, I had no idea which versions had "son of John" and which, if any, had "John's son." I hoped that I might find some versions which had the latter. I hoped that the CEV, which has probably the most natural English of any English Bible version, would have "John's son," but it doesn't. It has the traditional wording.

I wish I had at my fingertips a more striking example to use to illustrate the point of this post, since the kinship example is so simple. With such simplicity it is easy to miss the translation point because we are so accustomed to reading kinship relationships encoded by English "of" prepositional phrases in the Bibles that we use. Please try not to let the simplicity of this example overshadow the point I am trying to make, namely, that it is much better to ask, "How would this meaning be said in English?" than it is to ask "Can this be understood?" There is also an important theoretical difference that indicates, I believe, that the former question is more appropriate than the latter, for translation work. Asking "How is this said in English?" is part of an inductive, descriptive, observationally-based approach to languange and translation. Asking "Can this be understood?" is not based on observation of English language usage, but, rather on something else in the mind of a translator. I suggest that when there is no meaning difference, which would impact on the issue of accuracy, it is usually better to translate based on how fluent, native speakers of English would express the meaning of the source text forms. There are, I think, some possible exceptions to this, particularly for certain specialty translation audiences, such as ones which already easily understand the meaning of non-standard English forms which are used to express the unique character of certain forms in the source text. Such speciality audiences could consist of Hebrew or Greek scholars, exegetical scholars, biblical literature scholars, and the like. It would not, I suggest, include the "typical" (whatever that means) Bible user who has not studied any of the biblical languages but wants to use a Bible version which is trustworthy, accurate, and clear. For the "typical" users I do think that it is appropriate to footnote any wording which may not be standard but might, for some literary or other reason, have some value.

Finally, please note that I am only addressing those translation contexts where exegetes are agreed on the meaning of the source text. So we are not dealing here with the matter of "interpretive" translation, where a natural wording is accused of being an interpretation rather than a true translation. Translating the Greek of John 1:42 as "Simon, John's son" has nothing to do with interpretive translation, nor even with thought-for-thought translation. We are simply trying to translate the Greek form, for which we are agreed on the meaning of each word, to the most appropriate English syntactic form. That is, in my opinion, one example of translation at its best, for most "general" translation audiences.

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