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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Literary un-excellence poll

I know, I know, "un-excellence" is not a word, but neither was "un-Cola" before someone coined it based on the word "Cola." In any case, the time has come to remove the poll about the essay I wrote for blog post Literary Essay -- Part 4. The poll has been up for quite a few weeks. Here are the poll results as of today:
Wayne, the English in your blog post Literary English -- Part 4

was not good literary English 65% 36
had literary excellence, similar to some Bible versions 35% 19
55 votes total

As I mentioned in a post about this poll not too long ago, it was difficult for me to write that essay. I wrote in a literary style which is far out of my comfort zone. I did so deliberately, to test how readers would respond to that particular style. I tried to emulate the literary style of the ESV which some have blogged about enthusiastically and some church leaders have given ringing endorsements to. I directly quoted a number of wordings from the ESV. And many other wordings which were not direct quotes were similar to wordings which are in the ESV.

The ESV has been widely advertised as having literary excellence. I wanted to conduct this field test poll to try to determine, empirically, if readers of its kind of English agree that that particular style of writing has literary excellence. Unfortunately, 55 responses is not nearly enough to draw any clear conclusions. However, I can state that the "no" votes consistently outpaced the "yes" votes in this particular poll. Also, some of the comments made about the original post came from individuals who I know to be well-versed in English scholarship and sensitivity to good literary style so I felt I could trust their evaluations.

My aim was not to disparage the ESV nor its translation team. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between making fun of a translation, on the one hand, and critiquing a version, on the other hand. But I honestly try to only critique versions in my posts. I respect the ESV translation team and what they have been trying to accomplish with the ESV. As I has said many times, including on blogs of ESV enthusiasts, such as Adrian Warnock, I am always glad whenever someone finds a Bible version which they like and which they feel they can trust. The ESV is such a version for a number of people.

The ESV, however, is not written in contemporary English. To some Bible users this does not matter. For some it may even be an advantage, if they believe that contemporary English is inferior to older forms of English. For some Bible users literary excellence consists of having a Bible version sound like English that was spoken and written quite some time ago. I understand such a position. It is the beauty of the old, the romanticism of the past. We know the expression "Familiarity breeds contempt." Well, sometimes that is true. But the converse is also often true, "Familiarity breeds affection." Those who were raised on the KJV or RSV often have a great affection for the kind of English found in those versions. And advertising correctly states that the ESV continues the literary tradition of the Tyndale-KJV-RSV translations.

The ESV has many obscure wordings, but these do not sound like bad English to some readers. In fact, I suspect that the obscure wordings which bother me, as someone who wants the English versions I read to be just as clear as the language in the biblical source texts, probably sound elegant to other people. There is a certain style of "Bible English" which many people are accustomed to which gives a dignified, beautiful church sound to many people. I understand and respect that, even though I believe that other kinds of English would be of greater benefit to Bible users.

I happen to believe, and my experiences and observations have confirmed my belief, that a Bible translation which is written in the language of its users usually communicates to them what the original biblical texts said and meant more accurately, more clearly, and with less cognitive processing difficulties than a Bible which has many wordings which are unnatural, obsolete, or obscure for its users. The more language barriers we place in the way of Bible readers, through use of unnatural or obsolete language, the more difficult it is for people to understand the Bible accurately and clearly. Field testing consistently confirms this.

Yet I realize that some people still prefer Bibles which are not written in contemporary language which is as clear as the original text was. Some people actually believe that it is better for a Bible to sound like it was written a long time ago, because the original Bible was written a long time ago. Where I differ is that I believe that there is no evidence the original Bible sounded obsolete or strange when it was written. So it is my opinion that translations of the original biblical texts should not sound obsolete or strange either. But the advocates on the other side are sometimes trying to communicate the fact that the Bible was not first written in contemporary English, within our contemporary cultures. Instead, it was written in ancient languages spoken by people of ancient cultures. So they want the Bible to sound that way in an English translation. I just happen to believe that we can retain all the original cultural references, we can allow the Bible to be true to its ancient foundations, without having to use obsolete, obscure, strange English, to try to make the Bible sound ancient. Translations should not sound ancient, but their content can be about ancient things.

It is never my intention to attack any version or its translators. At the same time, I do think it is fair to raise questions, in a gracious way, about whether or not those who are using a particular Bible version, understand it in the same way that its translators intended it to be understood. There are good ways to field test such understandings and I will continue to do so. I do not want to pick on any single Bible version. I try to be objective. If you look through the Versions section of this blog you will find comments from me about inaccuracies, obscurity, problems with antecedent identification, or other translation problems in every Bible version evaluated on this blog. Does that mean that I consider all the versions bad? By no means. At various times I also point out good qualities of versions. As a Bible translator myself, I know that it takes a huge amount of work to produce a Bible translation. So I have great respect for the dedicated work done by each Bible translation team.

OK, following is my original essay which I posted. Included within it now are references where there are direct quotes (boldfaced) from the ESV of three or more words in length. There are, as I said earlier in this post, a number of other, near or similar quotes. These are italicized, with references to ESV passages which are similar in wording:
There came to my heart (Luke 1:44) again thoughts on beauty of the words. In my complaint (Ps. 55:2) on this I have posted in former days (Ezek. 38:17). My flesh faints (Ps. 63:1) for beauty of the words, just as, also, the flesh of others. Who can count the dust of (Num. 23:10) the words, from heaven sent? They are even as the stars of the sky (Rev. 6:13). The like has never been, nor ever shall be. (Ezek. 16:16) Yet, even in the fullness (Job 20:22) of their numbers, there comes upon us (2 Chron. 20:9), in truth, a lack of height and depth and breadth in word. In the heart (1 Kings 8:17) lies the mark toward which we reach, that the words be both in truth and in comeliness, both in tongue and pen. Yet not has man attained unto that mark (Phil. 3:12).

In the day of my desire and in the day of my yearning (Ps. 102:2), as I thought about all of this under the sun (Eccl. 1:3), I sought first of all words which would be as silver accouterments that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times (Ps. 12:6). But sought I also words of beauty and of adornment. And I said in my heart (Eccl. 1:16), yes, seven times did I say, "Let not your heart (Jer. 51:46) be troubled, hope yet in finding what your heart desires (2 Sam. 3:21)."

For I desire that which is unsurpassing not only in the words of truth but also in those which find grace in my eyes (Gen. 6:8). My soul thirsts for (Ps. 42:2) the beauty of the words, like a deer pants for flowing streams (Ps. 42:1) in a dry and thirsty land (Ezek. 19:13). The fervent seeks (Prov. 21:18) this beauty but finds it not. Of a truth (Job 34:12), the spirit of those in whom there was the work of the words had been willing but the flesh had been weak (Matt. 26:41). So in my desire I opened my mouth in parables (Matt. 13:35) and my lips uttered (Ps. 66:14) voice that I might yet obtain (James 4:2).

And when I was full of days (Gen. 35:29), to others I sent and told (2 Sam. 11:5). For I knew in my heart that alone surely must not I be in my desire. And it came to pass (2 Kings 15:12) that I heard the voices of others crying the same in loud lamentation (Matt. 2:18), "Yes, let not (Rom. 6:12) only the words be manifold in truth (Job 11:6), but let also them have fullness of beauty (Job 20:22)."

Were not also you of those voices?
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