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Thursday, July 28, 2005

A sound translation

Romans 10.17: "So then, faith comes from hearing the message" (GNB).

Eugene Peterson must be very happy with that verse and thinking how unselfish the translators of the Good News Bible were to have included an advert for his translation in theirs more than 25 years earlier. Perhaps the Bible Society didn't mean to promote Peterson's translation either in using this verse as part of their advertising. Now of course as you read the quote above you know that the GNB team didn't mean Peterson's "The Message" but what if you are participating in worship and someone is reading this passage aloud. You might be tempted to think that to achieve faith you have to use only The Message.

Okay, so that example might seem a little far-fetched. But problems deciphering a translation when read aloud can be very common. As a member of the Church of England I hear the Bible being read as part of worship services and not just when it is the formal readings. Cranmer and others writting the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer based much of the liturgy on passages of scripture. The King James Version is known in Britain, where I live, by an alternative title The Authorised Version. On the title page is a declaration "authorised to be read in churches". It was intended to be read ... aloud.

In his book on the King James Version MacGarth mentions that the translators would read each passage aloud. If they heard something ambiguous, or unnatural or jarring they re-worked the translation to remove these problems. This is probably the major reason that the KJV is so loved by English speaking church-goers. It is "easy on the ears". Unfortunately very few committees responsible for modern translation even mention reading passages aloud to check their work. The church has waited a very long time for translators to continue the example of the KJV team and read their translation alound.

Recently the liturgy for the service of Morning Prayer included Psalm 109. Now I prefer to use the more modern Common Worship version of this liturgy than the better known Book of Common Prayer. To complement this "updating" the liturgy the translations Psalms have been updated too. But in Psalm 109:15,16 there are some difficulties figuring out who the referents are. Even the RSV exhibits problems in these verses.
Let them be before the LORD continually; and may his memory be cut off from the earth! For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death.
As this was read it sounded as if it was any memory of the LORD that would be forgotten and claiming that he didn't show kindness, etc. Clearly this did not match other passages of the Bible.

There are other simpler examples to consider. Barclay Newman in his notes on the Contemporary English Version mentions other problems with Psalm 109 specifically with verses 1 and 2. David Dewey in his excellent introduction to Bible versions (UK, US) suggests having someone else read these verses to you and then asking the question "where do the four men come from".

Why should such verbal checking be important? Well it is estimated that at least 10% of the British population are undiagnosed dyslexics. And why is that important? Some dyslexics have problems with phonological processing. They hear something but cannot always extract the correct meaning from it. I hope that these few examples demonstrate how easy it is for those without dyslexia to be mislead by the public reading of the Bible. Sadly this is an aspect of field testing English translations that has been overlooked for too long. The KJV team did it, the CEV team did it but it seems no one else has. We need more people to read the Bible aloud and that includes translation teams.

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At Thu Jul 28, 12:59:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I beleive the New English Bible team made this a focus, so perhaps the Revised English Bible team continued the tradition?

At Thu Jul 28, 05:00:00 PM, Anonymous rich shields said...

Howdy, Trevor. I have advocated the need for translator teams to examine the oral component of translations for years. I am glad that someone else has joined the chorus!

And yes, there is another translation that had been tested extensively for its oral quality. I had served as pastor at congregations, and we tested it by using it regularly in worship. That translation is God's Word. The single column format and page layout were also designed specifically to help oral readers of the translation. I find that GW is still one of the best oral translations available.

At Fri Jul 29, 06:28:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

I can't find any mention in Geoffrey Hunt's short book describing the creation of the NEB that the translators read their work aloud. The high-brow language of the NEB might have changed if proposed texts had been read aloud. They could have met the needs of one of their target groups (children) that way. In Roger Coleman's companion volume on the REB process there is a quote from one of the earliest (from 1949) memoranda about the need for the NEB saying "it is not intended ... for reading in church ..."! Like Hunt, Coleman appears to be quiet about any occasions when the revisers read their work aloud.

Thanks for the heads' up about the God's Word process. My printed copy has not yet arrived. But have now found the GW team talk about this critical aspect of the process on the web site for the translation.

Hunt, Coleman and the GW team do all mention an different issue that I would like to address sometime in a later guest blog. This also has implications for dyslexics but even more so for average readers of the Bible text.

At Fri Jul 29, 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Trevor wrote: "The high-brow language of the NEB might have changed if proposed texts had been read aloud."

Well, maybe, but not necessarily. It would depend who it was read out to. If it was merely read about among the peer group of academics who translated it, then that might have avoided certain errors, but it would not have changed the general high-brow language. After all, this was a group who would have been used to reading academic papers to one another. But such papers would not typically have followed guidelines like the following just posted by Dan: "• Communicate; don't try to impress // • Select appropriate words; unfamiliar jargon confuses the reader ... // • Use the active voice rather than the passive to achieve better readability". And while the academics would have been used to criticising these papers, this would have been not for their style but for their content.


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