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Monday, July 11, 2005

Tyndale, a gifted Bible translator

I was googling for webpages that discuss translation of biblical idioms. I found this old Christianity Today article, by Richard K. Barnard, which I thought would be good to share with you all. (Click on the title of this post to get to the article.) I'll excerpt a few things from the article, statements which resonate strongly with me:
[Tyndale's] translating skill and verbal sensitivity are obvious, and not only in the fact that the "Authorized" or King James Version's translators used about 90 percent of Tyndale's choices. His genius is further confirmed by the fact that, in several cases where the KJV translators chose to disregard Tyndale, later translators with more manuscript backing chose to go back to Tyndale's choices. A good example is found in 1 Corinthians 13, where Tyndale translated agape as "love," the KJV translators translated it as "charity," and nearly all modern translations have gone back to "love."
That's interesting, isn't it? A man before his time. Or maybe, more accurately, a man in touch with his time, with the English of his time. I have read the the translators of the KJV deliberately translated it into a style of English that was older than what people spoke at the time that they were working. It still remains a formidable translation today, but just think how much better it could have been had its translators not emulated an older stage of the language. Can we get a lesson for English Bible translation today from that? Well, anybody who has been reading my posts on this blog will know I just asked a leading question. Sorry about that! But I just have observed so clearly from my own experience and that of others that people understand the Bible most accurately and clearly when it is written in the stage of language which is spoken during the lifetime of those people, rather than in forms from a prior stage of the language which people are no longer so familiar with, if at all, in the case of younger speakers or people who have not been exposed to older forms of the language through reading older literature.

Barnard later mentions some of the biblical vocabulary difficulties English translators have faced:

Tyndale and the other translators of his era faced vocabulary problems all their own. Four centuries ago scholars knew much less about the ancient languages than they do today. In some cases the translators faced words they had never seen before. They could only guess at the meaning. That's why the KJV, in Proverbs 30:31, says "greyhound" when it should say "rooster," and in Job 30:29, it says "dragon" when it should say "jackal."

In Matthew 6:2, Jesus says that people who make a public display of giving alms "have their reward." Or so says the KJV. But the word translated here as "have" is the Greek word apecho, which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and nowhere in any other work of Greek known in the time of King James. So the translators made an educated guess based on similar known words. Only within the past 100 years have archaeologists discovered that the word was commonly used in Jesus' day in regard to commercial transactions, with the noun apoche meaning "receipt" and the verb apecho meaning "paid in full." Thus, modern translations have generally translated Jesus' words as "they have received their reward in full."

Interesting. I'm thankful for biblical scholarship. I'm thankful that there have been advances in biblical scholarship which allow newer English versions to be even more accurate than older ones. Several recent English Bible translation teams have mentioned the important role that advances in biblical scholarship had in their work, including ESV, NET, TNIV teams, and probably others.

Barnard quotes from Dr. Larry Walker, one of the Hebrew specialists on the NIV translation team:

Walker notes that "in Hebrew, you have many expressions that we do not use in English. In Hebrew you can speak of the heart as the center of emotions and feeling. We do that in English. No problem speaking of love in our heart. But the Hebrew will also use other organs of the body, in addition to the heart, to express these concepts. You also see words like bowels, liver and kidney used to express seats of feeling. All of these have to be translated according to what they mean rather than to what they say.

"When the prophet Jeremiah was very upset over the fall of Jerusalem," says Walker, "he said his liver was poured out on the ground. That's exactly what the Hebrew says. There's no question about what it says. But it doesn't mean that his liver was poured out on the ground. It means he was very upset and distraught."

I wonder if those who wrote the advertising language about word-for-word translation accuracy in some versions thought of Hebrew examples such as those. I suspect that they were aware of them, but were referring more to an overall translation approach. Still, I think, a focus on individual words, rather than the meaning of those words in context, has been misleading for many Bible users who want to use trustworthy Bibles. Sometimes we might choose to use Bible versions which more loudly claim to be accurate at the word level, when we really should be looking for Bible versions which are accurate at all levels of language.

Here's a paragraph about one of my favorite hobbyhorses, faithfulness to both the source and target languages:

"Faithfulness moves in two directions," says Dr. Kenneth L. Barker, academic dean of Capital Bible Seminary and a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. "On the one hand, it moves back toward the original Hebrew and Greek. On the other hand, faithfulness relates to the target or receptor language. It is just as important to be faithful to the target language as it is to be faithful to the original language from which one is translating."

Some of you who follow this blog may tire sometimes of my blogging so much about quality of English in Bible versions. But it is an issue that gets sidelined too often in English Bible translation. I am so grateful for the wisdom that the Church gets from seminary professors and other Bible scholars. These dedicated scholars have devoted lifetimes to studying the Bible in its original languages and passing on that knowledge to others. We would be much poorer without them. Yet, as one of those New Testament Greek professors, Dan Wallace, points out:
since those responsible for this new translation are primarily exegetes, our perspective is often so entrenched in the first-century world that we are blind as to how the English reader would look at the text today. Exegetes tend to produce a wooden translation without realizing it.
A translation which is exegetically accurate but worded in poor English is of little use. Similarly, a translation which is in idiomatic, contemporary, clear, flowing, good quality literate English is of little use if it is not faithful to the meaning of the forms of the biblical source texts.

I like what Barnard says about the man who was perhaps the greatest German Bible translator of all time:

A translator some 400 years ago, one Martin Luther, said in his old age, "It is good for me that I have been involved in translating the Bible, for otherwise I might have died with the fond persuasion that I am learned."
So true! If you want to find out how much you don't understand about the Bible, try to translate it into another language, or even into English. I think I "know" a lot less about the Bible than I did during Bible school. But I have had to wrestle with far more difficult questions about the biblical text than I did in Bible school. And the result has been worth it. The Cheyennes have gotten a translation which is far from perfect. Oh, how I wish we had had a bigger Cheyenne translation team, all of whom were biblical scholars as well as fluent in their own language, and all able to think clearly how to incorporate sound translation principles during the translation process. Oh, how I wish I could have known the Cheyenne language even better than I do. But we worked with what we had, and God has blessed. The result is a translation of the Bible that allows Cheyennes to understand God's Word accurately and clearly, and, in many cases, I think, even naturally. We are encouraged by feedback we have gotten from Cheyenne speakers who have been exposed to the translation. It's the same encouragement that any Bible translator deserves to feel, who has worked hard to transfer the meaning of the forms of the original biblical languages into forms of the target language which have the same meaning, forms which the speakers of that language know well and consider good quality language.

May translations become even better in English. And for the 3,000 languages around the world which do not yet have any Scripture translated, may they get some of God's Word in their languages as soon as possible. Would you be willing to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out more workers and resources to help make that happen? Today the greatest need for workers is not for trained linguists from the western world, although there still is a need for them, especially for individuals who are well trained in biblical exegesis, and who can teach translation principles well, but for individuals from the Third World, especially speakers of their own languages, to be trained to translate for the remaining languages. And we must not forget special audiences who still need Bible translations, also, such as those who need translations in a variety of different languages for the deaf (there are many more of these than just ASL or BSL; OK, Trevor, I heard you shuffling your feet; I haven't forgotten your people!).

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At Tue Jul 12, 06:44:00 AM, Anonymous Frank said...

Very good post. Nice info, good research and great read. I threw up a quick post and linked back to you. Nice stuff...thanks for your work and your skill.

At Tue Jul 19, 07:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know Barnard and he is a buffoon. If he has anything interesting to say it is because he had been associated (as a gofer) to interesting and learned men.

At Mon Apr 02, 09:22:00 AM, Blogger TheSeeker said...

I'm sorry, but I have nothing to say on Tyndale as a translator. I'm an expat Aussie living in Taiwan and my Blog pages keep coming up in English and Chinese, so don't how or who to ask a question. I just want to know what the more concrete meanings of some words are. So, what do the KJV words "leviathan", "behemoth", "dragon" mean and refer to? Are they what they appear to be at face-value, or no?

At Mon Apr 02, 09:23:00 AM, Blogger TheSeeker said...

Sorry, that last bit was meant to be a verse, but skipped it at the last moment


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