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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Book Review: Choosing a Bible

Rebecca Writes a review of Leland Ryken's shorter book about English Bible versions, Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences, which is, if I understand correctly, an abridgement of his longer book, The Word of God in English.

Mark Bertrand links to Rebecca's post (and she to his), after posting his own essay favoring a "more formal translation" recognizing that he does so because he is a sophisticated English reader.

As has been mentioned before on this blog, most English readers today are not sophisticated, having approximately a sixth grade reading level according to literacy surveys. But sophisticated readers deserve translations whose English they enjoy, as well. They just need to be aware of what they are really asking for and the implications for those whose reading skills are not as advanced as their own.

Mark begins his post with comments from John Barton, the Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford who has reviewed Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses, a new translation of the Pentateuch. Barton says the Bible was not written yesterday, so it should not be written in yesterday's (that is, contemporary) English.

This, of course, invites the question: What stage of the history of English should be reflected in a translation of the Bible which is favored by sophisticated readers? Surely, by definition, any English version should be written in English of some time period. There has never been any other form of English than that which has been spoken or written, has there? So should English Bibles today be written in Chaucerean English, Shakespearean English, 19th century English, or good quality literate English of the 21st century? I suggest that Bibles for any English readers today should be worded in English which is used today. Bibles with higher registers and more complex syntax will serve the needs of sophisticated readers today. Bibles with lower registers, less complex syntax, but no less accurate, will serve the needs of average English readers today. I also suggest that "essentially literal" translations are not written in English of any stage of the history of our language, but, rather, in an artificial English used by seminary professors, their students, and those who are longterm members of congregations or classes taught by these graduates. It is no wonder that such Bibles are not understood well by contemporary English speakers. It is also no wonder that those favoring such Bibles today are, in general, more highly educated, biblically literate, and churched individuals, those who can understand the special dialect of Bible English. Most English speakers do not understand this special dialect. And the original Bible itself was not written in any special Bible dialect.

I suggest that some, such as Dr. Ryken, who call for English Bibles to be written in English which is "transparent" and not "too simple" often confuse a number of important translation concepts, including language register, linguistic naturalness, translation equivalence, enduring beauty (found in good literature of every stage of English), and communicative accuracy. Good quality contemporary literary English has all the qualities that sophisticated readers want, including wonderful turns of phrase, vivid metaphors, complex sentences, and the ability to accurately communicate in any register, to any level of literary sophistication, the message of any document, whether ancient or recent, without resort to transculturation or any other form of "changing" the original document in the translation process. Why should we call for Bibles to be in any other form of English than extant varieties of contemporary English which suit the various contemporary audiences?

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At Wed Aug 03, 07:25:00 AM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Good questions, Wayne. In the TLS review, Barton mentions an argument that Alter makes (presumably in the preface to his translation) that "Old Testament Hebrew" was not everyday Hebrew, but an elevated, literary form. He compares it to the French of the classic theatre. I'm not sure about the validity of the argument itself -- but assuming that it were true, would you consider it valid to translate in such a way as to capture that stylistic distinction?

At Wed Aug 03, 08:12:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

"...would you consider it valid to translate in such a way as to capture that stylistic distinction?"

Yes, absolutely, Mark. Stylistic variations are an important part of the distinctions among the different books and authors of the Bible. Translation principles call for respecting those stylistic distinctives and reflecting them in translation, using the linguistic resources of the target language to accomplish the same thing that was accomplished by often different patterns and forms in the source language. Where Alter is wrong is that he apparently assumes that replicating the same stylistic forms in a translation will communicate the same meaning they had in the biblical texts. But each language has different ways of communicating the functions of the unique styles of each language. Repetition in Biblical Hebrew had a very important function. That function is probably not most accurately communicating simply by copying the repetition to English. We need to do the difficult detective work of discovering the meaning (function) of, for instance, repetition in Biblical Hebrew, then be sure that that meaning/function is accurately communicated to English (or any other language) using the linguistic tools that that target language uses to mean the same thing.

It's the same issue of the fallacy of assuming that forms have the same meaning from one language to another. They do not. And we can actually create inaccurate translations by following that fallacy.

There is a place for scholarly translations which are not in accurate target language forms, but which are similar to interlinear translations. The danger is that non-scholars may read such speciality translations and assume that the translation forms communicate the original stylistic meanings accurately. The do not. They only do so when a scholar is present to constantly remind a reader: "In this case the English form does not communicate the same meaning as the biblical form, but the biblical form is so beautiful that we will "cheat" and use the biblical form as a "placeholder" and you must make further translation in your mind to get to the real meaning of the biblical stylistic patterns."

All of this, of course, is yet another call for interdisciplinary work among scholars. Linguists need the insights of literary scholars and vice versa. Bible translators need the insights of all of them and many others in order to produce translations which communicate the meaning of the original forms (both lexical and stylistic) accurately.


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