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Saturday, August 27, 2005

What do we want in a translation?

In his ad hoc series on translation at the Jesus Creed blog Scot McKnight is asking simple but profound questions about translations. Today's, which you can reach via the title above, is "What do you want in a translation?" In a brief comment there I've mentioned the one feature common to all the English translations I've read and that bothers me the most. No matter what philosophy the translators follow: literal, word-for-word, concordant, formal equivalence, functional equivalence, meaning-based, paraphrase, closest natural equivalence, the resultant text all reads the same ... stilted and lifeless. Amos and Isaiah, despite their different up-bringings, both sound the same. Mark and Paul, whose use of Koine Greek could not be any more different from each other, both sound the same.

The one translation I'm aware that even considers this issue is the New Jerusalem Bible. In the introduction to the Gospels is this note:
Mark's Greek is rough, redolent of Aramaic, and often fauly; but it is fresh, lively and appealing. Matthew's Greek is also rather marked by Aramaic but smoother than Mark's as well as less picteresque and more correct. Luke's is mixed; when writing independently, his Greek is excellent, but out of respect for his sources he incorporates their imperfections—after polishing them a little. Occasionally he goes out of his way to give a good imitation of Septuagint Greek.
Now that's the sort of thing I want from a translation. The fresh, lively and appealing Mark, the smoother Matthew, the excellent Luke, and what can I say of Paul? And I want similar distinctiveness in the Old Testament too. Unfortunately what we get is homogeneity of languages from stylists in the NIV or Leland Ryken in the ESV. I say let the Bible writers speak with their own voice.

So here's my answer to Scot McKnight's question. I want a translation that reflects the original authors' skill with Koine Greek. I want a translation with Paul's epistles in the language of the NEB; Mark's Gospel from Lacey's street bible; Luke and Acts as in NIV; James the NLT; John's Gospel, epistles, and Revelation the CEV; Matthew, Jude, 1 & 2 Peter, and Hebrews from Stern's CJB. Then we'd have English translations that match the language of the originals not something to revere as a piece of beautiful literature. Translations that are redolent with the life we know is in there.

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At Sat Aug 27, 07:58:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Good comments, Trevor, although I think we need to make sure that none of the styles we use are so difficult that our audience cannot understand them.

But your link to Jesus Creed is wrong, it should be not http://www, but

At Sat Aug 27, 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I too liked the idea of a translation that reduces the smoothing effect of the translators. Could it be done by assigning different "lead translators" to different books?

Though I have some puzzles in the book-translation match up! I'd have thought the Johannine Semitic poetic feel was not well served by the CEV?

On a more serious note, what would you do about the places were (at the very least some) scholars find differences of style large enough to suggest different sources in the text (e.g. Genesis), is this sort of compleity were an open source Temporary English Version, i.e. one continually being adapted and improved, could help?

At Sat Aug 27, 12:37:00 PM, Blogger Scot McKnight said...

I'm not so sure I'd like up Luke-Acts with the NIV. That author is sophisticated, perhaps like the NEB. James and the NLT? I think James' is too fiery for that (NLT is nice).

This is hard one for me, because those of us who can read the Greek easily enough to feel the author's style find it hard to convince others of our translations.

I've been using James. James 1:20, because of the heat of the letter and context, could be rendered: "The violence of men will never create the justice of God, you hotheads!" James' terse syntax and suspension of the verb until the end creates tension: man, God, never, no way man! In other words, the syntax is God trumping the violence of humans.

Thanks for hearing me out, friend.

At Sat Aug 27, 03:14:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Sat Aug 27, 03:15:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I am new here, having just found you.

I have read the entire Bible five times, each in a different translation.

I am not a scholar by any stretch, nor do I know Hebrew, Koine Greek, or Aramaic.

What is most important to me in a translation is to come as close as humanly possible to the intent of God as He inspired writers to write.

I am not so much interested in scholars' "opinions", as I am in their honest attempt to "capture the mind of God" in a word or phrase, without an undue insertion of their own theosophy.

This is really great stuff! Thanks.

At Sun Aug 28, 03:07:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

Joe, many years ago I was attend a large Christian conference here in Britian at which the late David Watson (author of such books as Discipleship) was a speaker. During one of his sessions he asked how many people had ever read the entire Bible from cover to cover and of the 8,000+ people present maybe 200 put their hands up. Then it was who had read it twice; looked like half the hands went down. If you had been there by the time he got to asking about five through then only three of us would still have had our hands up.

So five times through the entire text puts you well above the average for committed believers. Well done you and keep it up. Shame on the others; maybe your example will encourage more to this vital yet simple task.

I like your use of different translations in your reading. What were they? Personally find it helpful to read translations based on different translation theories. For example, one year I read through using the Contemporary English Version, New Living Translation, and the New International Version. (Special case I was on long-term sick leave from work.)

At Sun Aug 28, 04:09:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

Scot I understand what you are saying with I'm not so sure I'd like up Luke-Acts with the NIV. That author is sophisticated, perhaps like the NEB. Problem is I see the NEB as being more Pauline than Lukan in style. Their sesquipedalianism matching Paul's long sentences.

Perhaps substituting J B Phillips in Luke and Acts would be a good compromise? And maybe N T Wright's translation would work as the style for James? (I've only read Wright's translations for the Pauline epistles.) Or what about Eugene Peterson's The Message for James? Fiery and hotheaded indeed but possibly too idiocyncratic rather than idiomatic. Could you persuaded to continue with James?

At Sun Aug 28, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Paul W said...

Although based on a literal translation theory, IMHO Richard Lattimore's translation of the New Testament (done in the 1960s I think?) is often very good at reflecting the different styles of the NT authors in English translation.

At Sun Aug 28, 04:04:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I read the King James first, then the New English Bible, The Good News Bible (NT then OT when it fianlly came out), The Living bible, and the NIV.

I am on my way through for the sixth time. I love its harmonics, and I find Jesus in every book. I also love its author.

At Sun Aug 28, 07:21:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

To translate a standard Bible in this way would be quite a challenge and maybe will become part of the goal/priority of all Bible translation someday.

I think particularly of places where all of the sudden there is an abruptness in change or grammar becomes forgotten in the force of what's being written.

Complicating this further is when we are translating Scripture into languages in which it is challenging enough just to get their (the receptor's) natural expression down well.

At Fri Sep 02, 02:13:00 PM, Blogger BJ Mora said...

The reference above should be to *Richmond* Lattimore's _The New Testament_, which he began in the 60s but was published as one volume by North Point Press in 1996. And it does reflect some change in styles across the NT books, certainly better than the usual translations by committee.


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