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Monday, October 31, 2005

ESV wordings poll analysis - Prov. 21:18

This post continues our series analyzing responses to our poll on 10 translation wordings from the ESV. The fourth sentence polled was the first clause from Prov. 21:18 in the ESV:
The wicked is a ransom for the righteous.
This wording is unchanged from the RSV of which the ESV is a light revision.

Only 55 of 350 poll respondents regarded the wording of Prov. 21:18 as being proper English. 84% of respondents considered the wording improper. I agree. According to English grammar (usage), adjectival substantive phrases, such as "the wicked," "the rich", "the poor", and "the righteous" refer to plural referents. If you are unsure about this, listen to the difference between the quality of English in the following English sentences:
The poor are asking for help from the government.
The rich promise to share their wealth with the poor.
The righteous are going to inherit eternal life.
in contrast to the quality of English in these sentences:
The poor is asking for help from the government.
The rich promises to share wealth with the poor.
The righteous is going to inherit eternal life.
The ESV, along with the RSV, NRSV, and NASB, has "the wicked" as the sentential subject where the verb it is to agree with is singular, "is" not plural, "are." So native English speakers, most of whom have the rule of subject-verb number agreement established firmly in their mental grammars, hear the wording "the wicked is" as ungrammatical, with the clash of a plural subject with a singular verb.

Now, the ESV translators, of course, did not intend to have any ungrammatical sentences in their translation. They simply left in the text what the RSV had, and assumed, presumably that the English was grammatical. The RSV (and ESV) wording grammatically corresponds to the original Hebrew. Hebrew, unlike English, allows adjectival substantives to refer to either plural or singular entities. So there was no problem with the original Hebrew, only with the English translation which formally corresponds to the Hebrew.

The ungrammatical wording of Prov. 21:18 is one of a number of ESV translation wordings where there is a clash of plural-sounding adjectival substantives with singular verbs they are to be in agreement with. In contrast, the HCSB, an essentially literal translation like the ESV, has proper English grammar for Prov. 21:18:
The wicked are a ransom for the righteous
In the HCSB the verb has been changed to a plural which grammatically agrees in number with the plural subject "the wicked."

The HCSB translation illustrates one solution to translating the Hebrew of Prov. 21:18 to grammatical English, namely, to use a plural verb to agree with the plural subject. Another solution is to leave the subject singular but insert a "placeholder" word which allows the Bible reader to know that the noun phrase is singular. Acceptable words to insert would include "person" or, less preferable stylistically, "one." The revised Prov. 21:18 would then read:
The wicked person is a ransom for the righteous.
If "the righteous" is intended to be singular, as well, it, also can have a placeholder word inserted:
The wicked person is a ransom for the righteous person."
Does insertion of a generic word decrease the accuracy of the translation. No, not at all. The Hebrew is referring to a person, so it is appropriate to include the word "person" in the English translation which then results in a grammatical wording.

One of the most important lessons to learn from the translation of Prov. 21:18 is that the grammar of every language is different. Bible translators must not force Hebrew or Greek syntax upon the English language. Doing so can create, at minimum, unnatural wordings in English translations, and, at worst, ungrammatical ones. Only English syntax should be used in English translations. The result will be better Bibles, ones which can be not only accurate, but also grammatical, clear, and natural.

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