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Saturday, October 29, 2005

ESV wordings poll analysis - Psalm 55:3

This post continues our analysis of the sentences in our poll on 10 verse wordings in the ESV.

The second sentence in the poll is one clause excerpted from the verse sequence of Psalm 55:2-3:
Psa 55:2 Attend to me, and answer me; I am restless in my complaint and I moan,
Psa 55:3 because of the noise of the enemy, because of the oppression of the wicked. For they drop trouble upon me, and in anger they bear a grudge against me.
The excerpt in the poll was
They drop trouble upon me.
126 respondents, out of a total of approximately 350, voted that this sounded like proper English to them. This response, from less than half of all voters, indicates that many respondents found some problem with the wording of this sentence. I do, too.

The problem is that the English lexicon does not sanction the word combination (lexical collocation) of "drop trouble." No native speaker or writer of English would ever say or write this word combination. Instead, they would write something like "bring trouble" (which is exactly what the RSV, from which the ESV was revised, had).

Better Bibles honor the source language from which they are translated, as well as the target language into which they are translated. Honoring a language means that its syntactic and lexical rules are followed. Not following those rules creates processing difficulties for listeners and readers. And it creates the unfortunate impression that the Bible is a strange book, that God doesn't talk my language very well, and, at worst, that the Bible and its teachings are distant from me. Something which is distant does not need to be paid attention to as much as something that is close, that speaks to us in our own language, with the syntax and word combinations which are familiar to us, which touch not only our minds but also our spirits.

According to the ESV website
more than sixty of the world’s leading Bible scholars pored over every word and phrase to achieve the unique accuracy, excellence, and beauty of the ESV Bible.
The ESV is a light stylistic revision of the RSV. In this case the ESV translators revised the proper English of the RSV clause from Ps. 55:3
they bring trouble upon me
to the strange English of
they drop trouble upon me
Hopefully, a future edition of the ESV will restore the word "bring" in Ps. 55:3 so that there is, once again, a proper English lexical collocation. Use of proper language is a major component of what it means for a translation to have literary excellence.

We will continue analyzing other verses in the ESV poll in upcoming posts.

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At Sat Oct 29, 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Another problem with this verse is with "the oppression of the wicked". In English this means that the wicked are being oppressed, in other words it is an objective genitive (or better, a genitive of patient). Now the Hebrew could possibly mean this, but in the context I would be rather suprised if this is what the psalmist is complaining about. The correct interpretation is surely that the wicked are the subjects (better, agents) of the oppression, but in English that would be expressed by "oppression by the wicked".

I also note that in the Hebrew the word translated "the wicked" is definitely singular, whereas in English "the wicked" is unambiguously plural; the correct translation would have to be "the wicked person", or perhaps "a wicked person" since there is no definite article in the Hebrew (although articles are often dropped in poetry). So so much for the principle that in ESV singulars are not replaced by plurals, and for their objections to that being done in other versions to avoid incorrectly gender specific renderings.

At Sat Oct 29, 06:09:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...


I heard Wayne Grudem this week on James Dobson's program really taking the TNIV to task for rendering generic "he" singulars into plurals: "them".

Someone asked me about that at work. I pointed to John 12:25-26 to attempt to show that- in such cases- often the TNIV read in context helps one discern that the reference is to an individual.

At Sat Oct 29, 06:51:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Thank you, Ted. Dr. Grudem often confuses grammatical plurality of English singular they with its indefinite or singular reference.

Of course the shoe fits on the other foot as well. He doesn't like it when many English speakers today confuse intended generic "he" with referring to males only. He believes that the masculine pronoun "he" should continue to be the English generic, including being used in translation.

So, one option uses the longstanding singular they (which is grammatically plural but semantically singular). The other options uses the grammatically masculine pronoun "he" which its users intend to be semantically generic (but which Dr. Grudum also wishes to have an important masculine theological "nuance").

In English it's increasingly difficult to have our cake and eat it too. Yet those who have tried to manufacture some new generic which lacks the problems which the historical English generics have have failed in their efforts.

Personally I think a lot of charity and grace toward one another would be a help in all this debate. It's gotten much hotter than it needs to be.

At Sun Oct 30, 07:02:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

"Yet those who have tried to manufacture some new generic which lacks the problems which the historical English generics have have failed in their efforts."


Are you saying that this new generic is the semantically singular "they"? I'm just not sure I am understanding that paragraph.

I do remember a proponent of the semantically generic singular "they", saying such does have a usage in the past, or is at least supported as viable accepted English today by a significant majority (I am going by memory here, so possibly am not stating exactly what that person meant).

I would add, communication in reference to semantics and syntax inherently does have its problems. But for me, good translation must conform to the most generally accepted usage of the receptor language- which, of course, always involves problems.

Thanks for your fine blog and for your response.

At Sun Oct 30, 07:19:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I just found your post on Grudem's presentation on "Focus on the Family". Thanks.

At Sun Oct 30, 09:05:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ted asked:

Are you saying that this new generic is the semantically singular "they"? I'm just not sure I am understanding that paragraph.

I'm glad you asked, Ted. No, singular they is not a new manufactured generic. It has been around since ca. 1300 A.D.

I was referring to new made-up pronouns that people have suggested as an alternative to generic "he" which wouldn't have the masculine sound that "he" does. I don't remember all the suggestions that have been made, but here is a webpage that lists some of them:


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