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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

NET Eph. 1:4

I appreciate the NET Bible. When I have a question about how to translate some passage in the Bible, I often turn to the NET Bible to find how it words that passage. Often I find good help from the NET footnotes for that passage. I have studied and evaluated the NET Bible for several years. I have read some reviews of it. At this point, I can't remember where I read the reviews. I wish I could so that I could provide a link to them if they are on the Internet. I do recall that others have noticed, as I have, that the quality of English in the NET Bible varies from book to book. I'm sure that that is a factor of how the NET Bible was translated. I seem to recall that a single person on the NET team was responsible for its first draft. Then the draft would be checked at least by a general editor. Unless a general editor regularizes the styles of the different translators (we would not want him to regularize away the different styles of the biblical authors), those differing styles remain in the final translation.

In this post let's look at the wording of Eph. 1:4 in the NET Bible:
For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love.
I suppose the overall wording of the NET for this verse is better than that of some versions. I think I can figure out most of the intended meaning.

The major idea is that he (God, previously referenced) chose us for a certain purpose. That purpose was that we would live the kind of lives that he wants us to, which here is specified as being "holy and unblemished in his sight in love."

Reflecting the long original Greek sentence, the English sentence of the translation is also long and has many smaller syntactic parts. And it is not initially easy to figure out how all the parts relate to each other, at least if we approach the wording as if we were reading it for the first time. Being difficult to comprehend on first reading is not necessary bad. In our translation consultants workshop, which I am attending now, someone pointed out that we don't necessarily need to aim for all parts of a translation to be understood the first time it is read. It's all right to read something more than once to get more of its meaning. Literary critics know this and it is often pointed out in reviews of Bible translation approaches.

We can examine the major syntactic parts by temporarily dropping out some of the details. For instance, to get at the setting of the time frame for the verse, we can read "For he chose us before the foundation of the world." I know what the NET translators are trying to convey here. It is that God chose us "before the creation of the world" or "before the world was created". I'm not sure what "the foundation of the world" refers to in English. I know what a foundation of a building is. I know about the foundation of some things that are more abstract than a building. For instance, I understand what it means to refer to "the foundation of our democracy." I would think that the Greek word katabole could more naturally be translated here as "creation" even though the lexicons give one of its glosses as 'foundation.' To me both English words refer to the same event, and the word "creation" brings to a reader's mind more easily what that event is. But I can't say that it is wrong to translate with the word "foundation." To my mind, the word "creation" would translate Greek katabole as accurately as "foundation."

Now let's look at another major syntactic construction, the purpose clause (again, only temporarily leaving out those details which are not directly part of the purpose syntax): "For he chose us that we may be holy." I understand this wording all right, but if I were a teacher of an English composition class, or one of the NET Bible editors, I would probably recommend that the NET wording be changed to have a purpose infinitive clause instead of a purpose "that ... may" subordinate clause. I think a wording with an infinitive clause sounds more natural in English:
For he chose us to be holy.
Interestingly, this revision would be closer to the syntactic form of the Greek which also has an infinitive clause for which the English infinitive seems more natural, in English.

I suggest that the conjoined purpose clause "to be holy and unblemished in his sight" may reflect a Semitic doublet where the two parts conjoined are near synonyms and may be combined to give added emphasis to the necessity of having the kind of holy life that God wants to see in us.

Exegetes and translators have struggled with how the English phrase "in love" syntactically connects to its context (and whether it is relating to what precedes or follows). In the NET wording, as in the wording of a number of other English versions, this prepositional phrase is tacked onto the end, but it is not clear what it relates to syntactically or semantically. Again, if I were a composition teacher or an editor for this translation, I would suggest that they work some more to try to make it clearer in the translation how the Greek phrase en agape relates to something else in its context.

Well, these are the kinds of things a Bible translation consultant or editor looks for in a translation, all with the purpose of helping the translation become a better Bible, more accurate, if there is the need for that, clearer, more natural, and, when possible, with greater stylistic elegance or literary beauty.

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10 Comments:

At Wed Nov 09, 03:22:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, the problem with "For he chose us to be holy" is that it is ambiguous, it may refer to something which God did in order to be or remain holy himself. The ambiguity would be resolved if a verb clearly indicating purpose was used e.g. "he intended us to be holy". The ambiguity is resolved because this is also syntactically different in English, for "he intended us" cannot stand alone without an infinitive phrase, whereas "he chose us" can. But then I doubt if ἐκλέγομαι can mean "intend".

 
At Wed Nov 09, 10:21:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

On καταβολῆς since it refers generally to founding or beginning something how about "before the world was begun"? My slight hesitation with "created" is that though I am sure this is what the writer thinks, it is not quite what they have said. It is an inference from our presumption of their Christian theology... "begun" allows the reader to retain that presumption, but as with the original makes it a worked out rather than explicit thing...

I'm not an NT scholar, what I am making a plea for is that translators do not over determine readers, but allow them to do the sort of work the writer intended. And presumably if the writer had meant to write "before the world was created" that is what they would have written! But they chose a close synonym...

 
At Wed Nov 09, 01:20:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Wayne, the problem with "For he chose us to be holy" is that it is ambiguous, it may refer to something which God did in order to be or remain holy himself.

Thanks, Peter. I missed that "he chose us to be ___" would not be good English. That's why I appreciate the team approach to Bible translation: We really do need each other in the task.

 
At Wed Nov 09, 01:23:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

On καταβολῆς since it refers generally to founding or beginning something how about "before the world was begun"?

Reasonable suggestion, Tim. However, in my dialect of English a world can't "begin" nor can someone "begin" a world. It's that same old tension between accuracy to lexical glosses about biblical language terms and accuracy to the linuistic forms of the translation language.

 
At Wed Nov 09, 09:14:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Wayne, item 2 on the list at http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=begin seems (I'm no more a grammarian than an NT scholar) very like my example. Their example is "2. To come into being: when life began." If "when life began" is OK then surely "when the world began" is OK, and if the world can begin, someone can (conceivably) begin it... maybe?

 
At Wed Nov 09, 09:21:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

PS, my issue is not lexical glossing, but that the original requires me as hearer/reader to process the phrase καταβολῆς κόσμου before I arrive at the conclusion "the world was created", that is the translation explains or makes explicit what only a process of deduction recognised as implied in the original, unless there are phrases elsewhere that suggest this processing would not have been needed...

 
At Sun Nov 13, 11:22:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

I wonder if it would be possible to preserve the metaphor of pro kataboles kosmou in English translation. One might use a phrase like "before the foundations of the universe were laid." This is good idiomatic English ("to lay the foundation of a house"), and it seems from the examples cited in LSJ that this word means literally to set down a bottom level on which to build a structure, or, figuratively, to start building something, such as a system of government, that doesn't have a literal foundation. I think that using equivalent metaphors can often effectively equip the reader to interpret the text himself (yes I DID just use the gender indefinite masuline), rather than the translator doing all the interpretation for him (look, there's a second one!).

 
At Sun Nov 13, 12:29:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kenny wondered:

"I wonder if it would be possible to preserve the metaphor of pro kataboles kosmou in English translation. One might use a phrase like "before the foundations of the universe were laid." This is good idiomatic English ("to lay the foundation of a house"), and it seems from the examples cited in LSJ that this word means literally to set down a bottom level on which to build a structure, or, figuratively, to start building something, such as a system of government, that doesn't have a literal foundation. I think that using equivalent metaphors can often effectively equip the reader to interpret the text himself (yes I DID just use the gender indefinite masuline), rather than the translator doing all the interpretation for him (look, there's a second one!)."

I like your suggestion, Kenny. The English metaphor you suggest works well for me and it is good literary English. The translation principle of honoring the syntactic and lexical systems of both the source and target language is upheld.

As for your use of the generic "himself," it still works for many people. I would never want to be any part of language police, whether feminist, egalitarian, complementarian, or of any other ideology that suggested to people how they should speak. We can point out what the impact is on some other people of certain linguistic forms, then it is up to speakers themselves to decide the cost-benefit ratio.

Have a good week, Kenny!

 
At Sun Nov 13, 02:48:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

Wayne, I was joking about gender-indefinite he. I do use it normally, and noticed myself using it in the post and felt it was deserving of comment since it is talked about a lot on this blog, but I absolutely agree that in some cases it may not be part of the target language (even if the target language is a dialect of English) and in those cases we shouldn't use it. It happens to be part of my language, and I happen to think that it is part of what we might call "American literary English" (as opp. American vernacular English), and it is good to have translations in both literary and vernacular English, so that everyone can have a Bible they relate to (oh, look... there's the singular they slipping out...). Sorry if I sounded like I was being obnoxious or critical about it, that was not my intention.

 
At Sun Nov 13, 06:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Sorry if I sounded like I was being obnoxious or critical about it, that was not my intention.

I didn't take it that way at all, Kenny, but thanks for being careful about coming across the wrong way. I try to do that also. Sometimes I fall short.

 

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