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Friday, December 23, 2005

What are you filled with?

A few days ago we received a Christmas email letter from one of the administrators of our Bible translation organization. It began with this verse:
And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. Luke 2:40
I don't know what Bible version this wording was taken from, and hat doesn't really matter. Here's what matters: I read this familiar verse and realized that there are wordings in it which are not true English, and which should be if we are going to have better Bibles which communicate biblical text meanings more clearly and accurately.

In English no fluent speaker would ever say that someone was "filled with wisdom." For that matter, there are very few things that anyone would ever say someone was filled with. I believe it is natural English to say that someone is full of anger. If a person is very happy at some point in time, they might say, "I'm full of joy" although I'm not sure how natural this actually is. We would need to study large corpuses of English to determine what "full of" phrases people actually write and speak.

There are a some epithets which are in use, such as "He's full of prunes" and, maybe, "He's full of wind." There is a derogatory expletive, "He's full of s___."

But, again, no one would ever say "He's full of wisdom" or "He was filled with wisdom." Could it be said? Sure. But it wouldn't be said because that is not how good, fluent speakers or writers of English express the meaning behind the Greek words of Luke 2:40:
pleroumenon sophia
The problem is that the translators of this verse literally translated the participle pleroumenon to English as "filled with" without regard to whether or not English "filled with" collocates with the noun "wisdom."

It is important when translating the Bible to constantly monitor one's translation to determine if it is being expressed with the lexical combinations and syntax of the target language, in this case English.

The second problem with this translation of Luke 2:40 is the un-English wording "the grace of God was upon him." Again, no fluent speaker of any standard dialect of English would ever say or write this. Grace cannot be "upon" someone, according to the lexical rules of English. You don't have to believe me about this. Check with others, especially those who you regard to be good speakers and authors and who are able to tell whether something is expressed in good standard English.

Are there any translations of Luke 2:40 which are both accurate and natural, using only English of standard dialects? I find at least one which does:
The child Jesus grew. He became strong and wise, and God blessed him. (CEV)
The translation of Luke 2:40 which began our administrator's letter is written in church English, or Biblish, as it is sometimes called. Many Bible users have become accustomed to such English in their Bibles. But Bibles written in the non-standard Biblish dialect create several barriers for the millions of people who speak standard dialects of English but are not familiar with Biblish. Church English translations help affirm the perception that many people already have that God is not relevant for us. If he were, he would be able to speak English better. He would be able to speak the English that we speak, our heart language just as he was able to speak the Hebrew and Greek of the people to whom the Bible was originally written.

At worst, there are passages in some English Bibles which not only sound odd because they are not expressed the way speakers of standard dialects of English speak and write, but these passages also prevent people from accurately understanding the biblical meaning. And that is another way of saying that such non-standard English wordings are inaccurate. Anything is inaccurate if it does not reflect its original adequately.

Better Bibles will be both natural and accurate. We need not hang on the horns of a dilemma (as blog commenter Tim expressed it so well) with a choice between Bibles which are natural or ones which are accurate. Professional translators are trained and work hard to translate both naturally and accurately. Bible translators can do so as well.

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At Fri Dec 23, 08:55:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I'm not so sure that CEV's "and God blessed him" is all that accurate and natural in non-church English. What does "God blessed him" mean to non-churchgoers? I'm really not sure. Some people I think, perhaps those with a limited background in a more liturgical church, might misunderstand this in terms of some kind of ceremony of blessing, i.e. God "confirmed" him or presided over his bar mitzvah. Others might well understand this in very material ways, more or less that God made him rich. Others would just be confused.

Well, as always we need to start with understanding the original text. What does it mean that God's charis was "upon" Jesus? For once I can commend the ESV rendering of charis here as "favour", not "grace", for the meaning here is surely not "grace" in the sense used in Paul's letters. If this understanding is accepted, a better reading would be not ESV's "And the favour of God was upon him", which is very church English, but something more natural like "And God showed his favour towards him".

At Fri Dec 23, 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I just can't accept that 'and God blessed him' conveys the full weight of meaning behind 'charis'. Peter's 'and God showed his favour toward him' seems to me to come a lot closer.

At Fri Dec 23, 02:38:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim said:

I just can't accept that 'and God blessed him' conveys the full weight of meaning behind 'charis'. Peter's 'and God showed his favour toward him' seems to me to come a lot closer.

Sounds fair enough to me. Thanks for your insights on the translation, Tim. FWIW, I displayed my own familiarity with the word "blessed" (which is, as Peter noted, church English), when I commented positively about the CEV translation.

As for Peter's suggested 'and God showed his favour toward him' it's probably an English dialect difference, but it doesn't sound like "standard" English to me. I would never speak of showing favour to someone. I would speak of showing favouritism to someone, which, of course, is something usually negative. At least our four children thought so, if we, their parents, ever did anything which they thought showed favouritism toward one child over the others.

I think all this shows that is is, indeed, difficult to come up with translations which are in some standard dialect of English and also accurate. But it is worth the effort, IMO.

At Fri Dec 23, 03:52:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I accept that 'and God showed his favour toward him' is not wonderful English either. It certainly isn't meant to imply favouritism, rather God's favour towards Jesus without disfavour to others. But I never was very good at choosing a good rendering, it's much easier to criticise bad ones!

As this may be my last comment for a few days, may I take the chance to wish everyone on this blog a very happy Christmas.

At Fri Dec 23, 03:56:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Happy Xmas! :)

At Wed Dec 28, 01:02:00 PM, Blogger Dickie Mint said...

Hi again Wayne,

Just wondering what your take is on taking note of other contextual uses of the terms being translated (in this case, 2:52 and its statement that Jesus grew in wisdom - interesting relation between 'filled' and 'grew' there). Then, secondly, how you would deal with echoes of other scriptures in the text under consideration - in this case, Dt. 34:9 might well be in the background (Joshua being filled with [the spirit of] wisdom and having Moses hands upon him [cf. Lk. 2:40 where the grace of God was upon Jesus]). Do you translate 2:40 as a discrete entity or take into account 2:52 and possibly other echoes? In my view, the CEV rendering would not allow for those links to be made - it seems to me that Jesus is not simply being marked out as wise but that a larger point is being made.



At Wed Dec 28, 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Dick, you are asking a very important question, the role of intertextuality in translation. On the one hand, if a biblical author intentionally connects a term or phrase to a term or phrase elsewhere in that book, or even elsewhere in any part of the Bible he may have had access to, we should translate in a way that makes that connection possible for our translation readers also. On the other hand, we often do not know if there is a deliberate authorial connection or if it is more a matter of similar words cropping up due to similar topics being addressed in different parts of the Bible. We do need to be on guard that we not impose our own analytical grids upon the Bible when we are translating. We can leave such speculations for later in the Bible teaching process after a translation is made (of course, this begs for an answer to the question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg, the analysis or the translation).

In this particular case, I don't know whether or not there is intended intertextuality. I do know that both cases of English translations "filled with wisdom" are not genuine English for contemporary speakers. We can find more appropriate English which is contemporary and use the same English in each place where the underlying biblical language text has that same concept. That allows for one to suggest that there might have been deliberate authorial intertextuality. Whether there was or not would not affect the translation itself.

Wow, you're keeping us on our toes. These are not easy questions! For that matter, translation is often quite difficult. It's worth wrestling over the issues together. And it's worth being humble in the process, non-judgemental toward others who come to different translation conclusions from us, I do believe.

At Thu Dec 29, 01:33:00 AM, Blogger Dickie Mint said...

Yes, I absolutely agree on humility and a non-judgemental attitude where people differ on translation issues. Some of the hype and acrimony that has surrounded some recent translations has been very unworthy imo. I hope my questions didn't sound or give the impression of being judgemental and lacking in humility! They arose simply out of being interested in translation (as a pastor) and being stimulated by what I've found on this blog.

Thanks for your detailed answers re. Luke 2:40 and also to those I raised elsewhere - I appreciate your comments and found them most helpful.



At Thu Dec 29, 07:26:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I hope my questions didn't sound or give the impression of being judgemental and lacking in humility!

Not at all, Dick. It's just a topic I like to preach about and I often slip it into sermons that start out about something else!



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