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Sunday, January 22, 2006

In the days of his flesh

Recently there have been messages on the Bible Translation discussion list wondering what is the referent of Greek autou in Hebrews 5:7. That was an important topic. But when I first looked at some English translations of Hebrews 5:7, what jumped out at me is the atrocious English that begins the wording of this verse in several versions, "In the days of his flesh."

Do any translators really believe that that phrase is English? Yes, the words are English, but do they make any sense put together as they are? How would any fluent speaker of English understand what the phrase meant? And if they don't have any idea what it means, how can that version be considered accurate, since accuracy is when the meaning of the original is communicated faithfully to users of a translation? Is it really necessary to learn some kind of odd English to be able to understand English Bibles?

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9 Comments:

At Sun Jan 22, 12:44:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

I agree, Wayne.

"In days of his flesh" is the kind of phrase I'm literally embarassed by if I read it to someone who isn't familiar with the Bible. Heck, I'm embarassed if I read it to people who are familiar with the Bible as well. It just doesn't sound right.

The more and more I spend time reading articles on your blog, the more I've noticed on my own how so many translators fall short in giving the receptor language an equal priority as the original (not all, but most). I'm utterly convinced now that formal equivalance is just not the way to go. So many phrases, idioms, and sentence structures in Greek and Hebrew just do not make for good English....And in turn, do not deliver the impact that they deserve.

However, I wonder how dangerous it can be to think that way. Is it possible to be as "free as possible" merely on an idiomatic/grammatical level, without subconsciously injecting an interpretative restructuring to the text at the same time?

 
At Sun Jan 22, 01:14:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

I was just thinking that the people who contribute to this blog should write a book, a manual of style for translators, that explains the bible's grammatical forms and idioms and how they best relate to English.

Entries could be categorized alphabetically, in their original languages, with explanations of their meaning, and the various examples that serve as do's and don'ts on how they should be translated.

Or perhaps something like this has already been written? If so, then it should be consulted more often ;)

Just my amateurish two cents.

 
At Sun Jan 22, 01:53:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Straylight wondered:

Is it possible to be as "free as possible" merely on an idiomatic/grammatical level, without subconsciously injecting an interpretative restructuring to the text at the same time?

Two comments:

1. I don't think the goal of good quality natural English in a translation should be "free as possible." I think the goal should be "accurate communication of the original meaning expressed as that meaning would normally be worded in English." I think there is a big difference between the two. The latter respects the forms of English (or any other translation target language) just as much as we should respect the forms of the biblical language. Language form is critically important, but not for the reasons that those who advocate formal equivalence translation seem to claim. Language form is critically important because it is through the forms of each individual language that meanings are communicated. Translators have no right to change the forms of English (or any other target language) to match the forms of the biblical language. In matching forms, distortion almost always takes place. The worst distortion is change of meaning.

2. The next point is that it is, of course, always possible to translate interpretively, that is, to inject one's personal opinions about the meaning of the biblical text into a translation. On the other hand, matching forms in translation is a kind of interpretation since it often communicates the wrong meaning or at least less than the full meaning of the original. Every Bible version, inclusing those which are literal and essentially literal, are interpretations of the original texts. The right question to ask is whether the intepretations are as close to the meaning of the original texts as possible.

There is a balancing act in translation which requires humility, prayerful dependence on the God of wisdom, sensitivity to the forms and meanings of the biblical languages, and sensitivity to the forms and meanings of target languages. Translation needs to be done in the community of faith and biblical scholarship so that the dangers of personal interpretive translation are reduced in favor of interpretations which have a higher degree of consensus within the community.

 
At Sun Jan 22, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I thought about this issue this morning as I was presiding at Holy Communion in our church. The Eucharistic Prayer included this phrase: 'Do this for the remembrance of me'.

I suspect (I'm not a liturgist) that the reason the compilers chose this rather weird form of wording was to match as closely as possible with the Greek 'Do this for my anamnesis'. But after reading BBB for several months, it just grated on me! Who the heck says 'Do this for the remembrance of me'! How many English speakers get the point that's being made by this weird form of wording?

For the second service, I changed it to 'Do this in remembrance of me'. But please don't tell anyone - I might get into trouble!!!

Tim C.

 
At Sun Jan 22, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Straylight suggested:

I was just thinking that the people who contribute to this blog should write a book, a manual of style for translators, that explains the bible's grammatical forms and idioms and how they best relate to English.

What a wonderful idea!

I have tried to begin something like this with my Translation Glossary. But much more needs to be done. There needs to be at least one course offered in every seminary on how to translate the biblical languages to good quality English. Students need to be taught what it means to honor the forms of both the biblical languages and any receptor/target language. Students need to be taught how to honor the different genres (including poetry) of the Bible while translating into good quality target language forms. Every team member of every translation team should be required to take such a course (or a refresher course) before they begin work as a team.

Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of resistance to the concepts which would need to be included in such a course. There is a widespread fear that translating to natural English, for instance, somehow detracts from translating the biblical languages accurately. People need to be lovingly, gradually led to understand that translating into natural langauge does not detract from accuracy at all. And people need to be assured that it is not at all necessary to "paraphrase" with seemingly no limits in order to translate into natural language. And translators need to work with biblically illiterate people (some of whom are believers, seekers) who can help them discover whether or not their translations are adequately communicating biblical meanings accurately and naturally.

 
At Sun Jan 22, 02:13:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim said:

For the second service, I changed it to 'Do this in remembrance of me'. But please don't tell anyone - I might get into trouble!!!

We won't tell, Tim! Good for you for seeing the need for some kind of change.

The next time (well, maybe the fifth time!) you could go even farther and try: 'Do this to remember me.' It really does mean the same thing and is even more natural English.

Thank you for your kind words about BBB helping sensitize you to better English in Bible versions. It's fulfilling to hear that this blog is doing what it is intended to do.

Please pray for us that we might continue to say proper things for people who use Bibles.

 
At Sun Jan 22, 03:48:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Tim, would you really get in trouble for using the wording of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, "in remembrance of me"? If that wording is now unacceptable, the Anglican church in Canada must be in an even worse state than I thought - not just same sex weddings but now rejecting the BCP!

We don't actually use the BCP here in England either, never in my church and only occasionally in most other churches. But it is still our doctrinal standard, for better or for worse.

 
At Sun Jan 22, 11:04:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

My bishop is fairly strict about not deviating from the officially accepted wording of the Eucharistic prayers. Of course, I know that a lot of people do it anyway (which is why my tongue was in my cheek when I made the comment).

I find that our 1985 'Book of Alternative Services', which supposedly is in contemporary English, is as shot full of non-standard English as many of the translations criticised on this blog. Discouraging. Liturgists are a strange bunch!

 
At Mon Jan 23, 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Wayne, I agree. It's amazing how strong our theological language can be in making it seem simple for us. Yet to others, this is a curious phrase, to be sure.

 

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