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Monday, January 02, 2006

The Principles of Coherence

Since Suzanne blogged about The Principles of Readability I decided to read Dubay's paper. On page 32 he says:
While Kintsch and his colleagues did not come up with any easily used formula, they did contributed[sic] to our understanding of readability, including the central role of coherence in a text. Kintsch found out that lack of coherence affects lower-grade readers much more than upper-grade ones. The upper-grade readers, in fact, feel challenged to reorganize the text themselves. They may require more opportunities for solving problems, while lower-grade readers require more carefully organized texts.


Well, there you have it: coherence plays a central role.

I have often found that many Bible translations stutter as I read them. Not only does the versification have a profound impact on readability and comprehension, but the grammatical and lexical dislocations cause me to stumble and trip along as my mind walks through the text. I think the worst part, however, is the translations appear to follow a verse-at-a-time or clause-at-a-time methodology. There doesn't appear to me to be any effort at capturing the coherency in the paragraphs. Nor any effort to convey how the paragraphs are coherently connected.

Let me give what I hope will be a rather thought provoking example (and this will be far too short of an appropriately developed presentation).

Ephesian 4:17-5:17 form a chiasm with 5:1-2 in the exact center. If you start reading at 4:17 you'll see that 5:1-2 appear to jump off the page as an incoherent addition to the text. That's one of the clues that indicates a chiasm. The fact is that it is the topic sentence of the entire section. Furthermore, the topic is driven home by way of a conclusive summary in 5:17. This conclusion also reflects, in a contrastive way, what Paul says at the beginning in 4:17-18, another clue to the chiasm. In other words, we need to have the Lord's understanding and not the pagan understanding.

With this conclusion in place, Paul launches into a very practical application of what it means to "imitate God" and to "understand his will," namely, Eph. 5:19-6:9. This involves being "filled with the Spirit." Being filled with the Spirit means living correctly within several societal institutions--marriage and family, and (what we would call) employer-employee.

Next, Paul launches into the armor of God section. I discovered recently that this is a very clear allusion to Isa. 59. What does Isa. 59 have to say? Well, it's about God dealing with the sin problem--the very thing Paul was dealing with in Eph. 4:17-5:17 when he told us to imitate God! What does God do? He puts on armor to deal with the sin. What does that mean for us? We are to imitate him--that's what Eph. 5:1-2 said! We are to also put on his armor!

It's quite coherent.

It took an enormous amount of effort for me to discover that. And yet, now that I see it, it is perfectly obvious that that is what Paul is doing. It's the structure of the text that clued me in, and the coherency that convinced me that I correctly comprehended what Paul was saying.

Why can't I have a translation that helps me see the structure of the text far more easily than the hurdles I have to jump over today?

6 Comments:

At Tue Jan 03, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Though, apart from the (few?) oral clues a speaker provides, isn't coherence always in the eye of the beholder?

 
At Tue Jan 03, 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

The perception of coherence is in the eye of the beholder, yes. But coherence itself is in a text. And it originates in the mind of the original author. Whether or not authors successfully communicates coherence to their readers is dependent on whether or not the readers pick up on the coherence clues left by the author.

Not a clear-cut answer, is it, Tim? Sorry!

One of Mike's big points has been that biblical texts often have coherence which is not translated adequately, and so translation users do not get an accurate picture of original coherence. This is an aspect of translation which has been paid little attention in Bible translation discussions, but needs much more attention.

 
At Tue Jan 03, 01:04:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

But the coherence of a chiasm isn't any more readily observable in the original language. It's something that takes as much work in Greek or Hebrew to see as t does in English. Should a translation make it more obvious than it is in the original? The fact that scholars so often disagree about whether a chiasm occurs or which verses or chapters it involves makes it very hard to make most chiasmic structures an absolutely clear aspect of a translation without getting extremely controversial. If a translation regularly sets off chiasms with indented text or some other pattern, it creates just one more way that translations will reflect one view among many. It would be hard to do this if you just did the less controversial chiasms, though.

 
At Tue Jan 03, 02:36:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

But the coherence of a chiasm isn't any more readily observable in the original language.

You may be right on that, Jeremy, but since those speakers were accustomed to chiasm and English speakers are not, I would hypothesize that they would have an easier time with chiasm than we do. But I have no proof. We don't have proof for many things, but we do have good informed guesses, based on observation of similar behavior in similar contexts.

It's something that takes as much work in Greek or Hebrew to see as it does in English.

Yes, all other things being equal.

Should a translation make it more obvious than it is in the original?

No, never! Making a translation clearer than the original is not truly faithful translation. OTOH, the far greater problem is that translations are much less clear than the original. Often we impose our own analytical analysis upon the text, including our ability to note possible ambiguities, such as whether or not a genitive is subjective or objective. In the mind of the biblical author, and likely his audience, there was no such ambiguity. So if we include ambiguity that was not in the original we are under-translating. Translating more clearly than the original would be over-translating.

In all these things a great deal of humility is needed. And tolerance for one another most translators are trying their very best to be true to the original text as well as the target languages.

The fact that scholars so often disagree about whether a chiasm occurs or which verses or chapters it involves makes it very hard to make most chiasmic structures an absolutely clear aspect of a translation without getting extremely controversial. If a translation regularly sets off chiasms with indented text or some other pattern, it creates just one more way that translations will reflect one view among many. It would be hard to do this if you just did the less controversial chiasms, though.

Well said, Jeremy.

 
At Tue Jan 03, 03:18:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I said to Jeremy:

OTOH, the far greater problem is that translations are much less clear than the original.

I intended to say:

OTOH, the far greater problem is that translations are often much less clear than the original.

The clarity intended by the original author could not be perceived by its readers as intended!!

:-)

 
At Tue Jan 03, 05:20:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

I agree with everything Wayne has said. I'll add...

Chiasm is a form. While modern English uses chiasm, it isn't used to the extent, nor in the same way, as the original language speakers/hearers did. I think one of the main reasons for this is that we indicate our semantic paragraphs with a form which includes space and sometimes indentation. The original language users did no such thing. So, they indicated semantic paragraphs differently from us. One way was through the use of chiasm. The effect is that paragraphing in the original was a lot more semantic and less syntactic. Thus the need for translation.

By semantic paragraph I'm referring to how a writer chunks a cohesive unit of communication. It is the cohesivness of the text that builds the coherence which occurs in the mind. So, Tim, you're right, coherence is in the beholder; however, chiasm is a cohesive form. Therefore, people--that is, exegetes or analysts--can be trained to recognize it. For myself, after working with these things for a while, I've come to see the clues much more easily. I don't see them under every rock; however, they are used much more (and quite cleverly I might add) than what many commentators have seen. I think, generally speaking, commentators think too much like modern English people do when they deal with paragraph level and above forms. That's a problem and it will only be solved as people wrestle through (and blog through) the scholarship. And even produce the scholarship!

Now, I believe that translation involves trans-form-ing an original text into a receptor text. So, one simple thing that could be done in translation is to make sure we accurately translate the semantic paragraphs by accurately observing them in the original and correctly forming them in the receptor. Modern translations have tended to paragraph a text according to the abilities of the intended audience. So the NIV, for example, has smaller paragraphs. The KJV pretty much ignored paragraphs all together and just versified the text (groan!). The later is awful, the former is inaccurate. [Note: The last two sentences form a chiasm! Did you catch it?] So, correct paragraphing would go a long way to informing the reader of how the text is originally meant to cohere.

However, that simple solution wouldn't be a complete solution. Chiasm frequently is meant to focus the mind on the central thought of the semantic paragraph. To properly bring that over into the receptor language is much more difficult. Modern English people don't utilize chiasm that way.

Lastly, I assume that the original authors were very good writers. So, I expect to see very coherent text. What this ends up meaning, I think, is that we can develop a strong sense of confidence when we observe considerable cohesive clues in the text. It's like building a net--the more knitted the net, the stronger it is. I don't think exegetes (and linguists) have adequately addressed this feature of the text, so we have a long way to go.

Since the time I adopted the assumption of coherence, I've been quite thankful with how it has not only stood up to the test; but it appears to me that it has also immensely helped in my Christian walk. I believe that help has been the direct result of my understanding more closely the original intent. I wish I understood a LOT more of the Bible text. I don't. There's still so much I don't understand. But the message of the Author doesn't return to Him empty handed. (cf Isa. 55) But, we have to understand it in order for it to change us (cf Rom. 12:1-2).

By His grace alone.

 

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