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Friday, February 24, 2006

Emotive translation accuracy

Blog visitor Pastor Dickie Mint has asked in a comment:

If a less exact/accurate text moves me more than a more precise translation, just what is going on and how valid is that experience?

It's an appropriate question to ask, Dickie, especially since many of us want to have a spiritual experience which is firmly grounded in biblical truth, and not just some "emotional" experience. Of course, putting the issue in precisely those terms does not do justice to the fact that we are made in God's image and emotions are just as much a part of that image as is our cognition and our will. But what I think is the concern of many is whether we allow experiential "reality" to have primacy over revelational reality. For instance, can experience trump what is revealed in the Bible?

Given those comments to try to show that I think I am tuned in to what you are asking, let's now try to deal with the actual question. Why are we moved sometimes more by Bible versions that are less accurate than by those that are more accurate?

Part of the answer to that question depends on how we define accuracy. If we define translation accuracy as existing primarily at the word or word and phrase levels, then it is fairly easily to answer the question, because there is so much more to language than just what we gain of meaning from words and syntactic phrases. There is much meaning which occurs at so-called higher levels of language, including rhetorical meaning, discourse meaning, and coherence. And then there are the critically important figurative meanings we get not from the sum of the meanings of the individual words, but from a meaning which is unique to the entire idiom. Usually idiomatic meaning cannot be translated accurately at the word or phrase level, so if biblical authors intended us to be emotionally impacted by idioms, then we must have translations that accurately convey their figurative meaning in order to be impacted by them.

Next, there is no inherent reason why exegetically accurate translation of the Bible should not move us as much as the biblical authors intended to move their audiences. If we are not moved by an exegetically accurate translation, when the author intended to move his audience through what he wrote, then the exegetically accurate translation is not communicatively accurate. That is, it is not accurately conveying connotations and emotive aspects of the biblical texts.

Finally, a big reason why we are often moved by translations which may be are less exegetically accurate is that such translations are often made by individuals who may be more gifted at writing English well than they are at exegesis Most translators of translation teams are great writers. Most exegetes are not so gifted. Being able to exegete well is a very different skill from being able to write well. The ideal translator is a good exegete as well as someone who knows their own language so well and is creative enough with it that they will only translate to language which is natural. And, because they are good writers, they can add stylistic quality that is above average. We are moved by good style, powerful figures of speech, contemporary language more than outdated language (for most people), rhythm, and a number of other aspects of language which are often overlooked in translations.

I believe that we should try to choose some exegetes for Bible translation teams who are recognized as being talented writers of their language. Or at least we should have literary stylists on translation teams who truly can make a difference in the literary quality of the translation. They should not be outvoted by the exegetes on a team if what they propose has the same meaning as what the exegetes propose, but is written more naturally and more emotively appropriate and accurate.

I hope this helps some, Dickie. I think I should copy this to be a post, beside a comment response to you, since it is such an important part of what it means to produce adequate Bible versions.


At Fri Feb 24, 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Dickie Mint said...

Yes, thanks Wayne, it does help some - much in fact. It strikes me that your comment that "there is so much more to language than just what we gain of meaning from words and syntactic phrases" is very important and one that I, as a preacher, might be apt to overlook. No doubt that is as true, as you suggest, of the tranlational task.

I can remember vividly the first time this issue raised its head in my experience. I had changed from using the NIV to the NKJV (due to the negative press the NIV received in some quarters) but felt I had lost something of the emotional impact of the scriptures - and I struggled to admit that such an impact was both legitimate and necessary.

(Incidentally, my exposure to some of the issues that go into translating scripture at Bible college helped me to make the move back to the NIV without any sense of compromise)

Thanks again, Wayne.

(I've copied this comment over from where I originally posted it.)

At Fri Feb 24, 05:03:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

I'll, too, copy my post from the other topic...Perhaps it applies here more specifically.

I'm not trying to exclude the translational/exegetical aspects of this conversation, but allow me to emphasize a simple point: It isn't wrong to appreciate this statement on it's own merits.

"forgiveness is your habit"

Regardless of what the Biblical text says exactly, who here wants to say that God disagrees with such a statement? Coming to a decision on it's worth has nothing to do with choosing between the two choices of "emotionalism" vs "biblicism". Either God makes a habit out of forgiving people, or he doesn't -- Those are your two choices. Not emotional truth vs biblical truth. Truth is just truth.

At Sat Feb 25, 02:46:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

"forgiveness is your habit"

...was for me more dilemma than delight. In what sense are God's actions "habitual"?! I wonder if "habit" language is ever used of God in the Bible? Aren't "habits" something we acquire, learn, develop, overcome, change, etc?

OTOH, we can be helped on all kinds of levels by all sorts of writing; they don't have to be bible translations (!). I have been moved by Edwards, Lewis, Mueller's and Brainerd's diaries, even lines out of Tim Hughes songs!

But, personally, I have long since ceased to think of The Message as a "translation", but rather as a set of Eugene Peterson reflections on the biblical text. Which, of course, is no bad thing!


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