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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Coherence, cohesion, and Bible translation

Coherence and cohesion are technical terms which, typical of many of our technical terms, have come into the English language from Latin. Because they are technical terms, they are not part of the common vocabulary of many speakers of English. It is easy to confuse these two terms. I have confused them much of the time. Many linguists, however, use these terms to refer to two different, althought related, aspects of language.

Coherence is the quality of any discourse unit that causes it to make sense. If something is incoherent, it doesn't make sense. A person who is hallucinating is often incoherent when they speak. Good quality speaking and writing coheres.

Cohesion is the quality that causes speech or writing to hang or cling together. It is literary glue. Cohesion, like coherence, is a nominalized noun, that is, a noun created from a verb or adjective. To add to the confusion between the terms coherence and cohesion, the verb from which cohesion is formed is cohere. One would expect, from their spelling, that coherence would be derived from cohere. I do not know of a verb from which coherence is derived. Instead, it seems to be a nominalization of the adjective coherent. The adjective corresponding to cohesion is cohesive.

Coherence and cohesion are sometimes listed as synonyms in dictionaries and thesauri. However, many lexicographers and linguists see some difference between these two terms. I like this explanation:
Coherence and cohesion are partial synonyms, but coherence is used chiefly in a figurative sense meaning “logically consistent, understandable,” whereas cohesion is again simply “a sticking together.”
Both terms derive from the same Latin word cohaesus, meaning 'to cling together.' So they form an etymological doublet, that is two different English words, both deriving from the same etymological source word. It should not be at all surprising, therefore, that the two terms are often confused with each other. Like other etymological doublets, however, semantic distinctions between the two terms have developed during their etymological journey.

Well, what does all this have to do with Bible translation?

Good quality Bible translation uses vocabulary and syntactic forms of a translation language is a way that reflects the coherence of the original biblical texts. Almost everyone speaks or writes, intending to make sense. Some, however, are better gifted at making sense than others. Similarly, there are different degrees of coherence in the discourse units of the biblical language texts. Some Bible versions are better than others at reflecting the coherence that is in the original biblical texts. Here is the translation of Is. 63:15b from two recent English versions:
The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.

Your yearning and Your compassion are withheld from me.
These two wordings mean the same thing. But does one of them have better coherence than the other, that is, does it make better sense? If so, which one?

Similarly, good quality Bible translation uses vocabulary and syntactic forms of a translation language which reflects cohesion, the literary "glue" of the original biblical texts. The TEV (Good News Bible) is written is good quality standard English. But one of the complaints made about the TEV over the years, largely justified, in my opinion, is that that Hebrew and Greek words that connect sentences or even larger discourse units are often missing. The TEV translators recognized, correctly, that English speakers and writers, like those of many other languages, often do not use explicit connectors. We leave the logical connectors implicit. For example, we might say:
I'm not going to work today. I'm sick.
These are two sentences with no explicit logical connector that signals the cohesion between them. But there is a clear semantic cohesion that indicates a causal relationship between the two sentences. We could paraphrase these sentences to make that causal relationship explicit:
I'm not going to work today because I'm sick.
Much of the time, however, when we are speaking, but less so when we are writing formally, we leave these semantic cohesive indicators implicit.

Sometimes, however, in its attempt to be as close to natural English usage of leaving such connectors implicit, the TEV does not make it clear what the cohesive connections are. A revision of the TEV would, ideally, translate more of the original biblical cohesive words, such as Greek kai, hoti, and gar explicitly. I am not saying that each of these connectors needs to be translated explicitly in English, just that they should be translated explicitly where their omission does not allow the original cohesion to be understood clearly in English.

Note 2 Cor. 4:13, 14 in the TEV:
13. The scripture says, “I spoke because I believed.” In the same spirit of faith we also speak because we believe. 14. We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus to life, will also raise us up with Jesus and take us, together with you, into his presence.
The TEV, like some other English versions (NCV, NLT, GW, ISV) puts a sentence period at the end of verse 13. There is no cohesive connection indicated between verses 13 and 14. And some scholars believe that that is the more likely exegesis here. But I agree with those who believe, based on the Greek structure, that there is a cohesive relationship between these two versese. Verse 14 begins with a participle which, to my mind, indicates continuity of thought from verse 13. More formally equivalent renderings indicate that by translating the participle as "knowing" (RSV, ESV, NASB, HCSB). I particularly like the versions which maintain the cohesion here but make it clear what specific semantic relationship of the participle most likely is:
because we know ... (NIV, TNIV, CEV,NRSV)
for we know ... (REB)
We do so because we know ... (NET)
Of all the Bible versions I have studied, I think that the Better Life Bible (BLB), being translated by BBB contributor Dan Sindlinger, probably reflects the coherence and cohesion of the biblical texts the best. Dan does this by making sure that the main point of a passage shines through clearly in translation. If you read the BLB, you will quickly note that Dan does not translate verse by verse. Instead, he focuses on getting the jist of a passage. He does this because he has a different audience in mind from that intended for most other Bible versions. Most visitors to this blog will consider that Dan has "left out" many biblical phrases, sentences, and words, and, he has. But he has chosen to make very clear what the main themes of biblical passages are. He considers that more important for his audience, people who are not familiar with the Bible and have little time for reading a fuller translation. The downside is that some details are omitted in the BLB which could prove to be important, even though that importance may not yet be recognized. The upside is that the BLB makes good sense (coherence) and flows nicely (cohesion).

Better Bibles reflect the coherence and cohesion already present in the original biblical texts. They will make sense in translation if the original texts made sense. And they will hang together anf flow smoothly, to the same degree that the original texts did. Of course, if the original texts do not make sense or cohere, then a translation of them should not either. But the burden of proof in such cases is always on those who would claim lack of coherence or cohesion in the original texts. After careful study we are often surprised to discover how much coherence and cohesion there actually is in the original texts. And when we do so the Bible can come alive more to us. We learn more from it.

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