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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Interpretation versus Translation -- Competition or Teamwork?

Recently, on the Bible translation list, A. J. Birch asked a very
excellent question:
In terms of definitions, what are the differences between translation and interpretation?
The real answer to this is generally surprising--interpretation must occur before translation and they are very highly integrated.

The question is analogous to asking, "What is the difference between 'construction' and a 'house'?" Many people probably think the question is analogous to "What is the difference between a ranch style and tudor style house?" But it's not.

Translation and interpretation are certainly related but they don't exist along the same axis. Note that in the process of interlingual communication each must happen. But it's not that a translator can remove interpretation to some degree or another and hope to achieve a quality translation. They are distinct but very highly integrated. And let me see if I can illustrate that, but before I do let me deconstruct a popular assumption.

It is generally understood, and wrongly (though seemingly justifiable), that interpretation is something that is added to translation. It's assumed that somehow translation is a somewhat mechanical process involving associating destination language words (and idioms) with source language words (and idioms). The translation process (say, for the New Testament) is viewed as:

1. Look at Greek word
2. Look up Greek word in one or more lexicons and record potential
destination language glosses.
3. Layout a draft of the sentence using the glosses.
4. Style the English without changing the meaning.

That's not how accurate translation works. To quote Eugene Nida:
Professional translators are usually so concerned with the meaning of a text that they seldom give much thought to the grammatical structures of source or receptor languages, because their task is to understand texts, not to analyze them. If, as already mentioned, translators thoroughly understand a source text, they do not need to worry about whether to use nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a particular order so as to represent the meaning. These decisions are made almost automatically.
I would probably change the word understand to the word synthesize to more clearly constrast what has to happen in the mind of a translator.

Accurate translation must consider the meaning of the paragraph, the smallest unit of cohesive communication. This is true since cognitive processes select words within a contextual fabric constructed by at least three things: interlocutor assumptions (assumptions of those involved in the communication event), the synthetic chunking of the text processed so far (which, in the author's mind, creates the paragraph structure), and the linear processing of the current chunk of text (this later is what is commonly and popularly called 'context', but 'context' is much, much larger than even the text itself). What am I saying here? That mentally grasping the context (which includes interlocutor assumptions) is prerequisite to assigning a specific sense (selected from the potential senses) to a particular word form in a specific context. So, again, interpretation precedes translation.

Now, above, I said that it was seemingly justifiable for one to understand interpretation as something added to translation. Why did I say that it appears to be justifiable since I disagree with it?

Because understanding how language works is hard. In the early years of computers (late 50's, early 60's) linguists believed that translation was an easy task and could be easily automated. People at that time believed that the U.N. translators' jobs would be eliminated by the late 60's and Star Trek handheld devices would be available as soon as we figured out how to miniaturize the big computers. As the study of computational linguistics took off, and people's understanding of how translation worked was built into software and applied to real world texts, it became embarrassingly obvious that we didn't know what we were talking about (there's an interesting, and complex, pun in that last clause). Even today, 40 years later, when our phones are more powerful than the computers of that age, Google's translation efforts, while helpful, make for a good laugh (and they have 10,000's of computers gridded together to work on the problem!).

What IS the whole problem? Well, translation is far from straight-forward because a person has to understand the text before it can be translated. Computers can't understand. And translation is far from mechanical. In other words, a person has to interpret the text before the person can translate. One of the funniest comments in this regard was in reply to Eugene Nida when he asked U.N. translators what was the most difficult thing they had to do. Their unanimous answer was the translating of political doublespeak. In other words, they had a very difficult time translating a text that was designed to have ambiguous (or even no) meaning even though it sounded good. Well, as soon as one understands that interpretation is prerequisite for translation the knee-jerk reply to the U.N. translators' statement is "Duh! Of course!" You can't accurately translate a text you can't get your mind around.

Also, as an aside, I've often thought that the process of translating a text from one socio-linguistic context to a significantly different socio-linguistic context forces the discovery of truth (all sorts of rough edges must be dealt with). I think this is true since accurate translation must be coherent--political doublespeak is purposely incoherent speech. I suppose if the translators were appointed to diplomatic positions in the U.N. we would either have peace, or all out war. Truth has a way of doing both; but, I digress.

Now, how can I illustrate that interpretation must happen before translating? The simplest case is with a given word. Clauses, sentences, and larger textual units are far, far more complex.

So, let's try a few simple exercises that will illustrate my point.

Translate this word into English: 'fraznutch'.

You done? You're not?!! Why not? Well, because you don't know what the word means. In other words, even with a single word, you must interpret it before you can translate it.

Now, translate this English word into any foreign language--you chose the language: 'rug'. How did you do? Maybe I should inform you that I was thinking of a hair piece commonly called a toupee. Here, you needed to know the context. In other words, there was interpretation involved in the process of translating. And there's even the issue of register that one must consider in order to generate accuracy in the resulting translation.

You can't escape interpretation in translating.

OK, so now let's make it hard: Translate this into any foreign language:
"A man, a plan, a canal: Panama."
You done? Good. Now, note that the intent of the author is to construct a palindrome. You didn't see that did you? Well, now that you know you need a palindrome, do you think you can come up with an accurate translation? When you get your mind around the implications of that problem, then you start to see the issues with accurate Bible translation. And how confounded difficult it is to answer the question that juxtaposes paraphrase and translation.

It feels simple to just say "paraphrase is loose translation" and "paraphrase adds interpretation to translation" and be done with it. Unfortunately, sometimes what looks like a paraphrase ends up being an accurate translation. I like to use 2 Cor. 6:12 where Paul accuses the Corinthians of having their bowels stuffed shut. It makes for a marvelously funny pun; but, it loses something in translation. Frankly, a paraphrase such as: "you have constipated affections and it's affected your mind" would probably be quite accurate (note Greek KARDIA is frequently more accurately translated as 'mind' in English, though I've thought a better meaning has to do with "the organ of intention").

May our bowels be moved for those in need of clear, accurate, and natural Bible translation.

Hmmmmmm...perhaps that last sentence needs translated.

23 Comments:

At Thu Mar 09, 07:32:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

In addition to the marvelous pun, you have "loosed" a funny one yourself in your closing paragraph. I think you meant to say "loses".

Translation is hard. Who should do it? I can translate quite well from Portuguese to English but less so the other way around. What I produce may always be perfectly natural English even while I am unwittingly missing meaning that is not accessible to me as a non-native Portuguese speaker.

Finally, another palindrome:
"Madam in Eden I'm Adam."

Yours truly,

Doctor Otto Rotcod

 
At Thu Mar 09, 08:49:00 AM, Blogger Ruud Vermeij said...

And the reply to the introduction of Adam would have been:

"Eve"

 
At Thu Mar 09, 03:20:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

You statements are all quite true, Mike, as far as they go. But let's push the subject a little further.

If people disagree with many of your interpretations, you can hardly blame them for rejecting the translation that incorporates them, can you?

Look at any exegetical commentary and you will see the extent of the disagreement among scholars in verse after verse. Whose interpretation will get control of the version? It's a real problem.

That's why most translators have preferred to keep the amount of interpretation in the version to a minimum.

 
At Thu Mar 09, 04:01:00 PM, Blogger Rey said...

excellent post.

 
At Thu Mar 09, 04:54:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Good post - I still use "interpreted" when I feel that someone put their own meaning into a translation - but that just comes from my limited vocabulary.

If someone ever says to me, "We didn't interpret anything in this translation" it now raises a flag in my mind, "Oh really..."

One thing I wanted to comment on, actually not something you said, but someone you quoted, "To quote Eugene Nida:

Professional translators are usually so concerned with the meaning of a text that they seldom give much thought to the grammatical structures of source or receptor languages, because their task is to understand texts, not to analyze them. If, as already mentioned, translators thoroughly understand a source text, they do not need to worry about whether to use nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a particular order so as to represent the meaning. These decisions are made almost automatically."


If I remember hearing correctly, translations such as the NASB do actually think about word order and nouns, verbs etc - trying their best to keep the same number of them in the English as are in their source language - trying for a word-for-word translation whenever possible (hence the sometimes bumpy reading in English). Have you heard that before?

Have a good day,
Nathan

 
At Fri Mar 10, 01:01:00 AM, Blogger Live, Love, Laugh said...

excellent post and one that we have been discussing in our bible studies lately. I think I will print this out and distribute it. Thanks.

 
At Fri Mar 10, 08:41:00 AM, Blogger Dickie Mint said...

son of abraham said, "That's why most translators have preferred to keep the amount of interpretation in the version to a minimum."

If I understand Mike's comments correctly, that sentence is not correct, nor is it truly possible? Am I right?

Dick.

 
At Fri Mar 10, 02:54:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Nathan's comment "translations such as the NASB do actually think about word order and nouns, verbs etc - trying their best to keep the same number of them in the English as are in their source language" reminds me of something I heard a few years ago from a consultant who had visited local Bible translators in southern Russia. They were surprised that the consultant wanted to go through the text with them in detail, for they expected him only to count the words! It turned out that these translators, recruited from the local Academy of Sciences, had previously worked on translations of the works of Marx, Lenin etc. These translations were "checked" by officials sent from Moscow, but in fact all these checkers did was to check that the number of words in the translation matched that in the original - although the target languages had totally different structures from the Russian text they were working from! And the translators expected the same from the Bible translation consultant.

 
At Fri Mar 10, 03:29:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

On a more serious note than my last comment here, I want to respond to Michael "son of Abraham" Marlowe's point. I have just done so in a new posting on this blog, Interpretation versus Translation: Debatable Exegesis.

By the way, Michael, did you see my final comment on the posting Is singular "they" a colloquialism? ? There I wrote of you that "I must conclude that he has conceded his point by default." But it is not too late for you to come back to me if you wish.

 
At Fri Mar 10, 07:55:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter wrote: did you see my final comment on the posting Is singular "they" a colloquialism?

Yes, I did. But I don't think you made any serious attempt to deal with my major points in that thread. Your comments were becoming exasperatingly evasive and captious. So I ended the discussion.

 
At Sat Mar 11, 09:38:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

yo, son of abraham,

"evasive and captious"!!! You've got a great vocabulary and are a challenging poster. Do you have your own blog? Keep writing. I appreciate your input on this blog.

 
At Sat Mar 11, 02:27:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

"Captious"? What does that mean. Michael? That I succeeded in catching you out? I accept that I was trying to find the holes in your argument, but isn't that what academic debate is about? Accept it, Michael, you were just unable to answer my convincing proofs that singular "they" has been used for centuries in high quality literature. As for "evasive", I deny this. I think I answered every one of your points. The only evasion here is from the one who evaded answering my last points, because he was apparently unable to do so.

Meanwhile I was rather startled by an example of singular "they" I heard, spoken by a lady of about 80, the wife of a retired missionary and pastor, who is usually speaks very well and carefully. I told her something about my Korean colleague in my Bible translation project, but did not specify my colleague's gender. In reply she asked my something about my colleague and then proceeded to use the singular "they" to refer to him (for he is in fact male). She didn't seem at all embarrassed by this usage, although I would have expected either generic "he" or a slightly embarrassed "he or she" from her. I think I was more embarrassed, for I made sure that I specified his gender in answering her question. There was no question here of a covert plural or of gross colloquialism; rather it proves that at least here in the UK truly singular "they" is considered fully acceptable English.

 
At Sat Mar 11, 04:45:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter, it really amazes me that you would think that you have proven anything about a "singular they" in Standard English with the examples you presented. It reminds me of your earlier attempt (in another thread) to prove that anthropos was not a grammatically masculine noun. At that time you referred to a few lonely instances of the noun with the feminine article from an earlier era of the Greek language, which you found in a lexicon, and apparently you felt that you had proven your position by this means. But your method was obviously unsound. Here we have a noun which in the koine sources is frequently used in reference to a man, or with masculine articles and modifiers, but never used in reference to a woman, or with feminine articles and modifiers. Do you really think you proved that it is not a masculine noun, by referring to your examples from the LSJ lexicon? You can't prove anything about ordinary koine usage in this way. You can't even prove something about ordinary Classical usage in this way. And likewise with your "singular they" argument. You have proven nothing about ordinary usages of Standard English with your examples. In some of the examples you offered, my examination showed that there was not even a good reason to think that the author was using the pronoun in a singular sense. In others, the context showed that a singular sense was not intended. And one of your examples was Scottish, and archaic Scottish at that. You can't build an argument about what has been generally accepted in Standard English with such examples. So I emphatically deny that you have proven anything about Standard English, as used in the writings of the most respected English authors. In support of my own position I mentioned that a panel of English professors employed by the American Heritiage Dictionary for the purpose of making judgments about usage (I assume that most were literary critics) did not approve of a "singular they" in formal prose. It's clear to me that their judgment was based upon the same experience of "canonical" English literature that I have. Against that broad experience, and against that expert critical opinion, your examples have no probative force. Regarding the usage you mentioned in your last comment here, I will only point out that our previous discussion had to do with Standard English as used in the writings of the most respected authors. The usage of "they" by the elderly woman who you were talking with has nothing to do with any writings, and it does not have any illustrative value for the question we were discussing.

 
At Sat Mar 11, 05:20:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, please list one or more sentences with singular "they" which would have probative force for you.

 
At Sat Mar 11, 07:23:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne, it's a fool's errand. You are not going to be able to prove it. You have been deceived into thinking that "singular they" is found in the prose writings of respected authors, because of those quotations you found on web pages. But it is not. I have discussed several of the examples from your list already, including the ones from Shakespeare, and I have shown why they are not comparable to some of the "singular theys" that appear in the TNIV. Most of the "singular they" examples on your list had semantically universal antecedent like "everyone," and this is acceptable (though perhaps not best) in prose. But in these cases the "they" is not truly singular. I explained in the other comment thread why the "their" is semantically plural in Shakespeare's "there's not a man I meet but doth salute me, as if I were their well-acquainted friend." Lets look at another of your examples, the Thackeray quotation--"A person can't help their birth." Now, this is a true "singular they." But I hunted down this example and I found that it is from a bit of breezy dialogue in the book Vanity Fair, chapter 41. In the same chapter we also find the sentence, "Hullo! here's old Mother Lock. How-dy-do, Mrs. Lock? Remember me, don't you? Master Rawdon, hey? Dammy how those old women last; she was a hundred when I was a boy." That is the level at which Thakeray was writing when he wrote the dialogue in this chapter, and "a person can't help their birth" is a line from this slangy conversation. It is not a quotation from one of Thackeray's essays in formal prose. So the "example" is deceptive. All of the examples are misleading in some way or other, if they are offered as proof that the "singular they" in the TNIV's rendering of Matt. 18:15, "point out the fault, just between the two of you alone. If they listen to you," etc., is acceptable in formal prose. It is colloquial, informal, substandard English.

 
At Sun Mar 12, 08:34:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

All of the examples are misleading in some way or other, if they are offered as proof that the "singular they" in the TNIV's rendering of Matt. 18:15, "point out the fault, just between the two of you alone.

Michael, my recall (not infallible by any means) is that you presented your concern about Matt. 18:15 in the TNIV rather recently (perhaps within the past two weeks) in our on again off again exchanges over the past several months about singular "they." Previous to that we had been discussing other contexts in which singular "they" is used. In any case, thank you for taking the time to explain your position. I think I understand it better now than I did before.

FWIW, Dr. Grudem often points out his concern about the use of singular "they" (he never calls it that) in Rev. 3:20, claiming that use of the syntactic plural "they" drains that verse of a focus on the individual. In your comment (above) on contexts where singular "they" has an indefinite pronoun as antecedent, you said:

Most of the "singular they" examples on your list had semantically universal antecedent like "everyone," and this is acceptable (though perhaps not best) in prose.

I agree with you that there is greater usage of singular "they" where the anaphora is to an indefinite referent. Would you be more accepting of the singular "they" in Rev. 3:20 than its usage in Matt. 18:15?

Since you say that contexts where singular "they" has a "semantically universal antecedent like 'everyone,'" are more "acceptable,", do you share Dr. Grudem's opinion that TNIV Rev. 3:20 drains the passage of a focus on the individual?

 
At Sun Mar 12, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: you presented your concern about Matt. 18:15 in the TNIV rather recently ... Previous to that we had been discussing other contexts in which singular "they" is used.

Wayne, My purpose in the recent discussion was not so narrowly focused that I cared only to make a point about the usage in Matt. 18:15. I saw that you and Peter were trying to defend it, and in the course of your defense you were using examples drawn from Henry Churchyard's misleading web pages on the subject. When Peter pointed to those pages I immediately challenged the credibility of the source, and for good reasons. Churchyard himself admits in a little note at the bottom of one of his pages that "it may be slightly misleading" to use terminology like "singular they" or "singular their," but in various ways he fails to prevent people from confusing different facets of the subject and coming to wrong conclusions about literary usage. That's why Peter ended up using the Thackeray quotation in his argument. He was led astray by the bent of Churchyard's presentation, its representation of the "worthy authors," and its "rough-and-ready" terminology. These pages are flagrantly polemical and misleading, and a number of other pages elsewhere on the web are just as bad. So I wanted to make the point that your method is unsound if you rely upon such questionable and biased secondary sources for the facts, without even feeling the need to look at the primary sources that are cited in them. And I also want to emphasize that this is really a question of literary style, where judgments must depend upon a sense of taste developed by familiarity with classic formal prose. It can't be discussed profitably in the way that you have tried to approach it, with isolated "proof" texts.

You asked: Since you say that contexts where singular "they" has a "semantically universal antecedent like 'everyone,'" are more "acceptable,", do you share Dr. Grudem's opinion that TNIV Rev. 3:20 drains the passage of a focus on the individual?

As I said before, I think Grudem is right when he complains that the original text's focus on individuals is lost when we shift to plurals in English, and I think this is true across the board, even in those places where a "they/their/them" is used after a semantically universal antecedent. The use of plural pronouns after "anyone" is only marginally acceptable in formal prose, and it does tend to lessen the sense of particularity. Moreover, I think it is stylistically out of place in such a solemn declaration as we have in Revelation chapter 3. This passage calls for the highest level of formality in style. Actually, I think the NIV and TNIV generally fail to rise to the appropriate level of language here and elsewhere--not just in the matter of the pronouns, but in various other ways. They often lack the appropriate formality and impressiveness of style. But that is another matter, which I'm afraid we won't be able to discuss, because your "linguistics" approach to the issues is so fundamentally different from my "literary" approach.

 
At Sun Mar 12, 01:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael ended:

But that is another matter, which I'm afraid we won't be able to discuss, because your "linguistics" approach to the issues is so fundamentally different from my "literary" approach.

Michael, we would welcome a literary approach here on BBB to Bible translation issues, as well as linguistic, anthropological, and other approaches. Feel free to compose one or more posts how your literary approach can lead toward better Bibles and we can post them from you as a guest contributor.

I wear several hats in life. I'm not just a linguist. I have taught English at the university level and have been an English editor for many years. So I do welcome literary studies, literary critique, and input from those who appreciate literary beauty.

 
At Sun Mar 12, 01:31:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael wrote: "In some of the examples you offered, my examination showed that there was not even a good reason to think that the author was using the pronoun in a singular sense. In others, the context showed that a singular sense was not intended. And one of your examples was Scottish, and archaic Scottish at that." Yes, some of the examples could perhaps be discounted in this way. But others could not, where "they" can only refer back to an antecedent which is specified as singular. The claim which some of us made was that singular "they" exists. You wrote "I have discussed several of the examples from your list already", and you indeed showed that some of these examples are debatable. But there are other examples on the list which you have refused to discuss; these, or many of them, are not debatable, or at least no one has attempted to debate them. Your hypothesis of non-existence is disproved by just one example, unless you can find some way to explain away that example. I think there remain at least three or four of the original examples for you to explain away. If you cannot do so, or decline to do so, you must withdraw your hypothesis.

Against your evidence from the American Heritage panel, which was in fact a reversal of a previous decision I understand, I can quote the Random House dictionary as an example of one which allows singular "they". So the expert opinion is divided. In any case, the debate is not about whether singular "they" exists, only about whether it should be classified as a colloquialism not for use in the highest quality writing.

Also. Michael, you wrote with reference to singular "they" that "the original text's focus on individuals is lost when we shift to plurals in English". Do you have the same problem with the shift from KJV's "thou" to modern translations' singular "you"? I don't suppose you would agree, but to me singular "you" and singular "they" are very similar phenomena, except that singular "you" is unrelated to gender.

 
At Sun Mar 12, 05:12:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter wrote: But there are other examples on the list which you have refused to discuss ...

I haven't refused to discuss anything, Peter. I have taken the trouble to find a few of your examples in their original contexts, and in each case I found that they did not in fact support your argument. You copied and pasted these examples from some controversialist's web page, where they were presented apart from their contexts, and I did the scholarly work -- I consulted the original contexts. Now you fault me because I have not hunted down all of your examples. But why aren't you doing any of the legwork?

Your hypothesis of non-existence is disproved by just one example.

That's an unfair way of defining the debate. You win if you can find one occurrence of "singular they" in a piece of writing. But I thought we were discussing what is normally considered acceptable in formal prose, as evidenced by the writings of the most respected English authors. You can't prove or disprove anything about that with one occurrence. In order to demonstrate a generally accepted usage you must have many examples, not just one. Language is such an untidy thing that we can't expect 100% conformity to any rule. But that does not prevent us from making valid and useful generalizations. One counter-example does not destroy a rule of usage.

I can quote the Random House dictionary as an example of one which allows singular "they"

Well go ahead and quote it. But I'm sure you realize that I will underscore the words "in all but the most formal writing," and I will also point out that they explain it as a usage with nouns that are "not felt to be exclusively singular." I support their statement with its qualifications duly noted. But I don't think there's much support for your position here.

Also. Michael, you wrote with reference to singular "they" that "the original text's focus on individuals is lost when we shift to plurals in English". Do you have the same problem with the shift from KJV's "thou" to modern translations' singular "you"?

I do think it's a pity that our language lost this ability to distinguish singular and plural in the second-person pronouns.

I don't suppose you would agree, but to me singular "you" and singular "they" are very similar phenomena, except that singular "you" is unrelated to gender.

Interesting comparison. In both cases the language becomes simpler and more ambiguous. I don't think these are good qualities in a language.

 
At Mon Mar 13, 06:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael, on your last point, I agree with you that English has become simpler and more ambiguous in a number of ways. But this is a very long standing characteristics of languages. But as precision is sometimes needed they invent new ways to indicate that precision when necessary, and what were previously particles and adpositions become affixes, and the whole process goes full circle after a few millennia. Or something like that. But we have to translate into English as we find it, not into some kind of romantically reconstructed obsolete, but allegedly more pure or precise, form which no one speaks and many don't understand.

Meanwhile here are some of the examples which you have not commented on, in which the antecedent for singular "they" is incontrovertibly singular. I will try to find more context for you.

If a person is born of a gloomy temper ... they cannot help it. - Lord Chesterfield, 1759. I can't find any larger context online.

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.
- Shakespeare. This is from The Comedy of Errors, Act 4, the start of Scene 3. The speaker, Antipholus of Syracuse, speaks:
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend;
And every one doth call me by my name.
Some tender money to me; some invite me;
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
Some offer me commodities to buy:
Even now a tailor call'd me in his shop
And show'd me silks that he had bought for me,
And therewithal took measure of my body.
Sure, these are but imaginary wiles
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here.

This doesn't look to me like deliberate copying of substandard speech or dialect. But the shift to "some" does suggest that even "a man" is not completely singular.

And how easy the way a man or woman would come in here, glance around, find smiles and pleasant looks waiting for them, then wave and sit down by themselves. - Doris Lessing. I can't find any more context for this.

Little did I think ... to make a ... complaint against a person very dear to you, but don't let them be so proud ... not to care how they affront everybody else. - Samuel Richardson. Again, I can't find more context.

But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing. - Lewis Carroll. This is from "Through the Looking Glass, Chapter XII WHICH DREAMED IT?. Here are the first few paragraphs including this quotation:

`YOUR Red Majesty shouldn't purr so loud,' Alice said, rubbing her eyes, and addressing the kitten, respectfully, yet with some severity. `You woke me out of oh! such a nice dream! And you've been along with me, Kitty--all through the Looking-glass world. Did you know it, dear?'

It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens (Alice had once made the remark) that, whatever you say to them, they
always purr. `If they would only purr for "yes", and mew for "no", or any rule of that sort,' she had said, `so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?'

On this occasion the kitten only purred: and it was impossible to guess whether it meant `yes' or `no'.

So Alice hunted among the chessmen on the table till she had found the Red Queen: then she went down on her knees on the hearth-rug, and put the kitten and the Queen to look at each other. `Now, Kitty!' she cried, clapping her hands triumphantly. `Confess that was what you turned into!'


Is Alice talking about one kitten or many? It is hard to say. And I suppose you could argue that this is an attempt to render childlike talk, although I am sure that the great lexciographer Sir Henry Liddell (he of the Liddell and Scott dictionary) would never have let his daughter utter a word that was not correct English, or Greek or Latin. But then of course if Grudem and co won't read the father's works, why should they take any notice of his daughter's words.

Some people say that if you are very fond of a person you always think them handsome. - "Henry Jones". This is in fact from Confidence by the great American author Henry James, chapter XVII. Here is some context, including another singular "they" a few sentences later, a lady, Blanche, is speaking:

Gordon is a perfect husband; I believe if I were to ask him for a present of his nose, he would cut it off and give it to me. I think I will ask him for a small piece of it some day; it will rather improve him to have an inch or two less. I don't say he 's handsome; but he 's just as good as he can be. Some people say that if you are very fond of a person you always think them handsome; but I don't agree with that at all. I am very fond of Gordon, and yet I am not blinded by affection, as regards his personal appearance. He 's too light for my taste, and too red. And because you think people handsome, it does n't follow that you are fond of them. I used to have a friend who was awfully handsome--the handsomest man I ever saw-- and I was perfectly conscious of his defects. But I 'm not conscious of Gordon's, and I don't believe he has got any.

Of course "a person" here is entirely generic and in some way refers to all people, but it is still singular. The point is not that the singular "you" here is fond of many people together, but is individually fond of probably just one, at least one at a time. Much like Revelation 3:20 in fact.

I know when I like a person directly I see them. - Virginia Woolf. This is from The Voyage Out, chapter 14. It is part of a conversation, of which here is a bit more:

"Well," she said, "d'you want to know any more about me?"

"But you?" he asked, "Who looked after you?"

"I've looked after myself mostly," she laughed. "I've had splendid friends. I do like people! That's the trouble. What would you do if you liked two people, both of them tremendously, and you couldn't tell which most?"

"I should go on liking them--I should wait and see. Why not?"

"But one has to make up one's mind," said Evelyn. "Or are you one of the people who doesn't believe in marriages and all that? Look here--this isn't fair, I do all the telling, and you tell nothing. Perhaps you're the same as your friend"--she looked at him suspiciously; "perhaps you don't like me?"

"I don't know you," said Hewet.

"I know when I like a person directly I see them! I knew I liked you the very first night at dinner. Oh dear," she continued impatiently, "what a lot of bother would be saved if only people would say the things they think straight out! I'm made like that. I can't help it."

"But don't you find it leads to difficulties?" Hewet asked.

"That's men's fault," she answered. "They always drag it in-love, I mean."

"And so you've gone on having one proposal after another," said Hewet.

"I don't suppose I've had more proposals than most women," said Evelyn, but she spoke without conviction.

"Five, six, ten?" Hewet ventured.

Evelyn seemed to intimate that perhaps ten was the right figure, but that it really was not a high one.


Here I would accept that Evelyn is speaking rather colloquially; this is not non-standard English so much as the informal conversation of those whose English is generally impeccable, by upper class British standards.

Well, I might agree with Random House that singular "they" is not acceptable in the most formal writing. But does that rule this construction out from Bible texts? Jesus was not speaking "the most formal writing" when he preached to the crowds or the disciples, or even when he appeared in Revelation. It is wrong to translate the Bible into a register of English quite alien to that of the original. Let's reflect Jesus' conversational style in our translations, complete with a few constructions "acceptable in all but the most formal writing."

 
At Mon Mar 13, 10:04:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter wrote: But we have to translate into English as we find it, not into some kind of romantically reconstructed obsolete, but allegedly more pure or precise, form which no one speaks and many don't understand.

I agree, if in "English as we find it" you will include important literature of the past two or three centuries. I find English in books, not just in common speech, and I expect other people to be literate. If they are not literate, something must be done about it. I'm willing to concede that writings of the seventeenth century (Shakespeare, KJV, etc.) are now too far distant and too hard to understand. But adults should be able to read important general-audience works from the eighteenth century onward without a lot of trouble.

If a person is born of a gloomy temper ... they cannot help it. - Lord Chesterfield, 1759. I can't find any larger context online.

Neither can I. And I note the ellipsis, which makes this example practically useless.

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend. - Shakespeare.

I discussed this one earlier, in the other thread. Perhaps you missed it. I observed that "their" is not singular because it refers to the men of Ephesus, not to "a man" (see the whole context). Also I want to point out that this is metrical blank verse, not prose, and several conventions of verse come into play here. Notice how Shakespeare gives us a little verbal parallel with the repetition "There's ... their." That's a poetic touch.

And how easy the way a man or woman would come in here, glance around, find smiles and pleasant looks waiting for them, then wave and sit down by themselves. - Doris Lessing. I can't find any more context for this.

Same here. And who is Doris Lessing, anyway? Never heard of her.

Little did I think ... to make a ... complaint against a person very dear to you, but don't let them be so proud ... not to care how they affront everybody else. - Samuel Richardson. Again, I can't find more context.

And I can't comment on anything with such elisions.

But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing. - Lewis Carroll. This is from "Through the Looking Glass ... I suppose you could argue that this is an attempt to render childlike talk ...

I don't know about that, but in any case, it is a piece of dialogue from a story, and not something in the formal prose genre. Novelists are not expected to observe rules of composition when they present dialogue.

Some people say that if you are very fond of a person you always think them handsome. - "Henry Jones". This is in fact from Confidence by the great American author Henry James ...

This is also dialogue or reported speech. Notice all the contractions in the context.

I know when I like a person directly I see them. - Virginia Woolf. This is from The Voyage Out, chapter 14. It is part of a conversation ...

You know what I'm going to say.

Well, I might agree with Random House that singular "they" is not acceptable in the most formal writing. But does that rule this construction out from Bible texts? Jesus was not speaking "the most formal writing" when he preached to the crowds or the disciples, or even when he appeared in Revelation. It is wrong to translate the Bible into a register of English quite alien to that of the original. Let's reflect Jesus' conversational style in our translations, complete with a few constructions "acceptable in all but the most formal writing."

I agree that the style of the translation should imitate the style of the original. But I don't think it's true that the words of Christ in the NT are in conversational style. I think they are highly rhetorical, and for the most part they follow conventions of gnomic and prophetic literature. These are not really the same as the conventions of formal prose style in English, but the discourse is definitely formal in character. So when I see Christ's words translated into an informal conversational idiom--as they are in the recent "common language" versions and paraphrases--I think the translation really gives a false impression.

 
At Mon Mar 13, 03:41:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael wrote: "I don't think it's true that the words of Christ in the NT are in conversational style. ... So when I see Christ's words translated into an informal conversational idiom--as they are in the recent "common language" versions and paraphrases--I think the translation really gives a false impression."

Well, Michael, perhaps this is the centre of the problem. Are Jesus' words as reported in the Bible conversational, in the same sense as the literary examples we discussed concerning singular "they"? Or are they prepared discourses in highly polished formal style? Or somewhere in between? That certainly affects how they should be translated.

How do we decide this question? I assume that you are not taking a theological perspective that anything which Jesus said must have been in the most perfect and exalted language, so wonderful that it deserves to be printed in red whoever might have spoken it. If you look at the evidence, you will find that Jesus' words, as they appear in the New Testament (and so mostly not in fact his Hebrew or Aramaic ipsissima verba), are in the ordinary Koiné Greek of their period. But what particular register of Koiné Greek? I must say I don't know. It certainly wasn't the formal Greek of Luke 1:1-4, nor was it the involved argumentation of Paul's letters. To my non-expert eyes it seems to be down-to-earth conversational language, not generally polished at all, although scattered with sometimes cryptic sayings which do show some signs of careful wording. Well, this subject deserves a separate posting rather than a comment at the bottom of a long and old thread, so I will work on this.

 

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