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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Why not have majestic or Biblical sounding translations?

From the length of the threads on posts about how a Bible translation should sound, it's clear that this is an important (and sometimes emotional) topic. There seem to be two general camps. One camp takes the position that Bibles should be couched in the language of the day. The extreme examples are TEV/GNT and the Message. The other camp seems to want something else. Sometimes the phrasing is something like, "Bibles should be more faithful to the original." But other times the concern is that the language of the day is too banal for the weight of God's word. The extreme examples here are the KJV and RSV. There is, of course, every shade in between.

Once, long ago, I spent a year working as an interpreter in real life (if you can call the Vietnam war real life). There I had an aha moment about the difference between language that communicates and language that doesn't. The situation was that an American sergeant (not in my unit) came out wanting to get the Vietnamese soldiers he was training to line up. In the surly and colorful way of sergeants, he shouted at his American translator to tell those sorry-a-d, no good, pieces of s-t, to get their f-in' a-s in line this instant. (Army talk, you know.) The translator used all the right words -- straight out of the dictionary. The Vietnamese soldiers looked bewildered, but they didn't move. Overhearing this, a member of my translation team, a twenty-something Vietnamese kid from a Chinese family in Saigon who had learned his English by immersion trying to dodge the Vietnamese draft, stepped up, said about 5 syllables -- I didn't understand a word of it -- and those Vietnamese soldiers lined up almost before he finished his sentence. And they all had the look of oh-are-we-in-deep-doodoo-now.

Three years later in graduate school I was to learn that there is a name for the thing that made the difference. It's called perlocutionary force.

When we communicate, it is not a simple, one-dimensional act. We communicate not only about the things our words refer to, but the very act of speaking betrays things about how we are feeling, who we see ourselves as, and often also how we feel about the things we talking about. Much of this information is in our tone of voice, our accent, and the particular emphasis and inflection we put on particular words. In general this information gets left out when we write, so we're fooled into thinking it isn't really there. But sometimes it appears in the words we use as well. Every language has words and phrases of the same reference, but carrying different kinds of perlocutionary force, get vs. receive, Look! vs. Behold!, line vs. queue, the dog vs. that gosh darn, no good flea bag. Each of these examples reflects a different aspect of perlocution: get vs. receive, informal vs. formal, Look! vs. Behold!, colloquial vs. church talk, line vs. queue, American vs. Canadian/British; the dog vs. that gosh darn, no good flea bag, neutral stance vs. angry stance. (Perlocution is multidimensional. I haven't come near to exhausting things that can be communicated apart from the actual reference.)

Now the thing is that there is perlocutionary information all over the Bible. Jesus is rude to the Pharisees but polite to Pilate, exasperated with disciples but sympathetic with the sick. If we flatten the language down in translation to be one-dimensionally majestic or one-dimensionally Biblical, we are in danger of failing to be accurate and accountable to the original text.

Let me give a simple example from Paul, one that has been, to the best of my knowledge, completely overlooked. It's complex because the difference in word choice in Koine is only available as a difference in emphasis in English. Greek has a number of near synonyms that could be translated something like think, believe. They are: ὑπολαμβάνω, νομίζω, δοκέω, πιστεύω, and οἴομαι. They all share the general meaning 'consider X to be true', where X represents some proposition, in the philosopher's sense. If I say,

"I think he came home late last night."

"He came home late last night" is the proposition that I consider to be true.

To understand the differences in meaning among these five Greek words, you have to understand that they differ in two distinct ways regarding the truth of the proposition. One way is they reflect a scale of how committed the thinker/believer is to the truth of the proposition. The other has to do with what the person speaking believes about the truth of the proposition.

First the scale. With ὑπολαμβάνω the commitment of the thinker to the truth of the proposition is weak. It more or less matches the English verb assume or suppose, e.g. Lk. 7:43.
I suppose,” answered Simon, “that it would be the one who was forgiven more.” “You are right,” said Jesus. (GNB)
With νομίζω the commitment is stronger. So maybe 'consider it likely', e.g. Acts 16:13.
On the Sabbath we went out of the city to the riverside, where we thought there would be a place where Jews gathered for prayer. We sat down and talked to the women who gathered there. (GNB)
δοκέω is the most neutral verb of the set. It's the one that gets used when you ask the neutral question "What do you think?" (e.g., Matt. 26:66),
“What do you think?” They answered, “He is guilty and must die.” (GNB)
And πιστεύω is, of course, the strongest. It's the word used of faith. (I'll have more to say about that in a future post.)

But then what about οἴομαι? That's the interesting one. It means the thinker believes the proposition to be true, but the speaker (the one who is actually using the word) believes that the proposition is false. It is used in Phil. 1:17.
The others do not proclaim Christ sincerely, but from a spirit of selfish ambition; they think that they will make more trouble for me while I am in prison. (GNB)
To come close in English to saying what the Greek actually means you have to empasize the word think.
The others do not proclaim Christ sincerely, but from a spirit of selfish ambition; they THINK that they will make more trouble for me while I am in prison. (GNB)
Recognizing that the Scripture contains a lot of perlocutionary force information, some of which may only be available in nuanced readings, means that if you place a high value on faithfulness to the original, you have to translate to a register in which those subtler distinctions are available.


At Wed Mar 22, 09:56:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Good post, Rich. Thanks for sharing it.

At Wed Mar 22, 10:08:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...


What I hear you saying is that a proper translation will be by turns majestic or casual in keeping with the language of the original. I agree whole-heartedly. That's something that makes translation such an engaging task: truly attempting to plumb the depths of the original text and express it with all the vividness and range of our mother tongue.

At Thu Mar 23, 06:39:00 AM, Blogger Dan Dermyer said...

Great post. The more I learn about the translation task the more I am thankful for the many who do this hard work.

I think I hear what you mean about the nuances in tone, phraseology, etc. But could you give me a non-scholar word or phrase for perlocutionary force?

At Thu Mar 23, 10:51:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

DanD said...
I think I hear what you mean about the nuances in tone, phraseology, etc. But could you give me a non-scholar word or phrase for perlocutionary force?

I was afraid that the technical terminology would be a little off-putting, but there is no everyday word for perlocutionary force. It is part of the thinking of Anglo-American philosophers concerned with language. They recognized that if you try to relate forms (basically the words) to meanings, there were all sorts of complications. This area of study in philosophy (and linguistics) is called speech act theory. In very gross simplification this theory divides the meanings of an utterance into what the words refer to (locution), whether the speaker is making a statement, asking a question, or giving an order (illocution), and everything else (perlocution). Not surprisingly the "everything else" category is not well worked out. When it does get talked about the focus is on what gets communicated through the utterance (hence the name perlocution).

FYI, if you read any speech act theory (Austin and Searle are the big names), you'll find that they focus on illocution. Austin is very readable. I recommend it. Speech act theory has lots of relevance to translation in general and Bible translation in specific.

If you want to talk about perlocution in everyday language, you'd have to say something like it's what else you learn from an utterance besides what the utterance appears to say.

I hope this explanation is a help.

At Thu Mar 23, 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Thanks for a nice clear and helpful post. My Greek is rusty, but wouldn't "imagine" as in:
The others do not proclaim Christ sincerely, but from a spirit of selfish ambition; they imagine that they will make more trouble for me while I am in prison. (TempEV)
come close to what you need? It implies both that they believe it but also that I don't...

At Thu Mar 23, 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

To me this imagine suggests that they didn't really believe this either, they were only guessing.


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