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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Is traditional "literal" ?

I would like to respond to the question of whether we are, on this blog, against the traditional "literal" translations of the Bible. The first thing that has to be settled then is what is a traditional translation of the Bible, and is that a "literal" translation. I would argue not necessarily.

It is significant, I think, that when people talk about the English Bible tradition, they often mention Tyndale with great respect and reverence, but they are not always aware of how it differed from the King James. In the Tyndale Bible 'propitiation' is translated 4 different ways in the NT. Propitiation is one of the many Latinate words that appears in the KJV but not in the Tyndale version. So the Tyndale translation varies considerably from the KJV in its lack of Latin derived theological and ecclesiatic terms.

    Like Luther, Tyndale eschewed the Latinized ecclesiastical terms in favor of those applicable to his readers: repent instead of do penance; congregation rather than church; Savior or elder in the place of priest; and love over charity for the Greek agape.

    The Bible Translation That Rocked the World by Henry Zecher
Here is a look at the Tyndale version of four verses where 'propitiation' occurs in the KJV.

    whom God hath made a seate of mercy thorow faith in his bloud to shewe ye rightewesnes which before him is of valoure in yt he forgeveth ye synnes yt are passed which God dyd suffre Romans 3:25

    and he it is that obteyneth grace for oure synnes: not for oure synnes only: but also for the synnes of all the worlde. 1 John 2:2

    Herin is love not that we loved god but that he loved vs and sent his sonne to make agrement for oure sinnes. 1 John 4:10

    Wherfore in all thynges it became him to be made lyke vnto his brethre that he myght be mercifull and a faythfull hye preste in thynges concernynge god for to pourge the peoples synnes Hebrews 2:17
It is worth considering that the Tyndale translation had no clear and consistent word for propitiation, and the Luther Bible does not teach 'adoption of sons'. And yet, the Reformation was based on these Bibles. I have heard preachers and theologians discuss the inadequacies of a Bible that does not contain the expressions 'propitiation' or 'adoption of sons'. I am convinced that these omissions were deliberate on the part of the translators as they wished to communicate the gospel in the language of their day, not coin new and difficult theological terminology.

There is an ahistoric notion that Bible translations have progressed from more literal to less literal over the centuries. In my opinion, other influences and pressures played a more significant role. It is not a matter of unidirectional development or single faceted analysis.

So in response to the question of why we might appear to be against traditional "literal" translations of the Bible, my question is what is a traditional translation? After that one could look at whether 'traditional' is in any way equivalent to literal or not, and then what the relation is between older so-called literal translations, and modern so-called literal translations, what is the value of a literal translation, and so on.

If I were to make a wild guess, I would suggest that emphasis on 'literal' translations came into vogue in the 19th century along with the shift of the locus of literacy from public to private space, from church to home. Any thoughts?


At Fri Apr 28, 07:47:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Over the last 12 months as I started my studies on Bible translations I often have noticed topics like this one. There is a perceptible shift (albeit not a large one) from common vernacular Dynamism (early English and German) to an emphasis on literal equality as well as literary quality (KJV, Geneva to an extant, now the NASB, etc.) and now we feel like we are moving towards a somewhat more dynamic process once again. I do believe that the shift this time is much more dramatic towards the dynamic end, but the sheer volume of English speaking peoples around the globe necessitates this in my opinion. The desire to remain accurate should override most considerations on the dynamic vs. literal scale, and both the "essentially" (terrible blanket term... essentially is like saying, "Meh, pretty much...". As a guiding principle for a translation they may as well have called it "essentially not dynamic, but still frequently so...")literal and the dynamic translations have the capability to do this.

However, I have to say it, but there does seem to be a gratuitous amount of translations at this moment, some so close in a majority of their renderings that it begs the question, "How many do we really need?" English is a hotbed for translations, partially, in my opinion, because a good percentage of the english speaking world has more per capita income. There are many languages that have only one substandard translation (which is frequently from an english translation, into the common langauge, not from the host language, "OUCH!" should suffice as a comment), or no translation at all. I find this to be unfortunate.

At Fri Apr 28, 08:03:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

It is late for me, so I will not say much (more later). But just something interesting - Dr. Robert L. Thomas wrote in his booklet "An Introductory Guide For Choosing English Bible Translations" that, "it has been estimated that ninety-two percent of the King James New Testament is still the work of William Tyndale, even after revisions represented in Matthew's Bible, the Great Bible, and the Bishops' Bible."



At Fri Apr 28, 02:01:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Since I've been leading the charge recently against literal translations, I should probably comment here. I'm for accuracy in translation. I think we're overly influenced by theology, tradition, and myths about language, and fail to see what the text actually says.

By accuracy I mean that the translation should both get the intention of the communication right and strike us the same way that it struck Greek speakers in the Roman era. (Some day I'll get brave and talk about γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν.)

I'm also bothered by the deep philosophical inconsistencies implicit in the traditional arguments for sticking close to the structure and wording of the original. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to show what those inconsistencies are.

Finally, my posts have been intended to re-awaken for Bible translators the thing that philologists know, but which Bible translation seems to have forgotten. Take the most care with that which looks straightforward. Therein lie the most dangers.

Again, I'm for primacy of the text and accuracy in translation.

At Fri Apr 28, 05:14:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I am with you Richard. I am particularly distressed by the amount of misinformation and bias.

it has been estimated that ninety-two percent of the King James New Testament is still the work of William Tyndale

and most of the arguing in Bible translation is over a very small portion of the text. But still it has engendered prejudice and criticism.

I don't promote any particular translation, or even the need for multiple translations.

For many years people have asked me which version I would recommend and for years I have simply shrugged my shoulders and said that it didn't really matter one way or another, there wasn't much difference. But now that it has become an issue, it is time to speak a word of reason.

Naturally, I don't like to see a bias against women, but that actually affects a very small number of verses. Personally I couldn't care less which pronouns are used.

However, as a women, reading the TNIV, with 'brothers and sisters' yes, it does read better for me.

It is important to realize that while we are talking about English Bibles, we are trying the contribute toward an ethic of Bible translation that can be applied to other languages.

At Sat Apr 29, 06:12:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Regarding the 92% usage of Tyndale by the KJV:

The question is not so much how much of the text did they use as it is which way did they move and how far. I think two further items of interest might be helpful.

First, let me illustrate my point by taking the Greek NT. 92% of the Greek NT is completely composed of words used 10 or more times and an additional 3 words used 9 times. It's 1129 unique words out of 5390 words. The neat thing about this is one only needs to learn about 1100 Greek words and then, along with getting a feel for how the Greek grammar works, one will be able to read over 90% of the Greek NT. It only makes sense, once you pause to think about it, that the considerable bulk of words used in texts will be composed of the most common words.

Second, I've read parts of John Locke's essay dealing with the so called "blank slate" idea written in the late 1600's. The interesting thing is that in the introduction he offers one of those "I don't make an apology" apologies. He states there that he has written to the common person--he's written at their level. He did that on purpose, even though it went against the common practice.

What is so fascinating is the essay is still quite difficult to read. And yet the KJV, written at approximately the same time, is relatively easy by comparison. So, I conclude that the KJV translators made quite a bit of effort to render the translation in the language of the people. I think they were helped to a very considerable degree by Tyndale; but, it is still quite obvious when interpreted within the context of that time, the KJV translators wanted the Bible to be in the language of the common person.

I wonder if anyone has taken the 8% and analyzed it. I would think this would make a good dissertation topic and would give insight into the factors influencing the KJV translation decisions.

At Tue May 02, 06:23:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

"...most of the arguing in Bible translation is over a very small portion of the text"

On an extreme note:
Do you think that 92% of "The Message" is still the work of William Tyndale

On a less extreme note:
It would be interesting to see how much of the NIV is still the work of William Tyndale

At Fri May 12, 07:16:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Look at the Septuagint for a variety of translations philosophies across the whole OT. Some of the renderings are what some people call more literal, and others are not. Some parts translate metaphors as metaphors, and others translate the sense. It's a little more complicated than we'd like, because we don't have the Hebrew texts that they took it from, and some of those seem to be different from anything extant, but it's clear that there are different translation philosophies across the LXX.

Minor quibble: 'repent' and 'penance' are both Latinate terms, indeed from the very same Latin root. To remove that, you'd need to say something like "turning away".


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