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Monday, May 29, 2006

Key Issues Re: Bible Translation: critique #2

In this post I examine another claim in the essay "Key Issues Regarding Bible Translation" by Wayne Grudem and Jerry Thacker. Let's look at the last sentence of the first paragraph:
An essentially literal translation "strives to translate the exact words of the original-language text in a translation, but not in such a rigid way as to violate the normal rules of language and syntax" of the translation language.
It is appropriate to ask if Grudem and Thacker are right in their claim that the wording of an essentially literal translation does not:
"...violate the normal rules of language and syntax" of the translation language
Grudem and Thacker do not define how they are using the word "normal" in this sentence, but normally (!) we would understand the word "normal" to refer to something which conforms to a standard. I assume that Grudem and Thacker would agree with me that the normal rules of language and syntax of English would include those rules which fluent English speakers of some standard dialect of English regard as the usual, typical rules to follow to produce grammatical wordings.

I assume that Grudem and Thacker (as well as most other fluent speakers of some standard dialect of English) would agree with me that each of the following sentences break at least one "normal" rule of English grammar, at least in dialects of English which are considered to be "standard":
  1. The man are sleeping on the bench. (The rule of subject-verb number agreement is broken.)
  2. I is a man. (The rule accounting for the first person form of the verb "be" is broken.)
  3. The tree laughed at me. (A tree cannot laugh.)
  4. My father teacheded me how to throw a frisbee. (incorrect past tense of "teach"; I heard one of my grandchildren say "teacheded" a few days ago)
Now, do essentially literal translations of the Bible to English follow such normal rules of "language and syntax"? In general, yes, they do. But over the years as I have evaluated different English Bible versions I have often observed some translation wordings in literal and essentiallly literal translations which seem not to follow some normal rules of English.

In English it is possible to form a noun phrase which consists solely of the definite article "the" followed by an adjective. Such a noun phrase is typically called a substantive. Some examples of English substantives are:
the rich
the poor
the sick
the proud
If such a substantive is the subject of a sentence, does it require plural subject-verb agreement, singular subject-verb agreement, or can it have either? To check, read the following two sentences:
  1. The rich oppresses the poor.
  2. The rich oppress the poor.
Do both of these sentences sound grammatical to you? If only one of these sentences sounds grammatical to you, which one is it? For me, only #2 sounds grammatical. I have field tested this fairly extensively and most respondents agree with me that only #2 sounds grammatical. This means that in English a substantive phrase is considered plural. This seems to be a "normal" rule of English grammar. "The rich" would be equivalent to "rich people."

If it is true that such substantive phrases are only plural in English, as we are claiming, do literal and essentially literal Bible versions always follow this rule. In many cases they do, as in:
Job 5:16
So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth. (RSV; ESV)
So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth. (NRSV; HCSB)
Thus the poor have hope, and iniquity shuts its mouth. (NET)

Prov. 10:14
The wise lay up knowledge (NRSV; ESV)
The wise store up knowledge (HCSB)
But in a number of cases literal and essentially literal translations do not follow the English rule, as in:
Psalm 37:12
The wicked plots against the righteous (RSV; ESV; NASB)
The wicked schemes against the righteous (HCSB)

Prov. 11:7
When the wicked dies, his hope perishes (RSV)
When the wicked dies, his hope will perish (ESV)
When the wicked dies, his expectation comes to nothing (HCSB)

Prov. 11:8
The righteous is delivered out of trouble (KJV)
The righteous is delivered from trouble (RSV; ESV; NASB)
The righteous is rescued from trouble (HCSB)

Prov. 14:15
The simple believeth every word (KJV)
The simple believes everything (RSV; ESV)
The naive believes everything (NASB)

Prov. 21:18
The wicked is a ransom for the righteous (RSV; NRSV; NASB; ESV)

Prov. 22:3
The prudent sees the evil and hides himself (NASB)
The prudent sees danger and hides himself (ESV)

Ezek. 33:19
And when the wicked turns from his wickedness (RSV; ESV)
But when the wicked turns from his wickedness (NASB)
When the wicked turns from his wickedness (NET)
If our claim about the ungrammaticality of singular number agreement with English substantives is true, how might such ungrammatical examples have gotten through the editing and checking processes for essentially literal translations? My guess is that they did so because Biblical Hebrew, unlike English, allows for both plural and singular number agreement with substantives. Those who translate following an essentially literal approach sometimes follow the forms of the biblical languages so closely that they do not notice that they have created a translation wording which is not "normal" for the translation language, in this case, English.

It turns out that there are some simple solutions to translate singular Biblical Hebrew substantives to "normal" English. A substantive is a generic form which implicitly assumes a generic noun such as "person" or "persons" which is being modified by the adjective of the substantive. So, one solution is to make the implicit noun of a singular biblical substantive explicit. For example, if the Hebrew is literally "The rich oppresses the poor," if we make explicit an implicit noun modified by the adjective "rich," we can get the grammatical English, such as, "The rich person oppresses the poor." If the context is referring to an indefinite "man," a singular substantive with "man" as its implicit noun stated explicitly would be grammatical.

Is this good translation practice? Yes. As Susan recently posted, essentially literal translations often make some implicit words or meanings explicit, when they are needed to make the original biblical meaning clear or grammatical. Indeed, making an implicit noun explicit is exactly what some essentially literal translations have done in some passages, as in:
Prov. 10:14
Wise men lay up knowledge (RSV)
Wise men store up knowledge (NASB)

Prov. 11:8
The righteous person is delivered out of trouble (NET)
The result is translation which is both accurate and grammatical. Essentially literal translations can be even more grammatical if their translators pay as much attention to the rules of English as they do to details of the biblical languages they are translating. Both languages, the source language and the target language, must be fully honored and their rules observed and followed during the translation process. Better Bibles will result.

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At Mon May 29, 12:41:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Wayne, one "small" quibble, your example "3. The tree laughed at me. (A tree cannot laugh.) strikes me as not a statement about the rules of language, but a statement about other things (like perhaps biology or one's experience of the world). If my wife or friend said to me on a fine spring morning "The tree laughed at me!" I would probably have no trouble understanding what they meant...

I agree the personnification is unusual, but poets often use unusual personnifications. Indeed that is one mark of good poetry compared to poor poetry!

At Mon May 29, 08:43:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Tim, #3 is of a different character than the other 3 kinds of linguistic abnormality in my list. I wrestled with whether or not to include #3. I decided to include it because it is part of pragmatics, the interface between "pure" linguistics and context, include other "worlds". I could have labeled #3 more precisely, as not being of the same nature as the other 3 examples, but somehow, somewhere, I want to include such pragmatic examples among the linguistic (or paralinguistic) issues that need to be dealt with by Bible translators. Cross-linguistically the rules of lexicons of languages vary as to what kinds of statements, such as #3, are considered as "normal" or not. It brings us into the area of metaphor and how to translate it. Linguistics have been debating for a number of years whether or not to include phenomena from the interface between language and the real world (and other worlds). Some, like Chomsky, want autonomous linguistics, with autonomous modules which have no connection to the real world. Some of us, influenced by functional linguistics, object, and point out that much of language is inextricably linked to the real world. We can only objectify linguistic phenomena so far and then we run into problems created by the boundaries we have placed upon what is "pure" linguistics.

I admit, it's a difficult issue. As a poet myself, I recognize how valid sentences like #3 are in some contexts. But, to my mind, that fact that we can "break the rules" for poetic effect proves the value of the "normal" rules for a language.

Now, we need a lot of discussion about how all of this can (and, IMO, should) influence how we do Bible translation.

Thanks for your comment, Tim. It is perceptive and relevant.

At Tue May 30, 09:13:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Why is it that so many people get worked up about singular "they" in TNIV (see the comments on another recent posting) but there is so little interest in the highly non-standard English in ESV?

At Wed May 31, 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

My issue is - I think - slightly different, I don't think #3 "breaks the rules" there is a rule in most English-speaking cultures (and many other cultures to!) that "allows" us to speak of non-animate objects as if they were animate. So speaking of a car (on a cold day) I would not find it strange or wrong for someone to say: "It doesn't want to start this morning! This is as "wrong" as your example (Cars do not have feelings or motives!) but I've heard it many times, and accept it as "normal" English. Because it does obey the rules of personnification. Therefore for #3 to be "wrong" you would have to show how or why it "breaks the rules while "The car does not want to start this morning!" does not! Different pragmatics may allow you to do that but simply as a sample sentence I don't see how you can. Metaphor, personnification and the like are not some magic "poetic" add-on they ARE how English is spoken!

At Wed May 31, 01:32:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim said:

My issue is - I think - slightly different, I don't think #3 "breaks the rules" there is a rule in most English-speaking cultures (and many other cultures to!) that "allows" us to speak of non-animate objects as if they were animate.

Yes, I agree, Tim.

So speaking of a car (on a cold day) I would not find it strange or wrong for someone to say: "It doesn't want to start this morning!

I agree with this, also. It's perfectly good English for me.

This is as "wrong" as your example (Cars do not have feelings or motives!) but I've heard it many times, and accept it as "normal" English.

Yes, you're right. Cars don't have feelings and this is something like personification which is permitted in English and many other languages.

I guess where I would differ a bit, Tim, and it's not much (I really do understand what you are saying and agree with you, at some level)--is that in English for a car to "start" is extant. It is conventionalized. It has been used enough that no one questions its personification. And while it is theoretically possible to personify any inanimate thing in English, we don't do that, for the most part. There are certain things that we typically personify. As you correctly point out, we always have the potential for creating some new personification. If enough people personify some new item (such as "The ATM ate my credit card"), that particular personification becomes part of the items in the lexicon of English which are marked as already being personified.

There is no clear-cut distinction here between items which have been conventionalized for personification and those which have not. So we don't have as conventionalized rules as we do for syntax.

I think, however, that it is important to recognize personifications and all other semantic extensions which have been conventionalized in English, so that when we translate the Bible to English, our translations will sound as natural as possible. Far too many English Bibles use non-English wordings which creates some kind of barrier for people to understand the Bible as well as they could. And it also makes the Bible sound linguistically foreign when it is not necessary for it to sound that way. We already know that the Bible is foreign in the sense that it is describing to us customs from ancient cultures. So there is a natural cultural gap. But there does not need to be a linguistic gap, where we try to reflect the culture gap by using non-English linguistic forms.

Again, Tim, I understand what you are saying. I don't feel strongly about this matter. I agree with you that there is a difference between how deeply conventionalized syntactic and morphological rules of a language are and how deeply conventioned the more pragmatic rules are which specify which items in the culture/language are already personified and which are not yet, but could be.

At Fri Jun 02, 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

As usaul we are saying much the same thing...

Though, as you point out there are degrees to which particular personnifications and other non-literal language seem "natural". Probably some non-literal language in any text will need to be "flattened" to a literal language version to avoid an extremely "un-natural" feel to a translation.

My concern is that English is not a literal language, we use non-literal forms of speech all the time, as any translator from English to another language knows.

And a Bible translation that reduced everything to literal language would lose feel and flavour and in fact sound un-natural in English. So I don't think that your putative example "The tree laughed at me." is outside the "normal if poetic" range, any more than "the trees clap their hands" is!

Near the heart of poetry, or indeed any other artful writing, is unconventional use of metaphors and other non-literal language.

So I would be very cautious about "explaining" away non-conventional non-literal usages, though do take the point about avoiding a non-English sound and feel. In fact though I think it is precisely the conventionalised usages (from the source language) that need explaining away in a translation, and the unconventional ones need keeping!


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