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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Lord is my shepherd; I do not want him.

I memorized Psalm 23 from the KJV when I was a child. Most of you know its familiar beginning:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
We know of a man who thought he understood those English words. He said they meant this:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I do not want him.
Can you see how someone might get that understanding from use of the word "want" in the KJV and more recent English versions which have the same wording (RSV, NRSV, ESV, NASB)? Such a person only understands that the word "want" means to desire something. They do not understand the obsolescing meaning of being in need of something.

I find the following translations of Psalm 23:1 accurate, clear, natural, and meaningful in my dialect of English:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I have everything I need. (NCV, TEV, NLT)

The LORD is my shepherd.
I am never in need. (GW)

You, LORD, are my shepherd.
I will never be in need. (CEV)
I personally find wordings with semantic (not syntactic) double negatives more difficult to process mentally. The words "lack" and "nothing" are both semantically negative. So even though the following translations use no older English, they do not have as much immediate impact on me because the extra negative requires more cognitive processing time:
THE LORD is my shepherd;
I lack for nothing. (REB)

The LORD is my shepherd,
I lack nothing. (NET, TNIV)

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want. (NIV)

The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack. (HCSB)
Please note: I am not at all suggesting there is anything wrong with the immediately preceding wordings. I am only telling about the added cognitive processing complexity that they present for me. Your mileage may vary! For some people, using a wording that comes as close as possible to that of the KJV while still being in contemporary English has greater literary beauty. I respect that. Literary beauty is in the eye of the beholder (and some beholders have beautiful eyes!).

For me, Scripture speaks most clearly and powerfully to me when the words used in a translation are in common usage in my own dialect. This does not mean that the words must be colloquial or street language. It should mean that the meanings of words used in a translation are usually the primary meanings that those words have in my dialect.

How about you? Have you ever experienced that feeling of "Eureka! Oh, that's what the Bible verse means!", when you have read some passage expressed in good quality, respected contemporary English? Has your heart been stirred as hearts of Bibleless peoples around the world are stirred when they hear or read the Bible for the first time in their own language?

Perhaps your own heart is best stirred when using a Bible version that uses an older form of English. But if you were to conduct a Bible study for friends in your neighborhood, how do you think they would respond to such older English?


At Tue Jul 18, 05:15:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

There's nothing I don't like about this subject. Thanks for a great post.

There must be some rhetorical advantage in using "semantic double negatives." It feels different to say, "Nothing is impossible with God" versus "God can do anything." Perhaps double negatives are more forceful through hyperbole.

At Tue Jul 18, 07:07:00 PM, Blogger yuckabuck said...

I agree with lingamish on this one. I enjoyed some of the "semantic double negatives" renderings, especially the "I lack nothing" of the REB. As I thought about it, I realized that Wayne was right, and that I was adding an extra cognitive step to my reading of the verse, which was why it struck me as more forceful (to use lingamish's wording). Hearing "I lack...." sets you up to hear what specific things the person is lacking (eg. food, water, a BMW. etc.). But when the answer comes back as "nothing," it takes a moment for your brain to register that lacking nothing means having everything (meaning everything necessary, but not necessarily a BMW).

Great post!

At Tue Jul 18, 07:38:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I agree with both of you, Lingamish and Yuckabuck. There is a greater rhetorical impact with the double semantic negatives which is lost in the more direct wordings. Perhaps the lesson from this is that matters of register (social level of language), literary style, rhetorical beauty, etc. must all be taken into consideration during translation and balanced against the needs (um, what is wanting!) of any specific target audience. There is nothing wrong with using semantic double negatives (and many linguists would say there is nothing wrong, per se, with using syntactic double negatives--we just need to be aware of how they impact people when we used them. I don't never use such double negatives in more formal language which I would expect to be in a Bible translation).

Not everyone can handle higher registers of language and more complex syntax as well as others can. So there is a place for different kinds of Bible translations written in different registers. And we sure(ly) know there are plenty of versions which potentially can fill different social niches.

Thanks for your helpful comments.

At Wed Jul 19, 12:08:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Wed Jul 19, 11:09:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

I remember reading years ago that because Psalm 23 and John 3:16 are the texts that people look at first when a new translation is released, many translators have been reluctant to change them. What could be worse translation than "valley of the shadow of death" but it still remains in modern translations such as the NIV, NKJV, NASB95, and ESV.

At Thu Jul 20, 11:11:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

On the Psalm 23 thing, it appears that translations (or translators) don't seem to be exactly agreed on what it should say in English. At least, how it should be rendered anyhow. 'Causin' there be lots'a different renderin's.

Pretty much across the board, if they didn't retain the KJV feeling, they just shot for something else.

At Sat Jul 22, 02:06:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

anonymous wrote:

"CEV is to be especially condemned (because it deliberately chooses "will" when "shall" is more accurate and equally accessible.)"

Given the goals of the CEV and my own intuition regarding the word "shall", I have to disagree with that statement. Shall is not used in modern English except in fossilized expressions like "We shall see" and even in that case it is consciously archaic.

I think what you're getting at is that "I will never be in need" is a simple future and maybe what your hoping for is a more subjunctive mode to the verb.

Considering that the psalm depicts a metaphorical scene of contentment and protection I would have expected CEV to say something like "I have everything I need."


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