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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bible translation and stylists

In the preceding post, by Peter, there was debate whether stylists had some input to the NIV. Some Bible translation teams include members whose expertise is in English style. This is good, in my opinion. Stylists should never be able to make revisions to a translation text so that it becomes inaccurate. But stylists can work with exegetes so that the English in a translation is of better quality than what which many exegetes produce. Greek professor Dan Wallace, a key member of the NET Bible translation team has noted:
... since those responsible for this new translation [NET Bible] are primarily exegetes, our perspective is often so entrenched in the first-century world that we are blind as to how the English reader would look at the text today. Exegetes tend to produce a wooden translation without realizing it.
Of course, not all stylists will help produce the same kind of English. A translation team needs to include stylists who produce language of the audience for which that translation is targeted. The stylists who worked on the NLT seem to have been fairly sensitive to current English, although the NLT is less idiomatic than its successor, the Living Bible.

Dr. Leland Ryken is a longtime professor of English at Wheaton College. He has taught many Wheaton students about the literary features of the Bible. Dr. Ryken personally prefers Bibles to be more literal than can typically be produced using only natural, contemporary English language forms. He has written expressing his view that more "dynamic equivalent" Bibles such as the NIV and TEV do not adequately capture the literary features of the Biblical languages. Dr. Ryken was an appropriate stylist for the ESV translation team since that team specifically wished to use a kind of English ("essentially literal") which "stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium." The ESV maintains the Tyndale-KJV literary tradition with the language updated enough so that many of its users can access the translation more easily than they could the Tyndale or KJV translations.

English Bibles, whether by design or not, are targeted for certain audiences. We can tell from observation of the language of an English version whether it is targeted toward people who understand theological terms traditionally used in English Bibles, such as "sanctification, "redemption," "repent," "flesh," "propitiation," etc. We can tell from the language used whether a Bible can be understood by people who are not part of a faith community. We can tell whether or not a translation team believed that only current natural English language forms should be used in a translation to be used by English speakers today.

No single Bible fits all audiences today. Some versions such as the TEV (GNT), CEV, NCV, GW, and NLT are better suited for those who are not familiar with church language. Others, such as the ESV, NASB, and NKJV are better suited for those who wish to do detailed studies of biblical words. Others such as the NIV, TNIV, NEB, NRSV, NJB, and NET Bible are positioned somewhere in the middle, with potential usage by non-churched people as well as those who wish to use their Bibles for more detailed study.

Stylists with different literary preferences help a translation team produce translations which fit the audiences they most wish to reach.

17 Comments:

At Fri Sep 15, 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

I'm not certain, but it seems to me that some of the problem here comes from the word "stylist" which may evoke the idea of decoration or frills.

I would think that experts in comprehending the source language, the traditional member of a Bible translation team, and experts in expressing that meaning in the receptor language would have close to an equal value.

I would see it as a matter of teamwork, and necessary teamwork.

 
At Fri Sep 15, 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Henry said:

I would see it as a matter of teamwork, and necessary teamwork.

Absolutely! For the best translations, there must be one or more individuals who can revise the wordings of exegetes that that they are in good quality English. It is not a matter of adding frills. Such revision is an essential part of the translation process. Those who do this work on a translation team have not always been valued as much as they should be. And it has often been the case that the need for stylistic input has not been valued. An accurate translation that is unnatural is not an adequate translation, nor is a natural translation that is inadequate. Definitely there must be teamwork to bring both exegetical accuracy and English literary quality to a translation.

Thanks for making it clear, Henry, that this part of translation is not just "frosting on the cake".

 
At Fri Sep 15, 02:35:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Some versions such as the TEV (GNT), CEV, NCV, GW, and NLT are better suited for those who are not familiar with church language.

And Children or English Second Language. Considering the incredibly low reading level requirements for a few of those translations (a reading level completely foreign to the original author, I dare say they wrote them at a somewhat "higher" level).This is just opinion, of course.

Others, such as the ESV, NASB, and NKJV are better suited for those who wish to do detailed studies of biblical words.

Although there are better English translations for word studies. Analytical Literal Translation, Young's Literal Translation, and The Concordant Version. I've heard the LITV may be useful for word studies as well, I have no idea personally.

Others such as the NIV, TNIV, NEB, NRSV, NJB, and NET Bible are positioned somewhere in the middle...

It may be problematic to place the NRSV with these translations as it is mostly literal (this would be a subjective call dependant upon which criteria you use). I would say that the NRSV and NET are a good solid shade more literal (in general) than the T/NIV, NEB/REB, N/JB. And that the NRSV is then a shade more literal (in general, once again) than the NET.

We have lots of "non-Churched" oriented Bible translations (and only a few principle good ones IMHO), are there any "non-Churched" translations of Buddhist writings, Koran, etc?

Here is an interesting question I would deposit to the comments section: What place should "Universal Appeal" play in translation of religious texts?

 
At Sat Sep 16, 02:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I note that the "14 literary critics" are in fact 14 "Literary Critics and Other Consultants", and they apparently include all who have worked in any of those capacities from 1965 to the present, ove 40 years. I don't know where you get the suggestion that NIV came from one of your "bad, big 100 person committees"; this same web page makes it clear that the translation committee consisted of 15 people. I agree that they haven't produced a translation with a high literary quality. But that was probably not their intention.

I am glad to see from you at least some faint praise of TNIV!

I can agree that "most modern bible scholars don't know how to write". But I do wonder if you are using any kind of objective criteria in your claims that Tyndale and KJV are literarily much superior. Could this in fact be simply because KJV, and Shakespeare, have for generations been presented as and presupposed to be the pinnacles of English literary quality, to the extent that they have now become so more or less by definition, at least the definition that you and others hold to? The problem is that the majority of the current generation, to the extent that they have any criteria of literary excellence, have very different ones, ones which are by no means so favourable to KJV and opposed to the kind of style found in NIV.

Wayne and Henry, I agree with you about the importance of teamwork. This implies that literary stylists need to be part of the translation team and working with the translators from the start, not, as alleged about NIV, to be brought in as a final stage after the translators have largely completed their work. I think that's what you mean, but I wanted to make the point explicitly.

 
At Sat Sep 16, 06:17:00 AM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

Peter,

I agree that the stylists need to be in from the start, but more importantly, I think that both source language experts and receptor language experts need to participate in forming the final product.

We emphasize the source language experts, possibly because we see their training as more difficult or think they are rarer. I can't find it here, but someone here made the comment that the original language experts had to have the final say. I disagree. I think it's a case of two yesses, or one no--work it until it becomes two yesses.

Anon:

I will avoid spewing invective, but I will be direct. I tire of "literary correctness" advocates who have some specific idea of what good literature is, to which they expect the rest of us to bow. In general, that simply amounts to adding together what they read when they were in school with a few things that are familiar to them.

Bluntly, the KJV is good literature because a bunch of people think it is, and for the most part they think it is because they are familiar with it.

In classes on Bible translations that I offer in churches, I will frequently encounter this divide. There are some older members who would like the KJV read for the scripture reading because "it's so beautiful." Younger or newer members want something they can understand, but they also have standards for beauty.

Literary standards appear to me to be much like worship traditions in church. Whatever happened when you were young becomes the standard by which everyone else should live. Some of the rest of us are not nearly so excited by that. I'd put the REB or NJB up against the KJV for literary quality any day, but that is just my preference.

Until I see a literary critic provide a credible set of standards for what is "good" literature as opposed to "bad" literature (none of this "I know it when I see it" stuff), and then apply that set of standards to the KJV and all modern versions objectively, discovering that the KJV has some esoteric "literary quality" I'm still going to consider all these claims of the KJV being the high point as simply individual taste proclaimed as literary standards.

 
At Sat Sep 16, 06:26:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

In the Nyungwe translation project there is a review stage in which the translation leaves the translators and is looked at by church representatives. Most of what they do is making sure it "sounds good." It is a helpful step because translators are often too close to the source text and their own version of it and thus have difficulty objectively evaluating their work. The suggestions always return to the translators for them to implement depending on their appropriateness. But the responsibility for changes rests ultimately on the translators. I can't imagine a translation project where "stylists" could come in after the translators have done all the hard work and just change things on a whim.

Sometimes a single "stylist" is used in African translations but given the emphasis on collaboration in Africa that doesn't happen often.

 
At Sat Sep 16, 11:35:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Anon said, ...I'm not sure I reconcile a belief in the Omnipotent Being if the Holy Writ was so shabby that it made the literary qualities of my local newspaper look good.

I assume there may be some truth to this. Many have believed in the Korans teachings merely because it is so beautifully written. The English translations won't be inspiring this kind of faith for belief by their literary quality any time soon.

Peter said, I don't know where you get the suggestion that NIV came from one of your "bad, big 100 person committees"; this same web page makes it clear that the translation committee consisted of 15 people. in regards to Anon's comments.

Good heavens! Did you actually graduate from any type of higher education school? That quote is appalling. Any of my professors would have written in nice big red letters on my paper "Your source and you appear to differ as to the meaning of these words!" Sarcasm by a professor is never good when writing grades on your paper. Ouch! Observe quotes carefully, or at least spare us worry by quoting far less often.

Peter also said, The problem is that the majority of the current generation, to the extent that they have any criteria of literary excellence, have very different ones, ones which are by no means so favourable to KJV and opposed to the kind of style found in NIV. in regard to Anons comments.

This must be why newspaper and magazine articles win writing awards nowadays. Perish the thought!

Henry said, Bluntly, the KJV is good literature because a bunch of people think it is, and for the most part they think it is because they are familiar with it.

By George! I think you got it (or unknowingly stumbled upon it). Perceived literary quality is typically subjective in popular culture. See, the scientific theory DOES actually work.

If the AV (or Tyndale, take your pick) can't be regarded as a "high point" in both translation history as well as general English history, I shudder to think what may be so regarded. Certainly nothing we have today, when English just keeps getting "flatter and flatter". Henry, looks like Luther's translation is no longer a milestone either as long as the literary quality critical canon that you assume is applied.

It must be said though, that some "actual" criteria for "measuring" the quality of a writing is, well, for lack of a better word, "inventive". We must all be on our guard.

 
At Sat Sep 16, 02:24:00 PM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

Anon:

You skip over our major disagreement in getting to a minor agreement. The key issue here is that I believe my preference for the REB and NJB is just that: a preference.

At some point I will get to the library and take a look at those books. They're not in my library, but what I'm really looking for is some short, clear, objective criteria on which one judges literary excellence. Otherwise talking about one version or another being best literarily is just an expression of taste.

matthew james mansini said:

Perceived literary quality is typically subjective in popular culture.

Is there a snob element in that statement? My observation is that literary quality is typically subjective in academic culture as well. And absent some kind of objective criteria, I'll maintain that opinion.

If the AV (or Tyndale, take your pick) can't be regarded as a "high point" in both translation history as well as general English history, I shudder to think what may be so regarded. Certainly nothing we have today, when English just keeps getting "flatter and flatter". Henry, looks like Luther's translation is no longer a milestone either as long as the literary quality critical canon that you assume is applied.

OK, but since you're so certain, by what criteria do you determine that the time of the KJV was a high point in translation and in general English history? Personally I see no particular reason to assume that the high point has come yet. Certainly it was a defining moment, as was Luther's translation for the German language. But "defining moment" doesn't make it the high point.

I'm not sure what "literary quality critical canon" you assume I'm applying. In fact, I'm asking both you and anonymous to state the canon by which you determine what is good or great literature. In return I see handwaving and outrage. In case you are unaware of this, your contempt for an opponent or an opposing position (such as you expressed to Peter Kirk) is not an argument against that position.

 
At Sat Sep 16, 06:59:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Henry said, Is there a snob element in that statement?

There is not.

My observation is that literary quality is typically subjective in academic culture as well.

I have no doubts about that!

But "defining moment" doesn't make it the high point.

No it doesn't. Then again, I claimed it was merely a high point ("If the AV (or Tyndale, take your pick) can't be regarded as a "high point" in both translation history...". Not what some would call the high point.

...your contempt for an opponent or an opposing position (such as you expressed to Peter Kirk) is not an argument against that position.

I don't feel that I actually harbor any contempt for our Peter (in fact I enjoy his thoughts quite a bit, although we, inevitably, do disagree occasionally). And I fail to see where I asserted that contempt was an allowable argument against his position.

I'm not sure if I know of any measurements by which you could qualify great literature (I personally, although some may know. Particularly those expressly in the field.). Perhaps great literature is that which has the greatest influence on other works, both written and oral? I'm not sure how far I would take that possibility, but it is certainly something that much of literature can attest to upon the accounts of "a few good books".

 
At Sun Sep 17, 04:42:00 AM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

Anon:


I must say, I think Mr. Neufeld's criticism of Mr. Mansini is out of line -- I am quite sure that Mr. Mansini, like I, admires Mr. Kirk for his tenacity, insight, and keen observations. Disagreement is not name-calling.


I regarded the following as contemptuous:


Good heavens! Did you actually graduate from any type of higher education school? That quote is appalling. . . .


I do not think the quote gets any better in the part I elided from it.

As for the remainder of your material on literature I will certainly look at those books as I have time, but your response makes me doubt even more that I will find what I have. You tell me the credentials of the author--an author with whom I am acquainted, and whom I respect--as though those should somehow make me think that if he thinks the KJV is good literature, then somehow I should. I assume that's not your argument, but that's the appearance.

You say:


In other words, these are not the views of cranks, but serious, universally recognized scholars. I would be quite interested in any well-respected scholar who argued that the KJV qua literature was not up to standard? Can anyone cite a reference? Perhaps a knighted English literature professor who feels that the KJV is just a piece of junk? I won't hold my breath waiting.


But I have never said that the KJV is just a piece of junk, or that it is not up to standard. I am questioning claims of superiority or claims that its language comes from some sort of high point of the English language. I have stated, in print, that I believe the KJV to be the greatest single achievement in Bible translation. But that doesn't make it inherently superior, today, to the REB, for example.


And indeed, please allow me to turn the tables. Perhaps Mr. Neusfeld could set forth your theory of aesthetics -- what makes good literature and good writing? Clearly it is something more than "I know what I like" because he stated a preference for the NJB and REB over the NIV as an absolute statement, rather than a relative statement.


Which part of this:


Some of the rest of us are not nearly so excited by that. I'd put the REB or NJB up against the KJV for literary quality any day, but that is just my preference.


. . . did you fail to understand?

It's just my preference. I am not putting forth anything I would claim was an objective theory of aesthetics, because I don't think such a thing is possible. I could systematize my preferences, which is what I think most literary critics do, but that still would not answer the case.

Let me use two of my favorites, for example. Literarily, I like the REB and the NJB, the REB being my preference everywhere except the Psalms and some other poetic sections. Yet in classes I regularly recommend the CEV, simply because I believe they are more likely to read and understand it. I could say that a mark of literary quality is that the work is read by, and reaches, its target audience, but that's also rather loose.

My claim is not that my aesthetics is better than yours. My claim is rather that it is difficult at best to judge literary quality. In the absence of knowledge of genre, intent, and audience, I think it's impossible.

 
At Sun Sep 17, 04:49:00 AM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

I don't feel that I actually harbor any contempt for our Peter (in fact I enjoy his thoughts quite a bit, although we, inevitably, do disagree occasionally). And I fail to see where I asserted that contempt was an allowable argument against his position.

Please see my note to anonymous above. It appeared contemptuous to me, and I saw no purpose other than to denigrate Peter's literary skills. I am sorry if I misconstrued it, but even rereading it after both anon's comments and yours it does not read like good discourse to me.

I'm not sure if I know of any measurements by which you could qualify great literature (I personally, although some may know. Particularly those expressly in the field.). Perhaps great literature is that which has the greatest influence on other works, both written and oral? I'm not sure how far I would take that possibility, but it is certainly something that much of literature can attest to upon the accounts of "a few good books".

I think that these standards will always be subjective, which is why I pour the whole saltshaker on those who pine for the days when the language was so much better. I have read numerous expositions claiming that was so, but none really provided a basis.

If I were to codify my own preferences, as they would be expressed in recommending literature to read, I would agree with your test of influence, which I would note, however, is simply another measure of popularity, in this case popularity amongst other writers. It is also a historical measure, so that if I pick up a book today, I can't compare it with a classic that's been around a couple of centuries.

But I've never felt the need to codify my preferences, because they are my preferences and I don't feel the need to impose them on anyone else.

In the field of Bible translation, I do suggest that churches consider the audience when choosing a Bible translation. The KJV or REB might be literarily beautiful, but if the congregation never reads either, what good is it? That's my focus in Bible translation is providing a text that will be read and understood.

 
At Sun Sep 17, 02:38:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Matthew, you wrote:

Good heavens! Did you actually graduate from any type of higher education school? That quote is appalling. Any of my professors would have written in nice big red letters on my paper "Your source and you appear to differ as to the meaning of these words!" Sarcasm by a professor is never good when writing grades on your paper. Ouch! Observe quotes carefully, or at least spare us worry by quoting far less often.

Matthew, in answer to your question, I graduated from the University of Cambridge (yes, the same one where Kermode was a professor, although English was not my subject), and from London Bible College. As for the rest of your remarks, I can extract little meaning from them except that you are being critical in a way which looks as if it might be offensive. If you want to criticise my use of language, please make sure you do so in clear language yourself. Anyway, to quote more fully, Anonymous wrote "And if committees are bad, big 100 person committees are worse: the NIV and ESV are among the most the most flagrant offenders", which certainly implies an understanding that NIV was translated by a big, bad 100 person committee - an understanding which he confirmed in a later comment when he wrote "my reading of Mr. Marlowe's web page is that the supervising committee was 15 people but they outsourced their work to 100 translators". So what on earth is your complaint about my quotation, or your justification for "Your source and you appear to differ as to the meaning of these words!"?

Anonymous wrote: "Disagreement is not name-calling". Indeed, that is true of his disagreement, and I respect the courteous way in which he disagrees. It is unfortunate when others, who are not my professors and so can claim no right to do so, resort to ad hominem sarcasm.

As for "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." - I'm afraid that in my opinion this is appalling English, far too long a sentence for good style (although I do understand it), a misplaced comma after "earth". And that's before I comment on the politics! But surely Ephesians 1:3-12 KJV is a longer sentence still. Meanwhile one day Jefferson's statement will need to be translated, as language change is a fact of life and it is very rare for anything to still be readable by a general population a millennium after it was written.

 
At Sun Sep 17, 04:48:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I just deleted a comment, I realize I am in very bad form. Excuse me.

I tried to repost it but it disappeared.

In short, there are several things going on in Jude. First, the Greek text varies considerably for the KJV and the NIV. The NIV is very close to the Greek text which it is based on.

The KJV not only uses a different base text, the Textus Receptus, but it also takes additional liberties with the word order.

I really am not up to discussing the English without the Greek also.

 
At Sun Sep 17, 07:09:00 PM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

anonymous:

Now I see why you referred me to the reference sources you did--you understood me to be asking for analysis of examples of places where the KJV is stylistically better than the NIV.

But that is not my interest. I have read many, many such comparisons. What I'm interested in is the basis on which I should prefer the text that you say has the better rhythm.

In one comparison you said, referring to the KJV:

Creating a powerful sweeping effect. This is gone (and jumbled) in the NIV: . . .

But my immediate question is this: On whom does this effect take place? I thought first that I would ask the question of whether the Greek text had the effect you mentioned, and I think I may write something about this passage on my own blog. But more importantly, my immediate thought was to ask people whether they felt this effect you're apparently trying to preserve.

Why is the rhythm of the KJV better? Why is the word order better? To me those questions are to be answered by whether the audience understands better, and whether that understanding reflects the meaning of the source text.

Further, while I appreciate the contents of the Declaration of Independence, I don't particularly think it is good style--today. I certainly wouldn't accept it in a student paper. But more importantly, the primary language of that document is English, albeit historical English. The options would be to translate it into current English or to learn to understand the form of English involved. In the case of the Bible, the KJV is already a translation. The equivalent would be a requirement that everyone learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, in order to properly understand the Bible, which is surely also a document from our heritage.

 
At Mon Sep 18, 03:19:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, thanks for your comments on the decline of American education. A lot of this can be matched here in England. So, we agree that typical Americans today are not very well educated and don't have a high reading level. We also agree that improvements in education would be good, although we might differ on the details.

I think where you and I differ is in how to address the problem in the context of Bible translation. Your approach to providing Bibles for typical Americans seems to be to give them a Bible in a high literary version of English, which they can't read at all easily, and expect them to struggle through it to come to a limited understanding. If they persist in the struggle, their level of English might improve (although only if the version they are using is in good English and modern English, which doesn't seem to be true of any American versions in your judgment!) On the other hand, many will not persist but will give up rather soon, as I'm sure can be demonstrated. So they will benefit neither educationally nor spiritually.

My approach is a very different one, and I think is the approach which Jesus would take. I would meet these typical people where they are by offering them a Bible which is in the kind of language which they understand well - even if it is not of a high literary quality. I would leave the issue of their literary and general education to others to work on, and make my highest priority their spiritual edification. But that is because I am primarily not an educator but a Christian worker.

 
At Wed Sep 20, 04:55:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, all I can say here is that I disagree with "elegance is as important as clarity, and pedagogical value follows hard on its heels". For me, communication of a clear and accurate message is the only thing of real importance, and elegance comes well below them in priority. As for pedagogical value outside specifically Christian teaching, I do not think that that should figure at all as a priority for translators. The Bible should not be used for home schooling except for specifically Christian teaching, and perhaps KJV and other historic versions have their place in the study of English literature - a subject in which I have very little interest.

 
At Mon Sep 25, 09:15:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Since we have almost no other work in biblical Hebrew to compare the Hebrew Bible with, I'm not sure what it means to say that "the Hebrew bible is a masterwork of literature... separate from any "message" or "story" one may abstract from it". If you mean that it is a milestone in the development of literature, you may well be right, although that might be partly because it has survived whereas many other ancient works have not. But in the absence (so far) of any objective criteria for assessing the quality of literature, I cannot assess the truth of otherwise of your claim that "the Hebrew bible is a masterwork of literature", except as your personal opinion.

But you share my scepticism about home schooling. I have no objection to children being taught from the Bible as long as they have adequate teaching also from other textbooks in every subject. To get on this world they need to understand even matters like evolution, and they cannot learn about that from the Bible.

As for my translation priorities, I would include "natural" and "acceptable to its target audience" with "clear" and "accurate". If the target audience were one with "high" literary standards, a suitable translation for it would follow those same standards. If the target audience is readers of tabloid newspapers and The Da Vinci Code, a suitable translation for them would have rather different stylistic priorities. And the latter target audience is much larger than the former.

 

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