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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Advantages of natural language Bible translation

There are many advantages for English Bible translators to translate using natural English. Typically, a high percentage of users of an English Bible version will be native speakers of some dialect of English. As speakers of that dialect, they usually speak and write using natural English syntax and lexical combinations.

If a Bible for such people is worded in natural English, it will communicate its meanings most effectively to such people. Cognitive scientists have recognized for years from scientific studies that various kinds of "noise" in a communication channel add to the complexity of understanding a message. Communicative "noise" can be anything which detracts from a natural linguistic exchange. It can be actual noise, perhaps dissonant music in the background which makes some people's minds, anyway, unable to focus well on a message. The more prevalent kind of noise experienced by English Bible users is dissonance that occurs because what they read is not written in their dialect of English. It takes greater mental effort and greater time to try to decode messages which are not in one's own dialect.

Notice how easily the following natural English wordings are processed by you, if you are a native speaker of some standard dialect of English:
  1. John is sick today.
  2. Should we shop for groceries after supper?
  3. Mary sprained her ankle this morning.
  4. I've been praying for you every day.
  5. Adam made love to his wife Eve.
  6. Finally, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on top of the temple.
  7. On the day of Pentecost all the Lord's followers were together in one place.
Now notice how much more time and energy is required to process unnatural English:
  1. John is experiencing illness today.
  2. Should we obtain that which can sustain us after we partake of our evening meal?
  3. I make petitions to God for you upon every remembrance of you.
  4. Adam knew his wife.
  5. In the end, the devil took Jesus into Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple.
  6. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.
  7. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
Natural language translations not only take less time and energy to process, but they actually communicate messages more accurately. There is less artificial ambiguity which you may have to wade through to try to figure out what message was intended.

If we use the older traditional and unnatural wording of "Adam knew his wife and she conceived," a high percentage of speakers of standard dialects of English will experience a mental blip on the word "know". That is not a natural, normal way of referring to the union of a man and woman that results in conception. If, on the other hand, we read either of the following:
  1. Adam made love to his wife Eve. She became pregnant
  2. Then Adam had intercourse with his wife, and she became pregnant.
there is no mental blip. I think every native speaker of a standard dialect of English understands immediately what they have read. The message comes through without "noise". They can concentrate on the message and not on any communicative "bumps" due to use of obsolete or other unnatural wordings for current, natural good quality English.

If we translate using natural language forms, we more clearly represent the kind of language which was used in most of the original biblical language texts. Those texts do not, on the whole, consist of language forms which came from a classical form of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Rather, on the whole, they were written using language forms which most people would have recognized as being within the range of common usage by most speakers of the language.

Translations which do not use natural language forms distort people's perception of the Bible. They can give people the idea that the Bible is about a distant God, a God who is out of touch with most of humanity, who does not speak their language. They give the idea that to be "spiritual" one needs to use some language or dialect other than their own. They communicate the impression that the Bible was written in a sacred language and that we probably should communicate that way also. But neither is true.

The wonder of the incarnation is that the sacred became fully clothed in ordinary humanity.

Others can experience that wonder most accurately and clearly if they hear about it with natural wordings of their own language. This doesn't mean resorting to slang or other colloquialisms. It doesn't mean dumbing down language. It simply means using language which is natural and good sounding to the most number of speakers of that language.

I like to read that kind of language. How about you?


At Thu Nov 30, 03:23:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

I like to read that kind of language. How about you?

I was given a NASB as a youth and have continued in that line of translation as an adult. It has been very difficult to adopt a "natural language" Bible translation out of fears that the "less literal" translation is less accurate. I guess their marketing message works!

Over the years, I managed to add a REB to my shelf. I enjoy reading it, but it isn't totally "natural and good sounding" to me due to its formal literary style and British idioms. I wrote in an Amazon review of the REB that it looks and feels like a book of high classic literature, which, in retrospect, has been just as inaccessible for *reading* as a word-for-word literal translation, if for different reasons.

I always dismissed my wife's NLT as a "watered down" Bible that somehow wasn't as true as my NASB ("hmm, that's nice, now let's see what the Bible really says..."). But I can't deny that it's easier to sit down with and just read, and for probably 99% of us, that's more than what we currently do. I like what I've read about the NLT2 on this website and others and will probably pick one up to read along with the HCSB that I'm currently trying out. If nothing else, using a NLT will give me a common "Bible language" to share with my wife as we participate in small group studies and personal devotionals. And that's a good thing!

(Aside: It helps that natural language Bible translation publishers such as Tyndale and Zondervan have done a remarkable job of providing their translations in a wide variety of accessible editions. Their marketing works too!)

At Thu Nov 30, 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I understand the complications of using the verb "to know" for "to have sex with", but the English translations don't carry the full meaning of "to know" as I understand the Hebrew has. For a common use or pew bible, I think your natural English translations are appropriate, but for a study or reference bible, I'd prefer the use of "to know".

At Thu Nov 30, 11:57:00 AM, Blogger daniel reed said...

Good post. It makes me think of the old days when they thought that koine Greek was a special, spiritual language.

It changed people's theology quite a bit to find that koine was common, "street" Greek at the time.

At Thu Nov 30, 02:29:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

You're winning me over, Wayne. :-)

I'm still going to stick, though, when I think a significant shade of meaning is lost for simplicity's sake, but everyone will differ on "significance."

At Thu Nov 30, 02:42:00 PM, Blogger Bill said...

I think the "bumps" are sometimes there to make us look more closely. For example, יָדַ֖ in Genesis 4:1 requires us, whatever language we speak, to wonder what kind of "knowing" this is.

When we do a concordance study for "know," and see Amos 3:2, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." We begin to understand "knowing" as a particular, personal, setting of love on the object.

Then, we are not confused by "foreknowledge," when we see it in the new testament.

Without the "bump," we lose some of our ability to let scripture interpret scripture.

As a teacher of English Bible studies for Chinese students, I do appreciate the advantages of having "current, natural good quality English," but for these doctrinally significant words, I would appreciate a footnote or marginal note showing that the underlying word is used and translated idiomatically.


At Thu Nov 30, 04:07:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I'm still going to stick, though, when I think a significant shade of meaning is lost for simplicity's sake, but everyone will differ on "significance."

Sticking is good, Codepoke. I do it quite a lot myself. I don't easily change my mind when it comes to serious issues relating to the Bible.

We just can't be a stick in the mud!


(Just a silly pun; no other meaning intended.)

At Thu Nov 30, 07:52:00 PM, Blogger Brian said...

it is common that those learning the languages often prefer the more literal translations because it reflects what they are learning. however, Rod Decker argues pretty well that as one grows in one's understanding of the languages there is the need to move from the more literal translations to the more 'natural reading' ones as wayne is arguing because it shows a growth in moving to a more natual understanding of how language works and how it should be tranalsted. So a new Greek student would like reading the NAS whereas a more learned one would probalby find delight in reading the TNIV or even the NLT. Make sense?

At Fri Dec 01, 01:38:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...


I like the point of your post. And you do well, as usual in defending your position.

And I find myself in agreement with you, I think essentially. If I am to err, especially in seeing people read the Bible, then I'd rather err on the side of someone reading a more free, natural translation, such as the CEV, over the more word for word, unnatural translation.

But I like something that while coming across at least for the most part, to me anyhow, as natural, yet honors tradition to some extent. I think that is biblical. But in doing so, we need to take pains to convey it in the most natural and clear language possible.

And, even though I know some sentences in original languages (even many) have wordings simply to express a point (like our "letting the cat out of the bag"- known by us older readers), I still want to see the more literal on some renderings. Such as: "Every time I remember you, I pray for you." Maybe that's just a way of saying I pray for your regularly. But maybe something can be learned by the precise wording of the orginal there.


At Fri Dec 01, 08:34:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ted said:

Such as: "Every time I remember you, I pray for you." Maybe that's just a way of saying I pray for your regularly. But maybe something can be learned by the precise wording of the orginal there.

Ted, I, also, think that "Every time I remember you, I pray for you" is natural English.

What I would not consider natural English would be "Upon every remembrance of you, I pray for you."

Did I understand you correctly?

At Fri Dec 01, 06:50:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Yeah. You're right, Wayne.

My complaint about some of the more natural in our language translations, is that, sometimes, in the attempt to say it the way we do, important elements can be lost.

My thought, as I was pondering this today- is- I think it's great to have both. For me, a translation like the TNIV. But also one like the CEV, or even the Message. So that, yes indeed, let's try to say it, the way we do, even if we do lose something that might matter in the original. But also let's hold on to a more literal translation, which I insist ought also to be natural- asap.

At Fri Dec 01, 08:03:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...


Thanks for this post. I've been chewing on this topic for a long time but haven't known how to articulate what I'm thinking.

You use a few technical terms in your post, such as "cognitive" and "processing" and "noise." Is this topic related to cognitive science or communication theory? Where can a person start who wants to learn more about this? I'm curious about how we actually measure processing difficulty of texts and how it affects comprehension. I think we all begin with an assumption like "Unnatural language is harder to understand." But quantifying that seems difficult. Also, it seems to me that proponents of more form-conscious translations are concerned about loss of meaning of the source language rather than intelligibility of the translation.

A hearty amen to the other comments about using a natural language translation for devotional use and a more literal translation for study. But I suspect that the concordance of terms like "to know" is less insightful than people think. If you'll forgive me for being slightly coarse, it would be like making connections between the expression "to get laid" and "the hen laid an egg."

At Sat Dec 02, 06:34:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I do realize that many "literal" renderings really don't shed much on meaning. Meaning is the crux of everything. And just because I say something a certain way, with a certain word, or words- doesn't necessarily shed light on the meaning.

I do think a translation like the TNIV does shed some of those Biblical sayings that would make no sense to us- like the clean teeth of the OT, meaning something like empty stomachs, or hunger.

At Tue Dec 05, 04:59:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirby said...

This post was chosen for the inaugural (and experimental) This Week in Early Writings.


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