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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Mother tongue translation

Translation professionals teach that translation into a language should only be done by a mother tongue speaker of that language. There are schools which teach translators for the United Nations, commercial translation services, and Bible translation how to translate well. The largest Bible translation organization, SIL, currently commits large amounts of time and resources training mother tongue speakers to translate the Bible accurately and naturally into their own languages.

Many of us have read appliance manuals or other materials which have not been translated (or composed) by mother tongue speakers of English. We quickly recognize various language oddities in what we are reading. Often we can understand what is meant by what is written, but we know, as mother tongue speakers of English, that we would not say or write it that way. It's just not the way that English expresses that idea.

Some English Bibles sound like they were translated by mother tongue speakers of English. I personally find that refreshing. My head and my heart respond better to English which follows the rules of grammar and lexicon for English. I understand more accurately and respond, spiritually and emotively, better to English which follows its standard patterns, as English is spoken and written by millions of its mother tongue speakers.

Sadly, many English Bibles sound like they were translated by individuals who are not native speakers of English. I find those Bibles more difficult to understand. They introduce ambiguities, lack of clarity, and other difficulties which were not part of the original biblical language texts.

Here are some Bible translation wordings which sound to me like they were written by mother tongue translators. In an attempt to help us evaluate the wordings objectively, I will not give the names of the versions or the Bible references.
What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!

Is that a joyous choir I hear? No, it is the Lord himself exulting over you in happy song.

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn't love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

Deacons must also be of good character. They must not be two-faced or addicted to alcohol.

When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence.
In contrast, here are some wordings which sound like they were not written by mother tongue translators:
Because of the ground that is dismayed, since there is no rain on the land, the farmers are ashamed; they cover their heads.

The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.

There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.

The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.

If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed.

And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy

If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.

For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.
Can you spot wordings in the second group of verses which do not sound quite like any kind of standard English? Can you mention other wordings in English Bibles which you have spotted which do not sound like they were translated by mother tongue speakers of English? Feel free to list them in the comments to this post.

Perhaps everyone who works on an English Bible translation team should be required to pass a test demonstrating that they are able to write as a mother tongue speaker of English. Or maybe they should be required to attend a course which trains mother tongue translators how to translate the Bible into their own language.

17 Comments:

At Tue Nov 21, 11:12:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Sadly, many translators of English Bible versions which don't sound like they have been translated by mother tongue speakers can in fact write like mother tongue speakers. This can be demonstrated from their other published works. For example, we could take the translation team for ESV, one of the worst culprits among recent English versions (although my preferred TNIV is not exempt), and look at the published writings of all or most of them. From the examples I have seen (at least Grudem, Poythress, Packer) they would be obviously strange in style (although in some cases the content might suggest that these people are not part of the modern world). But when these people are put to work on the Bible text, suddenly their idea of what is good English is thrown away. It's as if they don't care whether the text sounds natural.

 
At Tue Nov 21, 11:30:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn't love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.


I thought that was an interesting part of that verse was this: Mostly what God does is love you." - what does that mean?

And is that what the Biblical authors said?

When I read another translation and the same verse says something entirely different - "Live in love as Christ also loved us. He gave his life for us as an offering and sacrifice, a soothing aroma to God." (GW) I feel as though something is wrong...because the two texts are so different. Someone corrupted what was said - who can I trust?

-Nathan

 
At Tue Nov 21, 11:51:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan said:

When I read another translation and the same verse says something entirely different - "Live in love as Christ also loved us. He gave his life for us as an offering and sacrifice, a soothing aroma to God." (GW) I feel as though something is wrong...because the two texts are so different. Someone corrupted what was said - who can I trust?

You bring up a good point, Nathan. It has to do with accuracy, however, not naturalness which is the topic of this post. We need both for adequate translation. We have had and will continue to have other posts on translation accuracy. It's a critically important topic.

For now, though, we want to focus on why it is taught that translation should be done by mother tongue speakers of a language into which a translation is being made.

 
At Tue Nov 21, 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter said:

Sadly, many translators of English Bible versions which don't sound like they have been translated by mother tongue speakers can in fact write like mother tongue speakers.

So true, Peter. This is a case of what is called code-shifting or, perhaps also, diglossia. One of my passions is to try to help mother tongue translators translate according to the patterns of their language which they already know, and not to shift to patterns which do not naturally occur in their langauge.

We faced this issue with Cheyenne translators and I know it is faced in many areas around the world. I find it tragic that with the long history of Bible translation in English and all the translation resources available to English translators we still continue to publish English Bibles which sound like they were not translated by mother tongue speakers. Such translation add to the perception many people have that God is not intimately concerned with them. He's not on their wavelength. He doesn't speak their language. Christianity is foreign to them and always will be. Tragic!

 
At Tue Nov 21, 12:19:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I will try to bring what I said to some degree to the topic of this post - that because something was written in a different time and different culture, when it is translated there is danger is making something wholly the way an English writer would put it. There is danger of corrupting the text in that it wasn't written in English and can become subjective based on the limited understanding of the translator.

For instance, if a translator isn't trained theologically, he won't know that there is debate about the word τουτο in Ephesians 2:8 and what it refers to, grace, faith, salvation or all three.
So, the translator might choose, as many do, to make the verse clear and substitute what they think is the subject of that demonstrative adjective. And so remove the debate by their interpretation. So it might be easier to understand, but has therefore been corrupted because it does not reflect the original. Therefore, because of this interpretation, when they read another version and see that they made it to be "faith" rather than salvation a question will come into their mind as to the validity of this translation because of the freedom both translators felt in interpretation.

I am all for grammatical correctness - but I would say, many of the "smooth" translations tend to ignore the grammar of the Greek and fail to translate it into English - yes, there are many things in Greek grammar that cannot be done in English, but if something is simple past or an ongoing action, shouldn't the translator do their best to keep it that way in the English?

Languages are different, and it is a difficult process to translate, but if I translated some of the English Bible translations back into Greek, what I would have would not be even remotely close to the original.

It is standard process for many translation teams (not of the Bible, though it may be for them as well) to re-translate the translation back into the source language to check the translation - makes sense to me. But it seems, some translations of the Bible don't even look to that check.

-Nathan

 
At Tue Nov 21, 03:02:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Nathan wrote: "So, the translator might choose, as many do, to make the verse clear and substitute what they think is the subject of that demonstrative adjective. And so remove the debate by their interpretation. So it might be easier to understand, but has therefore been corrupted because it does not reflect the original."

So, are you suggesting that the translation should be ambiguous? But an ambiguous translation has been all the more corrupted, because what the original author wrote was clear and unambiguous, not mysterious and uncertain. The problem is a different one: we don't understand what was clear to the original author and audience, because we lack some important insight - or in a case like Ephesians 2:8, more probably because our ability to understand an otherwise clear passage has been distorted by our theological presuppositions about what it should mean.

In fact I don't see how it is ambiguous at all, in Greek. The neuter τοῦτο "this" cannot possibly refer back to the feminine words χάρις "grace" or πίστις "faith", and so must refer to the whole of the preceding sentence, in other words to salvation as a whole; people who argue otherwise are basing their arguments on theological presuppositions, or on ambiguous translations.

 
At Tue Nov 21, 04:18:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

You might be right Peter, to be honest, I don't know, but I have read arguments on both sides of the issue and it seems that good men are on both sides.

Can you suggest any articles on this topic?

-Nathan

 
At Tue Nov 21, 04:38:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Hi Peter,

Here's someone's blog that shows there are people on each side and cites A. T. Robertson against your comment that "The neuter τοῦτο 'this' cannot possibly refer back to the feminine" (so I guess it is possible...is it not? Acts 8:10, Jude 12, 2 Pet. 2:17, 1 Pet. 2:19, 1 Cor. 6:11, and 1 Cor. 10:6):
http://gomarus.wordpress.com/2006/09/12/saving-faith-a-gift-of-god/

Interesting....

-Nathan

 
At Tue Nov 21, 08:01:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

Peter,

I've been following this blog over the last few months because I'm interested in translation methodologies.

You implied that our translations should not be "distorted by our theological presuppositions about what it should mean." I can only assume that this means that we translate what is written, not what we think the text means.

However, after reading the book of Romans from the BLB, which seems to be well respected here, I can't believe that you really believe what you said. The translator of the BLB certainly did not translate what was written. Instead, it seems that the BLB is one big theological presupposition. How can the BLB be esteemed here and yet you encourage people to leave out their theological presuppositions?

Peace,

Jeremy

 
At Tue Nov 21, 09:25:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Wow, this is pretty amazing:

"In Mark 10:21, many translations of the Bible quote Jesus literally, saying that the rich man should sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor. I believe Jesus used the term everything here as a hyperbole for effect. But my target audience may not be aware of that and may miss Jesus’ point, considering what he said to be ridiculous or irresponsible. Even mature Christians would question the wisdom of giving all their possessions to the poor, so using the term everything may detract from Jesus’ point which, I believe, was that many people are reluctant to share even some of their possessions, wanting to keep them all for themselves. In my translation of Mark, I substituted the term some for everything to keep Jesus’ point in focus."

http://www.geocities.com/better_life_publications/betterlifebible.html

-Nathan

 
At Tue Nov 21, 10:20:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy asked:

How can the BLB be esteemed here and yet you encourage people to leave out their theological presuppositions?

Hi Jeremy,

I think I am probably the only contributor to BBB, other than Dan who is himself the BLB translator, who has commented on the BLB. If you will look back at my comments you will find that I address how well the BLB reads. I have mentioned that it may be the smoothest reading translation I have ever worked with. But I have also mentioned that I differ with the translator's theology which is found in the BLB. I don't think that will embarrass Dan that I say so. He is my dear friend. He and I have had deep, lengthy discussions sharing our differences over the theology in the BLB.

Every translation is a mix of a number of translation factors, including degree of accuracy, any theological bent or "bias," naturalness, intended audiences, etc. I have tried to be honest about each translation, as I have come to evaluate it. I am grateful for the various English Bibles that we have. They serve different purposes and different audiences. The BLB is a refreshing translation. If you ask Dan, he will be honest about his own theological journey. I understand his journey. Mine has been similar, but I have come to different conclusions on a couple of theological points. But he and I remain friends and respect each other a great deal.

I hope that this puts comments about the BLB in a clearer perspective than might have been communicated previously. Do feel free to communicate further with Dan about the BLB. He might even be willing to entertain direct questions for BBB posts about the BLB and his own theological conclusions which stand out in the BLB.

 
At Tue Nov 21, 10:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan said:

I believe Jesus used the term everything here as a hyperbole for effect.

Nathan, I'm really glad that you made these comments. I have been thinking lately about other hyperbole in the Bible. One that I've thought about is where Jesus tells people that they cannot follow him unless they hate father, mother, and other family members. How do we react to that when so many people assume that we are supposed to read the Bible literally? I think this is a very important question for Bible translation into any language, including English. I hope we can blog on it one of these days. Thanks for bringing it up.

 
At Tue Nov 21, 11:13:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Jeremy,

I can only assume that this means that we translate what is written, not what we think the text means.

I don't think there is an agreed upon translation policy on this blog. At least, no one has sent me one. I don't have one clear translation philosophy, I appreciate many different goals.

However, I am very in favour of there being a translation that simply translates what is written, and may therefore be ambiguous. I have blogged about this before, recommending the KJV as an example or model.

I truly wish we there was a contemporary version that was somewhat ambiguous in many places. (this is not a blog view, I don't think, but mine personally) I wish there was a translation that people of different faith communities could agree on. This is one of my main concerns. What are your thoughts on this? Do you have a recommendation? Which contemporary translations seem to have the least theological interpretation? Could it possibly be the NRSV?

But most important, a translation must be what it claims to be.

 
At Wed Nov 22, 01:44:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Nathan, I have not looked at the theological issues with Ephesians 2:8. However, the blog posting you referred me to confirms my suspicion that this interpretation started with Augustine, who knew almost no Greek and worked from a poor Latin translation, and was also theologically committed to the position that faith is purely a gift from God. As for A.T. Robertson's examples, they are almost all cases like "this (man) is an X", where X is a feminine noun, and of course you don't get gender agreement in this circumstance. Gomarus claims that "Examples may also be found in classical and koine Greek where neuter pronouns are used to refer to both masculine and feminine nouns." Well, I'm sure there are cases where genders have got mixed up, but not in Paul's writings. Gomarus also writes, "it is also generally true that a pronoun refers to the nearest antecedent or closest noun". Well, this is not generally true unless qualified with "which agrees with it in gender and number". I note that at this point even Calvin rejected Augustine's argument, presumably because he understood the Greek here properly. It would be interesting to see what the Greek patristic authors wrote here, because they would have an even better idea of what the Greek probably means.

 
At Wed Nov 22, 02:00:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

It seems that without intending to I have exposed some of the differences between the various BBB contributors.

While I appreciate Dan's Better Life Bible for its general approach and language, I don't agree with Dan on some of his interpretations - certainly not on Mark 10:21, which I think Jesus intended completely literally. He had left everything himself and called Peter and Andrew, James and John to do so, so that apparently they lived only on what they were given. The disciples were not even to carry food, bags or money, 6:8. In the same way he called the rich young man to leave everything and become one of his poor wandering disciples. That doesn't imply that it is God's call for everyone today, but that is not a reason to change Jesus' words for his own time.

I also disagree with Suzanne about ambiguities; I don't think a Bible should be ambiguous except in the rare places where the original was deliberately ambiguous. But actually I don't think there are very many ambiguities if the Greek is understood correctly, and not through the distorting lens of later theology. (Suzanne, I would be interested in your take as a Greek scholar on Ephesians 2:8: is there any real ambiguity here?) However, there may be expressions, such as "the love of God" in 1 John, which may appear to be ambiguous if analysed according to a strict model whereby a genitive must be either subjective or objective, but not if understood more broadly as "the God kind of love", "divine love" maybe, which includes God's love for us and our love for God and for others.

But it is OK that we disagree. The point of this blog is for discussion of issues, not for a group of us to expound a preconceived set of rules for Bible translation.

 
At Wed Nov 22, 09:57:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have been a little slow on the uptake here.

First, I disown entirely the epithet of Greek scholar. I consider my knowledge mediocre at best. It is only as good as it is, anyone can check the details.

Nathan,

I have just now read the post which you linked to, and followed all the quotations.

There is a fundamental difference between all of them and Eph. 2:8. In all the other cases, the neuter form came first, it preceded the following masculine or feminine noun. But in Eph. 2:8 the feminine 'faith' comes first, and then the neuter demonstrative follows. Or have I missed something.

On that basis alone, I can not see that there is any parallel in the grammar between the verses quoted (Acts 8:10, Jude 12, 2 Pet. 2:17, 1 Pet. 2:19, 1 Cor. 6:11, and 1 Cor. 10:6) and Eph. 2:8. I don't know why those verses were quoted as relevant.

I would certainly take it as the whole of salvation is a gift of God. I did not see any evidence for the notion that touto refers to 'faith'. However, I could be wrong. I just didnt see any argument to support that view in the post at Morning Coffee that you mentioned. Although scholars were qoted on both sides. Hmm.

 
At Fri Nov 24, 09:07:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy said...

Wayne,

Thanks for the clarifying post on this.

On another note, it would be helpful for BBB to define what is meant by a "translation".

Jeremy

 

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