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Friday, January 05, 2007

Accessibility in Bible translation

Today's post at the ESV Bible blog is on the important topic of accessibility in Bible translation, that is, to what extent should the language forms used in a Bible translation be understood by any particular audience? The blog post ends:
Do you use language understood by churchgoers (“grace,” “propitiation”) or by non-churchgoers (“kindness,” “sacrifice”)? Either choice will require explanation: in this example, you will need to define “grace” or explain how “kindness” doesn’t capture the full meaning of the Greek word.

There’s not necessarily one right answer for all circumstances.

I agree that there is "not necessarily one right answer for all circumstances". But I disagree that there are simply the two choices Stephen presented, namely, using church language (translationese, Biblish) in translation or the language of non-churchgoers.

I suggest that it would be better to study the kind of language used in the original texts of the Bible itself, and follow that kind of language as our example for translation. For instance, New Testament authors did not use a word like "grace" which was only understood by churchgoers. Instead, they used the Greek word charis which was commonly used by all Greek speakers.

Now, it may be that there is no single English word which fully captures all of the meaning components of charis, as we have come to understand the word theologically But charis was not simply a single word of Greek, with all of its meaning fully contained within that word in every context. No, the word charis had a core meaning having to do with favor. And then the riches of the nuances and all other meaning aspects of the word charis were built up in the minds of people as they used the word in various contexts. Unlike the claims of some, the word charis was not a technical term in the New Testament. It was an ordinary word used by ordinary Greek speakers. Theologians and Bible translators have turned it into a technical term by recognizing that it is a word used to express rich truths about how God treats people. And we have often assumed--incorrectly--that we need to use some technical (that is, jargon or nonstandard usage) word to capture all the riches of the Greek word charis. There is a linguistic fallacy in that reasoning which overlooks how ordinary words are used in language, including to convey wonderfully extraordinary concepts.

Charis was an ordinary word in Greek. It conveyed wonderful meaning about how God has favored people. There is no reason why English Bible translators cannot follow the lead of New Testament authors and use an ordinary, natural, well-known to both church-goers and non-churchgoers, word, or words, to express in English the meaning of Greek charis.

The same principles apply to any other words of the original biblical texts which we have turned into technical terms, including propitiation, atonement, mercy, flesh, predestination, trespass. Something special happened in my understanding of the Bible and application of it to my life when I first began to use Bibles written in my ordinary English language, rather than my church language.

I suggest that many churchgoers like myself would similarly experience a deeper, richer, fuller understanding of the Bible the more they used versions which were written in the same kind of language which the original biblical texts were written in. And think of the advantages that occur when churchgoers relate spiritual truths to non-churchgoers using the language that they each already know. Jesus set the example for us when he spoke to people, using language that both he and they understood. His audience didn't always understand what he meant by the ordinary words he used (as in his parables or when he told Nicodemus he needed to experience another birth), but they did understand the words he used.

Let's not use sacred language in English translations for words that were not part of sacred language in the original text. Let's keep our Bibles as accessible to our readers as the original biblical language texts were to their readers.


At Fri Jan 05, 06:39:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Let's keep our Bibles as accessible to our readers as the original biblical language texts were to their readers.

That's a fine argument. Let's take it all the way:

(1) The Christian Scriptures sometimes used elevated language (the prologue to Luke) and sometimes used Semiticized Greek that was alien to Gentile readers and sometimes more conventional (albeit inelegant) Koine. How can we reflect this in the text?

(2) The Masoretic text is often obscure, especially in Job, where large stretches of the text remain unknown to us. Indeed, any translation of Job which gives a clear meaning without qualification is certainly untrue to the original. The text of all the Hebrew Scriptures is ambiguous. Considerable evidence within Scripture itself and certainly in non-Biblical writings indicates that the text was understood as ambiguous at least as early as the Babylonian exile. Moreover, this exegesis is seen as critical to Biblical and Second Temple period exegesis. (See for example, James Kugel, The Bible as it was.) How can we reflect this in the translation?

(3) How do we treat Hapax Legoma in the Masoretic text? There are about 1500 of them. The meaning of some of them are obvious, but at least a third remain entirely obscure to us. I would argue that translating these without qualification is untrue to the text.

(4) One of the most distinctive features of the Hebrew Scriptures is their distinctive rhythm, alliteration, and assonance, which only a few translations have attempted to emulate (almost all of them are the KJV or pre-KJV translations.)

(5) The style of Hebrew used in the Masoretic text varies tremendously. To achieve the same effect in English, one would need to imagine an anthology that contains Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Allen Gisnberg all without translation or elucidation. How do we reflect this in translation?

(6) The Masorah contain numerous Kethiv-Qere that give alternate readings of the text. How do we reflect this in translation?

(7) Hebrew poetry is not written in metrical form. How do we reflect this in the text?

(8) Distinctive paragraphing and marks (for example, in the Song of the Sea) are found throughout the text. How do we reflect this in the text.

(9) Particularly in the most ancient parts of the Bible, grammar frequently deviates from any known standard. These grammatical deviations form the subject matter of the major part of Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch, for example. How do we reflect these grammatical deviations in the text?

Now, one can argue circularly -- that even the ancient parts of the Bible must have been understood by the contemporaries of those who originally wrote it down, but there is no evidence for this -- all ancient written commentary (including that within the Bible itself) points to the ambiguity of the text. Certainly, anyone who has read the footnotes in major contemporary scholarly translations (such as the NRSV and NJPS) will understand the problem.

In general, when I find people saying "the Bible was written in the language of the common person", I find that they are only thinking of the Greek Scriptures (and even those were written in varying styles -- Koine, elevated, and Semiticized Greek.)

Translation principles can be debated endlessly. However, if one asserts such a broad principle for translation, one should apply it equally to the Hebrew and Greek texts. The KJV translators certainly took this task on their shoulders; modern translations have largely relegated stylistic features and obscurity to footnotes.

At Fri Jan 05, 06:40:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

I meant to write hapax legomena above -- apologies.

At Fri Jan 05, 07:44:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

That's a fine argument. Let's take it all the way

And I'm glad that you did, Anon. I have always promoted the idea on this blog and elsewhere that we need to reflect differences in the biblical texts in our translations. I have no problem with anything that you have written. The problem I have is with those who claim that biblical language words like charis are technical terms and must therefor be translated as technical terms. But when we examine the usage of charis and a number of other purported technical terms in the biblical language texts themselves, we find that the terms are ordinary words, used essentially as they are extrabiblically. I still maintain the claim in my post, that we should not make the Bible less accessible in translation than it was in the original texts. I am *not* saying that there were parts of the original texts which were less accessible. Of course there were and we need to reflect that fact in translation. Thanks for your good comments.

At Sat Jan 06, 08:23:00 AM, Blogger Brian said...

Christian language is also called, "Christianese."

At Sat Jan 13, 07:54:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

I know it's Saturday afternoon, but I'm working. Really! And I just ran across this quote. It's not about bible translation, but all the same it made me think of this post of Wayne's, so I thought I'd add it to the comment thread:

"It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming -- as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God's peace with men and the coming of his kingdom."

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 299-300, cited by L.G. Jones, Embodying Forgiveness (Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 28-29.]

Bonhoeffer followed that by citing Jeremiah 33:9, a striking verse that nicely illustrates the problems of translating!

David Reimer


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