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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Evaluating standard English in "standard" Bibles

The last few days I have been evaluating the degree to which English Bibles which have the word "standard" in their title have standard English wordings. I include the NIV because it has become a standard Bible for evangelicals, even though it does not have the word "standard" in its title. I am compiling a new spreadsheet for this latest research. The results are interesting. You can access the new spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel format or HTML format if you do not have an Excel viewer. So far, examples in the spreadsheet come only from the New Testament. This was done at the request of one of the translation teams which does not yet have the Old Testament translation completed.

I should note that the word "standard" in the title of an English Bible does not necessarily refer to standard English. It has been pointed out that the word standard in a title, instead, refers to the fact that those who produced that version desire for it to become a standard version. That is, they desire it to sell well and be used as a pulpit and pew Bible for many congregations.

Sometimes people wonder what the term "standard English" refers to. Here is how I define standard English at the beginning of my new spreadsheet:
By "standard English," we refer to English wordings which are considered grammatical and appropriate by English composition teachers, editors, stylists, authors, and many others who care about good quality English.
And there are, of course, different dialects of standard English, including standard dialects of Australian English, British English, Canadian English, American English, etc. The main point is that a standard dialect is one which is held in high regard by a majority of the speakers of that dialect. It is not composed of colloquialisms or time-limited slang.

After evaluation of 57 examples, here are the percentages for the Bible versions studied:
12.3% KJV
5.3% ASV
31.6% RSV
31.6% ESV
31.6% NRSV
26.3% NASB95
71.4% NIV
50.9% HCSB
91.2% ISV
Each of these versions would, I believe, be considered to be in the "literal" or "essentially literal" category. I was rather startled to see how high the ISV ranks in this category of Bible versions. But I'm always pleased whenever I see a higher percentage of standard English within a translation. Such a translation reads more smoothly for me. I enjoy using such a version much more than I do one which does not have nearly as much standard English. At this point in my research it appears that the ISV is demonstrating that is possible to pay meticulous attention to exegetical accuracy while also wording a translation in standard English. I have longed for such a combination in an English Bible version. I want to be able to trust a version for accuracy as well as enjoy it without experiencing very many literary bumps as I read.

This latest research has been quite time-consuming. I justified it to myself because I had a lull in my own translation consultant work. Now that lull has come to an end and I need to focus on my regular work again. And tomorrow Elena and I will fly to Montana for the dedication of the Bible translation we've had the privilege to help with since 1975.

In the near future I do hope to add another section to this spreadsheet evaluating degree of standard English for the same examples for Bible versions which are more idiomatic on the continuum between literal and idiomatic translations. I also want to add the TNIV, so we can compare its results with that of the NIV. And I will continue to add more examples to the spreadsheet. I also want to do a parallel spreadsheet for the Old Testament.

Your comments are welcome on specific examples within the spreadsheet. Also, please feel free to suggest other examples of Bible passages which would merit evaluation for whether or not they are worded in standard English.

UPDATE (Jan. 25): I have continued to work more on the spreadsheet. There are now 73 examples which you can access at the same Internet addresses given above. The ISV team has been revising their translation, so there are changes to ISV wordings and ISV percentage of standard English. If you have time, I would encourage you to study individual examples within the spreadsheet to try to see what the translation issue is. Remember, a translation which is written in standard English can be just as accurate as one which is not, if not more so, because standard English communicates meaning better. Non-standard English often leaves us with lack of clarity when the biblical text was clear. I have tried not to include examples where the biblical text is "ambiguous", as least as we analyze it from our perspective. I have also tried to include examples where the context of the wording studied does not affect whether or not that wording is standard English or not. The question is not whether or not anyone, especially those who are biblically literate, can get meaning from non-standard wordings. The question in this particular study is simply whether or not that wording is standard English. My observation has been that those who speak only standard dialects of English as well as those who are also fluent in church dialects of English understand Bible translations more accurately and clearly when they are worded in standard English. And for those of us who enjoy reading good literature, there is an added esthetic element: it is a greater pleasure to read anything written in standard English. Finally, standard English does not prevent anyone from using vivid idioms and other figures of speech. Standard English is chock full (!) of gobs (!) of figurative expressions.


At Wed Jan 24, 01:39:00 PM, Blogger jps said...

I always like to look at John 3:16 in a translation. It seems that most translations follow the KJV without even consciously thinking about it...


At Thu Jan 25, 07:45:00 AM, Blogger Michael W. Kruse said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing this research.

At Sat Jan 27, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, while I certainly appreciate your work on this, your comparative figures can hardly be considered accurate if you allow one set of translators to revise their wordings on the basis of your results! Of course that is good if they are improving their translation, but if they are doing so preferentially in the sample of places which you have selected as potential problems, your survey is becoming biassed. Of course, as I am sure they are aware, they need to ensure that these kinds of issues are addressed consistently and systematically right through their translation.


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