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Sunday, January 07, 2007

What's in a word?

Twice in the last few months I’ve written posts that touch on the emotional connections people feel towards their favorite Bible translations, once about dealing with the mental conflicts that arise between newer translations and the Scripture many Christians carry around in their heads and once about why it’s not good to have emotionally comforting translations for study

But here’s the problem. The emotional component in the translation debate is very large. But few will acknowledge it. Instead many feel the need to rationalize (or worse, theologize) their preferences. The debates about translations are carried on as if the very Truth of God’s Word were at stake. This approach leads otherwise rational people to say truly incredible things. (See Mark Driscoll’s apology for using the ESV in his church, and an excellent critique of his position by Henry Neufeld) I won’t rehash all those arguments, Henry has done a great job, but I want to emphasize one crucial point. Pastor Driscoll articulates a positon that seems to underlie much of the debate about contemporary translations.
If you change the wording, you’re tampering with God’s Word.
Nothing could be further from the truth. These are translations, after all. God’s Word was delivered in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, not in English and no one's saying anything about changing them.

The professor in me can’t resist the opportunity to give a little lesson in linguistics.

The root of the problem here is the view of the linguistic naïf that the meaning is in the words. Sorry, Virginia, this one isn't true. The meaning is not in the words. Hard to believe, but them's the facts. The meaning is not in the words. Most of the meaning we associate with a word is in what the word refers to. The component of meaning that the word brings is the “spin”. A word tells you how to look at the thing it refers to.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good, concise examples that show the difference in these components of meaning, so I pretty much need to use one that is PG-13. So if you’re easily offended by scatology, you can just take my word for it and skip ahead. (Believe me, if I knew a nicer example that worked as well, I’d use it.) Anyway, here goes.

Consider the following list of synonyms:
s**t, crap, fecal matter, feces, stool, poop, caca, doo doo
In one way all these words mean the same thing. That’s what I mean when I say the meaning is not in the words but in what the words refer to. Wait, you say. These are different words, they must mean something different. Well, yes. The difference is in how the words get you to look at the thing they refer to. (In the linguistics business this is called "framing".) S**t is a taboo word. That’s the part of the meaning that belongs to the word and not to the referent. Crap is only slightly better. When one says fecal matter, feces, or stool, one is talking more technically or in the detached manner of a doctor. Poop, caca, doo doo are more children’s words or humorous or euphemistic. I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea. The bulk of the meaning of a word is in what that word refers to. The part of the meaning that’s in the word is how it frames the way you think about the thing it refers to.

But there’s the problem. Not only do the categories of things referred to by words differ from language to language, but the words themselves frame the categories differently, as well. So the translator is always in a trade-off between optimizing the reference and trying not to get the framing too wrong.

Take Mark Driscoll’s example of propitiation. This is a highly technical term in English. To all but the highly initiated it has no reference beyond that we know that sin is somehow involved and that it’s good for the sinner in some way. In English it’s all framing and essentially no reference. But the Greek family of words it translates —
Oh, yes, Pastor Driscoll was not entirely honest with the data. There is not one word translated propitiation, there are three ἱλάσκομαι, ἱλασμός, and ἱλαστήριον. Yes, they all refer to the same root concept, but if you say it’s the wording that is important and not the concepts, you can’t go around using the very same thought-for-thought translation that you railed against elsewhere. (Peter Kirk at Speaker of Truth makes a similar point about the concept justification on his post about Pastor Driscoll and the ESV.)
Anyway, the Greek family of words refers to something that eastern Mediterrean culture in Roman times was familiar with. You offer a sacrifice to appease the gods. Details were different in different cultures, but the notion that something could be offered to turn away the wrath of a deity was there. These words were religious – because of their reference. But they weren’t any more technical than the word stool, when the doctor asks you for a stool sample.

This religious concept is not in the consciousness of 21st century Americans, however. So what’s a translator to do?

Well, there’s nothing wrong with spelling things out when no good single word exists in the target language.
I John 4:10 … [he] sent his son to be the sacrifice that turns away his anger over our sin.
Don’t try and tell me propitiation is a better translation for ἱλασμός. If you do, it’s not about translating at all, it’s about how you feel about translating and translations and it’s time to admit it.

Oh, and if the exact wording is so important in the ESV, why does Luke 18:13 read:
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful (ἱλασθητί) to me, a sinner!’ (ESV)
Hmm.

The point that seems to be missed in this ongoing debate is that the unique thing about Christianity and language is that the God who is the Word, THRIVES on being translated. I’ll say it again. God’s Word thrives on being translated. He wants to speak to you in the most intimate way.

If you are an ordinary follower of another major world religion, you need to learn God's language, Arabic for the Qur’an, Sanskrit for Hinduism, and Hebrew for Judaism. But in Christianity our God speaks our language, not the language of the church, but the one that we carry on our inner dialogue in.

In Christian history times of major revival have often been associated with translation or re-translation of the Scriptures into the language of the common people.

So why are we getting so worked up about translations that speak ordinary English?

16 Comments:

At Sun Jan 07, 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

The root of the problem here is the view of the linguistic naïf that the meaning is in the words.

As a fellow linguist, Rich, I totally agree. But I'm not sure how well we can bridge the communication gap with preachers and theologians until we address the proof texts from the Bible which they believe supports a word approach to translation. Driscoll, Grudem, and others like to quote:

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.
—Proverbs 30:5–6


We need to do careful exegesis of what the Hebrew Bible means when it refers to words. Is it really saying that God's truth is only communicated through single words uttered one after another? I doubt that, but I haven't done the exegesis yet. And it would actually be better if one of our Hebrew scholar friends could do that research so it would be as accurate as possible.

 
At Sun Jan 07, 07:07:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Applause!

 
At Sun Jan 07, 08:17:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Oh, and if the exact wording is so important in the ESV, why does Luke 18:13 read: But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful (ἱλασθητί) to me, a sinner!’ (ESV)

That's actually easy. It's because the ESV translation team, in general, does not hold the view that some ESV apologists like Grudem, Ryken, and Driscoll have been putting forth in defense of the ESV. All you have to do is look at the ESV to know that, and you've provided a very nice example to illustrate this point. I don't know how many times I have to point that out here before people will stop conflating Grudem and company with the ESV translation team. They aren't the same entity, and while Grudem did have an impact on how the final form of the translation ended up, it's very clear that the translators themselves did not assume the sort of view that you are criticizing here. I think that's one reason that they called it essentially literal rather than essentially word-for-word, just flat-out literal, or even formally equivalent. They knew it was none of those, and they didn't think such a translation would be ideal.

 
At Sun Jan 07, 08:51:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy said:

I don't know how many times I have to point that out here before people will stop conflating Grudem and company with the ESV translation team. They aren't the same entity, and while Grudem did have an impact on how the final form of the translation ended up, it's very clear that the translators themselves did not assume the sort of view that you are criticizing here.

Jeremy, you may be right, but I think there is another reasonable hypothesis to explain things that you, Rich, and others have noted in the ESV. It is that the ESV team, as a whole, including Grudem, chose to do minimal literary editing to the underlying RSV text. Instead, they ensured that theological changes were made to make the RSV "conservative." The RSV was already written with the male-gendered generics so no changes were needed there to conform to the CSG, which Grudem and Poythress helped draft. From what Grudem has said, he was extremely involved in the verse-by-verse revisions of the ESV. I have heard him say publicly essentially (there's that word again!) this: "I spent three years going over every single verse of the ESV, making sure." I believe he said this in the debate he had with Mark Strauss at Concordia College. I transcribed that debate and it is posted on the Internet.

The ESV team made sure that the changes they felt were most important got made. They changed some of the inverted negatives to the normal word order for negatives, but did not change them all. They made some other changes, but there were many literary changes they could have made to improve the ESV which they did not make, at least not for the first edition. As you know, they have been making additional revisions since then. It shouldn't be too long before we see the revisions they have made so far.

I personally doubt that there were many changes which Grudem really wanted to have done to the RSV which did not get done. I'm not saying that he was in charge, but I do think, from his account, anyway, that he probably was one of the most influential persons on the entire team.

I doubt that he or anyone else on the ESV team would have paid much attention to translational concordance between Luke 18:13 and other passages where the same Greek root was used. It was not one of the purposes of the ESV team, including Grudem, to make major changes to the RSV, other than some theological changes. In fact, they preferred to leave RSV wordings intact, as much as possible, since many of them had used the RSV for many years and they liked its wordings. They knew others were familiar with its wordings, also, and that that would be a selling point for the ESV.

 
At Sun Jan 07, 11:50:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Jeremy said:

I don't know how many times I have to point that out here before people will stop conflating Grudem and company with the ESV translation team. They aren't the same entity, and while Grudem did have an impact on how the final form of the translation ended up, it's very clear that the translators themselves did not assume the sort of view that you are criticizing here.

That was my intended point, actually. (Then Wayne just pointed out that maybe Grudem does believe some of these arguments.)

My hot button issue is that not all the cards are on the table. What apologists say for the less natural translations is, at its root, not rational. There are always deeper issues. That's what I'm trying to get to. While the order of things should be:

• understanding the meaning of the text leads to theology,

there is much too much:

• theology leads to reading the text a certain way,

and the arguments about translation boil down arguments about theology. Driscoll's post practically glows electric orange with theology based reasoning.

And I won't say anything about upside down business-based translation decisions are. I'll repeat again one of my favorite saws. Scripture isn't hard to understand, it's hard to accept.

 
At Mon Jan 08, 03:05:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I won't attempt the full exegesis of Proverbs 30:5-6 which you suggest, as I must do some real work today! But I will make a few points. In 30:5 the word for "word" is אִמְרָה imra, and in 30:6 it is דָּבָר davar. The former is relatively rare and poetic; the latter is very common. But neither of them refer strictly to words in the lexical sense. Indeed I am not sure that any words in the Bible do this, because I am not sure that this concept of an individual word existed, at least in Hebrew and in the common understanding of Greek. It is only in a highly literate and educated society that there is a clear and popularly understood concept of an individual lexical unit.

Thus imra in the singular is used (often in parallel to qol "voice") of complete utterances in Genesis 4:23, Deuteronomy 32:2, Psalm 17:6 (TNIV "prayer"), Isaiah 28:23, 29:4,4, 32:9. It is also used of God's word in a more general sense, and again usually singular, in Deuteronomy 32:9, 2 Samuel 22:31, Psalm 12:6 (plural), 18:31, 105:19, 138:2 (TNIV oddly "solemn decree"), 147:15, Isaiah 5:24, also 19 times in Psalm 119. These are I think all the occurrences apart from Proverbs 30:5. So if in this last verse the word means "lexical item", that is a unique usage in the whole Hebrew Bible. The meaning in the proverb, if the use of the word elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible is anything to go on, must be something like "Every utterance of God is flawless".

As for davar, I can't go into such detail, but one thing is clear: it is commonly used of complete messages rather than individual lexical items. It is used no less than 394 times (according to BDB) of the word of God, at least most commonly in the singular although God didn't usually speak just a single lexical item. The ten "words" (davar) are the Ten Commandments, each of which consists of more than one lexical item. I can't find any clear case of davar being used of a single lexical item. Therefore Proverbs 30:6 must refer to adding to God's utterances, or perhaps to adding to the Ten Commandments; it is not about lexical items.

 
At Mon Jan 08, 07:11:00 AM, Blogger John Radcliffe said...

Wayne,

I followed your link, "Mark Driscoll’s apology for using the ESV in his church", but he didn’t seem to be apologising for using the ESV at all.

Sorry! I just couldn't resist deliberately misunderstanding you (although "says sorry" was the first thought that went through my head as I read "apology"). I think this highlights the problem with using terms such as "justification" in a special "Biblical" sense that is no longer in general use. (I suspect that any modern English dictionary that included those definitions would mark them "theology".) For most people these days, "an apology" is saying you're sorry; "justification" is giving good reasons for why you did something (i.e. showing that you were "right" to do so, so not that far away from the "Biblical" sense of being declared "right(eous)", but perhaps far enough to be confusing).

It also shows that even where word "A" in one language is derived from word "B" in another, A may not be a good translation of B. (E.g. "apology" in 1Peter 3:15; or the use of "mystery" referred to in a recent post of Richard’s.)

 
At Mon Jan 08, 07:51:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I followed your link, "Mark Driscoll’s apology for using the ESV in his church", but he didn’t seem to be apologising for using the ESV at all.

Hello, John. The post was by Richard, not me, but I'm happy to get the credit for any of his posts.

Thanks for your comments which clearly show that you understand the problem with using technical terms in Bible versions. There are advantages claimed by proponents of their usage. I don't think that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I would still like to go back to the original biblical texts as much as possible to try to determine *lexically* if the original word was being used as a technical terms or not. In so many cases, we find that it was a term in common usage and we don't find overwhelming evidence that a biblical author is using the term too far outside its core lexical meaning. Of course, context can always help extend meaning so some semantic extension is always a possibility. But to call something a technical term requires a special status for it, a meaning for it that is not in common usage by most speakers of the language.

 
At Mon Jan 08, 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

"The meaning is not in the words."

That's wonderful! Now we don't have to use words to convey what's on our minds (since meaning is not in words, it must be in something else).

Let me know what that other thing is will you?

On a less playful note, isn't it interesting how all those words that you used in your example do point to the same basic definition, and yet based on the one an author uses can convey so much? Is not the word that the author chooses important based on your own argument?

The words convey something, and without the words, nothing is conveyed. Therefore, which is more important? I think they are tied together and that you cannot separate them as you did.

Why is an updated "modern" version of Shakespeare not considered Shakespeare? Why is it that in court testimoney, exact wording of witnesses words are used? Why it is that when we quote something, exact wording must be used? Why are some people good joke tellers, and when someone else tries to give the "sense" of the joke, it isn't funny?

If "meaning" is enough, why do we depend so much on exact wording?

Not my argument, just something I remember from a book, The Word of God in English (and don't quote me, read the book).


Thanks,
Nathan

 
At Mon Jan 08, 10:51:00 AM, Blogger John Radcliffe said...

Wayne / Richard,

The post was by Richard, not me, but I'm happy to get the credit for any of his posts.

Just shows that while I may be able to quote correctly, apparently I can't attribute correctly. My apologies to you both: you don’t really look that much alike in your photos.

 
At Mon Jan 08, 11:10:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

you don’t really look that much alike in your photos.

Believe it or not, those who have seen both of us in the same context, such as a linguistics conference, have sometimes mistaken one of us for the other by our looks. It's all in the beard! You know how it is: If you see one bearded man, you've seen them all!

:-)

 
At Mon Jan 08, 03:47:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Nathan said:

The words convey something, and without the words, nothing is conveyed. Therefore, which is more important? I think they are tied together and that you cannot separate them as you did.

I didn't say words don't convey meaning. I said that there are two parts to what words convey. One part is the thing referred to, and one part is the framing, how the word directs you to look at the referent. Of course you can't separate these parts, every word has some of each.

But don't miss the point that much of what we normally think of as word meaning is actually in the referent. That's exactly why translation is possible in the first place. When a German speaker says "Tafel" and I say "table", we mean the same thing, i.e., the meaning is mostly in that real word entity that both "Tafel" and "table" refer to. And that's even true when the words don't match.

"Sein Auto steht vor der Tür."

and

"His car is out front."

mean the same thing. That is, German and English speakers use these expressions respectively to refer to the same circumstance. But when you add up the words of the German it should come out "His car stands in front of the door." It just that English speakers don't say that.

Notice that here the wordings are very important. You have to say what people say when they intend to refer to the same situation. So even in translation your observation about monolingual word choice applies.

Why is an updated "modern" version of Shakespeare not considered Shakespeare? Why is it that in court testimoney, exact wording of witnesses words are used? Why it is that when we quote something, exact wording must be used? Why are some people good joke tellers, and when someone else tries to give the "sense" of the joke, it isn't funny?

The whole line of reasoning is to make sure you don't make the false assumption that words match between languages. It's not true. But, I repeat again, translation is only possible because the bulk of the meaning is in referents, not in words.

Finally, I am not saying anything about disembodied meaning.

If "meaning" is enough, why do we depend so much on exact wording?

Saying that words only function to evoke meanings in our minds, does not deny, as you seem to suggest that words are somehow unimportant. As one of my friends says, "The difference between just the right word and an almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

 
At Mon Jan 08, 07:41:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

Hi Richard,

Your extra explanations do help me understand and for the most part I agree with you.

But, let's say five different Germans translate this: "His car is out front." and then another five translate the translated phrase back into English, how corrupt do you think the original phrase would be?

My point is this - with the wide variety of English Bible translations does it not raise the question (since many of the translations are quite different) that the text has been corrupted to an unhealthy degree? To the point that it is a falsehood to even be called translation (hence the word paraphrase for some)?

If I were to re-translate (which I cannot, I don't know Greek) I John 4:10 … [he] sent his son to be the sacrifice that turns away his anger over our sin.

It would be understood to be a corrupted text based on normal rules of literary criticism, would it not?

What is normal for books from another culture that are translated into English (I don't know) - do they explain cultural single words with a sentence in English? Or is that viewed as wrong?

What is the standard for a good translation in the world? I don't know, but it might be interesting to research.

-Nathan

 
At Mon Jan 08, 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Nathan,

I'll just give you a quick answer now, because I'm about to get on a plane back to the US, and I won't be online for about a day.

The short answer is that for simple stuff like

"His car is out front."
"Sein Auto steht vor der Tür." (= "His car stands in front of the door.")

"I took the dog for a walk."
"Ich habe den Hund ausgeführt." (= "I have led the dog out.")

"I can't stand the sight of blood."
"Ich kann kein Blut sehen." (= "I can't look at blood.")

you'll get 100% agreement by fully fluent bilinguals that these are the exact translations.

But the German sentence

"Sein Auto steht vor der Tür."

is also the "right" translation for

"His car is in the driveway."

(It's a long story. It has to do with what typical European houses (and driveways) are like.)

And the point is that languages don't match up. In anything with any conceptual complexity, there are better and worse translations. The translator is always in a situation of deciding what to include and what to leave out. Every translation means something that the original doesn't, and at the same time doesn't mean something that the original does -- every translation. That doesn't mean the text is corrupt in the textual criticism sense. Textual criticism doesn't apply. It can't. We're not touching the originals.

We're in the business of evaluating translations. High on the priority list for any translator must be both clarity in the target language and accuracy in conveying the intent of the original. All translators working between modern languages must meet both of these criteria or they will lose their jobs.

What we're saying is that in the realm of Bible translation we've lost sight of the real standards of translation. (How this came about is also a long story.)

I have to run. I have a plane to catch. I'll think about posting on this, if the demands of the beginning of the semester don't overwhelm me before the issue runs its course.

 
At Tue Jan 09, 03:44:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Nathan, I think all translators realise that translation is not an exact science. This means, among other things, that if you translate a sentence into another language and then back into the original language there can be no guarantee that you will get precisely back to the original text. This is true whatever translation style or philosophy you use, at least unless you use a highly artificial interlinear gloss type "translation" which would on its own probably be quite incomprehensible to the target language reader. It is just as much true of allegedly "full access" translations like ESV as it is of the most dynamic translation. I think I can safely say that there is not one single English Bible translation which could be translated perfectly back into the original language - especially because Greek word order is very fluid and its nuances can never be captured in English. I would not expect any Greek scholar, who had not memorised the Greek NT text, to be able to translate more than an occasional sentence of ESV or any other version precisely back into the original Greek - and similarly for Hebrew.

Does this mean that every English Bible translation is a bad translation? No, it means that there are fundamental limitations to what can be done in translation. If you really want full access to the original text, you need to learn the original language.

 
At Sat Jan 13, 07:46:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

The, ahh, "scatalogical" sequence that Richard provided certainly made the point! It struck me that words for parents give a similar, if not quite as broad, range:

mama, mummy/mommy (UK/US), mum/mom, ma, mother

dada, daddy, dad, papa, pop, pa, "my old man", father

I've probably missed some, too!

David Reimer

 

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