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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

an aging translation

I have just finished commenting on an English translation of Luke 11:29b:
This generation is an evil generation.
The translation employs the traditionally used English word "generation" to translate the Greek word genea of this verse. But is "generation" the most accurate English translation of genea in this context? Let's examine the lexical data.

First, let's look at the Greek lexicon. Louw and Nida explain genea as:
people living at the same time and belonging to the same reproductive age-class - ‘those of the same time, those of the same generation.’ ...

The expression ‘the people of this generation’ may also be expressed as ‘the people living now’ or ‘the people of this time.’ Successive generations may be spoken of as ‘groups of people who live one after the other’ or ‘successions of parents and children.’
BDAG gloss genea as:
  1. those exhibiting common characteristics or interest, race, kind
  2. the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all those living at a given time and freq. defined in terms of specific characteristics, generation, contemporaries
  3. the time of a generation, age
I am certain that Jesus intended the meaning of Louw and Nida's second paragraph, which is the same as BDAG's gloss 2. Do most English speakers know that meaning for the word "generation"? And, more importantly, would they understand that meaning sense to be the one used in Luke 11:29?

Now let's look at the English lexicon. My American Heritage dictionary gives these meaning senses for the word "generation":
  1. All of the offspring that are at the same stage of descent from a common ancestor: Mother and daughters represent two generations.
  2. Biology. A form or stage in the life cycle of an organism: asexual generation of a fern.
  3. The average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.
  4. a. A group of individuals born and living about the same time. b. A group of generally contemporaneous individuals regarded as having common cultural or social characteristics and attitudes: “They're the television generation” (Roger Enrico).
  5. a. A period of sequential technological development and innovation. b. A class of objects derived from a preceding class: a new generation of computers.
  6. The act or process of generating; origination, production, or procreation.
Meaning sense 4 is the meaning of genea which is used in Luke 11:29. The question for translation accuracy then must be raised: Is meaning sense 4 commonly enough used that English Bible readers will know that it is that meaning and not meaning sense 1, for instance, intended in Luke 11:29? I don't know the answer to this question. But I think we could find the answer if we did sufficient field testing among people who are potential readers of our English Bibles.

To perform the field test, we would need to read enough of the context so that those being tested would have adequate clues to what the meaning of "generation" might be. I would think that all of verse 29 would be a sufficient context, but there would be nothing wrong with supplying a larger context to those with whom we are testing the translation.

We could then ask individuals, "What group of people does it sound like Jesus is addressing?" If they answer with the word "generation," then we would need to follow up and ask, "And what would you understand "generation" to mean in this context?"

How would you answer these questions?

15 Comments:

At Wed Feb 14, 09:28:00 AM, Blogger Gary said...

Wayne,

I'm a 54 year old man with a high school education (and some college) and quite a bit of Bible study experience.

I just did a Bible Gateway search of all the instances of "generation" in the NASB, and I can honestly say I had no real problem understanding the word in any of those instances.

Am I really that far advanced above the typical Bible reader of today, or are we in danger of "dumbing down" the scriptures needlessly?

Gary

 
At Wed Feb 14, 11:43:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I just did a Bible Gateway search of all the instances of "generation" in the NASB, and I can honestly say I had no real problem understanding the word in any of those instances.

Good job, Gary. Which meaning sense did you get for "generation" during you search?

 
At Wed Feb 14, 02:24:00 PM, Blogger Gary said...

It was #4 in your post, Wayne.

"a. A group of individuals born and living about the same time. b. A group of generally contemporaneous individuals regarded as having common cultural or social characteristics and attitudes: “They're the television generation” (Roger Enrico)."

That's nearly always the way it's used in the Bible.

I generally agree with much of your translation philosophy, but it seems to me that there is a line that can be crossed into a "dumbing down" territory. I'm not sure if this "generation" thing crosses that line or not.

Isn't it possible to reach a point where the language is so simplified that important meanings and nuances are lost?

Gary

 
At Wed Feb 14, 02:33:00 PM, Blogger Gary said...

I've been looking over your post again, Wayne, and I can see where it's possible people could confuse the 4th meaning with the first:

"All of the offspring that are at the same stage of descent from a common ancestor: Mother and daughters represent two generations."

That could confuse people, I suppose.

How do you propose to fix it?

Gary

 
At Wed Feb 14, 03:33:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Gary wrote:

I generally agree with much of your translation philosophy, but it seems to me that there is a line that can be crossed into a "dumbing down" territory. I'm not sure if this "generation" thing crosses that line or not.

I believe that we should not dumb down a translation either. Now, dumbing down is a relative term, that is, it is measured with respect to some standard. The standard is the language ability of a particular target audience for a translation. The difficulty for many English Bible versions, and for much communication, for that matter, is that there is often more than one possible target audience. For instance, let's say that the reading level of the NIV is grade 6 (I forget what it actually is). But those who produced the NIV want the NIV to communicate well to people who have a reading level higher than 6, and probably hope to reach many who have a lower reading level, at least for most of the NIV. But someone who has a much higher reading level, let's say, level 15, with the background to read not only current standard contemporary English, but also current high literary (sophisticated) English, such as that found in the Atlantic Monthly. It is possible that people with a reading level of 15 would consider the NIV to be "dumbed down" compared to, let's say, the KJV or ESV. So it's all relative, and there is no perfect translation for all grade reading levels and literary reading levels and tastes.

Isn't it possible to reach a point where the language is so simplified that important meanings and nuances are lost?

Absolutely. There have been some English versions produced for speciality audiences. These versions sometimes have a limited vocabulary of only 500 fairly simple English words. You and I would not enjoy reading such a version. But, then, it wasn't produced for us. It was typically produced for an audience of people who are beginning to learn English as a second language (abbreviated as ESL, "English as a Second Language")

 
At Wed Feb 14, 03:37:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Gary asked:

I've been looking over your post again, Wayne, and I can see where it's possible people could confuse the 4th meaning with the first:

"All of the offspring that are at the same stage of descent from a common ancestor: Mother and daughters represent two generations."

That could confuse people, I suppose.

How do you propose to fix it?


Ah, I get to ask all the questions, but don't have to suggest any answers! (Not really. It's only fair if I raise questions that I suggest some answers, and I do then as I work with various English Bible translation teams, as I am doing now for the ISV.)

There are several possibilities for translation of Greek genea to English which is both accurate and clear. One would be "people who are living today". Another might be "today's people".

Can you think of some other possibilities?

 
At Wed Feb 14, 10:11:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Your proposed wording is problematic for translations in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Gen 17:7, 17:9, 17:12, Exodus 12:14, 12:17, 12:42, and would render Jeremiah 2:31 ugly, unless you wanted to claim that דור should not be interpreted as the same word as γενεά.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 08:12:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Your proposed wording is problematic for translations in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Gen 17:7, 17:9, 17:12, Exodus 12:14, 12:17, 12:42, and would render Jeremiah 2:31 ugly, unless you wanted to claim that דור should not be interpreted as the same word as γενεά.

The key is translating "in context". Jer. 2:31 does, indeed, have English dictionary meaning sense 4. But Ex. 12:14 is meaning sense 1. Meaning sense 1 *should* be translated by the English word "generation(s)".

There need be nothing "ugly" about translating meaning sense 4 to equivalent English. The NLT translation as "O my people" is accurate and emotively tender. I sense no ugliness there. My suggested translations were not intended to be exhaustive. They were just offered as possible translation equivalents for the specific passage, Luke 11:29.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 10:58:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

It is certainly emotively tender, but "O my people" hardly has the same meaning of "hador" or "[the] generation." In the first, Jeremiah identifies himself with the people, thus suggesting he has also abandoned the Lord. Moreover, "O my people" also suggests some sort of selection process ("OK, these are my friends, and these are not my friends.") The wording completely disrupts the careful poetic 2+3/3+3/3+2 word phrasing found throughout the extended section. Most important, this "tender phrasing" is entirely inappropriate if one considers the context of 2:30 -- this is not some friendly Hallmark card -- it is , well, a jeremiad.

Finally, if I later ask the question: "does Jeremiah 2:31 use the same word as, say, Gen 7:1 or Ps 112:2?" the reader of the NLT will gain no insight to the theological thread that connects these passages.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 11:36:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Most important, this "tender phrasing" is entirely inappropriate if one considers the context of 2:30 -- this is not some friendly Hallmark card -- it is , well, a jeremiad.

Good point. Then let's try the TEV/GNB rendering, "People of Israel".

I don't know what would be the best English translation equivalent for hador when the Hebrew word has English dictionary meaning sense 4, rather than 1. But as a translator, I operate with the assumption that it is possible to find such a translation equivalent. Can you think of one?

As far as I can tell, the English translation of hador in Gen. 7:7 should be the same as that of Jer. 2:31. Both have English dictionary meaning sense 4. Ps. 112:2 seems to have the English dictionary sense 1.

Our choices when we do not have exact matches of forms between languages are at least two:

1. Match word-for-word and teach English Bible users which meaning sense is used when it is not the primary sense that people would use, in this case, meaning sense 1 would be primary.

2. Use a different word in the translation so that the meaning of the biblical word in each context corresponds more accurately to English words which Bible readers will understand to have the same meaning as that of the biblical word. Then we can footnote the so-called "literal" meaning of the biblical language word, although "literal" in this case is a misnomer, because what we are really dealing with is a range of meaning senses different in one language from that of another. When English Bibles use "brothers and sisters" as an accurate translation of Greek adelphoi but footnote saying that the Greek literally means "brothers", it is not an accurate footnote. The Greek does not literally mean "brothers". There is no "literal" involved. The fact is simply that in some contexts adelphoi refers to a group of male siblings; in other contexts it refers to a group of both male and female siblings.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I agree with Gary, not about dumbing down but about "generation". This ISV wording seems quite natural to me and unambiguously has American Heritage meaning 4.

Now maybe that is because I am from the same generation as him (for me an entirely natural usage of this word, by the way), but then you are from the same generation. I wondered if it was because I am from the UK and this usage is more common this side of the pond, but then Gary is American. So I don't know why your understanding is so different from his and mine.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

So I don't know why your understanding is so different from his and mine.

I grew up where Russian was still being spoken and many of my relatives did not speak any dialect of standard English. So my English language intuitions are sometimes not the same as those of other English speakers. But my wife's intuitions are often the same as mine. But she, too, did not grow up in an American environment where she was surrounded by a standard dialect of English.

I think I can get meaning sense 4 at times. But it's not the primary meaning I have for the word "generation." My primary meaning sense is #1.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 02:07:00 PM, Blogger Gary said...

I think "primary" is the important word, Wayne. I would have to agree with you that #1 is also my primary understanding, but when I read the way generation is used in the Bible, I have no problem understanding it as in #4.

Is it really that difficult for people to "shift gears", so to speak? Maybe it is. #1 and #4 are really quite similar; it's not that easy to differentiate between them.

Is it a matter that people aren't being educated in English as well, or is it just that they don't run into these different usages often enough? I do a lot of Bible study. Maybe that's why I don't have a problem with it.

Gary

 
At Thu Feb 15, 03:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Gary asked:

Is it really that difficult for people to "shift gears", so to speak?

No, people shift meaning gears all the time. The issue is how familiar they are with the gears they are shifting to. If someone is not very familiar with meaning sense #4, then they are likely to get the wrong meaning from a translation using the word "generation" with meaning sense #4. But we can't know what meaning people get until we ask them. It is easy to field test a verse like this to find out what people understand by the word "generation." Most fluent English speakers may have no problem getting #4 from this verse. If so, great!

Is it a matter that people aren't being educated in English as well, or is it just that they don't run into these different usages often enough?

The latter. Education doesn't help people much with their English, I would claim. People learn most of their English from their parents, peers, coworkers, and the media.

I do a lot of Bible study. Maybe that's why I don't have a problem with it.

Yes, it is very clear from field testing that those who are familiar with the Bible understand the language of English Bibles better than those who are not so familiar. So either we have to educate people so they can better learn Bible English or we need to translate for the kind of English they already know. My preference is the latter, following the example which I believe Jesus set. He did not use speciality or technical language when he spoke to people. What we have recorded of what he said has him speaking using ordinary, everyday language. Of course, we have a translation in Greek of what he said in his native Semitic tongue, but still I would think that the translation is rather an accurate reflection of the kind of language Jesus used as he interacted with people.

 
At Fri Feb 16, 02:41:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Education doesn't help people much with their English, I would claim. People learn most of their English from their parents, peers, coworkers, and the media.


Well, thank goodness we've cleared that up! Just imagine how much money the taxpayers are wasting each year on godless lessons in reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Now we can drop the first two, and save big bucks by passing out calculators instead of wasting all that money on schools.

Why just the other day I was marveling at how well TV prepared students to read Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. And with these handy-dandy new translations like the TNIV, who needs to learn all those complicated words anyway, dude? Party on!

Another big plus of this "don't bother teaching them English" approach is that it will help preserve the social order: there was always a possibility that some of the underclass might actually learn to write better than their parents and peers as a result of communist programs such as Head Start or scholarships or public schools. Fortunately, with your crucial insight, that won't be happening any more. We can safely move beyond the class system and go straight into the caste system. We can eliminate "mistakes" when poor people accidentally learn to speak and write -- such as Abraham Lincoln or Bill Clinton.

Up next, eliminating public libraries and those pesky child labor laws.

 

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