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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Evaluating standard English in Bible versions: Part 2

A few days ago I announced a new study I was conducting which evaluated whether or not specific wordings in several English Bible versions were in standard English. Last night I completed an update to that study which includes these versions: TNIV, NET, NLT, TEV, and CEV. The number of examples studied is now 81. You can access the study in either Microsoft Excel or PDF formats.

Following are the percentages of standard English for the particular wordings studied:

11% KJV
6% ASV
28% RSV
28% ESV
37% NRSV
23% NASB95
68% NIV
40% HCSB
83% ISV

73% TNIV
59% NET
90% NLTse
88% TEV
94% CEV

(UPDATE: Feb. 2, the wordings from the NLT are now from its second edition, instead of its first edition. I added one more example, John 5:29b, which jumped out at me and I could not leave it out! The updated files are available through the links given in the first paragraph of this post.)

I must emphasize that these percentages are only for the 81 examples in this study. They do not indicate overall quality of English in the Bible versions studied, although I am fairly certain that the relative positions with reference to standard English among the versions would be close to what they are now if we could find the time to include thousands more examples. That would be a mammoth task and I do not have the time for it (even these 81 examples took many hours of work). The most accurate results for overall quality of English would be obtained when large numbers (hundreds or thousands) of examples are randomly selected. For any who wonder, the particular examples I chose for this study are illustrative of important translation issues, such as difficulties in translating Greek genitives and datives and idioms. I tried to be as fair as possible with the examples I chose, so that no single version or class of versions would have a statistical disadvantage. But statistical studies always have a margin of error, regardless of how well a study is conducted. From my overall experience with all these versions, I would guess that the margin of error in this study is somewhere in the neighborhood of plus or minus 5%.

One of the conclusions I draw from this study is that Bible versions can be differentiated even more by how closely they adhere to one of the several dialects of standard English than they are by the categories usually discussed, which have to do with where a version is located on the continuum from formal equivalence to dynamic equivalence. (Some terms used to describe those categories are: formal equivalence, literal, essentially literal, word-for-word translation, thought-for-thought translation, dynamic equivalence, functional equivalence, idiomatic, and paraphrase.)

I suggest that the time has come where it may often be more useful to focus less on degree of formal equivalence to the biblical language texts and more on whether or not a version is worded in good quality, grammatical, literary English. I say this because it is possible for a version to be relatively literal and yet have grammatical, standard English. And, on the other hand, a version may be, overall, idiomatic (dynamically equivalent) while having a fair amount of non-standard English.

Note that the TEV, overall, is a "freer" (more dynamically equivalent) translation than the NLT. Yet in this particular study of 81 examples, I was startled to discover that the NLT outranks the TEV for degree of standard English.

The ISV is a far more formally equivalent translation than the TEV, yet it has nearly the same percentage of standard English as the TEV.

To my mind, this study confirms what I have been claiming for several years, that a translation can be "essentially literal" while also being worded in high quality English.

In one of my next posts I want to discuss specific examples from this study which demonstrate whether or not a specific passage from a Bible version is worded in standard English or not. Those versions which are worded in standard English create much less "cognitive dissonance" for their readers, and so are able to convey the meaning of the biblical texts more accurately and clearly. For readers like myself, who find it unsettling to read non-standard English, versions written in standard English allow me to understand the Bible better, to pick up the major ideas of larger sections of the text, and, overall, have a better Bible reading and Bible study experience.

Please feel free to comment on any specific examples in this latest update to the study of standard English in Bible versions. I would especially like to know about wordings which my language intuitions consider non-standard but which yours do not.


At Thu Feb 01, 12:33:00 PM, Blogger daniel reed said...

This is an interesting study. I'll keep coming back for updates.

(The link to the html version is broken, BTW)

At Thu Feb 01, 01:35:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Daniel noted:

(The link to the html version is broken, BTW)

Thanks for letting me know, Daniel. I am able to read the file fine on my computer but not from the website. I don't know what the problem is. So I have substituted a PDF file instead of the HTML file. I have tested the link and it does work. Anyone using the PDF file may need to increase the magnification of the page in their PDF reader to be able to read the spreadsheet.

At Thu Feb 01, 05:28:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

The GNT (what you're calling the TEV, but I think Rick Mansfield's arguments for The Good News Translation as the correct title are correct) is very dated in its language, so even if it has a reputation of being less literal (or however you want to put it, it's got all sorts of once-common idioms that no one says anymore, and it's got a number of stylings that sound very old-fashioned. I sure don't think of it as the English I grew up with. The NLT is very much ordinary English.

At Fri Feb 02, 05:33:00 AM, Blogger John Radcliffe said...


Thank you for this test, which I find most enlightening.

First some corrections:
(a) The CEV column has 2 extraneous entries (cells P1048 and P1221) which should be deleted.
(b) The formulas for counting / calculating the latest versions added are *all* incorrect, as they do not include the final test.
(Fortunately because (a) & (b) effect both the score and the passage count they have a minimal impact on the overall results.)

Can I also suggest that quoting the results to 0.1% implies a false degree of precision, and just quoting to the nearest 1% might be more appropriate (and have the added benefit of making the results easier to take in at a glace).

I note that you knowledge that this was far from a "scientific" test. It may also be noted that (1) no attempt has been made to evaluate the relative importance of the types of passage tested (e.g. renderings within "the Lord’s prayer" in Matt 6 are likely to be "one offs", whereas others may occur more generally); and (2) all versions are simply scored "1" or "0" with no attempt at grading (two versions may both be bad, but not equally so). In my opinion, however, both these limitations are understandable, and indeed attempting to address either would also introduce more subjectivity, so this should *not* be taken as a criticism of your methodology.

Thanks again. I appreciate all the work involved.

At Fri Feb 02, 08:48:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

John, all your points are well made. Thank you for spotting the extraneous entries for the CEV. I have deleted them. Another person also mentioned to me that it was unnecessary (and misleading) to have the percentages to the nearest 10th. When he did I had a senior moment and forgot how to adjust to round off to the nearest whole percentage number. This morning I remembered how to change that in Excel and have done so. I have revised the percentages in my post to reflect that change.

I also was informed that my entries for the NLT were from the first, rather than second edition, as I intended. I am in the process of correcting that and will upload the new spreadsheet as soon as I am done with that.

You are, indeed, right that there are degrees of "standardness". There were some wordings to which I had to give a "1" but which were not nearly as good English as wordings in some other versions which were better English, overall. But I was focusing on only the one specific grammatical point and so overall style gets flattened out in this particular study. Hopefully, someone can figure out how to evaluate overall style and that can be the subject of another study.

At Fri Feb 02, 10:50:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Wayne, now that you've made the changes, how did the score differ between NLT1 and NLT2?

At Fri Feb 02, 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rick asked:

Wayne, now that you've made the changes, how did the score differ between NLT1 and NLT2?

The percentage dropped all of 1% from NLT1 to NLT2. That is not unexpected since the revisions resulting in NLT2 are typically toward more literal. But a percentage drop of 1% is insignificant. I would want to look at many more exx. to get a more accurate assessment of differences between NLT1 and NLT2 in terms of standard English.

The verse on which NLT2 dropped is Luke 20.36:

NLT1: In that life they are like angels and cannot die. They are children of God, because they have been raised from the dead.

NLT2: And they will never die again. In this respect they will be like angels. They are children of God and children of the resurrection.

(Emphasis added)

The phrase "children of the resurrection" is not standard English and is probably meaningless to most English speakers.

At Fri Feb 02, 12:51:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Kathy still favors the NLT1 and has not warmed up to the NLT2 at all in spite of getting a free NLT 2Life Application Bible in leather from Zondervan.

She carried both to church a few times to compare and lately has just been carrying her original.


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