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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Timely Bible translation

English Bible versions have a mixed record as to whether or not their prepositional phrases referring to time are worded in grammatical, standard English.

Notice that the following three sentences are what native speakers would consider proper, standard English:
  1. I saw him on Tuesday. (But not, "I saw him in Tuesday.")
  2. He will arrive on Christmas. (Not, "He will arrive in Christmas.")
  3. He came on the day that he said he would. (Not, "He came in the day that he said he would.")
It's not too difficult to understand when to use "on" and "in" in this case: When we know the specific day, we use the preposition "on" with the day being the object of that preposition.

In standard English, can we ever use "in" with a time word? Yes. Compare these sentences:
  1. In January we will go skiing. (Not, "On January we will go skiing.")
  2. In the summer I worked as a forest ranger. (Not, "On the summer I worked as a forest ranger.")
The preposition "in" is used when there is a period of time referred to. Sometimes the preposition "during" can be substituted for "in" as in:
During the summer I worked as a forest ranger.
The preposition "at" can be used when we refer to a point in time as measured by a clock:
  1. At the stroke of midnight Cinderella returned home. (Not, "In" (or "On") the stroke of midnight Cinderella returned home.")
  2. We will have supper at 6 p.m. (Not, "We will have supper on 6 p.m.")
Those who learn English as a second language have to memorize these uses of different prepositions for different kinds of time reference. If the wrong preposition is used, an utterance is ungrammatical. Anything which does not follow the standard patterns of a language is ungrammatical. We are not referring here to simply "bending the rules" slightly for poetic reasons, but actual breaking of the rules of English which are followed by speakers and writers of standard dialects of English.

Now, what does this have to with Bible translation? Well, that's a timely question, and this is intended to be a timely post.

A number of English Bible versions do not use the correct prepositions with the time objects of prepositions that they occur with. Compare these examples from Phil. 2:16, found on my chart evaluating standard English in Bible versions (which now has 100 examples):
  1. so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain
  2. that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain
The first wording is ungrammatical because it uses the preposition "in" when "on" should be used.

Let's compare another wording, from Luke 1:5, that shows a difference among Bible versions as to whether or not standard English is used:
  1. In the days of King Herod of Judea ...
  2. During the reign of King Herod of Judea ...
  3. During the time when Herod was King of Judea ...
In standard English we do not say "In the days of ...," as in #1. Instead, it is standard English to say either #2 or #3.
(UPDATE: See Comments.)

English versions correctly use "on" with the time word in Acts 20:7:
  1. On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, ...
  2. On the first day of the week, when we had met to break bread, ...
In my studies I have found no English version that uses an incorrect preposition in Acts 20:7.

When wrong English time prepositions are used in Bible translations, it makes those versions sound like they were translated by people who are not native speakers of English. The forms, including any prepositions, were correct in the original Greek from which the English is translated. Better Bibles are translated by people who ensure that they are using English forms that are the proper equivalents to the Greek forms. The good news is that it is possible to have English in Bible translations that is both accurate as well as grammatical, natural, and standard. A number of English Bible versions demonstrate that, when we examine specific examples of word usages.

17 Comments:

At Sun Feb 04, 01:46:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

+ Roman life in the days of Cicero by Rev. Alfred J. Church ...
+ The Baldwin Project: In the Days of Giants by Abbie Farwell Brown
+ In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells. Search, Read, Study, Discuss.
+Acadia - Lifestyles in the days of our ancestors
+ Phenomena in the days of Philip

5 of the first 6 of 1,150,000 results for the exact phrase "in the days of."

Lots of us say, "In the days of," and the period of Herod's reign seems to exactly meet your criteria for "in."

So going back to your comments about the day of Christ, I'm not sure whether I have to give you the point. I have never considered that a singular day, but rather history's most important and lengthiest period - the reign of Christ. If the text truly, unambiguously guarantees that the day of Christ cannot be metaphorical of a period of time, then I will concede to you that poor English has twisted my understanding of that verse. If not, then I will need some convincing. [And given the "in the day of" stuff, that might be hard. ;-)]

 
At Sun Feb 04, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

It is not hard to find prepositions you claim are "not ... correct" for Acts 20:07.

For example, the oldest surviving English translation of Acts, (Wycliffe's 1384 "Lollard" translation) begins Sothli `o day of saboth.

The second oldest surviving English translation of Acts (Wycliffe's 1395 translation) begins And in the first dai of the woke.

The range of what you consider as correct English is substantially narrower than most literary English of today, and certainly of yesterage.

 
At Sun Feb 04, 05:05:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Codepoke and Anonymous, here is how I describe "standard English" at the top of the spreadsheet:

By "standard English," we refer to English wordings which are considered grammatical and appropriate by English composition teachers, editors, authors, and most native speakers of English.

This refers to current English. This is a tradition description from the linguistics literature. I should have included the modifier "currently", as well, since I am evaluating current Bible versions. (Yes, the KJV and ASV are included, but I recognize that language change can account for some differences of evaluations with them.)

Linguists consider it best to listen for language usage among ordinary speakers of the language. There are speciality audiences which use language in different ways, but in this study we are trying to evaluate standard dialects of English. We can google and find many different kinds of wordings. But google results do not necessarily tell us what current language usage is. For that we must do a lot of listening to our friends and neighbors.

I have never heard an "ordinary" native speaker of English say "in the days of". There may be some people who say that, as Codepoke as stated. But I would want to know, Codepoke, something more about the group that you have heard say that. Could you tell us if they are regular speakers of English, such as school teachers, dentists, restaurant owners, newspaper editors, etc.? Or are they readers of English Bibles? If it is the latter, then we are engaging in a kind of circular reasoning, where we prove the existence of language usage from those who use a speciality language that we are trying to determine is standard or not.

There is nothing wrong with language of the past. It is simply not the language of today. And when we translate the Bible for people today, the general assumption is that that language in the translation is going to be that which is used by those for whom the translation is made. Otherwise, we might as well just have one single English version, made many years ago, and use it forever, assuming that language does not change.

Bible translation is different from the study of classical literature. Bible translation has always been an exercise in translating for current speakers of languages.

Now, I would be happy for there to be data, such as telephone conversation recordings or copies of email messages, which would demonstrate that native English speakers do commonly use the phrase "in the days of" rather than "during the time of" or "during the reign of" or "during the presidency of". I have never heard anyone say "In the days of Ronald Reagan ..." Instead, I have heard people say things like "During the presidency of Ronald Reagan ..."

So, studies like this come down to data: what kind of data is appropriate to determine what is standard English for the particular translation target audiences we are studying?

 
At Sun Feb 04, 06:23:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

I did a search in the New York Times and found 1,358 uses of "in the days of" since 1981.

The most recent was today (by David Berreby, who is a published author, and claims to be a native English speaker and an Ivy League graduate). I reprint the entire paragraph to show that not all contemporary English is written in simplified form (emphasis added):

Some of the ways the Ewens nudge their readers toward right-thinking are more seriously off the mark. The term “stereotype,” for example, comes from printing — the stereotype was the image of a page in papier-mâché, which could then be used to produce duplicate plates. (The pundit Walter Lippmann popularized the metaphor.) According to the Ewens, though, even in the days of Gutenberg, “the contemporary implications of stereotyping were furtively in attendance.” Why? Because the first metal dies for letters were named after the Latin word for “father,” and thus called the patrix, while the mold that received the image was named, maternally, the matrix. “Issues of power, and assumptions of social inequality, then,” the Ewens write, “were joined to the term stereotype from its inception.” Though these sentences say precisely nothing about stereotyping, they certainly make it clear what you’re supposed to think — or rather, feel — about gender politics.

The second most recent use appeared less than two weeks ago (January 23) and is by Nicholas D. Kristof who seems to be a better judge than either of us of contemporary English. He has won two Pulitzers, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, was Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, and has won many other awards. (Emphasis added):

So, students, study those classics. They are timeless -- and in the days of the Iraq war and Guantánamo, they have never been more timely.

In particular, I would like to see your evidence that the uses you claim are non-standard are not "considered grammatical and appropriate by English composition teachers, editors, authors, and most native speakers of English."

I suspect that you may have grown used to one style of writing, what I sometimes call "Simple English" -- the sort of "straightforward" writing one finds in a newspaper such as USA Today.

There is nothing ungrammatical about Simple English, but it hardly reflects the full range of current usage. Some argue that Simple English is best for reaching people who read infrequently or who have limited reading ability -- audiences you and others sometimes mention in this blog.

However, you do not justify your reprobate of those who write in language that goes beyond Simple English. Literary English at times may be unfamiliar, but that hardly is equivalent to ungrammatical.

 
At Sun Feb 04, 07:08:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have never heard an "ordinary" native speaker of English say "in the days of".

I shall have to go with Anonymous on this one, Wayne. I sure am glad I don't live in the days of long skirts. It is very easy to trip over a long skirt, in case you don't know. I will have to work 'in the days of' into a post for you as data.

I didn't think men used 'so' as an intensive. Didn't Jespersen think that was a chick thing, and guess what I think they do after all! So I have to admit I was wrong on that one.

 
At Sun Feb 04, 07:35:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

The most recent was today (by David Berreby, who is a published author, and claims to be a native English speaker and an Ivy League graduate).

Good sleuthing, Anon. I have to concede to you on this one.

I reprint the entire paragraph to show that not all contemporary English is written in simplified form (emphasis added):

Well, I haven't been referring to Simple English. I have only been referring to grammatical English which is considered good quality English by the kinds of individuals I list at the beginning of my spreadsheet.

After this kind of evidence from a good author, I may just delete that example from my spreadsheet. Once there was a linguist who had 100 examples. He lost one but still had 99 left. What do you think he would do?

:-)

 
At Sun Feb 04, 07:47:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Hmm, would anyone have a suggestion for an example to replace Luke 1:7?

 
At Sun Feb 04, 08:51:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Cool Wayne.

I assume you mean,
and they both were now well stricken in years.

Now, I might substitute that they both "were ravaged by the cruelties of time," but I don't suppose that's exactly what you're after. ;-P

Either way, I'll grant you that well and stricken probably don't often appear any more. Striking the word, "well," actually helps quite a bit.

 
At Sun Feb 04, 08:52:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Any further thoughts on the "the day of Christ?"

 
At Sun Feb 04, 09:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Codepoke asked:

I assume you mean,
and they both were now well stricken in years.


I'm missing something here. Are you referring to some Bible wording example that I have worked with? Or were you asking your question of someone else?

 
At Mon Feb 05, 12:03:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

I'm missing something here.

But the silver lining is that you can hide your own Easter eggs!

 
At Mon Feb 05, 10:12:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

He will arrive on Christmas. (Not, "He will arrive in Christmas.")

Not for me, here in England (well, actually not here, but that's where I usually am). It has to be "He will arrive at Christmas" (the season in general) or "He will arrive on Christmas Day" (the specific day).

Also for me "On the stroke of midnight Cinderella returned home" is OK, although "At the stroke of midnight Cinderella returned home" is a bit more natural.

So the rules are not actually as simple and clear cut as you seem to think, Wayne, and there are genuine dialect variations.

 
At Mon Feb 05, 06:50:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

It seems that the Hebrew expressions "in the day of" or "in the days of" or "in that day" are sufficiently vague that we may inadvertently mistranslate by following your view, Wayne. The vagueness comes from the referent - is the referent a specific day in the future? a specific time period? an indeterminant time in the future? In given contexts, the answer may be "yes". And notice that effect can even change: Zephaniah 1:14ff and 3:16ff.

I think "the Day of YHWH" is another example of a shifting referent that may point toward: specific day in the future, a specific time period, an indeterminant time in the future.

My point is that these seem to strengthen Anon's previous post.

But then again, I may be misunderstanding you.

 
At Mon Feb 05, 07:57:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

My point is that these seem to strengthen Anon's previous post.

But then again, I may be misunderstanding you.


Yes, and I have conceded Anon's point, and modified my post to reflect that. He gave convincing contemporary data. I still feel that my suggestions create more natural sounding English, but I can't continue to claim that "in the days of" is not standard English.

Please, you and everyone else, keep challenging my claims when you feel I am in error. I do want my charts to be as accurate as possible. I have updated my spreadsheet, as well, removing the "in the days of example," and replacing it with a different example to retain the nice number of 100 exx.

 
At Tue Feb 06, 02:30:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Hey Wayne,

I'm missing something here.

You asked about Luke 1:7, and I was trying to be lighthearted about it. I figured you were talking about the last phrase of the verse, and went with it.

I will continue to ask about the day of Christ. Exegete77's comment seems to be aimed at the same point I was trying to make. The Day of Christ does not have to be singular, and making that change to "on" is really a theological point.

 
At Tue Feb 06, 02:57:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

You asked about Luke 1:7, and I was trying to be lighthearted about it. I figured you were talking about the last phrase of the verse, and went with it.

Ahah! Finally, the light dawns. Well, this exchange started with my typo of Luke 1:5 5o Luke 1:7. You were clever, my friend, quite clever, but left me in the dust. I'm picking myself up, dusting myself off, and having a good virtual chuckle. Were you referring to my strikeout editing in the post itself for Luke 1:5? If so, the play on words with "stricken" was, indeed, very good. And I have been caught in the net which I myself have set so often, due pun-ishment!!

I will continue to ask about the day of Christ.

Yes, please do.

Exegete77's comment seems to be aimed at the same point I was trying to make. The Day of Christ does not have to be singular, and making that change to "on" is really a theological point.

Oh, OK. I was only thinking in linguistic terms, taking the word "day" literally. I wasn't thinking theologically or eschatologically or even scatologially (fortunately!).

Back on the road again!

 
At Sun Feb 11, 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Penny said...

I agree with Peter Kirk: in British English "on Christmas" is ungrammatical. "At Christmas" is correct, as is "on Christmas Day". Similarly, you could refer to "at summertime" or "on Midsummer's Day" (but we would probably refer to "in summer" or "during summer".

I think one would use "at" when it is a season - a spread of days. "On" seems to apply to a specific day.

 

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