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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Matt. 19:11 - Which teaching?

A couple of days ago I was checking a tribal translation of Matt. 19. After Jesus gives his teaching on divorce, the disciples respond (back-translated to English):
His disciples said to him, "If it is like that for a man and his wife then maybe it is better not to married, right?"
This is the same meaning as that found in English translations, such as:
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (19:10 TNIV)
Next, verse 11 in the tribal translation chooses one exegetical option and expresses it like this:
Jesus said to them, "This word I am teaching is not for everybody, but it is given to those God chooses.
I checked my resources and found that this interpretation is one that some exegetes and commentators have accepted. But the majority of English versions that I checked have Jesus referring, in verse 11, not to his own teaching, but to what the disciples have just said in verse 10, for example:
But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. (NRSV)

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. (ESV)

But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. (NASB)

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. (TNIV)

But He told them, “Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those it has been given to. (HCSB)

Jesus answered, “This teaching does not apply to everyone, but only to those to whom God has given it. (TEV/GNT)

Jesus told them, “Only those people who have been given the gift of staying single can accept this teaching. (CEV)

“Not everyone can accept this statement,” Jesus said. “Only those whom God helps. (NLT)
The interpretation followed by each of these translations is consistent with the preceding and following contexts. In what precedes the disciples respond that it is better not to marry, if restrictions on divorce are as Jesus has just taught. In verse 12, which immediately follows, Jesus talks about those who do not marry.

Each of the version wordings for verse 11 are fairly clear. But I was struck by the God's Word rendering:
He answered them, “Not everyone can do what you suggest. Only those who have that gift can.
To me, the GW wording takes the prize for clarity. It is expressed in English more natural than that of most of the other versions and also makes it clear that it is what "you", the disciples have just suggested that Jesus is responding to.

Now, as always, clarity does not guarantee accuracy. But I sure do find it refreshing to read a clear translation, at least whenever the biblical language texts seem to be clear.

26 Comments:

At Thu Apr 26, 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

But similarly, when the original text is ambiguous, a good translation should also be ambiguous. The exegetical process by which a reader can choose the referent of "this teaching" should be made available to the English (or tribal) reader, just as it is available to Greek readers. It is not the job of the translator to skip through the first few steps of that process imagining that they are helping people along with clarity, but only clarity that clarifies their own view of the text. The GW translation is an example of a bad translation here.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 11:34:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

a good translation should also be ambiguous.

If that is true, good translation is impossible.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 01:16:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Obviously a perfect translation is impossible. But to the degree that some translations can more accurately convey the meaning of the original than others, then they are better translations. "Good" is a relative term. So a good translation isn't impossible, as you say. In the example given above, the GW translation may have been the best in terms of clarity, but it was the worst in terms of conveying the original ambiguity.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 01:24:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

the GW translation may have been the best in terms of clarity, but it was the worst in terms of conveying the original ambiguity

Eric, what do you consider the ambiguity in this verse to be in the Greek?

I agree that if there is intentional ambiguity we should try to maintain that ambiguity in translation, if the translation language allows for ambiguities.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 01:30:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

"Eric, what do you consider the ambiguity in this verse to be in the Greek?"

The ambiguity that I see is the same thing I think you were talking about in your original post. The referent of τὸν λόγον is unclear. It's up to the reader to decide what the teaching is. A careful reader of the English can do that using the same clues from the context that the commentators you consulted use. I don't think the translator should try to walk the reader through these steps any more than the original author did, at least to the degree that this is possible given the languages involved.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 01:33:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

On the subject of clarity, I should clarify my own remarks again too. I certainly don't think that ambiguity is generally a good thing, only that it's can be a good quality for a translation if it means avoiding the temptation to add greater specificity to the text than what was in the original. I also don't think that this principle is the only one by which to judge a good translation.

For example, another principle by which to judge a good translation is the principle of grammatical correctness. In the verses on the list the HCSB ends with a preposition. I have a handy copy of this translation that I check frequently, and it does this constantly. If I ever find myself writing something to be published by B&H and they require me to use this version, I'll feel compelled to put a [sic] after all of their solecisms.

I feel sorry for the translators involved in this project who had to see their otherwise good work messed up by the publisher's English stylists who had the last say on their text. I recall hearing one of them say that he now has something published with his name on it that is filled with grammatical errors that he would mark if he found them in his students' papers.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 02:16:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

For example, another principle by which to judge a good translation is the principle of grammatical correctness. In the verses on the list the HCSB ends with a preposition. I have a handy copy of this translation that I check frequently, and it does this constantly.

This is pretty funny. There is a case in the Greek of the NT of a singular "they" which the NIV tidied up, but the TNIV has restored. Coming up soon on the TNIV Truth blog!

 
At Thu Apr 26, 02:29:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric, thank you for your clarifications.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 02:37:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

In the verses on the list the HCSB ends with a preposition. I have a handy copy of this translation that I check frequently, and it does this constantly. If I ever find myself writing something to be published by B&H and they require me to use this version, I'll feel compelled to put a [sic] after all of their solecisms.

Ah, yes, it is claimed that Winston Churchill bemoaned, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

How do we determine that a sentence should not end with a preposition?

And should only true prepositions be affected or should particles which are part of phrasal verbs also be included as in:

"We washed the car off."
vs.
"We washed off the car."

 
At Thu Apr 26, 03:22:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Eric wrote: I feel sorry for the translators involved in this project who had to see their otherwise good work messed up by the publisher's English stylists who had the last say on their text.

Eric, perhaps these translators might consider that the English stylists actually know better than they do themselves what is good English. Good English is not what 19th century schoolmasters, and their 20th century imitators, tried to distort it into. English has always allowed prepositions at the end of words (something which it must have inherited from common West Germanic, because German does the same in many of the same constructions) and it always will, despite the best efforts of the prescriptivists.

My previous comment was brief because I was short of time. I agree that where the original was intentionally ambiguous (in rather few places in the Bible, I think), it is good to preserve the ambiguity in translation. But where the original was clear and unambiguous, and the problem is only that we don't know which of two alternatives was meant, it cannot be accurate to make translation ambiguous and unclear. Anyway this rarely works unless the rendering is so vague that it allows multiple interpretations including ones which could not possibly be the meaning of the original. In such cases the best thing for a translator is to choose the most likely alternative, and to footnote alternative possibilities.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 04:14:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Intentional ambiguity is not the only type of case I'm talking about. I don't even know how one tells when ambiguity was intentional and when it wasn't. And even if it can be exegetically determined that a case of ambiguity in the original was intentional, I wouldn't want translators to think their job is to figure that out. If the original is ambiguous on some point, the translation should be as well. This case in Matt 19:11 is a good example. The Greek does not employ some feature here that is absent from the listed English translations that might nail down the referent of "this saying". Because there is no such feature in the Greek, no translators should presume to have the ability to tell their English readers what the referent is. They should leave the ambiguity and allow the English readers the opportunity to go through the exegetical process of figuring it out and even possibly disagreeing with them. Clarifying the referent, as the GW does, only forces the English readers into an interpretation that might differ from what the readers would think if they had a more accurate translation here.

On the other hand, if the translation is to be part of a commentary rather than a stand alone Bible, that's a different story.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 04:31:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

"Eric, perhaps these translators might consider that the English stylists actually know better than they do themselves what is good English."

I should hope so. If I were a translator I would be disappointed to find somebody whom I trusted to have a better knowledge of good English style than myself turn around and replace my grammatically correct work with something grammatically incorrect. As I said, I do frequently consult the HCSB and have noted a number of positive things about it. But its nearly constant feature of ending sentences with prepositions is like nails on a chalkboard.

"How do we determine that a sentence should not end with a preposition?"

We submit a paper to our teacher in school that has a sentence ending with a preposition and our teacher hands it back with a big red mark explaining that it's wrong. Let's not confuse the way Wycliff translators learn a tribal language with the way you and I learn English, which has formal rules that have been systematized, taught, and written in books for generations.

"And should only true prepositions be affected or should particles which are part of phrasal verbs"

I'm pretty sure the rule is only for true prepositions, since they need to have objects. Whether there are grammar sticklers who would also apply it to phrasal verbs, I don't know. But we should at least be able to recognize the existence of the basic rule and hold good Bible translations to it.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 05:05:00 AM, Blogger Ben Martin said...

Eric, are you suggesting that we should follow the rule simply because it is taught, or are you claiming it's a real rule? (It isn't of course - for an example of grammarians debunking the rule see http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/000743.html )If the former, it might or might not be reasonable to claim that we should not end sentences with prepositions in translations because it could be distracting. It has been well documented, however, that people - even those opposed to the practice - invariably do use prepositions at the end of sentences, and generally no one notices. But then, you did, for one, in this case, so that could be an argument against it.

In this case, I'd be willing to bet that I know why the HCSB chose the structure they did, though. The HCSB translation of the verse stands out for sounding considerably less formal - I imagine they might have found that to be beneficial. (Other less formal translations in this case seem to have stuck to the traditional approach, though I note the CEV avoided the construction altogether.)

(And for the record, I do look forward to a time in America when preposition abusers like me can ge by uncriticized. To tell you the truth, I was never taught this rule in school, and had never even heard of it until I had a roommate from California who was opposed to my use of "go with.")

 
At Fri Apr 27, 06:51:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Ben, your link didn't work for me. I'd like to see it. But, despite your confidence, I am actually enough of a curmudgeon that I really do think it's a real rule. I also don't see the difference between the fact of its being taught and its status as a rule--it's a rule because it's taught and it's taught because it's a rule. But it's also a rule because prepositions need object, which are better left after the preposition than somewhere else. I agree that everybody breaks rules of grammar (although I would say "sometimes" rather than "invariably"). I do. My professors do. I'm sure Professor Higgins split an infinitive or two. But the fact that everybody breaks rules does not make them cease to be rules. The fact that adults occasionally say "me" where they should say "I" is not a reason to make them stop correcting children who do it a lot more than occasionally. Prepositions at the end of sentences are getting more accepted. Somebody recently told me that even the Chicago Manual of Style started allowing them in the most recent edition. But I'm 32, and I learned it as a child. I also never had an English course in college besides technical writing. So, I'm not more trained in the language that most people. I would find it hard to believe that there aren't a great many people who would read the list of translations of Matt 19:11 and think that all of the translations that say "to whom" are better than the HCSB on that point.

(btw, I think your example of "go with" is a case of one of the phrasal verbs that wayne mentioned. That's not really the same thing.)

 
At Fri Apr 27, 08:25:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Well, Ben, I hunted around and I think I found the page you meant here
(here's to hoping my link works).

This was interesting.
But I would note that most of his defense of "preposition stranding" is applied specifically to examples where, as he says, "the preposition is closely associated with the verb," such as "live with" and "fight about". Also, despite his defense of preposition stranding, he includes a list of several examples, such as, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," of which he says a stranded preposition would be a step down. I heartily agree! But he gives no reason why these examples should exist if there is no syntactical principle involved. Additionally, it's helpful to remember that different situations have different levels of expectation for grammatical purity. Spoken conversation between peers has a low level of expectation. So I won't even notice when I hear friends separate prepositions from their objects or when I do it myself most of the time. But in cases where there is an expectation of some level of preparedness, such as formal speeches or published writings, that kind of usage becomes more out of place. Even among published writings, some naturally come with higher grammatical expectations than others. Dr. Lieberman quotes CGEL saying, "The construction has been used for centuries by the finest writers. Everyone who listens to Standard English hears examples of it every day," and rightly so. But I think he and the editors of CGEL would have to admit that they will find it much less in academic journals than in the works of Mark Twain. There are reasons for this that they shouldn't ignore.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 08:47:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

(btw, I think your example of "go with" is a case of one of the phrasal verbs that wayne mentioned. That's not really the same thing.)

You're right, Eric. "Go with" is a phrasal verb. "With" is acting as a verbal particle, not a preposition.

 
At Sat Apr 28, 08:32:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

I thought you might like to see how "The Better Life Bible" renders this context:

"Later, Jesus’ 12 chosen followers concluded that men who divorce their wives shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. When Jesus became aware of this, he said,"

'In many cases, you’re right. As you know, some men naturally have very little attraction to women, others have their sexual drive diminished by castration, and others choose not to marry so they can devote more time to honor God by helping others. But many men just let nature take its course and get married without taking their lifelong commitment very seriously.'

 
At Sat Apr 28, 08:44:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Dan, that's a great example of a version that adds clarity by including things in the English that are not in the Greek.

I can't possibly see how it is a good thing for a translator to guide English readers through the interpretation process like that.

But I would be interested to know if Wayne and Kirk think The Better Life Bible is an example of a good Bible translation because of doing that. And if there is anything wrong with what BLB has done here, then why is there nothing wrong with what GW has done?

 
At Sat Apr 28, 09:43:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric is interested (and probably interesting):

But I would be interested to know if Wayne and Kirk think The Better Life Bible is an example of a good Bible translation because of doing that. And if there is anything wrong with what BLB has done here, then why is there nothing wrong with what GW has done?

Eric, it is very difficult to simply say whether a single wording is good translation or not. There are a lot more questions that have to be answered including:

1. What did the Greek say?
2. What did the Greek mean?
3. What are the semantic ranges of Greek words at issue?
4. What is the audience for whom the translation was made?
5. Which English translation wordings are within an acceptable range for being both communicatively accurate as well as natural?
6. What is the reading level aimed for in the translation?
7. What are the *specific* issues of concern? (It is far better, IMO, to deal with specifics than to make generalized statements about Bible versions.)
8. What are the exegetical options for those specific issues?
etc.
etc.

Translation is a lot more complicated that just saying yes or no to a single wording. We need to know a lot more about the original text and the aims of the translator and their audience.

And we need to interact with the translators themselves to try to find out if we are missing anything which was part of their thinking as they translated a passage. Communication should never be a one-way street. If at all possible, we should interact with others to find out what they meant by what they said.

All of this can keep us humble, attempting to speak the truth in love.

 
At Sat Apr 28, 10:19:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

I agree with all of your points about matters of importance in Bible translations, Wayne. But, actually you began this discussion with a point about a particular translation of a particular verse. I think in this case we already have your points 1,2,3,5, and 7 covered. Your points 4 and 6 concern intended audience, and I agree that that makes a difference. But, let's leave that issue to the side for now. Your original post did make a general point about clarity, and in some of my responses I have also been addressing this same general point as it applies to the specific verse you brought up. So, if you don't mind, perhaps you can indulge me and continue the generalizing that both of us have done about the issue of clarity in translation. I think your point 8 addresses this. And I think that this is where we probably differ. When it comes to exegetical options, there may be some options that can be determined by the Greek in a way that could easily be missed in translation without some deliberate clarification made in the English. This kind of clarification does belong to good translating. But some "exegetical options" may be things that need to be figured out by attention to the context or argument of the passage. The process of working through these types of exegetical options is part of Bible reading. The modern English reader, just like the ancient Greek reader needs to figure out what is meant by "this saying" and "for the sake of the kingdom". The translator may have her own ideas about what these phrases mean contextually, but not because of some clue that's present in the Greek any more than the formal English translations you presented. For a translator to make the verse more clear by adding some clarification into the English that isn't in the Greek is to exercise undue authority over the way the English readers are to interpret it. As you say, translators should be humble. Part of this humility should involve admission that they might not know any more than their readers about which exegetical option is right in these cases. As much as possible, the exegetical options available in the English should be the same as those available in the Greek.

Another good example is the way some translations clarify παρθενος in 1 Cor 7:34 by translating it either "virgin daughter" or "virgin fiancee" (or things to those effects). But there is nothing special in the Greek to determine which of those is right. For some reason many translators think they need to limit the options available to English readers in a way that they are not limited in the Greek. It's better just to translate the word "virgin" and allow the English readers to go through the same exegetical process that ancient Greek readers did. As you say, they should be humble and admit that, as convinced as they are about which reading the context demands, they could be wrong and English readers who are liable to choose the other exegetical option should be permitted to do so.

So how about my question? Leaving aside issues of whether the GW and BTB are for some special audience, in light of your own general principle about the virtue of adding extra clarity to translations of an original text that is ambiguous (whether intentional or not), do you think the BTB is a good example of what that clarification should involve? And if not, then why is the added clarity in the GW any better?

 
At Sat Apr 28, 02:48:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

"The translator may have her own ideas about what these phrases mean contextually"

Wayne, I'm surprised to spot you using generic "she". I tend to notice this as much as generic "he". And I don't like it because I tend to think it is gender stereotyping. I think Suzanne mentioned somewhere how supposedly generic "she" was used of teachers, and generic "he" of pupils, and that she understood this as gender stereotyping teachers as female. I hope you are not stereotyping translators as female!

 
At Sat Apr 28, 03:37:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter was surprised:

Wayne, I'm surprised to spot you using generic "she".

I would be surprised also, Peter, esp. since I never use the generic "she", either in speaking or writing. It was Eric Rowe, not me, who wrote what you quoted.

 
At Sat Apr 28, 03:39:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

That wasn't Wayne, it was I. I like to throw in a generic "she" every once in awhile just for fun. I just know that some of the people who manage to find something mysogynistic about generic "he" are also liable to manage to find something mysogynistic about generic "she". The idea that I might have just offended somebody by doing the exact opposite of what used to offend the same person tickles me. It's a weakness, I know.

 
At Sat Apr 28, 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric concluded:

Leaving aside issues of whether the GW and BTB are for some special audience, in light of your own general principle about the virtue of adding extra clarity to translations of an original text that is ambiguous (whether intentional or not) ...

Eric, I am unable to answer your question because it contains an assumption which I do not hold to, namely, in your words, "your own general principle about the virtue of adding extra clarity to translations of an original text that is ambiguous." I do not believe this, nor have I ever suggested that I do. I have often said the following: I believe that we should make a translation no more nor less clear than the original text was. Many English translations of the Bible have wordings which are far less clear than were the original biblical texts. At the same time, I would object strongly to making a translation clearer than the original text was. The highest priority for translation is accuracy. Clarity is also very important, but clarity cannot trump accuracy.

If you could reword your question based on what I actually believe about clarity, I could try to interact with you further about your concerns.

 
At Sat Apr 28, 03:58:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Actually, with the explanation you just gave, I think my question is answered. Sorry for misrepresenting your view. Your maxim that a translation should be neither more nor less clear than the original sounds exactly right to me. I will just point out that your maxim does not distinguish whether or not the original ambiguity was intentional. Also, as I see it, the case of the GW translation of Matt 19:11 is one of the translation being more clear than the original.

 
At Sat Apr 28, 04:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric responded:

Actually, with the explanation you just gave, I think my question is answered.

Good.

Sorry for misrepresenting your view.

No problem. Misunderstanding is a regular part of human communication. Fortunately, we often have opportunity to clarify and that was done.

Your maxim that a translation should be neither more nor less clear than the original sounds exactly right to me.

To me too

:-)

Oh, am I repeating myself?!

I will just point out that your maxim does not distinguish whether or not the original ambiguity was intentional.

I don't think that that matter needs to be included in the maxim. I think it would be subsumed under the general principle of translating authorial intent.

 

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