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Saturday, May 05, 2007

What is good English for Bible versions?

My polls always seem to have something wrong with them. So I'm simply going to ask a question in this post and hope that there can be so many comments that I can get a better idea of what people are thinking than I could if I worded a poll about it myself. Maybe we could even work together through this post to design a poll which would nicely survey what I want to know. And here is what I want to know:
What kind of English do you like to read in a translation of the Bible?
I realize that different people prefer different kinds of English in Bibles that they read. Some people prefer English that is smoother, more natural. Others prefer English that has a more majestic, sacred sound. Some prefer to have a more educated sounding English, while others prefer English that they can share with any of their friends and neighbors, some kind of "standard" dialect of English. A good number of people like different kinds of English for different purposes, one kind of English, for instance, for devotional Bible reading, but another for careful Bible study.

So, I'm not hoping for consensus of ideas about English for Bible versions in discussion that can occur with this post, but I am hoping that we might have some fairly clear statements of preferences. Clear enough that maybe the preferences could be worded as options for a poll about English desired in a Bible version.

So, maybe I should re-word my question to:
What kinds of English do you like to read in English Bibles?
There is a wide range of comments possible, including ones which refer to grammar and syntax, vocabulary choices, reading level, naturalness, retention of biblical language idioms, similarity to other kinds of English literature perhaps from a previous period of English history.

27 Comments:

At Fri May 04, 10:53:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Proper English that tracks the meanings and style of the original as closely as possible.

 
At Sat May 05, 03:04:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Good quality modern English which flows well and avoids archaic words and constructions and unnecessary technical ones, avoiding also both colloquialisms and stilted prescriptivist forms. Basically the kind of English which if found in a novel or a newspaper would be commended as good writing.

It is of course a great challenge to do this while remaining accurate. But this should be the aim.

 
At Sat May 05, 04:39:00 AM, Blogger Jungle Pop said...

I've recently switched from 20 years of using the NIV to a new NLT (2d edition). The main reason was that I wanted a more natural-sounding English than even the decent NIV has.

I like it. Of course, it helps that I still have the more literal NIV (and NASB and KJV) in my head, for cross-referencing.

So for me, the vote would go towards a more natural translation.

anonymous says one that "tracks the meanings and style of the original as closely as possible." The reality is that one must often be sacrificed to allow for the other. And so the debate continues...

 
At Sat May 05, 05:55:00 AM, Blogger JL said...

The translation should accurately convey the idea of the text into modern English while retaining the style and feel of the original. So, the Bible shouldn’t be stylistically homogeneous; different writers should sound different.

 
At Sat May 05, 08:46:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Ideally, English that is better than what I can come up with myself, both in adherence to formal prescribed rules and in literary style. The Bible shouldn't read like a chatty instant message, or even an ordinary magazine, but it should bring with it a weighty tone that communicates its importance. The powers that be in determining the English style of a Bible should not concern themselves with what style the public thinks it wants. They should employ people who know English better than the public and can craft something that is artful and high sounding. They should not avoid the rules of so-called "prescriptivists". They should embrace them. In fact, if they need to devise completely new rules or revitalize old rules that are long gone and prescribe to the public afresh, especially if it's for the sake of accuracy, then they should do that.

 
At Sat May 05, 01:53:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Variety, I need different Bibles for different purposes.
Clear straightforward everyday English for public reading - like CEV;
as literal as possible while remaining fairly comprehensible for students - like NRSV.

But also (agreeing with jl) I want translations that reflect a bit the differences of register and style of the original, so Jeremiah does not sound like Isaiah or Mark like Luke!

We have so many English translations now that we do not need another that is of the smoothing even sort, we need one that takes seriously the different voices of the different authors and strands. Let your angry young man sound different to the grumpy old man ;-) Or however you want to personify the "dead" authors of the living texts!

 
At Sat May 05, 04:20:00 PM, Blogger Penny said...

I have several versions used for varying levels of studying. I think for just reading to myself, one that uses natural English, where I'm not throw by the presence of a word that sounds wrong.

It's hard to think of an example, but as a speaker of British English, having a translation that refers to "before the rooster crows" would sound wrong, because rooster is not in my normal language. Other things that might sound wrong would be a reference to technology: eg if it refered to an elephant when there weren't any elephants around.

On the translating books differently, what might be an interesting version is where the typefaces and font sizes varied in the different books. All of Paul's letters could use a serious looking font, John's letters a friendly larger font (perhaps one that looks handwritten) etc.

 
At Sat May 05, 06:58:00 PM, Blogger Moonlink said...

An accurate translation of the text- grammtical warts and all.

 
At Sat May 05, 07:31:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Wayne,

I am not sure if you are getting good phrasing for a poll or not, with such subjective expressions of preference as "proper" or "good quality" - I am not sure about "natural-sounding" and "weighty" either. And "embracing prescriptivists" whoa ... I protest.

Do we want a Bible that says "pisses against the wall" but won't tolerate a singular 'they'? A Bible where people's bowels were moved, but Mary is "with child" because it isn't "proper" to say "in the belly". How about having the uncircumcised called by the literal meaning of the word, and the son remaining in the bosom of the father. "At the father's side" just doesn't do it for me.

Maybe the literal meaning could be in the footnotes, all the literal body part language, so to speak. We could even put the "head" in the headship passages in the footnotes. Then we would either all be happy together or unhappy together. Cherry picking metaphors is a tricky business.

What I would like is a Bible whose preface said something useful about the version it is describing, along with the biases and affiliatons of the translators. Just put it out front, this translation promotes x, y, z. And a Bible with more frequent footnotes for every time it diverges in a doctrinally significant way from other versions or from the UBS text.

And to top it off it would say "that same one" instead of any pronoun at all. Autos isn't strictly in the pronoun paradigm anyway, why pretend that it is? There is no more reason to use "he" for the autos than there is to say "every man" for pas , that is semantically - no reason.

On the other hand, grammatical equivalence is a problem. Consider the simple question "Are you full?" asked at the dinner table. A literal translation of this into French could be interpreted as "Are you pregnant?" So imagine a first date. The man offers the desert list to his partner and asks "Would you like some desert or are you pregnant?" Or maybe they are at a buffet and he notices that she has a healthy appetite, so he comments jokingly "Aren't you pregnant yet!"

 
At Sat May 05, 10:47:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

I'm not sure what that was all about, but if your dates offer you "deserts" I suggest you insist on an oasis!

 
At Sat May 05, 11:36:00 PM, Blogger believer333 said...

I would like natural flowing wording without adding in extra words when possible. If the original says "any", then anyone is far preferable to "he". If there is nothing, then I don't want to be reading "he". If the word means brothers and sisters in the context, or is inclusive of both sexes, then we've got many choices: people, fellow Christians, person, etc. I'm really tired of having to explain that "he" is not refering to a male person, but just an unidentified person.

But I also don't want words that have lost their meaning or had the meaning changed such as "shamefaced". We've no clue what that is supposed to mean today. It should be no problem to use modern words that actually reflect the meaning of the Greek.

As for colloquialisms, such as what is too often translated as "husband of one wife", we should stick closer to the actual Greek, "one woman man". That is where intelligent notes come in.

 
At Sun May 06, 05:06:00 AM, Blogger Ron said...

Shortly after I became a Christian I used the ASV (1901). The literal quality of that challenged me. Thus, I like that format. As of this date, I use the ESV and the NKJV.

 
At Sun May 06, 09:35:00 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

I agree with you others out there who prefer natural-sounding English.
Suzanne, I agree with grammatical equivalence being a problem. We always end up with the dilemma. Do we translate our bibles according to everyday colloquialisms which may not necessarily be grammatically correct? Or do we translate bibles using "good quality modern English" but aren't necessarily clear straightforward everyday English? I personally prefer modern words that are used in common speech but I know we also need bibles that are grammatically correct too. I think it's wonderful that we have various types of translations out there in order to fulfill the needs for all types.

 
At Sun May 06, 09:36:00 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

I ran across a word in the TNIV that struck me as odd and out of date.

Lu 8:23 says: A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

It's not wrong but I haven't heard anyone use the word "squall" in a long long time. That's a word that popped out at me a few days ago. I'd prefer something like "windstorm" (ESV, HCSB, CEV, NRSV). I may be wrong but isn't "squall" something you never hear being used on the weather network?

 
At Sun May 06, 10:41:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kevin asked:

Do we translate our bibles according to everyday colloquialisms which may not necessarily be grammatically correct? Or do we translate bibles using "good quality modern English" but aren't necessarily clear straightforward everyday English?

Kevin, these are good questions. I think that quite a number of people would phrase these questions as you have. For myself, I don't believe that there needs to be this particular dichotomy. I believe that good quality modern literary English can be sufficiently close to everyday English that it can be understood clearly by any native speaker of English. Similarly, I don't believe that using ordinary English in a Bible translation means that there will be any ungrammatical English. I don't think that ungrammatical English has a place in Bible translations. Of course, people from different dialects of English have different ideas about what is grammatical English. And there are variations among good speakers of English in terms of the usage of certain forms. This is part of language, part of a language being alive and dynamic. New words are coined. Some new words replace older words. Some syntactic variations become more and more widespread until Bible translators have to make difficult choices about what syntactic forms to use in some cases.

There is no single "correct" form of English. There are a variety of dialects and forms of English which would be considered good quality English by those who are English stylists in different parts of the English-speaking world. There still is, however, a large amount of consensus about what is proper English, as English is spoken around the world.

Which is correct English:
1. My father is in the hospital.
2. My father is in hospital.

They are both correct, #1 is correct for the dialect of English that I happen to speak. #2 is correct for a dialect of English spoken by millions of others.

Which is correct:

1. We are going on holiday.
2. We are going on a vacation.

They are both, again, correct, depending on which dialect of English is being spoken.

Well, I've probably said more than enough. I enjoy discussing these kinds of differences among English speakers as well as the implications for Bible translation.

Have a good week.

 
At Sun May 06, 11:01:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Kevin,

I think "squall" is a pretty normal word for me, but maybe only used in sailing. The Mediterranean is a sea-going culture so it could be expected to have a word for this. I can't think of an alternative word for the same thing in English.

I know that I often find it quite difficult when just reading or writing to determine if a word sounds right. Sometimes we just need the right context.

 
At Mon May 07, 12:52:00 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

Well said Wayne. It's like the dynamics in language that we see in the progression from KJV-language to today's NLT/CEV. What may seem as proper English today would have seemed as improper English hundreds or decades of years ago.
-------------
Suzanne, I see how the word "squall" is the most precise translation. A sector of the population may be familiar with it, but most may not be. Some may even have to pull out a dictionary to learn its precise meaning. So this is another dilemma. Do we sacrifice precision for familiarity?

 
At Mon May 07, 03:10:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Kevin,

This is where I have to say that taking one person's perspective is dangerous. For me, "squall" is a word that I have used regularly and I can't imagine living without it. Lakes have squalls, oceans have squalls and babies squall. Sometimes I squall myself. So I would be the wrong person to ask about this. I wonder if there is some kind of word frequency list somewhere. How do we decide if a word is in contemparary use - google?

This is a serious question, one person - that is myself - cannot take themselves as the only measure of contemporary language.

And I would really appreciate it if someone could reconstruct the sentence above without a singular "they" - how would it be done? I'm curious.

 
At Mon May 07, 03:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

This is a serious question, one person - that is myself - cannot take themselves as the only measure of contemporary language.

And I would really appreciate it if someone could reconstruct the sentence above without a singular "they" - how would it be done?


"On ne peut pas se prendre comme seule mesure de langue contemporaine."

Je suis désolé qu'il soit traduit tellement littéralement. Je suis anglais.

Oh, in English?! My point was partly to show how nice French is to have a true generic pronoun, on.

How about:

"You can't take yourself as the only measure of contemporary language.

 
At Mon May 07, 04:27:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Good solution Wayne. Translate into French as "on" then back again into English as "you" all very permissible by the dictionary, even though going from "he" to "you" in English is not permissible according to the "guidelines".

On the other topic, is there some measure of whether a word is in current use, besides google? I would never have guesssed that "squall" was not a common word.

 
At Mon May 07, 04:44:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Suzanne asked:

On the other topic, is there some measure of whether a word is in current use, besides google?

I saw your question earlier and have not been able to think of any other method to determine current use. And even googling has its problems since it doesn't tell us the date of an utterance or writing, dialect of its author, register used, etc. But googling at least gives us some clues.

I would never have guesssed that "squall" was not a common word.

It's in my passive vocabulary and I like the word. It's very descriptive, IMO. There are many words which are not in the active vocabularies of current English speakers and readers. Some English Bible translators address this issue by limiting the vocabulary in their translations to a certain number of the most common words used. I'm not in favor of that approach, except for Bibles for children and ESL speakers. On the other hand, I think it is inadvisable to use such an esoteric vocabulary in a translation that it makes many words inaccessible to a high percentage of English readers. Somewhere, as I often say, there is surely a healthy balance.

Why not have Bible versions as e-texts on computers, and allow readers to specify what their reading and/or educational level is?! Computer technology can easily shift words to higher or lower registers or reading levels. We do the parallel thing with various computer games, which have settings for different levels of players' proficiency.

 
At Mon May 07, 05:38:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This is a serious question, one person - that is myself - cannot take themselves as the only measure of contemporary language.

And I would really appreciate it if someone could reconstruct the sentence above without a singular "they" - how would it be done? I'm curious.


This is a serious question, one person - that is myself - cannot take oneself as the only measure of contemporary language.

Better still would be to rewrite it so it was in less tortured language (taking out "question" since there is no question; take out the unnecessary "that is myself"; removing the redundancy of "one person"; moving the negative to a more natural location; taking out the barbaric and wholly illogical "themselves"; removing the ambiguous "measure" (I can certainly measure language -- I can count words or typos); and taking out the absurd "contemporary":

This is a serious point: no person is a sole arbiter of language.

Even better, expressing it positively:

Language is collectively determined.

Of course, I disagree with the sentiment presented. The best translations are those by single individuals: Knox, Fox, Alter, etc. The fact that the KJV turned out so well even though be written by a committee is perhaps better evidence of the workings of Providence than a universal rule about the efficacy of committees. Similarly, most great literature was written by single individuals. Perhaps you prefer to read a work by a committee, such as the state driving manual, to a work by an individual, such as Cervantes or Tolstoy or Voltaire or Goethe. But I suspect most would prefer those works that reflect the singular genius of the great artist or intellect.

Regarding the use of the word "squall": since when did we start requiring that someone be able to read Scripture without opening a dictionary?

 
At Mon May 07, 06:29:00 PM, Blogger Gary Zimmerli said...

Passive and active vocabularies? Fascinating concept! Thanks, Wayne!

Anon wrote: Regarding the use of the word "squall": since when did we start requiring that someone be able to read Scripture without opening a dictionary?

I think that's a great point, though I think "understand" may be a better choice than "read".

If we could all easily understand the Bible, there would be little use for study Bibles and commentaries.

 
At Mon May 07, 08:43:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Some people have very different expressive and receptive vocabularies. They might never use many words taht they understand very well. In fact, much of our reading vocabulary is receptive only.

And thanks, Anon, for the writing lesson. I don't think I have read Knox's translation yet. The NEB is, I think, another committee translation that turned out well. On the other hand, some individuals have produced poorly written translations.

Perhaps both the best and the worst translations are by individuals and the committee tends to produce a mediocre translation.

 
At Tue May 08, 09:35:00 AM, Blogger Penny said...

I can't remember ever coming across windstorm in normal usage before the last few months: if I've seen it in a Bible it would have been put in the mental box labelled "Bible English".

For what it's worth, in British English, squall is probably slightly old-fashioned. Windstorm is unknown: in British English, we'd talk about gales, or possibly "strong winds".

 
At Tue May 08, 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

For what it's worth, in British English, squall is probably slightly old-fashioned. Windstorm is unknown: in British English, we'd talk about gales, or possibly "strong winds".

Okay, we might have to take a poll on this one. "Gales" is hardly used here, and if both "squall" and "windstorm" are out, then I kind of like "strong winds"? This common word usage is a challenge!
---------
one person - that is myself - cannot take themselves as the only measure of contemporary language.

We definitely need a polling system to determine the most popular/common words being used.
---------
Why not have Bible versions as e-texts on computers, and allow readers to specify what their reading and/or educational level is?! Computer technology can easily shift words to higher or lower registers or reading levels.

This idea is beginning to sound pretty good.

 
At Tue May 08, 12:57:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

A gale and a squall and a windstorm are not exact equivalents. I'm voting with the dictionary myself.

 

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