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Friday, October 05, 2007

Ambiguity and humility

I have been reading The Work of Poetry by John Hollander recently. The essay on the psalms ties in nicely with a couple of recent posts on translation. Lingamish alludes to the ambiguities and mysteries of certain passages in Please be so kind as to laugh, then Iyov, Least common denominator wrote,
    Yet, some advocate producing Bible translations as if they were just another piece of writing -- written in everyday speech. This is a great disservice to Scripture. First, it causes us to forget that the Bible is kadosh/holy/separate from other literature. Second, it obscures the highly specialized style in which the Hebrew Scripture is written. .... Third, it causes us to lose humility, because we can master the language of some simple translations -- but in our generation, we have no sage who can fully understand the original Hebrew, much less the profound wordplay and connections present in the language.
Forgive me for taking such a short excerpt from a fascinating post. The psalms are uniquely suited for the study of commentary through the centuries, for seeing how diversely and personally the Hebrew has been translated by one generation after another, for simply surrendering the rational mind to an acceptance of ambiguity in the original text.

Along similar lines Leland Ryken writes the following in The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (now available through Google Books) which devotes a considerable amount of space to a discussion of ambiguity.
    I can imagine that some of my readers have been uneasy with the emphasis on ambiguity that has surfaced at several places in this book. As a literary scholar, I deal regularly with that quality of literary discourse. But I also found while doing the research for this book that the word ambiguity has been entrenched in discussions of translation for a long time. That the original text possesses the quality of multiple meanings, multiple interpretive options, and an open-ended or mysterious quality is widely recognized by Bible translators. The question is whether an English translation should preserve these qualities of the original.

    On this matter, as on many other translation issue, the crucial question is whether priority should be assigned to what the original text says or the assumed needs of modern readers. When translation committees assign priority to their audience, they have in that very act decided that certain qualities of the original text are expendable. ... I believe that a good English translation passes on the qualities of multiple meanings and mystery that the original text possesses. Another way of saying this is that a good translation resists the impulse to spell everything out. page 289
I would like to share part of the chapter by John Hollander (see image) on his experience growing up with the psalms. He compares his first response to the psalms, in his Jewish childhood, to learning Hebrew and studying the commentary of the psalms throughout his later life. Near the beginning of the essay he uses this story to illustrate his point.
    The child in the American joke who innocently deforms Psalm 23's penultimate verse, assuring her adult listeners that "Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life," will only learn with "a later reason" as Wallace Stevens called it, that she was getting something more profoundly right about the line, the psalm, and poetry in general than any of her correctly parroting schoolmates. For the "mistake" personifies the "goodness and mercy"- the tov vachesed of the Hebrew - as a beneficent pursuer (the Hebrew lines imply that they are the poet's only pursuers, dogging one's footsteps, perhaps, but never hounding). Good Mrs. Murphy following the child about like a beneficent nurse is a more viable, powerful homiletic reconstruction of what had otherwise faded into abstraction than any primer's glossing. The child rightly attended to the trope set up by the intense verb "follow me" and supplied fan appropriate subject for it, thereby turning mechanical allegory into poetic truth. Losing, in mature literacy, the ability to make such mistakes can mean being deaf and blind to the power of even the KJV text, let alone that of the Hebrew.

    -------

    In short, losing the mysterious poetry of engendered by mistranslation, or even by distance from the English usage of a much earlier text, is compensated for many times over by reentry into the original. Confronting the psalms in yet another identity, decked out and bejeweled by linguistic and homiletic commentary, had been an activity of my later life. More and more mysteries open up in these versions as well.

    For example, back in Psalm 23:4, the famous crux of "the valley of the shadow of death" comes from a tendentious repointing of the word tzalmavet, which could mean either "deep shade" or "death shade"," and probably the former. ... But knowing all this in no way makes the poem shed its outer garments for the sake of a naked linguistic truth, and the various translations and versions and misprisions all coexist, and inhere in every phrase.

    -------

    The layers of misreading and rereadings are part of the poetry of the text itself in the poetic portions of the Bible. And the problems and puzzles of the psalms will remain eternal occasions for the reader's negative capability as well as for the interpretive with that turns every reader into a poet, if only momentarily. (chap. 7 Hearing and Overhearing the Psalms, page 113-128 in The Work of Poetry by John Hollander)
He expresses for me the initial frustration and eventual fascination which I have enjoyed in reading the various commentaries with which Ps. 68 is 'bejeweled." I soon realized that I would not be able to reduce even one of the ambiguities of the text, but could rather open up more each time I looked at the Hebrew text.

I regret that there is no recent Bible version which reflects this pattern of multiple meaning in the way the KJV does. Leland Ryken makes a good point with respect to ambiguity and literary quality. However, I am slowly coming to the realization that the Christian scriptures are not represented in any modern translation in a manner which does justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original. Have we 'lost our humility' vis-á-vis the text?

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39 Comments:

At Sat Oct 06, 05:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I am slowly coming to the realization that the Christian scriptures are not represented in any modern translation in a manner which does justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original.

This is something which some of us realised long ago, and not just of modern translations. It is well known to be impossible to translate poetry adequately in this sense. And the same applies to a work like the Bible, the prose parts as well as the poetic ones. So people like Iyov and Ryken are right to criticise translations for their multiple inadequacies, but wrong to imply that they or anyone else could do a better job. If you really want to do "justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original", then there is no alternative to reading the original.

The problem comes when people like Ryken and yourself try to imply that KJV does a good job where other translations fail. Now it may be that KJV is a little better at this than any one modern translation. But there is absolutely no way in which this or any translation "does justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original". Forget it! If you think that KJV "reflects this pattern of multiple meaning" better than modern Bibles, the reason is probably that, like me, you understand neither the obscurities of KJV nor the actual pattern of multiple meaning of the original. Your suggestion that that there is a closer match here than in any modern translation is simply one of blind faith, presumably based on your upbringing with KJV. Now I can understand a child having such an attitude towards the Bible they were brought up with, but now you are an adult you should give up childish ways.

So, do we give up on translation? No! But we set aside the idolatrous quest of trying to do "justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original" or to produce something "kadosh/holy/separate from other literature", recognising that only the original can be like that. And we produce a translated text which meets the needs of our audience, all the time remembering that this is a provisional and imperfect human, even profane representation of the holy word of God.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:07:00 AM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Suzanne, I appreciate your thoughts and quotes in the post. Thank you. It resonates well with my own struggles with Bible translation and the attendant problems of ambiguities. In my experience, I am far more humble about what I can understand and communicate regarding translation than I was 25 years ago, and even more so with the Hebrew and Greek texts.

A couple years ago on this blog (or maybe the Bible Translation list), I commented that a good translation has to maintain a sense of ambiguity if there was ambiguity in the original text. How that is done and how closely the ambiguity parallels between the two texts can be (and has been) debated, but the ambiguity is also part of the text. What do we do about it?

It seems that many recent English translations reflect an attempt to remove ambiguity - for the sake of the reader. But is removing ambiguity helpful to the reader? Not necessarily. And this brings us to the criticisms of Iyov, Ryken, and Peter, and many others.

Peter writes: ...but [they are] wrong to imply that they or anyone else could do a better job. But isn’t that exactly what every translation committee does when a new translation is published? Even more when these committees produce revisions within 3-5 years after the original? Obviously all of them think they could do a better job. The healthy dialog between all players in the translation field is important. So Iyov and Ryken can criticize, and Peter can bring other aspects to light.

Peter writes: If you really want to do "justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original", then there is no alternative to reading the original. In one sense, I agree. But in the sense of translation, I think we can continue on the path to better translations by struggling to do exactly that.

As for appreciating an older translation, I found something akin to Suzanne’s experience. For the past 50+ years I have used KJV, Beck, NAS, NKJV, NIV, GW. Although I had never used the RSV, I recently purchased a 2002 RC revision of the RSV (with Deutero-canonicals). By reading it devotionally and with my wife, I have begun to appreciate aspects of the text that had eluded me. Sometimes I will check its wording with the original language text to see whether I have understood the text correctly. This does not occur with a two-week exposure, but with many months of daily exposure. Interestingly, I like it better than the ESV, and that is admitting much!

I guess my point is that the older translations offer something that some of the newer translations don’t. And we can appreciate even more the translators of those older ones.

Thanks, again, Suzanne and Peter, for your thoughts.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:49:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

If ambiguity in the biblical text was not intended by its author, but, rather, was simply an artifact of the grammar of the biblical language, should *that* ambiguity be preserved in translation?

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:59:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

In other words, is meaning determined by authorial intent or by the reader? This is a big debate in hermeneutics and literary interpretation.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 09:10:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I take it that when Suzanne, alluding to Ryken, referred to "the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original", she was meaning those intended by the authors. Of course a lot of the difficulty with translation is that we readers of a the original text in a dead language perceive ambiguities which were not in the original, and don't perceive ambiguities which were in the original. In principle we should seek in our exegetical studies to set aside the former and uncover the latter; and then, to the extent that we can translate ambiguities at all, we should seek to translate only those that were in the original. But what is possible in practice is so far from this ideal that wonder if we should even try.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I wrote the same thing in April 2006.

I do think that there could be a modern translation which would maintain the ambiguities, and do a better job of including notes for the different possible translations fairly.

I don't think that it would be a great hit in the pulpit. Maybe something along the lines of Rotherham. I love that Bible but no one would ever use it today. Of course, the translation would represent current scholarship.

But I have to concede that there isn't a Bible now that fairly represents consensus. This continues to bother me. Its true that it is hard to be ambiguous in English where the Greek is ambiguous but it could be done with notes.

The really sad thing is that the very Bibles which say that they are representing ambiguities or offering extensive notes, are so biased that they are not worth reading in my opinion.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 11:06:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, I agree that "there could be a modern translation which would ... do a better job of including notes for the different possible translations fairly". But I do not agree that it could "maintain the ambiguities".

Well, the first issue here is to identify the ambiguities, the real intended original ones rather than the ones we see because of our limited knowledge of the original language and culture. But then I don't see how it is possible in principle for any arbitrary ambiguity in one language to be retained in a translation (rather than offered as an alternative in a note) in a quite different language. When this is possible and works well it is serendipitous. Some attempts to do this fail by falling into a morass of unclearness and vagueness.

And in other cases translations which claim to maintain ambiguities in fact ignore alternatives which go against traditional translations and interpretations. When this is pointed out translators say things like "no one could possibly understand it to mean that", when in fact what they mean is that in their theological tradition people have been taught that it means something else. Now I accept that in cases like that translators in fact may have no alternative but to present that traditional rendering. But when they do so they should admit that they are imposing their own interpretation and not in fact maintaining ambiguity.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I think we need to look at each case separately. Certainly there would have to be a variety of approaches both through the translation itself, more literal, and through notes.

The problem is that of those translations which have tried, the bias is strong in one direction. What if it were possible to produce a Bible which gave the nod to more than one side in the notes.

That is, the concept of the NET Bible is a good one. I don't like the language stye, but the real issue is that they deliberately go against scholarly consensus when they feel like it. Wallace admits this.

"There are a few places in which the NET editors have disagreed with the present scholarly consensus on the meaning of a given text."

So what is the point of having lots of notes if you don't represent scholarly consensus? You re just taking people in. What we need is a real attempt at literalness, combined with literary savvy, I would add, and decent notes.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 01:20:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, I don't think you are being fair to the NET Bible team when you dismiss their work for not automatically conforming to the scholarly consensus. Now I know you and I strongly disagree with that team on the specific example they discuss after the quote you gave, Romans 16:7. But you should have quoted the sentence that comes between your quote and that example: "This [disagreement with the consensus] is never a cavalier decision, but always has some substance behind it." Indeed, as we see in this specific example, the note clearly lays out and weighs up the alternative interpretations. Surely this is in principle a model of how translators should deal with ambiguities of this kind - even if we disagree on the conclusion in this case. You are unreasonably tying translators' hands if you claim that they are never allowed to depart from some ill-defined scholarly consensus. I can also find cases where you have endorsed translations departing from the scholarly consensus.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 01:21:00 PM, Blogger Glennsp said...

Peter, you said "So people like Iyov and Ryken are right to criticise translations for their multiple inadequacies, but wrong to imply that they or anyone else could do a better job."
Yet this would seem to be exactly what those on this blog imply all the time.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 02:58:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Glenn, let me clarify. Iyov and Ryken are, in my opinion, wrong to imply that they or anyone else could do a better job of translating "in a manner which does justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original". Their translations, and those of anyone else on this blog, may (or may not) be better in various other ways than other translations. But my point is that none of them will do this justice.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 04:07:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Peter,

I have felt in the past that it was just unwarranted to think of what a new ideal translation would look like. But now I don't. So I think we should tackle this idea head on.

I think that we can come to an understanding here - we are not that far apart in principle.

Suggest some examples of scholarly consensus that I have disregarded. I would like to see exactly what standards I do support.

I would say that the TNIV is a little too interpretive, but the NRSV and ESV are not much better. I mean something quite different from any of these.

I also have endorsed translations like the Good News Bible and CEV. But that is different.

What I mean is that there could be a translation that advertised itself as a formal or literary translation and actually tried to achieve that as a goal. I do not mean that this is superior morally or spiritually, but rather that it would be a worthy goal to have one translation like this.

I still support a dual translation philosophy, cumbersome though it may be. This is really because people don't handle the original languages well. It is irritating but a fact.

I am simply so tired of people thinking that the versions which now advertise themselves to be so really are.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 04:18:00 PM, Blogger Mark said...

About ambiguities in ancient texts, Peter says, "The first issue here is to identify the ambiguities, the real intended original ones rather than the ones we see because of our limited knowledge of the original language and culture."

And Wayne, earlier up the thread of comments said that some ambiguities are intended and some are artifacts of grammar.

But how is the distinction between these two sorts of ambiguities anything other than hubris? Especially because of our "limited knowledge of the original language and culture" surrounding these ancient texts, how can we know if the long dead author's ambiguity is intended or is not?

 
At Sat Oct 06, 04:36:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Suzanne wrote: I still support a dual translation philosophy, cumbersome though it may be.

Interesting because I have repeatedly told parishioners to have at least two translations, one of each major philosophy. I think the best combination for me in this two-translation approach is NAS/GW. I have tried other combinations including one from this group: NKJ/ESV/NIV and one from this group: TNIV/NLT/CEV. The only one that comes close to substitution is NKJ for NAS. Each time I have tried the last three, there is something about certain passages that just don't seem to ring true to the original language text. But that may just be me.

Even the Parallel Bibles have been a disappointment, especially when The Message is included rather than GW. But that may just be me.

At least all of you continue to challenge - but that may just be me (iterative pattern that may be ambiguous, which is the author's intention)

Rich

 
At Sat Oct 06, 04:40:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Mark,

I agree that both these kinds of ambiguities exist. But it is more complicated than this.

There are phrases and words whose meaning we can only guess at. THe vocabulary is obscure.

Then there are phrases in Greek that are perfectly normal and common, but they are still ambiguous, and we don't know what the author intends, although we understand each word. In this case, the author may or may not have intended ambiguity.

Among these cases, there are situations where we can maintain the ambiguity in English and times when a translator cannot maintain the ambiguity in translation. So one has to use notes.

It is complicated but I think that if we wanted to maintain ambiguity, and accepted that we were sacrificing meaning on one level, it could be done. I don't know if anyone would want to preach from this Bible, but it would still be one that people could refer to and feel some of the mystery/obscurity of the original.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 05:13:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Rich,

You mention,

NKJ/ESV/NIV

I cannot agree that these do a good job of being true to the original. They may simply be more familiar and traditional.

For one thing, I do not agree that gender neutrality is a departure from the literal. Since "brothers and sisters" is the FIRST meaning given for αδελφοι in a lexicon, a literal Bible would honour this.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 06:15:00 PM, Blogger 2blikehim said...

Could it be that our opinion that older translations retain "more" and modern translations "less" because our modern common vocabulary is so much less?

 
At Sat Oct 06, 06:58:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

In short, losing the mysterious poetry of engendered by mistranslation, or even by distance from the English usage of a much earlier text, is compensated for many times over by reentry into the original.

You post here is incredible, Suzanne. What will we lose if we insist on losing ambiguity? It's humility that we lose. And your proposal to re-enter the original reminds me of Mikhail Epstein’s wonderful ideas on “INTERLATION VS. TRANSLATION: STEREOTEXTUALITY.” If there's simultaneous engagement between the original and the new, then there's the appreciation for the ambiguity in either and the interplay between both.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 07:01:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Well, well, well -- this is a fine pickle. Here are taken a few sentences from a post by me (with the excerpter freely confessing that the sentences do not serve justice to my original sentiment): only to yield the spectacle of Peter chanting: "you can't make a perfect translation, nyaa, nyaa."

If you took the trouble the read my post you would see that I freely admitted that a perfect translation was impossible: but certainly this is a criterion by which we can rank the quality of various translations -- and it is a quality that with a small number of exceptions has been ignored by modern translators. (And like J. K. Gayle, I also mentioned the issue of humility.)

I invite anyone interested to read my original post.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 07:50:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

The fascinating thing is that valuing this quality of ambiguity, although not universal, has no connection to the complementarian/egalitarian divide.

Some may think it does, but I cannot make find any reason for why it should. There is a pretty wide spectrum of people who would support it.

I used to think that this was just my own private hobby horse last year, but now I realize that many others value this also.

So, there could be a joint effort in this direction. People would not have to hold to any particular "evangelical" position. The rule would be, literary, literal and ambiguous.

In spite of all the new versions around, I think it would be worth producing a version of the Christian scriptures along these lines. The Hebrew scriptures is already in the process.

Can anyone think of a recent literal and literary translation of the NT?

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:12:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language

From your link, J. K.

Bilingualism should be a prerequisite to being a translator. Since few Bible translators are really fluent in Hellenistic Greek, they should be at least bilingual in any two living languages.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mark wrote:

Especially because of our "limited knowledge of the original language and culture" surrounding these ancient texts, how can we know if the long dead author's ambiguity is intended or is not?

We can never know anything with certainty, including what someone else means by what they say or write. On the other hand, it is not wasted effort to attempt to discover what someone means by what they say or write, whether it is one's own spouse (my wife and I often do not understand what the other one is saying; fortunately, we are both still alive and we work at clarifying).

We are not working in a vacuum when we examine passages in the biblical texts which are potentially ambiguous. We can find clues in the context. We do understand a great deal about the syntax and lexicons of the biblical languages. Our knowledge of these languages is not perfect, but we are not deciphering the Rosetta Stone when we try to understand a passage of a biblical text.

It is not hubris to try to distinguish between intended ambiguity and accidental ambiguity which is an artifact of the structure of a language. Those of us who love puns and other plays on words are very aware of the difference between deliberate and unintended ambiguity.

On the other hand, it is hubris to presume to claim that we know for certain what a biblical author intended in a passage where the grammar of the language gives us a possible ambiguity.

As with so many things in life, there is a necessary balance. Iyov and philosophers of language are right when they note that perfect translation is impossible. And yet we live with imperfect translation every day at the United Nations, at multi-nation summit meetings, and when we read our English Bibles. Those who translate are trained to do good quality translation. Their jobs are on the line, to be sure, when they are translating speeches which might make a difference between nations as to whether someone is threatening war or just posturing.

There is no room for slopping, shoddy translation. I don't think any Bible translator ever intends to do poor quality translation. Yet we all know that translations can be improved. That is the purpose for this blog's existence, that we Bible readers might become more skilled at spotting translation wordings which can be improved.

Improvements can be made, at times, when we gain further insight into the context, themes, lexical cohesion, authorial patterns, differences among literary genre, etc., when we deal with what seem to us, the reader or analysts, as ambiguities in the original text. Typically, a speaker or writer gives some clues if they are intending ambiguity. I sure do when I pun. It is a worthwhile exercise for us to *attempt* to discover any clues in the biblical texts which can help us decide what the percentages of certainty are for one reading of an ambiguity over another reading. Again, we may never reach a level of certainty. I, personally, am a fan of footnoting when anything in the biblical text has a fairly high *degree* of uncertainty about what the biblical author intended.

But if the clues we find through careful and *humble* (I like that emphasis which I've been reading in the posts) research raise the level of certainty that the biblical author intended one reading of an ambiguity over another one, then we ought to put that reading in the translation. And we can footnote the alternative. We can even quantify the level of certainty as is done with degrees of certainty about text critical matters concerning the biblical texts.

The fact that you are probably understanding at least 90% of what I am writing now is a testament to how well we actually do communicate with one another, despite the communicative hurdles which always exist. And the fact that we are studying *ancient* biblical text adds more hurdles than we face with everyday face-to-face communication.

It's not easy, but all is not lost. The effort to translate and translate well is worth it. Not every potential ambiguity was intended by the one who spoke or wrote. But we can bat better than 50-50, I believe, if we become as skilled scholars of the biblical languages and their texts as possible.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:27:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

If the ambiguity is not intended, but we still don't understand it, then we should just let it be.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:41:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

If the ambiguity is not intended, but we still don't understand it, then we should just let it be.

Sometimes we can, Suzanne, and sometimes we can't. But the latter I am referring to the fact that the syntax and lexicons of source and target languages often do not match up one-to-one. In some languages, it is simply impossible to maintain a possible ambiguity we spot in a biblical text. We are forced to make a choice because of the syntax or lexicon of the target language. For a language like English, we can sometimes retain original ambiguity (whether or not it was intended, esp. in the Greek since both Greek and English are in the Indo-European language family and share *some* syntactic features.

My own preference is that even if it is *possible* to retain an original ambiguity in a translation, it is important to footnote what each possible reading is. That way we don't over-interpret during translation but we provide information that readers need so that they will know what the interpretive possibilities are.

The vast majority of ambiguities we can spot in the biblical texts are likely unintended. We should not translate in a way that allows readers to think that the biblical authors wrote with so much ambiguity. They didn't just as we do not *usually* intend ambiguity when we communicate with each other throughout a typical day. Of course, some of us, like myself, in certain contexts have a high percentage of ambiguity when we start punning. But most people are not intentionally punning a high percentage of the time. They may have unintentional ambiguities, but we can often infer what they intended. In the case of biblical texts, if we really are unable to determine what the likely intended meaning was, we should state that, but we should let the reader know what each possibility was.

I personally think that we should treat original intended ambiguity in the biblical texts (and there are some, some interesting ones in Hebrew and a few in the N.T., esp. in the Gospel of John) differently in translation from unintended ambiguities. *How* we mark the differences in translation is something up for discussion. Footnotes help. There may be other good ways also.

The main thing is that we do not want to give readers wrong meaning, and if we translate ambiguously when a biblical author did not intend ambiguity, we are not being faithful to that author, and, in some sense, we are distorting meaning (i.e. accuracy) in translation. Again, how to let the readers know what is going on, in terms of different kinds of ambiguity is a very worthy topic for discussion for anyone concerned about translation issues.

 
At Sat Oct 06, 08:52:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have already agreed that there are different kinds of ambiguities. But, even if the author did not intend to be ambiguous, and we still don't know what was intended then we should use an ambiguous translation.

Sometimes, this can't be done except through the notes.

 
At Sun Oct 07, 05:16:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne writes:

it is important to footnote what each possible reading is. That way we don't over-interpret during translation but we provide information that readers need so that they will know what the interpretive possibilities are.

Isn't this presumption? The thin ice of arrogance?

How can I discern each possible reading? Let's take Psalm 68 as an example. From its author(ess) to King David, from the Israel royalty to the Hebrew laity, from those in Jerusalem to the Jews in exile, from those in Alexandria Egypt translating it as part of LXX to Jesus reading it in the LXX, from Jerome and the vulgate to the Roman Catholic Papal readings, from Martin Luther's German-ing to the other Reformers' interpretations, from John Wyclif's version to the "pestilent glosses" of Tyndale that Henry VIII complained about, from James's Authorized Version to any of the versions we choose from, from the various professional commentators to the less formal bloggers, each possible reading is what eternity is for. (And if heaven canNOT wait, well, then that's what the NET Bible's for, right :) ?)

The point here is that translation is interpretation. That a humble translator will not pretend to have all the different interpretations.

That the humble God in Jesus Christ seemed to leave a whole lot of room for interpretation to his listeners. Why else would he tell parables? Why else would he resist tagging the parables with interpretation-minimizing footnotes? Why else would he leave to his ear-and-eye witnesses the task of translating his Hebrew-ish Aramaic into goyim Greek?

One final thought here: C. S. Lewis has some beautiful thoughts on this whole topic of ambiguity (and humility) in "Second Meanings," a chapter in his Reflections on the Psalms.

 
At Sun Oct 07, 07:46:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

J.K. commented:

Isn't this presumption? The thin ice of arrogance?

How can I discern each possible reading? Let's take Psalm 68 as an example.


Oh, sorry, J.K., I wasn't clear enough what kinds of ambiguities I was referring to.

I am *only* referring to *linguistic* ambiguities, which come about because of different syntactic or lexical options. I am *not* referring to extra-linguistic ambiguities (actually, they would not technically be called ambiguity which linguists generally limit to options due to syntax and lexical multiple options) of the kind which you mentioned for who might be the author and addressee of Psalm 68.

In English here is a sentence with a syntactic ambiguity:

"Flying planes can be dangerous."

Linguists have discussed this example for many years. Using older Chomskyan models the two possible meanings would be diagrammed with different syntactic trees. The two different underlying meanings are, of course:

1. It can be dangerous to fly planes.
2. Planes which fly can be dangerous.

Lexical ambiguity is similar but is due to more than one meaning possible, as in the English sentence:

3. John went to the bank.

This sentence is ambiguous because we do not know if the bank that John went to is a financial institution or a bluff (some people used "bluff" and "bank" interchangeably).

In the Bible Greek genitives are notorious for giving us potential ambiguities.

A frequently discussed ambiguity is the genitive of Rev. 1:1, apokalupsis iesou christou, literally "revelation Jesus Christ-GENITIVE". Without further clues, we cannot tell from these three words if the revelation (of the entire book) is *about* Jesus Christ or *from* Jesus Christ. Either is possible, and, IMO, should be footnoted. Such true linguistic ambiguities are typically footnoted in the NET Bible which is a feature I appreciate in that version.

There really is no arrogance or hubris involved in any of this. It's a humble search for truth. My own preference would be that we avoid judgmental words here on the blog such as "hubris" or "arrogance." I don't think they advance our communal search for truth together.

 
At Sun Oct 07, 12:35:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne replies to J.K.:
There really is no arrogance or hubris involved in any of this. It's a humble search for truth. My own preference would be that we avoid judgmental words here on the blog such as "hubris" or "arrogance." I don't think they advance our communal search for truth together.

to which I (fn: J.K.) reply: Let me judge myself first, please, as one of the most arrogant human beings on the planet. Sorry, Wayne, I certainly did NOT mean even to imply that you have hubris (and for all mine, how could I tell?!) Those who live with me know my pride and help me see it. But let's do keep talking in the good communal search for truth you genuinely, humbly advise.

 
At Sun Oct 07, 01:35:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne writes:
Linguists have discussed this example for many years. Using older Chomskyan models the two possible meanings would be diagrammed with different syntactic trees.

Now I do want to use the label "arrogance," Wayne. Not for individual persons (except for myself perhaps). But as a label for linguistic theories. You mention "Chomskyan models," which surely serve the purposes you describe (i.e., the purposes of disambiguation).

But if the Chomskyan linguist is doing that for the non-Chomskyan linguist (if there's such a thing), then I say there's arrogance implicit in the act. I'm trying to get at something social here. Not language analysis, which any lowly or proud human can do. But the presumption of knowing and showing better than the other person.

There's another way, more humble. Let's call it (for lack of better terms Tagmemics, or Pikean linguistics). Ever see & hear Kenneth Lee Pike do a "monolingual demonstration"? It's humble listening! The linguist (i.e., Pike) submits to the other person speaking her (or his) own language (one Pike doesn't immediately know). Rather than the linguist being the know-it-all teacher, he (or she) is the try-it-all learner.

Pike describes some of this in his online article, Talk, Thought, and Thing. There he shares a conviction: that "In a shared physical-social environment, a person can learn to speak a language without an interpreter. This implies the presence of a shared capacity to learn cross-culturally and to transmit names, social structure, and worldview." Sounds like what you propose in "our communal search for truth together."

Pike adds:

Truth . . . is not dependent upon the exact degree of precision obtained if the generalizations are acceptable . . . ; but coherence with background pattern expressed, implicit or intended, must not be lost. Expectancies of the hearer must be met by the speaker, with a degree of coherence with reality as perceived by the speaker, for such a paraphrase to be acceptable. . . Exceptions to the possibility of specific translation [there may be], in instances where linguistic ambiguity is involved and where this ambiguity is utilized by the speaker as part of his presentation. Puns, for example, cannot normally be translated directly by puns in the target language. They can be explained, but the explanation of a pun does not carry the same impact as the pun itself—an impact which in tagmemic theory is part of the meaning. [bold font mine]

Pike illustrates his own experience with Mixtec people who tells puns he (the outsider linguist doesn't get):

"Tone Puns in Mixteco"

"Another Mixteco Tone Pun"

But Pike isn't the last word on such humility. Robert de Beaugrande discusses "two ways of doing 'language science'"; he questions the arrogance of arm-chair, home-work linguists in contrast to the field-work linguists (such as Pike) living among the writers and speakers of the language being learner: “Theory and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Disconnection, Conflict, or Dialectic?”

And Larry Wall, who invented the Perl computer programming language with a whole bunch of other people, has called it a "humble language." One reason Wall calls it humble is that it's based in tagmemics, on the principles of the language users (the people themselves not the logic of the language). Wall says,

"Transformational grammar [i.e., Chomskyan linguistics] was built on the notion of analyzing a sentence. And they had all their cute rules, and they eventually ended up throwing most of them back out again. . . But in the tagmemic view, you can take a sentence as a unit and use it differently. . . That is where the expressiveness comes from." Wall goes on to quote "Owen Barfield, or maybe it was C.S. Lewis" on how living human beings can say or write "one thing and mean another," and how that's just part of humanity and living human languages.

When it comes to "dead" languages, such as those of the Bible, then it's quite clear there can be no living among the speakers and writers to learn from them.

But I do think people like C.S. Lewis model a kind of humble approach to "dead-language" ambiguities. In his opener to his Reflections on the Psalms, he takes the humble position of non-expert, of complete outsider. And he continues that through-out. Admitting there's much difficult for him along the way, and that there are many "second meanings" not anticipated at first glance. Lewis also is keen to understand the cultures and histories of those whose texts he's learning the language of.

Wayne, I must end this by saying I'm guessing there's much of what you wrote I am misreading. I'm just that arrogant. I look forward to hearing what you have to say! (I do marvel at the examples and analyses of language you give in your comments, the Chomskyan analyses even.) And yet, and yet. The difference between Chomsky and Pike in their approaches is huge. The former's approach is high and abstract and impersonal; the latter's is lowly, insisting that "person must always remain above logic," that ambiguities can always be beyond me.

 
At Sun Oct 07, 01:38:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Wayne wrote:
I am *only* referring to *linguistic* ambiguities, which come about because of different syntactic or lexical options. I am *not* referring to extra-linguistic ambiguities (actually, they would not technically be called ambiguity which linguists generally limit to options due to syntax and lexical multiple options) of the kind which you mentioned for who might be the author and addressee of Psalm 68.

I'm glad you clarified.

Personally, I think trying to bring over linguistic ambiguity via a translation should only be done to produce a tool designed for close, detailed study. The user of that tool would know they need to apply additional skills to understand that "abnormal" text. These skills are over and above the normal interpretive skills required for understanding a "normal" text.

For example, the two examples you cite would, in a normal text, be immediately clarified by embedding them in a large text.

Now, to be clear, the larger text is a grammatical structure--typically, a paragraph. That is the formal, grammatical structure. However, it seems to me the thing that actually removes the ambiguity happens at the semantic level and is called coherence. And techniques for developing and revealing coherence are not well understood and certainly not commonly utilized by exegetes of the sacred text.

Coherence appears to depend a great deal on the metaphorical nature of language--Specifically, the interpretive framework embedded into a specific language itself. If a translator tries to generate the same level of coherency in the translated text that exists in the original, he or she is often accused of "adding" interpretation. People, when exegeting the Bible, don't typically think in terms of coherent structures. They tend to deal with a verse at a time.

In my opinion, what is needed here is clarification of translator's intent by their revealing how the paragraph in the original generates the coherence. And, also, showing how that coherence determined their translation choices.

BTW: Let's keep in mind that the quote of Ryken in this posting is from his conclusion and therefore assumes an authorial intended ambiguity in any genre, even in texts where the author intends to be very clear (Paul's writings to Corinth, for example). Personally, I have problem with this view since I think it impinges on the ability and intension of the ultimate Author. However, (correct me if I'm wrong) Hollander's quote is specific to the poetry in a Psalm. Poetry contains authorial intended ambiguity since it is meant to speak simultaneously across multiple, intended semantic dimensions. It speaks to the emotions, for instance. I don't think Hollander and Ryken are in the same camp.

 
At Sun Oct 07, 04:31:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

J.K. responded:

Now I do want to use the label "arrogance," Wayne. Not for individual persons (except for myself perhaps).

We probably all are arrogant at times. I know I have been.

But as a label for linguistic theories. You mention "Chomskyan models," which surely serve the purposes you describe (i.e., the purposes of disambiguation).

I only mentioned that model because it had a convenient way of diagramming the syntactic ambiguity. All linguistic models can probably account for ambiguity in one way or another.

But if the Chomskyan linguist is doing that for the non-Chomskyan linguist (if there's such a thing),

Yes, I'm one.

then I say there's arrogance implicit in the act.

I would disagree. There is only arrogance if, as you mention next, the one speaking presumes to know better or be better. Arrogance is not connected to any model in any discipline. Arrogance, IMO, is a matter of the heart, how one relates to others

I'm trying to get at something social here. Not language analysis, which any lowly or proud human can do. But the presumption of knowing and showing better than the other person.

Yes, such presumption, can indicate arrogance. OTOH, if one creates a better model that better accounts for data, there need not be arrogance in promoting that model. It can simply be a matter of learning more and sharing that knowledge with others. It was not arrogance that drove some to suggest that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, rather than the sun revolving around the earth.

There's another way, more humble. Let's call it (for lack of better terms Tagmemics, or Pikean linguistics). Ever see & hear Kenneth Lee Pike do a "monolingual demonstration"?

Yes, Pike was one of my teachers. I appreciated his monolingual demonstrations very much. I even dared to do one myself at a Christian high school once where there were students who spoke other languages. It was a humbling experience for me since I had to act like a little child, not knowing anything about the language, but having to stumble around to learn as much as possible in a short period of time in front of the audience.

It's humble listening! The linguist (i.e., Pike) submits to the other person speaking her (or his) own language (one Pike doesn't immediately know). Rather than the linguist being the know-it-all teacher, he (or she) is the try-it-all learner.

Indeed. And that is how I view the search for truth in exegesis and translation technique as we do Bible translation.

(snip)

Puns, for example, cannot normally be translated directly by puns in the target language. They can be explained, but the explanation of a pun does not carry the same impact as the pun itself—an impact which in tagmemic theory is part of the meaning. [bold font mine]

Precisely. And this is what I have been trying to say. The form:meaning composite of tagmemics illustrates well how form contributes to ambiguity of meaning (of which puns are one kind of ambiguity).

When it comes to "dead" languages, such as those of the Bible, then it's quite clear there can be no living among the speakers and writers to learn from them.

True, and I agree with C.S. Lewis' attitude toward such languages which you mention. Even though we cannot interview speakers of Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek, we still have a great deal of scientific data which helps us understand those languages. As with all search for truth, we must be humble in the endeavor. But there is no need to give up and not try simply because we cannot know everything for certain (you have not suggested that).
For example, the two examples you cite would, in a normal text, be immediately clarified by embedding them in a large text.

Correct, that is what I mean by referring to the context in which the ambiguity occurs.

Now, to be clear, the larger text is a grammatical structure--typically, a paragraph. That is the formal, grammatical structure. However, it seems to me the thing that actually removes the ambiguity happens at the semantic level and is called coherence. And techniques for developing and revealing coherence are not well understood and certainly not commonly utilized by exegetes of the sacred text.

I agree with what you have said in that paragraph. Fortunately, some biblical exegetes have been recognizing the importance of noting coherence in a text. There are some who are melding insights from linguistics, literary theory, and biblical exegesis. I applaud them.

BTW: Let's keep in mind that the quote of Ryken in this posting is from his conclusion and therefore assumes an authorial intended ambiguity in any genre, even in texts where the author intends to be very clear (Paul's writings to Corinth, for example). Personally, I have problem with this view since I think it impinges on the ability and intension of the ultimate Author. However, (correct me if I'm wrong) Hollander's quote is specific to the poetry in a Psalm. Poetry contains authorial intended ambiguity since it is meant to speak simultaneously across multiple, intended semantic dimensions. It speaks to the emotions, for instance. I don't think Hollander and Ryken are in the same camp.

I don't know Hollander and Ryken's approaches well enough to be able to comment on them. So I must be humble (!) and not comment at all on what I don't know.

Cheers!

 
At Tue Oct 09, 09:25:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Catching up on two days' worth of comments here.

Suzanne wrote:

What I mean is that there could be a translation that advertised itself as a formal or literary translation and actually tried to achieve that as a goal. I do not mean that this is superior morally or spiritually, but rather that it would be a worthy goal to have one translation like this.

I agree, Suzanne, although I am not sure that Iyov and Ryken would. What I cannot agree with is any suggestion that such a translation would be suitable for use by all or most readers, for use in church etc. Rather, it is something which would only be appreciated and properly understood by a small group of the intelligentsia, a group in which I claim no membership.

I don't agree with you that there is even in principle such a thing as "a new ideal translation". But in my opinion the nearest we could get to that ideal, if by that we mean what would be the best translation to have if there were only one, would not be anything like your "formal or literary translation".

Interestingly, when Ernst-August Gutt, from the perspective of relevance theory, described what he would consider to be the ideal translation, which he called a direct translation, he had to accept that in matters of word plays etc it would have to be well short of perfect.

Mark wrote:

But how is the distinction between these two sorts of ambiguities anything other than hubris? Especially because of our "limited knowledge of the original language and culture" surrounding these ancient texts, how can we know if the long dead author's ambiguity is intended or is not?

Indeed, Mark. Part of my point is that it is not possible for translators to know whether ambiguity is intended or not. So if a translator claims to translate ambiguity they cannot know whether they are rendering "the qualities of multiple meanings and mystery that the original text possesses" or simply some artefact of our limited understanding of the original.

Rich wrote:

I have tried other combinations including one from this group: NKJ/ESV/NIV and one from this group: TNIV/NLT/CEV.

This is a decidedly odd set of selections, given that the first of your second group is in general slightly more of a formal equivalence translation than the last of your first group.

Iyov, I freely admit that I did not read your post. My response here is to Suzanne, not to you. If you are not suggesting that you could do a better job than other translators, I apologise for stating that you are. Of course you will realise that the criteria on which I judge translations are very different from yours, perhaps because my understanding of the contemporary use of the Bible is very different from yours.

Suzanne wrote:

Bilingualism should be a prerequisite to being a translator.

Surely this is almost trivially true, since it is impossible to translate (rather than paraphrase) unless one knows both the source and target languages. The source language for a Bible translation is not necessarily the original, it may be a major world language. But a monolingual translator is an oxymoron.

 
At Tue Oct 09, 12:25:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Peter says: a monolingual translator is an oxymoron.

But Wayne (and I), (both of us) student(s) of Kenneth Pike, can testify this:

that translator (language theorist) Pike seemed to prefer working as a "monolingual translator" (and many scholars and students have marveled).

Pike's "monolingual demonstration" is an act of simultaneous translation in which the translator humbly instantly progressively learns another's language by using that other individual's language only. Pike theorized and experienced such etic-ness, allowing the other individual to be the emic one. Pike, the monolingual translator, was not an oxymoron. Rather, he allowed the one whose language he [Pike] was translating to glory in the ambiguities of her or his [the speaker's] own language.

You may respond by saying, "that's not what I meant." And yet, I'm now replying here also to Wayne.

There is much humble in Pike's tagmemics. For Pike's approach acknowledges the "N-dimensionality" of language in which "person is logic": Pike would allow me to add that "person is [always] above [reductionistic, abstractionistic, finite-dimension] logic." For the etic outsider person and the emic insider person in dialogue, the conversation and the translation is in the language, the in-finite-ly ambiguous language of the emic insider person.

In 1964, Pike the linguist crossed in as an outsider into "composition studies and rhetoric." (In 2004, I began a similar journey, writing first about the death of Pike's theory in comp studies some 40 years later.) In October 1964, Pike wrote this in College Composition and Communication:

"The observer adds part of himself to the data that he [or she] looks at or listens to . . . . A
bias of mine -- not shared by many linguists -- is the conviction that beyond the
sentence lie grammatical structures available to linguist analysis, describable by
technical procedures, and usable by the author for the generation of literary works
through with he reports to us his observations. (page 129)"

It's the humble acknowledgment of the ambiguous act of "observing etically as an outsider" that Pike was so good about. It's the humble recognition that the other (i.e., the emic speaker and writer) should not be / cannot be pinned down in dis-ambiguation by the outsider. It's the humble practice of monolingual (your language, not mine) translation. We'll be the worse for it if we allow that perspective and practice to die.

 
At Tue Oct 09, 02:07:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

JK, I respect Pike, though I never met him. And I am aware of the kind of monolingual demonstration which he did. But as you say "the translator ... learns another's language" (your emphasis, but just the word I would have emphasised), and at that point becomes no longer monolingual. So you can't really say that this is monolingual translation, although you might call this monolingual language learning.

Actually I remember a friend of mine who had learned a foreign language monolingually. I was meanwhile learning the same language in a more normal bilingual way. On one occasion he was asked to translate orally from that language into English. He found it very difficult. I found it much easier, although in general I was much less fluent in the language. I suppose that in my brain there were mental links between words in that language and roughly equivalent English words, links which had never been made in my friend's brain because he had always kept English and the other language separate.

 
At Tue Oct 09, 03:34:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

What I cannot agree with is any suggestion that such a translation would be suitable for use by all or most readers, for use in church etc.

I have already said that it would not be a pew Bible. It would be for literary or reference use.

Translators from the Biblical languages into English are often not bilingual. This is the source of the disagreement between Carson and Grudem. Carson is actively bilingual and Grudem is not.

 
At Tue Oct 09, 04:32:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, I don't see how a translation can be "ideal" if it is not even suitable for use in church.

I see your point about Grudem. But he is not really a translator, more a paraphraser of RSV with reference to commentaries.

I didn't respond to this request:

Suggest some examples of scholarly consensus that I have disregarded. I would like to see exactly what standards I do support.

I was thinking in terms of your interpretations of authentein, kephale etc. You are write to question what has been presented as the consensus on these matters, but that implies that you are not prepared to accept a reading just because it is the consensus. You would certainly be departing from the translation consensus if you rendered kephale as anything other than "head".

 
At Tue Oct 09, 07:45:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I was thinking in terms of your interpretations of authentein, kephale etc. You are write to question what has been presented as the consensus on these matters, but that implies that you are not prepared to accept a reading just because it is the consensus. You would certainly be departing from the translation consensus if you rendered kephale as anything other than "head".

Kephale is a non-issue for me. If people want to be so ridiculous as to believe that a man is supposed to think for his wife, there is little can be done about it.

As long as she is made aware that in law he cannot force her to obey that is all I care.

So I would translate kephale as head and make clear in the notes that one of the options is that the head is the source of the seed in the male. The notes would have to handle kephale.

It can easily be shown that scholars all know very well that authentein means "dominate" and not "exercise authority". I don't know if Kostenberger is in on the joke yet, but Grudem clearly knows that the Philodemus fragment does not exist.

There is a behind closed doors consensus on that one. What the complementarians will not agree to is the solution of the TNIV which is "assume authority" or "teach in a domineering way".

If it were translated as dominate, Grudem could not argue, he agrees with this. The question would then be whether anyone was allowed to dominate, or only women could not dominate. It would lay bare the belief about power that is behind this teaching.

Naturally a note should be attached to indicate that "usurp authority" or even "flout authority" is also a possible translation, but the translation itself should represent a neutral choice which can be proven to be acceptable to both sides.

 
At Tue Oct 09, 08:12:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

The question would then be whether anyone was allowed to dominate, or only women could not dominate.

Suzanne, I'm glad you noted this. I don't think that it is biblical for anyone to dominate. It runs counter to the teachings of Jesus who clearly said that we are to serve each other. There is no place in true righteousness, as taught in the Bible, for power plays, or usurping authority.

I don't even think that biblical headship includes power. Instead, biblical headship is taught in the Bible to include sacrificial love and an organic unity with the one to whom one is a head.

 
At Wed Oct 10, 10:27:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Peter:

He found it very difficult. I found it much easier, although in general I was much less fluent in the language.

Thanks for sharing your incredible experience. When you talked about the contrast between how you and your friend learned the same language at the same time, I immediately thought that difficulty C.S. Lewis had. Remember, in Surprised by Joy, how he came to learn the difference between "enjoyment" and "contemplation" and the mutually-exclusive experience of the two?

At any rate, you've inspired me to blog on Kenneth Pike: "An Inconvenient Truthiness"

 

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