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Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Literary Translation" and Obfuscation

To me it is more or less axiomatic that a Bible translation should be clear, as well as accurate. I would normally add a third criterion here, that it should be natural; but I can conceive of circumstances where one might want to produce a translation which was not in the natural form of any language. But I cannot conceive of circumstances in which a translation might be deliberately inaccurate, and I would expect everyone to agree on that. And I thought I could not conceive of circumstances in which a translation might be deliberately unclear, at least in any place where the original language text is clear. But it seems that not everyone agrees with me on that.

For there has been a debate going on on various blogs about "literary translation". This started with a comment by Rich Rhodes on a post by Doug Chaplin, which was taken up by John Hobbins. John quotes with approval from an author who quotes the Spanish liberal philosopher José Ortega y Gasset:
To him, a translation is ... one that draws attention to the cultural and linguistic differences in order to “force the reader from his linguistic habits and oblige him to move within those of the author.” Thus, a good translation is one that allows the reader to undertake a metaphorical “voyage to the foreign, to the absolutely foreign, which another very remote time and another very different civilization comprise.” This enhanced “historical consciousness” has the beneficial result — or in Ortega y Gasset's words, the “splendor” — of introducing new perspectives that may challenge conventional beliefs.
John also writes:
The truth, furthermore, needs to meet us as a stranger. Its power to transform the familiar in our lives depends on its otherness coming through. An excellent literary translation accomplishes that.
Thus, if I understand him correctly, John is arguing that a Bible translation should be deliberately unclear, even that its power depends on its lack of clarity. This goes completely against what I have held as axiomatic. So it is no wonder that I commented in response to these last words:
I'm sorry, I cannot disagree more. Well, I guess this might work with a small minority of intellectuals trained to read and understand what is strange. But for the great majority of readers the strange simply leaves them with lots of question marks, or else walking away from the texts.
Now, as I wrote earlier in that comment, I can understand someone like our blogging friend Iyov, apparently an orthodox Jew, preferring literary translation, because he is coming at the Bible with a totally different perspective from mine. Similarly I suppose the liberal Ortega y Gasset. But I would expect John, as a more or less evangelical Christian, to have the same kind of perspective as me, namely that the purpose of reading the Bible is not to enjoy historical literature but to understand the inspired message which God has given to humanity. OK, that's a bit of an oversimplification. But if it is important to understand the message, we simply have no time for
allow[ing] the reader to undertake a metaphorical “voyage to the foreign, to the absolutely foreign, which another very remote time and another very different civilization comprise.”

Yes, maybe by domesticating the Bible in translation we are telling "a lie that tells the truth". I could argue that the New Testament authors' use of the Old Testament justifies this approach. I believe that we not only should but are obliged to do this if we are to bring the gospel message to a lost and dying world.

I think it was Eugene Nida who compared the Bible to an aircraft instruction manual. If a translation of the latter is unclear or inaccurate, a plane may crash and hundreds may lose their lives on this earth. But, he argued, how much more important it is that a Bible translation is clear and accurate, for if it is not millions may fail to find the way of salvation and lose their eternal lives. Now I realise that this argument is flawed in a number of ways, not least in its severely reductionist concept of the Bible as a set of instructions for gaining eternal life. Nevertheless, in a situation where (to put the evangelical perspective rather bluntly) most of the world is lost and in danger of eternal punishment, John and I should be in no doubt of the need for clear translations which all can understand.

Now John is clearly someone who appreciates clear writing and is demotivated by what is unclear, for he wrote:
A most excellent thing about Rich Rhodes is that he writes in completely understandable prose. This is not a minor detail. There are days when I think: life is short; why even bother engaging people who can’t write crisply and clearly? But even on days when I think like that, I would still read Rich with pleasure.
Has he not considered that many readers of the Bible, especially those who are not committed Christians, will not "bother engaging" with the Bible text as translated by "people who can’t write crisply and clearly", or who choose not to do so in the name of preserving "the absolutely foreign"? If even academics like himself are demotivated by unclear writing, how much more the ordinary uneducated masses? Does he not believe that those who do not read the Bible because it is unclear, or who do read but fail to understand, might miss the gospel message and be eternally lost? Is this not a strong argument that not just blog posts but also Bible translations (at least where the original is clear) should be crisp and clear?

Meanwhile John has also been arguing, with a post title which summarises the post well, If a text is literary, its dynamic equivalent in translation must also be literary. The problem here is that he seems to assume that the Bible, in the original, is a literary text. He concludes from this that certain translations which are not in literary style "are improperly done". Here is my response to John, which I made in a comment on his blog (slightly edited):

John, there is an enormous hole in the logic of your argument. You argue in effect: A translation should be in the same style as the original. ... Therefore a translation of the Bible should be in a literary style. The missing part of the argument, the point which you don't bother to state but seem to simply assume, is that the original is in a literary style.

And at this point I beg to differ ... No, I won't be so polite, I will keep up my reputation in your sidebar of giving "A fearless take on issues": this point is simply untrue!

At least it is demonstrably untrue of the New Testament, or at least the great majority of it, which is in the style of personal letters and occasional works of the time and not of contemporary literature.

As for the Hebrew Bible, we have virtually nothing else surviving in the Hebrew of the time with which we can compare the style of the original. I suspect that it is simply an anachronism to suggest that there was a "literary style" of Hebrew distinct from a more popular style, a distinction which makes sense only in certain cultural settings within reasonably literate societies. On this basis I would argue that the Hebrew Bible was not written in a literary style.

The implication, if we agree that a translation should be in the same style as the original, is that Bible translations should NOT be in a literary style.

This further implies that the translations which are "improperly done" are not GNT and CEV but Alter and Kugel.

To be fair to John, he has responded to my comment on the earlier post as follows (an extract):
I'm all in favor of making Scripture comprehensible, but I'm not in favor of domesticating it. God's wisdom will always be foolish and scandalous in the eyes of the world. We can't save the world by minimizing the skandalon of God's word; I think you run that risk at times. But of course, we all do.
But I don't see how Scripture can be made comprehensible to an ordinary audience (people without a deep understanding of the ancient culture) without "domesticating" it so that it no longer appears as "the absolutely foreign"; the implication would seem to be that this is no longer a "literary translation". The skandalon or stumbling-block of God's word is not its foreignness, the fact that it comes from remote cultures. After all, God's wisdom was foolish in those cultures as well as in our own. It is, rather, the timeless call of God, equally relevant in all cultures, to follow his ways rather than that of the world. Of course this should not be minimised, but I don't see why a domesticating translation, if done well, need compromise this at all.

Indeed I would think that a completely non-literary version like The Message, which goes to extremes in domesticating the text, is especially strong in presenting the skandalon of God's word to its target audience. (There are issues with the accuracy of The Message, but that is a separate issue.)

On the other hand, a literary translation which avoids domestication and appears as "the absolutely foreign" will succeed only in obfuscating the skandalon of God's word by hiding its challenge under all kinds of culturally conditioned obscurities. I would think that the reason why many readers prefer "absolutely foreign" literary translations is that their obscurity provides an excuse for those readers to escape from the challenge which God's word is bringing to their lives.

Let us put an end to obfuscation of the Bible. This includes obfuscation for which the excuse is "literary translation" based on the wisdom of the philosophers of this world. And let us present the true skandalon, the stumbling-block of the gospel, in all its stark clarity:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25 (TNIV)
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (TNIV)

15 Comments:

At Sat Oct 13, 02:40:00 PM, Blogger Jimbo S. said...

Well put, Peter!

Jimbo S.

 
At Sat Oct 13, 11:34:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Thanks, Peter, for arguing your case clearly and concisely.

There are a number of unfortunate features in your pattern of argumentation. First of all, it is quite unhelpful to label people as you do, "liberal," "orthodox Jew," and "more or less evangelical," with a hint of denigration in each case. It should rather be emphasized that there is no reason why people from different confessional standpoints cannot agree on a philosophy of translation. They can agree; they sometimes do agree; it is to be expected that differences of opinion on this subject, as on so many others, will cut across confessional fault-lines, not reproduce them.

Secondly, I'm surprised that you suggest that I'm arguing for translation that is deliberately unclear in circumstances in which the original language text is clear. I do not so argue, and so far, you are the only to think that I am.

Thirdly, your negative reaction to Ortega's description of a good translation as one which allows the reader to undertake a metaphorical voyage to a time and place far removed from our own is, I think, misplaced. Granted, the language he uses is strong - reminiscent of Barth's famous commentary on Romans - but really, this way of describing what goes on when we read a text is far from unusual. Surely you have read in the field of hermeneutics and are aware of this.

Fourthly, I think you misrepresent the facts when you suggest, as you did in a comment on my blog, that both the poetry and prose of the Bible in the original languages is written at a level a sixth grader can understand. If you believe that, I suppose that explains the entire thrust of this post.

Granted, I can imagine you understanding a lot of the Bible already in sixth grade, even in a literary translation of the kind you argue against, but that is because I imagine you to be a very bright and sensitive person who could well have been so precocious.

I think it is likely that many more people have had an experience like my own, which is that I began to understand and continue to understand more of the Bible as I have become a more competent reader of texts in general, as my knowledge of the world and God and culture and history have grown. There was a time when a translation like "Good News for Modern Man" met my needs perfectly, and I still learn from translations of this kind. It was only later, as I became a more literate person, that I came to appreciate the richness of a translation like RSV, and behind it, KJV, and later still, in the case of the Old Testament, translations like NJPSV and that of Alter, which for some reason get your goat.

I want to agree with you that 1 Cor 1-2 is helpful in thinking about these things. But I would draw your attention to the fact that according to that same passage, God's word, even if properly presented, will seem foolish to those who are perishing (1:18). I also think you misread Paul if you think that "the words not taught by human wisdom but by the Spirit" must be presented to a dying world in graceless and unadorned language. To be sure, in one sense I think you are right. A college friend of mine who was as intellectual as they come liked to point out that it was the witness of an illiterate Pentecostal truck driver who befriended him in Spain that got him to see the truth of the gospel. But that has not stopped my friend from pursuing a life of literature, philosophy, and theology. That's because in another sense you are wrong. "The words not taught by human wisdom but by the Spirit" are mediated to us in many forms, including highly literary ones, exquisitely rhetorical ones, like the opening section of 1 Corinthians you cite, and highly poetic ones with a richness and density of expression that is the opposite of unadorned and graceless.

That being the case, there is a place for translations of the Bible which bring the graceful, literary, and adorned aspects of the original texts to the fore.

As I've said before, God's word has a way of souring our stomach before it is sweet to the taste, and it seems to have pleased God to do so, more often than not, by means of speech which, as Ezekiel complained, people would listen to for the pleasure of listening to it, without taking its content to heart.

Despite your claims, the original language texts of the Bible are full of explosive and carefully crafted language of a kind rarely encountered in the domesticating translations you prefer.

You, apparently, want a translation, and perhaps also a theology, that smooths away the rough edges of the original. I prefer a translation, and a theology, which preserves the rough edges and tensions and ambiguities of the original. Such a translation, and theology, would be clear, accurate, and natural in the true sense.

ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

 
At Sun Oct 14, 12:03:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

I think it was Eugene Nida who clear and accurate, for if it is not millions may fail to find the way of salvation and lose their eternal lives. Now I realise that this argument is flawed in a number of ways, not least in its severely reductionist concept of the Bible as a set of instructions for gaining eternal life.

I just have some trouble reconciling the Bible as an "instruction manual" with your statements here:

The problem with John’s whole approach comes when he tries to apply specific rules suitable for one cultural situation, whether that of the Old Testament or that of Luther, to our very different situation today. What we need to ask today is whether offering loans with interest helps or harms the poor, or otherwise promotes Christian aims in general. And the answer to this today might be quite different from what it was many centuries ago.

In the above quote, you appear to be arguing for a type of cultural relativism -- that the point of Scriptural arguments is to promote a type worldview in which "Christian aims" are met. But how does that require a translation of Scripture at all -- one would argue that far clearer than Scripture would be a catechism that laid out "Christian aims" -- and then, we could reason together about those actions most likely to promote those aims -- since the actual Scriptural instructions take a lesser status than those actions that suit our "situation today." Now, doubtlessly, the solution to this dilemma comes in the form of your caution about a "reductionist" view of Scripture. However, if we are extracting "Christian aims" or values (as opposed to general humanistic values) from the Bible, then it seems that you are arguing that the essence is to extract the world view of the Scriptural writings -- which seems very close to Ortega.

Nevertheless, in a situation where (to put the evangelical perspective rather bluntly) most of the world is lost and in danger of eternal punishment, John and I should be in no doubt of the need for clear translations which all can understand.

I look forward to your clear and natural translation of Revelations -- or for that matter Romans -- that all Christians can rally around and understand together.

PS: Thanks for mentioning me in your post, but I try to avoid personal comment about myself, so I'll pass over that remark with no comment. In any case, your remarks suggesting that different groups approach the Bible fundamentally differently (which I partly agree and partly disagree with) seems to give a lie to the many Bible societies that hope "to understand the inspired message which God has given to humanity." If, as you suggest, a "liberal" can read the same words as you and take such a different message than you, then it seems to me you are forced to argue that either (a) translation is not very efficacious as a method for transmitting that message; or (b) that vastly different readings of Scripture are all inspired. [My own opinion, by the way, is the latter -- that there are seventy faces to Torah -- see Sanhedrin 34a, Numbers Rabbah 14:12, Zohar I:47b, etc.]

 
At Mon Oct 15, 09:27:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In response to John:

I'm surprised that you suggest that I'm arguing for translation that is deliberately unclear in circumstances in which the original language text is clear. I do not so argue, and so far, you are the only to think that I am.

Well, if that is not what you are arguing, you are certainly being unclear in what you write, although presumably not deliberately so. I don't see how you can quote with approval Ortega y Gasset's words “force the reader from his linguistic habits and oblige him to move within those of the author” and “voyage to the foreign, to the absolutely foreign” without implying that a translation should be outside the forms of language clearly understood by the reader. Yes, I have read others before who hold opinions similar to Ortega's, and I have disagreed with them before.

you suggest ... that both the poetry and prose of the Bible in the original languages is written at a level a sixth grader can understand.

No, I never suggested this. That would be an anachronistic description given that there was no concept of a sixth grader in ancient times. My claim was rather that the poetry and prose of the Bible can be properly translated into language that a sixth grader can understand. I see no compelling reason for any translation to use higher level language - although of course it may do if intended for an audience which can understand it. Of course I am aware that poetry can never be adequately translated, but I don't see that using a higher reading level makes this significantly easier.

There may indeed be concepts in the Bible which sixth graders would find hard to understand, but our discussion here is surely about linguistic features rather than deep theological concepts.

Now, John, I accept that you as an academic and intellectual have moved beyond appreciation of the Good News Translation, through RSV, and on to translations like Alter. But what gets my goat is not so much Alter's translation as the intellectual snobbery and arrogance of people like you who imply that because you understand and appreciate Alter everyone else ought to do so. And if you deny saying that, I will remind you that you wrote that "dynamic equivalent translations like the Good News Bible and the Contemporary English Version are improperly done." The implication of this is that the only proper Bibles are the literary ones which you became able to appreciate as you "became a more literate person". But what about the great majority of ordinary people, whose reading is stuck at the sixth grade level? Are they to access the Word of God only by becoming more literate persons? Is a higher education to become a precondition for salvation, or at least for understanding the message of the Bible?

Don't you see why I have such strong objections to your position? Don't you realise that that illiterate Spanish truck driver probably knew the message much better in its real essentials (even if he didn't have a clue about Hebrew word plays) than anyone who is looking for the truth by "pursuing a life of literature, philosophy, and theology"?

there is a place for translations of the Bible which bring the graceful, literary, and adorned aspects of the original texts to the fore.

Indeed, a rather limited place in my opinion. But why can't you accept that there is also a place for translations like GNT and CEV, and not just as childish things which we should put behind us?

I prefer a translation, and a theology, which preserves the rough edges and tensions and ambiguities of the original.

I entirely agree! That is if we are talking about the conceptual rough edges. Presumably you are not talking about linguistic rough edges in the original; if you are, you are contradicting what you had just written with the same metaphor about "carefully crafted language". Perhaps some of the conceptual rough edges have been smoothed off too much in translations like GNT and CEV. But, unless I have totally misunderstood you and Ortega y Gasset, what you are calling for in your literary translation is not just preservation of conceptual difficulties. Instead you are calling for a version, like Alter's, which is so full of linguistic rough edges introduced into English as translation artefacts, in places where the original text was linguistically smooth and clear, "carefully crafted language", that the conceptual rough edges are completely lost in the noise.

 
At Mon Oct 15, 09:54:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov, note that I did not agree with Nida(?)'s likening of the Bible to an instruction manual. Rather I criticised this "severely reductionist concept of the Bible as a set of instructions for gaining eternal life".

In the above quote, you appear to be arguing for a type of cultural relativism -- that the point of Scriptural arguments is to promote a type worldview in which "Christian aims" are met. But how does that require a translation of Scripture at all -- one would argue that far clearer than Scripture would be a catechism that laid out "Christian aims" ...

This is an interesting argument. But now it seems to be you who want to reduce the Bible to a set of instructions. Rather, I want people to read and meditate on the Bible and through that find their way to the underlying principles which can inform their life. This is promoted neither by any one person or group's distillation of a "catechism" of clearly defined principles from the Bible, nor by translations which hide the principles in deliberately foreignising or inaccessible literary language.

you are arguing that the essence is to extract the world view of the Scriptural writings -- which seems very close to Ortega.

Yes and no! I wonder if Ortega wants to highlight the culture of the Bible and the presuppositions which the authors might have held because of it. What I want to do is almost precisely the opposite, to highlight the places in which the authors go against and challenge cultural presuppositions.

As an example we can go back to the old complementarian and egalitarian issue. Reading the texts as Ortega might want to, we find that the authors were working within a patriarchal society and presupposed this model. Reading them as I want to, I find how the authors in fact challenged those patriarchal presuppositions in a number of ways, ways which when reapplied to our own society lead me to support the egalitarian position. But let's take any further discussion of this specific issue to Complegalitarian.

If, as you suggest, a "liberal" can read the same words as you and take such a different message than you, then it seems to me you are forced to argue that either (a) translation is not very efficacious as a method for transmitting that message; or (b) that vastly different readings of Scripture are all inspired.

I don't think this is an issue of translation. After all there are untranslated texts which are understood very differently by different people, reflecting their different worldviews and presuppositions. But I accept that there is added scope for this in ancient translated texts.

There is certainly a third possible argument here: that one group or other (or perhaps both) is failing to understand the text properly, according to its originally intended (and so, to some of us, inspired) meaning, because the people of this group have a worldview which makes them fundamentally unable to appreciate the intended meaning. As a simple example of this, an account of a miracle will be understood quite differently by someone with a thoroughly materialistic worldview than by someone whose worldview includes the possibility of miracles. Of course it is possible in principle to learn to appreciate the worldview of the original author without taking it as one's own. But too many interpreters either assume that ancient authors share their own worldview, or else attribute to them a stereotypical pre-modern worldview which fails to do justice to what they really believe. This, I suggest, is the real reason why there is such a variety of interpretations of the Bible.

 
At Mon Oct 15, 08:42:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Don't you realise that that illiterate Spanish truck driver probably knew the message much better in its real essentials (even if he didn't have a clue about Hebrew word plays) than anyone who is looking for the truth by "pursuing a life of literature, philosophy, and theology"

OK, I know I shouldn't feed the troll, but I can't resist -- what is your basis for stating that illiterate Spanish truck drivers know "the message much better in its real essentials" better than those "pursuing a life of literature, philosophy, and theology"?

I have some close relatives who are illiterate and common laborers. They are jealous of my opportunities for education, and they wish that they could have had the same opportunities.

I certainly don't think educated people are "better" than uneducated people, but I do think that anyone who "holds back" and does not use all his intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and philosophical skills to understand Scripture is turning his back on Scripture. If one loves God, why love Him in a half-hearted way?

 
At Mon Oct 15, 08:54:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

I do think that anyone who "holds back" and does not use all his intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and philosophical skills to understand Scripture is turning his back on Scripture. If one loves God, why love Him in a half-hearted way?

Here is the way that our teacher Moses put it one of his most famous speeches:

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

 
At Tue Oct 16, 12:08:00 AM, Blogger John said...

Peter,

I am saddened that you think there is a limited place for translations of the Bible which bring the graceful, literary, and adorned aspects of the original texts to the fore.

That seems to imply that God was mistaken in ordaining that the writings and the prophets and much else in scripture is written in graceful and forceful language of the kind we associate with literature of the highest quality.

On the other hand, other comments you make suggest that you believe the original language texts ARE written at the equivalent of a sixth grade level, and that translations like NJPSV and Alter translate a sixth grade level text into a twelfth grade level text.

I can't remember hearing such an outrageous claim before. Can you back it up from the secondary literature?

ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

 
At Tue Oct 16, 07:04:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov, I was not making a generalisation about illiterate Spanish truck drivers, but referring to the particular individual mentioned by John, whose witness to John's friend "got him to see the truth of the gospel". As the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 1-2, this is something which the wisdom of the world cannot do.

I agree that it is good that people "use all [their] intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and philosophical skills to understand Scripture". Our teacher Jesus agreed with our teacher Moses on that one. But many people have limited such skills and little opportunity to develop them, yet they still know God much better than many who have much greater skills.

John, I accept that much of Scripture is "written in graceful and forceful language" and so should be translated as such. But I do not accept your additional terms "literary, and adorned" as accurate descriptions of the original text, or the greater part of it. Of course this depends what is meant by "literary", and I realise that a major problem here is that we have very different concepts of this.

Meanwhile you have made up "an outrageous claim" that "the original language texts ARE written at the equivalent of a sixth grade level" and put it into my mouth, and then challenge me to back it up! Note that I have already denied this claim in the following words:

That would be an anachronistic description given that there was no concept of a sixth grader in ancient times.

If there is anything in my previous comments which led you to think that I was making this claim, please link me back to those comments so I can see their context, clarify them, and if necessary correct any wrong impression I might have given.

 
At Tue Oct 16, 09:09:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In further response to Iyov, here is a relevant quote which I found in a comment here:

I think Luther once said that the gospel of Christ is so simple that a farmer could understand it if only there weren't a theologian there trying to explain it to him ...

 
At Tue Oct 16, 09:37:00 AM, Blogger John said...

Okay, Peter.

I am willing to take your claims that scripture's language is graceful but not adorned and forceful but not literary and work from there.

Do see room for improvement in the way a translation like GNB and CEV handle the graceful and forceful language found in the Bible? I do.

A literary translation as I define it aims to do just that: capture the grace and forcefulness of the original language texts to a greater degree than is normally done. I can't imagine why you have a problem with that.

You are not comfortable with thinking about degree of difficulty with respect to vocabulary, grammar, and syntax in terms of grade levels for the original readers of the Psalms or Paul's letters in terms of grade levels as understood today. Fine, I can work with that, too.

You know very well that the Psalms and Song of Songs and Job and Isaiah contain poetry of the highest order with a great sublimity of expression and a very wide-ranging and subtle use of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. You know very well that there are passages in Paul's letters that are difficult to understand; scripture itself emphasizes the fact (2 Peter 3:16).

My contention is that it is necessary to translate at what is considered a 1lth or 12th grade reading level in order to capture these dimensions of the original language texts. NJPSV, NRSV, REB, and so on are examples of translations that seek to do so.

You seem to think that such translations make the original language texts harder than they really are. That's where I disagree with you.

To the extent that NIV and TNIV translate at a lower level of difficulty and craft than that of the originals, they are involved, wittingly or unwittingly, in a dumbing-down operation. I protest.

 
At Tue Oct 16, 01:12:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Do see room for improvement in the way a translation like GNB and CEV handle the graceful and forceful language found in the Bible? I do.

And so do I, John. I never claimed these translations, or any translations, were perfect. In particular, I am not at all sure about how these two often reduce Hebrew parallel lines to a single line. I just reject "improperly done". As far as I am concerned, they are in general appropriate for their target audience, which is not academics like you.

My problem with literary translations is not that they aim to "capture the grace and forcefulness of the original language texts" but that in doing so they massacre the English language. I can accept some syntactic flexibility, especially in poetic passages. But I object when this is taken so far, and combined with unnecessarily obscure vocabulary, to the extent that the text cannot be understood by an ordinary person.

At least, I object if that ordinary person is the target audience. If you academics want your own private translation which only you can understand to play around with, perhaps I cannot object. Or if I can object it is on rather different grounds, not translational ones but of you cutting yourselves off from the rest of the body of Christ.

I accept that there is beautiful poetry and other literary material in the Bible, but I do think this is being magnified by your presuppositions. Is your reason for thinking that Hebrew poetry is "of the highest order with a great sublimity of expression" derived from some faith-based belief that only the best quality poetry is worthy of God's word?

What I don't accept is that biblical poetry used syntax or vocabulary beyond the understanding of an ordinary, which in those days meant uneducated, speaker of Greek or Hebrew. For Hebrew, I really don't think we have enough evidence to decide this question; but the vocabulary of about 5000 words is hardly "very wide-ranging and subtle". For Greek, we have more evidence, and I think that from that we must conclude that at least the great majority of the New Testament was written with vocabulary and syntax understood by all. The evidence for this is in ordinary letters on papyri as well as works of popular literature.

I also object to your use of 2 Peter 3:16 here. This verse is not referring to linguistic difficulties but to the obviously complex concepts in Paul's theology. There is nothing especially complex about Paul's language; even the supposedly long sentences are an artefact of grammatical presuppositions that the pronoun hos is a relative pronoun rather than a personal one starting a new sentence.

My contention is that it is necessary to translate at what is considered a 1lth or 12th grade reading level in order to capture these dimensions of the original language texts.

Well, reading levels are a bad guide here because they are calculated largely from sentence length rather than vocabulary and syntax. It is easy to shorten long sentences. My counter-contention would be that there is very little in the original language Bible texts which requires to be translated with vocabulary and syntax not understood by average 7th to 8th graders.

The only good reason I see, other than simply wanting to be pretentious and elitist, for using higher level language is because occasionally that will allow some kind of rendering of word plays or other purely formal word level features of the original. But I don't believe that formal features of this kind should be preserved in translation, simply because in general this is impossible. Many formal features should simply be ignored in translation; others can be noted in footnotes.

The reason why NRSV has a high reading level is nothing to do with capturing sublimity of expression, it is all to do with coming as close as possible to a literal (rather than literary) translation philosophy which simply murders the literary features of the original. Someone complained that Suzanne was confusing literal and literary translation. By listing NRSV here you are showing the same confusion.

 
At Tue Oct 16, 08:06:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

I think Luther once said that the gospel of Christ is so simple that a farmer could understand it if only there weren't a theologian there trying to explain it to him ...

Luther did indeed say something vaguely like this, but he later reversed himself and de-emphasized personal reading of the Bible in place of studying catechisms. See my post here.

 
At Tue Oct 16, 08:34:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

The reason why NRSV has a high reading level is nothing to do with capturing sublimity of expression, it is all to do with coming as close as possible to a literal (rather than literary) translation philosophy which simply murders the literary features of the original.

While I do not share your hyperbole, I can not entirely dismiss your point. It is true that the NRSV is much less successful than the KJV, for example, in maintaining the literary features of the original -- notably, it loses the rhythm and subtleties control of English language that the Authorized Version demonstrated. I very much doubt that 400 years hence people will regularly read the NRSV for literary enlightenment.

(However, the NRSV is still better at maintaining these features than most contemporary translations, perhaps because it still retains some of the brilliance of the Tyndale translation -- which is perhaps the high-water mark of Bible translation into English.)

Part of the reason is that the NRSV translators were biblical scholars and ecclesiastics -- people not known at that time for their sensitivity to language. (If you've read most contemporary writing in the humanities, you'll understand what I mean.) So that's why I prefer translations made by people who have deep knowledge of the literary features of Hebrew and the literary possibilities of English. There are actually quite a few number of such people.

Have you noticed that we have excellent translations of Homer or Cervantes or Dante? That is, arguably, because most of the people taking up the translation of those works are professional writers or poets who have made a careful study of English. In contrast, our Bible translations are made by clerics and Biblical scholars -- people who can write serviceable English, perhaps, but don't rise to the level of literature.

This is one reason, by the way, that I think some of the best scholarship today on the Bible is written in modern Hebrew by literary authors and poets -- by people who have a deep understanding of the literary features of the ancient language and can translate those into the modern dialect. (I would not be surprised if it turned out that there is similarly deep literature being written about the Christian Scriptures by modern Greeks -- but since this literature is almost always for Eastern Orthodox, it gets relatively little exposure here.)

I do think that much coverage of the Bible today in English either infantalizes the reader or smothers him in a morass of irrelevant technical detail. I rarely see Christian coverage of the Bible which analyzes it in a sophisticated but non-technical way: the way that a basic (non-technical) study analyzes a Shakespeare play (or even a Sherlock Holmes story.)

 
At Wed Oct 17, 06:45:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov, I entirely agree with you that Bible translations should be done by people with a high literary sensitivity in their target language, not just high level exegetical skills.

 

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