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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Blind, but now I see

Last Saturday afternoon I got a call from the woman in charge of Scripture readers. She needed someone to read Sunday’s passage. I was playing on the worship team, but I’ll read Scripture at the drop of a hat. I’ll even do it cold, if need be. (There were some years when I was the go-to person for Pentacost Sunday because I can read all those place names without stumbling. It comes of being an academic who reads papers on arcane topics in front of sometimes hundreds of people and a linguist no less.)

Anyway, this Advent we’re going through John’s gospel to get his take on Incarnation. So my assignment was John 9:1-25. Yes, we’re all familiar with the story of the man blind from birth. The associate pastor, whose turn it was to preach, asked for the passage to stop with the punch line quoted in Amazing Grace — I was blind, but now I see. She used that line to make a very effective point about the power of testimony, as opposed to apologetics, to make God real, that is incarnate, to unbelievers.

But I had to read before she preached. I had a certain amount of trouble with one small section of the text, and my trouble is worth posting about.

Our pew Bibles are NRSV, so I had to read:
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”
Now, if you just look at the conversational parts, you notice that nobody talks like that anymore. The choice to say Is this not ...? is solely archaism for archaism’s sake. (I addressed that issue last Christmas.)

Then we come to
It is he.
Ouch! There’s no way to read such schoolmarm English with anything like a sensible intonation. Sure we read over such things in our silent Bible reading and don’t much notice. But try to say it out loud.

I can only say It is he half seriously, and then only with the stress on the he. The correct reading in the context of this passage would have to put the stress on the is. But
It IS he.
isn’t English. It sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. To get a phrasing that fits the intonation you need to say
It IS him.
OK. But even that has a problem — and it isn’t that your overly strict high school English teacher from the days before corporal punishment was politically incorrect is going to appear out of your past and rap you across the knuckles for having an accusative in a copular clause.

If you ask the question
Isn’t that X?
The affirmative answer has to be
It IS.
So I don’t care if the Greek clause is οὗτός ἐστιν. Don’t translate the οὗτός. It isn’t English. You buy nothing but needless foreignness by insisting on the he/him.

Then we come to the next line in this conversation
No, but it is someone like him.
This time the issue is not naturalness but accuracy. What is being referred to is the way he looks as opposed to, say, the way he acts. Compare the two English sentences
John is like Bill.
John looks like Bill.
The former means that John acts like Bill in some respect; the latter means, well, John looks like Bill. Referential accuracy is at stake here. The translation must include the verb look to be an accurate translation, so you could render
No, but it is someone who looks like him.
But looking at the Greek this seems unnecessarily wordy. There are just five words οὐχί ἀλλὰ ὅμοιος αὐτῷ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνος. There is no reason not to translate into completely natural English.
No, he just looks like him.
Now we have something that is both a faithful and accurate translation and a natural English conversation.
Isn't that the man who used to sit and beg?
It is.
No, he just looks like him.
There is nothing in the Greek to suggest that the conversation was anything other than natural sounding to the original audience. For all the myriad ways in which Roman era Palestinian culture is foreign to the 21st century English speaking world, this isn’t one of them. Don’t make it seem foreign by translating
Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?
It is he.
No, but it is someone like him.
Now there is one more conversational piece in this passage. The formerly blind man responds
I am the man.
The Greek has ἐγώ εἰμι. I don't see man in here anywhere. You could argue that man is also missing in the very first line οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ καθήμενος καὶ προσαιτῶν, and I was happy with that translation. But I’ll point out that the οὗτός ‘that[masc. sg.]’ in that context forces you to supply a noun in English. I was even tempted to say guy,
Isn't that the guy who used to sit and beg?
but that makes it a more casual style than I’m ready to argue for in this case. The problem with ἐγώ εἰμι is that the NRSV translators, looking for a faithful equivalent, are trying to preserve the I am.

At this point the linguists roll their collective eyes.

You see, clauses with the verb to be, a.k.a. copular clauses, serve essentially two functions. One is to assign some property or state or identify the class or category someone/something belongs to
He is tall.
He is sick.
That’s a dish.
She’s a doctor.
The other is to specify a connection of identity between two known entities.
Johnny Depp is Captain Jack Sparrow.
That’s my second cousin.
Now there is an interesting cross-linguistic point about the syntax of to be clauses which function to specify identity. Linguists call them specificational copular clauses. Languages are of two types with respect to specificational copular clauses depending on which way the agreement goes. So English has
It’s me.
But most of the other major European languages go the other way
Spanish : Soy yo. [lit. (it) am I]
German : Das bin ich. [lit. that am I]
Needless to say, Greek is in this second class. So the most faithful translation of ἐγώ εἰμι is
It’s me.
or maybe better in context here.
It IS me.
Adding the man is simply misunderstanding the construction. (There’s a lot of that going around under the guise of faithful equivalent translation.)

So what would be an accurate translation of this passage?

Something that contains the conversation given above. Something close to the NIV/TNIV.
8His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn't this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.” (NIV/TNIV)
But I would modify it slightly because I see no value in putting the middle line in indirect discourse, and the final line needs fixing as I just explained.
8His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn't this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some said “It is”. Others said, “No, he just looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “It is me.” (NIV/TNIV, modified)
Now, I have just taken you through a translation exercise. I’m applying the same principles of dynamic equivalence that I’ve been arguing for since the beginning. There is nothing theological at stake here. There is nothing literary about the passage. There aren’t any metaphors or allusions. The bulk of translation, at least NT translation, is like this. So I’m hesitant to relabel my translational approach from dynamic equivalent (DE) to literary equivalent (LE), because, in the last analysis, most of the questions that come up aren’t literary at all. Most of them are about recognizing the Greek for what it is, and making the English sound natural.

I think DE gets a bad rap because the popular view of it is that there are no rules, no constraints, and that the translator, who is thought to have no ear for good English, has free rein to interpret the Scripture however he/she wants.

Not true.

I hope that some who were blind to the value of DE will now see from this exercise that on all counts it is exactly the opposite.


As an appendix I’ll give the passage in Greek and ESV. The reader can evaluate the quality of the ESV translation of this passage as an exercise.
8 οἱ οὖν γείτονες καὶ οἱ θεωροῦντες αὐτὸν τὸ πρότερον ὅτι προσαίτης ἦν ἔλεγον οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ καθήμενος καὶ προσαιτῶν 9 ἄλλοι ἔλεγον ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἄλλοι ἔλεγον οὐχί ἀλλὰ ὅμοιος αὐτῷ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνος ἔλεγεν ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some said, “It is he.” Others said, “No, but he is like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” (ESV)


At Tue Dec 11, 11:22:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

You're the man, Rich!


Thanks for another good post. I'm glad you have more time this semester (or between semesters, or is it quarters?) for posting here.

At Wed Dec 12, 02:12:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Funny, punny, Wayne. So I'll agree with your comment about Rich's post being good.

He does make a lot of noise about the need for English silence on οὗτός.

But Rich:

Ironically and unfortunately, you yourself move from "the power of testimony" to "apologetics" as if to make your translation theory DE more effective. But in some cases, it's not. You write,

I think DE gets a bad rap because the popular view of it is that there are no rules, no constraints, and that the translator, who is thought to have no ear for good English, has free rein to interpret the Scripture however he/she wants.

One of the biggest problems with DE is exactly the opposite. It imposes meanings by rule, it constrains, and deafens and blinds, while announcing freedom. Really, what is does is assume that translator's position (between the "original text's" and the "reader's language") is objective. The DE can acknowledge context but will not as easily acknowledge positions and dimensions of translator, text language, and reader language.

John Hobbins illustrates, by his translation of Matthew 23, what DE misses. And I tried to do the same with my translation of "Philemon." What would a DE translator think of that? And when Joshua (aka Jesus) says ἐγώ εἰμι, I think this give DE translators real problems. They look at the Greek as if the blind man were saying it, when John or any of the other gospel writers might actually be translating some unspeakable Hebrew that Jesus is speaking. To carry that across as "It's me" is the best English we've got. John talks about the literary, and he also acknowledges the rhetorical. "It's me" hardly gets at why the Pharisees and scholars picked up rocks. DE misses the personal power issues, and the language layers (i.e., when trying to make "the lamb of God" be the "baby pig of God," a dynamic equivalence for some DE translator missionary apologists when they observe the "target" culture has no sheep).

John's observations on your last post do deserve repeating:

"More than mere (mere?) literary allusions are at stake in this translation choice in Matthew 23:2. . . You can't be going with a demetaphorized DE translation across the whole string. It doesn't work. Which is why DE translations are infamous for not preserving concordance across distance."

At Wed Dec 12, 04:30:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

The comment above is all too long. I've followed Bob MacDonald's practice of continuing the conversation over at my blog. You might read that as a rebutal. I hope it's more a yes, but . . . ."

At Wed Dec 12, 06:20:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

The "baby pig of God" translation is something of an urban legend. A few years ago I asked a translation consultant with many years' experience in Papua New Guinea, the alleged source of this story, if there was any truth behind it. From what I remember, he said that this kind of rendering had been suggested and discussed but had never actually appeared in a published translation. If anyone has any information to the contrary, I would be interested to know. It is by no means an implication of regular DE translation principles to allow this kind of rendering.

At Wed Dec 12, 10:05:00 AM, Blogger Brian said...

what about "you da man!"

At Wed Dec 12, 10:31:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for setting me straight (and for sending me back to Eugene Nida as a source).

In his co-authored Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament in 4.24 'lamb' (page 41), there's this: "Perhaps the most widespread story about cultural differences in Bible translation is the one which refers to the translation of 'lamb' as 'little seal of God' in an Eskimo language. However, there is no evidence that this type of rendering was ever used."

And yet, in 4.22 'sheep' (page 41), there's the suggestion that "'woolly goats' or 'goats that have wool'" is an acceptable dynamic equivalence for 'sheep' among Eskimos. Likewise the suggestion is in this comment: "Among the Maya in Yucatan sheep were introduced by the Spanish and were first described as being 'cotton deer.' Since the sheep were approximately the same size as deer and since they had fleece resembling wild cotton they could quite logically be called 'cotton deer.'" The logic is the interesting thing (although my guess is the "Spanish" called the sheep something like "venado algodón" to help the Maya make the dynamic equivalence).

Nida with Johannes Louw does caution that using "dynamically equivalent" animals in translation "may require some type of marginal note to accompany the text if the people are to understand the basis for a number of similes and metaphors of the Scriptures."

In Christianity Today, Nida repeats the advice of marginal notes when using "goats" or "New Guinea pigs" when translating "the shepherd metaphor, which has links to the Davidic kingship and to Jesus." Nida actually warns against attempting "to change all the sheep to pigs . . . because for the Old Testament, pigs were not kosher." (This is in his article, "Meaning-full Translations".

At Wed Dec 12, 11:38:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...


At the same time you charge me with being too restrictive because I say that there are testably definitive translations for much of the text of the NT and then complain that my theory of translation allows "the pig of God"?

Give me a break!

I certainly won't sign for everything done in the name of DE. I, too, find "the pig of God" horrifying.

I have never denied that there is a cost to translation. Matthew 23:2 and Philemon are places in which you have to make choices. The question is what are the principles when you have to do translation triage? And what's the art in the choices we make? You (and John) seem to think that we can have our cake and eat it, too. I don't believe that for a minute. John's translation of Matthew 23 comes at a cost, and, I claim, a high one. For me, unacceptably high.

Part of the point of this post was that the hard cases represent only a very small percentage of the NT, so when you say, "Yeah, but Philemon," you haven't really dealt with my core assertion, namely that such names, words, passages are exceptional, and not by a just a little. And there's an enormous amount of needlessly bad translation in the Bible world in the name of FE.

At Thu Dec 13, 04:16:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I love the metaphor "translation triage." And didn't mean to imply that DE was worse than pure FE. Or that any of us by any of our theories, methods, and techniques might translate very badly. Pike typically started his monolingual demonstrations with the warnings with "What you are about to witness is subject to a high degree of the possibility of failure."

What I'm wanting (and I think John is too) is not my cake after I've eaten it. I want to know whether these people even like my cake: Matthew and his readers; whether Jesus and his Pharisee/scholar audience; whether Paul and Onesimus and Philemon et al. I could care less about authorial intent, provided we all get to what John calls "rhetoric" (as if a social thing) and what I'll steal to call "psychological reality" which is what Pike distinguishes as "emic" (vs. "etic"). Sorry to sling so much jargon.

When DE fails to translate καθέδρας as anything more than "authority," in the context of Jesus's rhetoric against the Pharisees and scholars, and in the layered context of Matthew's "translational triage," then there is muting going on. It's the problem with taking ἀμνὸς (what John the gospel writer translates John the dipper in water) as nothing more than "piglet" in English. So there are (A) the words, and (B) how they've been used and (C) how the writers and translators intend them, and (D) how the DE translator wants to project. But John wants (E) and so do I. (E) is the effect of that single little word (i.e., its "rheotric," its "pscyhological reality.") The Tagmemic grad student would ask, which "allos" are "emic"? (what awful meta language). The experimental phonologist might ask subjects to sit in a chair and hold a metal wire through which surges an electrical charge IF the subject fails to press a button in time upon hearing variants of a certain English consonant (and this experiment was actually done to get at "psychological reality.") The point is that certain Aramaic, and certain Hebrew, and certain Greek words have an electric charge on them. They shock the listeners. A simple footnote on a "dynamically equivalent" but highly insulated English word has no shock at all.

Willis Barnstone is worth bringing back into the conversation. A translator, a Jew, but no Christian, he is appropriated shocked by how Jewish Yeshua is (but not Jesus). And he shocks all of us reading English by having Matthew shock Greek readers and Yeshua shock Hebrew (Aramaic) listeners, hearing "On the seat of Mosheh sit the scholars and Prushim." The "seat" / "sit" play alone (without any history at all) is less insulated than DE "authority."

At Thu Dec 13, 04:27:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

You've hit the nail on the head. What wordings take you right to meaning without mental overhead (what you're calling "shock"). My claim is that the "shock" in chair/sit is 'authority' NOT sitting.

This is like how the adjective mean which used only to mean 'average' came to have the primary meaning 'nasty'. Our linguistic ancestors used mean as an indirect way of saying something was undesirable so much that it stopped triggering the "shock" to 'average'. Once it started meaning primarily 'undesirable' it started to be used as a euphemism for unpleasantness in people, and that happened enough that it now means 'nasty'. (In this case the trail of older meanings is still around, but there are plenty of cases in which this is not the case.) And furthermore, mean in the sense of nasty doesn't allude to 'average' at all, which shows that you can't read the "shock" or the allusions off of the morphemes.

People in the Middle East and Mediterranean all shared the feature of culture in which only the rich and powerful had chairs. The references are so abundant that I'm claiming this originally indirect reference to authority was so common as to be the primary reference and only secondarily the direct reference to sitting. (The very number of instances connecting sitting and authority that John raised is, in fact, evidence AGAINST his (and your) argument that 'sitting' is the primary reading.

At Fri Dec 14, 07:47:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

(Hooray. We share the goal of shock.)

But, Rich, does the translator really have to be so mean, as you say?

I mean, how would you translate this string of English words into, say, German, or Dyirbal?:

"the mean mean word means"

Does the translator always have to disambiguate? to lock down what the word must mean? to isolate it, like an orphan, from its parents and their homelands? and in its startling, make it start all over again in some new contextual home?

How about when a single context demands multiple meanings? Take the story of the mean girls in Mark 7 and Matthew 15? These average goyim and gunaika should've known better than publicly to yell at (let alone to talk to, much less to make requests of) a popular Jewish rabbi (male, of course) in front of his apprentices and his people.

So what does Joshua mean when he says τοῖς κυναρίοις? Is it his (or Mark's or Matthew's) DE translation of some Aramaic (from some Hebrew) word? Forget what it must mean then; what must is mean now? Did the mean gentile gals need such a mean (no longer average but now very nasty) Greek term?

And why was Joshua (aka Jesus) so startled and shocked by how they turned the phrase?

Does the animal word refer to some different animal in Jerusalem than what it means in Syrophenicia or some outer region of Canaan or way back in Athens?

What does Paul mean by skubala as he's distancing himself from his Benjamite roots to his readers in Φίλιπποι? Does he think they've also read Mark 7 and/ or Illiad or Odyssey? (See the comments at Metacatholic).

And why do DE translators insist on "the dogs" for Mark and Matthew in English? Is there not a meaner word? Such as "the scumbags," or if we have to have an animal "the worms," or "you dirty Hellene hussies"?

At Fri Dec 14, 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

People in the Middle East and Mediterranean all shared the feature of culture in which only the rich and powerful had chairs.

Indeed - and to some extent still do: in some areas, at least in central Asia, it is still more normal to sit on cushions on the floor. This came into focus when I was working on translation of 2 Kings 4:10 into the language of a people who until quite recently rarely used chairs. We think when we read this verse, in a guest room of course you would put a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp, nothing special here. But in the original culture this was something very special, the woman was treating Elisha as a very high status person.

At Sat Dec 15, 09:25:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Rich, thanks for an excellent presentation and translation. NAB beat you to the punch for part of it. They too have:

Some said “It is”.
Others said, “No, he just looks like him.”

That only confirms that you are on the right track.

I prefer NRSV at the beginning (without your "formerly," which sounds too literary to me), and "He himself said, it's me" at the end. Three "said"'s in a row, and the lack of an adversative, properly intonated, ties the whole better together. Furthermore, at least in my ideolect, you wouldn't say, "it is me." The "is" sounds wooden. Thus:

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask,
“Isn't this the same man who used to sit and beg?”
Some said “It is”.
Others said, “No, he just looks like him.”
He himself said, "It's me."

Correct intonation is of course essential. But that raises another question. Some DE translations tend to be wordy, I suspect, because they assume a basic ability only of proper scansion of a text. Or am I off-base here?

At Mon Dec 17, 11:06:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...


You’re right about the narrative portion of the text. I paid too little attention to it. You’re right about using formerly. It should probably be something more like: The neighbors and those who had seen him begging earlier.

The second problem here is that I actually don’t know what to do about all the he said’s. This is a general problem in NT translation. I would know what to do if I were translating a Richard Hey Krimi. I’m just not sure I’m ready to take that kind of liberty with Scripture. If you go with something like:

The neighbors and those who had seen him begging earlier said, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?”
Some maintained, “It is.”
Others objected, “No, he just looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “It IS me.”

It sounds just a bit too literary.

Oh, yeah. The final sentence can’t be contracted, because it has to be read with a stress on the is (hence the capitalization in the version above). Read it out loud and you’ll see.

This, of course, brings up the problem that without intonational information you sometimes have to be wordy to force the right reading.

It's also true that the two big DE translations have other issues. The TEV/GNB is consciously dumbed down to be accessible to second language speakers. The Message is overly slangy and, as you say, much too wordy.

At Mon Dec 17, 11:21:00 PM, Blogger John said...



There are at least two ways to intonate with the contraction as well.

It's me (he said with a sigh).

It's me (ta da - with some spring in the voice).

It IS me, is probably more obvious though, and better for that reason.

At Tue Dec 18, 03:51:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Rich and John,

What do you think about Robert E. Longacre's and Shin Ja Hwang's separation of notional structure and deep structure? And mainline vs. supportive material?

They seem to suggest that, in a narrative, some of the language has more play than other of the language. That things like dialog markers might frame or track plotline. That the shock value of the language, there (i.e., es ist ich or it's me, might not be as important. But with Jesus, or his translators, asserting he's God, ego eimi jumps to the top of the shock, no?


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