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Friday, February 29, 2008

translation equivalence - possession #3

If this is the first post in this series that you have read, please be sure to read preceding posts. They contain background information which will help you understand this post better.

We now begin looking at biblical examples expressing possession as we examine translation equivalence.

In a previous post in this series we noted that the semantics of relationship (e.g. his daughter) is usually expressed the same grammatically in English as is the semantics of possession (e.g. his boat). In fact, for study of Greek, some consider the genitive of relationship (e.g. ho huios tou theou, lit. 'the son of God') to be a subset of the genitive of possession. In Biblical Hebrew both semantic relationships are encoded by the same set of possessive suffixes.

The Hebrew of Gen. 2:24 with a morpheme-by-morpheme(1) interlinear translation is:
עַלכֵּן יַעֲזָב-אִישׁ
man-leave-he therefore

אָבִיו וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ
mother-his-and father-his-and

וְדָבַק בְּ
wife-his-to cleaves-he-and

וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד
one flesh become-they-and

I have highlighted the possessed nouns and their possessive suffixes in red.

While Hebrew uses possessive suffixes, Cheyenne (the language I have been studying for many years) uses possessive prefixes. If we translate this verse from Hebrew to Cheyenne, translation equivalence requires that the form changes, from Hebrew possessive suffixes to Cheyenne possessive prefixes, but the meaning stays the same.

Greek uses a third kind of form, the genitive case, to indicate possession. Here is the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Gen. 2:24 with an interlinear translation:
ἕνεκεν       τούτου   καταλείψει      ἄνθρωπος
because.of this leave-he-will person/man

τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ
the father him.of and the mother him.of

καὶ προσκολληθήσεται πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ,
and unto the woman/wife him.of

καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν.
and become-they-will those two for flesh one
(I highlighted the genitives of possession in red.)

The translators of the LXX used a different Greek form (genitive case) to express the same meaning that the original Hebrew had expressed with possessive suffixes on nouns. That is translation equivalence.

English uses yet a fourth way to indicate possession, separate words called pronouns. (We write them as separate words, but they often are pronounced as prefixes to the noun they modify. So English, like many other languages, has a difference between orthographic words and what we can call phonological words.)

Here is an English translation of the Hebrew of Gen. 2:24:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (NASB)
(I highlighted the English possessive pronouns in red.)

The NASB translators used different forms (possessive pronoun words) than the possessive suffixes of the original Hebrew, but kept the meaning the same, resulting in translation equivalence. Translators of all other English Bibles that I have examined do the same as the NASB translators did. They all use possessive pronouns instead of forcing the Hebrew syntax of possessive suffixes upon English. Using the Hebrew syntax with English words and affixes would not give us English translation equivalence. It would not be natural English to use Hebrew syntax with English words.

I think everyone can clearly see how obvious the English translation equivalents are when we deal with the examples of the possessive syntax of Gen. 2:24. Yet too many Bible translators have forced Hebrew (or Aramaic or Greek) syntax upon English for other kinds of grammatical forms in other passages of the Bible. And we Bible users often affirm them for doing so, thinking that somehow we are honoring the "words" of the Bible better doing so. In our next post we'll look at some biblical examples where English translation equivalence may not be so obvious to everyone.

(to be continued)

P.S. If any of you spot any errors in my interlinear glossing, please let me know by private email so that I can correct them. I don't want discussion in the comments of my glossing errors to detract from the main translation points of this post.

(1) A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning. The English word "cats" has two morphemes, "cat" plus the suffix "-s" which means plural. In the interlinear translation a hyphen indicates a morpheme break within a Hebrew word. Not all morpheme boundaries are marked in the Hebrew here.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

translation equivalence - possession #2

Thank you to each one who commented on the preceding post in this series. Information from the comments is critical to what we need to discuss next, which is how do we translate instances of semantic possession to English translation equivalents.

As always, to review, a translation equivalent is how speakers of a target (translation) language actually express the meaning of a form in a source language. By "meaning" we are referring to "rich" meaning, that is meaning which is referential, connotational, rhetorical, figurative, etc. In both the source and target languages, the forms used to express rich meaning are essential. It is the forms themselves, plus inferences we draw from them (a la Relevance Theory), that are the vehicles by which we communicate meaning to one another.

In our preceding post we introduced English possessive syntax which is the usual grammatical form to communicate the semantics of simple possession. English possessive syntax for nouns consists of an apostrophe plus the letter "s" added to the end of a word which refers to a person who is the possessor, that is, the person who is considered to "own" some object as in:
"Sally's sister"
"Bill's computer"
Blog reader correctly noted that English speakers sometimes use an "of" prepositional phrase to express possession and gave these examples:
-"Son of Sam" killer
-"children of a lesser god"
-"son of a preacher-man"
We could add a couple of others such as:
daughters of the American Revolution
son of the South
When a language has more than one syntactic form to express a meaning (in this case, possession), we always need to ask: When do we use each form? What is the difference between them?

Rich Rhodes noted in a comment that the "of" prepositional phrases are "marked". "Marked" is a technical linguistic term referring to a form which is somehow unique, special, out of the ordinary.

By far, possession in English is most commonly encoded with possessive (apostrophe-s) syntax. Whenever we come across an "of" phrase encoding possession, we sense that there is something special about it. It stands out as unusual from the "unmarked" (normal, default) possessive syntax with apostrophe-s. It could easily take an entire Ph.D dissertation (as Rich noted in his comment on the preceding post) to describe English possessives. Including in that research should be study of the contexts in which "of" possessives are preferred over apostrophe-s possessives. My beginning hypothesis is that phrases such as "son of Sam" and "daughters of the American Revolution" have some greater literary or cognitive salience than do possessives expressed with apostrophe-s.

Notice how bland "Sam's son" sounds compared to "son of Sam". "Sam's son" could refer to any son of any man named Sam and we would not think that anything of special consequence is going to be said about this Sam's son. But saying "son of Sam" catches our attention, since it is the less common way of expressing English possessive. And, indeed, the Sam of "son of Sam" had a very unique "father" relationship to psychologically tortured serial killer, David Berkowitz.

If I spot some blood on our floor after our grandchildren have been playing (our grandsons like to wrestle), I can ask my wife, "Whose blood is that?" If she saw what caused the blood to get on the floor, she would answer with something like:
Oh, it's Jonah's blood.
It's Jonah's.
She would never say, and I suggest most other English speakers would never say, either:
Oh, it's the blood of Jonah.
The appropriate response uses the normal, unmarked apostrophe-s syntax, not an "of" prepositional phrase.

Similarly, if I wonder which of our grandchildren left their mitten on our living room floor, I can ask: "Whose mitten is that?" Appropriate responses could be:
It's Talea's.
It's Talea's mitten.
But it would not be appropriate to use the marked "of" phrase:
It's the mitten of Talea.
Someone *could* use the "of" phrase. But it would not be good English. It would not be the proper syntax for this situation.

And that gets us back to Bible translation. As I've noted before, when trying to find a translation equivalent for a source text expression, we should not ask: "Could we say it this way in English?" but, rather, "How would it be said in this context in English?" This requires very careful attention to how the various kinds of English syntax are used in different contexts. There is just as much English scholarship needed for Bible translation as there is biblical language scholarship.

Well, it looks like I've filled up the message buffer of the blog editor and still have not gotten to discussion of translation of biblical examples of translation equivalence for possession. And that's OK. We need to establish the background information necessary for being able to properly discuss translation of the biblical forms. It is so important when doing Bible translation that we not only pay full attention to the language forms of a source text, but that we also are aware of all of the forms of a target language and when each is properly used. Too often Bible translators have paid insufficient attention to the linguistics of English when translating to English from the biblical languages. The result has been Bibles which are technically inaccurate since they communicate wrong or distorted meanings, such as wrong meanings communicated by using the marked "of" possessive syntax when the unmarked apostrophe-s syntax should have been used.

Oh, as I awakened too early this morning with thoughts about this post running through my brain, I realized that all translation (whether biblical or not) is an incarnational act. In translation to any language the meanings of the forms of a source text (such as the written Word of scripture) take on the human flesh (form) of yet another language.

This process requires great humility, partly because we need to be patient to search for appropriate translation equivalents, which communicate full, rich meaning of the forms of the original written Word. And when we discover those forms, we need to humbly submit to them in kenotic (Philippians 2) fashion. We must resist the temptation of linguistic colonialism that forces source text syntax on to the target language where it doesn't belong. None of us would be so foolish as to try to change a rose into a carnation. We recognize that both are beautiful. All linguistic forms of every language are, in some sense, beautiful. Our job as Bible translators, women and men alike, is to let their unique beauty shine forth, without being forced into some other linguistic mold.

(to be continued)


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Knocked up?

The various strands of discussion about translational equivalence going on here and at Aristotle’s Feminist Subject are too juicy to leave in the limbo of comments. A couple days back, J. K. Gayle threw down the gauntlet in the debate about translational quality — at least that’s how some of us took it — by giving a long list of high quality translations of the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence. Several of them are in pairs in the same language and show different wordings.

There seems to be an assumption that Wayne and I believe that there is some idealized meaning out there and when we read the original we can tell what that is and can measure exactly how close a translation comes, and by extension that there is only one. The problem is that we, or at least I, don’t think that there is an idealized meaning. J. K. Gayle and I have been going round and round on this one. I say I can tell what the original means and I maintain that in the vast majority of cases the meaning is unique and neither vague nor ambiguous. He goes post-modern on me and challenges that. Because people are involved, he reasons, there can’t be just one meaning, and if I think there is then I must be a Platonist.

Not quite.

You see, I believe that meanings are socially constructed. The word dog refers to a category of animals by social convention. The category referred to by the Spanish word perro largely overlaps with that category. But in each language that meaning is socially constructed. The speakers of the respective languages “agree” to both the category and the word that labels it.

Yes, Virginia, there are natural kinds. But they aren’t Aristotle’s. Every language/society builds its own set. What makes translation possible is that the translator can cobble together categories (actually subcategories) in each language in such a way as to effect the communication of the same meaning — in context.

Furthermore, the fact that meanings are socially constructed has the effect that the vast, vast majority of language use in context is simultaneously precise and imprecise. Precise for its communicative end, but imprecise in that particular communicative ends do not completely determine the wordings.

Let me show you.

Situation: teen-aged daughter at home, mother at the store, father walks in the door.
Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She went to the store.
Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She went shopping.
Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She’s at the store.
Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She’s out shopping.
All the daughter’s answers are fine. At some important level they all mean the same thing. That is to say, they answer the father’s question in a culturally appropriate way. I have been, for some time, arguing that words are just the tools we use for passing meanings back and forth. This is a clear example.

But, the literalist will say, in the four different scenarios the daughter said four different things.

True, but irrelevant.

The fact is that for the purposes of the communication all the relevant information is conveyed by any of the four wordings — in context. To be more precise than is necessary goes beyond the demands of the cultural situation — and that would have its own meaning.
Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She left at 4:36 to go to Safeway and, since it’s now 5:12, she’s probably putting the groceries in the trunk.

This combination of precision and imprecision is why there can be several high quality translations of the same text.

If we look at how people actually use language we’ll discover two things:

1) People are only as precise as they need to be.
2) They make efficient use of their linguistic materials to convey those things they want to convey.

Same scenario:
Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: Out.
What’s up here? Well, the daughter is meeting the letter of the law by answering the question, but she’s conveying annoyance by not fully cooperating. This means something different from the wordings above, and it’s not just that the reference is different.

This is pragmatics — the study of how language is used, and the single piece most left out of Bible translation.

So let’s apply pragmatics to the pregnancy problem in Matt. 1:18 that Wayne was talking about a couple of days ago. How many ways are there in English to convey the meaning that a woman is pregnant?

She’s pregnant.
She’s expecting.
She’s going to have a baby.
She’s in a family way.
She is with child. (I find it odd to say: She’s with child.)
She’s gravid.
She’s got a bun in the oven.
She’s knocked up.
and so on.
In one way these all mean the same thing. But only doctors in a medical context will say She’s gravid. (Imagine a doctor announcing his wife’s new condition to his parents: Debbie’s gravid.) If you say She is with child., it’s half joking. Saying She’s pregnant. can be a little blunt. She’s expecting. is nicer. So is She’s going to have a baby. You hear all three of these a lot, especially if you’re in a church with a high percentage of young marrieds. And knocked up has a quite rich frame that comes with it. The prototype is that it’s out of wedlock, accidental (as opposed to saying She’s carrying his love child.), and the father doesn’t want to take any responsibility.

Look this topic up in Perseus and you’ll find that there are some 39 ways in Greek to say pregnant or conceive. However, unlike English, one of the ways of referring to pregnancy is used more than all the other ways combined, ἔχει (ἐν γαστρί) ‘She has (in the belly)’. No other way comes close. So the question is: if Matt. 1:18 is normative Greek usage, what’s the appropriate English translation?

Answer: if you think Matthew is writing plain Greek (and I’d argue he is), then it should be plain in English. Mary’s family and Joseph thought Mary was knocked up, but Matthew is giving a more informed view:
This is how Jesus, the Messiah, came to be born: His mother Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph, but before they had slept together, it was discovered that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:18)

Monday, February 25, 2008

translation equivalence - possession

Before we look at biblical examples of translation equivalence for possession, let's review what would be standard, natural ways of indicating possession or ownership in English. By possession we mean that something is owned by someone. Here are some English examples that come to my mind:
our dog
John's blog
Peter's house
my car
Suzanne's son
Dan's father
Mike's children
our daughters
We might wonder whether or not the last four examples indicate possession or something else. Good question. Suzanne doesn't really "own" her son, not does Dan "own" his father, nor Mike his children, nor do my wife and I "own" our daughters. A kinship relationship is grammatically indicated in English (and some other languages) using the same syntax as that used for possession. For now, let's simply agree to say that possession and kinship relationship are both encoded by possessive syntax in English.

Note that we can also talk in English about:
Rich's book
Here, outside of enough context, we do not know if the meaning (semantics) is that Rich owns the book or that he authored it, or, neither, but that it is the book which Rich happens to be reading at the time. In English, we use possessive syntax to encode each of these semantic relationships.

OK, before we look at biblical examples of possession or kinship relationship or authorship, let's find out if we're all on the same page.

Does anyone disagree with what I have said so far about the examples above being natural, good quality English?

Can you think of any other ways that fluent speakers of standard dialects of English grammatically indicate possession, kinship, or authorship?


Sunday, February 24, 2008

translation equivalence - in the Bible

In previous posts in this series we have introduced the concept of translation equivalence. We have given a number of examples of translation equivalents between languages where literal translation isn't proper, when one follows the rules of both the source and target languages. Many people accept this to be true about languages they have studied ...

except when it comes to Bible translation!

Look at this example:

Some critics of the TNIV dissed it for revising Matthew 1:18 from NIV:
she [Mary] was found to be with child
she was found to be pregnant
in the TNIV. The TNIV properly uses a common English translation equivalent for the underlying Greek, eurethe en gastri eksousa, literally,
she was found in the belly having
or with more natural English word order,
she was found having in the belly
But English speakers today do not usually say that a woman is "with child". The NIV and other translations (KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB) which use that outdated phrase are not using a current translation equivalent. The HCSB and TNIV both use the word which is commonly used, "pregnant".

By the way, those who objected to the TNIV's not using "with child" cannot be objecting on the basis of literal translation since "with child" does not literally translate the Greek idiom "have in the belly". There is no word for "child" in the Greek text. There is just a tradition of saying "with child" in English Bibles in the KJV-Tyndale tradition. But tradition does not determine accuracy, naturalness, nor translation equivalence. Objective attention to the linguistic facts of the biblical languages and equal attention to the linguistic facts of a target language determine accuracy and naturalness. The result will be translation equivalence.

Next let's look at specific categories of translation equivalence when translating the Bible to English.

(to be continued)


Saturday, February 23, 2008

translation equivalence - introduction #2

(This is the second post in my series on translation equivalence. Be sure to read the first post for background information.)

Sometimes an idiom in one language can have a different idiom in another language as a translation equivalent. Cheyennes say, "Nato'semhaeto ho'honaa'e," literally, "I'm going to swallow a rock." One possible English translation equivalent is the idiom, "I'm going to stick to my guns." Another would be the English idiom, "I'm not going to back down." As with all idioms, the meaning of the Cheyenne idiom has nothing to do, literally, with the meaning of its parts. The meaning of the Cheyenne idiom has nothing to do with swallowing or rocks. A literal translation of the Cheyenne idiom, therefore, is not a translation equivalent, since a translation equivalent, by definition, must match meanings between two languages.

Anyone who has studied a language beside their own knows that many wordings between the two languages do not match up word for word, or even the same words in different orders. To speak or write a language well, it is necessary to express concepts in that language the way that social conventions have determined those things are worded in that language. To be a fluent speaker of a language you must follow the syntactic and lexical rules of that language. To translate properly, we need to match equivalent form-meaning composites, as the late tagmemicist, Ken Pike, would have said. The meanings of the forms must match for there to be translation equivalence.

But this most basic principle of translation equivalence is often thrown out the window (translate that italicized phrase into any other language!) when it comes to Bible translation. For some reason, Bible translators often try to match up forms of one language with forms of another language even when their meanings do not match, or at least when those forms are not used in the target language. In other words, Bible translators often do not use translation equivalents of the forms in the biblical languages. As a Bible translator myself, observing lack of translation equivalence is the most frustrating experience I have as I work with native speakers of languages who are translating the Bible and as I evaluate English translations of the Bible.

Instead of asking the question: "How would a native speaker of this language express the meaning of the wording of the source language," Bible translators often force the target language wording to answer a question more like: "How can we say it as closely as possible to the form of the source language so maybe it can be understood?" The idea of actual translation equivalence is often not considered.

We might be able to understand a Spanish speaker who is learning English if they say to us, "How are you called?" But we immediately know that they are not saying it in English the way we actually ask someone their name. Would that matter to us? I think so. Most of us understand better and feel more comfortable when things are said following the normal rules of our own language.

(to be continued)


Friday, February 22, 2008

translation equivalence - introduction

Translation equivalence exists between forms in a source language and a target language if their meaning matches.(1) I would also claim that a translation equivalent needs to be what people in a target language actually say or write for that particular meaning. In other words, translation equivalence should answer the question, "What do the speakers of this language actually say to express the desired meaning?" This is a very different question from ones that are often asked, instead, such as, "What could the speakers of this language say to express the desired meaning?" or, "Could the speakers of this language understand this wording as expressing the desired meaning?"

Let's look at some everyday examples of translation equivalence and then turn to equivalence in Bible translation.

When Spanish speakers want to learn the name of a person, they ask that person, "¿Cómo se llama?" A literal translation of the Spanish is: "How do you call yourself?" (or even more literally, in the Spanish word order, "How self you call?" But neither of these literal translations is what we English speakers say to someone to learn their name. The translation equivalent we use is, of course, "What's your name?" In the Cheyenne Indian language the translation equivalent is, "Nitonshivih?" literally, "you-how-named?"

In English we say, "It's hot" about the weather. The Spanish translation equivalent is "Hace calor," literally "It makes hot." If we literally translate "It's hot" from English to Spanish, we would get something like, "Es caliente," which would not be good Spanish.

In Spanish a young couple will often say, "Vamos a dar un paseo," literally, "we are going to give a walk." It would not be good English to use that literal translation for the same meaning. Instead, the English translation equivalent is, "We're going for a walk."

In English we have an idiom, "It's raining cats and dogs." We cannot translate this idiom literally to any other language and get a translation equivalent. Instead, we have to use an expression that means the same in each language. For Cheyenne we would say, "Ema'xêhoo'koho," literally "it-much-rain" or, in a smoother translation, "It's raining a lot."

Cheyennes say, "Ma'eno enehpoese," which literally means "The turtle is obstructing hanging." If we leave the translation literal no English speakers would know what that idiom means. The translation equivalent in English is, "It's foggy."

John Hobbins rightly criticizes translations such as the CEV whose translation equivalents, as a whole, make the CEV sound flat in terms of literary quality. But translations of the Bible need not sound flat at all.

(to be continued)

(1) It's actually more complicated than this for the best translation, since we also want translation equivalence to match social register and literary genre, whenever possible.


New Jerusalem Bible to be even newer

Revision of the New Jerusalem Bible is in the works. The translation team has been inviting input.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another new English Bible translation project

Breaking news, thanks to Doug of Metacatholic: a new project is getting under way for another English Bible translation. The translation name is yet to be unveiled, but the project does have a website, and what looks like an interim name in the Greek word γραφή graphe "scripture".

Unlike some people, I do think that there is space for yet another English Bible translation - although (on this International Mother Tongue Day) I would put its priority less than that of translations for language groups which do not yet have the Bible at all. There are some real unmet needs for English translations, for example for a formal equivalence translation which carefully avoids all archaic and religious sounding language (HCSB may come close here), and for a dynamic equivalence translation with a target audience of educated adults.

There is not yet enough information public about this new translation that we can know whether it will meet either of these two needs, or perhaps another real need. The Translation Guidelines document has not been made public. I have some concerns that it is being pitched as a rival to NIV, from a more ecumenical or mainline church direction, for (apart from the absence of the deuterocanonical books in NIV and TNIV) I don't see issues of theology or churchmanship demanding a translation different from TNIV. But if the new translation is indeed "pitched at an 8th grade reading level" and has the promised "Clarity of language, as in "plain speaking"", then that will be good. And if, as any Bible translation should, it has "A reliable, genuine, and credible power to transform lives", that is better still.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Are we ready to run?

This past weekend was the board retreat. We’ve just called our interim pastor to be our senior pastor and he’s interested in leading a church that doesn’t burn its leaders out. To that end he had us read The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero.

I read it.

Then I lay on the floor and bled.

You’d think that if you’ve gotten to the age of 61, raised three children who are successful or well on their way to success in their chosen careers, if you are still married after 35 years, have served two three-year stints as church chairman (which in our church means you’ve been elected six times), and if you have served as an associate dean, and have been elected as the vice president/president elect of your professional society (SSILA) then maybe, just maybe, you’d score higher than emotional adolescent in some category.

Not so.

According to Scazzero, I’m at best an emotional adolescent.

And the trouble is, he’s right. I’ve got so many dents and so many masks. The outside world — including my small group — doesn’t have clue to how insecure and emotionally needy I am. My wife only half knows.

About half of Scazzero’s measures of emotional maturity place me somewhere between adolescent and adult.

Oh, great!

But the other half his measures reveal that there are things I just haven’t worked through. I'm still barely above child. He groups the aspects of emotional maturity together and shines an unrelenting klieg light on the fact that my partial maturity in one area is complemented by serious immaturity in a closely related area.

Now the new pastor wants all of us on the board to work on these things. Ouch. (Well, that’s a good ouch, but it’s an ouch nonetheless.)

Why all the confession? and what does this have to do with Bible translation?

Well, plenty.

You see, at the same time I was finishing The Emotionally Healthy Church, my wife started the new Anne Lamott book Grace (Eventually). It turns out the two books are about the very same thing — learning to come to maturity in Christ.

Mary didn’t make any connection at all. It was completely serendipitous. We both love Anne Lamott. Mary saw that her new book just came in at the library and took it out.

The difference between Scazzero and Lamott is that Scazzero is technical and analytical. Even when he includes anecdotes, they are spare and as much pointed as parabolic.

Lamott just tells stories about how God’s grace looks in her life. They’re all spang on truthful, and therefore sometimes painful. But they are deeply parabolic. You have to figure out how to connect them to your life.

Scazzero is Paul telling us: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.” (HCSB)
ἄρα ἡ πίστις ἐξ ἀκοῆς ἡ δὲ ἀκοὴ διὰ ῥήματος Χριστοῦ (Rom. 10:17)
Lamott is Jesus telling us: “Still [other seeds] fell on good ground and produced a crop that increased 30, 60, and 100 times what was sown.” (HCSB)
καὶ ἄλλα ἔπεσεν εἰς τὴν γῆν τὴν καλήν καὶ ἐδίδου καρπὸν ἀναβαίνοντα καὶ αὐξανόμενα καὶ ἔφερεν ἓν τριάκοντα καὶ ἓν ἑξήκοντα καὶ ἓν ἑκατόν (Mark 4:8)

Part of the conversation about translation between J. K. Gayle and John Hobbins, on the one hand, and us (or at least me) on the other is that I’ve been mostly focused on getting analytical stuff right — the places where there isn’t much in the way of layered meaning and deep secondary meanings that depend on the form of the original, where there isn’t much poetry or literary flair, i.e., most of the NT.

I’m interested in getting translators to give equal treatment to οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ‘the [masculine] Jewish ones’ and ἡ Ἰουδαία ‘the [feminine] Jewish thing’, which means translate ‘the Jewish leaders’ on the same contextual principles that they use to translate ‘Judea/the province of Judea’. (See this post.)

I'm interested in getting a pre-theological rendering of ἄνθρωπος ‘human (being), person’, instead of “conveniently” translating it ‘man’ in just those places where it can be used in the complementarian debate. (See this post.) (In fact I’m interested in getting theologians to butt out of the translation process all together. The text is primary. Theology is derivative. I’m apparently not alone in this opinion. )

I’m interested in getting the unnecessary (and sometimes misleading) church-speak out of translations, like the use of ‘rebuke’ for ἐπιτιμάω, which really means ‘tell or ask someone to stop doing something’. (See these posts.)

John Hobbins says that Jobes (and I) are only half right to apply standards to Bible translation that are used for functional translations — simultaneous interpretation, EU document translation — because the Bible isn’t just a functional document.

And he’s right.

Our point ... well, my point is that these are minimal standards. This is the baseline. We should have translations that are at least as accurate as these measures demand.

I’m not ready to talk about getting suitable solutions for the literary stuff until we get the translations of the first order meanings up to the baseline. (Notice that the HCSB translations above, about the best of all the ones I looked at, are still pretty clunky.)

John and Kurk Gayle are saying we need to run. I’m thinking half the time we’re not even crawling all that well.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Be readers of this post!

Each Sunday we have a children's sermon in the middle of our church service. Often the children's sermon relates to the adult sermon which follows. Today during their sermon the children were asked if they knew what it meant to imitate someone. Someone gave a correct answer. Then they were asked to imitate a dog and a newborn baby. They got the sounds for both right.

But before that part of the children's sermon, this verse was read from our pew Bible, the NRSV:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children (Eph. 5:1)
I noticed that the lady who gave the children's sermon said that we are to "imitate God." I also noticed, during the adult sermon, that our senior pastor told us that we are to "imitate God."

Notice that neither person told their congregation to "be imitators of God"? Why did they change from "be imitators of God" to "imitate God"? The answer should be obvious: they made the change because "imitate God" is the natural way they express the meaning that is the same in both wordings.

The NRSV, like other (essentially) literal translations, including the ASV, RSV, NKJV, NWT, NASB, NAB, ESV, NIV, HCSB, and ISV, translate the underlying Greek word-for-word, except for rearranging the words to a more natural word order:
ginesthe oun mimetai tou theou
be therefore imitators the.of god.of
therefore be imitators of God (NRSV)
The parts of speech of the Greek words were retained in English, including the noun mimetai 'imitators'. The English translation was kept as close as possible to the form of the Greek, even though no one naturally says or writes "be imitators of God."

Many believe that retaining the forms of the biblical languages, including parts of speech, is the proper way for Bible translation to be done, even if the result is not the most natural English. Often a theological reason is given, namely, "God spoke/inspired each word as he wanted it to be. We must not change God's words."

It is laudable to want to follow God (or, if you prefer, to want to be imitators of God!) and his words in the translation of the Bible. But matching up God's words so literally makes a translation sound foreign, as if God can't or won't speak natural English in a translation. Some, of course, believe that it is important for an English Bible to have this foreign sound. The technical term used when promoting this belief is "foreignizing" a translation (as opposed to "domesticizing" it).

I disagree that a translation of the Bible should sound linguistically foreign to its hearers. Now, please hear me: I am not saying that foreign cultural concepts in the Bible, such a sacrificing meat to idols, women wearing a covering on their heads, counting days from sunset to sunset (instead of midnight to midnight), greeting each other with a holy kiss should be converted ("transculturated") to some modern equivalent. I am only talking about the language we use to express the concepts in the Bible.

There is no "foreign" concept in the Greek of Eph. 5:1 that requires us to use the unnatural "be imitators of God" instead of the natural "imitate God" when we translate. Whether or not we use the "nounier" syntax "be imitators of God" is no more sacred or theologically accurate than if we use the more natural (for English) "verbier" syntax "imitate God."

I have found only one English version which actually says "imitate God". It is the God's Word translation. Other idiomatic English translations, however, express the same meaning using other natural wordings, for example:
Do as God does. (CEV)
Follow God's example (NLT)
you must be like [God] (REB)
try to be like [God] (TEV, NCV)
The TNIV is usually just as literal (sometimes more so) than the NIV that it revises. However, it uses more natural English in Eph. 5:1:
Follow God's example (TNIV)
Be imitators of God (NIV)
Can God speak natural English? Of course. Would he approve of English translations being written in natural English? I believe so.

Oh, in case you wondered, I would never naturally say or write "Be readers of this post!" as I did in the title to this post. I just wanted to catch your attention. I hoped you would sense that there was something odd about that way I worded it.

God's written Word is not linguistically odd. Its expressions were, for the most part, natural for the languages in which they were written (1). Similarly, translations of the Bible into other languages, including English, can be just as natural, not more natural, but no less natural.

(1) other than some Hebraisms literally imported to the Greek of the New Testament by the Jewish writers of the New Testament who were steeped in those Hebraisms, and I suspect that those Hebraisms were so much a part of the language of those authors that they sounded natural to them even in the Greek they wrote

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Karen Jobes paper

The Zondervan blog has a new post about a 2007 ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) paper written by Karen Jobes, a member of the TNIV translation team. The paper is titled "Bible Translation as Bilingual Quotation" and is available as a PDF download. Jobes argues that literal and essentially literal translations often obscure the meaning of the biblical source text.

For a summary of the paper, read the Zondervan blog post and followup posts by John Hobbins. Peter Kirk also interacts with Jobes' paper, as does J.K. Gayle and Jim Getz.

translating love

When our grandchildren Talea and Aidan see their parents hugging or kissing, they quote scripture:
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
I've heard it said that the greatest thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. We're glad that each of our four children have marriages in which husband and wife show love to each other. We think it's cute that in one of the families our grandchildren quote scripture when they see that love expressed physically. Love translated into action!

Have you shown someone today that you love them? It's biblical.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Is Biblish a sacred language?

In today's post ElShaddai Edwards asks if Biblish is a sacred language? He continues the discussion over whether Hebraisms and Hellenisms should be translated literally in English Bible versions. ElShaddai concludes:
If you view the Bible as the revealed, inspired moral will of God, then where are you drawing the line on what is sacred and what is not? Isn’t it this mindset that then leads to the view that the Bible should be translated in “sacred language”, set apart from the normal linguistic rules of a receiver’s language? Yet isn’t this separation of the sacred and the profane what the reformers argued against?

Our traditional English translations have been preserved in Biblish, the “sacred English” that keeps the Bible separate from the profane context of our culture. The KJV translators deliberately chose language that spoke of and in antiquity, not the language of their culture. Is Biblish the ultimate result or manifestation of the demand that Christians be “in our culture, but not of our culture”?

Yet translating the text within the intracultural context of the receiver language doesn’t seem “a dereliction of duty” to me; indeed, it seems an even more sacred presentation of God’s Word that allows the Holy Spirit even more intimacy within those who hear and understand the call and claims of the Cross.
What do you think? Should a translation of the Bible sound different from good quality standard literary English? Should it use unnatural syntax and word combinations, and obsolete words in an effort to give the translation a "sacred" sound?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

him that pisseth against a wall

I think I really need to share this sermon. I'm still not sure if this is for real, or a very clever knock off. Some of the comments seem to indicate that it is for real but I am not too sure. However, it is an excellent commentary on a crucial difference between the KJV and the NKJV, where "him that pisseth against a wall" is translated as the "male." You really shouldn't miss this. Learn how the NKJV takes out anything that has real power in it. Okay, literally the tears are streaming down my face - and I am not crying. This preacher is gooood.

An ever present help

We shall proceed with the concept of beautiful English. Sparkle and colour should not be left out. John has responded to the recent post by Wayne, and this one of Tim's. John clarifies for us many of the details, illuminating the Hebrew.

John then writes,
    It is a well-kept secret that the Tyndale-KJV tradition sought and found dynamic, non-literal equivalents, lexically and syntactically, on many occasions. The tradition does not throw up an “essentially literal” translation. Nor does it aim at syntactic transliteration, as 1 Kgs 2:2 shows in spades.

    Those who advocate for an essentially literal translation - I do not name names for the sake of charity - not only have the entire field of modern linguistics against them; they are also stepping outside the great tradition of English translation. Still, properly understood, the dictum that a translation should be as literal as possible and as free as necessary remains good advice.
In Psalm 46:1, we see a clear example of a dynamic equivalent found in the KJV which replaced the former literal translation. The RSV, ESV, and (T)NIV have all retained this dynamic equivalent for its beauty and familiarity. However, the HCSB returns to the literal.
    God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble. ESV, KJV, NASB

    God is our refuge and strength,
    a helper who is always found
    in times of trouble. HCSB
However, the Geneva Bible had,
    God is our hope and strength,
    and helpe in troubles, ready to be found.
In fact, as far as I can see, the KJV was the first to translate this "a very present help in trouble." It is a good example of a non-literal dynamic equivalent which has been retained in subsequent translations. It is important to realize that Bible translation owes much to human tradition. This is not a negative quality, but a realization that God has put in each of us the desire to create beauty - sparkle and colour. Of course, since we are human, tastes differ. God is one, and we humans are a diverse lot.

I was reared in a very puritanical church environment. We didn't have a formal church building and religious art and instrumental music was frowned on. In fact, the a capella singing was downright terrible. This was due to keeping human "art" out of the sanctuary.

I now understand that the Bible translations themselves owe much to human art. Understanding Bible translation as a God-inspired human activity opens my heart to seeing what God is doing through other people's God-inspired art of different kinds.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

beautiful English

I love beautiful English. Beautiful English has coherence, that is, there is a smooth, logical connection of ideas and syntactic parts. Beautiful English is coherent, that is, it makes sense. Beautiful English has a natural sound even though good authors sometimes use poetic license with some unnatural English to grab our attention and teach us something new. Beautiful English is vivid. It often uses metaphors and idioms which make an English text come alive. This morning after breakfast my wife and I read a beautiful English text. Two of our grandchildren (ages 7 and 5) were with us. Aidan, the 7 year old, got the gist of the text, so it is coherent. Here's the text. I hope you see some beauty in its English as we do:
Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn't so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you've done.

You didn't think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he's such a nice God, he's let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he's not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Is the ESV written in beautiful English?

Tim Challies blogs today that the ESV is written in beautiful English. Tim discusses some wordings in the ESV which he considers beautiful:
Let’s begin with 1 Kings 2:2 where King David gives his final wishes to his son Solomon. The ESV renders this “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man.” The other essentially literal translations agree with this translation as the NASB, KJV and NKJV are all very similar. There are two constructs here that I feel are essential to the text. “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” and “show yourself a man.”
For this verse Tim concludes:
What is lost in the NLT and the CEV is the metaphor “the way of all the earth.” It is an important term, beautifully poetic, and surely one that is worth some time in meditation. There is a depth of meaning to that phrase that is clearly missing in words like “I will soon die, as everyone must.” Readers of the NLT and CEV have no access to this phrase and miss out on the wonderful opportunity to meditate upon it and learn from it.
Then Tim writes:
Another example comes only one verse later. 1 Kings 2:3 continues David’s instruction to his son. David exhorts Solomon to follow God and “walk in His ways.” The ESV translates the verse as “…and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.”
For 1 Kings 2:3 Tim concludes:
The term “Walking in his ways” is a wonderful metaphor for living a life that honors God. We seek to emulate Him by following carefully in the footsteps of God. I am reminded of a song by the Smalltown Poets, “Call me Christian,” where they sing, “As a boy I’d put my steps / In my brother’s bigger tracks / To match his stride / And just like that I follow Jesus / Jesus is my guide.” That type of imagery is absent from the New Living Translation as well as the CEV. The Message is quite close and the NIV is, once again, accurate.
Next Tim writes:
Moving along we come to 1 Kings 2:9. David asks Solomon to exact revenge against Shimei, a man who had cursed David. “Now therefore do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man. You will know what you ought to do to him, and you shall bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” The metaphorical phrase here is “bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” Again, this is a wonderfully descriptive phrase that has more meaning than simply “kill.” Yet several translations provide only this meaning.
I don't know what it means to bring someone's head "down with blood" so I am unable to determine if this Hebraism is beautiful in English. It clearly sounds unusual which is what some people desire in a sacred text in order for it to sound like it is written in sacred language.

Tim ends:
I am grateful that I have access to such a solid translation of Scripture. While I do not know Hebrew, I still have access to an accurate translation of the author’s original words, complete with the phrases, words and metaphors that set one author apart from another. I have access to the full meaning, or as close as I can come without access to the original language, of what was written so long ago. I simply can’t understand how anyone would be satisfied with anything less.
I disagree. I don't believe that readers of the awkward, obsolete, and often obscure English in the ESV (or any other similarly written translation) have "access to the full meaning". Instead, they have syntactic transliterations of the original languages, but not the meaning of the wordings in those languages expressed accurately and beautifully using the natural syntax and lexical combinations of English.

I disagreed in a comment on Tim's post. You can go to his post to read my comment.

What do you think? Can a book (including any English version of the Bible) which is written with many obsolete expressions, unnatural syntax, and other literary problems sound beautiful for current speakers of English? What percentage of native speakers of English will have "access to the full meaning" of the biblical language texts in the English of the ESV?

UPDATE (Feb. 10): John Hobbins and ElShaddai Edwards have continued this discussion on their blogs. I left the following comment on John's post:
John wrote: I am going the way of all the earth” is a colorful biblical idiom which not by accident occurs as such in only one another passage

John, I agree: it is a colorful biblical (Hebraic) idiom. But what does it mean? I don't know what it means, so how can it be beautiful? I guess art lovers split on this. I find beauty in realistic and impressionistic art. I do not find beauty in modern art, because I do not understand it.

I totally agree with you that we should not flatten out the literary style of the Bible. But we must never forget that a translation is supposed to communicate the meaning of the biblical texts to native speakers of another language. If we translate so that only people who have specialized knowledge of biblical metaphors and idioms can understand them, then how can we call such a translation beautiful. I would far prefer to call the original biblical texts themselves beautiful. The beauty of their figures of speech is found within their original languages. Figures of speech, for the most part, are language-specific. We can learn to appreciate their beauty by education, footnotes, other Bible resources that explain the meaning of the figures. But the purpose of translation is to enable a speaker of another language to understand the meaning of the biblical text, not to educate someone to the figures of speech uses in those texts. Literal translation of figures of speech and understanding their meaning almost never are compatible. We are trying to ask too much of general audiences if we think they can be served by essentially literal translations. Professional translators are not allowed to obscure meaning by translating figures of speech literally from one language to another. Why should we not hold Bible translators to the same standard of accuracy and excellence in translation?

There is very much a place for idioms and figures of speech in a translation, and it is to use the idioms and figures of speech of the target language, when appropriate, to communicate the meaning of the biblical texts.

Vivid, idiomatic, expressive literary language is beautiful and is recognized as such by literary awards such as the Pulitzer, Nobel Prize for literature.

I agree with Tim and with you that the idioms of the Bible are beautiful. I agree that there is little literary beauty in the CEV. I'm starting to use the NLT more and I'm actually finding more literary beauty in it than I expected. But I will always caution us not to take the advertising claims for translations such as the ESV too seriously when they are called "beautiful" based on having literal translations of figures of speech, if those translations do not accurately communicate their figurative meanings to the audiences for whom a translation is said to be appropriate. (The ESV is published in inexpensive evangelism editions. Sigh!)

Categories: ESV, literary English, Tim Challies

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Translating "hell"

As I translated The Better Life Bible, I noticed that more than half (seven) of the occurrences of the term hell in the New Testament are in the Gospel of Matthew. So I decided to research where and how the term is used throughout the Bible. I discovered that the common definition of hell as a place of future punishment for the wicked dead has very weak support in the Bible. A more accurate definition would be the miserable life/condition that people experience when/because they reject God. I’ve written a seven-page paper that presents my findings. If you would like a copy, I’d be happy to send you one.

As a follow-up to the previous post, this is how I translated 1 John 3:11-24 in The Better Life Bible:

As I’ve said before, this is the same advice God gave our ancestors long ago. It’s obvious that Cain didn’t care about his brother Abel, because he killed him out of jealousy. So don’t be surprised when self-centered people make life miserable for you, too.

The more you care about others, the more you’ll realize that God is helping you improve your attitude and behavior. Eventually, you’ll even be willing to risk your life for others, as Jesus did.

Jesus demonstrated that the essence of God’s advice is caring about others. So you’re following God’s advice when you help others in need, and not just talk about it. Since self-centered people don’t help others in need, they obscure the fact that God cares about everyone.

God’s advice is more reliable than your conscience, so don’t hesitate to ask God to help you follow it.

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