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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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At Mon Feb 04, 05:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wayne, I love you. You're right - completely.

"syntactic transliterations"

such a wonderful description!

At Tue Feb 05, 04:37:00 AM, Blogger Jim Swindle said...

Some people are unable to enjoy metaphors. For others, they sink deep into the spirit. I believe the Lord knew what he was doing when he had lots of metaphors put into the Bible.

At Tue Feb 05, 05:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some, like Borg, use metaphor as a way of looking deeply at the whole Bible, not just the parts that use metaphor. At first, I rejected this type of study. However, the more I delve into it, the more riches I have found.

As for the ESV, I would agree with you, Wayne. I have a copy and don't enjoy it very much. I much prefer the NLT. It reaches out and grabs me so many different times.

Peace be with you.


At Tue Feb 05, 07:30:00 AM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Thanks, Wayne. My guess is that there is more to it than what is in the blog and the responses.

I do think that attempts to use "contemporary English" in Bible translation tends toward a flattening of the English. Not everything in the Bible is simplistic statements (esp. CEV), but not everything is complex. A faithful translation should try to maintain that tension and varying style, linguistic choices, etc.

Unfortunately, one of the realities of the past 30-40 years seems to be the loss of any appreciation of poetic language and style. Is ESV the corrective answer? Not really. My wife and I in devotions have been using a 2002 RCC update to the RSV that seems to offer a better balance. HCBS might be a move in the right direction. But at the other end of the spectrum, neither is NLT any better, in my opinion.

Have I found the perfect English Bible? LOL Not quite. I use NAS 95, ESV, HCSB, GW, and NIV as my primary English translations, then use REB, NRSV, TNIV, Beck, Williams, Moffatt, CEV, NJB, NAB, and a few others as appropriate/needed. (As a side note: I am still not convinced that TNIV is better than the NIV)

At Tue Feb 05, 08:58:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jim wrote:

I believe the Lord knew what he was doing when he had lots of metaphors put into the Bible.

I totally agree, Jim. Many metaphors (and almost all idioms) are language-specific. The metaphors of the Bible are beautiful for those who spoke the languages of the Bible. Some, but not all, of them can be beautiful in translation IF in translation they communicate the same metaphorical meaning as they did to their original hearers. Few metaphors (and idioms) do.

It's always a question of accuracy. Does a particular wording accurately communicate to a translation's audience the original meaning. If it does, great. If it doesn't, there are options to deal with the issue. The only option is NOT to remove the metaphor. Sometimes an appropriate option is to add a few words that allow the reader to understand what the metaphor means.

For instance, many English speakers today do not understand the metaphorical usage of "arm" in Biblical Hebrew. One reasonable translation option is to translate the Hebrew word literally into English as "arm" but briefly add in the text (or a footnote) that it symbolizes power.

At Tue Feb 05, 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Jim Swindle said...

Wayne, I'd agree with almost all of your latest comment; am not sure what proportion of metaphors don't work in translation. You're absolutely right that sometimes we could put another word or two or a footnote.

With no metaphor, we might end up translating the 23rd Psalm like this:
The Lord takes care of me so I won't be in poverty.
He gives me plenty of food and rest.
He makes me strong again and shows me how to do the right thing, so people will think well of him.
Even in a threating situation, I won't be scared, because you're with me.
I'm comforted by thinking of your protection and your correction.
Even my enemies can see that you give me food.
You honor me.
You give me an abundance.
I'm sure you'll always be good and kind to me, and I'll always live in the Lord's house.

Such a translation would be basically accurate and useful, but I know you agree that it would be missing something.

Almost all honest translations are useful. Each type of translation is best in a different way. Some translations are better than others, but exalting any one translation as the ideal, or putting down any one translation as grossly over-rated, is usually not helpful.

At Tue Feb 05, 04:41:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

In the final analysis, textual beauty has absolutely nothing to do with getting God's points across.

That is not to say that true textual beauty is a bad thing. If a text can be beautiful and really get the revelation of God's character, His love for His creation and His plan for its redemption across, so much the better.

At Tue Feb 05, 07:35:00 PM, Blogger Jim Swindle said...

Joe, I'm not sure I understand you. Are you saying that the message is far more important than the style? Or are you saying that the style never helps communicate the truth?

At Tue Feb 05, 09:23:00 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Great post Wayne. I think Tim's post is an example of too many folks who don't know biblical languages and unwittingly trust those who think they do or rather sacrifice their knowledge for larger personal and theological agendas. The more I read this blog and the more I refer back to the biblical languages the less I buy into the hype about the ESV.

Is it fair too, to say many metaphors are culturally bound and so need translation in that sense to convey the meaning?

At Tue Feb 05, 10:32:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Brian asked:

Is it fair too, to say many metaphors are culturally bound and so need translation in that sense to convey the meaning?

Yes, Brian. All of each language, but esp. metaphors and idioms, is in some ways culturally bound. But there are also many aspects of each language which reflect universal experience. If the latter were not true, it would be almost impossible to translate. It's difficult enough as it is. Every Bible translation team, including the ESV team, struggles to make a translation which they believe is somehow "best".

I personally believe we need more testing to find out if a translation truly reflects the syntax and semantics of the language we are translating into. I was encouraged when one of the leaders of the NET Bible translation team openly stated they he and other exegetes are often not the best judge of good English. They welcomed input from others of us who have our ears to the ground, trying to figure out how people currently actually do speak and write good quality English.

Translation takes a big team, exegetes, English scholars, stylists, editors. I am very grateful for the degree of openness to suggestions for revisions that there has been on the part of almost every single English Bible version team currently active.

I am sincerely glad that there are ESV users who love the ESV. From my understanding of English, I don't understand how they can call its English beautiful, but I think they are esp. referring to how the ESV retains familiar centuries-old Bible-sounding phrases from the Tyndale-KJV tradition. I grew up on that tradition and still enjoy its phrases. But I have come to realize that no one today speaks or writes that way, at least not in everyday life. There is truly beautiful English written by good authors living today. English Bibles can be written with much of that beautiful, current, powerful English, which has lots of wonderful, powerful metaphors and idioms.


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