familiarity vs. naturalness
I have sensed that my preaching and field testing about naturalness in Bible translation over the years has sometimes come across as confusing to others. In this post I'd like to address one reason why I think this happens: it is easy to confuse language with which we are familiar with language that is natural to us. I myself have grown up with the Bible, in fact, I grew up with the King James Version. Its wordings are familiar to me from so much exposure to me. But familiarity and naturalness are two different issues when it comes to use of Bible translations.
Language wordings are natural if they are what people normally and commonly say or write. It is how we speak to our children, our neighbors, our coworkers (unless we are using special jargon of a discipline, such as medical or legal language), the checkout person at the grocery store. Now, such natural language will also sound familiar to us, obviously, since it is what we normally and frequently hear. (Such frequent exposure, by the way, is how our children learn our languages. We do not *normally* teach our children to speak by giving them language lessons, although a few people like myself have been known to give a few language lessons to the young ones!)
But it is also possible for us to be familiar with language wordings which are not natural. That is, they are not wordings which we normally speak or write. One source of many familiar but unnatural English wordings are some English Bible versions. Let's look at some examples.
Many of us are familiar with the wording
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.I grew up hearing that wording read from the KJV. I memorized it. My wife and I currently attend a church which recites this exactly this wording from the Lord's Prayer at the end of each of our church services. But this wording is not natural English. It was natural at one time in the history of the English language, but it is not natural for current speakers of English. English speakers have not normally used the word "not" in the order in which it appears in the the Lord's Prayer of the KJV since even before 1611 A.D., when the KJV was printed. English speakers were using the syntactic rules of "do" insertion and NEG-inversion (movement of "not") since before 1611 A.D. resulting in what has been natural English for centuries:
And do not lead us lead us ...The KJV translators deliberately chose to use the obsolescing word order for "not" to create a more "literary", perhaps more majestic, sound to the English of their translation. By ca. 1850 A.D. the older word order had ceased to exist in normal language usage. It would still be used, and sometimes still is today, for special literary effect, typically to give a wording a kind of romantic or old-fashioned sound.
It is not inaccurate to use the older word order with the word "not". Most English speakers today can still figure out what something means that uses the older word order. Children would not understand it very well, but if they heard it a few times in church they would eventually catch on to what the older word order meant. But almost all speakers today have a sense, at some level of their being, that there is something unusual about the older word order.
For a long time English speakers have naturally used the apostrophe "s" syntax to express the meaning of possession and relationship. So people naturally say and write wordings such as:
Wayne's computerEnglish speakers today do not naturally say or write:
the Devil's tricks
the computer of WayneNow, many of us, myself included, feel a certain tension about my claims here, especially when we hear or read "the children of God" or "the tricks of the Devil." These sound "right" to us. But they do not sound right because they are natural, commonly used by us or others today. They sound right, instead, because we are familiar with them.
the daughter of Elena
the dog of Mike
the book of Barb
the children of God
the tricks of the Devil
There are many other wordings used in a number of English Bibles which are familiar to us and so they sound "right." But if we record how we actually speak or examine how we actually write, we will find that we seldom, if ever, use an English "of" prepositional phrase to indicate normal (unmarked, natural) possession or relationship. We do find in current English, both spoken and literary, that "of" phrases are used for express some instances of possession or relationship. But as Rich Rhodes pointed out in a recent comment, those instances are "marked." That is, they are unusual in some way. Typically, they are used to draw our attention to them in a special way, such as when we refer to "son of Sam".
Who among us can forget one line from President Kennedy's inaugural address of 1961:
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.It's a wonderful sentence. It inspired many young people to enter the Peace Corps to help others around the world. It begins with the unnatural wording, "Ask not". Natural English would be: "Do not ask ..." But would President's Kennedy's speech been as powerful if that sentence had been fully natural, as:
Do not ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.The answer is "No." The line was effective precisely because it used an outdated word order for negative commands. Use of what is unnatural often creates a special rhetorical effect and President Kennedy and his speech writers understood that well.
Overuse of anything, food, sex, blogging (!), whatever, can desensitize us to its intended effect. Overuse of unnatural wordings for rhetorical effect desensitizes us and a desired effect is lost. If English Bibles are filled with unnatural wordings, readers get from those Bibles the wrong sense about the messages they are reading. Instead of being intellectually or emotionally or volitionally challenged by the unnatural, the unusual, the unique turn of phrase, we become too familiar with them if they are overused. And familiarity can not only breed the proverbial contempt, but it can also create within readers a sense that God is distant, he doesn't talk our language, he isn't really interested in incarnation. And that is exactly the wrong message we want to have connoted by Bible translations. God not only incarnated himself to bring salvation to mankind, but he also incarnated messages he wanted communicated to mankind through normal human languages.
For the most part the wordings in the original biblical language texts were natural in those languages. It is proper for our translations to be natural, as well, if we want them to communicate the same way to people today as God wanted the original texts to communicate to their audiences thousands of years ago. If there is a passage in the Bible which was intended to convey some special rhetorical effect, it is at that point that translators can look for English forms which might adequately convey that effect. One option might be some unnatural wording.
Please note that I am not at all suggesting that our Bible translations should be written in bland colloquial English that leaves us feeling flat. I happen to love lively language. Our translations should be as natural as were the original texts. Too many of our translations have too many unnatural wordings and therefore communicate inaccurate and wrong messages to their readers.
What are some examples of unnatural English wordings you have come across in Bibles that you have used? To warm my data-hungry bones, why don't you list some in comments to this post. Let not this challenge go unmet!