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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Do we need another English Bible translation?

Iyov recently asked: Do we need yet another English Bible translation? He answered, "Yes."

Although I can never forget about the 3,000 language groups who have no translation of the Bible, I agree with Iyov that English could use another Bible translation. I believe that we have yet to see an English Bible which is just as sensitive to the syntax and lexicon of English as it is to the syntax and lexicon of the Biblical languages. To do an adequate Bible translation into English, I think that translators should know English well enough that they can answer questions such as:
  • When should we write "Zebedee's sons" instead of "the sons of Zebedee"?
  • Does "rejoice and be glad" communicate one or two emotions?
  • Is the word "in" the English equivalent of the Greek dative, as in "you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17)?
  • Can "the wicked" refer to a single person or only to plural people?
  • What might be a natural English translation equivalent of "Sons of Thunder"?
  • Why is "I sent to know your faith" ungrammatical in English?

16 Comments:

At Sun Mar 09, 06:21:00 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Wayne, I don't mean to sound critical or condescending, but as a layman I have to wonder why it is that you seem to be the only one seeing these things? If it was so apparent, why haven't the myriads of bible translators over the past 600 years seen them too? Does tradition (of some sort) hold them back from seeing or exercising on such things? Just curious.

 
At Sun Mar 09, 07:36:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael asked:

I have to wonder why it is that you seem to be the only one seeing these things?

Michael, I'm not the only one seeing these things. I suspect that you see them, as well, if I could interview you about your understanding of English grammar. In addition, I have done quite a lot of field testing and it confirms that regular English speakers like yourself, lay people, have the same understanding of English grammar that I do. I don't make up things about English. I am a descriptive linguist, which means that I observe how people use English. We descriptive linguists do not make up any rules about English. We observe the rules that regular fluent speakers of English like yourself use.

why haven't the myriads of bible translators over the past 600 years seen them too? Does tradition (of some sort) hold them back from seeing or exercising on such things?

This is a very important question. I wish I knew the answer, as well. I think that tradition may be a part of it. But I think a least as important is the fact that Bible scholars are so attracted to the grammar of biblical languages (just as I am attracted to the grammars of them, English, and a number of other languages) that they have imported grammar from those languages to English. It's like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Click here to read recognition by one of the editors of the NET Bible of what I have just said.

 
At Sun Mar 09, 08:50:00 PM, Blogger mike said...

michael, I notice them too. There was one that drives me completely bonkers:

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Tim 6.10).

Pierced themselves with many griefs??? How often do you hear that idiom when you're walking down the street?

 
At Sun Mar 09, 09:36:00 PM, Blogger Matt McMains said...

I think you have to be careful. It is important to retain as much of the original language as possible when translating.

The Message, or any commentary can be consulted when trying to understand difficult biblical idioms. That is where study is important. Understanding the context in which scripture was written (including common idioms) is extremely important when interpreting Scripture

 
At Sun Mar 09, 09:57:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Matt wrote:

It is important to retain as much of the original language as possible when translating.

I'm interested in what you wrote, Matt. But I'm unclear what you are referring to. Could you give us some specific examples, as I did in my post?

 
At Sun Mar 09, 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

When should we write "Zebedee's sons" instead of "the sons of Zebedee"?

I don't know what is wrong with my brain right now, but I cannot seem the think of what the word for "of" is in Greek that we should work so hard to retain. How on earth is one of these two closer to the Greek than the other?

 
At Mon Mar 10, 04:37:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Are "Son of God" and "Simon son of John" in the English of the TNIV equivalent grammatical phrases?

Are "υἱὸν θεοῦ" and "Σίμων Ἰωάννου" grammatically equivalent Greek phrases in John 19:7 and 21:15?

Why, then, do the TNIV translators have to supply the English word "son" in 21:15? Is John really doing the same thing in these two phrases with his Greek? Is John's Greek in his idiolect less natural than our "English" in general (which the TNIV smoothes out rather nicely)?

 
At Mon Mar 10, 07:44:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I cannot seem the think of what the word for "of" is in Greek that we should work so hard to retain.

It's not a word in Greek. It's the genitive case suffix.

 
At Mon Mar 10, 07:59:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk asked:

Are "Son of God" and "Simon son of John" in the English of the TNIV equivalent grammatical phrases?

No. The second has three nouns in a complex syntactic relationship to each other while the first has only two. I'm guessing that "Simon" has something akin to an appositive relationship to "son of John". What do you think about that, Kurk?

Are "υἱὸν θεοῦ" and "Σίμων Ἰωάννου" grammatically equivalent Greek phrases in John 19:7 and 21:15?

Well, it depends on what the meaning of "grammatically" is. :-)

If grammar includes all systematized linguistic relationships of a language, then I would guess that those two Greek phrases are not grammatically equivalent. If one takes a more Chomskyan kind of approach, considering syntax to be autonomous from semantics, and if one considers syntax to be the only component of "grammar" then the two phrases are syntactically, that is, grammatically equivalent. I don't accept Chomskyan autonomy of syntax, however. There is too much evidence for an important inter-relationship between semantics and syntax to say that either is autonomous from the other. So I view grammar as including semantics. Therefore, for myself, I answer that the two Greek phrases are syntactically equivalent, but not grammatically equivalent. Even if I am wrong on this, the two phrases require different treatment in terms of translation equivalence. Translation equivalence often does not match syntactic equivalence.

Why, then, do the TNIV translators have to supply the English word "son" in 21:15?

Yes, the grammar of English requires it.

Is John really doing the same thing in these two phrases with his Greek?

I don't understand what "same thing" refers to.

Is John's Greek in his idiolect less natural than our "English" in general (which the TNIV smoothes out rather nicely)?

I would guess the answer to be "no", other than permits some Semitic influence upon his Greek which might mean that the Greek of the Jewish authors of the N.T. might have some dialectal differences from the Greek of other speakers of Hellenistic Greek. I am *not* suggesting that they spoke a different dialect, only that there was some Semitic coloration different from that of other Hellenistic Greek speakers who did not speak or understand Aramaic at all.

 
At Mon Mar 10, 09:15:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

"permits" should be "perhaps" in my preceding comment; another misfiring of a cranial synapse!

 
At Mon Mar 10, 09:16:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Wayne, for the great answers to my questions. You've raised the one question I wanted to ask in the first place.

Why not "God's son" and "John's Simon"?

And, if you'll allow one more question, here's another:

Do you think John (the gospel writer) is bilingual in Aramaic and Greek, or that he's not bilingual and having to translate spoken Aramaic into written Greek, and would it matter as we think about how we must translate his written Greek into our written Englishes?

 
At Mon Mar 10, 09:40:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk followed up:

Why not "God's son" and "John's Simon"?

The first is good English, as you already know. The second is not good English. Bad English should not be used as translation equivalents for good Greek.

And, if you'll allow one more question,

sure

here's another:

Do you think John (the gospel writer) is bilingual in Aramaic and Greek,


I assume that John was bilingual in Aramaic and Greek, esp. since he came from the Galilee area which where there were trade routes which brought a good amount of other languages as caravans passed through. In addition, there seems to have been more Greek influence in the Galilee area than in Judea.

or that he's not bilingual and having to translate spoken Aramaic into written Greek, and would it matter as we think about how we must translate his written Greek into our written Englishes?

I don't think it should matter how we translate. I think we should translate what is in a text and not attempt to smooth it up according to any linguistic substratum (or whatever the technical German word is for it).

 
At Mon Mar 10, 03:01:00 PM, Blogger tc said...

Kirk said:

"Are "υἱὸν θεοῦ" and "Σίμων Ἰωάννου" grammatically equivalent Greek phrases in John 19:7 and 21:15?"

Adding to what Wayne has said, while we can see that "υἱὸν θεοῦ" means "Son of God," due to semitic influence "Σίμων Ἰωάννου" is rightfully rendered "son of John," because the genitive is also one of relationship.

 
At Mon Mar 10, 03:16:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Adding to what Wayne has said, while we can see that "υἱὸν θεοῦ" means "Son of God," due to semitic influence "Σίμων Ἰωάννου" is rightfully rendered "son of John," because the genitive is also one of relationship.

Yes, the genitive can indicate relationship, possession, as well as a number of other semantic roles.

I suspect that you may have intended to write "Simon of John" as an English translation of "Σίμων Ἰωάννου".

In any case (or at least the genitive!), the most natural English syntax to indicate both the possessive and relationship meanings is the possessive construction, with POSSESSOR.NOUN + apostrophe POSSESSED.NOUN. This is one of the points I'm trying to make in my series on translation equivalence and in this intervening post, that we need to find the English forms that most naturally translate biblical language forms in order to find the best translation equivalents. Bibles which use the most natural translation equivalents will be most accurate for their readers and will communicate God's Word most clearly. A nice side effect is that they will also impact people spiritually and emotionally better than translations which use a lot of non-English syntax, imported to English from the biblical languages. Sorry for preaching on my soapbox again! But I have to preach this because it is so true and it makes such a difference in people's lives.

 
At Tue Mar 11, 05:19:00 AM, Blogger John Radcliffe said...

Wayne, in your first comment you said: This is a very important question. I wish I knew the answer, as well. I think that tradition may be a part of it.

I'm sure that's true, but I think there's also the fact that it's *much easier* to just transfer the form than to struggle with how to express the meaning in good, natural-sounding English. You just make the reader do the work for you. Of course, the problem with translations that *do* try harder in this respect, is that they leave themselves open to the danger of missing all or part of what was in the original.

Here's a recent example of what I mean:

"For God had provided something better for us, so that they would be made perfect together with us." (Heb 11:40, NET Bible, my bold)

The NET Bible note to that phrase says: 'The Greek phrasing emphasizes this point by negating the opposite: "so that they would not be made perfect without us." ' (Essentially, the text just omits what I've bolded, on the basis that they cancel each other out.)

Sounds logical. We're often told that a double negative equals a positive. However, in my experience it's rarely quite that simple. As I see it, while what the NET Bible text is saying *is true*, it isn't saying *exactly* the same thing as the "more literal" rendering in the note. It alters the emphasis. Some other translations do better by "adding" the word "only" (TNIV is one: "so that only together with us would they be made perfect."). Of course, some people would criticise this by saying that the word "only" doesn't appear in the original. (Seems that translators are damned if they do, and damned if they don't!)

The problem as I see it is that, when the more "dynamic" translations (which tend to place more emphasis on natural English) "get it right", the meaning really jumps off the page, whereas with the more "formal" ones the reader may have to tease out the meaning. On the other hand, the problem with the dynamic approach is that when they "get it wrong" (and again, in my experience, it's "when" rather than "if"), there's no way back: the meaning is gone for good. This problem is even greater if you are just reading one such translation (which is why I don't, but many do), as then you've no "control" to spot doubtful renderings (unless they just seem to be unbiblical, i.e. to clash with what you've come to understand that Scripture in general says, or think "I don't remember reading *that* before").

 
At Tue Mar 11, 11:32:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kurk, I would go part of the way with you in that (at least in my British English dialect, and by that I don't mean in my subjective opinion) it is sometimes possible to say "John's Simon", although not "Simon of John". I would expect this in an informal context in which there are several Simons present - and in this case Simon the Zealot might also have been there. But it doesn't sound right in a direct speech in a case like this, John 21:15.

Of course we can also say "Simon Johns" if "Johns" is a surname, originally derived from the possessive form "John's". The implication is that there was an ancestor called John. But our modern British naming system (unlike the Icelandic and Russian ones) uses inherited surnames rather than patronymics, so the name "Simon Johns" does not imply that the father was called John as the Greek does.

So in an English translation we have to bridge the gap between naming systems by adding "son of".

 

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