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Sunday, June 22, 2008

'Tis the gift to be simple

Note to self: never hit "post" before the second cup of coffee in the morning. I mixed a few thens and thans.

There is a misconception about Bible translations that the ones with the biggest words and the most complicated sentences must be the most accurate. And a corollary error is that simple translations are dumb. On the contrary, 'tis the gift to be simple. Speaking clearly and well is a gift. And in translation it is evidence of a translator who has so internalized the original message that they can express it in natural language. But it's more than that. While translations that try to imitate the sentence length of Paul or the wordplay of Isaiah are valuable, they are prone to failure. That's because the nuts and bolts of languages are so different from one to the next that when we try to dolly up English to look like Hebrew we inevitable end up with something badly dressed.

So, 'tis the gift to be simple when making a Bible translation. Because it gives the reader a chance to absorb the meaning with a minimum of barriers. This happened with us last week in translating the story of the man born blind in John 9 into Nyungwe. We laughed at this audacious man who stood up to the powerful and said, "Do you want to become his disciples, too?" And we had more vocabulary for shepherding in Nyungwe than John did in Greek so our translation of John 10 was what some might call "free" in parts.

A good translation depends on what you're after. If you wish to translate the Psalms as if they were Elizabethan sonnets or head-banger anthems then good for you. If you hope to capture some of the raw language of the Psalms in raw English then terrific. If you hope to produce a translation that gives English readers a feeling for the rhythms and cadences of the original Hebrew then please do so. This is part of the problem in our translation debates. Sometimes we take shots at translations without defining what kind of translation we're after. ESV and TNIV are equally excellent translations with regard to their goals of targeting (much different) ideological and liturgical niches.

I am a great lover of the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I fell in love with his language and thought through translation. However had someone decided to make him sound like William Shakespeare or Walt Whitman I might not have been captivated by Neruda's lines of love. So a simple translation of Neruda is best. And then, if you wish to go further. It's time to learn Spanish. So too with the Biblical languages. A simple translation is best. Otherwise we very often end up exegeting a difficult-to-understand translation rather than the original text behind it.

Fall in love with the message of the Bible. And then dive into the original languages and fall in love all over again.

This post title quotes the first line of a beautiful American Shaker song, Simple Gifts. Here are the lyrics:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
     'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
     'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
     To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
     Till by turning, turning we come round right.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Have a blessed week.

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13 Comments:

At Sun Jun 22, 11:43:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

On the contrary, 'tis the gift to be simple. Speaking clearly and well is a gift. And in translation it is evidence of a translator who has so internalized the original message that they can express it in natural language.

OK. Sounds great. But why didn't St. Paul have that gift? Or the author of the Apocalypse? Or the author of Job (which we still can't understand, with all its hapax legomena)? Or even God Himself, when he gave the Pentateuch with its many "grammatical errors" and puns and repetitions at Mt. Sinai? Why haven't Catholics and Protestants, both of whom profess to follow the New Testament precisely, agreed on the meaning of Romans?

What does it mean when an ambiguous, complex, highly literary Hebrew source text is transformed into simple, easy-to-understand English text?

Could it be that God expresses complex, subtle ideas in complex, subtle ways?

 
At Mon Jun 23, 12:03:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

'tis the gift to be free

And I hasten to add, according to my junk mail, I regularly qualify for free gifts.

 
At Mon Jun 23, 05:16:00 AM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

I like the Shaker song too and its setting by Aaron Copland. That song seems to me to allude to Psalms 90-91. (90 is Turning and 91 is coming round right)

Coming round right means being aware in translation of all the patterns - when you add little to little, eventually you get a big pile. Simple is relative and will require a variety of style.

 
At Mon Jun 23, 05:23:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

OK. Sounds great. But why didn't St. Paul have that gift? Or the author of the Apocalypse? Or the author of Job (which we still can't understand, with all its hapax legomena)? Or even God Himself, when he gave the Pentateuch with its many "grammatical errors" and puns and repetitions at Mt. Sinai? Why haven't Catholics and Protestants, both of whom profess to follow the New Testament precisely, agreed on the meaning of Romans?

And why didn't even the American Shakers singing Simple Gifts write their song more simply? 90 is Turning and 91 is coming round right

And the simplest Beatles song, why so complex? How would you translate this one into Portuguese or Spanish or Japanese or Vietnamese or Hebrew or Arabic?

"aaaaaaaahhhh

Because the world is round it turns me on
Because the world is round...aaaaaahhhhhh

Because the wind is high it blows my mind
Because the wind is high......aaaaaaaahhhh

Love is old, love is new
Love is all, love is you

Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry
Because the sky is blue.......aaaaaaaahhhh"

Aaaaahhhhhhhhhh...."

Really, what's the simplest translation of this little tune? When "turn" is both what the world does and how the worldliness of drugs might affect me?
When "blow" is both what the wind does and the mind blowing nature of LSD?
Why does "blue" have anything to do with my crying? We don't even have to ask anything about the simplicity of the "love" lines here.

But why did the fab four have to play with a name, "Beatles"? Shouldn't it have been simpler than that?

 
At Mon Jun 23, 02:20:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

I'm sorry but I don't totally agree with either "'Tis a gift to be simple" or "Beware of the Bible experts" and do agree with Iyov.

I agree that a good translation should be as clear as possible, but how does one ethically translate a text that is ambiguous?

And is one being true to Paul's contorted style if one simplifies the complicated relationship of the clauses?

And as I've commented before, different parts of scripture are written in different registers. Some are prose, some are poetry, some are utilitarian and some are expressive. If one translates poetry in too utilitarian a manner, attaching too much importance to textual clarity, and too little to the register of the text, in my view, that is not a faithful translation. This is why I think different modern translations are better for different parts of scripture.

Good writing should not be over complicated. It is often simple. Yet very few great writers even writing in their own language, deliberately limit themselves by pitching only at Grade V readers. It is difficult enough to translate effectively at all, without tying oneself also to that constraint.

And if this is not a terrible heresy, as writers, some writers of scripture are better than others.

Dru

 
At Mon Jun 23, 02:50:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Does this statement help anyone as much as it does me? It's how Robert E. Quinn starts the Preface of Change the World:

"Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked that he placed little value on simplicity that lay on this side of complexity but a great deal of value on simplicity that lay on the other side. Put another way, there is a vast chasm between being simple and being simplistic. I would like to suggest something similar.

I believe that in any activity there are many novices, a few experts, and very occasionally there is an extraordinary master. If you ask a novice about a topic, the novice will give you a very simple (simplistic) explanation that will be of little value. If you ask an expert the same question, the expert will give you a complex explanation that will also be of little value. If you ask a master the same question, the master’s explanation may be simple, breathtakingly elegant, and remarkably effective. But the master’s answer will only be valuable, breathtaking, and effective if you and I are ready to hear it and act on it." (page xi)

Might there be something here for (Bible) translators?

 
At Mon Jun 23, 02:51:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

As always I am tempted to agree ;) But, I think the English translations of Asterix are largely good, they reproduce the flavour of the French, in part by using lots of puns, most of them are different puns (since the two languages are different - though some usually latinate work) would a translation that captured the referential "sense" of the original which inevitably would mean few puns as making them twists the sense a bit. What we need is a translation (hehe) that captures the sense, as simply or as complicatedly as the original presented it, and with something of the same "flavour" too! That's why translation is impossible ;)

 
At Mon Jun 23, 02:58:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Translation is impossible, but translators need not be. I really think the more personal the translator, the more masterful she or he might be.

Here's the next two paragraphs from Quinn:

"The power of simplicity that comes from the other side of complexity can be most challenging. Indeed, the master’s explanation of the answer that he or she offers is often paradoxical and therefore difficult to understand. Once we grasp it, it may become revolutionary.

It is clear to me that masters perform differently. In the heat ot the moment, they wait calmly. They seem to have unconditional confidence that they will react in a way that is not only appropriate but highly effective. They have a minimum of performance anxiety. Masters know to trust their process. In the chaos of the moment masters see an underlying pattern and follow it. With minimum effort they shape the outcome. We watch the mater’s performance and we marvel at the understanding, skill, and influence of this person. We envy the creative power and the revolutionary impact they can make on the world."

 
At Mon Jun 23, 03:20:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

"an underlying pattern"

that has it - in my opinion; pattern allows the reader to catch the meaning as circles have a center or a web is a trap for the unwary fly. This is what my next attempt at translating the psalms will be - I have started here for psalms 1,2, and 149 and here for psalms 3-4-5 with psalms 6, 42, 86, and 143 to follow soon. These are the outlying circles of the psalter as I see them so far.

 
At Mon Jun 23, 08:24:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I am probably naive, but I believe that complex ideas can be expressed plainly. I think "plainly" is a synonym for "simply." Chomsky does not express his ideas well; his sentences are often convoluted. But some of his disciples have a gift of expressing his ideas in plain, clear English.

I don't think that there is a conflict between kind of language we use and complexity of ideas expressed by that language. I think that most people use fairly simple language to express themselves. But some of their ideas are rather complex.

Yes, Iyov, the ideas of Romans are not agreed upon. But that is not a matter of simplicity or complexity of the language of Romans. I suggest that Paul's language in Romans is relatively simple. But his ideas in that book are often difficult to understand.

Oh, well, you all have heard me preach on this soapbox before.

:-)

 
At Tue Jun 24, 07:54:00 AM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

Hi Wayne,

great to have you back! You say:

I suggest that Paul's language in Romans is relatively simple. But his ideas in that book are often difficult to understand.

That doesn't sound right to me. Paul's language is not particularly simple in Romans. He is also a master rhetorician, but according to the standards of the time, which allowed for circling back on one's own arguments in palindromic fashion. Thus the oft-heard quip that Paul's argument is convoluted. That, too, I would say, but really, the statement is often a sign of intellectual laziness.

In short, there is a strong correlation between the complexity of Paul's language and the complexity of the ideas he seeks to convey. There often is in human communication.

Iyov, on the other hand, exaggerates the differences between RC and Protestant exegetes of Paul today. The old confessional lines have broken down. RCs and non-RCs agree on principle regarding justification by faith to an astounding degree. More difficult: the practical consequences that should flow.

 
At Tue Jun 24, 08:26:00 AM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

David, you say:

If you hope to capture some of the raw language of the Psalms in raw English then terrific. If you hope to produce a translation that gives English readers a feeling for the rhythms and cadences of the original Hebrew then please do so.

And if a translation hopes to do both of those things while balancing naturalness with true referential accuracy (saying what the author 'wanted to say,' not just what he/she 'meant') and phrasing it in the corresponding style, we have an attempt to translate in a way that is faithful to the stylistic choices of the original.

That doesn't change the fact that translation is by definition an impossible task, or that the background knowledge we bring to the task is more limited than we would wish. But the difficulties of the task are not an adequate excuse for giving up on the task as defined above altogether.

There is a sense in which it is a sheer waste of time to translate Homer, Dante, or Pablo Neruda. I would be the first to say that. But I know a good translation of a poet when I see one. I'm not sure I would characterize the best translations of Homer, Dante, and Neruda as simple. But that is the question: how is poetry to be translated? There is a lot of it in the Bible.

 
At Tue Jun 24, 11:33:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

Ah, but are the scriptures just about expressing ideas? And is translation just about making sure the reader grasps the same ideas as the writer was trying to express?

Dru

 

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