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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

How Old Bible Translations Affect New Ones

I have to leave for the airport now, so I only have time to say, please read this post by Kenny Pearce at Kenny makes a good point for breaking out of some old molds to increase accuracy in English Bible translation, as well as a freshness which can bring new life into our encounter with the Bible.

I'll be back home late tomorrow night. My wife and I will be helping our nephew celebrate his graduation from the Air Force Academy. V.P. Dick Cheney will be the speaker.


Westminister Confession of Faith & Bible translation

It is stated so well in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
SECTION VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.
We are to "read and search" the Scriptures. And "they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come..." What is the vulgar language of a nation? At the time the Confession was written, "vulgar language" referred to the common language spoken by the people of nation. It is not a "dumbed down" language, but it is language which is understood and spoken in common. Into what form of English would the Reformers say the Scriptures should be translated if they came to the English-speaking people for the first time today? The clear answer from the Confession is "the vulgar [common] language." It is not a language spoken only by the clergy. It is not a language of an elite educated class. It is not a language of a previous period of language history, not even that of beautiful, but past, classical literature. No, it is the common language of the people, with its contemporary beauty of good literary quality that is accessible in common by speakers of a language. Because the Reformers emphasized integration of spirit and mind, I have no doubt that they would have upheld the idea that the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular should have literary beauty in the vulgar (common) languge, including some way of maintaining powerful literary images which exist in the original biblical source texts. But I also have no doubt that the Reformers would have insisted that however the translation was done into vulgar languages, it should not include language which could not be understood by all speakers of a language, since, by definition, those speakers are included in the group who speak a "vulgar," that is, common language.

Let us be thankful for the wisdom of these great men of the church who continued the vision of early centuries missionaries who translated the Scriptures into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and other languages outside the Greek-speaking areas where the Gospel of Christ was taken. And let us not lose that vision today during debates over what kinds of English should be used for translating the Bible today for the English-speaking world.

Monday, May 30, 2005

ESV prayer reminder

ESV Translation Oversight Committee meetings begin today, May 31. I have been praying for these meetings. Will you, also, honor the request for prayer from the ESV team, as posted on the ESV Bible blog:
Please be in prayer for the ESV Translation Oversight Committee (TOC), which will be meeting May 31 - June 4, 2005, to consider suggestions that have been made concerning the ESV text. The potential revisions are mostly minor punctuation and style issues.

At this time, the agenda for the meeting is full with items that have been under consideration over the past three years.

We have been collecting feedback ever since the ESV was first published in October 2001, and the TOC will be working through much of this feedback at the meeting. We appreciate everyone who has taken the time to write to us.
Pray for spiritual unity for the committee. Pray for wisdom as they consider revision suggestions. Pray that they will set a good course for improving the ESV without losing the qualities which have endeared this translation to its users. Above all, pray that the Lord will receive glory from the committee's deliberations.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Making sense

Have you read the CEV Scripture (1 Cor. 14:18-19) for today, May 29, in the right margin of this blog? Perhaps it is not simply a "coincidence" that Today's Scripture is on the very topic which is the focus of so many of my blog posts, namely, whether or not the English used in our Bible versions makes sense to those who use those versions. Now, there is a lot of English in most English Bibles that does make good sense. But we can do even better. We can work to make better Bibles where there is a commitment on the part of translators that every sentence will make sense (at least to the degree that the text in the original biblical languages makes sense) to those who use their translations. And there is only one way to find out if that ideal has been reached and that is to do extensive objective field testing to discover what people understand the wordings of the translation to mean.


Saturday, May 28, 2005

Linguistics and Translation

This post at Languagehat referring to another complete post is good for anyone interested in translation, including Bible translation, to read. It is critically important to remember that different languages encode meanings in different ways. Some English Bible translators forget this and try to force English to encode biblical source text meanings using non-English forms, both syntactic and lexical. This creates translations with poor English which is not easily understood by readers. It also, in fact, decreases translation accuracy, since accuracy is no more than what readers understand from a translation.


Re-Post - The Language of Faith

Jollyblogger has re-posted his interesting essay on "The Language of Faith." (Click on the title to my post here to read his post.) Anything having to do with language and faith, church, and the Bible are of great interest to me. Here are two paragraphs from Jollyblogger followed by my response:
She says that rather than interpreting the Bible through the lens of the world, we need to interpret the world through the lens of our faith. That seems pretty self-evident on the surface, but it comes into play when we try to contextualize the message. I am not arguing that we not contextualize, but anytime we adapt the message to the cultural there is a sense in which we are letting the culture become our interpretive grid. She suggests that, rather than trying to put the Bible in the language of the world, we try to interpret the world in the language of the Bible.

This is not an easy formulaic thing. It may be easier said than done, because there is the matter of intelligibility. The Biblical message must be intelligible to the hearers. But, she suggests, and I think rightly so that the Biblical message is not as foreign to the culture as we might think. If the world doesn't understand what grace, faith and redemption are, we don't need so much to find new words to explain the concepts to the world, but simply teach the world what the concepts mean. Good thoughts!!
There is something that is good and right here, but there is also something that can, I think, lead us astray which is not at all the intention of the original author. I have heard this idea expressed before, and it does sound good, and there is truth to it, but the stumbling block, in my opinion, is that "grace, faith and redemption" are not really concepts, but, rather, English words referring to biblical concepts. It is possible to find English words which refer to biblical concepts which communicate more accurately and more clearly to those who do not have a biblical worldview than do the words which we who are accustomed to the language of the church (what might be meant by "the language of faith") use.

Jesus did not require that the Samaritan woman at the well learn a special church language to come to understand that he was the Messiah for whom she and her people had been waiting. [N.B. Nor did he teach her the meaning of church language.] Jesus did not use the language of the synongogue when he shocked Nicodemus with the everyday words "You must be born again." Nick understood the words, but not the concept.

One major problem with many churches and Bible versions today is that they use "sacred language" which requires "the world" to come to "us" and learn "our language" rather than doing like Jesus did and going to people and speaking in ordinary language, their own language. Jesus did not speak dumbed down language. His concepts were profound. But his vocabulary was accessible to all.

I am deeply concerned about the language we use in our churches and our Bibles--this is the focus of my Better Bibles Blog. We need the concepts of faith, grace, redemption, mercy, justification, propiation, and yes, even sin, to be communicated in a biblical way to the culture around us. But if we expect to teach people the concepts by starting with our usual words for them, I think we are starting out wrong. We don't need to use a special vocabulary to teach these important biblical concepts that the author referred to. We do, however, as she said, need to bring those concepts to a world that is lost and desperately in need of them.

Let us take time to study how Jesus spoke and taught people. Our communication to the culture around us will become more effective if we do. By using the kind of vocabulary which Jesus used, we will not be contextualizing [N.B. in the negative sense of accommodation that some speak of these days], but, simply incarnating, just as Jesus [himself], our Living Word was incarnated, and just as the Written Word, God's revealed truth, was incarnated in ordinary human language, not requiring any special religious or heavenly language.

An uncertain sound in the ESV

1 Cor. 14:8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? (KJV)

I think that this verse, in its context, has application for Bible translation. If Bibles have wordings which are not written in the vernacular, the mother tongue of the target audience, how can people understand them? When Bibles are written in English that emulates a distant stage of our language, or, worse, in wordings which have never been part of literary English, there is an "uncertain sound." For sure, such Bibles will not be understood by those outside the church. And my experience is that many inside the church will not understand them either. For that matter, I, who have grown up on the Bible (starting with many years only in the KJV), do not understand well such Bibles that have many wordings of an "uncertain sound."

I consider it a tragedy that some are still producing Bibles today which are not written throughout in the vernacular. This defeats the purpose of Bible translation which is to allow those who do not understand the original biblical languages to understand what those languages said (and meant) in their own mother tongues. Translating in the vernacular does not mean putting translators' own interpretations in a translation. It does not mean translating according to dynamic equivalence or any other translation philosophy with which one disagrees. It does not mean translating in sloppy language, or using colloquialisms. The gift of Bible translation has always been to translate into the vernacular, that is, the language of the people. Using some other kind of language in a translation brings an "uncertain sound" to those who need to hear "certain" sounds.

Here are some wordings (there are many others) from the ESV, one of the most recently produced English Bibles, which have an "uncertain sound:"

1. Is. 64:7 "You have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities" (This is, I think, meaningless in English. What is "the hand of our iniquities"?)

2. Eccl. 9:8 "Let not oil be lacking on your head." (Surely this could be worded in vernacular English without losing literary quality. Why not something like: "Be sure you have oil on your head"? Or, "Don't forget to put oil on your head!")

3. Eccl. 9:2 "As is the good, so is the sinner" (I get no meaning from this; something is missing in the English to connect the two clauses so that the entire sentence makes sense.)

4. Eccl. 10:10 "If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed." (The word "iron" here does not mean 'iron' as current speakers understand it to mean. For many years the English word "iron" has meant to most speakers either a kind of metal or an appliance used to smooth wrinkles out of clothing. Instead, what is being referred to in this verse is an "ax." Why not just say "ax" in the translation since the original Hebrew meant "ax"?)

We can do better; we can make better Bibles (the theme of this blog). Surely, we must do better if we hope to communicate something other than "uncertain" sounds to people today who need to hear God's Word accurately and clearly. Using proper English, with a "certain" sound, will not detract in the least from accuracy or literary quality. In fact, I would contend that both accuracy and literary quality improve when we avoid using an "uncertain sound" in our Bible translations.

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Friday, May 27, 2005

ESV experiment

David Dewey, British pastor and author of the new book A User's Guide To Bible Translations: Making The Most Of Different Versions has started this topic thread on the Bible Translation discussion list. You can follow the discussion by clicking on the title for this blog post. Better yet, you can enter the discussion by joining the discussion list (be sure to return the message you receive from the listserver to complete the subcription process). Of course, you can also comment by responding to this blog post, but then many of the subscribers to the Bible Translation discussion list would not be able to interact with your comments.

Have a good day!


Thursday, May 26, 2005

10 verses from the ESV

A number of you have voted in the poll with the gray background in the right margin of this blog. Each sentence in that poll comes from a verse in the ESV (in some cases the wording was shortened a little to fit the poll format better). I wanted to test to see how visitors to this blog would respond to the English quality of each of the sentences. Nearly 300 votes have been cast so far and the results are very interesting. Clearly, most people regard some of the sentences in the poll as of better quality English than others. I would like to get a good number more votes in the poll and then I will comment on the poll results, including for individual sentences.

Thank you to everyone who has voted in that poll so far. If you haven't voted yet, please do so. And if you know of others who are interested in English quality in Bible versions, please tell them about the poll so they can vote also.


10 Questions for the ESV translators

Adrian Warnock, a British blogger who is keen on the ESV, was given the privilege of asking 10 questions about the ESV. Adrian graciously opened the floor to others to suggest questions. He then pulled together the various questions suggested into 10. You can view them by clicking on the title to this blog post. And keep checking at Adrian's blog, because one of these days we will get answers to the questions from the ESV team.

A reminder: please faithfully pray for the ESV TOC (Translation Oversight Committee) as they begin meetings this coming Monday, May 31, to consider various revisions that they would like to make to the ESV text as well as suggestions for change which they have received from others since the ESV was published. [Such revision is standard for major Bible translations, and it is a good thing to make Bible versions better (hence the name of this blog!!). And most people probably won't even notice the changes made in the ESV. It will still sound the same.] At a time when discussions about English Bibles are not always gracious, the ESV team is to be commended for graciously reaching out to the Christian public as they did to Adrian, and also for asking for prayer for the upcoming meetings.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Literary style -- Part 6

Thank you to each one who has read and evaluated my essay in the Literary style -- Part 4 post, and then voted as to whether or not it sounded like good literary English. If you have not yet evaluated that essay, please take the time to do so. We need more votes so that the poll results move toward statistical significance. But even now, with only a relatively few votes cast evaluating the essay, I am able to hypothesize that those who use Bibles seriously are of at least two minds regarding what literary quality means in an English Bible translation.

First, there are those who respond positively to English which is written in syntactic and lexical forms of previous stages of the English language, including that of Elizabethan English. This English has a "classical" sound which this first group likes and considers having "literary excellence."

The second group is more difficult to characterize, because I only ran a short poll during this field test. But I am guessing that, at minimum, the second group senses that "literary excellence" can be found in good quality literary English which uses contemporary syntactic and lexical forms.

I did not realize that there was such a strong difference in opinions between the two groups, unless I am misreading the small amount of data received so far from comments on the essay and from the poll results. It may be that those who voted that my essay was not good quality English were keying into a number of different aspects of the essay, not simply the fact that it used syntactic and lexical forms from previous stages of the history of English. (By the way, the essay English is not my normal literary style, formal contemporary English, which I am using in this blog post.)

I would welcome further comments on my preliminary conclusions in this blog post, as well as, of course, further comments on the essay itself and more votes in the poll about the essay.

I have found this exercise interesting. I hope you have too. It really does get to the heart of one of the debates going on about English Bible translation today.


Monday, May 23, 2005

Literary style -- Part 5

Now you get to evaluate my writing! If you have not yet read my last blog post, Literary style -- Part 4, please do so now. Think about the quality of English in that blog post, then evaluate it by voting in the short poll (aqua background) which is right under the verses of the day in the right margin of this blog.

Have a good day!


Saturday, May 21, 2005

Literary Style -- Part 4

There came to my heart again thoughts on beauty of the words. In my complaint on this I have posted in former days. My flesh faints for beauty of the words, just as, also, the flesh of others. Who can count the dust of the words, from heaven sent? They are even as the stars of the sky. The like has never been, nor ever shall be. Yet, even in the fullness of their numbers, there comes upon us, in truth, a lack of height and depth and breadth in word. In the heart lies the mark toward which we reach, that the words be both in truth and in comeliness, both in tongue and pen. Yet not has man attained unto that mark.

In the day of my desire and in the day of my yearning, as I thought about all of this under the sun, I sought first of all words which would be as silver accouterments that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. But sought I also words of beauty and of adornment. And I said in my heart, yes, seven times did I say, "Let not your heart be troubled, hope yet in finding what your heart desires."

For I desire that which is unsurpassing not only in the words of truth but also in those which find grace in my eyes. My soul thirsts for the beauty of the words, like a deer pants for flowing streams in a dry and thirsty land. The fervent seeks this beauty but finds it not. Of a truth, the spirit of those in whom there was the work of the words had been willing but the flesh had been weak. So in my desire I opened my mouth in parables and my lips uttered voice that I might yet obtain.

And when I was full of days, to others I sent and told. For I knew in my heart that alone surely must not I be in my desire. And it came to pass that I heard the voices of others crying the same in loud lamentation, "Yes, let not only the words be manifold in truth, but let also them have fullness of beauty."

Were not also you of those voices?


Field testing Bible versions

It is my impression that most English versions of the Bible were never field tested before they were published. This is unfortunate, for field testing of any important product is an important step in making that product as helpful to users as possible. Today all computer programmers know that their software must undergo field testing before it is released. Of course, field testing is not the final step; it must be followed by adequate revision based on the results of the field testing. Software which is full of bugs does not sell well and creates disgruntled users. The best software is that which is not only useful, but also user-friendly. We who accept the challenge to translate God's Word for others must pay just as much attention to be sure our product is accurate, useful, and user-friendly. Our translations must be field-tested before they are released to the general public. Translators of tribal languages call this "community checking". Or we might use the computer term beta testing. Only we Bible translators not only have beta tests, but we must test the "alpha and omega," the entire translation, from beginning to end!

An adequate explanation of translation field testing requires more extensive description, but, in brief, we can point out that testing of translations is a commonsense approach to discovering what hearers understand from our translations. Then, as with computer software, revision must take place until further testing indicates that the hearers' understanding lines up with the intended meaning. Field testers should not ask questions which can be answered with a simply "yes" or "no". Such questions and answers often do not give the information necessary to understand what is really understood. Besides, if we ask a hearer, "Do you understand what this Bible verse means?" many hearers will give the socially preferred response of "yes," regardless of what they actually understand. Better testing questions model the traditional questions asked (and answered) by journalists, with content questions that begin with What? Who? When? Where? Why? and How? Let's try an example.

In the newly released ISV (International Standard Version), 1 John 3.18 reads, "Little children, we must stop loving in word and in tongue, but instead love in work and in truth." (Note: the latest edition of the ISV revises "work" to "action," which is much better. A footnote to "action" states "Or work.") The average reader of this page will likely immediately spot several places in this verse where the translation is not adequate, that is, that it does not use an accurate (and natural) combination of words to express the meaning. But we can also bring greater objectivity to our initial subjective reaction by field testing this verse from the ISV with average speakers. To increase the reliability of our field testing, the hearers with whom the translation is tested (we should never test the hearers, only the translation) should be of a wide range of ages, social backgrounds, and knowlege of the Bible. The phrases in the ISV rendering which are most problematical are "loving in word," "loving ... in tongue," "love in work," and "love in truth." We want to find out if these phrases are grammatically and semantically acceptable in "standard English" and, if so, what they mean. Besides testing in the field with average hearers, we can also comb through collections of standard English writing to see if these phrases have ever been spoken or written by speakers of any standard English dialects. (I suspect the answer will be no, especially for "loving in tongue" and "love in work.") To field-test these phrases we can say to the hearer, "I need to test some translation to see if it has good English or not. I would appreciate your help." Then read them this verse. Then ask some questions which will, hopefully, give informative answers, such as, "When would you say you are "loving in tongue"? Most hearers will probably answer by saying they don't know or that it sounds odd or doesn't sound like good English. Hearers often try to make some sense out of any utterance, so do not be surprised if some creative hearers answer that they might say something like this if they show love with their tongue using a technique said to be used by the French!

Similarly, you could ask, "When might you say that you 'love in work'"? Some hearers will simply say that they would never say that, that it doesn't sound like English, or at least not like any English they have ever heard. Others may say they can think of a situation where they might say something like this. Your followup question can then use What? as in "What would you mean if you love in work"? And they might respond by saying that it might mean they really enjoy their job, but, even then, they might add that something still sounds odd, like whoever said that must not be a native speaker of English. The careful translator will then evaluate their response to determine if it indicates a correction understanding of the meaning desired in this verse. (The responses suggested here would not, of course, since the meaning desired in the tested phrase is that a person's love should be shown in loving actions. The English word "work", as it relates to the other words in this verse, is an inaccurate translation of the original Greek.)

After we have tested the translation with a sufficient number of speakers of a variety of ages and backgrounds, we use the results to guide our revision. We then test our revision, or more likely, revisions, since an adequate translation can often go through ten to thirty cycles of testing and revision. Only when a translation passes field tests should it be released to the general public. We honor God's Word when we treat it with this kind of care and respect; we must not use less care in our translations than computer programmers do when field-testing and revising their programs. We must test our translations until they are as accurate as possible, at all levels of accuracy, not simply at the word level. A more thorough explanation of translation testing is in the final chapter of the excellent book Meaning-Based Translation, by Mildred L. Larson. All Bible translators, regardless of their target language, would do well to assimilate the translation principles and techniques described in this book. The author was herself a translator of the Bible for a tribe in Peru, South America.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

Feeding on RSS that ye know not of

Blogging is a whole new Internet world for many of us. I have been actively using the Internet for many years, but I didn't start visiting any blogs until just a few weeks ago. Soon after that, I started this blog because I have a passion that English speakers might be able to read Bibles which are written in their mother tongue, their heart language (there are several, but, sadly, there are also quite a few which are not).

In any case, I assume that many of you who visit this blog do not know about RSS feeds from blogs. And it's OK if you don't. (RSS feeds are a way of keeping up with new posts on blogs you are interested in, in case you're curious.)

For those of you who wish to keep up with changes on this blog, those who understand RSS feeds can do so with the feed buttons in the right margin. For the rest of you, I'll put the following tool at the bottom of the right margin. You can put your email address in the little white box then click on the "OK" button. You may also want to click on the link about privacy to assure yourself that you won't be spammed by putting in your email address.

The update tool will look something like this (hopefully, much better):

Receive notifications of blog updates

it's private

powered by

Actually, you should be able to use the update tool here, as well as at the bottom of the right margin of this blog page.

ricoblog reading

In his blog post yesterday, Rick, of ricoblog mentioned books he is currently reading. Several of them are relevant to Bible translation (not surprisingly, since Rick's academic focus is on the Pastoral Epistles):

Anthony Kenny, A Stylometric Study of the New Testament used a statistical approach to stylistic data in the New Testament to test various hypotheses. While stylometrics itself is not primarily concerned with improving the quality of English in Bible versions, this objective approach to a text can be used to quantify stylistic issues, including comparision of style in a Bible translation with style of English written by some highly regarded English author who writes in a genre similar to that which can be tested by stylometrics.

Kevin Gary Smith, Bible Translation and Relevance Theory: The Translation of Titus. Relevance Theory (RT) is a major theoretical topic of discussion among Bible translators these days. It is being promoted by SIL, the largest Bible translation organization in the world. Dr. Leland Ryken, literary stylist for the ESV, and other English Bible translators have read some of the RT literature applied to Bible translation, such as the writings of SIL member Ernst-August Gutt, and have recognized that Relevance Theory addresses some of their concerns about Dynamic Equivalence translation. Many Bible translators recognize that the DE model needs to be replaced by a more appropriate translation model, which better takes into account the normal conversational implications which people use when communicating--decreasing the need for filling in as much implicit information in translations as has sometimes been done in DE and Functional Equivalence (FE) translations. The result is more transparent translation, which has also been called for by English Bible translators.

Of course, Stanley Porter's books on the Greek of the New Testament, listed by Rick, are relevant to discussions about Greek tense and aspect and how they can be best translated to English.

I recommend that you visit Rick's blog and read his post. And tell him Wayne at Better Bibles Blog sent you. :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Latinization of the English Bible

Throughout the history of mankind there has been a tension between two competing forces when it comes to spiritual knowledge. On the one hand, humans often like to keep some spiritual things mysterious. Many cultures even specify that only certain individuals are entrusted with spiritual knowledge. Often these individuals communicate with the deities in a special language and with special rituals unknown to the rest of the society. This is the sacred. In contrast to the sacred is the "profane," the ordinary. In societies which have special people who are the guardians of spiritual knowledge, there is often a significant gap between what is considered to be spiritually known by the "medicine men" (or spiritual men, prophets, clergy, whatever the role is called in a particular society) and what is known by ordinary people (the laity).

On the other hand, a competing force is that humans want to know what is sacred. We want to understand what is required of us spiritually. We crave something beyond ourselves. While we recognize that we may not fully understand spiritual things, we have, deep within us, a desire to understand something about them, enough so that our lives can be better. This desire to know, to understand, competes with the desire to keep spiritual knowledge sacred, mystical, and, yes, even to some extent, unknown. We are human paradoxes, aren't we?!

The God (Yahweh) of the ancient Hebrews broke into human history and revealed himself to humans, using the languages which were spoken by humans. He did not require humans to learn a special sacred language in order for them to communicate with him. God promised that he would send someone who would rescue people and for centuries Israel looked forward to the coming of this Messiah.

Christians believe that the Messiah came in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnated Logos (Word) made flesh. And what language did Jesus speak to communicate to the people of his time? He spoke their language. He did not speak heavenly languages, which the people would have to learn, in order for them to understand what Jesus taught them.

Over time what God had revealed was written down, in the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic languages for the Hebrew Bible, and in Hellenistic (Koine) Greek for the New Testament. Each of these languages was spoken and understood by the people for whom the written revelation was intended.

However, humans being so human, came to ritualize the sacred languages of revelation of the Hebrews and of Greek speakers. In time only an elite group of spiritual teachers could understand the languages of revelation. And then, history tells us, spiritual renewal would come when someone would make the effort to translate the sacred languages of the Bible into the "vulgar" ("profane") language of the people. St. Jerome did this for those who no longer spoke Greek, when he translated the Bible into Latin. For many years his Latin Vulgate was used to reveal God's words to mankind.

But the cycle continued, and, eventually, language changed, and there were other people groups, speaking other languages, who the church wanted to evangelize. Latin didn't communicate as it originally had, to those who did not speak Latin. Yet the church persisted in using Latin as the sacred language.

But not everyone agreed that only those who kept the keys to the sacred language should have access to the written Word of God. Brave people, some of whom were martyred for their conviction, believed that the Bible should, once again, be in the vulgar language, the language of the people, the language spoken by all segments of society. Church history holds up the example of Luther for German speakers, and Tyndale and Wycliff for the English speaking world, and others for other languages, men who tirelessly labored to translate the Bible so that it would be understood by all speakers of a language, not just those who could speak the "classical" or "sacred" languages.

And the historical cycle continued, around and around it would go, whenever there would be language change that made literature written in a previous stage of a language no longer adequately understandable to people, or whenever the church would reach out to a new group of people into whose language the Bible had never been translated.

Often, however, powerful forces would resist the translation of the Bible into the vulgar (common) language. Spiritual leaders would teach that only a previous sacred language was adequate for communicating God's truth. Some would teach that the laity were incapable of understanding the complex teaching of the Bible, even if it was in the language of the people. They would teach that only the religiously educated could understand divine truths and so they must be the ones to translate revealed truth from the old sacred languages into the current language of parishioners.

I know something about this in my own family. My father's first language was Russian. Not much more than 1,000 years ago, Christianity came to Russia and millions of people converted to Christianity. The Bible was translated into a language of that time, which is now called Old Church Slavonic. My father grew up hearing the liturgy read from the Old Church Slavonic Bible. Even though 19th century Russian, spoken by my father and his relatives who attended their church, was related to Old Church Slavonic, the relationship had become so distant that my father could undersand very little of what was read from the Bible in the liturgy.

Around and around the cycle has continued. In 1611 A.D. a beautiful translation of the Bible was commmissioned by King James. Some resisted using that Authorized Version (King James Version), because they wished to continue using previous English versions of the Bible. But in time the KJV became the standard Bible of the English-speaking world. And it remained so for many, many years. I grew up on it in the church my family attended from the time I was a baby. Yet, after 400 years of widespread use and amazing spiritual blessing to millions through the KJV, it no longer spoke the language of the people, because the people no longer spoke English as it had been spoken in 1611. Some spiritual leaders resisted any further translation of the Bible into the current vernacular. Some still do. Others felt it would benefit English speakers greatly if the Bible were written in English as it was spoken and written by current generations. The tension continued between those who felt that the classical Bible was better for the people, that it had expressions which were of greater literary excellence, and those who felt that the Bible could better communicate to people if it had wordings closer to how people today spoke and wrote.

Eventually there would be so many different translations of the Bible in English that it is nearly impossible for any one individual to name them all. They come in all sorts of varieties of English, including many which are not written in a form of English which anyone has ever spoken or written.

Many welcomed new translations which sounded like the way they themselves spoke and wrote. Others felt that it was improper for the Bible to be written in the vernacular. The common language, spoken and written by all levels of society, from the highly educated to those with little education was considered too "common" or "profane" to communicate God's revealed words to mankind. This common language was not a lowest common denominator kind of colloquial or "dumbed down" language, but good quality language understood by everyone. But some church leaders still resisted use of a Bible in the vernacular. The common human craving for mystery and the maintainence of the majesty and dignity of God (wonderful motives, but sometimes misapplied linguistically) was a powerful force resisting use of the Bible in language which could be understood by all fluent speakers.

And the tension continues today. It is a normal tension. It is part of our humanity, the desire to honor the sacred, to keep it from being profaned. There is also within us a desire for beauty and many view older forms of a language as being more beautiful than current forms of a language. Yet there is also a competing human desire to know God, to understand what he has revealed to mankind. I recall at least three stages of my own spiritual walk when I was exposed to a new translation which broke out of older linguistic patterns and were written in my language. My first such experience was with the Living Bible in the 1960s. I remember thinking that something written in such ordinary language could not possibly be the Bible. No one ever taught me that, as far as I know. It is, I think, just a normal part of our humanity to view something which sounds more linguistically "distant" as being more sacred, more spiritual, more accurate, closer to how God's Word should be written.

For a number of years some who have been concerned about English versions have felt that some English Bibles have missed something important. It was claimed (often correctly) that Bibles in the vernacular were not as accurate as they should be. And Bibles in the vernacular did not give people a feeling that they were hearing or reading something "sacred." Some newer Bibles did not "sound" like Bibles to those who felt pulled by the historical desire for the "sacred sound."

And so "corrective" measures have been taken. Newer versions were translated which could let people once again feel like they were using Bibles that sounded like a Bible. The motivation is thoroughly understandable. The Bible is a sacred book. It reveals to us critically important sacred truths. Our God is not our "buddy" who just looks the other way when we do wrong. No, he is holy. He is, in the classical words, "high and lifted up."

Sometimes, though, in the effort to create Bible versions which are more accurate and which sound more literary and sound more like we think a Bible should sound, we have returned to a mysterious language which is not really understood by those for whom we have translated the Bible, even though it is our best intention that they do so understand it. History has come full circle, once again, and it probably will cycle around many more times, unless our God brings human history to a close before too much longer. In our effort to return the Bible to a place of accuracy, dignity, majesty, and literary quality, we have put it in language which no English speaker has ever spoken or written. We, like the church leaders using the Latin Vulgate, when it was no longer understood by the people, have "Latinized" our English Bible.

It is important for us to think back upon these historical cycles involving the sacred and language, and the role of any sacred language, and try to learn from history. In our efforts to make "better" Bibles, let us be vigilant and wise that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We must always keep in mind the old adage: "The only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history." And "Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater." In our efforts to make "better" Bibles, let us not make the Bible linguistically less accessible to English speakers today than the original biblical languages were to those who spoke those languages.

I, personally, believe it is possible to translate into English in a way that the translation will be fully accurate, true to the words and semantics and syntax of the original revealed Scripture, and also true to the words, semantics, and syntax of good quality literary English, as it is written by good authors today. I do not believe that it is necessary to translate in a way that the English in a translation does not follow the rules of English in order for it to sound literary or to be accurate. I will continue posting on this topic, since it is the focus of this blog. I would not have started this blog or posted as I do if I did not believe that there is a great need for English Bibles to be written in real English, the vernacular, or to use that obsolescent term "vulgar" English (and I don't mean including lots of swear words in a translation!!).

Does translation of the Bible into the vernacular mean that we expect everyone who reads that translation to understand all the concepts written? Of course not. But there is no reason why those who speak and write in the vernacular cannot understand the words and sentences of the translation. I don't understand Einstein's theory of relativity very well, but I can understand the words and sentences which describe it. It requires Bible teachers and pastors to help us go beyond linguistic understanding of the Bible, to greater conceptual understanding, and then, beyond that, to understanding how God's Word can be applied to our own lives.

The Bible can be written using words which can be understood and respected by all native speakers, from those who are highly educated to those who have little education, from those who are old to those who are younger. Writing in good quality literary English will not detract from its sacredness, nor from the accuracy that we all believe is required to communicate God's verbal revelation to us.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

New poll

There is a new poll to test some wordings to see if they sound like proper English to you. The new poll is in the right margin of this blog page, under the verses of the day. The new poll has a silver (or gray) background. Define "proper English" any way that you wish, as long as your definition covers what you would consider good quality literary English, as it would be written by good English authors today.

Read each sentence carefully, then think about how it sounds to you, whether or not it sounds like it is properly worded in English. If it sounds good to you, put a mark in the box next to it.

Have fun!

P.S. This poll is directly relevant to English Bible translation issues, so your answers are a help to English Bible translators.

ESV links -- Part 2

I am continuing to upgrade the ESV links webpage. New links are marked by a yellow and red "new" icon. There are now a good number of links to reviews of the ESV, some of which are by Biblical scholars. I continue to welcome your suggestions for other links for information about the ESV.


Sunday, May 15, 2005

ESV links

I am a collector. Among other things, I collect data. I collect information about Bible versions. I enjoy sharing this information with others. I have begun a webpage with links to information about the ESV. You can click on the title "ESV links," above, for this blog post to get to the new webpage. Although I have tried to be as complete as possible, this is a work in progress. I'm sure that there are other items which I do not know about yet which should go on the webpage. I would especially like to know about any other scholarly reviews of the ESV which are missing on the webpage. I will add missing items to the links webpage as quickly as possible, but could you help me also? Just click on the "comments" link after this message and post your information. Or, if you prefer, email me with the information. You can find my email address by clicking on the "View my complete profile" link in the right margin of this blog. I will add information provided to my ESV links webpage ASAP. Thanks.

P.S. I created a webpage with TNIV links a year or two ago for anyone interested.


Saturday, May 14, 2005

Literary style -- Part 3

Now, let's try to evaluate the quality of English in a passage from four recently translated English versions. To keep this exercise as objective as possible, I will not give the names of the version until after enough people have tried this exercise and posted their answers. Please do not look up the passage in different versions to try to discover which versions they are from. We just want to compare these versions with each other. Study each version, then try to rank them according to which sounds to you like it has the best quality English, then the next best, and finally, the version of the four which, to you, seems to have the worst quality English of these four.

Please do not hesitate to try this exercise, thinking it is only for English or Bible scholars. There are no right or wrong answers for this exercise. We would just like to know how the wordings sound to you, personally.

Version 1:
This saying is trustworthy. I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed God might be careful to devote themselves to good works. These are good and profitable for everyone. But avoid foolish debates, genealogies, quarrels, and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a divisve person after a first and second warning, knowing that such a person is perverted and sins, being self-condemned.
Version 2:
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
Version 3:
These things I have told you are all true. I want you to insist on them so that everyone who trusts in God will be careful to do good deeds all the time. These things are good and beneficial for everyone. Do not get involved in foolish discussions about long lists of ancestors or in quarrels and fights about obedience to Jewish laws. These kinds of things are useless and a waste of time. If anyone is causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with that person. For people like that have turned away from the truth. They are sinning, and they condemn themselves.
Version 4:
The word is trustworthy, and I deliberately will you to consent concerning these things, in order that you might consider beautiful works to preside over those having believed by God. These are the beautiful things, and beneficial to humanity. Shun moronic inquiries, genealogies, squabbling, attitudes, and lawyers: for they are disastrous and futile. After the first and second warning excuse an individual who is a sectarian, having discovered that one such as this has been skewed, and deviates, being automatically judged against.

Please rank the preceding passages from best to worst English quality, giving their passage numbers, for example, from best to worst: 2 1 4 3.

If two or more passages seem equal in quality to you, mark them as equals with a hyphen, for example, 1-2 3-4, where 1 and 2 would be equal to each other, but better in quality than 3 and 4 which are equal to each other.

To submit your answers, click on the "Send" button. Then, if your browser asks you if you wish to submit your answers, click on "OK" and then "Send".


Friday, May 13, 2005

Literary style -- Part 2

Bible translations vary a great deal in the degree to which they are expressed in the natural lexical (vocabulary) and syntactic (grammatical) forms of the (target)translation language. Translation professionals, training courses, and textbooks advise that a translation should sound as natural as possible in the translation language. In fact, some say, "A translation should not sound like a translation," but, rather, "read like an original work." Whether or not you agree, let's evaluate the wordings of some recent English versions to try to rank them according to the quality of their English style, how good the English sounds, how natural it is, whether the forms used sound grammatical according to current English syntax.

First, let's evaluate two versions of a text not from the Bible:

Version 1:
"Before four notches and seven years, our fathers obtained more still after this continent a new nation: understood started in freedom and the business that all the men comparable are provided. We take part now in a large civil war and examine, if this nation or a nation included thus and if started, to support a long time can. We run up against a large battle field of this war. We came to use part of this field as places stationary finale for which which gave their lives here which could live this nation. It is suitable and correct together that us should do that. But, in a greater direction, we cannot be able to begin to us not consecrate, we cannot this ground sanctify. The courageous men, the lives and dead which fought here, must consecrated add or remove far on our bad energy. The world will of little notices it remembers still a long time, which we say here, but it cannot never forgets, which it here. It be for we the life the work incomplete being start rather here that they which it fight here, credit him its to we be so splendid advanced until now present rather with a try before we, that honour, largely remain we use here take dead increase devotion that with a cause for which them give last fully the measurement of devotion that we repair here high that that must have not death futile die in that nation, under a god, must have again the birth of freedom, and that the government of a person, for a person, must not die from the earth."
Version 2:
"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Which version sounds like better English to you?

You probably answered Version 2, and that is the answer I would give also. Version 2 is the famous Gettysburg Address delivered by the U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, written, in my opinion, with truly great literary elegance. Version 1 is that same speech processed three times by the Alta Vista Babel Fish Internet machine translator, first translated to German, then from German to French, then from French back to English. Version 1 reflects "interference" from the foreign language(s), something which many English Bible versions also reflect.

In my next post we will evaluate literary style in some passages from different English Bible versions.


Thursday, May 12, 2005

What does it mean to be people of the Book?

Here is an essay I wrote in 2001:
From the time I was a small child I have wanted to be a missionary. I grew up with Bible stories and teaching in Sunday School and expository Bible preaching in church sermons. I memorized hundreds of verses from the Bible and can still remember many of them. My church culture has centered around the Bible. The Bible school I attended has its motto carved on its entrance wall, "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15), and "word of truth" is interpreted only to mean the Bible. I have heard many challenges that we should be "people of the Word." We have often been told, "Get into the Word," and "Stay in the Word." Today I am a missionary Bible translator. I have been translating for a Native American tribe since 1975, and continue to feel this is where God wants me to work for him. It is good work. And my desire to help others hear and understand God's written Word is just as strong as ever.

Yet, sometimes I wonder if those of us from such strong "Bible backgrounds" have our highest priorities wrong. Sometimes I wonder if it is more important for us to know the written Word than it is for us to know the Living Word, of whom the written Word speaks.

I honestly wonder if sometimes it is more important for us to spend time with the book (perhaps even worship the Book) more than we do its Maker. I hear so much argumentation about the words of the Bible, which version is the right one to read, and similar things which focus on the form in which written revelation came, that I wonder if we miss the Message while trying so hard to get its words right. Mind you, I'm just as concerned about the words, because I have to translate them, and I always want to translate them accurately. But, could it be that we sometimes become so focused upon the written words that we miss its overall message for our lives? Could it be that we fall into some of the same well-meaning traps into which the Pharisees of Jesus' time did? I think they sincerely wanted to please God? But they had lost the core of what it meant to be pleasing to God.

It seems to me that much of our desire to be "people of the Book" is good, but because we are human, and that means being fallible, we allow the good focus upon the written Word to become something, over time, that misses the priority focus of our lives, which should be to honor God and share the Good News with others that he has a free gift, a way for humans to be acceptable to him.

It seems to me that when we focus upon "the Word" we so often absorb it cognitively (with our minds) rather than volitionally (with our wills). "Learning the Word" becomes an end in itself. And what do we do when we "learn the Word"? We study its major and minor themes. We often locate proof texts to support "our side" in some theological or political argument. We memorize. We learn the meaning of important theological terms in the Bible. We learn how to explain the meaning of those words to those who don't understand them. Sometimes we are honest enough with ourselves to go all the way with the process of interpreting the Bible and get to the final step of personal application. But much of the time we stop before then and feel that we have been "in the Word" and that that exercise makes us better Christians. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus were speaking to us today as he did to people of his time he might tell us, "You have the Scriptures. You love them. You regularly search these Scriptures. They tell about me. They tell you how to believe in me, rather than in your own ways of earning God's acceptance" (John 5:39).

Could it be that our focus upon the "words" of the Bible is sometimes an unconscious effort on our part not to let those words convict us of needed changes in our behavior and attitudes? Could it be that some of us who prefer "literally accurate" versions of the Bible do so because we can continue studying, trying to figure out what those "literal" words mean in terms of words that we speak ordinarily? Can it be that we are uncomfortable with translations of the Bible which use grammar and vocabulary closer to the language we speak everyday because those translations are so understandable to us? With them we no longer have to "study the Word" to determine what it means, but instead have to simply listen, to come under its spotlight aimed at us by the Holy Spirit who inspired that Word? We may smile at what some pastors have said when it was suggested that they preach from a more understandable version of the Bible, "But then what would I have to preach about?" But we need to ask ourselves if there is any of this same attitude toward the Bible in ourselves. The truth is that there is plenty to study and preach about from the Bible even from translations which speak clearly in the vernacular (including the English vernacular today).

Now, I'm not at all saying that the Bible is perfectly easy to understand, no matter what dialect of a language it is translated in. There are parts of the Bible which may always be difficult for us to understand because our current situation is so far removed from the original context to which a particular part of the Bible was addressed. We do not understand all the context-specific details of some parts of the Bible. But the majority of the Bible really is meant to be well understood, or at least understood well enough for us to respond and obey. For it was written in the vernacular, everyday language, meant to be understood by everyday people.

Early in our career of translating the Bible for Native Americans, one young man told us, "We already knew about God before the missionaries came. Our religion is a way of life. The missionaries came and told us we needed to change our religion. But the missionaries couldn't even remember everything about their religion. They had to keep looking in a book to remember." We listened graciously. I think there was something important for us to hear. We don't agree that the missionaries were using the Bible because they couldn't remember. But we did need to hear that we cannot simply be people of the Book, if it doesn't seem to others that our beliefs affect our entire lives. We must properly follow our missionary predecessors, trying to communicate God's written revelation to others, as Paul did at Athens (Acts 17:15-34), telling the Athenians about the One who can fulfill their deepest spiritual longings.

But I still wonder if we sometimes concentrate so much on the book that we miss translating its message into life for people who long to live life as God meant it, life in all its fullness (John 10:10).

And for those of us who translate the Bible, how are we people of the Book? Do we view translation of the Book as an end in itself? Does translating for Bibleless tribes equate with "giving them the Word"? This is a good question, one we should spend some time thinking about. It seems to me that translation is only part of giving others the Word. If we do not also help them have the tools needed to translate that Word into life, then it is not a complete translation process.

What are we doing with the Book? Are we trying to get others to be people of the Book, as we are, or are we trying to introduce them to the Living Word, first of all, that Living Word who then introduces us to his written word so that we not only have his presence in our lives, but also his words of life, and comfort, and conviction and change.

What does it really mean to be people of the Book?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

1 Corinthians 13 for the Bible translator

by Wayne Leman and Ellis Deibler,
based on the New Living Translation
Valentine's Day, February 14, 2001; revised May 11, 2005

1. If I could speak any language of heaven or the nearly 7,000 languages on earth, but didn't love others, I would only be making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal. If I mastered exegesis so that my Bible translation was perfectly accurate, and mastered communication so that others understood the meaning perfectly, but didn't love others, my mastery would be worth nothing unless I loved others. 2. If I had the right eschatology and was right in all other areas of doctrine, but didn't love others, none of my doctrinal correctness would be of any real value. And if I had such trust in God that I could tackle a difficult translation passage and know that we would translate it accurately, communicatively, and quickly, but didn't love others, that faith would be worth nothing. If I received praise for translating meaningfully, but didn't love others, none of my efforts to translate would be worth anything. 3. If I translated so that everyone, rich, poor, highly educated, and uneducated, complementarians, and egalitarians, liked the language in my translation, and if I suffered burnout from working so hard at the translation desk that I could tell our suppporters about how much I was doing for God, yet if I did not love others, pleasing different audiences with my translation and burning out for God would have no value whatsoever. No matter how committed I am to helping translate the Word of God for thousands of Bibleless groups around the world, if I don't love others, as well, that commitment is worth nothing. 4. Instead, if I am loving, I will be patient and kind. I will not be jealous. I won't boast. I won't be proud about myself or how hard I am working for God. 5. If I truly love others, I won't be rude to them. I won't demand my own way. I won't tell others that my method of translating is the only right way and theirs is wrong. If I love others I won't get irritated with them. I won't even keep track of all the times others have wronged me. 6. If I love others, I will feel sad about injustices, but I will be glad whenever the truth wins out. 7. If I truly love others, I will never give up, no matter how difficult the work is and no matter how trying some of my interpersonal relationships with my colleagues are. I will keep trusting God even when translation progress has slowed to a near standstill. I will consistently expect what God has promised, and I will make it through every difficult situation. 8. We will go on loving others forever, but we will not need Bible translations forever. Some day we will all understand each other perfectly, no matter what language we speak. 9. Right now, even though we have so much training to make the best translations possible, we still don't know everything, and we aren't always right. 10. But when we find out in heaven what the perfect translation would be, I won't need my linguistic or exegetical skills anymore. In fact, they will disappear and I will be left with what can last forever, whatever was done because I loved others. 11. It's like this: when I was a child, I acted like a child. I thought that the way I understood the Bible was the only right way. But when I grew up, I put away such childish attitudes. 12. Even though I do not like to admit it, now I do not understand how to translate perfectly, but some day, when I myself am translated to heaven, I will understand everything perfectly and completely, just as God knows me now. 13. There are three things that will last forever, trusting in God, consistently expecting what he has promised, and loving others, but the most important of these is loving others.

Literary Non-excellence?

Phil Wade at the Collected Miscellany blog refers to a debate among literary critics about whether an author can maintain literary excellence if they publish too many books in too short a time span.

I think that similar debates would occur over the claims of some English Bible versions to have "literary excellence" if more literary critics reviewed them. I don't know whether or not I would qualify as a literary critic but I was the feature editor of our college student newspaper and later I worked as copyeditor for an academic (linguistics) publisher. I have functioned as an English editor for many years. I love good English. I think there is great literary excellence in Shakespeare. I am wowed by the opening lines of "Tale of Two Cities," by Charles Dickens.

But, to be honest, I don't find literary excellence in some English Bible versions, such as the ESV, whose translation team, including its chief literary stylist, highly promote its "literary excellence." This may be another case, as that referred to by Phil Wade, where literary critics simply disagree. It may be that some of us operate with difference definitions of "literary excellence." Could it be that some of the praise for literary excellence in the ESV is more direction to the medium than the message. That is, the ESV continues the great literary tradition of the Tyndale and KJV Bibles, which were great literature for their time and their audiences, and can continue to be studied as older great literature even today. So the ESV sounds good to the ears of those who like it. But perhaps when we actually get into the details of the message--I'm a detail man--and find so many examples of obscure and unnatural wordings, the evaluation may change.

I, for one, am put off by writing which is obscure and which does not follow the grammatical, rhetorical, and semantic rules of English as it is spoken and written by English authors widely recognized to produce great literature (e.g. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Angelou, Dickens). I have been reading the ESV and it is full of wordings which do not reflect quality English. I think the RSV, from which the ESV is only lightly revised in terms of literary quality, did not reflect quality English either. Both translations use obscure wordings, many of which are not part of the English lexicon.

It is only fair that I give a few examples here to support my literary evaluation of the ESV, and there are more examples in the ESV section of this blog, and I have even more examples in the pipeline:

I recognize that my assessment is not shared by the increasing number of Bible readers who seem to genuinely love the literary style of the ESV. Note Jake's enthusiastic review of the ESV, referred to in today's blog post on the ESV blog for a long, extremely positive review of the ESV, including high praise for its literary quality. And Jake is an undergraduate English major, surely not one who would lightly praise the literary quality of something unless he truly felt it to be of high quality. At this point, the best I can say, as was said in Phil Wade's blog entry, is that we differ in our assessments of the ESV. I respect Jake's evaluation and would like to learn more from him. I would like to sit down with him and examine specific passages in the ESV and ask him if they reflect literary excellence.

I would like to see more reviews of the ESV done by English professors and literary who are sensitive to the qualities that make for great literature in contemporary English. After reading such reviews, I may find out that I have a minority opinion about the ESV. I hope so, because I like to see English Bible versions highly valued and well used, meeting the needs of current English speakers.

I didn't want to write so forthrightly about the ESV this early in my posts on this blog. I prefer a strong inductive and empirical approach to analysis, where I build up a large database of examples which, to my mind, anyway, help support an analysis. There is a good start for this database in the ESV section of this blog, but there are a large number of other examples which have not yet been posted to the ESV section.

What do you think about the literary quality of the ESV? Have you heard differing literary critique about the ESV? Or has most of what you have heard been very positive about the literary quality of the ESV? How many of the literary critiques that you have about the ESV have been written by experienced critics of good quality English? The floor is now open to you; just click on the "comments" link directly below this post.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Different strokes for different folks

Translations of the Bible are made for some group. This is so axiomatic that it almost seems a truism. Yet sometimes we forget this most basic fact about Bible translation, that there is always one or more groups of people for whom a translation is made. Sometimes Bible translators will state who their intended ("target") audience is. When the Good News Bible was first published, its translators said it was intended to be used by people who spoke English as a second language. It turned out that many native speakers of English (I was one of them) also appreciated reading the Good News Bible. I recall being amazed at how well the GNB spoke "my language" when I began reading it, in the summer of 1969, in the paperback New Testament with the newspaper design cover.

Often translators or publishers of an English Bible version do not specifically state any particular audience for whom that version is intended. I suspect that often there is the assumption that if that version makes sense to its translators it will make sense to most other people. But, of course, things don't always turn out that way. Often a version is written in language which is not used by an entire language group, in this case, by all native speakers of English. In reality, many English Bible versions are "speciality Bibles," which best serve specific audiences.

The KJV is lovingly placed in hotel, motel, and hospital rooms by the Gideons. Yet, many of those who stay in those rooms cannot understand the language of the KJV very well.

The CEV and NCV are written in standard English (also known, technically, as Plain English), spoken by native English speakers of a wide range of age and social groups. Yet, neither version would be easily accepted as the pulpit and pew Bible in most churches. Most ministers and many in their congregations want to use Bibles that "sound like Bibles" and the CEV and NCV do not.

The NIV and TNIV translation team deliberately worded these versions so that they would have a "dignified" sound, acceptable in church settings and for Bible study by those who like their Bible to sound like a Bible, while still being more understandable than more formally equivalent Bibles, such as the NASB.

The ESV has received enthusiastic endorsements from some Christian leaders and pastors in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. The ESV is promoted as having "literary excellence." Yet I suspect that this literary excellence will be most recognized by those who are already familiar with the beautiful Tyndale-KJV literary translation, such as those who endorse it and those who are taught by them. My own sense from study of the ESV is that it will likely not be very useable by those who are new believers, unfamiliar with "church language" or the older forms of English syntax and lexical collocations found throughout much of the ESV.

Many agree that the New Living Translation is pleasant to read, even though a sizeable percentage do not recommend the NLT for serious Bible study or as a pulpit Bible. Instead, for these purposes they prefer a Bible which sounds like a Bible to them, one which has a greater focus on translation at the word level so that careful study of Bible words can be done.

Some decry the multiplicity of English Bible versions that we have today. They point out that it can be confusing for someone not familiar with the different English Bible versions to enter a Christian bookstore or the Bibles section of a secular bookstore and look for a Bible which will meet their needs (or the desire of their faith community for them).

But in this multiplicity of versions I think there is actually strength. The same English Bible often does not work for everyone. There are very few English Bibles today which serve the needs of all of the people all of the time, to paraphrase an old saying. Different people, from different age, social, linguistic, and faith-commitment groups, have different Bible needs.

As with so many things in life, the old sayings are true, "different strokes for different folks" and "the same size doesn't fit everyone."

Can you tell from study of the Bible version(s) you use most what English audience it best serves? Do the translators of that version state anywhere for whom that version was translated?

Which English Bible speaks your language, your mother tongue, your heart language, the English which you understand best and which touches you, spiritually and emotionally? Which English Bible best meets your needs for careful Bible study? Which English Bible best aligns with your deeply held doctrinal or ideological convictions?

These are good questions to think about during debates about English Bible versions. All of these questions are relevant in your own spiritual journey as you use one or more more Bible versions, and as you help others find a version which is good for them at their stage of their journey.


Sunday, May 08, 2005

Inaccurate translation

In this post I will cite some wordings from different English Bible versions which seem to me to be inaccurate. But first it is necessary to explain what inaccuracy is in translation. Most who are concerned about the integrity of Bible translations usually think of a wording which is exegetically inaccurate when they hear the word "inaccurate." That is, inaccuracy would refer to any translation wording which displays a different interpretation of the meaning of the biblical source text from that which is considered to be the "correct" one by the evaluator, or, sometimes more broadly, by some consensus of biblical scholarship.

There are several kinds of inaccuracy when we define translation accuracy as the degree to which a specific individual, or social group, understands the meaning of a translation wording the same as the meaning of the biblical source text wording behind that translation. (Or, we can move the bar forward one step, and say that the understood meaning of a wording is the same as the meaning intended by the translators who wrote that wording.)

A translation is not simply accurate according to how Bible translators understand the meaning of the biblical text and how closely they believe their translation wording aligns with that. We must also consider that a translation is made for others, people who do not understand the biblical languages, so that they can understand the Bible in their own languages and dialects. Different sociolinguistic groups use different vocabulary and even some different syntax, even though they speak the same overall language. Bible scholars, who work closely with the biblical languages and who are familiar with "church language" are able to understand certain kinds of wordings in Bible translations more easily than can individuals who are less familiar with traditional church language. A Bible translation may be accurate for scholars, but not accurate for non-scholars, if the non-scholars get wrong meanings from translation wordings written in the language which scholars understand.

What, then, are some kinds of translation inaccuracies possible in Bible translations?

1. Exegetical inaccuracy: the translation wording does not align with the meaning of the source text (or at least the meaning as understood by many biblical scholars). There are several different categories of exegetical inaccuracy, including:

a. Wrong meaning: In the GW (God's Word) translation of Phil. 4:5 we read "Let everyone know how considerate you are." I understand this wording to be inaccurate because we are not to let everyone know how considerate we are, but, rather, to be considerate to everyone. The GW wording sounds like we are to brag about how considerate we are. I am sure that the GW translators intended a different meaning. The problem here is that there is not much difference in English wording between traditional (and accurate) wordings of this verse, such as ESV "Let your reasonableness be known to everyone" and the GW wording. (Other versions substitute "gentleness" or "forebearance" which are very close in meaning.) "Let (something) be known" and "Let everyone know (something)" are close in wording but have an important meaning difference where the more passive "Let it be known" does not require that you make something known by speaking about it or in some other way pointing to it. But "Let everyone know ..." does communicate the idea of an active speaking about something or in some other way pointing to it.

b. Omission of meaning: leaving out some meaning of the source text. CEV Acts 14:23 states "Paul and Barnabas chose some leaders for each of the churches. Then they went without eating and prayed that the Lord would take good care of these leaders." The meaning of the Greek eis hon pepisteukeisan 'in whom they had believed' is missing in the CEV wording of this verse.

c. Addition of meaning: adding some meaning which is not in the biblical text. Ron Gordon points out on his webpage Translations Compared that there is added meaning in NLT Acts 27:14 "But the weather changed abruptly, and a wind of typhoon strength (a “northeaster,” they called it) caught the ship and blew it out to sea." Ron notes that the phrases "caught the ship" and "blew it out to sea" are insertions, not supported by the Greek of Acts 27:14.

d. Zero meaning: where a translation wording communicates no meaning to its users. This can occur from the use of an archaic word that no longer has meaning in the target language, or from unnatural word combinations or imported syntax. Some current users of English Bibles do not know the meanings of some of theological terms which were borrowed into English from Latin words used in the Latin Vulgate, words such as "propitiation," "expiation," "justification," and "sanctification." The meanings of these words can, of course, be taught to those who do not know them. On the other hand, having to teach people the meanings of words in a Bible translation to some extent defeats the purpose of a translation which is to allow those who do not understand the Bible in its original language to undersand it in their own language. But there are audiences and situations for which use of traditional church language is important in Bibles. Such usage can help make a Bible sound "dignified" or that it is truly a "church book" to people who are accumstomed to hearing such words.

There are other kinds of zero meaning possible in a Bible translation. One is where a biblical idiom or metaphor is literally translated but its literal translation does not communicate the biblical meaning to its users. As always, we must remember that there are different audiences that use a translation, so there will likely be some audiences which have been taught the meanings of such literally translated idioms or metaphors. But some people prefer to know the meanings of unfamiliar wordings from a translation itself or they may not be in an environment where they can learn their meaning through teaching. For such people it can be best not to translate idioms or metaphors with zero meaning. The KJV wording "shutteth up his bowels [of compassion] from him" (1 John 3:17) has no (zero) meaning to most English speakers today. That is why recent English versions translate the figurative meaning of the Greek metaphor "bowels of compassion" with meaningful wordings such as "closes his heart against him" (RSV, ESV) and "have pity on that person" (CEV).

2. Collocational inaccuracy: where a word combination, often not natural in the target language, communicates a different meaning to speakers of a language from the meaning intended by the translators. ESV 2:24 is worded as "a wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! Who can restrain her lust?" The phrase "in her heat" in English refers to a stage of a track event, as in the sentence, "She got third place in her heat for the 100 meter hurdles." The ESV translators did not intend to communicate this meaning with the words "in her heat," but that is what those words mean in English. (Yes, I realize that a reader should catch on that a different meaning is intended for these words from the context of Jer. 2:24, but the words "in her heat" are, nevertheless, inaccurate for communicating the intended meaning.) What is the intended meaning? It is surely "in heat." In English, some female animals are said to be "in heat" during part of their menstrual cycle.

3. Language change inaccuracy: In Rom. 14:17 the KJV is worded "For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." The word "meat" apparently was an accurate translation in Elizabethan English spoken when the KJV was translated, referring to more than just the flesh of animals, but, rather to food in general, which is the meaning of the underlying Greek word brosis. Recent English versions accurately translate brosis to words such as "food" or "eating". Please note that we are not saying that "meat" is an inaccurate translation in the KJV. It is only inaccurate for those English speakers who no longer have the meaning sense of 'food'. This would include the majority of English speakers today.

4. Syntactic ambiguity: Unintended target language syntactic ambiguities can create inaccurate understandings when translators are not aware of the multiple meanings created by their wording. The Hebrew of Jer. 2:25 ends with words which should communicate in English the meaning that Israel persists in following the idolatrous ways (or gods) of foreigners ("strangers"). One way of expressing this idea is to say "follow after them" (where "them" can refer either to the foreign gods or the ways of the foreigners which would include worship of their gods). I think the wordings "follow after" or "go after" communicate the Hebrew meaning accurately to most English speakers--in this case "after" functions as a particle, part of the verb, rather than as the preposition in a prepositional phrase "after them." But notice that syntactic ambiguity is created in English when "after" is moved to the beginning of the clause. This ambiguity was created by the RSV translators (and retained by the NRSV and ESV translators; the problem also occurs in the KJV, NASB, NJB, and the Tanakh) who use the wording "after them I will go." It is possible for the correct meaning (that of pursuing them, or following in their ways) to be gotten from this wording, but it seems to me even more likely for someone to get the wrong meaning from it, namely, that the "I" of the passage will succeed "them" in time. The ambiguity is largely removed and there is improved accuracy in those English versions (e.g. REB, NIV, TNIV, NLT, TEV, NCV, CEV, NET, HCSB) which use the more normal English word order for the meaning of chasing someone, e.g. "will go after them" (TEV) and "will continue to follow them" (HCSB).

There may be other categories of inaccuracy which I have not included in this post. Can you think of some? If so, please mention them by clicking on the "comments" link below this post.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Another tip

Michael Pahl noted on his blog that the list of tips for "proper English" which I posted on Thursday was missing #3. Shame on me: I should have proofread that list which I copied from another website. After all, proofreading and careful editing of English is one of the focuses of the Better Bibles Blog, eh?!

In any case, I googled on "40 tips for proper English" and found a number of other webpages that copied the same list I did, all with the missing #3. It took my aging eyes quite awhile to figure out where the missing #3 was: Someone had combined two tips for #30 in the list I originally posted. Google helped me find another list which has the same tips, but separates the combined one, and has a #3. So, I don't really have another tip for you from the list, since the missing tip was already in the list. But, like every good preacher, or missionary, I still can find a tip for you from this experience. It is: proofread, proofread, proofread.

I have now revised my last post so that the numbers are correct in the list. For those of you who like to check out all the details, I think I have supplied enough links for you to do that.

Finally, have I mentioned yet today's tip? Proofread, proofread, proofread? :-) Every piece of good writing, including Bible translations, needs to be proofread, proofread, proofread--then set aside and let it (and your brain) rest for awhile, then come back to the piece, and, well, you know what should happen again, ... proofread some more! (Have I mentioned today's tip for you yet?) Oh, and before, during, and sometimes after, you proofread, you also need to revise, revise, revise. But this will be a topic for another post. I have some examples from English Bible versions from which I have noticed some revisions which improved the translation wordings. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Proper English -- Part 2

After my preaching in the preceding post, you deserve something lighter about proper English. Try this (it comes from the webpage linked to the title of this post; I have revised some punctuation and capitalization to be more in line with the copyediting rules I was taught):
40 tips for proper English

1. Avoid alliteration. Always.
2. Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
3. Employ the vernacular.
4. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
5. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
6. Remember to never split an infinitive.
7. Contractions aren't necessary.
8. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
9. One should never generalize.
10. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
11. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
12. Don't be redundant; don't use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
13. Be more or less specific.
14. Understatement is always best.
15. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
16. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
17. The passive voice is to be avoided.
18. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
19. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
20. Who needs rhetorical questions?
21. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
22. Don't never use a double negation.
23. capitalize every sentence and remember always end it with point
24. Do not put statements in the negative form.
25. Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
26. Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
27. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
28. A writer must not shift your point of view.
29. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
30. Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.
31. Don't overuse exclamation marks!!
32. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
33. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
34. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
35. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
36. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
37. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
38. Always pick on the correct idiom.
39. The adverb always follows the verb.
40. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; they're old hat; seek viable alternatives.