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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Good literary English, spoken English, and contemporary English

Michael Sly asked me in an email today:
Let me ask you, I believe I am falling into the confusion that lies in the gap between "good literary English" and "spoken English" or better put, "English of today". In our world today, do we have the dichotomy between written and spoken English or has it all been blurred together? The reason I ask this is from some your comments regarding the CEV,
"Ultimately we realized that the CEV had English phrasings that were even closer to the way that we ordinarily spoke and wrote than the TEV, so we began using the CEV for our personal use also."
Which also raises the question, does a good English translation for today have a lower reading level? (i.e. the CEV has a reading level of 5.6 - Yet, the literally translated versions (NASB, ESV, NRSV, etc) have a higher reading level. I am really curious about your thoughts on this.
Excellent questions, Michael. These terms and concepts are easily confused. Let me see if I can "un-confuse" them a little while I'm on my work break here.

I often mention "good literary English" on blog posts and comments. By that term I mean English which would be regarded as good quality written English by English experts (such as English professors) as well as other English speakers. There are two important ideas here, first that it is written English as opposed to spoken English. And, next, that it is good quality. I am not sure but I think that the word "literary" might include a meaning sense that is more than simply written language. I think it also includes the idea that what is written qualifies as being "literature," that is, something which many readers would find attractive to read and stands the test of time, such as the writings of Shakespeare, the novels of Charles Dickens, and the poetry of Robert Frost. "Good literary English" is, in my opinion, first "grammatical," that is, follows standard rules of how the parts of the English language fit together. These are not rules which are simply passed on by English teachers, although English teachers often do pass on such rules. Rather, these are rules which speakers and writers of a language "agree" to follow so that they can understand each other. They are the rules which parents teach their children when helping them learn to speak. For instance, when a child says, "Mommy, I is sick," and the mother says, "Yes, you are, and we would say, 'Mommy, I am sick," the mother is teaching her child about subject-verb person agreement.

Then, of course, good literary English needs to be attractive, pleasant to read. Typically it will have some vivid language and interesting figures of speech, and other good rhetorical devices.

There are some important differences between spoken and written English. Linguists have studied and described many of these differences. I don't have a good reference to suggest to learn more about these differences. But I think most of us subconsciously sense that we become a little more formal when we write than when we speak. Our written sentences often have more complex syntax than our spoken sentences. Our spoken sentences are often more convoluted than our written sentences. For instance, if someone records me speaking and then transcribes the recording, it is a little embarrassing for me to read the transcript. There are false starts. I may have more run-on sentences in my speech than I do in my writing, although anyone who reads this blog with any frequency knows that some of my run-on sentences can get almost Pauline (as in the Saint, not a woman named Pauline) in length and convolution-ness (??!!) :-)

Because the Bible is written and it is viewed by many (including myself) as the most important piece of literature ever written, many consider that it should be written in literary English, that is English which is the kind of language found written by authors whose writings are read by many and stand the test of time--they are read by over the course of many generations (as Shakespeare is, for instance). I agree. The Bible should be written in good literary English. But I don't think the Bible should be written in language any more complex than the original Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. That language was accessible, understandable, by ordinary people. It probably was more elevated in literary quality than the language someone might have written on a postcard (or its papyrus equivalent). But I don't think it was highly technical. I don't think it required a lot of higher education to understand. We know from some of what Paul said in his letters that he expected them to be read to church congregations. Congregations are made up of individuals with a range of educational and literary backgrounds and skills. The concepts in Paul's letters were sometimes complex, for instance, when he wrote about the purpose of the law (Torah) and the struggle between spirit and flesh, but the language used to describe those concepts was not extraordinarily complex.

Now, when I speak of "English of today" or "contemporary English," I am referring to vocabulary and syntax which is in current usage. There are far more words in an English dictionary than are in ordinary current usage by good speakers and writers of English. Some words in English dictionaries are no longer used, or only used by people who enjoy using archaic or obsolete terms. The better dictionaries will indicate when a word is obsolete or archaic. Sometimes a word is still in use, but its meaning from some previous period of language use has changed. For instance, we all know what the English word "meat" means. But when the King James Bible was written, the word "meat" not only referred to what could be eaten of an animal, but to food in general. Today the word "meat" no longer has that meaning. If someone speaks or writes today with the 'general food' meaning for the word "meat," that person is not speaking or writing in contemporary English.

Similarly, there are some syntactic forms which have changed. There have been at least three different syntactic forms for expressing the negative idea in Englishy. The first was use of the word "nye" which was cognate with the contemporary French negative "ne."

This negative word was eventually dropped by English usage and was completely replaced by the word "not." The word "not" occurred, though, in a different word order from how it occurs today. For instance, the following would have been a negative sentence appropriate to say or write during the 1500's (and probably earlier):
I think not that it is raining.
At the time the King James Version was produced, English speakers and writers were changing from that negative order, where the word "not" follows the verb that it negates, to the contemporary word order where the word "do" is inserted and it and the word "not" preceded the verb that is negated, as in:
I do not think that it is raining.
By 1750 A.D. the change to the contemporary word order for negatives was complete for all speakers and writers. The old order was used only for special rhetorical effect when a writer or speakers wanted to say something in an "old-fashioned" way. There are various rhetorical effects that using old-fashioned language have upon hearers and readers. One of these is that often people get a feeling that the person speaking or writing knows a "classical" form of the language. This can give an impression that the speaker or author is "educated," since educated people, presumably, would have had more exposure to older forms of a language.

Every stage of the development of a language has grammatical forms. The old negative word order was appropriate good grammar for its time. After it was replaced, the new word order became the appropriate grammatical way to express negation.

Writing in contemporary language is usually preferred for clearest and most accurate communication because writers and hearers share more language rules when they all use contemporary rules. Writing in contemporary language does not mean that slang or other passing linguistic fads are included. It would not generally be considered appropriate to use exclamations such as "Cool!" or "Awesome!" in a Bible translation because these expressions come and go, although I have noticed a resurgence of use of "cool". It seems to be cool to use "cool" again, just as it was when I was a teenager some 40 years ago. But "cool" still has such an informal, colloquial sound to it that most people (including myself) would feel uncomfortable having it in a Bible version.

One more concept that could profitably be mentioned in this post is that of the relationship between "literal" translation and quality of English. "Literal" or "essentially literal" translation does not at all require use of obsolete syntax or vocabulary. The best essentially literal translations have syntax and vocabulary which should be understandable at least by individuals who have achieved a reading level of approximately the 6th grade. Translating literally is a translation approach and there is no direct connection to whether the syntax and vocabulary is contemporary or obsolete. Similarly, one can translate "loosely," as a paraphrase, while using obsolete syntax and vocabulary.

All Bible translations today, all the way across the literal-dynamic continuum, can be translated using contemporary English syntax and vocabulary. What places a version at a certain point on the continuum is the degree to which the forms of English match the forms of the biblical language which is being translated. Accuracy is not related to how literal a translation is. Translation accuracy is whether or not a translation communicates the same meaning as the original to users of a translation.

I hope this helps, Michael, and anyone else who is interested in these translation concepts. I probably left something out or was not clear on some point. As always, anyone should feel free to follow up with corrections or clarification of their own, or questions which this post raises.

FWIW, this post and your email message to me were both written in contemporary English. They both use current syntax and vocabulary. As a linguist, I may have used a few technical terms which are not understandable to everyone. I try not to do that when I am writing for the general public, but sometimes they still sneak into what I am writing. I am not the world's greatest writer, but I do try to write as well as I can, with syntax which most fluent speakers of English would consider appropriate. BTW, if you want to read some really good writers, some of them have blogs of their own and are found in my blogroll called "Good writing blogs" (right margin of this blog). Outstanding among the good authors are Shannon who has the blog named "wind scraps" and Mark , with the blog named for himself, Shannon writes more informally, and her writing sparkles. It pulls in the reader. Mark writes more formally, more philosophically. He teaches about good literature.

OK, enough, I need to get a little more translation work done before supper.

Oh, you mentioned the CEV and my comments about it. The CEV is not a translation I would recomend for everyone. It is written in "plain English." It has a writing style or "register" that would rank at the 5.6 grade reading level, which is where most adults in the U.S. are at in terms of reading ability. Those who read this blog are, on the whole, far more literate than the 5th grade level, and would prefer more sophisticated English in their Bible versions. The CEV, along with the NCV, I believe, does not use technical religious language, such as "sanctification," "righteousness," "justification," etc. Instead, the translators of these plain English versions attempt to translate the biblical meanings of the original words behind such technical terms and express those meanings in non-technical language. Some people consider this improper for a Bible translation, others just prefer not to read such a translation, while others prefer a translation which does not use technical language. I hope to blog on this topic someday, including the idea of whether or not the original biblical manuscripts had any technical language in them.

Your final question was:
Which also raises the question, does a good English translation for today have a lower reading level? (i.e. the CEV has a reading level of 5.6 - Yet, the literally translated versions (NASB, ESV, NRSV, etc) have a higher reading level.
The answer to this question depends on who the intended audience is. Most adults in the U.S. have a reading level of about grade 6. As I mentioned earlier, most visitors to this blog have a much higher reading level, so we are not a very representative group of English speakers as a whole. (Nevertheless, it is important to have Bibles which are pleasant and challenging enough for people who have higher reading levels, also.)

Some people believe that one purpose of a good Bible translation is to educate the populace, to challenge people's literary senses, to teach them new vocabulary. I do not believe that that is the purpose of the Bible. I do not find anywhere in the Bible that states that it is part of a program to lift the educational level of people. (It is one of the wonderful side effects of biblical literacy that it often raises the standard of living and social status of people, but it is a side effect and not part of what the Bible says about its own intended purposes). I do find much in the Bible that makes it clear that it is part of a program to lift the spiritual level of people. Of course, it does not stand to reason that Bibles should be "dumbed down." By "dumbed down" is meant that something is written at a grade level lower than the intended audience requires. IF the majority of people for whom a Bible translation is made have reading levels of grade 12 or higher, then it is appropriate to translate for them at that level. But we must be honest with ourselves here. We must do the required field testing to determine the ranges of reading grade levels for any translation we make.

There can be "good" Bible translations at any reading grade level. A reading level does not determine how "good" or accurate a Bible is. A reading level simply is a measure of how clearly the literary style of that Bible, including the kind of vocabulary and syntax used, can be understood by those who read it. It is a matter of meeting people on their own terms. In this regard, it is similar to how Jesus met each needy person on their terms. He did not speak down to those who were educated, nor did he use highly educated language to people who did not have much formal education.

A Bible can be accurate at any reading level. Accuracy simply means saying the same thing in the target language that is said in the source language, so that those who read a translation get that same meaning. If a translation is worded with non-English syntax (many English versions have much non-English syntax such as over-use of English "in" phrases to translation Greek dative phrases) and/or obsolete vocabulary, that translation will not be accurate for those who do not understand the syntax or vocabulary used. It will only be accurate for those who do. This concept is not well understood by many, including many who do godly, sincere English Bible translation work. The latter often had had the great privilege of attending good seminaries and understand the biblical languages well. But as Greek scholar Dan Wallace has pointed out, these seminary professors are sometimes out of touch with how English is actually spoken and written. They often speak or write in a special dialect of English which we can call "seminary English." They need the help of English scholars and feedback from adequate field testing to ensure that their English has been revised enough so that it good quality contemporary English, respected by all fluent English speakers, including English composition professors, and those who lack much formal education.

It is possible for literal or "essentially literal" translations to have a reading level of 10-12 and also to have good quality contemporary literary English. Such translations should normally be used by people who read at the grade levels of 10-12. It becomes frustrating for people who read at a lower reading level to try to read something written at a higher level. And frustration often turns to not using such a Bible version. This mismatch of reading levels also leads to a sense that the Bible is not meant to communicate to everyone who speak a language, that it is a good for some kind of elite group. But this is not truth. There is no indication in any of the books of the Bible that they were only written for people who had attained a fairly high level of formal education.

I personally like to read literature which challenges me. I don't mind an occasional word that is outside my everyday wording vocabulary. I enjoy looking up words in dictionaries. But I would not want to have to look up very many words when reading the Bible. This would be "offputting", to use a term that may be more British than American.

So, in summary, there is nothing wrong with having translations at higher reading levels, as long as we understand what the effects are. Similarly, we need to understand what the effects are when using a translation that is written at a grade level lower than the majority of people who will be using that translation. We just need to think clearly and carefully about these matters. And, by the way, reading grade levels should not be the only factor used in determining what audiences are most appropriate for different levels of language for Bible translations. For one thing, tests for reading levels only measure a few parameters of language, in particular word length and sentence length. Such tests never, as far as I know, rank text higher in reading level if it has obsolete vocabulary, higher register vocabulary, more complex syntax, or non-English syntax. We really do need much "smarter" software to measure reading levels more accurately. But we can save more of this discussion for other blog posts.

Finally--and this really is the end--I have run some of my blog posts through the Microsoft Word spell checker. I was surprised to learn that my posts had a reading grade level of 12. I would have thought my writing was at a lower level, because I try not to use too technical vocabulary, and I revise a lot, trying to make my writing as clear as possible. But the MS Word Fleisch-Kincaid test, one of the most common tests for reading level--is picking up on how long many of my sentences are, and on the fact that I have some difficult twists and turns, with parentheses and other literary rabbit trails when I write. So it takes some determined effort to write at a lower level. It is not easy for some of us. But it can be done, and it is necessary to do if we want to reach all of a population with God's Written Word, in a literary form that fits their reading level.

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At Thu Jun 30, 01:24:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

The Plain English Campaign has some guidelines on what they consider good English writing. They awarded the Anglicised CEV one of their highest accolades for its clarity of English; their director said of this translation "Jesus Christ preached with simplicity, warmth and care. The Bible reflects all those things for us to share in."

The guidelines can be found on the campaign's web site. Their greatest success has been to improve the English of British government circulars so that mere citizens can understand the content.

Another style guide I'd recommend is Lyn Dupré's "Debugging Your Prose", which was written for authors and college students. Dupré has worked with some of the best academic writers around. Her suggestions are founded on years of experience as a copy-editor with major publishing houses.


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