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Thursday, June 16, 2005

How to translate

Anonymous commented on my preceding post linking to Parableman's post:
Is any expression that requires the reader to rise above the vulgar language of the present day unsuitable? I think the reader should be challenged to expand his or her lexicon.

Let the Good As New translation pander to the reprobates!
I feel so strongly about this issue that I have decided my reply should appear as a blog post as well. Here it is, with a few minor changes and additions:

The original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Bible texts were written in the vulgar, that is, common, language of the people, not, of course, vulgar in the most commonly understood sense of the word as it is used today, meaning 'obscene.'

Those texts were not written in a classical dialect of those languages. They did not require a special education or erudite vocabulary to understand them. Many in the Christian church today have been misled, thinking that one purpose of the Bible is to lift people up in terms of literary awareness. Of course, we must not think in either-or categorical terms here either: the original biblical texts were not intended to drag us down in terms of literary or educational level either.

We have, in general, two kinds of Bible versions today, those which are written in the vulgar, that is common language, which is good quality language, respected and understood by all fluent speakers of a language, from great authors to English professors to fathers and mothers leading their children in their homeschooling curriculum, to bus driver, and ditch diggers. Granted, some of these versions have a reading level which could, and sometimes should, be higher for high school and adult readers. But better qualified readers don't need to use the simpler language versions. On the other hand, we should not be producing versions for anyone which are beyond their reading level. I don't think the autographs of Scripture were written above the level of the people for whom they were written, neither should our translations of those autographs. We can be educated by the Bible. We must be educated by it, educated spiritually. But the Bible is not the place to teach people classical English in a new Bible version, for instance. If we want to teach people the beauty of classical English literature (while not forgetting the beauty of contemporary English literature), we can expose them to Shakespeare, to Milton, to the King James Version, and other good literature from hundreds of years ago. The Bible is not the place to increase the vocabulary of people. I suggest that very few words were used by the human authors of the Bible which were outside the everyday vocabularies of the people for whom they wrote.

The Bible should not be written in slang or street language, but neither should it be written in forms of a language which the original biblical texts were not written in. We need to take our clue for the quality and kind of language from the original texts which God inspired. Higher education was not nearly as widespread as it is today. The human authors of the Bible did not use esoteric, rare vocabulary. Even the great logical thinker Paul used ordinary Koine Greek when he wrote his epistles. But he put those ordinary words together in profound ways to convey profound concepts to us.

It is important to think back on the kind of language God used (through human authors) for his original written revelation to mankind and take our clues from that. It is not a great blessing to the English-speaking world to have Bibles still being produced which are written partly in English which stopped being spoken and written 300 or more years ago, and, in some passages, English which is so strange that it was never spoken or written by anyone.

The Bible was not first revealed to mankind 300 or 400 years ago in a form of English which we now consider classical. No, it was revealed in other languages, ancient langauges, but in good quality language, as it was spoken and written by the people in whose languages it was first written.

Let us learn the necessary lessons from that! A world is out there which needs to hear an accurate, clear sound from the Word of God, not obscure sounds which we translators think is beautiful because it emulates a form of English which was written hundreds of years ago.

Let us think about what kind of language Jesus would use if he were to be born, grow up, and preach today.

No Bible version should ever "pander to the reprobates" as you state in your conclusion. I agree with your assumption there. But let us make sure that we understand what we are actually doing when we try to avoid doing this with Bibles. There is much misinformation in circulation about Bible translation which inappropriately connects ordinary English with "reprobate" language. There is no such connection, and those who teach that there is are teaching falsely. Jesus spoke to people in their own language. He never required that they learn a new dialect of their language. He never required that they learn new words which are not in their vocabulary to understand what he was saying.

Let us follow our Lord's example in our translations. Dumbing down language? Definitely not, not appropriate for Bibles for a wide range of English speakers. Use of obscene language to try to have rhetorical force? I think this is inappropriate also. Use of colloquialisms and slang to reach younger generations? I don't think this is necessary. Younger people, as well as older ones, highly educated as well as those who are not well educated should all be able to understand the vocabulary and syntax of the Bibles we produce today. If they do not, then it is not their fault but the fault of translators who are not following the example of our Lord who spoke to people in their own language.

Whoever has ears to hear should listen!



At Tue Jun 21, 04:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say that I'm amused at the way you constantly stand up for vernacular English over and against archaic forms and technical terms, and then proceed to use the word 'vulgar' to mean common, rather than obscene - a usage that has essentially become a technical term not even of modern linguistics, but of classical philology.

At Tue Jun 21, 08:35:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kenny, I am very much aware of the shift in meaning of the word "vulgar" and I hate its current meaning. I don't like to use the word at all because of it. But there is a long history of using it for referring to the language spoken by a people. When I use it, I always try to explain that I am using it in the old sense. I much prefer the word "vernacular" but I haven't studied the two words enough to know if they are synonymous.

I'm not trying to be humorous or disingenuous by using the world "vulgar" in its old sense. I need a way to be able to refer back to the Latin Vulgate, and what the word "vulgate" means. If I can figure out a way to refer back to the historical usage of the word without using the word, I'll gladly do that. If you have some ideas for me on that, I'd welcome them.

Thanks for raising this issue. I appreciate it.

BTW, as a linguist, I am student of the history of English. I enjoy learning what meaning changes have occurred with words. I do strongly believe that any Bible translation should be written in the current language (high quality, more formal, honored and respected by the best writers in the language group, not slangy or colloquial) of a people. I think that's the way the biblical languages were written for the biblical authographs and I think that sets a pattern for how we should translate the Bible into any other language.


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