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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Babies and Bibles

The venerable KJV, which I grew up with, words 1 Peter 2:2:
As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby
A couple of days ago I noticed that the word combination "sincere milk" is inappropriate in English. Milk, not even the metaphorical, spiritual milk referred to in this verse, lacks the semantic qualities with which the adjective "sincere" can be associated. Those qualities are that the entity spoken of has volition to decide to be genuine or not, or that it is some expression of such an entity.

The following word combinations are, therefore, appropriate English:
sincere person
sincere preacher
sincere blogger
sincere letter
sincere sentiment
sincere speech
sincere confession
The following combinations would not be used by native speakers of English, who have internalized the lexical rules of English which tell us, intuitively, which words can and cannot occur together:
sincere garden
sincere box
sincere star
sincere worm
sincere fetus
Word combinations which are not permitted in a specific language are technically called collocational clashes. "Sincere milk" is a collocational clash in the KJV. All other versions which I have checked do not have a collocational clash in their translation of 1 Peter 2:2, using either the adjective "pure" or "unadulterated" (Phillips) instead of "sincere."

I am thankful for Bible translators who pay attention to the syntactic, semantic, and lexical rules of a target language so that the word combinations of a translation sound like they were created by native speakers. Non-native speakers of a language have to learn many rules to avoid collocational clashes when speaking their newly acquired language.

Peter tells us we are to be like newborn babies who crave pure milk. My wife and I are still with our daughter and son-in-law, helping them as they adjust to life with their newborn baby. This sweet granddaughter of ours doesn't "know" very many things yet. But she makes one thing very clear by turning her head and moving her lips a certain way: she wants her mother's milk. That milk nourishes Elianna. It is "unadulterated," as J.B. Phillips states so well.

Not all milk is pure or unadulterated. My parents-in-law were missionaries in another country for forty years. They used to order milk from a man in their town. They suspected he was watering down the milk, to increase his profits. But they had no proof until one day a little fish was found in the milk bucket. That was proof enough and that milk man lost his business with my parents-in-law.

How about you? Do you crave spiritual milk, the pure, unadulterated kind that nourishes our souls? Are you living out ("a doer") of God's Word and not just "hearing" it, as James exhorts us?

On the Bible translation front, are you using a Bible version which uses pure, unadulterated English, sounding like it was written by people whose native language is English? Or do the versions you use have collocational clashes, non-English syntax, and other language problems?

Babies have a lot to teach us. We are delighted with baby Elianna. She is highly focused at this stage of life. She sleeps. She stays awake sometimes and seems to look at lighted areas of a room, such as a window. But there is only one thing she craves, her mother's milk. I want to crave spiritual milk that way.

If you'd like to see how delightful Elianna is, you can view some pictures of her at this Internet address:

And let all of us delight in God and his spiritual milk today.


Categories: bible.translation collocational.clash

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Podcasting oral Bibles followup

After our last post, Tim Bulkely has informed me that they will be podcasting the CEV, with permission of the copyright holder. This is good, since the CEV was specifically produced to be an oral translation. During the translation process, CEV translators would read the translation to each other, checking to see if it sounded good and fit the characteristics of oral language (as opposed to written language). The CEV is not a perfect translation--none is--but it is probablythe best translation today for communicating God's Word in oral media. In our post-literate world, may God bless these podcasting efforts to reach people with his revealed Word, people who prefer to hear things rather than read them.

For more information on the CEV and how it was produced, visit links for the CEV from the section on Bible versions in the right margin of this blog.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Podcasting the Bible

Blogger Tim Bulkeley follows up by email on our "Cognitive Bibles" post:
Wayne, On your mother tongue post: I think that today for many (particularly but not exclusively younger) people their native language is spoken not written English. They can read, they scan web pages, Mags, newspapers etc.. But they do not naturally read (I have lots of students who say "I never had to read so much in my life!") That's why some of us are planning to podcast the Bible. To put it into their native language - spoken English! The details are at
I wish Tim and others all the best in their Bible podcasting efforts. People need access to God's Word, whether they get it through reading or oral media. If it is oral, then we need to consider the differences between spoken and written language. It makes sense that we should try to use Bible versions which maximize the characteristics of oral language so that oral communication of the Bible can be processed by hearers without the cognitive difficulties which written language adds in oral settings.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Cognitive Bibles

A number of years ago my wife, Elena, was talking with a Native American Christian lady. This lady told Elena, "When I hear the Bible in English, I don't have to do anything about it. But when I hear it in my own language, I have to do something about it."

When we hear, read, or have signed to us a Bible translation which is not in our mother tongue, most of us respond as did that Native American lady. Even if we understand, cognitively, what is in that translation, we are not affected by it in all of the ways that God intends for his written Word to affect us.

I suggest that English Bible versions which are not written in our mother tongue English typically impact us cognitively, and not emotively nor volitionally. Yet God has designed our so that we communicate with more than just our cognition. Typically, when we speak or write to someone else, we do more than just give them information. We often are trying to get them to feel the delight we experience with a newborn granddaughter (my delight these days!), or a personal change where you are able to worship God more intimately. Or we may be encouraging someone to change their attitude or behavior. We use natural (mother tongue) English syntax, lexicon, discourse flow, and rhetoric to impact one another with more than just our cognitive faculties, even though cognition is one of the most important elements of what it means to be created in the image of God.

Are you regularly using at least one Bible version which is truly worded in your mother tongue, so that it is able to affect you not only cognitively, but also in every other part of your being? If not, I encourage you to use such an English version. The benefits can be eternal, and can make a difference in how you relate to God and others in your life. And, from my own experience, I can say that you will have to do something about what you read if your Bible is in English that uses the linguistic forms and expressions of your mother tongue, the English that you learned at your mother's knee.

Shabat shalom.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

making better Bibles

We can be thankful that English translators have always tried to make better Bibles.

The ASV of 1904 updated some of the obsolete language of the KJV, yet retained the trust of those with conservative theologies. It was, in fact, called by them "the Rock of Integrity."

The RSV updated the language of the ASV making it less wooden.

The NASB updated the language of the ASV, although it retained its wooden style. Later, the NASBU updated the NASB by, among other things, revising "thee" and "thou" in translated prayers to "you."

The NRSV updated the language of the RSV and improved the accuracy of the translation.

One of the first priorities of the ESV translators, when they revised the RSV, was to change every known passage which had been considered theologically "liberal" and replace the wordings with conservatives ones. Not all biblical scholars, of course, agree that each of these revisions is an improvement in accuracy, but the changes are viewed by conservatives, at least, as creating a better Bible .

The NLT translators significantly improved the accuracy of the Living Bible which served as its translation base. The NLT translators made revisions to its first edition, changes which they felt increased accuracy.

The TNIV has been shown to improve the accuracy of the NIV in a number of passages. Of course, the detractors of the TNIV view the TNIV as not being an improvement upon the NIV, due to the degree of gender inclusive language in the TNIV. But the fact still remains that a number of passages, unrelated to gender issues, have improved accuracy in the TNIV as compared with its translation base, the NIV.

In my opinion, overall, the CEV is an improvement upon the TEV. Both versions were produced by the American Bible Society, but the CEV is not a revision of the TEV. Yet the CEV reads better, as a whole, than the TEV. In some passages the TEV is more accurate than the CEV. In others the CEV is more accurate.

Let us be thankful for the time and effort that has been expended by each Bible translation team. Each team has attempted to produce a better Bible. We are all richer for that. And may the effort continue. I, personally, believe that we currently have more than enough English versions to suit every need among English speakers. It will be a good number more years before the English language changes enough more that any new major version of an English Bible would be warranted, in my opinion. But, there does remain room for improvement in each of the most popular English versions used today. And that is the purpose for this blog, to stimulate interest in making such better Bibles.

The Good Confession? (1 Timothy 6:12,13)

Let's have a look at 1 Timothy 6:13 from the viewpoint of a new believer who has only a limited knowledge of the gospel story. Let's read it in the TNIV, although ESV, NIV, RSV and NRSV are very similar:
... Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate ...
So, we have a picture of Jesus in court before Pilate, in the witness box. If we know anything of the story, we know that he was answering serious charges brought against him. So we read on:
... made the good confession, ...
What does this mean? If the defendant in a court case makes a confession, that can mean only one thing: he acknowledges his own crime and effectively changes his plea to guilty. Is this what Jesus did? Well, if we have read the gospels we probably think he did not, but this verse seems to teach that he did. Of course we might be confused about what might make his confession "the good confession" - but perhaps only that he did the right thing. So, we probably conclude that this verse teaches that Jesus pleaded guilty and accepted that he deserved to be put to death.

The problem, of course, is that in modern English the word "confession" is rather negative and used almost only of acknowledging some kind of wrongdoing. Even in church contexts, while we sometimes speak of a "confession of faith" such as the Westminster Confession, we are more likely to think of confession as acknowledging one's sins. When someone says something positive, they are more likely to use the word "profession" (so "profession of faith"), "affirmation", or even "assertion".

The issue is made more complicated in that the same Greek words "good confession" are used in verse 12, not of Christ but of Timothy and presumably referring to his profession of faith, probably at his baptism.

What are the alternatives? NLT simply has
who gave a good testimony before Pontius Pilate,
which seems fine, except that it loses the link with "confessed so well" in verse 12. The Message also loses the link with its otherwise good dynamic equivalent
who took his stand before Pontius Pilate and didn't give an inch.
Similarly JB Phillips's rendering is good:
who fearlessly witnessed to the truth before Pontius Pilate,
but loses the link with verse 12.

The Good News Translation (TEV) has
who firmly professed his faith before Pontius Pilate,
and CEV has
who openly told Pontius Pilate about his faith.
These last two seem much better at first sight, but introduce an extraneous theological issue in stating that Jesus Christ had faith. This was denied by Thomas Aquinas, so it is surprising to find the same issue in the New Jerusalem Bible:
who witnessed to his noble profession of faith before Pontius Pilate,
so saying the same as TEV in higher level language.

So I am driven back to the original Jerusalem Bible as the most satisfactory rendering I can find:
who spoke up for the truth in front of Pontius Pilate,
which links satisfactorily with its rendering of the end of verse 12:
when you made your profession and spoke up for the truth,
although I don't see why they didn't use "profession" in verse 13 as well.

Monday, September 19, 2005

What is obedience of faith?

Semantics, that is, structured meaning, is basically universal. Because of this, translation is possible. Through translation, meaning remains the same from one language to another.

Different languages overtly omit different elements of semantic structure producing syntactic structures that vary from one language to another. But the semantic elements underlying those syntactic structures are the same, again, making translation possible.

Romans 1:5 illustrates these principles nicely. This verse has a complex genitive phrase, hupakoen pisteos, which is often translated to English using Greek-like syntax which does not adequately communicate the underlying semantic structure of the Greek phrase. Traditionally, more formal English versions translate this genitive phrase as "obedience of faith." But this phrase makes little, if any, sense in English. It requires additional explanation for English speakers to understand what it means. But adequate translation should not require additional explanation to explain the semantic structure of the source text. Rather, adequate translation should express the same semantic structure that is in the source text using the syntactic structures that are appropriate for expressing that structure in the target language.

Let's do some commonsense observations of the Greek genitive, so that we discover its semantic structure. "Faith" is a noun in Greek, but it is a noun that encodes an action, not a thing. Faith is an action. It has no volition. It does not act on its own. Instead, it requires a person who believes ("has faith"). Greek allows the actor of some verbs, such as pistis (faith), to be ellipsized. Greek speakers clearly understood that pistis does not act on its own. Faith cannot obey, which is what a literal translation of only the overt syntactic elements of the Greek phrase superficially seems to imply ("obedience of faith").

Who might be the person or persons who do the believing in Rom. 1:5? The answer is clear. We don't have to guess. We don't have to do "interpretive translation" to make the believer(s) overt in any language, such as English, which requires the actor to be explicitly stated, in most linguistic contexts. Those who are to do the believing in Rom. 1:5 are the pasin tois ethnesin 'all the nations.'

The final part of the semantic structure here to discover is the relationship between pistis (faith) and hupakoe (obedience). Clearly, as noted already, it is not faith which obeys. So who is it that obeys? Again, the answer is right in front of us in the context. It is the same people, 'all the nations,' who believe who also obey. In Greek it is not necessary to explicitly state the relationship between faith and obedience. The syntactic structure of Greek, with its cases, enabled Greek speakers to quickly understand the underlying semantic structure which is what communicates meaning. (Syntax is the surface form that leads us to the underlying meaning.)

When people believe, they obey. Faith that is only cognitive, that does not result in obedience, is dead faith, as the book of James emphasizes.

An adequate English translation of Rom. 1:5, then, must make clear for English speakers who is doing the believing and what they do as a result of believing. In my opinion, an adequate translation of hupakoen pisteos within the context of all the other semantic elements of this verse would be:
so that all nations would believe and obey
or, even more explicitly
so that all nations would obey after believing
I consider the following English versions to have adequate translations of the semantic structure of the Greek genitive phrase hupakoen pisteos:
in order to lead people of all nations to believe and obey (TEV)
so that people of all nations would obey and have faith (CEV)
to lead people of all nations to believe and obey (NCV)
so that they will believe and obey him (NLT)
Have these translations accurately retained the semantic structure of the Greek genitive? Yes, far better than English translations which retain the Greek syntax, but not its semantic structure. Have these translations inserted translators' interpretive opinions. No, these versions simply translate the semantic structure which is already in the Greek, which we discover from studying the Greek syntax within its context. Have these versions "dumbed down" the translation? No, they have not made the translation simpler than it needs to be. Rather, they have translated the Greek more accurately than translations which attempt to retain the Greek syntactic structure, but not its semantic structure. There is nothing simplistic or "dumbing down" about being accurate or clear. There is only dumbing down when a translation is simpler than it needs to be for its intended target audience.

We can note that not even the NIV, which some have called a dynamic equivalent translation (I believe it is far more of a formally equivalent translation), conveys through adequate, clear, natural English the semantic structure of the Greek genitive phrase:
to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith
In English we don't normally call people to (the) obedience. Instead, we call them to obey.

During translation, the more that we retain the semantic structures of the biblical languages using the syntax of target languages, the more accurate and clear our translations will be.

Categories: exegesis semantic.structure syntax bible.translation

Sunday, September 18, 2005


My wife and I have been at the hospital with our daughter, son-in-law, and our new granddaughter except for our nighttime sleeping hours (their sometimes sleep but much waking and nursing hours). I have not have good Internet access. The hospital should release our daughter today. After things get into a routine at home, I should be able to piggyback on our son-in-law's ISP and get better Internet access. Then I hope to be able to blog a little more. Our daughter is feeling much better. She is now disconnected from the I.V.

Elena and I are heading back to the hospital in a few minutes.

Have a good week everybody.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

It's a girl!

Sweet baby Elianna (Modern Hebrew, meaning 'God answers') was born Sept. 14 in the afternoon. She is perfect. Our daughter had severe seizures from pre-eclampsia after delivery. Hospital staff addressed the problem quickly and well. Today our daughter is better. Thank you to each one who prayed. If you'd like to see what she looks like, click here.

Now we have 4 grandsons and 2 granddaughters. We are blessed.

I suspect that Elianna will grow up understanding that instructions for all people in the Bible include her only if those instructions use words which communicate that inclusive generic reference for her generations of English speakers. I doubt that she would ever understand that any verse worded about "men" actually means "all people" unless she decides to major in classical English literature in college.

Grandpa Wayne

That's okay. It says brothers, not sisters...

Yesterday I was looking at a genre of literature I do not usually read, booklets for teenage girls. In fact I overheard some girls reading this passage to one another at our church. It is from Phoebe's Book of Body Image, Boys and Bible Bits by Kathy Lee, published by Scripture Union (UK) in 2003. The passage reads (complete with approximate formatting, I hope, Comic Sans replacing neat handwriting):

(Later: there was supposed to be a border round the Bible quote, and this appeared OK in the Compose window, but as just a block in the actual blog.)

And then there's my sister.
Sometimes I can't stand her.
We have huge arguments over stupid little
things, like the best seat on the sofa.
It's so childish!
I wish she would grow up a bit.

Keep on loving one another
as Christian brothers.
(Hebrews 13)

That's okay. It says brothers,
not sisters...

Interesting! The quote is not from TNIV, nor NIV - in fact apparently from TEV, but not from the latest version of it which is more gender neutral. Does the author actually think that this applies to males only? (Probably not!) Does the author's character Phoebe think this? Or does she realise that the text really refers to sisters as well as brothers but find a legalistic get-out clause here?

Anyway, I think this is an interesting chance to get inside the mindset of a group for whom the old gender-based words are simply not understood in the gender-generic way which was intended (at least, according to 92% of us it is so intended, see Wayne's posting Rom. 12:1 poll says it's gender-inclusive). If we want the real Phoebes of this world to understand the Bible as intended, we need to give them, and preach to them from, gender-inclusive Bibles.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Our son-in-law in Ohio called us this morning to say that it looks like our daughter is starting labor, their first child, grandchild #6 for us. We were able to change our flight itinerary and will fly today to help welcome our newest precious one. Please pray that all will go well. This will be a midwife delivery in a hospital, with a doctor on call.

I probably won't be able to post anything here on the blog for awhile. I suspect the other blog contributors can post some things they have been working on. I will try to post after the little one has been "translated" from its current place of safety to breathing on its own in the outside world.

I will take my laptop computer with me so I will be able to access email and the Internet after things calm down and we can get connected through on son-in-law's ISP.

Thank you for your prayers.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Can we translate in a theological vacuum?

Funky Dung asked in a comment to my previous post:
IIRC, Adrian Warnock wrote a post a while back asking his readers if doctrine influences translation. Might you be willing to expand more on steps 1 and 2 in answer to that question?
This question is so important that I'd like to turn my answer into a post, rather than just an answer in the comments section.

Let me give a little of my own journey of thinking on this matter. I was raised in a church environment where we emphasized "sola scriptura." The older I have gotten, the more I have come to realize that much of what passes for sola scriptura is often highly influenced by the doctrinal framework of those who are promoting "sola scriptura." Often, especially in my church background, we would condemn doctrines of other church traditions and essentially say that ours was the only right one, and proof text our position with a few Bible verses which we felt supported our position.

When I first began my own Bible translation work, I assumed a fairly simplistic view of the relationship of scripture to church teaching. I assumed that it was possible to understand and translate the Bible without the influence of any church teachings. And I felt that that was the proper way in which Bible translation should be done, that is, without any theological bias of any kind.

Over the 30 years of my work in Bible translation, I have come to recognize that there are exegetical decisions to be made during translation about which it is difficult to remain "neutral" to all theological teaching. On the other hand, I will say that I have tried very hard to resist allowing theological bias to influence how I translate. I recall that for at least one passage having to do with baptism I specifically resisted translating according to the teaching of my church background. I tried to leave that translation less tied to any one particular church tradition.

Next, and perhaps even more importantly, at least for my own journey, I have come to the point of believing that it is not healthy to translate in a theological vacuum. Over the years I have moved from a Reformation position of "sola scriptura"--with its own inconsistencies which demonstrate, as I have said, that often what is called sola scriptura is a way of trying to put a prettier face on what one believes to be proper theological teaching, which, typically, is a part of some church context--to a position which recognizes the value of translating the Bible within a community of faith, with wisdom of church leaders and church tradition to help inform the translation process, and with peer-review from other scholars and people of faith as a check and balance upon any theological biases which may appear in the translated text.

I think it is very important to try to keep a godly balance here, so that one does not simply translate in lockstep with one particular church tradition, and yet does not dismiss all input from all church scholars and leaders.

If, for example, I were translating within the Eastern Orthodox church tradition, at this point I believe I would have little difficulty translating within that confession's textual tradition. I realize that this might mean, for example, that I would have to place a higher priority upon the LXX for step 1 of the translation process, "What does the text say?" that I might normally do. I would be translating for a particular confession and would want the translation to be acceptable to the leaders and communicants of that tradition. On the other hand, I would try to be a gracious voice for including input from the Masoretic Text for passages where there are discrepancies between the LXX and MT.

So, for step 1, I would be willing to submit to preferences of a particular confession for textual choices.

For step 2, I now value more the theological context within which a translation is made. I'm not really sure that any translation can be made simply on the basis of a theoretical blank slate "sola scripture" approach. All of us bring some kinds of theological presuppositions to the translation table. On the other hand, we can be translators with integrity. I know of Roman Catholic scholars who have translated with what would be considered "objectivity" by those from other confessions. I applaud this. I am glad when an interconfessional translation can take place.

There have been many different theological and ideological movements over the past millenia. I am personally concerned that at this time there is a movement to introduce a particular conservative agenda into some recent Bible translations. I recognize that those who are doing so believe that they are trying to "protect" God's Word from erosion. I, however, believe that God's Word is strong enough to protect itself if we truly try to translate without undue bias of any kind, and also if we open ourselves up to inclusion on a translation team of a wider range of scholars than just those who agree with us, especially on one or two "litmus test" issues.

I believe that if we close ourselves off from the wisdom of inter-confessional interaction, we risk creating exclusivist translations which are applauded at the moment for emphasizing some particular theological or ideological concern. But in doing so, we run the risk of myopic biblical scholarship. Again, this tells me that there is value in opening the translation process to input from more than just one single theological or ideological stance.

And, again, as always, there must be balance in all things. And balance does not equate with theological compromise or "erosion" of important biblical values. We need to be careful, in our balance, that we not equate "biblical values" with just our own particular interpretation of what are proper biblical values. Sometimes, in their efforts to protect the Bible from what is considered improper theological or ideological influences, we let the pendulum swing too far the other direction and fall into the same kind of trap that we are trying to avoid in the first place, namely, of imposing a theological or ideological grid upon the translation which fits our own belief systems. Too often we have condemned others who have done so, while not recognizing that in our zeal to correct what we believe to be error, we fall into the same pattern of translating too ideologically or theologically.

From my own viewpoint, the ESV is one of the most recent examples of a translation which has done this. The ESV arose out of a reaction to perceived errors being made in Bible translation by others, but has, in the process, imposed some of its own set of biases upon the text. I would prefer a deeper interaction with wider biblical scholarship than that which is reflected in the ESV. And I say this while respecting the desire of the ESV translators to "protect" God's Word from error. It is a laudable desire. But we need to be very careful what means we use to accomplish our ends. I think there are some passages where the ESV limits the interpretion of the text too narrowly. One such area of concern is the ESV's translation of some Old Testament passages which can be viewed as messianic, but which, most likely, were not written as such by the original authors. Another is the attempt to linguistically solidify in the translation one particular interpretation of the roles of men and women in the church and in marriage. By "linguistically solidify" I am referring to use of masculine linguistic forms for "generic" usage and then trying to draw from such forms that there is biblical teaching for a masculine hierarchy. That process feels like circular reasoning to me. Claiming that something is both generic and masculine and teaching that this union of semantic sets is biblical seems to me to be a logical fallacy, and very close to, if not outright, an exegetical fallacy of the kind which D.A. Carson has written about so incisely.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Interpretation and translation compared

I see a direct parallel between the processes of interpreting the Bible and translating it. Of course, we cannot translate until we first understand the original meaning, so translation is, to that degree, dependent on interpretation. But I am referring to a parallelism between the two processes which is sometimes missed in the animated (and often not adequately informed) discussions concerning Bible translation and styles of translating, such as literal versus idiomatic, formal equivalence, paraphrases, etc.

I am a detail person. I really enjoy working with the details of Scripture to do good Bible translation. But sometimes I like to summarize details so that I can see the big picture, the forest, clearly, even though there are many trees, details, which must eventually be referred to.

In summary, Biblical interpretation consists of three steps:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What does it mean to me?

Step 1 can involve textual criticism (choice of which original language texts to regard as most reliable). Step 2 is interpretation, often called exegesis, and is the step where there is sometimes disagreement among Bible scholars as to what a particular verse of the Bible most likely means. Step 3 is application. Bible study should never be an end in itself. Otherwise we become Bible sponges, never releasing the lifegiving water of life to others (and sometimes not even to ourselves).

Bible translation consists of three parallel steps:

  1. What does the source text say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How do we best express that meaning in the target language?

There is often a big difference between 1 and 2, as people speak language in ordinary ways. For instance, if I say to our son, "It's sure hot in here," I may simply be complaining about the room's temperature. But knowing me, I'm more likely asking our son to open up a window to let in some cooler air. This is an instance where my actual words, that is, what I literally say, has one meaning, but what I mean by what I say has a different, although pragmatically related, meaning. This happens to be an example of what linguists call indirect speech. In many languages indirect speech would not work exactly the same as it would for me here with my English words. In those languages, if I am going to translate the meaning of what I have said accurately, I would need to find some way in that language of (rather strongly) hinting to the listener that I want him to open a window. This example clearly illustrates that literal meaning is often not the same as actual meaning. In translation we always want to translate actual meaning. Sometimes, but not always, it can be the same as literal meaning.

By "best" in step 3 we refer to saying something in the target language which is accurate to the original meaning, and stated in such a way that it sounds clear and natural. A translation should not sound like a translation. Too many versions of the Bible sound like "church language", that is, they sound a little foreign. They talk a dialect of English or another language which is different from the dialect of that language spoken in everyday life. This recalls the period of time when the religious hierarchy felt that the common person was not capable of correctly understanding the Bible if he heard it in his own native language. So the Bible remained in a foreign language, typically Greek or Latin, understandable only to the clergy who had studied the classical languages in school. But Martin Luther, John Wycliff, and others had the vision that the common person could and should hear the Bible in their own language. That vision continues today as the Bible is translated into hundreds of Bibleless languages around the world. But that vision needs to be periodically refreshed within the larger national languages, such as English, as well, so that the ordinary speaker of the language can hear God's Word clearly in their own language, the way they ordinarly speak, their own dialect, not a dialect of slang or vulgarity, but ordinary everyday language, as found in our newspapers, Reader's Digest, letters, and e-mail. God's written revelation is special, true. But it has always been intended to speak to all people, not simply to a special few who have been trained to understand it. God's word is not always easy to understand. Some of its concepts are difficult for our minds (and spirits) to comprehend. But its words should always be as accessible to our understanding, even if the concepts framed by those words are not so easily accessible. We should not require pastors, seminary professors, or Bible teachers to tell us what Bible words mean. That job should be taken care of by accurate, natural, and clear translations. Every word in the Bible should be part of the average person's everyday speaking and understanding vocabulary. We will often need the assistance of those who have special Bible training to help us understand the implications of the words and the ideas behind the words, but the words themselves and the ways they connect to each other (grammatically and semantically) should be part of our everyday language.

Let us thank God for his written word. Let us especially thank him if it is already in your own language. And let us encourage the work of those who translate his word into Bibleless languages and the work of those who translate new versions into clear everyday language which can be understood by each new generation of speakers.

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Rom. 12:1 poll says it's gender-inclusive

For many weeks we have polled visitors to this blog about Rom. 12:1:
I understand Romans 12:1 to be addressed to

male Christians only 8% 11
both male and female Christians 92% 132

143 votes total
As you can see, 92% (132 of 143 total votes) of those who voted overwhelmingly believe that those who Paul addresses in Rom. 12:1 (Greek adelphoi) are both male and female Christians. Many recent English Bible versions make this clear with translations that accurately communicate this gender-inclusive understanding of adelphoi in this passage. Even the ESV, an "essentially literal" translation, indicates the possibility of gender-inclusive meaning here by footnoting their translation word "brothers" as "Or brothers and sisters." Unfortunately, having the word "brothers" in the translation text inaccurately communicates to many English speakers today that Paul was only addressing male Christians. It is more accurate to put the actual meaning in the translation text itself, rather than in a footnote.

This poll will now be taken down. Thank you to each one of you who voted in it.

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Saturday, September 10, 2005

review of The Challenge of Bible Translation

Following is a review of one of the better books about Bible translation to be published in recent years. This review is posted here with permission of its author, Jim Clarke:
Scorgie, Glen, Mark L. Strauss, and Steven M. Voth, editors. 2003. The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. pp. 428.

Reviewed by Jim Clarke*


This book is thoroughly Evangelical. A group of Evangelical scholars, many of whom are the best in their field, wrote essays on the topic of the title—The Challenge of Bible Translation. They did this to honor another Evangelical scholar, Ronald Youngblood. As such, Challenge is a collection of eighteen men’s thoughts and experiences, not a textbook with a systematic, progressive presentation. It may be best to think of it as a large group meal at a Chinese restaurant—you can sample from a number of entrees, and if you are really hungry, you can eat from them all.

Of special interest

As a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, I particularly enjoyed the Introduction. Think of it as an appetizer, if you like. Scorgie whets our appetites by taking us on a visit to Ukurumpa. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, members of Wycliffe Bible Translators use state-of-the-art linguistic techniques, translation theory, and computer software to bring God’s Word to remote Papua New Guineans. After making a few brief historical stops to visit the LXX, Vulgate, and Lutherbibel, Scorgie quickly brings us back to the present. He highlights some of the issues facing modern translators, admittedly mostly western, Protestant ones. He also gives a short summary of Challenge’s three sections.

A couple of the other entrees, I mean essays, that I enjoyed were D. A. Carson’s “The Limits of Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation—and Other Limits, Too” and John Stek’s “The New International Version: How It Came to Be.” A sizeable portion of Carson’s essay deals with gender issues which some people still need time to process. The strength of the essay lies in its review of where we have come since Nida and pointing out how Bible translations are always imperfect no matter what the theory or method used to produce them. Stek’s essay offers a fascinating look at the history leading up to the NIV’s inception. If you have ever wondered what led to the creation of the NIV, this is a good read.

Some of the other essays I would recommend are Dick France’s “The Bible in English: An Overview,” Kenneth Barker’s “Bible Translation Philosophies with Special Reference to the New International Version,” and Walter Wiesel’s “A Translator’s Perspective on Alistair McGrath’s History of the King James Version.”

Logical organization

The three sections of The Challenge of Bible Translation are:
  1. The Theory of Bible Translation
  2. The History of Bible Translation
  3. The Practice of Bible Translation
It may be more helpful to know some of the key ingredients in the essays. Expect to find generous portions of the history of the English Bible, contemporary gender issues, references to inspiration/inerrancy, and discussions of the NIV/TNIV. Scorgie himself writes, “…some of these essays function unintentionally as a kind of apologia for the New International Version (NIV).”

Audiences who will find this interesting

There are three groups who will probably find this book most interesting—those involved with Bible translation, those in biblical studies, and Christians interested in Bible translation. For these three groups there are those within each who will likely best appreciate these essays.
  1. Among those involved in Bible translation the student or young translator will probably get the most out of Challenge. The experienced translator or consultant will find much of the material familiar and the beginning to intermediate level mother-tongue translator with moderate English skill will likely find some of the content daunting.
  2. Among those in biblical studies, this is an excellent tome for college and seminary students. Their professors may be drawn in by many of the essays, but will find it serves more as a refresher than an introduction.
  3. Among Christians interested in translation, this will likely appeal to those with college degrees, especially pastors. While much of the material is helpful for the average layperson, the average layperson does not appear to be the intended audience.
*Jim Clarke serves as a Bible translation consultant in Dallas, Texas. Jim and his wife, Becky, worked in Africa between 1997 and 2001 before returning to the US to take an assignment in Dallas. Jim also has taught at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics. He has an M.A. in Old Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a B.A. in Bible.
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Friday, September 09, 2005

podcast on David

I just received this request:
Hi Wayne,

I run a series of podcats on Jewish literature and culture for Nextbook, and this week I've got a story online that I thought, from reading your site you might be interested in.

I've interviewed former poet-laureate-of-the US, Robert Pinsky, on the life of David... as a poet, warrior, father, king. Pinsky has just written a book on the subject, and it's pretty good stuff.

It's really a touching podcast, and I'm very proud of the way it turned out. In particular, Pinsky's discussion on Michal/women, and his reading of the Elegy for Saul is SO moving...

Any chance you might help me spread the word? We work so hard on these things, and I really want folks to hear this....

Here's a link: If you just click on "listen to podcast" you should be able to hear the interview!!!

Thanks so much!

From me,

for weekly podcasts:
I think a number of visitors to this blog would be interested in the online interview and weekly podcasts on Jewish literature, which, of course, forms a context for the study of the Hebrew Bible.

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b-hebrew search tool

A couple of days ago we posted a notice about a new tool for searching the archives of the Biblical Greek (b-greek) discussion list. Bob Firth, who designed that search tool, has notified us that he has made a search tool for the b-hebrew list also:
Thanks for making this more known Wayne. I hope that a few people will find it useful.

I've just made one for the Biblical Hebrew discussion list too, although I am not a subscriber so I haven't even mentiond it to the list. It was simply a matter of find and replace "greek" with "hebrew" so I thought I might as well. If anyone is a member of b-hebrew then you might like to let the list know.

I have put both of them in the category Arts->Literature on the mycroft (search plugin) site.

The icons I have used are completely arbitrary, so if anyone has a better one for either list let me know and I'll happily change it.

And our thanks to you, Bob, for letting us know about these helpful search tools you have made.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Translation requires numerous decisions

The process of translation requires numerous decisions. For example, the chart below reflects that the translators of the King James Version had about 133 choices as they translated just 12 Greek words in Ephesians 2:8. Since every Greek word (and noun case) conveys a range of meaning, the translators had to decide which meaning the original author intended in this particular context.

The two numbers in parentheses indicate the number of possible meanings that the Greek dative and genitive cases convey, which the KJV doesn’t express with an equal number of different renditions.

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Whose virgin is she? (1 Cor. 7:36)

A blog visitor asks by email:
Hi Wayne,

I hope you can shed some light on this for me. I was recently in a discussion with someone who stated that they would never use the NASB95 due to the way it has mishandled certain verses. I asked for an example and he provided the following for me:

1 Cor. 7:36 - But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly
toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be
so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin ...

They two key things here are: 1). the insertion of the word "daughter"
and 2). the inference of condoning an incest relationship. I have to
admit that I have never paid too much attention to this verse prior to
this time and I have to say that I have never read it from the NASB95
before. It does appear to be condoning a sinful relationship.

Do you have any idea why the NASB translators would have inserted the
word "daughter" when it doesn't appear in the greek? After reviewing
this verse in many different translations, both old and new, I see a
difference in the way many translate this verse. Some say virgin and
some say betrothed or fiance. This raises the question, is this verse
referring to a man's virgin daughter or to a man's [virgin] fiance? Is
the "he" the father or the betrothed?

Any help you might provide me would be appreciated.

God bless,
Then there was a follwup message which, in essence, answered the question, if one realizes that the other more formal versions (other than the NASB) are literally translating the Greek. Here is the followup email:

As a follow up I realize that by further reading in the NASB95 that it is referring to the "he" as the father and the virgin as the daughter. What is confusing is how it is translated in other translations:

NLT: 36 But if a man thinks he ought to marry his fiance because he has trouble controlling his passions and time is passing, it is all right; it is not a sin. Let them marry. 37 But if he has decided firmly not to marry and there is no urgency and he can control his passion, he does well not to marry. 38 So the person who marries does well, and the person who doesn't marry does even better.

NRSV: 36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancee, F37 if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. 37 But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancee, F38 he will do well. 38 So then, he who marries his fiancee F39 does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better

ESV: 36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

Compared to:

NKJV: 36 But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. 37 Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, F18 does well. 38 So then he who gives her F19 in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better.

HCSB: 36 But if any man thinks he is acting improperly toward his virgin, if she is past marriageable age, and so it must be, he can do what he wants. He is not sinning; they can get married. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart (who is under no compulsion, but has control over his own will) and has decided in his heart to keep his own virgin, will do well. 38 So then he who marries his virgin does well, but he who does not marry will do better.

NASB: 36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her F84 marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being F85 under no constraint, but has authority over F86 his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.

The problem is that the Greek is unclear, and so English translators are not sure how to translate this verse. The Greek, terein ten heautou parthenon, is literally translated as 'to keep his own virgin.' But we cannot tell from the context whose virgin it is. It could be the father of the virgin which is the exegetical choice the NASB translators have made. The father could prevent his virgin daughter from marrying. (Oh, yes, as you mentioned, there is the possibility of someone getting the idea of an incestuous relationship between father and daughter from the NASB wording. I'm sure that possible meaning never crossed the minds of the NASB translators. This shows, once again, IMO, how very important it is for translators to have their translations tested and checked by people who have not worked on the translation and who are alert to problems with the wordings, such as unintended meanings.)

The other exegetical option is that the man referred to could be the man who wants to marry that virgin, which is the choice the NLT, NRSV, and ESV translators have made. We simply don't know for sure. Because of this, some English translation teams (e.g. NKJV, HCSB) have chosen to leave it unspecified in the translation who is the man who is relating to the virgin.

This brings us back to the topic of ambiguity which we blogged on a few days ago. I have little doubt that it was clear in Paul's mind who he was referring to in this passage, which would be either the father of the daughter or the man who wanted to marry her. But Paul wrote in such a way that we cannot tell what his intended meaning was. There was no intended ambiguity. But there is referential ambiguity for us, the readers, of what Paul wrote. We don't know which of the two possible referents (the one who "keeps" the virgin) Paul intended.

This is one of those biblical passages (there are a number of others) where we need to be charitable toward one another with our different understandings of the text. Each of the translation teams which made a choice made a reasonable choice. Better Bibles will include a footnote that states that it is not clear whose virgin the woman is and what are the possible options. This is where the extensive translation footnotes of the NET Bible often help. For verse 36, the NET footnote reads:
Grk “virgin,” either a fiancée, a daughter, or the ward of a guardian. For discussion see the note at the end of v. 38.
It points us to the footnote for verse 38 which reads:
1 Cor 7:36-38. There are two common approaches to understanding the situation addressed in these verses. One view involves a father or male guardian deciding whether to give his daughter or female ward in marriage (cf. NASB, NIV margin). The evidence for this view is: (1) the phrase in v. 37 (Grk) “to keep his own virgin” fits this view well (“keep his own virgin [in his household]” rather than give her in marriage), but it does not fit the second view (there is little warrant for adding “her” in the way the second view translates it: “to keep her as a virgin”). (2) The verb used twice in v. 38 (gamivzw, gamizw) normally means “to give in marriage” not “to get married.” The latter is usually expressed by gamevw (gamew), as in v. 36b. (3) The father deciding what is best regarding his daughter’s marriage reflects the more likely cultural situation in ancient Corinth, though it does not fit modern Western customs. While Paul gives his advice in such a situation, he does not command that marriages be arranged in this way universally. If this view is taken, the translation will read as follows: “7:36 If anyone thinks he is acting inappropriately toward his unmarried daughter, if she is past the bloom of youth and it seems necessary, he should do what he wishes; he does not sin. Let them marry. 7:37 But the man who is firm in his commitment, and is under no necessity but has control over his will, and has decided in his own mind to keep his daughter unmarried, does well. 7:38 So then the one who gives his daughter in marriage does well, but the one who does not give her does better.” The other view is taken by NRSV, NIV text, NJB, REB: a single man deciding whether to marry the woman to whom he is engaged. The evidence for this view is: (1) it seems odd to use the word “virgin” (vv. 36, 37, 38) if “daughter” or “ward” is intended. (2) The other view requires some difficult shifting of subjects in v. 36, whereas this view manages a more consistent subject for the various verbs used. (3) The phrases in these verses are used consistently elsewhere in this chapter to describe considerations appropriate to the engaged couple themselves (cf. vv. 9, 28, 39). It seems odd not to change the phrasing in speaking about a father or guardian. If this second view is taken, the translation will read as follows: “7:36 If anyone thinks he is acting inappropriately toward his fiancée, if his passions are too strong and it seems necessary, he should do what he wishes; he does not sin. Let them marry. 7:37 But the man who is firm in his commitment, and is under no necessity but has control over his will, and has decided in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, does well. 7:38 So then, the one who marries his fiancée does well, but the one who does not marry her does better.”
Some people want absolute certainty about what each verse in the Bible means. Some people want to use a Bible version which they feel gives the correct translation for each verse. But we cannot have such certainties about every verse in the Bible. The biblical language texts are not always clear enough for us to know for sure what the biblical author's intended meaning was. We must be content not to know some things for sure in this life. Personally, I think God wants to draw us to himself through life's uncertainties. We can trust, I believe, that he is certain, that he knows total truth. If we try to find total truth anywhere other than in him (including in Bible translations which were done by teams who did their very best, but which cannot humanly know how to translate everything with certainty), we are going to be disappointed. But if we allow lack of certainty about some things, including things in the Bible, to draw us toward the One who knows far more than we do, we will find contentment in knowing enough of what we need to know in this life.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

New tool for searching the B-Greek archives

Bob Firth, a subscriber to the Biblical Greek discussion list, has just created a very useful tool for searching the archives of b-greek. The search tool works within the search window of the Firefox Internet browser. It was extremely easy to install. I asked it to search for "plenary genitive" and got several hits within the b-greek archives.

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Linguistic self-awareness and Bible versions

As visitors to this blog know, I like to survey people to gather empirical answers to questions. My polls usually are about language usage and often relate to how closely the speech of respondents conforms to wordings found in different Bible versions. For the past five months I have had the following poll active on my Bible Translation website, as well as this blog:
Bible versions English quality

Which English Bible version has wordings closest to how you normally speak and write? [799 votes total]

King James Version (63) 8%
New International Version (144) 18%
Today's New International Version (33) 4%
New Living Translation (120) 15%
New American Standard Bible (69) 9%
English Standard Version (52) 7%
Holman Christian Standard Bible (36) 5%
New Revised Standard Version (31) 4%
Good News Translation (10) 1%
Contemporary English Version (40) 5%
New Century Version (11) 1%
New King James Version (29) 4%
New American Bible (10) 1%
New Jerusalem Bible (24) 3%
NET Bible (14) 2%
Revised Standard Version (9) 1%
The Message (72) 9%
God's Word (14) 2%
Revised English Bible (18) 2%
With almost 800 votes so far, I find the responses most interesting. One thing that stands out to me is that many individuals are not very aware of how they actually speak and write. Some people, among them linguists and others who have their "ears to the ground," are tuned in to how others speak (and write). And sometimes these people are also aware of how they themselves speak and write. But most people just speak and write without much self-reflection and analysis of their own language patterns.

I have been listening to how people speak all my life. My father did the same, and I'm sure I picked up that trait from him. 63 respondents said that the KJV was the Bible version which had "wordings closest to how you normally speak and write." I would like to listen to some of these 63 to see how closely they actually speak and write in the wordings of the KJV. Yes, some preachers and others who are dedicated to the KJV sprinkle their speech with KJVisms, but I suspect that there are not too many KJVisms when they "normally speak and write" such as when they are talking to their children about how their school day went, or talking to their neighbor about what kind of weed killer they use on their lawn.

Now, I don't think the problem here is simply one of lack of linguistic self-awareness. I think a major part of the problem is the poll itself. Even though I worded the poll question carefully, many Bible users do not have much experience with Bible versions which have wordings closest to how they "normally speak and write." So many respondents probably answered the poll as best as they could, thinking about Bible versions they are most familiar with and choosing the one which has "wordings closest to how you normally speak and write." That response does not mean that the version chosen does have wordings close to how they "normally speak and write." It just means that in the mind of the respondent they were answering the poll question, stating which of the versions they are familiar with has "wordings closest to how you normally speak and write."

For me to discover what versions actually do have wordings closest to how the respondents "normally speak and write," I should have had sample wordings from each of the versions and asked people to choose which wordings were closest to how they normall speak and write. And to try to get as objective responses as possible, I should not have labeled the versions that the wordings came from.

In actual fact, a high percentage of the almost 800 respondents probably normally speak and write using the vocabulary and syntax of the more idiomatic versions listed in the poll, such as the CEV, NCV, or GW.

To create an adequate poll to test how closely the normal speech and writing of people is to the English found in various Bible versions would be a large task, probably larger than can be carried out by the simple polls we typically post on our websites. A really accurate and thorough testing of the speech and writing of English Bible users would require a much longer test with a variety of different kinds of sample wordings. If any of you are in a graduate study program in communications, communication theory, or some areas of biblical studies, and if you are keenly interested in how closely Bible versions conform to normal speech and writing, this would be a good topic for an M.A. thesis. It would be a significant contribution to the study of English language usage and naturalness of English Bible versions.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Using the LSJ Greek lexicon besides BDAG

On the Logos Bible software blog, Rick Brannan encourages students of New Testament Greek to use the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon besides the BDAG (Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich) lexicon. I have seen other comments recently on the Internet which encourage those who study Koine (Hellenestic) Greek to supplement their study with attention paid to earlier Classical Greek, as well. This makes sense since the vocabulary and syntax of Koine Greek evolved from Classical Greek through normal language changes.

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

1 Peter 3:15a: ESV translation discussion

The ESV Bible blog has an important discussion of why the ESV was translated as it was in 1 Peter 3:15a. This is the kind of translation explanation which I find so valuable in the extensive translation footnotes of the NET Bible. I am glad to see such explanations from the ESV team also.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

his/they generic singular pronoun poll results

Thank you to each one of you who voted in the poll which tested which English generic singular pronoun you use where the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun. The poll has been up for many weeks and now it is time to take it down. Here are the poll results:

In the sentence, "Everyone should bring _____ own lunch tomorrow," what word do you usually put in the blank space?

his 32%64
their 68%136

200 votes total

200 votes were cast. As you can see, visitors to this blog have a mixed response to the poll question. By a ratio of 2:1 respondents say the singular "they" is the pronoun they would use in the example sentence. These results support the claim that the singular "they" has been experiencing a revival of usage among English speakers. It usage dates back to the late 1200's and early 1300's and has been used by many highly respected authors over the centuries, including Shakespeare, the translators of the KJV, C.S. Lewis, and many others. The singular "they" is syntactically plural but semantically singular. As such, it parallels a number of other linguistic forms where syntax does not align exactly with semantics.

The generic singular "he" continues to be preferred by many English speakers. It is the pronoun which many of us, myself included, were taught in school was the only generic third person singular pronoun which was "proper." But, of course, what is proper is not really determined by English teachers, but, rather, by social decisions, typically made unconsciously, by a majority of speakers of a language.

Stay tuned for other language usage polls which relate to linguistic forms which are used in English Bible versions.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

What is ambiguity?

It has dawned on me that I should have explained in my previous post what ambiguity is. Ambiguity is when something that is said (or written) can be understood in two (or sometimes more) different ways. The following English sentence has often been cited in linguistics texts to illustrate ambiguity:
Flying planes can be dangerous.
That sentence can have two meanings:
1. It can be dangerous to fly planes.
2. It can be dangerous when planes are flying.
In the Greek text of the New Testament there are sometimes cases (no pun intended) where the context of a genitive allows an interpretation as either a subjective genitive or an objective genitive. One example typically cited to illustrate this such ambiguity is the genitive phrase of 2 Cor. 5:14
agape tou Xristou
This could be a subjective genitive referring to God's love for us, as in:
Christ's love compels us (NIV, HCSB)
Christ's love controls us (NLT)
Christ's love guides us (GW)
We are ruled by Christ's love for us. (CEV)
It is the Anointed One’s love that holds us together! (TSNT)
I have found no English versions translating this as an objective genitive ("our love for Christ"). All other Bible versions I checked introduce ambiguity to the translation, using the wording "love of Christ." Translators of such versions believe that because the gentive of 2 Cor. 5:14 is ambiguous to them, it should be translated ambiguously. I believe, however, that Paul did not intend any ambiguity here and so our translation should not introduce ambiguity either.

Dan Wallace believes that the genitive of this verse is both subjective and objective, what he calls a plenary genitive. He says:
"There are, in fact, many times where an author intentionally uses an ambiguous expression, employing double entendre, puns, and the like. To
collapse these texts into a single meaning is to destroy part of the author’s meaning. “The love of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:14 is one such instance;3"

Footnote 3: "3 The meaning is probably both “Christ’s love for us” and “our love for Christ”—that is, the genitive is probably both subjective and objective, or plenary. It is Christ’s love for us that produces our love for him."
I disagree with Wallace if he is referring to biblical authors when he says "There are, in fact, many times where an author intentionally uses an ambiguous expression, ..." That is not how normal human communication works. It is what is sometimes done intentionally by authors, as Wallace mentions. But doing so is more of a language game than part of ordinary communication, IMO. I don't think biblical authors intended ambiguity very often. And I think the burden of proof that there is ambiguity in the biblical text should be on those who claim that there is. It is not sufficient proof that there is ambiguity in analysis of the text.

Interestingly, the footnote for this verse in the NET Bible, on which Wallace was a major editor, is stated more conservatively, however:
The phrase hJ ajgavph tou' Cristou' (Jh agaph tou Cristou, “the love of Christ”) could be translated as either objective genitive (“our love for Christ”) or subjective genitive (“Christ’s love for us”). Either is grammatically possible, but with the reference to Christ’s death for all in the following clauses, a subjective genitive (“Christ’s love for us”) is more likely.
Based on my understanding of the normal lack of intended ambiguity in human communication, I believe it is more likely that Paul intended a single meaning of the genitive here, and I would lean toward that meaning being the subjective, referring to Christ's love for us. But regardless of what Paul intended, we, the analysts know there are at least the subjective and objective genitive meanings possible here, and maybe also a third, that of Wallace's plenary genitive, including both the subjective and objective meanings. The Greek genitive here allows for this ambiguity in meaning. That does not mean that Paul intended any ambiguity here. It is, IMO, most likely that Paul intended one of the possible options:
  1. subjective genitive
  2. objective genitive
  3. plenary genitive
Ambiguity is different from lack of clarity. With lack of clarity, there are not clear, distinct options of interpretation, as there is with ambiguity. Rather, with lack of clarity, the intended meaning is simply not clear. What is said or written is not expressed well.

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Did the biblical authors write ambiguously?

I have felt for a number of years that the claim of ambiguity in the biblical texts is misleading. The claim is sometimes made to justify literal translations which leave ambiguous English in Bible translations. Sometimes the claim is made because, from an analytical point of view, it is unclear which of several possible syntactic or semantic options the biblical author intended. I personally believe that most biblical ambiguity is in the mind of the exegete, not the biblical author. Let me explain.

It is a good exegetical exercise to note possible ambiguity in the biblical texts. I’m a linguist and I torture people finding ambiguity in English sentences all the time. But in both cases, whether finding ambiguity in the biblical texts or linguists finding it elsewhere, the ambiguity in almost all cases is in the mind of the analyst. Speakers and writers seldom intend ambiguity, except, of course, for the usual suspects, politicians and lawyers, who sometimes mislead through intended ambiguity.

Ordinary speakers and writers, however, do normally do not communicate with ambiguity (puns are one of my addictions and are another exception to the normal communicative rule). If people intended ambiguity often, then communication would break down. We would not have much of an idea what people mean by what we say.

The biblical authors were trying to communicate important messages. We don’t always understand exactly what they meant, but we should not usually not assume intended ambiguity in any of their writings. (There are probably notable exceptions in some apocalyptic literature.) I think we should translate authorial intent, rather than exegetical options. If we translate ambiguously because we can spot a possible ambiguity in the original text, we have not translated accurately (because the biblical author did not intend an ambiguity and our translation needs to be faithful to authorial intent).

When we spot a potential exegetical ambiguity in the biblical text (and there are quite a few of these--but they are different from intended ambituities by the authors), we should somehow make clear to translation users that we are unable to decide which of two or more options was the one that the biblical author intended. And this should be done by biblical scholars who should understand the text better than anyone else. Trying to figure out what the original author meant should not be left to Bible readers who usually have far less background to be able to make reasonable choices among translation ambiguities.

It is no sin to translate unambiguously even when we note a perceived ambiguity in the text. The burden of proof should be upon those who believe there is ambiguity in intention of the biblical author, rather than upon those who believe the author intended lack of ambiguity and translate so.

To be honest with our readers, we need to footnote whenever we are not sure that the exegetical option we have chosen for the translation text is what the biblial author intended. This is one of the things I like best about the NET Bible, its translators' openness about the translation choices they faced, and footnoting evidence for other options.

Now, I realize that my claim in this post opens us up to a number of hermeneutical and epistemological difficulties, not the least of which is that it is often difficult to determine authorial intent. We only have the text before us. We are unable to go back in time to ask biblical authors what they intended when we spot a potential ambiguity in what they wrote. But I think the basic principle stands that the most accurate Bible translation is one which translates what each biblical author intended to communicate, which was almost never intentionally ambiguous. We introduce inaccuracy to translation readers when we translate in a way that implies that the biblical authors did translate ambiguously.

(This post is condensed and revised from comments I left on a post yesterday on Scot McKnight's blog.

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