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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Church of England statement on Bible translations

I was disappointed in what I found in an official statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, my church. The statement, dating from 2002, is signed by "+ DAVID EBOR", i.e. the then Archbishop of York (who has just been succeeded by the colourful Ugandan John Sentamu).

The first problem is that the Archbishop writes:
2 A distinction needs to be drawn between translation and paraphrase. Versions which are read in church during the course of public worship should be translations of the Bible, not paraphrases of it. In less formal contexts, paraphrases may be useful.
Well, perhaps this is right, but what distinction does he have in mind? Presumably not the technical linguistic distinction, that a paraphrase is a version prepared from another version in the same language, whereas a translation is from another language. Some may read paraphrase here as little more than a pejorative term, the kind of version which I don't like. So it is unhelpful that the Archbishop failed to define his terminology or specify the characteristics of a paraphrase - or perhaps list some sample versions which are not recommended for this reason.

The best clarification given is that seven versions (AV/KJV, RSV, NIV, NJB, NRSV, REB, ESV) are listed as acceptable on this and other criteria, and none of these are dynamic equivalence translations. Is the Archbishop's point that dynamic equivalence translations should not be used in church? If so, he should say so, using the standard terminology - and I could give a sensible response, arguing that dynamic equivalence translations are suitable where indicated by:
  • Intelligibility to the listener
  • Appropriateness to the linguistic register of the particular congregation
which are two of the criteria given in paragraph 1 for the suitability of a translation.

The statement continues with another unfortunate paragraph:
6 Some of the translations listed in paragraph 3 are ‘inclusive’ translations which avoid the use of masculine nouns and pronouns when reference is made to women as well as men. Where a masculine noun or pronoun is used in the original language, making an English text ‘inclusive’ necessarily involves a degree of departure from accurate translation. A conscious choice would have to be made between the two criteria of inclusivity and accuracy in respect of any of these versions.
In fact the only definitely "‘inclusive’" translation listed in the statement is NRSV, described as "an inclusivized revision of the RSV". (Did the Archbishop really write that dreadful Americanism ☺ "inclusivized"?)

I am disappointed in this paragraph 6 because it demonstrates a misunderstanding of the relationship between grammatical and real world gender. The implication here is that "Where a masculine noun or pronoun is used in the original language" an accurate translation must use a masculine noun or pronoun in English, for anything else is "departure from accurate translation". But this is clearly nonsense. Greek and Hebrew have grammatical gender, but English does not, although its pronoun system does reflect real world gender. There are many cases where masculine pronouns are used in Greek and Hebrew and are correctly translated by "it" etc, because they stand for grammatically masculine nouns referring to inanimate objects. And, although I don't know of a case where a masculine pronoun refers to a definitely female person, there are many cases where masculine pronouns refer to persons of unknown or indefinite gender and to mixed groups in the plural; in such cases the pronoun is generally masculine not because it refers to male persons but because it agrees with a masculine noun. I trust that the Archbishop has studied enough Greek, or in fact almost any other European or Semitic language, to understand this principle.

Would the Archbishop support a translation which used "She" for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, simply because the Hebrew word ruach is grammatically feminine?

This implies that true accuracy in such cases consists not of using masculine pronouns in English where there are grammatically masculine pronouns in the original, but of using the English pronouns accurately according to their English usage, which refers to real world gender. Thus, as a general rule, "he" should be used for male persons, "she" for female persons, and "it" for inanimate objects, regardless of the grammatical gender in the original language. And in difficult cases such as singular persons of unknown or indefinite gender, some other solution such as singular "they" should be chosen. These are the principles followed by gender-inclusive translations such as NRSV and TNIV, as being the most accurate especially in the current state of the English language. They should be commended as such by the House of Bishops.


At Thu Dec 08, 10:27:00 AM, Blogger Gerald said...

Would the Archbishop support a translation which used "She" for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, simply because the Hebrew word ruach is grammatically feminine?

This is a good point Peter. Something for me to think about.

At Thu Dec 08, 11:02:00 AM, Blogger Gerald said...

Further, as an American, I simply can't own the term "inclusivized." I don't know where he got it from, but don't blame your brothers (and sisters) across the pond :-)

At Thu Dec 08, 03:14:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Fair enough, Gerald, concerning "inclusivized". I don't know where it comes from. It gets only 866 Google hits. Most of the first 50 are about the Bible or liturgy, and most seem, from the limited context given, vaguely pejorative.

At Thu Dec 08, 04:47:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I didn't have time to check when I originally wrote this whether there are actually places in the Hebrew Bible where a feminine pronoun is used for the Holy Spirit. I can't in fact find an explicit pronoun, but in Ezekiel 8:3 the Hebrew verb form for "took me to Jerusalem" indicates a feminine subject, and so by the Archbishop's translation principles this should be "she took...", rather than "he took..." as in NIV (left implicit in KJV and NRSV).

In Numbers 11:25 the Hebrew literally translated is "...he took from the Spirit which (was) on them and gave on to seventy man elders..." The implicit object of "gave" (or perhaps "put") is the Spirit, but no pronoun, feminine or otherwise, is used. This cannot be left unexpressed in English. It is interesting that here NIV has repeated "the Spirit" to avoid having to choose between "him", "her" and "it". TNIV, however, uses "it", so returning to the KJV rendering, also in NRSV.

At Thu Dec 08, 07:19:00 PM, Blogger Gerald said...


At Sun Dec 11, 09:44:00 AM, Blogger Kenny Pearce said...

I think there is a legitimate difference between what are popularly called translation and paraphrase (even if these are not technically the correct uses of these words), but TNIV, for instance, is not a paraphrase. Just because something comes out in good English doesn't make it a paraphrase. There is a big difference between the NKJV and The Message. The NKJV attempts (and we can argue about the degree of success) to communicate to English speakers precisely what the text SAYS, and leave to the reader the interpretation. A paraphrase attempts to communicate precisely what the text MEANS. Now, because of linguistic differences and interpretive difficulties neither can be done perfectly, but I think there is a legitimate difference between the two types of goals. The Message should not be used the way one uses a Bible translation, because it is Eugene Peterson's interpretation and, as I understand it (not having looked at it in too much detail) there are a lot of theological decisions made. Unfortunately, there are also theological decisions made in many translations, and to this degree they cease to be translations. In theory, Evangelical theology is dictated by the Bible, which means that the Bible we use needs to not be dictated by our theology. All of the things I've seen on this blog have had to do with translating as opposed to paraphrasing, because they have been concerned with rendering what the original text says into English as nearly as possible (but rendering what it says "as nearly as possible" does not necessarily mean "as literally as possible" because, as is often pointed out here, sometimes translations that are TOO literal become misleading and, because of linguistic differences, end up not saying the same thing as the original).

Someone who writes a paraphrase cannot be just a scholar of the languages, but must also be a theologian who can exposit the deeper meaning, because exposition is what paraphrases are about and, as the bishop says (if, that is, he understands the popular usage of the translation/paraphrase distinction as I do), paraphrases can be useful, but they are not appropriate for liturgy (though they may be appropriate for use as part of a sermon, in the same way a pastor may use a commentary, provided he doesn't cite them as translations).

At Sun Dec 11, 03:15:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kenny, thank you for your contribution. But you wrote:

Unfortunately, there are also theological decisions made in many translations, and to this degree they cease to be translations.

Can you point to any translation in which theological decisions have not been made? The only ones I can think of are ones which have blindly copied the theological decisions of previous translations. For every decision about "rendering what the original text says into English as nearly as possible" where the original text has theological significance, even every choice of the word used for consistent rendering in a highly literal translation, is a theological decision, and potentially one of great significance.

For an example of this, consider the great fuss made about the RSV rendering "expiation", rather than "propitiation" in KJV, ASV etc. Both are very literal renderings of a Greek word. Both renderings are supposed to have important and very different theological significance. Are KJV, ASV and RSV disqualified as translations because they made a decision here? Of course not, because translators have to make a decision here, between one of these words, or another one, or a longer and possibly more paraphrased rendering. And this is a highly theological decision for all translators, not just for those using particular translation principles.

The implication of what you write is the Italian proverb that translators are traitors. Yes, it is true that no translation can ever be perfect, and so I recommend those who can to read the original texts. But for those who can't, there is no easy answer that translations of a particular type are more interpretive and so less authentic than others.


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