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Friday, June 20, 2008

Beware of Bible experts

They believe that you don't understand the Bible unless you read it in the original languages. They think you should learn words like "haft" and "buckler." They advocate the use of wooden translations as being preferable to those written in contemporary language.

I want to believe that they are poking fun at themselves. But sadly, they are very, very serious.

Why is that?

It's because in the process of mastering ancient languages they have lost their own. Mastering Greek or Hebrew or Ugaritic is no mean feat. To get to the point where you can fluently read all those squiggles requires years of effort.

We should respect these people and listen to them when they tell us about the scansion of the Psalms. Or the laments of Jeremiah.

But when they start telling us how to speak English they just need to be listened to patiently and then ignored. And when they start telling us that our Bible translations should sound wooden, well, just roll your eyes and smirk a little.

Because they have forgotten the mother that gave them birth. In suckling at the teat of ancient languages, their taste for good home-cooking has soured.

Let me ask you a simple question. Where did 5th graders learn to speak English? From their parents. They speak the way they do because that is the way their parents speak. So a translation that "speaks" like a middle-schooler is speaking English the way it is spoken today. Not like Sir Philip Sidney. Or King Lear. Or even Barbara Walters. But like real people speaking real language in a real world.

The experts want us all to learn a bridge language called "Biblish." It's spoken by the NASB and the NRSV and KJV. And most of the people in attendance at the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston speak Biblish, too.

Or do they? I read their blogs and they very often sound like they're speaking the English of 5th graders. Jim West called his camera "sweet." John Hobbins called someone a "wannabe." So I know they have it in them. While they're telling you that all the secrets of God's Word are hidden in the original languages, they spend their evenings watching American Idol and House.

Thankfully, there are exceptions. Martin Luther was one. He listened to mothers and children to test his German translation of the Bible. Barclay Newman hung out with children and people unfamiliar with the Bible to produce the CEV translation. Desiderius Erasmus said, "Would that the farmer might sing snatches of scripture at his plough, that the weaver might hum phrases of scripture to the tune of his shuttle." (See this post for more quotes)

My favorite quote in that post is in the comments:

On another note, since I haven’t said it for a long time, I will repeat it now. Good News for Modern Man, the mother of all DE translations, was the only translation I read the New Testament in, cover-to-cover, as a teenager. That’s because it is clear and easy to understand.

Once I began learning Hebrew and Greek, the limitations of TEV became clear to me, but then, the limitations of NASB, which many of my friends at the time preferred, became even more palpable.

That's John Hobbins of the aptly named Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog. Listen to him, my friends. Because on this point I completely agree. The best translation for the majority of people, whether children or adults is a clear translation written in idiomatic English. The next step should be diving into the turbulent and murky original languages, not trying to cross the very rickety bridge language called Biblish.

See Beware of men in high lace collars and Martin Luther on Bible Translation for more Bible translation quotes.

For some quite contrary points of view read:



At Sat Jun 21, 02:21:00 AM, Blogger Mark said...

You are preaching to the choir here. The language for the Bible which is the best is the language which I understand in an easy idiomatic way. God is above language and is more about expression to the heart and soul of a person. Why do people quibble over things like old fashion language translations when what is important is the message. The Bible and languages I think Jesus taught that the spirit of the law not the letter of the law counts and this is why he used a language common to those he was speaking to.

At Sat Jun 21, 05:22:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

At the large risk of being unclear, I wish "Bible experts" were guided by a rule when they speak about how to translate:

If you can't say it to your audience clearly, you don't know what you're saying.

I know that sounds rather black and white, as if the incredibly hard task of Bible translation can be reduced to a binary, bit-wide decision in a digital world.

The truth of it is much more black and gray and gray and gray and white. When vaulting across the chasm between the space and time of yesteryear--and the ancient language that binds them--and the same which is bound by the modern language, there are many serious considerations. So, there's a lot of gray needing to be slogged through. I don't want to minimize the difficulty. However, slogging and vaulting don't mix very well.

On the positive side, though, I think slogging builds the exegetic muscles which will enable the linguistic vault to succeed. But, one still has to vault. Or the chasm isn't cleared. You can't slog across a chasm.

Perhaps this would be better:

If you can't say it clearly, you haven't yet arrived at truly knowing what you want to say, nor to whom you're saying it.

Maybe it's those two things that make speaking clearly so hard.

At Sat Jun 21, 05:32:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

I should, perhaps, add that my above comment might not communicate well to Cricket fans (who might be in my intended audience). In their case, to slog would be exactly what you want to do to get the exegetic ball across the linguistic chasm.

At Sat Jun 21, 08:18:00 AM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

What's a teat?

I field-tested that on an 8th grade city girl and she didn't get it.

If you guys would just listen to the way you use your mother tongue, you would save yourselves from lisping so many inanities.

Fact is, David, I want my Bible translation to sound like you when you write, not the GNB. It remains true that I am eternally grateful to that translation, and think the NLT is the new GNB, but this not either/or for me.

Your use of the word "teat" is emblematic. The word is found in the Bible, you know, in the Hebrew you have not seen fit to learn, in Isa 66:11. It is translated correctly, and non-euphemistically, by NJB only (if you read NJPSV's footnote, you will also discover what the Hebrew says):

So that you may be suckled and satisified from her consoling breast,
so that you may drink deep with delight from her generous nipple.

All other translations bowdlerize. They wouldn't if they just took Luther's advice, and listen to what comes out of the mouth of unguarded babes like David Ker.

And we've been over this before. Luther talked the talk and then walked a walk quite different than the one you suggest. He had a higher regard for the linguistic abilities of ordinary people than you folks do. That's why Martin is the apple of my eye.

But this is a delightful conversation. It reminds of the day in my life in which I learned the meaning of "teat," how, and from whom. I don't know if I can tell it without sounding too racy, but I'll try, in a post on my blog.

BTW, you forgot to link to that nincompoop Jim West (obviously in the background of your post), who always goes overboard because the last thing he wants to be accused of is being niminy-piminy.

At Sat Jun 21, 09:33:00 AM, Blogger Kevin Knox said...

Thank you, David.

At Sat Jun 21, 10:34:00 AM, Blogger Keith Schooley said...

The flip side of this, though, is not recognizing the effect that the biblical literature had on the Greek and Hebrew of its day, and potentially should have (and has had) on the English of ours.

Simple example: everyone knows that when Paul uses sarx he doesn't mean the stuff that surrounds our physical bones. So we get translations that say, instead of "flesh," things like "sinful nature." Fair enough. Certainly much harm has been done by the neoplatonic idea that there is something wrong with us walking around in physical bodies. Nonetheless, by not translating sarx as "flesh," we miss the analogy Paul was making in the first place. I may be corrected here, but I don't think he was tapping into an already-existing meaning of sarx; I think he coined a new use of sarx in order to make a point, and the point gets lost when we try to translate the term into an abstraction. Oddly enough, though we've avoided a "wooden," "literal" translation, we are actually over-literalizing the term, insisting on an easily-digested abstraction instead of Paul's challenging metaphor.

Does this really contribute to better translation? Does anyone who doesn't get "flesh" really have a concept of what a "sinful nature" is either?

There are a multitude of examples like this. Words that are used in two different ways in the same context in order to create a tension. If you actually translate the word in two different ways, the tension is lost.

I'm not advocating a wooden, this-word-in-Grebrew MUST be translated as that-word-in-English every time, regardless of context, approach. There is no one-for-one correspondence between English words and words in Biblical languages. I am advocating a sensitivity to when words were being used outside the box in the original languages, and allowing for the same tension and metaphor to exist in the translation. Explication can be left to notes and commentaries.

At Sat Jun 21, 01:56:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

"Hear! Hear!" from your fellow choir member. This is the post I wanted to write, more or less, but didn't have time to.

At Sat Jun 21, 03:32:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I'm just trying to listen patiently and to ignore. I'm wishing I didn't know what "preaching" meant. Or "choir." Or "mean feat." I learned them from the Bible. And from blogs. Can't remember what real people sound like or real language either. Where's that real world? :-D

At Sat Jun 21, 08:40:00 PM, Blogger Andrew said...

I agree with you for the most part, David, but I concur with John Hobbins. The trouble is that Grade 5 students have inferior communication skills to adults, partially due to their more constricted vocabularies. I do not think by any means that translations must embrace the lowest common denominator, nor do I expect to know every word in every book I read. Rather, I look up the words I don't know in a good dictionary, just as I've done since grade school, and thus increase my ability to express my thoughts. This isn't about reducing translations to jibberish; this is about recognizing that thoughts from two thousand years ago cannot be fully expressed using the vocabulary of the average public school student.
That said, I'm not suggesting that translations need to be more difficult than need be. The best way to do it, I think, is exemplified by translations such as the Revised English Bible: using very clear sentence structures that sound like native English, but not shying away from using a less common word if it seems to be the best option for communicating the sense of the original.

At Sat Jun 21, 08:53:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

The best translation for the majority of people, whether children or adults is a clear translation written in idiomatic English. The next step should be diving into the turbulent and murky original languages.

Let's put your pedagogical theories to the test.

I'll limit myself to:

- Americans who grow up with English as their first language

- who are devout (attend prayer services at least once a week, read sacred scriptures at least once a week).

My estimates:

Jews who read Hebrew at least at a minimal level: 80%

Jews who read Hebrew at a moderately skilled level: 20%

Greek Orthodox who read Greek at least at a minimal level: 60%

Greek Orthodox who read Greek at a moderately skilled level: 15%

Muslims who read Arabic at least at a minimal level: 40%

Muslims who read Arabic at a moderately skilled level: 10%

Evangelicals who read either Greek or Hebrew at a minimal level: 1%

Evangelicals who read either Greek or Hebrew at a moderately skilled level: 0.1%

At Sat Jun 21, 09:18:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

Iyov, I think your thought experiment is cool. One reason for stats like that is that evangelicals actually believe that a translation of their sacred text is itself a sacred text. Or in other words we believe a translation is the word of God. The other groups you refer to believe that the holy writings in their original language are themselves holy. It's more nuanced than that of course but I think that explains historically why Christians have trusted the experts to produce a Bible in the local language and then have esteemed it like the very words of God.

At Sat Jun 21, 09:20:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

And yes, John, I do believe the CEV is the Word of God. More so than the original languages which were the Word of God for their original audiences. (ducks and runs)

At Sun Jun 22, 05:08:00 AM, Blogger Jane said...

Great post David
The first foreign language for any translator to constantly have to learn is always their mother tongue
The thing that interests me about the role of English translations is their impact on parts of teh world which actually have a very different idiomatic English - how does the CEV sound in India I wonder or in Kenya?
Knowledge of the ancient texts and looking at translations into various languages helps preachers translate the Word into their own contexts.
And of course once you've finished a translation you then need to listen to language around you again . Things change while you're translating - and hey you can't please all the people all of the time!

At Sun Jun 22, 07:58:00 AM, Blogger EricW said...

david ker: One reason for stats like that is that evangelicals actually believe that a translation of their sacred text is itself a sacred text. Or in other words we believe a translation is the word of God.

I assume you know that the authors of the New Testament, as well as many of the Early Church Fathers, including Latin-speaking Augustine, considered the so-called Septuagint - a translation - to be the word of God. So Protestants who consider an English translation to be the word of God are in good company. ;-)

At Sun Jun 22, 02:04:00 PM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

David says:

And yes, John, I do believe the CEV is the Word of God. More so than the original languages which were the Word of God for their original audiences. (ducks and runs)

Run, baby, run!

Actually, I concur with the Ker. Of course, the CEV is not made out of thin air, but is an attempt to put the Word of God as vouchsafed in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into language a 5th grader might understand. I have nothing against the project.

On the other hand, besides wanting Hebrew, Greek, and Latin taught at self-respecting Christian high schools and colleges everywhere, besides wanting a daily liturgy in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin offered in major cities throughout the world (I have other dreams like this that keep me up at night), I want a translation of the Bible that is faithful to the stylistic choices of the original (Iyov's formulation). Furthermore, I would like that translation to be read in worship and serve as a point of departure in adult Bible study.

I don't see why the goals I've outlined are crazy or impractical.

At Fri Jun 27, 08:28:00 PM, Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...

Interesting thoughts, and I largely concur.

Reading Ben Witherington's commentary on Colossians recently he was mentioning how Paul engaged in Asiatic rhetoric, so that the language he used in an idiom, was a rather exalted idiom. And it allowed him to go deeper in the faith, both in that letter, and in Ephesians (my take and memory of what Witherington was saying). So if I see a rendering of Hebrews or Colossians that insists on being so simple, than I have to wonder just how well it really is reflecting the original. I think the TNIV does a pretty good job in getting across something of the feel of the original, maybe, but in good language conversant to the general public.


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