It’s time to discuss the results of a poll which has been in the margin of this blog for quite a few months. The poll has five verses from various Bible versions and respondents were asked:
Check any of the following wordings which seem to you to have a translation problem. Feel free to use any resource you need, including other Bibles.
225 blog visitors responded, with the following results:
First, the number of responses is lower than we normally get for the amount of time the poll was up. I don’t know what this means. Perhaps it means that looking for translation problems is more difficult than some other exercises which have been in BBB polls. Perhaps this is especially true for those who typically visit BBB, who, I’m guessing, are more accustomed to “Bible English” than are other audiences.
There is at least one problem with the English of each of the verses in the poll. I’ll state the problems that I see. They line up with what some others noted about these verses when this poll was first posted.
In the first verse, it sounds like people are being told to brag about themselves: “Let everyone know how considerate you are.” Now, of course, Paul did not intend for the Philippians to brag about how considerate they were. The bragging meaning was unintentionally inserted by the English translators. We can see how this could happen when we look at a literal translation of the Greek of this verse:
The gentleness/considerateness of you let it be known to all people.
It is, grammatically, not very far from “let it be known to all people” to “let everyone know”, yet there is an important difference. In the intended meaning, people will know that we are considerate by how they observe us acting. Paul did not instruct the Philippians to verbally point out how considerate they were. 141 respondents spotted a problem with the test wording, the largest number of responses for any of the verses. For those who are interested, this translation wording is from the God’s Word translation, which is a quite good translation. Unintentional wrong meanings, such as in its translation of Phil. 4:5, are not at all characteristic of the God’s Word translation.
The problem with the wording of Ps. 119:105 was more difficult for most people to spot. This is probably so because we are so accustomed to this traditional wording that we find it difficult to sense anything wrong with it. This verse is one of many examples of Hebraic parallelism in the Bible. For poetic purposes, light and lamp are parallel. They refer to the same thing. In addition, my feet and my path actually refer to the same thing, for purposes of the poetic parallelism. Both refer to the where our feet go as we walk. When it is dark, we need a light to help us see where we should plant our feet, so that we can avoid anything that might cause us to stumble.
English and Hebrew differ in that Hebrew parallel meaning comes through just fine with the Hebrew conjunction, vav. In constrast, English conjunctions block parallel meaning. We cannot conjoin synonyms in English and expect others to understand that we intend the conjoined terms to be synonymous. One example that I like to use to illustrate this is:
I love my wife and my spouse.
This sentence just doesn’t work for English. It looks grammatical but most people sense that there is something wrong with it, because “my wife” and “my spouse” are functioning as synonyms. (For the purists, they are not exact synonyms–there may not be any exact synonyms in any language–but for all practical purposes, the function as synonyms in this context.)
For the majority of English speakers, who have the rule of conjunctions blocking synonymous meaning, the traditional English translation of Ps. 119:105 is ungrammatical. English “and” does not allow us to sense to the fact that “light” and “lamp” refer to the same object, unless we are so “biblicized” that we have adopted the Hebrew rule of a conjunction allowing synonymous meaning. One accurate English translation equivalent of the Hebrew conjunction in poetic parallelism is the comma. The comma results in appositive English syntax which can accurately communicate the parallel meaning of the Hebrew. Some English Bible translation teams had members who understood the different syntactic behavior of Hebrew and English conjunctions with regard to parallelism and accurately translated that parallel meaning. I have found only one version which retains the poetic couplet structure form closely and uses the appositive comma:
Your word is a lamp to my feet,
a light on my path (REB)
Two other versions make additional adjustments to the form of the couplet to retain the parallel meaning:
By your words I can see where I’m going;
they throw a beam of light on my dark path. (MSG)
Your word is a lamp
that gives light wherever I walk. (CEV)
I do not wish to discuss the merits of this more extensive restructuring in this post. I simply want to make the point that it is possible to retain the Hebraic form and its parallel meaning by substituting a comma for English “and” in translation.
I will complete my analysis of the results of this poll in my next post.