To me it is more or less axiomatic that a Bible translation should be clear, as well as accurate. I would normally add a third criterion here, that it should be natural; but I can conceive of circumstances where one might want to produce a translation which was not in the natural form of any language. But I cannot conceive of circumstances in which a translation might be deliberately inaccurate, and I would expect everyone to agree on that. And I thought I could not conceive of circumstances in which a translation might be deliberately unclear, at least in any place where the original language text is clear. But it seems that not everyone agrees with me on that.
For there has been a debate going on on various blogs about “literary translation”. This started with a comment by Rich Rhodes on a post by Doug Chaplin, which was taken up by John Hobbins. John quotes with approval from an author who quotes the Spanish liberal philosopher José Ortega y Gasset:
To him, a translation is … one that draws attention to the cultural and linguistic differences in order to “force the reader from his linguistic habits and oblige him to move within those of the author.” Thus, a good translation is one that allows the reader to undertake a metaphorical “voyage to the foreign, to the absolutely foreign, which another very remote time and another very different civilization comprise.” This enhanced “historical consciousness” has the beneficial result — or in Ortega y Gasset’s words, the “splendor” — of introducing new perspectives that may challenge conventional beliefs.
John also writes:
The truth, furthermore, needs to meet us as a stranger. Its power to transform the familiar in our lives depends on its otherness coming through. An excellent literary translation accomplishes that.
Thus, if I understand him correctly, John is arguing that a Bible translation should be deliberately unclear, even that its power depends on its lack of clarity. This goes completely against what I have held as axiomatic. So it is no wonder that I commented in response to these last words:
I’m sorry, I cannot disagree more. Well, I guess this might work with a small minority of intellectuals trained to read and understand what is strange. But for the great majority of readers the strange simply leaves them with lots of question marks, or else walking away from the texts.
Now, as I wrote earlier in that comment, I can understand someone like our blogging friend Iyov, apparently an orthodox Jew, preferring literary translation, because he is coming at the Bible with a totally different perspective from mine. Similarly I suppose the liberal Ortega y Gasset. But I would expect John, as a more or less evangelical Christian, to have the same kind of perspective as me, namely that the purpose of reading the Bible is not to enjoy historical literature but to understand the inspired message which God has given to humanity. OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. But if it is important to understand the message, we simply have no time for
allow[ing] the reader to undertake a metaphorical “voyage to the foreign, to the absolutely foreign, which another very remote time and another very different civilization comprise.”
Yes, maybe by domesticating the Bible in translation we are telling “a lie that tells the truth”. I could argue that the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament justifies this approach. I believe that we not only should but are obliged to do this if we are to bring the gospel message to a lost and dying world.
I think it was Eugene Nida who compared the Bible to an aircraft instruction manual. If a translation of the latter is unclear or inaccurate, a plane may crash and hundreds may lose their lives on this earth. But, he argued, how much more important it is that a Bible translation is clear and accurate, for if it is not millions may fail to find the way of salvation and lose their eternal lives. Now I realise that this argument is flawed in a number of ways, not least in its severely reductionist concept of the Bible as a set of instructions for gaining eternal life. Nevertheless, in a situation where (to put the evangelical perspective rather bluntly) most of the world is lost and in danger of eternal punishment, John and I should be in no doubt of the need for clear translations which all can understand.
Now John is clearly someone who appreciates clear writing and is demotivated by what is unclear, for he wrote:
A most excellent thing about Rich Rhodes is that he writes in completely understandable prose. This is not a minor detail. There are days when I think: life is short; why even bother engaging people who can’t write crisply and clearly? But even on days when I think like that, I would still read Rich with pleasure.
Has he not considered that many readers of the Bible, especially those who are not committed Christians, will not “bother engaging” with the Bible text as translated by “people who can’t write crisply and clearly”, or who choose not to do so in the name of preserving “the absolutely foreign”? If even academics like himself are demotivated by unclear writing, how much more the ordinary uneducated masses? Does he not believe that those who do not read the Bible because it is unclear, or who do read but fail to understand, might miss the gospel message and be eternally lost? Is this not a strong argument that not just blog posts but also Bible translations (at least where the original is clear) should be crisp and clear?
Meanwhile John has also been arguing, with a post title which summarises the post well, If a text is literary, its dynamic equivalent in translation must also be literary. The problem here is that he seems to assume that the Bible, in the original, is a literary text. He concludes from this that certain translations which are not in literary style “are improperly done”. Here is my response to John, which I made in a comment on his blog (slightly edited):
John, there is an enormous hole in the logic of your argument. You argue in effect: A translation should be in the same style as the original. … Therefore a translation of the Bible should be in a literary style. The missing part of the argument, the point which you don’t bother to state but seem to simply assume, is that the original is in a literary style.
And at this point I beg to differ … No, I won’t be so polite, I will keep up my reputation in your sidebar of giving “A fearless take on issues”: this point is simply untrue!
At least it is demonstrably untrue of the New Testament, or at least the great majority of it, which is in the style of personal letters and occasional works of the time and not of contemporary literature.
As for the Hebrew Bible, we have virtually nothing else surviving in the Hebrew of the time with which we can compare the style of the original. I suspect that it is simply an anachronism to suggest that there was a “literary style” of Hebrew distinct from a more popular style, a distinction which makes sense only in certain cultural settings within reasonably literate societies. On this basis I would argue that the Hebrew Bible was not written in a literary style.
The implication, if we agree that a translation should be in the same style as the original, is that Bible translations should NOT be in a literary style.
This further implies that the translations which are “improperly done” are not GNT and CEV but Alter and Kugel.
I’m all in favor of making Scripture comprehensible, but I’m not in favor of domesticating it. God’s wisdom will always be foolish and scandalous in the eyes of the world. We can’t save the world by minimizing the skandalon of God’s word; I think you run that risk at times. But of course, we all do.
But I don’t see how Scripture can be made comprehensible to an ordinary audience (people without a deep understanding of the ancient culture) without “domesticating” it so that it no longer appears as “the absolutely foreign”; the implication would seem to be that this is no longer a “literary translation”. The skandalon or stumbling-block of God’s word is not its foreignness, the fact that it comes from remote cultures. After all, God’s wisdom was foolish in those cultures as well as in our own. It is, rather, the timeless call of God, equally relevant in all cultures, to follow his ways rather than that of the world. Of course this should not be minimised, but I don’t see why a domesticating translation, if done well, need compromise this at all.
Indeed I would think that a completely non-literary version like The Message, which goes to extremes in domesticating the text, is especially strong in presenting the skandalon of God’s word to its target audience. (There are issues with the accuracy of The Message, but that is a separate issue.)
On the other hand, a literary translation which avoids domestication and appears as “the absolutely foreign” will succeed only in obfuscating the skandalon of God’s word by hiding its challenge under all kinds of culturally conditioned obscurities. I would think that the reason why many readers prefer “absolutely foreign” literary translations is that their obscurity provides an excuse for those readers to escape from the challenge which God’s word is bringing to their lives.
Let us put an end to obfuscation of the Bible. This includes obfuscation for which the excuse is “literary translation” based on the wisdom of the philosophers of this world. And let us present the true skandalon, the stumbling-block of the gospel, in all its stark clarity:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.1 Corinthians 1:22-25 (TNIV)
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (TNIV)