digital Bibles and literal translation

Hall Harris, Managing Editor of the NET Bible, has blogged on the question: Does a Literal Translation Matter with a Digital Bible?

Hall writes:

My point here is not to discuss the relative merits of formal versus dynamic (or functional) equivalence as a translation theory. That debate is ongoing and is much broader than the point I want to make, which is simply this: With the development of digital Bible text, if the desire of those wanting a literal or word-for-word translation is transparency to the original language texts of the Bible, that can be achieved through the software and not through the translation itself.

Read the rest of Hall’s post to understand what he means by accessing literal translation through software.

7 thoughts on “digital Bibles and literal translation

  1. dru says:

    I can see the point here. I think it is both a valid and useful way of experiencing scripture. But I am not sure that I agree with it as a philosophical principle. I think there is actually a benefit from having access to a translation that has some transparency to the underlying original.

    Also, if one actually tries Hal Harris’s suggestion, the parallel texts, for entirely practical reasons, only give access to one verse at a time, i.e. it is a translation exercise, not a reading experience. Both are valid, but they aren’t the same thing.

    Going back to the discussion about faithful wounds, in my view it isn’t enough just to translate the words as literally as possible, or to convey the underlying sense. If at all possible, it is better if one can convey something of the flavour and register of the original text. This may not always be possible, but it is a good thing if the reader in English, French or Swahili can get as much as they can of what the original listener experienced as they heard it in the original language.

    The original scholar may have pored over the Torah verse by verse, but that was quite a late development, was not the only way of experiencing it, and was not necessarily the normal way the prophets or the writings were experienced.

    One imagines this was even more so for the original hearers of the gospels or St Paul’s in the fervent congregations of the Eastern Mediterranean.

    What I’m leading on to, is that I think the tension between literal and dynamic is actually a good thing in itself, since they are both saying something that it would be a good thing for a translation to achieve if it is at all possible. As soons as one chooses one over the other as a committed policy, rather than tries to keep them in tension, one loses something.


  2. Paul Larson says:

    The distinction made here totally escapes me.
    I don’t tend to think in terms of a digital Bible vs a paper Bible, I personally feel its easier to read a book. I guess digitally, my brain tends to think in terms of eSword where I have about six Bibles ranging from the NASB to The Message. Both the KJV and NASB have Stongs numbers and I like to look at the subtle and I mean subtle difference between the ESV and the RSV. I want one close to literal, just to see what Strongs says. I like the Message to grab a sort of set of notes ala paraphrase. I use a digital Bible/s to compare translations, and to “uncover” insights that I will look into later, but not to read, but I’m still not clear what this is all about.
    I also have three audio versions of the Bible for my iPod, which is my current favorite method (digital too!), supplemented by the eSword. I think the real risk I run is getting a sort of average translation in my brain. I guess it could be worse. I hope you guys will provide the nuance!

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Dru, you are right to want a reading experience, not just verse by verse study, and to want to experience the register of the original language. But the only way to give you what you want is to give you the original language text, and the resources to learn the languages well enough to understand these nuances.

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks for link to Hall Harris’s essay. He’s on to something (although his conclusion is too simple and stops short of a really insightful analysis: i.e., simply that “transparency to the original language texts of the Bible, . . . can be achieved through the software and not through the translation itself”). There are at least 2 things to consider more:

    1. Computer aided reading (in a second language) seems to by-pass the old dilemma language teachers used to have, i.e., the “either” a top down “or” a bottom up processing approach. That is, should one get the 2nd lg students looking at the main chunks of meaning in larger chunks of text first; or should the teacher first allow the students to look up every little word in their dictionaries first? A decade ago, researchers began to see that computers help students get the little-chunk meanings on the fly so that the big chunk processing is not interrupted. For example, Tom Cobb, Chris Greaves, Marlise Horst had learners of French as a 2nd language read digitally, with nice and surprising and measurable results. (Here’s their article in English et en français).

    2. The digital format does create, as Harris suggests, a diglot of sorts. This further simulates, I think, the kind of “polyglossia” that Mikhail Bakhtin says is a kind of social epistemology (that we in the monolingual U.S. don’t much experience)–Mikhail Epstein takes that further, saying that it is translingualism (vs. monolingualism or even bilingualism). Epstein, like Harris, says that there’s something more than translation going on for the reader. Epstein says it is “interlation” or “stereotextuality.” Whereas “translation” tends to bemoan what’s lost in untranslatability and non-equivalencies, “interlation” celebrates something else. “Interlation” (as with the instant diglot and polyglot created by computers) actually creates “a new layer of imagery emerges through a metaphorical relationship between languages and provides a surplus (rather than loss) of poetic value.” (A short Epstein essay on this is linked here).

  5. Iyov says:

    Harris does make some valid points; but as Kurk correctly points out, he stops too early.

    One point I would make in response is that, in my personal experience, using Bible software such as Logos and BibleWorks produces a qualitatively different experience than reading texts in a book. Marshall McLuhan died before the rise of e-books, but I wish I could read his comments on the difference in quality.

    The upshot is that I find myself using Bible software for reference, concordance, and analysis purposes — I will look something up, but I am unlikely to read an entire book using that software — when I do use it, I feel some fatigue.

    I suspect my experience is common. I notice many people printing out long articles downloaded from the Internet to read, rather than reading them on the screen.

    It is premature to celebrate the death of the book, even the printed literal translation.

    Peter is also completely right. Unless one reads work in original languages; unless one learns to think and work in original languages, one is still at a distance from the original work. Perhaps the gap will never be completely closed, but learning original languages brings one closer.

  6. dru says:

    I agree with the suggestion that nothing can beat the original text, but the whole reason for having translations is that most people do not have that knowledge of either of the two main languages. And even those that do are not first language speakers of them, and rarely have the sort of conversational versatility in them that one is supposed to get when one learns French, German or Spanish.

    So the debate is about what is the best approach to designing the experience of the original scriptures that hearers and readers of a translation will receive.

    “Though clear the clean-cut Doric temple shone
    Still droned the voice of Mr Gidney on
    ” That οτι? Can we take its meaning here
    Wholly as interrogative?” Edward Lear,
    Show me the Greeve of wrinkled olive boughs
    Above red earth; thin goats, in stead of cows, ….”


  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    “Vicar, I hope it will not be a shock
    To find this village has no ‘eight o’clock’.
    . . .
    From the domed church, as from the sky, look down
    The Pantocrator’s searching eyes of brown,”

    funny and shocking, Dru. I always imagined the “transparent” searching Eye to be not the earthly nonAryanbrown but blue (as on the Union Jack, of the uniting King James VI). Peter, exactly right: We do need “resources to learn the languages well enough to understand these nuances”–and yet don’t nuances, even in Sir John Betjeman’s Englishness poem “Greek Orthodox,” make us question our notion of “original”? Iyov, I’m with you hoping the book never dies–may it remain alive and ticking after the printing press, after the telegraph, after the radio, after HDTV, after Bibleworks, after eight o’clock.

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