Koine English for Koine Greek, by Mark Strauss

Mark Strauss blogs why he wrote his ETS paper critiquing the ESV. He explains:

In the paper I’m simply encouraging people to ask the same questions of their Bible versions that that they would ask of anything translated from another language: (1) Does this translation make sense? (2) If comprehensible, is it obscure, awkward or non-standard English? Would anyone speaking or writing English actually say this? The Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative Word and it demands our greatest reverence and deepest study. This means not only exegeting the text to determine its original meaning, but also carefully determining how best to communicate that meaning, style and register into normal, idiomatic English. I want the modern reader to hear the text in the same way the original readers heard it.

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20 thoughts on “Koine English for Koine Greek, by Mark Strauss

  1. dru says:

    From Mark Strauss’s blog.

    “Our primary goal, rather, should be to produce the meaning the original authors intended, translated as close to the same style and register (reading level) as the original author. In other words, we need to translate Koine Greek into Koine English. For a book like Hebrews, this means using a higher literary style that retains technical terms and OT allusions, but that still sounds like good idiomatic English, not some strange hybrid of Greek and English. Rougher Semitic Greek (e.g. Mark’s Gospel) should be translated into rougher Semitic English.”

    I’m not sure what ‘rougher Semitic English’ would mean as applied. Can anyone come up with some speculative examples? I hope applied to the OT it would mean respecting the flavour, metaphors etc of the original. To me, also, ‘register’ and ‘reading level’ are not synonyms, or even that similar. But basically, ‘Hear, hear’.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Dru wrote:

    I’m not sure what ‘rougher Semitic English’ would mean as applied. Can anyone come up with some speculative examples? I hope applied to the OT it would mean respecting the flavour, metaphors etc of the original.

    Dru, I think Mark is referring to trying to make the translated English have a similar flavour, sound, texture, register, style as the Semitic Greek of Mark’s Gospel. So I think you and Mark (Strauss; I don’t know about John Mark!!) are wanting much the same thing. English prose can sound smooth or rough. In the case of translation of Mark’s Gospel, the translation should sound rough, concise, perhaps a little choppy. We would want Luke’s Gospel to sound smoother since it was written in smoother Greek.

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    Wayne wrote:
    In the case of translation of Mark’s Gospel, the translation should sound rough, concise, perhaps a little choppy.

    I’ve wondered about that understanding of what Mark was doing. I wonder if the intent was to convey excitement. I’ve noticed the Prodigal father (in Luke) rattles off short bursts of sentences when he meets his lost son. He was excited! Could it be that Mark is conveying excitement?

    If so, how does one translate excitement into “koine” English?

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    TC asked:

    I think Strauss is dead on. Does any of our versions measure up?

    Yes, some do in certain aspects of the total equation for adequate English Bible translations. The CEV uses the most natural English of any version. It has received one or more awards for the quality of its English. The NLT is fairly good. Most others do not sufficiently follow standard English rules for syntax, lexical combinations, and style very well.

    English translation, overall, are good when it comes to exegetical accuracy. But they fall far short when it comes to English quality. And the reason largely is that English translations are produced by exegetical scholars, not English language professionals. We can’t have one without the other and expect to have adequate translations. Good English without exegetical accuracy is a non-starter. Exegetical accuracy without good English is something that English speakers have lived with for centuries. But we have gotten a taste of something better with the literary brilliance of J.B. Phillips, and, yes, even the brilliance of the simple, clear, plain language Living Bible.

    It’s like pushing a boulder uphill, however, to try to convince the English Bible gatekeepers to use better English, since there is so much misunderstanding, as evidenced in much of the advertising about English Bible versions. We also see the difficulty here on this blog as we plead for better English, but get push-back that indicates that we are not on the same page with those who prefer Bibles that sound like what they believe Bibles should sound like. It’s time for all of us to learn to speak and write English again when it comes to the Bibles that we use. There is a lack of interdisciplinary cooperation when it comes to producing good English Bible versions.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Mike asked:

    If so, how does one translate excitement into “koine” English?

    We need to discover how English speakers and writers do this and then use those rhetorical devices in our translations of Mark and any other part of the Bible where there is excitement. As a matter of fact, such studies have already been done. But I dsuspect that few English Bible translators have ever spent much time with the professional literature studying how English speakers and writers express various rhetorical functions. English Bible translators are strong on exegesis but weak on using their own language properly in their own translations. There needs to be a division of each English translation team whose job it is to interact with English literary and linguistic studies to ensure that we don’t have the poor English that Mark Strauss has properly pointed out occurs in the ESV and a number of other versions.

    Why is it that few, if any, English Bible translators, ever have articles that appear in professional translation journals, let alone a professional Bible translation journal such as The Bible Translator? They have fine articles which appear in exegetical journals, but not in translation journals. I think that this is indicative of the imbalance on English Bible translation teams.

  6. John Hobbins says:

    I have my doubts about “natural English” as a goal of translation (see my Dec 19 2008 blog post). So far as I can see, the result is not particularly praiseworthy in CEV’s case. “Natural English” is what CEV has in spades, but it is not enough.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    John, as I’ve said many times before, our English translations should be no more natural nor less natural than were the original biblical texts. Far too many English Bible versions use English that is far less natural than was the language of the biblical texts. Few, if any, people in the word communicate with the odd kind of dialect found in Biblish. If people in any language spoke or wrote that way, others would wonder what was going on with them, why they were speaking or writing so strangely.

    Obviously, as I have also stated many times, naturalness of language is not the only goal of Bible translation. There are several others, including exegetical accuracy, faithfulness to genre equivalence (including poetry), same register.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    John, when you say, “I have my doubts about ‘natural English’ as a goal of translation,” what I hear you say is, “I have my doubts about communicating as a goal of translation.”

    Is that what you’re saying?

    If, however, you’re saying that you question the exegetical accuracy of the CEV (which, ironically, is more easily discerned because of CEV’s more natural expression), then I tend to agree. I think there’s more theological depth that needs to be communicated than what the CEV has accomplished. But, that’s a different issue than naturalness.

    I find it difficult to understand how a person can defend literal translations as being more accurate. The ambiguity introduced into the text makes it more difficult to discover what the translators actually intended the meaning to be. What I want to know is how can the reader determine whether the exegesis was accurate?

  9. John Hobbins says:

    Mike,

    I’m glad you agree that CEV fails to communicate the theological depth of its source text. It also fails to communicate the richness of its metaphors (it eliminates them rather often), genres (it reduces everything to short prosaic sentences), and cultural specificity (a means, according to a classical understanding of scripture, by which the word is made flesh).

    We differ, apparently, in that you do not see cause and effect on these matters in terms of translation theory and application. I submit that CEV’s failures of communication are the result of the inadequate theory of translation that inspired it.

    On top of that, CEV also contains exegetical flaws, but as Wayne notes, all translations do.

    In my blogging I have critiqued FE translations on many an occasion. Applause arrives from the BBB direction when I do. But critique of DE translations puts you guys on the defensive. Loosen up.

  10. John Hobbins says:

    Wayne,

    You say:

    “Few, if any, people in the word communicate with the odd kind of dialect found in Biblish.”

    Except for the hundreds of millions of people to whom the Word of God is communicated when one person reads the Bible to another in a non-DE translation. Sure, KJV, NKJV, NAB, and ESV users get a higher dosage of Biblish in such communication than do (T)NIV and NRSV users, or RSV and NAB users (Catholics), but the difference is only one of degree.

    Except the tens of thousands of people in seminary who still learn to parse the meaning of Biblish.

    Except for the millions of people around the world who, when they pray, use the language of a traditional Bible translation to do so, the KJV in English, the Diodati in Italian, etc. This bilingualism ought to be fascinating to a linguist. Your “few if any” statement sweeps all of this under a rug. I know you better so I’m confident that your statement does not reflect cultural imperialism on the part of “we know better” linguists. In any case, “few if any” is inaccurate.

    I just returned from reading “The Night before Christmas” with my 5 year old. Anna adores the poem and knows it by heart. Down to the last “‘Twas,” “ere,” and “alongside of his nose.” Field-test “had settled our brains,” “the down of a thistle,” and see what happens.

    BTW, I realize that my Anna does not use these expressions outside of the world of “The Night before Christmas.” I don’t think that is a strike against the expressions. I would not change one word of Clement Moore’s classic.

    None of these observations settle the question as to what kind of Bible translation is best for what setting. But surely you will concede that “strange language” fills the world of children no less than adults. The old man goes on snoring and bumping his head on a roller bed, even if no one knows what a roller bed is.

    It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing. It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing that with each passing year, Anna understands a little bit more of the poem she loves, down to the last “courser” and “droll little mouth.” Someday, if she takes German, a light will go on when she reads “Donder and Blitzen.” In the meantime, she understands the poem perfectly. It is literally a part of her existential self, weird syntax and otherwise unknown vocabulary included. The question is: how much “strange language” do we want in our Bibles, and why.

    At funerals, I always recite Psalm 23 by heart from the KJV. You would not pretend, I imagine, that I read it from the “natural English” of CEV. For the record, I also know Psalm 23 by heart in Hebrew. But here is where I come down. Psalm 23 is scripture for me in both the Hebrew and KJV. Don’t ask me to choose between them.

    If you want Psalm 23 to be scripture for you in the CEV, be my guest. I will not follow you for cultural, theological, and ecclesiological reasons.

    For the rest, I think you exaggerate the extent to which the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible was similar to the way people talked between themselves in the marketplace or other everyday settings in Jerusalem and Corinth. The Bible is written in temply, synagoguey and churchy language. The language of historians and bards, priests and prophets, rabbis and apostles, not to mention John the Divine whose language oozes with biblical allusions and defies the rules of ordinary grammar.

    Church people talk funny, especially when they talk about their faith. You know that. What you seem to deny is that they always have. Always.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    John, your critique of DE translations puts us on the defensive when you title your posts for example A Critique of “Natural English” as a Goal of Translation or A Downside of DE Translations: The Example of Psalm 14:1 but in fact try to use in each case a single example of an exegetical weakness in just one (arguably) DE translation as an argument against the core DE translation principles. There is nothing in your former post that can be understood as “A Critique of “Natural English””. But I agree that “natural English is not enough”. So if your post titles had matched their content, something like A Critique of CEV’s Exegetical Decisions in Romans 3:21-22 and Exegetical Issues in Psalm 14:1, then I for one would not have gone on the defensive.

    Except for the hundreds of millions of people to whom the Word of God is communicated when one person reads the Bible to another in a non-DE translation.

    Is the Word of God communicated to them? I suspect most of these nominal churchgoers sit back and allow it to wash over them, as I admit I do sometimes during Bible readings in church. If it is communicated to them, then why the pitifully poor understanding of the Bible among ordinary people?

    Yes, there are people who are bilingual in English and Biblish. And there are good Biblish translations for those who prefer them. But the majority of the population in any country is not bilingual in this way and so needs better Bibles which they can understand because they are not in Biblish.

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    John wrote:

    But critique of DE translations puts you guys on the defensive. Loosen up.

    Not true, John. I’m an equal opportunity employee. I believe in improving any Bible version, whatever its translation philosophy. I have emailed significant numbers of revision suggestions to translation teams for both literal and DE translations. Go look at my own critiques of the CEV, for evidence. Click on our blog Versions page, then CEV.

    And if you will go back and read my blog posts you will find that I emphasize repeatedly that a natural language translation is unacceptable if it is not exegetically accurate (or doesn’t meet several of the important goals for Bible translation).

    I suggest that by quoting my one sentence about CEV natural English, and then blogging about other CEV deficiencies, you are attacking a straw man. Bible translation is far more multi-faceted than simply natural English vs. unnnatural English.

    Please remember the blogging context: recently there has been a focus on the English in the ESV, whose team makes high claims for the quality of its English. Those claims do not hold up in the court of high quality English literature, as can be discovered by studying what pieces are widely recognized as having been authored as high quality English literature.

    But we must never forget all the other important parameters for any adequate translation: exegetical accuracy, genre equivalence, register, rhetorical equivalence, communicative accuracy, etc.

    Please play fair when you link to any post from BBB. I only praised the CEV as having the most natural English of any English Bible version. You wrote an opposing post which points out other problems with the CEV. The linkage to my post was inappropriate, however, because you are dealing with two *different* parameters which enter into any translation process. You’re confusing the issues by mixing the proverbial apples and oranges.

    Now, if you had shown evidence that the CEV does not actually have the most natural English of any English version, then you would have been playing fair and addressing what was actually said.

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    John, I wish I could be clearer. You continue to misunderstand what I’ve written. My statement about the CEV not communicating depth referred to exegesis (and, more to the point, acceptability[1]). It agrees with your statement–“CEV also contains exegetical flaws“–which in turn agrees with Wayne’s. It is also not intended to refer to a large percentage of the text, only a relatively small percentage.

    As far as being defensive, I think you misunderstand there, too. For example, you continue to confuse the foreignness of a metaphor with its richness. For example, an African language uses an expression which if literally brought into English would be “eat path.” It seems to me you would see something more profound, something deep, in the text that would bloom out of the words used in that expression. That richness is not there. It simply means, in English, “take the lead.” What we’re trying to do, which perhaps is coming across as defensive, is to get you to see that the grammar of the Bible doesn’t have to be profound even though the content is. Though I think there are places where no translation has properly engrossed the reader. But, again, engrossing doesn’t mean unnatural.

    [Hmmmm…perhaps that would be an interesting survey/study: which translations (or paragraphs) are the most engrossing?]

    Now, regarding your statement: Except for the hundreds of millions of people to whom the Word of God is communicated when one person reads the Bible to another in a non-DE translation.

    You’ll have to explain why, on the one hand, formally equivalent translations still sell quite well; and, yet, on the other hand, the Biblical literacy level among Christians is precipitously dropping. I’m quite concerned regarding this state of Western affairs.

    Lastly, I apologize if this comes across as condescending. It is not meant to be. You have several skills I don’t have. It’s that these concepts we’re butting heads around are very basic to the nature of communication and how language works. So, I’m trying to be quite clear.


    [1]. For example, in my opinion an accurate rendering of 2 Cor. 6:12 would have the phrase, “you have constipated affections.” This doesn’t capture the pun, but it does capture the metaphor. Paul is being purposefully funny and yet with a bit of a witty bite. However, who would buy such a translation? Bibles don’t say stuff like that!! And yet, that’s the rich metaphor of the original. That’s the type of thing I’m referring to when I use the word acceptability.

  14. John Hobbins says:

    Wayne,

    Your praise of CEV for its natural English is fair game if it is true, and I believe it is, that CEV scissors out elements in its source text for the sake of achieving natural English. As I see it, CEV achieves its award-winning natural English at the cost of fairly radical simplification. Now, you may not agree with that, but that is my argument. It is not off-topic.

    I’ve given the examples of CEV Lev 4:26 and 1 John 2:1-2 (see below). You are welcome to show where I am in error in my observations. It is not the case that exegetical error is the cause of the omissions in CEV. It goes straight to translation theory (cause), and application (effect).

    Peter,

    Thanks for being clear about your rejection of the kind of bilingualism that continues to characterize Christians around the world. No wonder you disprefer translations that maintain continuity with Tyndale-Geneva-KJV, but I don’t see why you prefer TNIV, a relatively traditional translation, over against GNB, NCV, and CEV, all of which excel in natural English. TNIV by comparison is full of Biblish.

    Why do you prefer TNIV? It is a churchy translation. I can even name the ethos of which churches it reflects: the moderate to trendy evangelical crowd.

    On my blog, in a comment you seem to suppose that the NT was written in language non-Christians could understand. I think you misunderstand the consensus about New Testament Greek. For example, if you think Paul, Peter, and John are not speaking “churchy” in their letters, you are sorely mistaken. The letters are written with church people in mind and presuppose a deep knowledge of scripture (the OT) and accumulated Christian tradition of a kind no non-church member would have had.

    Surely you do not mean to suggest that people in a marketplace in Corinth or Rome, filled with non-Jews and non-Christians, would be able to understand a passage like this without considerable explanation:

    My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2 TNIV)

    BTW, I agree that the syntax of this could be cleaned up. But even if you put it in dumbed-down, simplified, award-winning natural English, it still would have stumped the Corinthian butchers and candlestick makers:

    My children, I am writing this so that you won’t sin. But if you do sin, Jesus Christ always does the right thing, and he will speak to the Father for us. Christ is the sacrifice that takes away our sins and the sins of all the world’s people. (CEV)

    The truth is this: even though CEV scissors out traditional language:

    “Advocate” is gone;
    “The Righteous One” is replaced with the ridiculous “always does the right thing” (I admit that “Righteous One” makes no sense at all unless you know your Old Testament very well: precisely my point);
    “Propitiation” is sacrificed, without atonement or expiation offered;

    CEV still doesn’t make sense unless you know in advance what it has to mean. Field test to your heart’s content if you think I’m off base. Surely Acts 8:31 is all you would hear and will hear among any group of non-churched people in the world, whether 1 John 2:1-2 is read in an excellent but still improvable translation like TNIV, or a translation for the non-literate like CEV.

  15. John Hobbins says:

    Mike,

    You say:

    “What we’re trying to do, which perhaps is coming across as defensive, is to get you to see that the grammar of the Bible doesn’t have to be profound even though the content is.”

    Thank you for stating your point of view so clearly. I happen to disagree. I don’t think you can flatten the complex grammar of Paul, of Leviticus, or of Isaiah into bite-sized, self-contained syntactical units without considerable semantic loss.

    For the rest, let me try to be clearer. I do not argue for word-for-word translation. I argue for “as literal as possible, as free as necessary” translation. I know full well that it is difficult to translate metaphors, and that calque-ing them is not always possible. I argue that it is best to engage in figure-for-figure translation, as opposed to abstract-proposition-in-replacement-of-a-figure translation.

    I strenuously object to the tendency of DE translations to take a metaphor like “Let the sea thunder, and all that it contains!” (Psalm 98:7) and de-metaphorize it: “Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!” (NLT)

    The example I just gave has nothing to do with exegetical error and everything to do with faulty translation technique.

    Even a cursory comparison of a DE translation of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible with the source text will turn up hundreds of examples of this kind. Don’t believe me? Just say so. I will post one a day until Jesus returns.

    (I can already hear it now: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”)

  16. John Hobbins says:

    Mike,

    I like your example from 2 Cor 6:12.

    BTW, a best-selling translation – KJV – translates along the lines you suggest.

    KJV’s translation, however, may have made Paul’s metaphor too blatant for readers then, and is a head-scratcher now.

    2 Cor 6:11-12 is rich in metaphors, a piece of eloquent rhetoric for that very reason. English has to be stretched to capture it; here is an attempt:

    Our mouth, O Corinthians, is open for your sake,
    our heart is opened wide.

    You are not stopped up on our account,
    you are stopped up on account of your own inward feelings.

    Now, in a fair exchange – I speak to you as children –
    you open wide as well.

    The trouble is, we don’t use “stopped up” metaphorically in English (equivalent phrases in many languages are so used). As often, two translations are necessary to capture just the bare essentials of the source text:

    You do not suffer indigestion on our account,
    you suffer indigestion on account of your own inward feelings.

    Three more attempts:

    Things have not reached an impasse on our account;
    things have reached an impasse on account of your own inward feelings.

    Your stomach is plugged but not on our account;
    your stomach is plugged on account of its own contents.

    You can’t go and get it over with, but not on our account;
    you can’t go and get it over with because of your own inward feelings.

  17. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I admit it, I prefer TNIV because I am part of “the moderate to trendy evangelical crowd”. I prefer it because I understand it, and so do many of the people I interact it. It seems natural to me because I have been reading it and NIV for 30 years. I would not use it with people with no church background, or else I would carefully explain to them any churchy terms.

    Concerning the language of the NT, I will repeat what I said on your blog, that you are going against the consensus of Greek scholars. As Mike said, “You have several skills I don’t have”, especially in Hebrew, but not I think in Greek. Not that I claim to have this skill myself either. But as I understand the scholarly consensus (and readers like Carl can confirm this), the NT is generally written in much the same language as informal personal letters of the period and so presumably in language understood by ordinary people. Yes, ordinary Corinthians or Romans would have understood that 1 John passage because in their culture they were used to sacrificial language. I will not defend the CEV rendering which I agree is over-simplified.

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