Lost in translation

A year ago I was sworn in as a county planning commissioner. It has been an adventure. I’ve had years of practice as a dean making decisions that affect people’s life options — decisions that can cost people thousands of dollars. But the kinds of decisions I have participated in as a member of the Planning Commission are another whole kettle of fish. The cost to the various parties when conditional use permits are granted or denied (at first approximation, allowing people to build or not) can run into the millions of dollars, especially here in the Bay Area where, even with the housing downturn, properties in the low rent district are still $250,000 or more.

I found myself in the position of being appointed to this position because of a dust-up in the summer of 2007 in which our section of Castro Valley was proposed to be moved from the Castro Valley planning area to the planning area immediately to our west. For any number of reasons our neighborhood was against the proposal and I ended up being one of the spokespersons. This put me on the political radar.

Castro Valley is wealthier and and has more desirable property than most of the area west of us — better schools, more businesses, better services, less crime, and, no surprise, higher property values.

But the point that is of interest to us here at BBB is how the political argument played out. Castro Valley is all hills and valleys while the land to our west is flat land out to the Bay. For planning purposes it makes little sense to group hill country with flat lands. The issues are entirely different. In spite of that, a key charge in the excessively emotional debate was that the folks in Castro Valley looked down on the the people of flat lands. The charge arose because the people involved took language too literally. The physical fact that the western ridge of Castro Valley looks down on the flat lands was taken as a figurative truth. While it’s literally true, it’s not figuratively true. The Castro Valley folks have nothing against the flat lands. Many in our neighborhood grew up in the flat lands.

So it was an offense taken, not one given. As a result it was very hard to counter.

Taking figurative language literally is a problem in thinking about translation as well.

We characterize the fact that languages don’t match exactly by saying that something is “lost in translation”, forgetting that that expression is only a metaphor. But the truth is that the underlying issue is one of mismatch. Meanings are both lost and gained. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset talked about this by saying that that every utterance is both “exuberant” and “deficient”. Every translation lacks some parts of the meaning that were in the original. But it likewise includes some meanings that weren’t there in the original.

Take just about any theologically loaded term, like ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’. We read such terms with the weight of two millenia of theology on them, and hear things in the passages containing them that aren’t there in the original.

So we hear ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ as synonymous with the Bible. Sometimes that isn’t much of a problem:

ἐκάθισεν δὲ ἐνιαυτὸν καὶ μῆνας ἓξ διδάσκων ἐν αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ

And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18:11, NIV)

But sometimes that reading doesn’t make sense at all:

καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐπληθύνετο ὁ ἀριθμὸς τῶν μαθητῶν ἐν Ἰερουσαλὴμ σφόδρα πολύς τε ὄχλος τῶν ἱερέων ὑπήκουον τῇ πίστει

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7, ESV)

Huh? How can the Bible increase?

Clearly in this case ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’ means something else — metonymically it refers to the effect of the preaching of the word of God. But then English phrase the word of God can’t mean that.

Translate conservatively and you get the wrong idea. This is exactly the kind of example that shows that you have to translate the meaning rather than the wording to avoid saying something that the original does not say.

To listen to the debate one would believe that formal equivalent translations lose little and add nothing, while dynamic equivalent translations lose much and add much. Ergo FE beats DE. (And that’s why you get to slam DE translations as less accurate.)

Gimme a break.

The dirty little secret is that FE translations add as much, and sometimes even more than good DE translations. Well, maybe add isn’t quite the right way to talk about how much one can get the wrong idea from the same wording.

1) a FE translation ALWAYS loses more than a serious DE translation, especially in places where it is possible to lose almost nothing, and

2) for most of the Scripture it is possible to lose almost nothing.

3) For most of the cases in which people complain the loudest about the lost associations of DE, the communicative value of such secondary meanings is so much less important than the primary meaning that the cost of trying to keep the associations at the expense of a phrasing that distorts the primary meanings is too high to be acceptable.

and 4) the notion of the “foreignness” of Scripture that is currently being bandied about unscrutinized is one of those things added in translation. None of Scripture was foreign in any way to its original audience. It shouldn’t be to us.

46 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Rich,

    Online word of mouth continues to increase: translation that preserves cultural distance is worth another look.

    The new Zuercherbibel is a recent, acclaimed example of precisely this approach.

    Of course, the existence of the expression, after this and that, “word of mouth continued to increase,” while excellent idiomatic English, does not mean that “the word of God continued to increase” is also excellent idiomatic English. Still, the existence of the former expression, and others like it, prepare the ground such that the latter is no less intelligible to those with sufficient fluency in English.

    I wonder if anyone ever stumbled over KJV/RSV/ESV “the word of God continued to increase,” unless they were less than literate in English.

    For the rest, it is certainly true that “the word of God” is a figure of speech for “the effect of the preaching of the word of God.” But is that a strike against it?

    I will know you are convinced of that when you stop calling your wife “honey” and start calling her “you who creates the effect of honey on me.”

    Just a guess. The reason why almost all translations, including those on the DE end of the spectrum, translate “the word of God” in this passage is to preserve concordance across Luke-Acts and the entire Bible.

  2. hook says:

    John: “I wonder if anyone ever stumbled over KJV/RSV/ESV “the word of God continued to increase,” unless they were less than literate in English.”:

    Count on it.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    John Hobbins wrote:

    The reason why almost all translations, including those on the DE end of the spectrum, translate “the word of God” in this passage is to preserve concordance across Luke-Acts and the entire Bible.

    But it is a false concordance, since, as Rich blogged, “the word of God” does not always refer to the same thing in the Bible. It has been my experience that people, including those who support the fine organization I work for that translates Bibles around the world, understand “the word of God” only to refer to the Bible. And they are all fluent speakers of English.

  4. John Hobbins says:

    Hook and Wayne,

    Then the readers you are thinking of need to learn to pay more attention to context. You can’t solve the problem of inattentive readers by means of DE translation. It’s a lost cause.

    Let’s face it. If people understand “the word of God” to refer to the Bible in this Acts passage, it’s because they’ve forgotten what they read in Luke 5:1 and 8:21, and are going to have trouble (pace Rich) when they come to Acts 8:14; 13:5, 17:13, and 18:11. These same readers probably fail to read the Bible on its own terms in general.

    Furthermore, the fact that people are constantly misunderstanding is not a sufficient reason to dispense with figures of speech in translation because they are misunderstood more often. This is a non sequitur.

    I think you guys are missing the obvious. All the texts in the New Testament are now embedded in a larger textual whole. Therefore individual passages resonate with others in ways their authors never imagined. But the resonances are real. They need to be preserved as far as possible in translation.

    Even without this dimension, biblical literature is very traditional literature, with metalepsis all over the place.

    Perhaps a modern analogy may illuminate. “Homer Simpson” is a marvelously traditional text. Think of all the layers and allusions. Sure my 5 year old gets it. So does my 18 year old.
    But not like me! I am more acquainted with the background Matt G. is constantly alluding to. Of course I miss a lot just the same.

    The Bible is like that. Especially in the original languages. Please do not simplify the allusions away.

  5. Suzanne says:

    John,

    Overall I have often shared your view of translation. However, you say,

    Please do not simplify the allusions away.

    In this context, I would like to point out that on your most recent post you have translated beacoup de liens as “a host of links,” and pario as “give birth.”

    I would err on the side of simplicity myself. I have always supported the goals of this blog, to create readable and understandable Bible translations.

  6. EricW says:

    Take just about any theologically loaded term, like ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’. We read such terms with the weight of two millenia of theology on them, and hear things in the passages containing them that aren’t there in the original.

    So we hear ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ as synonymous with the Bible. Sometimes that isn’t much of a problem:

    ἐκάθισεν δὲ ἐνιαυτὸν καὶ μῆνας ἓξ διδάσκων ἐν αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ

    And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18:11, NIV)

    But sometimes that reading doesn’t make sense at all:

    καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐπληθύνετο ὁ ἀριθμὸς τῶν μαθητῶν ἐν Ἰερουσαλὴμ σφόδρα πολύς τε ὄχλος τῶν ἱερέων ὑπήκουον τῇ πίστει

    And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7, ESV)

    Huh? How can the Bible increase?

    Clearly in this case ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’ means something else — metonymically it refers to the effect of the preaching of the word of God. But then [the] English phrase the word of God can’t mean that.

    Can an argument be made that if it’s incorrect to take ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ in Acts 6:7 “as synonymous with the Bible,” then it maybe shouldn’t be taken “as synonymous with the Bible” in Acts 18:11, either? I.e., shouldn’t we try to find an all-encompassing term for the phrase for its use in Acts – perhaps something like the message of God’s act in Christ and/or the effects of that message? (I haven’t looked up all the uses of the phrase in Acts to see if it’s possible to find an encompassing translation.)

  7. Glenn says:

    Full context and common sense help greatly in this matter. Taking a phrase in semi isolation will only exacerbate what otherwise only takes a moment of careful thought.

    Not a bad thing when reading the Bible – being made to stop and think.

  8. John Hobbins says:

    Eric and Suzanne,

    I don’t think that there is a DE all-encompassing term that works well across Luke-Acts for “the word of God” not to mention the related term “the word of the Lord.” If you think there is, propose it and demonstrate its suitability.

    Note that translations like TNIV are careful NOT to go down the road you are suggesting, in this case and many others. I would defend TNIV’s choices over against your approach, but I am willing to be persuaded. Show your approach in action.

    Glen,

    We are on the same page.

  9. EricW says:

    Eric and Suzanne,

    I don’t think that there is a DE all-encompassing term that works well across Luke-Acts for “the word of God” not to mention the related term “the word of the Lord.” If you think there is, propose it and demonstrate its suitability.

    I wonder if the problem is not so much one of trying to find a DE term for “the word of God”/ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ as it is one of trying to disabuse people of the habit/notion of automatically equating the phrase “the word of God” with “the Bible”?

    Unless a new Christian or new reader of the Scriptures had been told or taught or conditioned to think or say that “the word of God” means “the Bible,” I’m not sure they would have a problem figuring out what “the word of God” meant in these Luke-Acts passages.

    A Logos search of NA-27 for the phrase turned up this in Luke-Acts:

    Luke 5:1 (NASB95)
    1 Now it happened that while the crowd was pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret;

    Luke 8:11 (NASB95)
    11 “Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God.

    Luke 8:21 (NASB95)
    21 But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.”

    Luke 11:28 (NASB95)
    28 But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

    Acts 4:31 (NASB95)
    31 And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.

    Acts 6:2 (NASB95)
    2 So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.

    Acts 6:7 (NASB95)
    7 The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

    Acts 8:14 (NASB95)
    14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John,

    Acts 11:1 (NASB95)
    1 Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.

    Acts 12:24 (NASB95)
    24 But the word of the Lord [Note: NA-27 has “the word of God”] continued to grow and to be multiplied.

    12:24 του θεου cum אADEHLP al omnvid syrutr sah cop arm Chr9,235 … B vg (aeth ut solet) του κυριου
    ηυξανεν (P ηξανεν): D* ευξανε, A ηυξανετο
    Novum Testamentum graece. 1869-94 (C. v. Tischendorf, C. R. Gregory & E. Abbot, Ed.) (2:104). Lipsiae: Giesecke & Devrient.

    Acts 13:5 (NASB95)
    5 When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper.

    Acts 13:7 (NASB95)
    7 who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God.

    Acts 13:46 (NASB95)
    46 Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.

    Acts 17:13 (NASB95)
    13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds.

    Acts 18:11 (NASB95)
    11 And he settled there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

    New American Standard Bible : 1995 update. 1995. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

  10. John Hobbins says:

    Eric,

    You say:

    “I wonder if the problem is not so much one of trying to find a DE term for “the word of God”/ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ as it is one of trying to disabuse people of the habit/notion of automatically equating the phrase “the word of God” with “the Bible”?

    Unless a new Christian or new reader of the Scriptures had been told or taught or conditioned to think or say that “the word of God” means “the Bible,” I’m not sure they would have a problem figuring out what “the word of God” meant in these Luke-Acts passages.”

    I agree 100 per cent.

  11. Martin Shields says:

    Hello Rich. I think your point (4) is misguided. The “foreignness” of Scripture is the very reason we need to translate it in the first place, and it is an issue unrelated to the debate over FE/DE methodologies. If it shouldn’t be foreign to us, that is a translation issue.

    The problem with most English translations is that they content themselves with achieving something that makes sense in English without necessarily accomplishing a more comprehensive rendering which better reflects the cultural, social, and linguistic context of the original. Consequently, the end product is something readily domesticated by the modern reader (so it looks as though it makes sense without being foreign when, in fact, it obscures a legitimate foreignness in the text which ideally needs a more sophisticated translation to address). Now of course this does not apply uniformly to all passages in the Bible—some are more susceptible to this than others.

  12. Rich Rhodes says:

    John Hobbins wrote:

    Then the readers you are thinking of need to learn to pay more attention to context. You can’t solve the problem of inattentive readers by means of DE translation. It’s a lost cause.

    John, I think this is where you and I part company. What you call “inattentive”, I say is an excessive cognitive burden. If the English phrase “the word of God” is an epithet for the Bible, (which Wayne and I are claiming it is), then asking readers to undo that association is placing a burden on them that the original readers/hearers of Luke and Acts did not have. If the translator’s job is to produce a text that most nearly mimics the same reference AND effect on its audience as the original had, then you have to spell out the differences.

    The core claim is that since languages do not categorize identically, concordant translation is doomed from the outset. (You speak Italian, You must know this.)

    From my point of view, the value of purported textual connections is completely overwhelmed by the misinterpretations fostered by awkward and misleading usages — which reminds me, I need to finish my much postponed posting on open eyes and how allusions work.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Would someone please define or explain what “foreignizing” in translation is? What are its linguistic characteristics?

    I know that an adequate Bible translation should sound foreign because it is dealing with cultural artifacts and customs which are “foreign” to us, or at least those of us who do not live in similar cultures to those of Bible times. Is this all that those who advocate foreignizing Bible translations are saying? Or are they saying that English wordings themselves in Bible translations should not sound as if they are a natural part of the English language? If it is the latter, what are the guidelines to be used by English Bible translators that determine when a wording should be natural English and when it should not?

  14. Martin Shields says:

    Hi Wayne. At least on my understanding, foreignising has nothing to do with using unnatural syntax or grammar in translation, but using unnatural ideas and concepts where those ideas and concepts do not readily travel from the ancient context to the modern. For example, in Gen 1:6 the Hebrew רקיע is frequently translated in modern English versions by “expanse” (e.g. NET). But that is a term which allows the reader to domesticate the text by accommodating it to their modern cosmology. In effect, foreignising means ensuring the translation cannot so easily be domesticated but forces the reader to take a journey into the author’s world.

    So when you say that “Bible translation should sound foreign because it is dealing with cultural artifacts and customs which are ‘foreign’ to us,” then I agree that this is the aim of a foreignising translation (I’m not sure that it needs to be the aim of a good DE translation). If, however, you claim that this is a feature of any major modern English translation (without making reference to unnatural syntax or archaic English terminology), then I would need to be convinced that such exists.

    I hope to post the first part of my preliminary translation of Gen 1 on my blog soon together with notes to highlight some of the elements of the text which are too easily domesticated.

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, Martin. I look forward to reading your translation. I’ll need more examples to better understand what foreignizing is. I’m one of those characters (!) who understands best by examples.

  16. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for this interesting discussion which I have just come across.

    I understand Rich and Wayne’s point that many people automatically understand “the word of God” as a reference to the Bible. This is an interesting claim. It is in fact an understanding I don’t think I have ever shared, at least not in a general sense.

    It is also clearly an exegetically false understanding of the phrase as used in the Bible, because at the time it was written the Bible did not exist! Of course the Hebrew Bible and a Greek translation of it did exist, but it is highly unlikely that this is what Paul was teaching to Gentiles in for example Acts 18:11. The phrase as used in Luke-Acts surely means something like “the gospel message”, which is of course the message which was later written down in the New Testament.

    But this misunderstanding of the phrase is one held by speakers of church language, or what we sometimes refer to as “Biblish”. It is only Biblish speakers, the people we usually think of as the target audience for formal equivalence translations, who will misunderstand this formal equivalence rendering. Those who don’t understand Biblish, the ones we usually think of as being unable to comprehend FE translations and so needing DE ones, will not in fact misunderstand this phrase – or at least not in this particular way.

    I’m not sure what meaning such people will get from the phrase. But as it clearly doesn’t refer to an individual word, and most people are used to an extended sense of “word” meaning “message”, it will very likely be understood as “the message of God”, i.e. either the message about God or the message sent by God. That is probably quite an accurate understanding.

    I would suggest avoiding the misunderstanding and confirming the correct understanding by rendering the phrase “the message of God”.

  17. Peter Kirk says:

    John started his first comment with

    translation that preserves cultural distance is worth another look.

    I found this highly ironic considering that Rich ended his post with

    None of Scripture was foreign in any way to its original audience. It shouldn’t be to us.

    There was no cultural distance in the original text and so there is none to preserve in translation. A translation which is culturally distant from its readers has introduced something into the text which was not in the original.

  18. Rich Rhodes says:

    Peter,
    That’s my point exactly. Everyone wrings their hands about what is lost in translation and ignores what gets added. But the injunction at the end of Revelation 22:18-19 (which we generally interpret as applying to the whole Bible) proscribes both additions and subtractions.

    Also, I’m left scratching my head about the cultural distance thing in the first place. As someone who has spent his life working on texts that one of my former colleagues liked to characterize as “remote”, I’m mystified. The Biblical text is child’s play for those of us with a European or Euro-American background. Next to the serious remoteness of Native American texts, the Bible is trivially close.

    Dealing with temporal remoteness is a potential issue, but I maintain that it is a mistake to think that the right way to signal temporal remoteness is through unusual (and often misleading) usage. It’s probably a mistake to think that one should signal temporal remoteness at all.

    The best treatment of remoteness that I know of is C. S. Lewis’ least famous work The Discarded Image, his treatise on how to read (or better how not to misread) medieval Italian texts. Interestingly, his discussion is about meanings and not about wordings. Different wordings won’t resolve the issues he talks about.

  19. exegete77 says:

    Peter wrote: “Those who don’t understand Biblish, the ones we usually think of as being unable to comprehend FE translations and so needing DE ones, will not in fact misunderstand this phrase – or at least not in this particular way.”

    You seemed to have painted with too broad a brush, Peter. If it were indeed as you indicate, why does NLT2e (considered a primary example of DE) use “the word of God” in most of the passages that Eric listed: Acts 4:31, 6:2, 11:1, 12:24, 13:5, 13:7, 13:46, 17:13, 18:11? Yet, HCSB (considered by many to be FE, and therefore supposedly promoting “Biblish”) uses “God’s message” in Acts 4:31, 11:1, 12:24, 13:5, 13:7, 13:46, 17:13, and “preaching about God” in 6:2. Check out TNIV and the problem is there, also.

    You allude to an exegetical problem, an example of “semantic anachronism” fallacy as D. A. Carson points out in Exegetical Fallacies p. 33 (1996, 2nd ed.). But then the question is whether the faulty understanding is due to the translation or to the use of a wrong exegetical method.

    Rich S

  20. EricW says:

    Everyone wrings their hands about what is lost in translation and ignores what gets added. But the injunction at the end of Revelation 22:18-19 (which we generally interpret as applying to the whole Bible) proscribes both additions and subtractions.

    Why would you do that? Revelation 22:18-19 applies to the words of the prophecy of the “book” of Revelation, not to the entirety of what would become the canon (though I’m not suggesting that translators should add to the Biblical text in Revelation or anywhere else).

    Also, since translation by its very nature requires that words be added to or subtracted from the original language text, literally applying this prohibition to the process of translating the Bible puts translators in an impossible situation they can only be saved from by transliterating the original text into the receptor language’s phonemes.

  21. J. K. Gayle says:

    Rich writes:
    Clearly in this case ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’ means something else — metonymically it refers to the effect of the preaching of the word of God.

    And
    None of Scripture was foreign in any way to its original audience. It shouldn’t be to us.

    Isn’t it presumptuous for a translator to assume that a metonymic meaning eliminates (even in the very same context) all other meanings of the phrase? I’m thinking also of the LXX Genesis contrastive/ comparative uses of phrases such as ῥῆμα κυρίου, φωνὴ κυρίου, and φωνῆς Σαρας – where agency of the speaker and agency of the listener count and account for so much!

    And I’ve just posted to show that much of Scripture was foreign to, or at least foreignized by, its original translators.

  22. John Hobbins says:

    Like Wayne, I think about theoretical issues through examples. The example under discussion is helpful.

    Rich R. says:

    “If the English phrase “the word of God” is an epithet for the Bible, (which Wayne and I are claiming it is), then asking readers to undo that association is placing a burden on them that the original readers/hearers of Luke and Acts did not have. If the translator’s job is to produce a text that most nearly mimics the same reference AND effect on its audience as the original had, then you have to spell out the differences.”

    In the case at hand, I am dead set against the strategy Rich and Wayne suggest. Since “the word of God” is never used as an epithet for the Bible in the Bible, if R & W’s translation technique were put into effect, the use of the phrase would be effectively off limits in Bible translation.

    Since not a single English Bible translation has taken this route, it is obvious that for Bible translators generally, other considerations outweigh the one R & W allow to trump all others. Is it really that hard to figure out what those other considerations are?

    In fact, the whole premise is faulty. It is not the case that the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker of the agora in Corinth would have found Paul’s letters to Christians of that city something they could down like a smooth glass of water. The amount of background knowledge required to make sense of what Paul writes was enormous: knowledge of Jewish scripture, knowledge of the spats Paul addresses, of “the supper of the Kurios,” of the collection for the saints, and so on.

    All we can do is listen in on one side of the conversation. And now you tell me, Rich, that “the translator’s job is to produce a text that most nearly mimics the same reference AND effect on its audience as the original had”?

    This is a completely unreasonable goal. Earlier generations of translators were far more humble, less ambitious.

    There is simply no getting around the fact that the Bible is full of strange and wonderful things of which the average contemporary reader, or man on the Corinthian street then, would have only the foggiest idea.

    The very few things the average evangelical reader thinks she has a clear understanding of when she opens the Bible’s pages, such as, what it means to be born again and how we will escape tribulation through the rapture, will, if she reads carefully, turn out to be in need of adjustment.

    That being the case, the only way to make the Bible as easy for us to understand as it was for the first readers is to tear apart its inner coherence, make individual passages understandable on their own with as little background knowledge and context presupposed as possible, and then not even notice that the phrase in question is translated every which way, for example, as “the word of God” in Luke and “God’s message” in Acts.

    To his credit, Peter seems to recognize that the incoherent translation style just mentioned, though found in many contemporary translations, is not acceptable. Therefore, he suggests translating “the message of God” everywhere.

    But Peter’s solution is unworkable. It requires a tin ear to think otherwise. It simply is no accident that his solution has not been applied before, even though some translations use his suggestion in isolated instances.

  23. Peter Kirk says:

    Rich S, the NLT and HCSB renderings you quote in fact confirm my point. NLT’s target readers know English but not Biblish, and so there is no danger of them misunderstanding the literal rendering “the word of God”, as referring to the Bible. HCSB’s core audience is the Biblish-steeped Southern Baptist community for whom “the word of God” simply means “the Bible”, and the HCSB translators were astute enough to realise this and use a different rendering to avoid the misunderstanding. As for the TNIV translators, their target audience is somewhere in between, so perhaps they didn’t consider the adjustment HCSB made to be required, although my own opinion is that it would have been an improvement.

  24. Peter Kirk says:

    not a single English Bible translation has taken this route

    John, you obviously didn’t read the previous comment, reporting that HCSB has done just this in Acts. OK, it does use “the word of God” in a few places in the Bible, but in only one of the Acts references (18:11) which I would suggest is an oversight. I do not applaud HCSB’s inconsistency here.

    And CEV has taken this route even more thoroughly, using “word of God” only in Revelation 19:13 where it is clearly a title of Jesus. CEV’s rendering “God’s message” is almost consistent in Luke-Acts (except for Luke 3:2 “God spoke), I haven’t checked elsewhere.

    The New International Reader’s Version also avoid the phrase in Acts.

    That is just from the limited selection of English versions at Bible Gateway.

    So we have three separate translation teams who have recognised that “the word of God” is not an appropriate rendering of the phrase in Acts and have provided an alternative rendering. At least one of them provides a consistent and well thought out alternative rendering “God’s message” which is in fact just as literal as “the word of God”.

    I am not suggesting mechanical consistency. But I can see no logical reason for your objection to this rendering, John, except that it is different from what you are used to. But since what you are used to is actually misleading to readers, I will quote to you one of the passages where CEV is not consistent: “And you ignore God’s commands in order to follow your own teaching” (Mark 7:14 CEV).

  25. EricW says:

    Here is how The Voice New Testament translates the verses:

    Luke 5:1 “to hear His message from God”

    Luke 8:11 “The voice of God falls on human hearts like seeds scattered across a field.”

    Luke 8:21 “who truly understand God’s message and obey it”

    Luke 11:28 “No, how blessed are those who hear God’s voice and make God’s message their way of life.”

    Acts 4:31 “and they began speaking God’s message with courageous confidence”

    Acts 6:2 “We need to focus on proclaiming God’s message”

    Acts 6:7 “The message of God continued to spread”

    Acts 8:14 “Meanwhile word had reached the Lord’s emissaries in Jerusalem that the message of God was welcomed in Samaria”

    Acts 11:1 “news about outsiders accepting God’s message had already spread to the Lord’s emissaries and believers there”

    Acts 12:24 “Through all this upheaval, God’s message spread to new frontiers”

    Acts 13:5 “they proclaimed the message of God in Jewish synagogues, assisted by John Mark”

    Acts 13:7 “There the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, summoned Barnabus and Saul because he wanted to hear their message.”

    Acts 13:46 “It was only right that we should bring God’s message to you Jewish people first.”

    Acts 17:13 “that Paul and Silas were now spreading God’s message in Berea”

    Acts 18:11 “teaching the message of God among them for a year and six months”

  26. Glenn says:

    I have been around so called ‘Biblish’ most of my 51 years and I am British born and bred, but I find this whole thing rather strange.
    In context I have never considered the phrase ‘Word of God’ to mean the Bible and I know of no one who takes it that way either.

    I do stress ‘in context’ because in conversation with someone I might refer to the Bible (usually in hand) as ‘The whole Word of God’, but when reading it in the Bible I have always taken it as referring to the whole council of the Gospel and the teaching of God

  27. exegete77 says:

    So, Peter, if an FE translation uses “God’s message” it is trying to compensate for Biblish, but if a DE translation use “God’s message” it is because it doesn’t have to compensate for Biblish? It seems that you have stacked the deck, so to speak. No matter how an FE translation renders a specific text it will fail because of its “inherent Biblish,” i.e. it is a bad translation of the specific Greek text, but if a DE translation offers the same rendering it will succeed because it doesn’t have “inherent Biblish,” i.e. it is a good translation of the Greek text?

    Sorry, but either this discussion on Biblish is turning to gibberish, or my old mind is not grasping your argument. Thanks for being patient with me.

    …old, slow, and confused,
    but at least I’m inconsistent

    Rich S

  28. John Hobbins says:

    Peter and Eric,

    Thank you for drawing attention to translations that consistently do away with the expression “word of God.” CEV is consistent about this, so far as I can tell, and does away with the very frequent “word of the Lord” as well, in both Testaments. The advantage: readers do not have to exercise their brains in order to move from expressions they are familiar with:

    word of mouth increased
    that’s the word from so-and-so

    to expressions they may be unfamiliar with:

    the word of God increased.

    The disadvantages:

    (1) since CEV uses a dozen different circumlocutions in order to avoid “word of God” / “word of the Lord” wherever it occurs, the coherence of the prophetic literature with itself (where the terminology has its roots) and with the rest of the Bible is obscured.

    This is problematic. DE translations, when they do their work well, RESTORE concordance rather than destroy it. For example, CEV Isaiah 51:7 bothers me for a half dozen reasons, but at least it uses the expression “good news,” and employs it again in, for example, in Mark 1:1: “I’ve got good news to share with you about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – okay, I’m having fun, CEV at Mark 1:1 is not that DE, but CEV does use “good news” and not “gospel.”

    [It’s funny that I am the one to take on CEV, because there is nothing I love more, really, than to take a biblical text and “Cotton Patch” it. I guess I just think CEV is often flat and uninteresting in how it does so, and in any case is best seen as an aid to understanding the overall sense of the original and / or a more literal translation; so far as I can see, that is mostly how it is used by Bible translators in the field whose Hebrew / Greek and / or English are weak.]

    I like this example because a huge case can be made for translating “good news” in both Isaiah and Mark. Not just CEV, but NRSV and NLT do likewise. “Gospel,” of course, is pure Biblish.

    But I understand why ESV, NIV, REB, NAB, and NJB among others retain “gospel.” If you remove the word “gospel” from the Bible, we are left with black gospel music but no gospel in the Bible to which it refers. Which is very weird. In the same say:

    (2) why we call the Bible the word of God becomes a total mystery. After all, if no one called specific messages people knew God to be telling them a “word of God,” why do we call the collection of literature that contains those messages, “the word of God.” It doesn’t make sense.

    DE translations have a place. I wish to argue however that we absolutely need both DE and FE translations. Translations that have “word of God / the Lord” in them, and others that don’t. Translations that use the word “gospel,” and others that don’t. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

  29. Rich Rhodes says:

    Rich S,
    To help unconfuse you about what makes “the word of God” Biblish, we need to recognize a small but important point about the English genitive.

    In normal English, there is a strong tendency for animates, esp. humans (and by extension dieties), to use genitive forms rather than of phrases.

    normal: my neighbor’s house
    odd: the house of my neighbor

    The tendency is even stronger when a name is used.

    normal: Bill’s house
    bad in most contexts: the house of Bill

    But in Biblish this rule does not apply.

    To be non-Biblish, we’d have to at least say God’s word, which, BTW, many people do. The Biblish expression borrowed into English the word of God means the Bible, and not just to believers. (Note the following quote from the Wikipedia article on the Bible.

    Many others, who identify themselves as Bible-believing Christians, regard both the New and Old Testament as the undiluted Word of God, spoken by God and written down in its perfect form by humans.“)

    I think that there is a reason why many churched folks don’t have any trouble with Biblish expressions like this. We’ve been around Biblish so long that we’re diglossic — that is, we shift back and forth between English and Biblish all but unconsciously according to context. (BTW, diglossia is a well-known linguistic phenomenon in which two closely related varieties or dialects of the same language are used by a single community in different contexts. (See the wiki article, which has about as good a summary as is available online.)

  30. Peter Kirk says:

    Huh, Rich S? “God’s message” is an FE rendering which works well in both FE and DE translations. “The word of God” is another FE rendering, used in many FE and DE translations, which doesn’t work so well because it confuses some audiences. No stacking the deck there. FE translation is not the same as Biblish. Some FE translations are not very Biblish at all because they use commonly used words, whereas some DE translations like The Message are actually quite Biblish in terms of using terminology understood only by people with a long standing church background.

    An interesting point strikes me here. I would affirm, as I think would any evangelical Christian, the statement “The Bible is God’s word”. But that sentence is, at least for me, a meaningful assertion, not an identity or a definition. It asserts something like that the whole Bible is inspired by God and his message to humankind. A similar statement is “The Word was God” in John 1:1, which is also an assertion and not a definition. Since these are not definitions, it is wrong to understand “the Word” as a synonym for “God”, and similarly “the word of God” as a synonym for “the Bible”.

  31. John Hobbins says:

    Rich R.,

    I’ve compared the fact that Christians and even non-Christians often find no trouble switching back and forth from, say, KJV English and the vernacular, to diglossia myself. It does have analogies to the situation in Arabic.

    Diglossia is not for everyone, but it’s a beautiful gift if you have it. One might even suggest that it is worth seeking this gift out.

    That doesn’t change the fact that, particularly in the USA, there is a need for translations designed for the monolingual. Many Americans actually think their monolingualism is a badge of honor.

  32. exegete77 says:

    Peter wrote: Huh, Rich S? “God’s message” is an FE rendering which works well in both FE and DE translations. “The word of God” is another FE rendering, used in many FE and DE translations, which doesn’t work so well because it confuses some audiences. No stacking the deck there. FE translation is not the same as Biblish. Some FE translations are not very Biblish at all because they use commonly used words, whereas some DE translations like The Message are actually quite Biblish in terms of using terminology understood only by people with a long standing church background.

    Thanks, Peter, for you explanation and for your patience. That clarifies it better for me. I think we are not far off in our understanding of what is needed for translations. But I wanted to be sure because it seemed as if Biblish was becoming a negative shibboleth referring to FE translations, which as you explained is not the case.

    Peter wrote: An interesting point strikes me here. I would affirm, as I think would any evangelical Christian, the statement “The Bible is God’s word”. But that sentence is, at least for me, a meaningful assertion, not an identity or a definition. It asserts something like that the whole Bible is inspired by God and his message to humankind.

    I have never thought of the Biblical phrase “word of God” as referring to the Bible; in my understanding and use, it has always been an historical/doctrinal association from later theological/doctrinal discussions, such as what you write here.

    Rich S

  33. Aaron Armitage says:

    “There was no cultural distance in the original text and so there is none to preserve in translation. A translation which is culturally distant from its readers has introduced something into the text which was not in the original.”

    So all that stuff about uncleanness and animal sacrifice was ADDED to Leviticus by the translator? What was the original about, Brittany Spears?

  34. Peter Kirk says:

    Aaron, you have completely misunderstood me. The original text of Leviticus was not distant from the original audience, because they knew all about sacrifices etc, that was part of their world. If we deliberately make a translation distant from modern readers it is not an accurate reflection of the original. Of course there is bound to be some distance because sacrifices etc are not so much part of our world. But as translators we should be minimising that distance, rather than seeking to preserve and highlight it.

  35. Aaron Armitage says:

    No, I haven’t misunderstood you. I simply used an extreme example showing that the cultural difference cannot be removed without breaking faith with the text. You keep saying there was no cultural distance between the text and the original audience, which is true. What you’re ignoring is the enormous cultural difference between the original audience and us. This is less obvious in the New Testament and therefore there is more danger of adding anachronisms, e.g., making Paul an advocate of equality as understood by modernity.

  36. Peter Kirk says:

    Aaron, I don’t think I am “ignoring … the enormous cultural difference between the original audience and us”. I am just seeking to minimise it so that it does not unnecessarily distract readers, as it is not part of the original message of the Bible. There are aspects of the distance which cannot be cut out without distorting the message. But linguistic distance can to a large extent be cut out, and it is the core task of a translator to do this.

  37. Aaron Armitage says:

    We’re not talking about linguistic distance, we’re talking about cultural distance. Namely, between us and the product of a culture which is not ours. Of course that distance wasn’t “original”, because we didn’t exist yet. But much of what is original to the text is distant from us. Minimizing that distance can only consist of warping the text. You seem to assume that there is an original message which can be communicated apart from the actual details of the text, and that you can and should be trusted to give us the gist without letting us see anything like the text for ourselves, which adds up to a gnostic bibliology. The fact that God chose to use ANE and Greco-Roman writers means nothing.

    The text is often more distant than it looks at first. For example, when Joseph decides the “put her away quietly”, the alternative was to have Mary stoned to death.

  38. Peter Kirk says:

    Aaron, you may be talking about cultural distance, but others are not. They are saying that a certain linguistic distance should be introduced, between the language of the translation and the current colloquial form of the target language, as some kind of sign of the cultural distance. This is what I object to. I believe that this linguistic distance can and should be almost completely eradicated from a translation. That does not imply eradication of the cultural distance, which to my mind is a largely separate issue.

  39. Aaron Armitage says:

    As far as I can tell, “colloquial”, and for that matter “literary”, in the usage of this blog, means deliberately unliterary, flat, pedestrian, and tin-eared. And usually a few decades behind the times, considering the kind of person who does Biblical translations. The post above this one: “wake up and smell the coffee!” in 1 Peter? So no, I don’t think that “the current colloquial form”, as you mean that phrase, is a good thing.

    But to answer your actual point, they are saying that the translation should be worded in such a way as to avoid letting the reader assume the text is saying something anachronistic.

  40. Peter Kirk says:

    Aaron, no one wants translations to be “deliberately … flat, pedestrian, and tin-eared”. We may want them to be “unliterary”, but only in the sense of avoiding literary affectations which are neither accurate nor conducive to greater understanding of the text.

  41. David Ker says:

    A few decades behind the times? Yikes, you’ve made me feel old. But I agree that there is a danger in colloquialism for that reason which is why I think the NIV aged better than the Living Bible for example.

  42. Aaron Armitage says:

    That’s exactly what you want. You wouldn’t characterize it as negatively as I do, of course, but every time a translation includes any phrasing that isn’t utterly pedestrian, you will object that it is not current English, or not English at all, or invent new rules of English syntax to falsely make the most common construction obligatory, even if it isn’t. For example, earlier in this thread someone decided that x of y is wrong and y’s x is correct, at least when referring to animates; I suppose anyone who disagrees knows too much Koine and too little English, which would be very strange in my case if true.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s