I’ve noticed several times that the writers at Language Log are using Google searches to judge naturalness of English expressions. These folks at Language Log are linguists with a capital L and so it’s made me think that maybe this practice is more acceptable than I had previously imagined.
The most recent example was a discussion of the phrase “an irreverence for power.” Barbara Partee judged this as being either ungrammatical or quaint but after a quick Google search discovered that the phrase is more common than she thought.
How might we use Google to judge naturalness of English Bible translations?
- My first idea would be that if we searched for a phrase found in our Bible and discovered that the only “hits” come from religious sites than there is a good chance this is religious vocabulary that might not be used or understood by the average English speaker. Second, clicking on the News tab at the top of the search results gives a narrower “journalistic” search for that phrase. (I blogged about this last year in the post Using Google to evaluate Bible translations)
To give you an example, I took a phrase from today’s “Verse of the Day” at Bible Gateway and did some checking on it using Google.
“[Be Holy] Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.”- 1 Peter 1:13 (NIV)
Searching for "prepare your minds for action" brought up a hit page with all the links referring to the passage in 1 Peter. Aha! So this seems to be an example of Biblish. (Total hits: 6,580)
When I hit the News tab on Google, this is the result I got:
Your search – "prepare your minds for action" – did not match any documents.
The first page of the Google search brings up ten results, none of which refers to 1 Peter 1:13. (Total hits: 1,340,000) The News search brings up 65 results.
The evidence is clear. The CEV phrase is far more common than the NIV phrase. But here’s the catch. Both the phrases in English are translating an idiom in Greek that sounds very strange: ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν. This phrase is rendered very directly in the KJV as “gird up the loins of your mind.” How often have you said that to your kids when they’re studying for a test: “Gird up the loins of your mind!” Or how about when you’re just feeling slightly scatterbrained. Do you ever say to yourself, “I really need to gird up the loins of my mind!”
This brings us back to the topic of domesticization and foreignization of Bible translations. What is gained and what is lost by making our translations sound natural? Even saying the word “loins” makes me giggle. What exactly are loins? Well, from a quick study this word seemed to be used in two different ways in the New Testament:
- The waist (Matthew 3:4)
- The male reproductive organs (Hebrews 7:10 and Acts 2:30)
Here the NET Bible seems to succinctly identify the origin of this phrase: “Grk “binding up the loins of your mind,” a figure of speech drawn from the Middle Eastern practice of gathering up long robes around the waist to prepare for work or action.” The NET translates this phrase as “get your minds ready for action.” The results for this phrase on Google are similar to those for the NIV above.
Interestingly the phrase, gird your loins came up during the recent presidential elections. Read this quote of Joe Biden:
"Gird your loins," Biden told the crowd. "We’re gonna win with your help, God willing, we’re gonna win, but this is not gonna be an easy ride. This president, the next president, is gonna be left with the most significant task. It’s like cleaning the Augean stables, man.”
My take on this passage is that the expression “gird the loins of your mind” in 1 Peter 1 is not a part of an extended metaphor so I don’t particularly see a need to retain it in a translation. A similar phrase with the equivalent impact in English might have the rhetorical impact of the original. How about these options:
- Get your head screwed on straight!
- Pull your head out!
- Wake up and smell the coffee!
Do any of those get close to the impact of the original expression for the original readers? #2 sounds slightly vulgar. But if the phrase did have slight sexual connotations based on the second meaning of “loins” it could have been a risqué expression. I vote for #3. What’s your idea?