audience-oriented translation

In his latest post at The Lamp Rick Mansfield wrestles with the issue of audience-oriented Bible translation. For his Sunday School class teaching Rick recently returned to using a Bible version he had used for many years. He went back to that version his edition of it had wide margins with many important notes he had written in this margins over the years. He learned an important lesson and it was delivered after class through the mouth of his wife:

Kathy sat me down on the couch this morning, and in no uncertain terms told me, “You can’t teach with whatever translation you’ve used the last two Sundays anymore!”

“Why not?” I sheepishly asked. Although I knew better. I had read the word “booty” from that Bible in front of forty people in our Bible study to the snicker of some and to the red face of my wife. Who uses that word anyway–pirates?

She went on to tell me that every time I read anything from my Bible, it was hard to understand and too different from anything anyone else was reading from. She said, “No one could even follow you!”

I reached for the Bible to which she was referring. I opened it up and showed it to her. “But I like this Bible. It has wide margins. I teach better when I use it.”

“Better for you, maybe, but not for anyone else. So you have to decide–are you going to teach in a way that’s easier for you or easier for those listening to you?”

And that concluding question is one that faces each of us who read from the Bible as we teach others.

25 thoughts on “audience-oriented translation

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wasn’t Eugene Nida one of the first to emphasize the important of “ease for the audience” in a Bible translation? Wasn’t he correcting for the problems of translation sloppiness or overliteralness and such? But doesn’t this “audience ease” approach go overboard? Are the teachings of Jesus and Paul easy for the audience? Are the translations of Mark, Matthew, Luke (Peter?), John and the Jews in Alexandria (working with the MT on the LXX) always “audience easy”? Don’t they all, at some necessary points, make the reader and the listener really work? And sometimes even “snicker” and “blush”?

  2. Jim says:

    pandering to the audience ensures that one has abandoned the role of translator and become something else. the role of the translator isn’t to dumb down or accommodate- it is to render honestly the source text.

  3. Gary Zimmerli says:

    J.K., the concepts, the ideas can and should still be hard to understand. But I don’t think the translators should be placing stumbling blocks in front of the reader by using unnecessarily difficult English. If I don’t understand the concept, in other words, it shouldn’t be because I don’t understand the English. Rick found that the English text of the NASB was too difficult for many of his young students to understand.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Folks, you’re misunderstanding Rick’s blog post if you think that audience-oriented translation is pandering to the audience. The relevant point here is what Gary just wrote in his comment: Don’t put up linguistic barriers to the translation being understood to the same degree that the source text was. We keep saying this on this blog, but it is so often misunderstood.

    Kurk, Ken Pike translated to a language in Mexico. He understood well the necessity to use the linguistic forms of that language, not the lingistic forms of Hebrew, Greek, English, or Spanish. Whenever we distort the syntax of a target language in our attempt to be “true” to a source text we create a linguistic barrier to understanding that should not exist. There is enough of a barrier to understanding the Bible whenever it is conceptually complex.

    We’re talking linguistics/language forms here, folks, not concepts. Concepts are sometimes complex and we must never simplify them in translation. But we *must* use the linguistic forms of a target language to express those complex concepts.

    If we distort the language forms of a target language we are not translating. We are doing something halfway between transliteration of words and true translation.

    Let us take our lessons for true translation from Pike, Mildred Larson, and current translation scholars for how to translate. Let’s not dumb down any *concepts* in the process.

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    Let me chime in with my regular refrain.

    The Bible is NOT hard to understand. It is hard to accept. Paul rails against circumcising Gentiles. That wasn’t hard for the original audience to understand. It was hard for them to accept.

    We, however, spiritualize it and fail to notice that the underlying message is that we must not mistake our church culture for Christianity — which we do in spades — and which we find hard to accept.

    Often what passes for hard to understand is over literalness. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again. Nicodemus doesn’t get it because he is thinking literally. But once you recognize that Jesus never said anything of relevance literally unless he was forced to, you realize that we are making Nicodemus’ mistake most of the time. What the Scripture says is straightforward. It’s our approach that problematizes it — to borrow a concept from deconstruction.

    We have too often hidden our unwillingness to accept the plainest truths of Scripture by allowing linguistic distance to create a buffer.

    The words of our translations sound so distant and other that we forget He is seeking the kind of intimate relationship we have normally only have with a spouse. Imagine trying to relate to your spouse in Elizabethan English.

    This is not dumbing down the English.

  6. Theophrastus says:

    The Bible is NOT hard to understand.

    You’ve expressed a particular theological or personal opinion — not accepted consensus.

    The NLT may be easy to understand, but the Hebrew is often difficult to understand — even the ordinary “plain meaning” — and certainly the allegorical, homiletic, and mystical meanings. Were the Bible easy to understand, we wouldn’t need all of those translator footnotes: “meaning uncertain”, “another reading”, etc. Were the Bible easy to understand, we wouldn’t need journals such as Journal of Biblical Literature, Vetus Testamentum, Novum Testamentum, etc.

    It doesn’t take long to find a section of the Bible that is inscrutable: just page through the Prophets or the poetic sections as a start. If you want a challenge, just take a gander at Ezekiel chapter 1 or Job chapter 41.

  7. David Ker says:

    First, I’m just glad Rick is blogging again. I share some of Rick’s affection for the NASB. It was the Bible I read ravenously as a young Christian. It’s interesting that Theophrastus mentions “meaning uncertain.” My easy-to-read CEV is full of footnotes saying, “One possible meaning of the difficult Hebrew text.” Translating plainly is not a vice if we acknowledge the uncertainties.

    I know Jim is being polemical so I’ll ignore “pandering” etc. but I do partly agree and most translators I know operate under the principle of expressing as clearly as possible the original text even where the meaning is obscure. Rick’s revelation was that the archaic translation was adding an additional layer of difficulty to already difficult passages.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    Did the original language word translated “booty” make its readers snicker and blush? If not, it is a bad and wrong translation if the English word is one that makes readers snicker and blush. Yes, there are words in the original where the author deliberately made their audience snicker or blush (often sanitised in translations) to make a spiritually significant point. But I strongly suspect that this is not one of these places. All that is happening is that readers or hearers are being distracted from the real point of the passage by something which has been introduced unthinkingly by over-literal translators.

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    But I strongly suspect that this is not one of these places. All that is happening is that readers or hearers are being distracted from the real point of the passage by something which has been introduced unthinkingly by over-literal translators.

    Didn’t Wayne say, “And that concluding question is one that faces each of us who read from the Bible as we teach others”? And entitle his post, “audience-oriented translation”? It’s the general notion that the audience of the translation must (always, mostly, much) get the orientation that is troubling here. Such a notion flat out ignores that the translators of the Bible who are its authors often complicated (for the new audience) the point of what they were translating. David, I think Jim’s “pandering” is on point if principally pointed.

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk wrote:

    Didn’t Wayne say, “And that concluding question is one that faces each of us who read from the Bible as we teach others”?

    Yes, he did.

    And entitle his post, “audience-oriented translation”?

    Again, yes he did.

    It’s the general notion that the audience of the translation must (always, mostly, much) get the orientation that is troubling here.

    Wayne did not say that nor intend that meaning. Wayne is trying to communicate the same thing that Rick Mansfield is communicating in his blog post, that we should not build artificial barriers to understanding a translation by choosing improper syntax or words. We need to follow the practice of Ken Pike and his students, to test a translation to see if it is understood to have the meaning (and connotations) that we (or the biblical authors; not the point of the blog post) intended. That is all, and no more, that I am trying to say with this blog post. It’s a very basic principle of translation. I must not be communicating it clearly enough since I would imagine that everyone would agree with it. It’s not meant to be complicated or profound, just common sense which we sometimes miss by not checking with our audience to see if what we are translating causes them to shudder, snicker, or whatever, when that is not how they should be responding to that particular part of the translation.

  11. Mike Sangrey says:

    Rich supports his point by referring to Nicodemus. I’d like to ever so partially disagree. However, what I’m going to say is in full support of Rich’s point and the point of this posting. In fact, I’ll underscore it all the more.

    Nicodemus did not take Jesus’ statement literally; he responded in a sarcastic way. Nicodemus was fully committed to the several born again steps–he had experienced most of them and knew them quite well (bar mitzvah, marriage, became member of Sanhedrin were three if I recall correctly). A man of his abilities and training would not have politely responded with a naive question, “Are you trying to tell me a person has to go back into the womb of his mother?” That makes no sense. It would have been much more a response of, “Really? Tell me something I don’t already know!”

    And Jesus did. “I’m quite serious when I tell you….”

    Which brings me to Rich’s point: In the entire text, Nicodemus understood the linguistic sense of what Jesus was saying just fine. The problem lies elsewhere. Nicodemus didn’t want to accept it.

    Jesus defines what he, Jesus, meant by ‘born again’. It was a Spiritual renewal. Nicodemus’ response was not an inability to understand what Spiritual renewal meant. He grasped the meaning. He simply did not accept it.

    Before I clarify what I mean by that, let me ask, “how do I know that?” Jesus said so. He said, “but still you people do not accept our testimony,” (or, the NASB: “you do not receive our witness.”, which obscures the plain sense). If Spiritual renewal was the sum and substance of being born again, then what’s the point of all the other stuff that had been layered on? For Nicodemus to accept that it was all about Spiritual renewal would have been a denial of who he was, it would have been a denial of self.

    Now, to the difference between accepting and understanding; or, between rejecting and not understanding:
    There’s fine but very real line that needs to be drawn between a lack of understanding caused by the text and a lack of understanding caused by the person. There’s a lexis and grammar of the text and there’s a lexis and grammar molded into the mind by which it processes the signals present in the text. If the text is in a substantially different lexis and grammar, then the audience will misunderstand. In this case, the fault lies in the text. However, if the reason for the misunderstanding is because the person refuses to accept certain fundamental truths plainly taught by the text, then the fault lies in the reader.

    Just like a parable, which used common objects, a well translated Bible will use common text to greatly benefit the humble. The proud may understand the text, but, they will reject the meaning and receive the just result.

  12. Sue says:

    Its clear that you guys miss my knitting oriented linguistic expertise. Booties are little hand-knit socks for newborn babies. You knit one booty and then you knit the next. Rick is right on. There is not need to use the word “booty” in Is. 53. It is not even in the KJV for crying out loud.

  13. David Ker says:

    Booties are for shaking.

    Did you catch the comment in Rick’s post where he discovered that “booty” is used quite a lot by some translations you might not expect? link

  14. J. K. Gayle says:

    >Wayne: Thank you! Very clear what you intend in the post, which does bring up these other issues we’re discussing.

    >Sue and David:

    Robert Alter puts regular (English) booty in his translations of the Hebrew (Five Books of Moses, David Story, etc.). Sometimes there’s personal ambiguous tragic meaningS. “Booty” is what men and lads can take, but is often what women and children are. For example:

    “Our women and our little ones will become booty. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Numbers 14:3)

    “And your little ones, of whom you said they would become booty, I shall bring them and they will know the land that you cast aside” (Numbers 14:31)

    In the fn to Genesis 14:20 – “The primary meaning of the word is ‘lads’ . . . Its use here makes a neat contrast with ‘the men,’ who do not belong to Abram’s household and are entitled to a share of the booty.”

    In the fn to Genesis 34:4 – “Jacob’s sons will threaten to ‘take’ Dinah away if the townsmen refuse to be circumcised, and in the report of the massacre, they take first their swords and then the booty.”

    In the fn on Numbers 21:2 – “The Hebrew verb heherem (cognate noun herem) means to devote to utter destruction, with any booty taken to be dedicated to the cult rather than retained for private enjoyment.”

    In Alter’s Literary Guide to the Bible, he explains: “The uncompromising execution of the Israelite Achan and his company for infringing the prohibition against taking booty reinforces the point. The sparing of the Canaanite Rahab compromises the law. It is the beginning of the account of how the Canaanites remained in the Land” (p.108).

  15. Sue says:

    Yes, in some cases “booty” may give the right sense. Few translations use it in Is. 53.

    With Alter one has to also consider the alliterative possibilities of the word as well. Bring booty, become booty, it simply sounds more poetic in those lines. None of this means we expect to hear booty in Is. 53 which has liturgical significance for some. I think the NASB strayed unnecessarily from the KJV in this passage. It grates on the nerves. I am with Kathy on this one.

  16. R. Mansfield says:

    I would also be willing to cut Alter some slack because I don’t know how often his translation is used in public, and I don’t think that’s his primary goal for his translation. I’m sure it is occasionally publicly by those familiar with it, and I think highly of it myself, but I’ve never tried to teach from it. As the preface of the NASB states, it was clearly intended for public use. A generation ago when the church was still entrenched with the KJV, the NASB sounded very modern (at least it did to me in 1980 or ’82 or whenever I started using it). But now, as I proved to myself once and for all, its time has passed.

  17. John Hobbins says:

    I might as well stake out a third position, that of Meir Sternberg, with respect to the understandability of Scripture.

    According to Sternberg (sorry, I don’t have references handy), all or most examples of biblical literature are, in terms of getting their main points across, extraordinarily clear. He asserted that from the point of view of a literary critic, not from the point of view of a theologian.

    The Bible is not language incurvatus in se; it seeks to communicate and persuade. It is not art for art’s sake, ever, and therefore, does not traffic in multivalence in the way art often does (though a great deal of traditional interpretation of the Bible treats it as extraordinarily multivalent: that, indeed, is a confessional statement).

    In that sense, I agree with Rich Rhodes. We can argue all day about details in the interpretation of Exodus 20, Leviticus 19, Psalms 19, 23, 51, and 104, Isaiah 1, 40, etc., and in the New Testament, Matthew 5, John 3, 1 Corinthians 13, etc., but the overall sense is clear, in the KJV no less than the NLT.

    But of course, the language and concepts of many biblical passages are obscure to us. From the start, the registers used and the subject matters covered required a deep background of knowledge in order to be understood. Such is often the case in primarily oral cultures. In that sense, I agree with Theophrastus, and I am none too happy with Bible translations that dumb down content in order to make it immediately assimilable by the average clueless reader of today.

  18. Dru says:

    I’m sure I’m missing the point, but what is the problem with the word ‘booty’? I perhaps should be embarrassed to admit that I know most of the rude words in common use, but I can’t think of one that ‘booty’ sounds like.

    On the more fundamental point, as I understand it, translation is translating what is written in the original language, which the target language speakers neither speak nor understand, into the target language that they do. So it should be into a version of the target language that they can understand. Otherwise it is not an effective translation. But isn’t the degree of priority that we give to the various different flavours involved in doing that what we spend most of our time arguing about on this site?

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    I’m sure I’m missing the point, but what is the problem with the word ‘booty’? I perhaps should be embarrassed to admit that I know most of the rude words in common use, but I can’t think of one that ‘booty’ sounds like.

    Dru, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s a dialect issue and you speak the dialect which doesn’t have the problem with the word “booty.”

    Here’s a link explaining the American slang meaning of “booty”:

    I am a speaker of American English and admit that I did not immediately catch the problem with the word either, when I read Rick Mansfield’s post. I did seem to recall that I had heard “booty” or “booties” used in a slang or vulgar way, but I couldn’t remember what that meaning was. In any case, there are plenty of American English speakers who know American slang better than I do, so Rick has the right desire not to want to publicly read a verse with the word “booty” in it.

    When a word takes on a new meaning known by a significant number of speakers that word needs to be reconsidered for use in a Bible version. I remember how we used to snicker in church whenever Acts 9:5 was read in the KJV (our church still uses the KJV):

    “And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: [it is] hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

    The last word has become vulgar for many English speaker.

    And, of course, there is the difference between your dialect of English and mine when it comes to whether or not it is all right to use the word “cock” in the Bible to refer to a rooster, as in Peter’s denial of Jesus, as in Matt. 26:75.

    Today Bible translators should not use the word “gay” in an English Bible since the first meaning English speakers have for it today does not have to do with being happy.

    It is important for Bible translation committees to be alert to all usages of words. They need to revise their translations periodically. One reason to revise is to remove words which cause the wrong meaning to come to the minds of translation readers. This is audience-oriented translation, sensitivity to how our audiences respond to the words used in our translations.

  20. W Larry Enzor says:

    R. Mansfield wrote:”But now, as I proved to myself once and for all, its (NASB) time has passed.”

    I sincerely hope that’s not the case. If so, I threw away a considerable sum of money last year on a Cambridge wide margin NASB goatskin.

    Seriously, and maybe I’m the wierd one here, but I don’t have any problem reading and understanding the NASB.

  21. R. Mansfield says:

    Larry, when I made that statement, I was referring to the NASB’s use publicly. I will no longer use the NASB in public contexts anymore. I thought I had come to that conclusion in 2005, but it took a couple of Sunday’s recently to remind me why I had made my original decision.

    Having said that, it doesn’t mean that I won’t ever look at the NASB again. I personally don’t have any trouble reading it and understanding it either. And I will continue to do so–it’s one of the translations I look at in the preparation of any lesson, but I’m not going to teach from it ever again. And I also wouldn’t have any problem recommending it, although at this point, I’ll have to think about whether I could still recommend it as a primary translation for personal use.

  22. Tim Chesterton says:

    Many years ago I was reading the Good News Bible aloud to a congregation in Aklavik, Northwest Territories; a number of the people in the congregation had been raised as Inuktitut speakers (although when I lived there the aboriginal languages were almost dead, which was why we were using the Good News Bible and not an Inuktitut translation). I forget the scripture reference in the OT, but when I read the phrase ‘the giants, the sons of Anak’ there was an audible giggle in the congregation. I later discovered that ‘anak’ is the Inuktitut word for (to use the modern English colloquialism) ‘shit’!

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