Translating Doublets

A common expression among American English speakers is “pick and choose”.  Some people may associate a different meaning with “pick” than they do with “choose”, but Webster’s Dictionary indicates that their meaning overlaps for most people.  So I think this is a fairly good example of a synonymous doublet, two or more words within a sentence that convey essentially the same meaning.

The Bible contains hundreds of doublets.  In Doublets in the New Testament, Bruce Moore lists 654 doublets of various types in the New Testament alone.  Here are some examples of synonymous doublets from the Revised Standard Version:

          1 Timothy 3:3   not violent but gentle                                         
                            6:9    ruin and destruction           
                            6:18  do good . . . good deeds
                            6:18   liberal and generous

           2 Timothy 2:23   stupid, senseless
                             3:10   patience . . . steadfastness

Without knowing that many doublets convey the same meaning, readers often assume that different meanings are intended.  To avoid misunderstanding, many English translations express such doublets as a unit.  For example, the Contemporary English Version translates the doublet greater in might and power (RSV) in 2 Peter 2:11 as more powerful.

In a study of 121 verses containing doublets in the Hebrew scriptures (mostly from Psalms and Proverbs), translator/consultant Wayne Leman calculated what percentage of those doublets are conveyed as a unit in several English versions:

            69%   Contemporary English Version         
            37%   Today’s English Version
            20%   New Living Translation                
             11%   New Century Version             
               5%   New English Translation
               3%   God’s Word
               2%   New International Version
               2%   New Revised Standard Version

In The Better Life Bible, I’ve translated every synonymous doublet as a unit.  For example, in my translation of 1 Timothy 6:18, I expressed the doublet “liberal and generous” as “generously.”

21 thoughts on “Translating Doublets

  1. Theophrastus says:

    “pick and choose” is a classic example of using both Latinate and Germanic forms — and you can thank 1066 for that. If they are synonymous to you, it is because you have lost historical sense — they historically have carried distinct class meanings of the conquering Normans vs. the defeated Anglo-Saxons: much like “beef” (Latin) vs “cow” (Germanic). The rulers eat beef; the ruled raise cows for them to eat.

    In English legal terminology, it became necessary to use both forms “last will and testament”. Not only does this add clarity and establish a universal connection across classes, but it is a feature of English common law.

    Turning now to the Bible, it certainly takes a deaf ear not to hear the distinction in English between “not violent” [but] “gentle”, or the rhetorical force of the structure Furthermore, it strips of the Greek of its Semitic patrimony, for the disjunctive proposition is recognized as a Semitic form: see for example Matthew 10:20, Mark 9:37, Luke 10:20, John 7:16, John 12:44, 1 Cor 1:17.

    I wish to further note that your translation is inconsistent, since you are willing to keep the “doublet” (disjunctive proposition) apparently for purely rhetorical effect in John 7:16 (“The advice I’m sharing is God’s, not mine.”)

  2. David Ker says:

    Dan, is there an online source for Wayne’s research?

    When translating 1 Timothy and Titus into Nyungwe we really struggled to get different words for each of the qualities of overseers.

    Some of your examples do not seem to be synonymous doublets to me.

    In modern American English (I don’t know about elsewhere) we have an interesting formula that looks like a doublet but isn’t. For example,

    1. I’m good and tired.
    2. This coffee is nice and hot.

    In 1. “good and” is an adverb meaning “very”
    In 2. “nice and” is an adverb meaning “nicely”

    I suppose that a non-native English speaker would see those phrases and interpret them as two adjectives. The question then for me is how many of the examples of synonymous parallelism that we find in Paul’s letters are formulaic and possibly have a combined meaning that we miss by translating them with a single term?

  3. Theophrastus says:

    Here is an analogy: saying “pick” is synonymous with “choose” is analogous to saying “postprandial distress” is synonymous with “stomach ache”. In a sense, they are synonymous, but their usage has different register. I don’t address a child’s complaints about her tummy hurting by inquiring about her epigastric pains. This certainly must be among the first lessons in rhetoric.

    If we ignore the rhetoric of scripture in favor of “message”, we may as well read a catechism instead.

  4. SimonPotamos says:

    Much has been made by various contributors and commentators on this site about reproducing the impact the original text would have had on its hearers. I won’t comment at this point on the validity of that method. However, in this particular case, taking out doublets where they exist in the original surely goes beyond the requirements of this method.

    (a) How do we know how the original doublets were heard by their original hearers? How do we even know for certain that a synonymous use was intended? Surely the rhetorical effect is at least an equally significant consideration.

    (b) Consider further the pedagogical use of such doublets. Luther used doublets to great effect in the Small Catechism in order to aid memorisation:

    “.. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children

    “… who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins

    “… I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him

    “… We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body but help and support him in every physical need”

    Etc.

    Some of these doublets are synonymous, or near-synonymous, some aren’t. But that’s not the point. The point is that they create a linguistic and rhythmical pattern, which both has a rhetorical effect and functions as a rhetorical aid.

    (c) I’m reminded of the old Naturalistic Fallacy debate raised by G.E. Moore. Argued Moore, “good” cannot be defined in other terms without resorting to tautology. Take Utilitarianism: Utilitarians define “good” as “pleasure”. But that means that in saying “pleasure is good”, we are really only saying “good is good” – i.e. saying nothing at all. Moore’s mistake was to confuse semantic and ontological identity, and where he saw ontological identity, he assumed semantic identity. Ontologically, H2O is identical to water, but semantically they are quite different. Therefore, it is not tautological to say H2O is water, or that pleasure is good. In a similar way, collapsing these doublets (together with many other assistive techniques) may not always change the ultimate meaning of the text, but something of significance will nevertheless have been lost.

  5. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Theophrastus,

    Thanks for the history of “pick and choose”. While that is very interesting, I noted that Webster’s Dictionary indicates that their meaning overlaps for most people, so it appears that most American English speakers have lost the historical sense.

    In “Doublets in the New Testament”, Bruce Moore does not list a doublet in John 7:16, and I agree.

  6. Dan Sindlinger says:

    David,

    > Is there an online source for Wayne’s research?

    Great idea! I won’t have time to search for it until this evening. If you have time to find it in the meantime, please feel free to add the link.

    > When translating 1 Timothy and Titus into Nyungwe we really struggled to get different words for each of the qualities of overseers.

    Yes, if different shades of meaning were intended for synonymous doublets in Greek and Hebrew, it’s very difficult to match those nuances in other languages. Even the words that translators use in English are not perfect matches.

    > Some of your examples do not seem to be synonymous doublets to me.

    All my examples are from Bruce Moore’s book.

    > In modern American English (I don’t know about elsewhere) we have an interesting formula that looks like a doublet but isn’t. For example, 1. I’m good and tired. In 1. “good and” is an adverb meaning “very”

    In “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible”, E.W. Bullinger lists numerous examples of this usage in the section called Hendiadys.

    > The question then for me is how many of the examples of synonymous parallelism that we find in Paul’s letters are formulaic and possibly have a combined meaning that we miss by translating them with a single term?

    Good question. As you know, each one must be carefully considered in view of the context.

  7. Theophrastus says:

    I am not familiar with Bruce R. Moore (although a simple google search seems to indicate that he had some association with SIL). Perhaps you can recite his credentials or give another reason why we should accept his list without question. At the very least, I wonder if he gave a precise linguistic definition of “doublet”.

  8. Dru says:

    As I’d always prefer to keep the stylistic features of the source language if they work, you can guess where my preferences lie here. But a few extra thoughts:-

    a. The fact that two words overlap in meaning does not mean they are synonyms. But adding them together may not just carry emphasis. It may also carry the meaning of the sum of two overlapping circles.

    b. Liberal and generous, for example, don’t mean exactly the same thing, and their Greek equivalents might not either. So adding both circles together may be more accurate as well as effective and normal rhetoric that works in English just as well as Hebrew, Koine and I suspect a lot of other languages. It’s obviously not unusual for languages to use repetition of concept as a stylistic device to give emphasis and/or rhythm. The only point where one might avoid translating doublets as doublets would be where they don’t work or if the target language doesn’t habitually use them. English does, and if Luther’s German also does, I suspect some root ancient language spoken on the shores of the North Sea two thousand years ago did too.

    c. “Without knowing that many doublets convey the same meaning, readers often assume that different meanings are intended.” To quote Victor Meldrew complete with intonation, ‘I don’t believe it’. There was a suggestion a few months ago that there are people who think that Ps 119 v 105 ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’, is referring two separate lights. I recognise what St Paul says about not doing things that might make ones brother(/sibling?) stumble. But I’d really want to discourage over-bland translation just so as not to confuse the abnormally thick.

    d. “Not violent but gentle” is slightly more than a doublet because it includes a contrast. ‘Not a but b’ is different from ‘a1 + a2’.

  9. Theophrastus says:

    I note further that Moore has apparently adopted a non-standard definition of the term “doublet” — see for example, this Wikipedia article.

    Wikipedia is not always trustworthy, so I looked up “doublet” in the OED, and found this definition:

    Philol. One of two words (in the same language) representing the same ultimate word but differentiated in form, as cloak and clock, fashion and faction.

    This is clearly not the sense of “doublet” that Moore is using. While Moore is free to define his own terminology, it would seem incumbent that he should give a precise definition. As noted in comments above by me, David Ker, SimonPotamos, and Dru, it appears that from the examples given, Moore’s identification of “doublets” is arbitrary rather than systematic and logical.

  10. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Simon,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I remember the years when I memorized and recited Luther’s Small Catechism.

  11. David Ker says:

    I think what Dan is talking about is a lexical-level equivalent of the type of phrasal parallelism seen in Hebrew poetry. I know from personal experience that these can be very difficult for mother-tongue translators to deal with. Source and target languages are equally rich but their riches are often in different storehouses. For example, a friend working on the Naro translation in Botswana said that the type of judicial terminology used by Paul was almost non-existent in Naro.

    Many times in a list of adjectives it is possible that we’re seeing an example of fossilized expressions or, alternatively, intensification.

    Pity the poor translator. In the comments he has been asked to be an expert in Biblical languages, ancient culture, linguistics, poetry and rhetoric. And if he’s somewhere in the Amazon he probably has to know how to fix a diesel generator as well!

  12. Theophrastus says:

    Pity the poor translator. In the comments he has been asked to be an expert in Biblical languages, ancient culture, linguistics, poetry and rhetoric.

    Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but the KJV translators were, in fact, the experts of their day in all of the points. And they knew about religion too.

    In our day, we are now surprised when a committee of ecclesiastics or academics manages to write memorable prose.


    ירידת הדורות

  13. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Theophrastus,

    The booklet that Bruce R. Moore wrote on doublets was published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics’ International Translation Department. I don’t know what degrees or field experience he had before he wrote the booklet, but I do know that the academic SIL staff carefully reviews anything they publish. However, I wouldn’t suggest that you accept his or any other list without question.

    This is Moore’s definition: In this book, doublet refers to sets of two or more words or contructions (the “terms” of the doublet) which occur together and which are so redundant in context that, for translation purposes, they may be rendered as a single term plus possible modifying concepts such as intensity.

    Here’s a link to Wayne Leman’s study of doublets in the Hebrew scriptures: http://bible-translation.110mb.com/doubletsot.htm

  14. Dan Sindlinger says:

    David,

    Thanks for the link to your comments about the KJV. It reminded me (if my memory serves me correctly) that the KJV did not realize widespread acceptance for nearly 100 years, even though “the translators were experts in their day”.

  15. Theophrastus says:

    David —

    Your history of the KJV has an error in it. While you are correct that ecclesiastical politics was the primary motivation for the Bishops’ Bible; the primary motivation for the KJV was the anti-monarchistic notes in the Geneva — posing a very real problem for the Jacobian regime. If you need references, let me know.

  16. Theophastrus says:

    David,

    Additionally, I hardly need point out that during the 1648 imprisonment and ultimate state execution of Charles I and the disbanding of the monarchy, James I’s fears come all too true. It is significant that the KJV did not find general public favor until after the restoration of the monarchy, and that the Geneva was the preferred Bible among the oligarchy of the Cromwell Protectorate.

    Apropos your later post on the Patriot’s Bible, this incident alone should be caution.

  17. Theophrastus says:

    In response to some e-mail I have received:

    All of the comments I have made to this post have been satiric (I’ll leave it to the pair-o’-docs crowd to figure out if this remark applies to this post). Just as Shakespeare managed to write entire plays and poems without smiley faces, I similarly try to leave them out of my own comments.

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