Bible translation and natural language

In Bible translation courses we are taught to word a translation using the natural patterns of the language into which we are translating. One of the principles of this approach to translation is that a translation should not sound like a translation. It should sound like it was originally written in the translation language. Of course, there will be cultural concepts in the translation which will often be different from our own, so those will give the translation a “foreign” or “distant” sound which some have written about as being an important feature of any Bible translation. Jesus was placed in an animal feed trough after he was born, not an incubator! The Levitical laws instructed husbands how to treat multiple wives. But that would not translate for us into teaching for taking care of a mistress! But the wordings in a translation that refer to these foreign concepts can all be natural language, the normal, standard, widely accepted and approved syntax and lexical combinations of a language.

And, yet, there are many who prefer the Bible which they use to sound foreign linguistically. It is special for them that some words or syntax which are used are uncommon, or even archaic, so that they will get a sense that the Bible is speaking of majestic, dignified things. And it is very important for the worship of these people that each part of their worship experience feels worshipful, dignified. This is a good thing, to have familiar props within our environment which aid our worship.

So, how about you? How important is it to you that the Bible version(s) you use is/are expressed in current (but not slangy), natural language? For you, does a natural language Bible take away from your worship experience?

17 thoughts on “Bible translation and natural language

  1. Doug Chaplin says:

    What happens, though, when the source language is unnaturally stilted by the grammatical forms of another one? I’m thinking of the presence of various semitisms in the Greek NT. It’s not a natural pattern in the source language; should it be rendered as a natural pattern in the target language?

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Doug asked:

    What happens, though, when the source language is unnaturally stilted by the grammatical forms of another one? I’m thinking of the presence of various semitisms in the Greek NT. It’s not a natural pattern in the source language; should it be rendered as a natural pattern in the target language?

    It’s a good and appropriate question, Doug. The answer, I suggest, lies within a *range* of translation possibilities for dealing with unnaturalness in a source text. Professional translators deal with such issues often. For instance, if the person they are interpreting (translating) for makes a grammatical error, should the interpreter translate what they know to be what the speaker would have wanted to say or what they actually said? It really is not an easy question to answer. We all make slips of the tongue sometimes. If I misspoke, while giving a speech at the U.N., would I want the interpreter to fix my error? And what if it is an error that is not possible to replicate in the target language. For instance, what if I say “aks” instead of “ask” (many people do)? How does an interpreter replicate that error in a language that has no “k” sound? Does the interpreter insert a little parenthesis that says, “Sorry, but the speaker made a mistake, but I don’t know how to say it in your language”. Well, that, of course, would throw off the focus of the speech very badly. And it would embarrass the speaker if they ever say a transcript and back translation of what the interpreter said.

    Now, I realize that this example I just gave is not exactly the same kind of issue you are talking about. That is why I used the word “range”. The issue you raise is one of a range of issues all the way from dialectal issues, to slips of the tongue, to memory glitches such as ones I am increasingly produce–such as substituting the word “translation” for “translate” which I often do here on this blog and elsewhere; or use of an idiom such as “That’s the bottom line” where literal translation of that idiom would make no sense in the target language.

    OK, back to the specifics of your question. One solution which lies within the range of acceptable solutions would be to try to translate a Greek Semiticism into English which is still understandable but yet has a bit of an awkward sound to it. When I wrote in my post about “natural language,” I hope I did not give the impression that there is only one way to say things in a language which can be natural. This would, of course, be far from reality. There are a variety of ways, all natural, to one degree or another, to express the same essential meaning in a language using different syntax and/or words. The fact that we have different dialects of English, some different enough to justify having, for instance, different editions for British and American English. The wording in each can be natural for each dialect (actually grouping of dialects for each).

    Well, again, you raised a good question, Doug. Now, other than the awkwardness of the Semiticisms in the Greek of the N.T., how would you answer the questions at the end of my post?

  3. Doug Chaplin says:

    Thanks for that lengthy and helpful response.

    I prefer natural language where it’s appropriate. However, how natural is some poetry when judged by the rules of conversational prose? So how natural should the translation of the psalms be? How natural, as a written text, is a fairly verbatim transcription of an anecdotal story? So how natural should the written translation of Mark’s Gospel be? And so on.

    It’s why I think the question as you posed it is almost a false antithesis.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    I prefer natural language where it’s appropriate. However, how natural is some poetry when judged by the rules of conversational prose? So how natural should the translation of the psalms be? How natural, as a written text, is a fairly verbatim transcription of an anecdotal story? So how natural should the written translation of Mark’s Gospel be? And so on.

    More good questions, Doug. Each genre has to translated to equivalent forms in a target language. Just as Hebraic poetry was different from conversational Hebrew, so English poetry is different from conversations English, which is different from literary English.

    Your questions are all good. Each one can be addressed in the translation process. There is inadequate space to give the content of several semesters of translation courses in a short blog post which focuses on an overall main point having to do with basic naturalness of language in Bible translations, considering, of course, each of the genre and other aspects that you can think of.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    Regarding Doug’s comment about “What happens, though, when the source language is unnaturally stilted by the grammatical forms of another one?”

    I think that’s an excellent question, but I’ve wondered (and we have no easy way of settling the question) whether there’s a false premise hidden in the question. What if the original author molded the writing to communicate well with the intended audience? In other words, the author’s writing is well thought through, but in a conversational way, and it is directed toward a linguistically defined audience. That is, the nature of the writing was audience focused. So, the grammar was naturally tuned to the intended audience.

    The gospel of John strikes me as using a rather basic Greek. Even though the concepts are quite involved. Why? To communicate as broadly as possible, perhaps? First John has always struck me as written to children. Matthew seems to be written to an audience that spoke Greek and whose mother tongue was Aramaic. Hebrews was written to the well educated, Greek speaking, Jew.

    In other words, the originals were written in the natural language (the koine) of the intended audience. They were not written in the natural language of the academia of the day. We, today, tend to measure the grammaticality of the text against the prescribed “standard” of that day. Should we measure it against (if we could) the described “standard” of that same day? I’m thinking in terms of Descriptivist versus Prescriptivist grammar. I’ve wondered, and now I’ve wondered out loud.

    Lastly, I prefer two translations which need to be used side-by-side. One in natural language, so I can grasp the coherence of the text as I read through the text. It should not stutter. The other is one that provides for easy analysis (but is dependent on associated tools to help the analysis). By analysis I mean the translation enables answering questions like: What words in this paragraph/section also tend to be used together in a large corpus? Where else is this word found? Where else is this grammatical construction followed by this other grammatical construction? Etc.

  6. Rich Rhodes says:

    Part of the problem as I see it is that the shadow cast by Classical era Greek has continually confused those who study Greek of any later period, if they don’t also have an extensive background in linguistics.

    When I say linguistics, the Greek geeks tend hear morphology and syntax.

    (The really good work by folks like David Allen Black is exactly what I’m talking about. The guys who get ahead in the study of Biblical Greek are the ones who could, form the outset, parse well.)

    But there is a lot to the study of language that goes way beyond the mechanics of getting the details of form and construction right. If you take a year or two of linguistics, you do phonology, morphology, and syntax, and, yes, it provides a good background to enable you to parse better, but you miss out on some of the most important stuff for achieving a really deep understanding the language of the NT.

    There are large subfields of linguistics that address what turn out to be big questions about language in the real world. What happens when speakers of different languages interact with one another on a long term basis? How do speakers use the stuff of their language to communicate? How does language interact with culture? How does written language differ from spoken language?

    Some understanding of these matters is absolutely crucial to the understanding the NT. Semiticims in the NT, for my money, are blown completely out of proportion. This is a product of language/culture contact, and it only makes Koine seem awkward if you judge it against Homer or Thucydides. Don’t forget there is a lot of Aramaic in the mix outside of Palestine, and had been for a long time. (For example, the Persians used Aramaic to contact the Spartans seeking an alliance with them against the Athenians early in the Peloponnesian wars, and we know this because the Athenians caught the spy in 425.)

    It’s a much bigger deal that John talks Greek the way an Hindi swami speaks English. Sentences a little too short and a little too decontextualized. Then there’s Luke, a native speaker, who is consciously writing history, with one eye on Thucydides, and an expectation of his text being widely circulated, and he’s next to Paul who is writing letters that run from chatty to philosophical, very much like a pastor with a PhD might write in a letter not meant for publication. If we really were to make our translations sound like the Greek sounds, then each of the authors would have a “voice”. And there’s good evidence that the LXX quotes sounded like Biblish in Koine.

    No one dares translate that way, however. Instead we get this stylistic monotone, regardless of whether it’s KJV/ESV or GNB/TEV.

  7. docdeer says:

    I think you make a great observation about the need for some to have a translation that has a more “dignified” feel. For years, I have preached from a NASB. Over the last few months, I have experimented with a few other translations (ESV, HCSB, and NLT). Most of the feedback that I get favors the more “majestic” sounding translations. Even people who carry a more natural language translation were interested in the more formal sounding ones (some to the point of even wanting to go buy one). And, to be honest, I even struggle with that as I try to settle on a primary teaching translation. I think that people who have any sort of church exposure favor that sort of translation, at least for their public consumption.

  8. Terry Thomas says:

    Great questions. These are probably the most fundamental questions that go through the minds of people as they consider which translation to use.

    Personally I want a balance between the natural language as well as the (slightly) more formal “sound” of my translation. As you say, I want my translation to read as natural as possible but as you say not slangy and yet for public reading / worship I like a little more “formal”/dignified sound. This can typically be achieved by the choice of words when translating, for instance Blessed vice Happy in Psalm 1. Either is a proper translation, both are natural words in the language, one is simply more formal than the other. At the end of the day I am still inclined towards the “natural language” that sounds/reads like I speak everyday.

    In terms of how the major existing translations do this (from my perspective): of the top mediating translations, the NIV and HCSB both find a good balance with the NIV I think having a slightly more “formal” sound to it in public reading due to its use of more traditional words such as “blessed” and expressions such as “O Lord”. The HCSB is more natural in reading I think, examples would be the way it has chosen not to use the vocative “O” and it’s use of contractions.

    In the formal equivalent translations, NASB and ESV, I find the NASB to be very formal in word choice and sentence structure – it certainly has that “dignified” sound even with the 95 update which moved it towards more natural english. The ESV while having the “dignified”, worshipful sound is I think very unnatural, it had the opportunity to be a highly formal translation, formal in language AND natural sounding, unfortunately I think it failed choosing instead to maintain too much of the RSV archaic sentence structure and word choice.

    Finally, on the functional equivalent translations, it is understood that the translations in this category would typically use natural language but they must guard against slang. I think the best of those would probably be the NLT. The language is very natural and I find it to be free of slang but I don’t think that it rises to the level to be suitable for public preaching and worship. Now let me admit up front my own bias against the NLT, it like so many of the FE translations have far too much paraphrasing to be suitable as public use translations though for personal reading they serve a very good purpose. I don’t want anyone to take this to mean that the NLT, NCV, etc are not the Word of God, they are simply primarily paraphrases.

    I apologize for the length but hope that it encourages thoughts and discussion by others. Oh, my preference for a primary translation is the HCSB.
    Terry Thomas

  9. Patrick says:

    * You can also ask yourself if the semitisms were really unnatural for the first audience, or for the authors themselves. I have worked in a multi lingual situation where a set of Swahili words is used in English and it sounds very natural to everyone. That is a beginning of loaning words, so it is on a lexical level, but I can imagine that even on a grammatical level this could happen. Completely natural for everyone. If this is the case for all these semitisms, it would not be bad to translate it naturally in the target language.
    * To say ‘No one dares translate that way, however. Instead we get this stylistic monotone, regardless of whether it’s KJV/ESV or GNB/TEV.’ might be true for English translations(not sure about that, I haven’t read all of them). But in Dutch a translation has been published a few years ago (2004) that tried to preserve the different styles that were used by the different authors. Jonah sounds way different than Esther and Romans and John and Psalms. I like that.

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    Shouldn’t Bible translation of the Hebrew also account for what Robert Alter notes: “the language of the canonical texts was not identical with the vernacular”? If there’s this disjuncture, then should the translation into English try to mirror the “more formal literary language” of the Hebrew canon or somebody’s clearer “vernacular” English?

  11. CD-Host says:

    For worship, liturgy. KJV no question. Under those circumstances I don’t care very much accuracy and I don’t care about understanding. The reading is for effect that the KJV “sounds like the bible”. I did a review of the voice translation last week, which is designed for informal worship.

    Liturgical reading is supposed to be a blur of word pictures
    Or Hebrews 8
    10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
    11And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
    12For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.

    The word pictures work:
    a new convenient with israel
    heart vs. mind
    people vs. god
    teaching: neighbor, brother, heart, mind,
    mercy / not remembering

    Exod 20:2-4 CEV:
    2I am the LORD your God, the one who brought you out of Egypt where you were slaves.
    3Do not worship any god except me.
    4Do not make idols that look like anything in the sky or on earth or in the ocean under the earth.

    Ecod 20:2-4: KJV
    2I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
    3Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
    4Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

  12. CD-Host says:

    Patrick —

    In terms of stylistict translation the scholars version, Gaus, Price all break with the stylistic monotone. That’s an artifact of the KJV tradition. Versions that break fully with the KJV are willing to capture the style.

  13. Hannah C. says:

    Personally, I use the NLT for my main translation and have for two years. Recently I acquired an ESV, and I’ve read through the New Testament. What struck me the most was that the ESV was harder to read (a good thing in my case) and gave me a much better impression of God’s majesty. Romans especially made a HUGE impression on me. When I reread most of it in the NLT translation today, it just wasn’t the same. I think part of that is the choppy sentences, though that may just be a translation issue; I remember reading (probably on this blog) that Romans is a challenge to translators due to the long sentences Paul uses. It may also have been just the contrast between the two.

  14. ruben says:

    For me, I try to read the Bible as I would a novel – putting myself into the narrative, absorbing the context, living the story. A Dynamic equivalent translation is best for me, the more literal translations tend to lead more to study, as if the Bible were a text book. I had been reading the Scriptures this way before and I felt that I missed the most important points.

  15. Ben Wehr says:

    I think a natural language bible should be more standard in todays churches and communities. Here I am the other day reading Job and I find my self rewriting it so that it could be better understood for people who don’t speak ‘Biblese’.

    I often find my self while reading the Bible aloud with my wife rewording the words as I go along to make it more simple and conversational. She hasn’t grown up reading the Bible and can’t just substitute one word for another to figure out the meaning.

    Also, think about the younger generation who, when they read the Bible it doesn’t make sense. They don’t want to feel worshippy. They want to see what the Bible says.

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