What is natural English?

A recent visitor to this blog asked the important question: “What is natural English?” Since I advocate so often and so strongly for using natural English in English Bible versions, that question deserves an answer. I’ll try to answer it.

Natural English is English which is normally spoken or written by native speakers of English at any particular time in the history of the English language. There can be a variety of natural Englishes (the plural is a technical term for different English dialects), depending on factors such as what speech community a person belongs to, the educational level of the speaker/writer, and the register of what is said or written.

Unnatural English consists of wordings which, although they may be technically “grammatical,” would never be spoken or written in any normal situation by a native speaker of English. The following instructions, typical of some English I have read in appliance manuals, is unnatural English:

When finish the program look the Exit button. After push the button, there will Desktop again. At this moment, choose of another program.

Natural English is found (I hope!) in each paragraph of this post, except the block quote preceding this sentence. It is also found in correspondence, newspaper articles, and novels written by native English speakers. Natural English is used by native English speakers in their conversations with each other. Natural English is used by native English school teachers when they speak to their classes.

Do not confuse natural language with common language. Common language is a technical term for language that is spoken in common by almost every member of a speech community. An older, now outdated term for common language is “vulgar” language, as when we refer to the Latin Vulgate, which was intended to be written in the commonly understood language of those who spoke Latin.

A technical paper written by a scientist may be written in natural English of the scientific community. But it would often not be written in common language.

OK, but don’t we encounter unnatural English in some poetry? Absolutely. One of the gifts that poets bring to us is a new way of seeing the world through unique, unnatural word combinations, such as an anthropomorphism that speaks of “trees sighing.” Or Dylan Thomas challenging his dying father, “Do not go softly into that dark night.” Thomas uses the unique (and unnatural, but poetically beautiful) wording “dark night” to refer to death. So poets sometimes do use unnatural language. Not all poetry is natural language. We can expect that some poetry in the Bible may have some unnatural language wordings.

I cannot recall ever reading any unnatural English in a post or comment on this blog, except when someone is quoting or imitating the dialect of English which is based on literal versions of the Bible. This dialect is sometimes referred to as Biblish. Few, if any, infants and toddlers are taught Biblish by their parents in the first few critical years of language learning.

There may be some passages in the Bible where, for one reason or another, a Bible translation team feels it is necessary to use unnatural English to translate some wording in the biblical language texts. These are difficult judgement calls for translation teams. For most Bible passages, however, there is no reason to translate them using unnatural English. It may take more work and creativity to find natural English equivalents for some biblical language wordings. But the result will be a translation which communicates original meaning more accurately and clearly to translation users.

This last week, as I checked 1 John 2:16, in an Asian language, I realized that the use of the little preposition “of” in the traditional wording of the verse I grew up with is unnatural English:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

No native speaker of English ever refers to “lust of the flesh” or “lust of the eyes” or “pride of life”. We just don’t talk or write like that, *unless* we are trying to sound, well, biblical. Furthermore, using unnatural language can lead to other problems. For instance, “lust of the flesh” has an ambiguity introduced in its translation workding which did not exist in the mind of the biblical author or his audience: we cannot tell from the English if it refers to lusting after flesh, perhaps bare skin seen on the beach, or lust that is produced by flesh. (Note that the intended meaning of “flesh” is another instance of unnatural English).

The unnatural English of 1 John 2:16 is the result of translators retaining the forms of the genitive case of the original Greek, but not the author’s intended meaning of those forms. Native speakers of English can express each of the concepts in 1 John 2:16 using natural English.

And that brings us to your assignment for the comments to this post: what are some natural English wordings that accurately express the intended meaning of any of the “of” phrases of traditional translations of 1 John 2:16?

20 thoughts on “What is natural English?

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    I suspect that lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life fall into the category of idiom. Idiom is of course created by us humans when we use language. An idiom comes into common usage when the phrase captures a complex history in a few words. So one does not have to refer to the threefold temptation of Adam or Jesus to explain – one just expects the hearer to recognize the frame.

    Idiom is what grammarians like Hazlitt referred to as “the most valuable parts of language, because they express ideas which cannot be expressed so well in any other way… invented to supply the defects of the general structure of language.” To fail to use idioms would be to “cramp and mutilate the language, and render it unfit for the real purposes of life.” (For more detail see e.g. Romanticism and Linguistic Theory, by Marcus Tomalin, Palgrave Macmillan 2009.)

    As usual, I haven’t got a problem with the ambiguity of subjective or objective genitive in Greek or English – both essentially similar thought processes and both applying in this case. Attempts to do better seem to me to have failed – e.g. the Jerusalem Bible’s ‘the sensual body’ is misleading – well – flat out wrong is a better description. It is one thing to be sensual and quite another to express lust subjectively or objectively.

    John’s poetry in ‘natural’ language? It is like a Moebius strip, a continuous one sided read, a tape on continuous play. Start and never finish.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    I suspect that lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life fall into the category of idiom.

    Actually, these cannot be idioms because their total meaning has much to do with the meaning of their parts, whereas idioms, by definition, are not constructed from the meaning of their individual parts.

    Example: The sentence with an idiom, “He kicked the bucket,” has nothing to do with kicking or a bucket.

    But “lust of the eyes” very much has to do with lust and it very much has to do with what the eyes do that results in lust.

    John’s poetry in ‘natural’ language? It is like a Moebius strip, a continuous one sided read, a tape on continuous play. Start and never finish.

    I agree, Bob. That is why I wrote in the sixth paragrah about poetry, especially poetic license, as an exception to the normal principle of using natural language in a translation.

  3. Rusty Taylor says:

    So, according to the definition you gave in the above post, natural English depends on the context in which it is used. The “natural” English used in a scientific paper is clearly different than the “natural” English used in the comments section of this blog. Nobody would argue that the scientific paper would be better if it were written like it were a comment on this blog. Why, then, do we argue that the Bible needs to be written like it is a comment on this blog? It seems to me that you argue for a distinction between “natural” and “common” English and then turn around and confuse the two as soon as you start talking about the Bible.
    I say we should rather retain and celebrate the “natural” English of the Bible. In the context of many churches (if not the vast majority) Biblish is still very appropriate, and commonly used.
    Granted, we need to be understandable to outsiders, but I cannot agree with you in this outright disdain for Biblish. I say we celebrate the plurality of versions that exist. Biblish versions are appropriate in some contexts and “common” English versions are appropriate in others. Both, however, are written in the “natural” English of their respective contexts.
    I would compare this to scientific papers that are written for the scientific community as opposed to scientific papers written at a “popular” level. Both have their place, and neither is “better” than the other.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Why, then, do we argue that the Bible needs to be written like it is a comment on this blog?

    The Bible needs to be written in natural English of the same genre in which it was originally written. There are degrees of formality, use of figurative language, etc. depending on genre, register, author’s style, etc.

    The Bible was not written in Biblish nor a biblical language equivalent. So it is, in my opinion, inappropriate to translate the Bible in Biblish.

    I would compare this to scientific papers that are written for the scientific community as opposed to scientific papers written at a “popular” level. Both have their place, and neither is “better” than the other.

    I agree. And both use natural English for the level at which they are written. We need, similarly, to use natural English in our English Bible translations. Natural English will avoid translationese, which is importing foreign language syntax to English. Translationese creates ambiguities which were not in the original text, it confuses readers when the original text was not confusing, and it distorts the sound of the text to something it was not originally.

    Biblish Bible versions are not written in any kind of natural English. Biblish is an artificial dialect of English formed by exposure to English translationese in Bibles translated with non-English syntax. Biblish distances the text from ordinary speakers of English, no matter how poorly or well educated they are, giving them the sense that God does not know how to talk their language

  5. Bob MacDonald says:

    We’ll have to see if anyone takes you up on ‘better’ phrasing. I note there is another spot with a threefold definition of excess – Deuteronomy 17:16-17 – the instructions curbing the power of the king.

  6. Daniel Goepfrich says:

    Well, I’m not sure if you are looking for my personal wording or a translation’s wording, but I’m opting for the later.

    I like the way the NLT2 puts it: “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions”.

    This seems fairly natural to me. I use this in a class I teach with very down-to-earth, normal people, and they understand it immediately.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Daniel wrote:

    I like the way the NLT2 puts it: “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions”.

    It seems perfectly natural to me, Daniel. It follows standard English syntax to express the Greek meanings. “lust of the eyes” is not natural English syntax for expressing the idea that NLT2 has worded well.

  8. exegete77 says:

    NAS: For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.

    TNIV: For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do—comes not from the Father but from the world.

    GW: Not everything that the world offers—physical gratification, greed, and extravagant lifestyles—comes from the Father. It comes from the world,

    TNIV almost makes the transition, whereas GW goes the full way to natural English. Now the question is: Does GW express what the Greek does?

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    Mr. Disagreeable rides again. Idiomatic is defined by my Oxford dictionary as what native speakers do with the language – I guess I will have to differ with Hazlitt’s implication from Thorn-Tooke’s ‘definition’. But I like the idioms of the Bible – lust of the flesh is not ‘personalized’ or ‘explained’ as ‘the cravings of sinful people’ nor is it close to ‘physical gratification’ – don’t believe it! It is a gnostic translation – thee translators thought they knew what the text must say so they made it say it. I say the users of the adjective natural cannot define it. The Bible is supernatural English not natural English. It cannot be understood by the natural human.

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob wrote:

    Idiomatic is defined by my Oxford dictionary as what native speakers do with the language

    Your dictionary is right, Bob. The term idiomatic language is a synonym for natural language.

    One meaning sense of the word idiom can be as when we refer to someone who speaks the “local idiom”, namely, the local dialect.

    However, when we speak of figures of speech, whether in the Bible or anywhere else, here is how the dictionary defines what we are referring to:

    “A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on.” (AHD)

    Some commonly used English idioms are found in these sentences:

    “He kicked the bucket.”
    “He’s making a mountain out of a molehill.”
    “Now we’re getting down to brass tacks.”
    “You’ve hit the nail on the head.”

    In each of these cases the meaning of the idiom has nothing to do with the meaning of any of its parts. When someone says “You’ve hit the nail on the head” with an idiom, the meaning of the idiom has nothing to do with a nail or its head.

    The “of” phrases of 1 John 2:16 are neither idiomatic nor idioms. “Lust of the eyes” has to do with lust and what is seen by the eyes. “Pride of life” has to do with pride and life. So, by definition, these are not idioms, since the meaning of idioms has nothing to do with the meanings of the words that make up those idioms. (See the dictionary definition I quoted. That happens to be the dictionary on my computer. I think you will fine that definition for an idiom which is a figure of speech in any dictionary.

  11. Bob MacDonald says:

    I think there is confusion here between idiom and metaphor or in some of these cases synecdoche. Lust of the flesh needs that concept of simultaneous understanding and conceptual substitution – if I must put it into terms explaining how it works. We hear a generic concept and we find it, if we are listening, applied in the situation we are in. I am using a divine passive here. It is the role of the Spirit to convict of sin, not the role of the translator to explain the text. The translations offered so far are attempts to explain – they are far from ‘natural’ translation. (I assume you want to identify ‘natural’ with ‘good’.

    By the way – I concur and sympathize with your desire to be aware of your audience when translating. But no translation works without the role of the One whom we are to hear, even if I were an unbeliever and thought only to hear my own inner voice, the conscience. In either case, a translator who spells out what I am to understand by the text has failed me as reader and hearer – for my thoughts are being manipulated by humans – either to a false generality concerning our humanity or to a false conclusion about the nature of the desire or the body (in this case).

    I am sure I am not going to convince you, Wayne. You love that word ‘natural’. And I explain too much. Read my Job – then you will have cause to complain about stilted language – but some of the Hebrew is incomprehensible – why would I attempt to make the English different? Rather I would show the puzzle and let the reader struggle. For it is not with flesh and blood that we wrestle but with the very source of our life and ground of our being.

    The Bible is not easy and should not be made easy. Translators themselves must be on their guard against importing their own idolatry into its words. Or if not on their guard, there should be a warning on all translations – Warning – this translation has hidden biases and may be dangerous to your health.

  12. dru says:

    I don’t think “idiomatic language is a synonym for natural language”. It seems to me that ‘natural language’ is a more neutral phrase whereas ‘idiomatic’ conveys more an impression of the phrases such as
    “He kicked the bucket.”
    “He’s making a mountain out of a molehill.”
    “Now we’re getting down to brass tacks.”
    “You’ve hit the nail on the head.”
    which Wayne cites.

    When it comes to translation, my preference is to do what one can to keep the idiom and particularly the metaphor of the source language, if it can be transposed to the target language without doing violence to the natural usage of the target language. If it cannot be transposed, then it’s better to go for a fairly lean mode of expression in the target language, and not try and be with-it by choosing an idiomatic mode that is peculiar to the target language. Some of what I would regard as the least felicitous translations have been the ones that have tried to identify too much with modern ‘idiomatic’ English in that sense.

    No modernising ‘he gave up the ghost’ as ‘he kicked the bucket’.

  13. Hannah C. says:

    Well, “the pride of life” may not be “natural” English..but “the prime of life” is. So the structure itself can be used, if not those specific examples. Others have already posted the NLT2 version, which is my preferred natural language translation.

  14. Michael Nicholls says:

    Bob wrote:
    thee translators thought they knew what the text must say so they made it say it.

    If translators don’t know what the text should say in the language into which they’re translating it, how can they translate it accurately and honestly? If they don’t know what it should say and just translate it ‘literally’, they could inadvertently be saying something completely wrong.

  15. Bob MacDonald says:

    Michael, you touch the key point of translation. All translators operate with bias – political, theological, confessional, and cultural. The thought is often not heard by the translators themselves. I must include myself with the accused. I translate in dialogue with whom? There is no native speaker so we must guess at the idiom of the language. My conversation is where? It can be by committee – if I had one. So in spite of my disagreements with Wayne, I am very grateful for his stimuli. Perhaps even in the dialogue we will hear that other Voice.

  16. Webb Mealy says:

    A few thoughts about “the lust of the flesh” and “the lust of the eyes”.

    1. Seems to me that “X of Y” is used as a typical work-around for “Y’s X” when the euphony of “Y’s X” is poor. E.g. “the length of the bus” “the randiness of the ibex is legendary” would tend to be preferred to “the bus’s length” and “the ibex’s randiness is legendary”. By the same token, “the flesh’s lust” sounds worse than “the lust of the flesh”, and “the eyes’ lust” has poor euphony because the marker of the possessive is lost in hearing.

    2. The X of Y is often capable of being just as ambiguous (subjective vs objective genetive, etc.) in Greek as it is in English. It’s not necessarily, in my book, a defect of a translation to retain an ambiguity that appears to lie in the original. On the other hand, I think it is clear in our case that the genetive refers to the flesh and the eyes as quasi-agents. See below.

    3. I think John may be intentionally talking about “the flesh” and “the eyes” as phenomena that manifest themselves as though they have a mind of their own, and so he is willing to talk about it metaphorically as lusting. I’m reluctant to strip out the metaphor in my translation, as do other versions such as TNIV: “the cravings of sinful people”. This may be result in a fair theological statement, but it forecloses a whole metaphorical way of thinking about the subject (cf. Paul’s wrestling in Gal. 5:16-18), and it doesn’t seem like a close translation.

    4. I’m not happy with what might be called the “flattening effect” of replacing biblical metaphors (which are sometimes pretty deep) with abstract expressions. Sometimes it seems that translators miss the fact that an expression would have sounded just as unfamiliar in Greek as it sounds in English. For example, consider the expressions “in Christ”, “in God”, “in the Spirit”. You could say that nobody can talk in English about one person being in another person. But you could say pretty much the same thing about Greek or Hebrew as far as I know. Our writers may be using terms and metaphorical expressions that were coined on the basis of the worship and devotional experience of a spiritual community, and those that joined the community would have had to learn the metaphors little by little by being exposed to them in context again and again. There may have been–in fact, I would assert that there definitely was–a Christian jargon that grew up in order to communicate with appropriate depth and breadth about the subjects of Christian faith and devotion. To create a relatively jargon-less discourse about Christian matters, you would have to exposit and flatten all these sorts of metaphors. But that, in my opinion, quickly crosses into the realm of teaching about Christian matters, which is a step beyond the process of translation. I want to convey what so-and-so said first, and explain what I think so-and-so’s teaching means second. If I substitute my explanation of what so-and-so is teaching, in place of their teaching–particularly in the realm of religion–I may be depriving my audience/readership of the right to form their own understanding, as I myself did. And that seems unfair. It also potentially blurs to the point of invisibility the line between the holy text and the exposition of the holy text, which presents a particular problem for communities that hold up the text as sacred.

    These are of course just general principles and can be applied along a spectrum of possible choices. But this is the sort of thing that I’m concerned with when I decide how “literally” I am going to render an expression I find in the New Testament.

    Webb Mealy

  17. Dru says:

    I think Webb has a point at 1, about which genitive form to use. It’s a combination of euphony and a slight but distinct preference for ‘s for where the possessor is a human, and ‘of’ where the possessor is an animal or a thing. I know there’s also the issue about the difference between Greek and English use of the genitive. But a useful test is, in this context, would ‘the flesh’s lust’ and ‘the eyes’ lust’ make sense and mean the same but sound uneuphonious, or not make sense at all? If the former, i.e. they would mean the same but not sound right, lust of the flesh and lust of the eyes are good translations, a good way of putting it, even if Wayne doesn’t like them as modern English. If the latter, if they don’t make sense at all, then Wayne is right and they should be translated some other way.

    What’s my actual view? I think ‘the flesh’s lust’ and ‘the eyes’ lust’ do make sense, but on its own ‘life’s pride’ doesn’t. Nevertheless, if one were going to keep ‘the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes’, I would retain ‘the pride of life’ because of the oratorical effect of the repetition of the phrases.

  18. Bob MacDonald says:

    Here’s another rendering – all that is of the age, fleshly needs, eyes’ desire, and property’s pride …

    I tried conceptually linking to other sets of three here

    as I said there, I prefer the preposition ‘of’ in this case as Dru and Webb also discuss.

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