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 An older, now outdated term for common language is “vulgar” language, as when we refer to the Latin Vulgate, which was intended to be written in the commonly understood language of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?