I often post about natural language in Bible translation on this blog. Recently I blogged that there is a difference between natural language, which is language normally spoken or written by native speakers of a language, and common language. Natural language for someone who is highly educated and/or is able to use a high register of the language will often be different from natural language of other speakers.
Common language, on the other hand, is vocabulary (lexicon) and syntax which is shared by all native speakers of a language. The TEV (GNT) and CEV were produced as common language versions of the English language. The translation Dios Llega al Hombre is the common language equivalent for Spanish. There are common language translations, as well, in a number of other languages. Common language translations are typically made under the umbrella of one of the United Bible Societies. (The TEV and CEV were produced by the American Bible Society, one of the member societies of the UBS.)
This last weekend I charted usage of three English words for English Bible versions. These three words are “justify”, “grace”, and “flesh.” The meanings of these words, as they are understood by current common language speakers of English, is different from the meanings these words are intended to convey when they appear in English Bible translations.
Most English speakers have a meaning for “justify” that has to do with someone making excuses for their actions. We sometimes hear sentences like, “He is trying to justify his behavior.” This is not the meaning of the Greek word δικαιόω (DIKAIOW) translated as “justify” in traditional English Bibles. This common contemporary meaning in meaning to the word “rationalize.” (Some English speakers also have the meaning intended in the Bible, but because they are only a portion of all English speakers, that meaning would, by definition, not qualify as being part of common English.)
Most English speakers today understand “grace” to refer to elegance of movement or behavior. An ice skater who skates with grace is one who skates fluidly, with beautiful movement, and smooth transitions from one skating form to another.
The word “flesh” is not used very commonly by English speakers today (hits on Google are not very informative here, since Google does not compare how often a word is used by English speakers in contrast to how often its synonyms are used by them; Google does not give us the detailed statistics that we need to accurately understand word usage). I have heard it used, infrequently, in sentences such as “Oh, it’s just a flesh wound.” Instead of the word “flesh,” today most speakers use words such as “skin,” “body,” and “muscles.” Use of the word “flesh” in English Bibles is nearly meaningless for a very large percentage of English speakers.
OK, here is how the English versions translated Greek words δικαιόω (DIKAIOW), χάρις (XARIS), and σάρξ (SARKS), which have been traditionally translated as “justify,” “grace”, and “flesh,” respectively:
|Rom. 3:30||Rom. 5:20||Rom. 7:5|
|CEV||accepts||God’s kindness||thought only of ourselves|
|GNT/TEV||put right with himself||grace||flesh|
|GW||approves||God’s kindness||corrupt nature|
|NCV||make right with him||grace||flesh|
|NLT||makes right with himself||grace||flesh|
|NWT||declare righteous||undeserved kindness||flesh|
|REB||justify||grace||mere human nature|
|TM||sets right||grace||old way of life|
I was surprised to discover that NWT used common language translations for two of the three terms. My impression of the NWT had been that it was a fairly literal translation using traditional English Bible words.
I was also surprised to find that the NLT, which, overall, uses relatively natural English, retained both “grace” and “flesh”. The same surprise comes from the NCV which was designed to be an easier to read translation.
The TNIV makes no changes from the NIV in translation of the three words charted.
I am limited in what else I can say by lack of time. The rest of today I need to run errands and pack my luggage. Early tomorrow morning I leave to fly to Alaska. I will spend a week visiting my parents in their care home. Saturday will be their 62nd wedding anniversary. We will have a small family meal with them with some of their favorite Alaskan foods, clam chowder, salmon, and likely some smoked salmon.
I will have Wi-fi Internet access at the care home, so I can read comments on this blog post. As you comment, please try to stay on topic for this blog post. This post is about how three Greek words in the book of Romans are translated in English versions. This post is about how these words have been translated into common English. Common English is not slang, nor is it a dumbed down form of English. It is simply good quality grammatical English that is shared in common by all English speakers. The word “common” here is equivalent to an old meaning sense of the word “vulgar” (not the primary current meaning of “nasty, ribald”). Note the name of the Bible translation, the Latin Vulgate, where “vulgate” meant that the language used was common to all of the people, not a specialty dialect of Latin spoken or written by a sub-segment of Latin speakers.
I realize that some of you will want to express the fact that you prefer the traditional words “justify,” “grace,” and “flesh” in the Bible versions you use. It is fine if you say that, but please allow others to focus on the post’s topic of common language translation. Please follow the posting guidelines for staying on topic for this post. If you wish to discuss something that is off-topic, feel free to email me privately to suggest that as a topic for another post.
The Greek of Romans was not Attic Greek or some other earlier dialect of Greek. It was not classical Greek. The Greek of the entire New Testament was Koine Greek, which was the common language of Greek spoken and written during the time of Christ and for some time afterwards. It was not a dumbed down Greek. It was a dialect of Greek that all Greek speakers knew and understood. Good literature could be written in Koine Greek. In fact, some of my favorite Greek books were written in that common language dialect, books such as Luke (a more polished variety of Koine Greek), John, Romans, Philippians, 1 John, and several others!
Which of the English translations for the three charted words do you think communicate the most clearly and accurately to speakers of common English? (Remember, common English is different from Church English, which may have a proper place in the life and liturgy of some people.)
What are advantages and disadvantages to translating in common language?