OK, Mr. Schlafly …

I guess I’m one of those terrible professors mentioned in the last post — after all I teach at Berkeley, that notoriously liberal institution, and I think there are serious problems with important conservative ideas about Bible translations, like how you translate ἄνθρωπος and ὕιοι.

But let me tell you about what I did today.

I attended the doctoral defense of my long-time friend and Bible translator, Nick Bailey. He was awarded the degree of PhD for a thesis about the structure of Koine Greek sentences that have the function of introducing new characters or ideas into the text, like:

Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάνης (John 1:6-7a)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John (NIV)

Along the way he made serious progress in solving mysteries of Greek word order that are — literally — millenia old. (Who says linguistics isn’t good for anything?)

His defense was not at Berkeley — it was at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. And I wasn’t there to watch. I was one of his opponents. It entailed a lot of pomp and circumstance.  John Hobbins would have loved it.

We wore our academic garb, the caps and gowns in the US reserved for graduation ceremonies. Only the caps aren’t mortarboards, they are the six-sided tams, and the gowns that the Dutch wear are smaller and don’t zip up. (They call them togas.) The dean of the college convenes the various meetings wearing a chain and seal of the university. We were led around between the private meeting room and the public aula (auditorium) by the department beadle carrying a staff. We had to wear our tams when standing, and we had to observe certain formulaic speech when asking and answering questions.

Esteemed defendant, by the authority of the Rector and in my own right …

The diploma is quite big and has a seal on ribbons. It was signed in public and rolled up by the beadle and presented to the candidate, after the announcement of the positive results of the deliberation by the opponents.

But the thing that most caught my attention was that the proceedings were openly Christian. The promotor (thesis advisor to gringos) and most of the opponents (examiners) were confessing Christians, some involved in Bible translation, one a member of the United Bible Society.

The dean opened the proceedings by charging the candidate with 2 Timothy 2:1-7

1You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 3Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer. 5Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. 6The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. 7Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.

… and closed the proceedings with a doxology.

All this in a country where drugs and prostitution are legal, the government is, by American standards, socialist — and the streets are safe to walk on at night.

Mr. Schlafly, maybe we have our priorities wrong. Having professors work on Bible translations is not the problem. The really liberal professors just aren’t that interested. The problem is we are trying too hard to sell a brand of conservatism that doesn’t work when it comes to translating what the Scripture actually says — and maybe not even when it comes to life.

23 thoughts on “OK, Mr. Schlafly …

  1. EricW says:

    Along the way he made serious progress in solving mysteries of Greek word order that are — literally — millenia old. (Who says linguistics isn’t good for anything?)

    Please let us know what his thesis has demonstrated about Greek word order.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    VU University (its preferred English name) was the first Calvinist university in Holland and retains a strongly Calvinist orientation — as the older name indicates: “Free (of government and church hierarchy) University”.

    There are no Evangelical universities in the US that the highest the Carnegie Foundation ranks in its highest category: “Research University/Very High” (the closest is Baylor University, which is ranked in the next lowest category — just like Brigham Young University.)

    So for an analogue, one needs to look at Catholic or Jewish institutions such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston, Brandeis and Yeshiva Universities. These American schools retain (to a greater or lesser degree) their religious character while still accepting (like VU University) faculty and students of all religious backgrounds.

  3. Rich Rhodes says:

    Unfortunately, the word order matters are complex. (Of course they are, or they would have been figured out long ago.) But …

    First Nick showed that there isn’t any single template, even for the pragmatically analogous constructions he wrote about. (That’s where previous folks have gotten hung up.) Instead there are interacting factors of old and new information — but more nuanced. (He uses Lambrecht’s ideas on information flow.) It starts with a basic template of:

    V pronominals S O adjuncts.

    (Obviously if the S(ubject) or O(bject) or one of the adjuncts is pronominal it goes in the pronominal slot.)

    Deviations from the template have either information flow reasons (more or less what Levinson said about the matter) or there are construction specific factors — and this is what is new from Nick.


    As I said, it isn’t simple. You have to be pretty sophisticated at information flow analysis — being able to readily recognize the difference between sentences (in context) in which part of the sentence is new.

    What happened to your car?
    [old information] broke down [new information].

    Why were you late for work?
    My car broke down. [all new information]

    Notice that the stress in the English sentences is different. The first is stressed on down and the second is stressed on car. Some of the work done by stress in English is done by word order in Greek.

    Does that help?

    In Greek the old information tends to show up to the left of the verb. The trick is in how one explains the places where that isn’t so, or isn’t obviously so.

  4. John Hobbins says:

    You bring back pleasant memories of old Europe, Rich.

    If I truly loved pomp and circumstance, I would become a smells-and-bells Anglican, a Roman Catholic, or an Eastern Orthodox. As it is, I’m Reformed and Methodist at the same time, two low church traditions. My thesis defense in Rome, in an institution just as Reformed and more confessing than VU, was decidedly without pomp and circumstance. My confirmation students from la chiesa metodista di Roma wanted to attend, and they were allowed in. I heard them whisper during the proceedings, “Giorgio, how do you think it’s going?” “Really good, I think. I can’t understand a darn thing.” It was an arcane subject: “Imperialism as a Theological Problem in First Isaiah.”

    Theophrastus notwithstanding, there are plenty of very fine evangelical colleges and universities in the English-speaking world. For a non-dyspeptic, indeed, a sympathetic reading of the US scene, I recommend Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity.

    But yes, it will take time for evangelicals, as it did for the Puritans who founded so many of the Ivy league universities, to tear themselves away from an exclusive focus on the things that Mr. Schafly eagerly, if misguidedly, pursues.

    When and if evangelicals mellow out, such that they see eye to eye with Rich Rhodes on ἄνθρωπος and ὕιοι, set aside their preference for KJV, NKJV, ESV, and the really rather conservative NIV and go for CEV or NLT or whatever else goes down nice like a good latte’, it will at best be a mixed blessing.

    Academics are a breed apart almost by definition. They mean no harm by it. Whether they know what’s up is another matter entirely.

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    I guess I know that the VU is called that in English, but everyone I know in this context is either a Dutch speaker or a German speaker as well and they all pronounce it unassimilated as a code switch, i.e., in IPA /fy/. I don’t know if that counts as an English name.

    As an English-German bilingual linguist I find it mildly unnerving to be in Holland. I can read almost all of every sign and can pretty well make out connected text, but I can’t understand most spoken Dutch unless they go really, really slowly. (I know the sound correspondences and the spelling rules, but it’s just to far to adjust to a conversational speed, especially when you throw in the words that lack cognates in either German or English, like maar ‘but’, or where the cognates mean really different things, like taal ‘language’, (Eng. tell).)

    It was especially interesting in the Kurdish restaurant last night. Of the twenty some odd people I was the only one who didn’t speak either Dutch or Kurdish, the two languages of the proprietors. (All the other professors associated with the defense (and their spouses) speak Dutch, of course, and English, but not Kurdish. The Bible translation folks speak Kurdish and English (and German) but not Dutch.) And to make matters more interesting, the restauranteurs were not always clear on the Dutch names of all the ingredients, particularly the spices. And the Kurdish/English speakers weren’t always clear on the proper English translation of the spice names either.

  6. Dan says:

    I am academically illiterate, obviously. I am curious as to the phrase “I was one of his opponents.” What does that mean? And did this take place with you in Berkeley and this other man in Amsterdam?

  7. EricW says:

    Thanks, Rich. While not necessarily above my head, I can tell that understanding this is beyond my experience – i.e., I don’t have enough reading or learning in syntax and discourse analysis to know how and where to apply his insights. But maybe someday, esp. if I come across enough contextual explanations and examples where this makes a difference so I begin to grasp his points.

    Hopefully these kinds of things will begin showing up in commentaries re: verses/passages where the word order impacts exegesis and interpretation so we become more aware of the meaning of word order.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    I don’t know if that counts as an English name.

    Ha! Not surprisingly, Vrije Universiteit has translated many of its webpages into English. Mostly, the English name is “VU University Amsterdam.” On the Introduction page, there’s this:

    Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, has been a renowned cultural, scientific and commercial centre for many centuries. It was here, in 1880, that VU University Amsterdam first opened its doors to students. VU stands for ‘Vrije Universiteit‘ which means ‘Free University’. Here, ‘free’ refers to freedom from state and church interference. VU University Amsterdam was established in 1880 by orthodox protestants. Nowadays it aims to be inspiring, innovative and involved.

    Interestingly, the Dutch pages seem to speak to a different audience:

    Op 20 oktober 1880 werd de Vrije Universiteit door Abraham Kuyper opgericht als particuliere universiteit. Vier jaar eerder werd de Wet op het hoger onderwijs aangenomen. De oprichters van de VU vreesden dat de kerkelijke vakken binnen het universitaire theologieonderwijs door deze wet gevaar liepen. De Theologische faculteit was dan ook één van de drie eerste faculteiten van de nieuwe universiteit. Naast de godsdienstopleidingen kreeg de VU ook een faculteit Letteren en Rechtsgeleerdheid.

    Similarly, the English for VU’s aims (i.e., inspiring, innovative, and involved) seems much more parallel and playful than the Dutch equivalents (i.e., Betrokkenheid, Zorgvuldigheid and Ambitie). Look at the contrast, the lack of equivalence, between the “equivalent” paragraphs on involved and Betrokkenheid:

    Involved VU’s origins are rooted in the Christian faith. This is why we attach such great importance to our social role. We take the view that academic work cannot be divorced from the concerns of society, in terms of standards, values, philosophy and religion.

    Betrokkenheid. Dit uit zich bijvoorbeeld in de aandacht voor maatschappelijke vraagstukken, uit reflectie op wetenschappelijke ontwikkelingen en uit de doelstelling om studenten tot academisch gevormde burgers op te leiden.

    Notice how the English alone brings in “Christian faith” and “values, philosophy and religion” explicitly. Does the Dutch context or the Dutch language somehow leave these implicit?

    Rich, I’m bringing this up in your wonderful post on the value of the professor in Bible translation because you’ve also said in a comment to a reader at another of your posts something related. You said:

    “We believe that translation is what translators do between modern languages and therefore the principles of that kind of translation should be applied to Bible translation.”

    It sure seems that what Theophrastus explains (in English) is what the VU website translators also explain (in English). But the (“original”) Dutch seems mostly to omit (i.e., to assume or to imply) the information explained. Is this a good example of “what translators do between modern languages” and is this sort of explanatory value in the L2 of the translator something that “should be applied to Bible translation”?

    I do like your open, agnostic statement I’ve quoted at the start of this comment.

  9. Rich Rhodes says:

    I came to Europe to attend (which is how I saw all the pomp and circumstance). I had airline miles, it was close enough to the end of classes in Berkeley, and I had some invitations in principle to lecture in Amsterdam and in Graz, so I came.

    I knew that Dutch universities in general wear academic garb to a thesis defense. I figured I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do it at least once … and they let me ask the first question, since I’d come the farthest.

    As for the title opponent, because the whole thing is ritualized all the characters have “funny” titles. The thesis advisor is the promotor, pronounced with the accent on the last syllable. The examiners are called opponents. The doctoral candidate is the defendant. And he (or she) is accompanied by two supporters who accompany him (or her) everywhere, one on each side. When he (or she) stands at the podium to be questioned by the opponents. One supporter sits on each side of the podium.

    I’m hoping to get copies of pictures of the whole thing at some point, and I’ll put up another post then.

  10. Rich Rhodes says:

    Thanks for your comment. You’ve hit the nail on the head about translating. Sometimes different things have to be put in or left out to make for situationally appropriate translation.

    When I landed in Frankfurt on the way to Amsterdam, after brushing up on some points in the thesis during the flight. I noticed the sign on the side of the main terminal which reads:

    An Hessen führt kein Weg vorbei. Hesse — there’s no way around us.

    This is a really good translation. Each is the kind of thing you would say in the respective language in corresponding situations, but the German leaves out any personal reference, and the structure of the English sentence is quite different from that of the German because in English we can’t use word order to achieve the information flow effects that are crucial to the meaning of the German original.

    The case of the VU website is slightly different. The Dutch and English aren’t exactly translations. Each tells its respective audience what they need to know, for the communicative purposes at hand.

    My Dutch is not good enough to know if they are matching Dutch cool to (perceived) English exuberance, but the educated middle class of Holland all speak English, some very, very well, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they can calibrate such cultural differences very finely.

    Did that answer your question?

  11. Gary Simmons says:

    Sort of off topic, but… I recently decided to make a prayer Bible. Basically, I ask my friends of a passage that speaks to them, and I write their name by it. I say a quick prayer for that friend every time I read that passage.

    And that I Timothy quote is my passage that I gave for others to write my name by.

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    Like Rich I have been travelling across Europe, in my case by car and with my new wife. And I have also been noting translation-related oddities. This is one I noticed at the hotel where we stopped for the night, in France near the Swiss border at Basle.

    Flipping through the TV channels we found an American documentary with French subtitles. They were interviewing people about a woman involved in some crime. When the narrator and an official wearing a tie said in good formal American English that the woman worked in two places, the subtitles used the formal French verb travailler “work”. But when a bus driver spoke in colloquial English about the woman’s two places of work, although he also used the English word “work”, the subtitles used the colloquial French verb bosser. It was obviously hard for the translators to indicate in brief subtitles that the bus driver was speaking colloquially, but they did an excellent job by choosing to use bosser – even though they could be accused of lacking concordance and consistency.

    Perhaps this kind of translation strategy is needed also in Bible translation.

  13. Wes says:

    I am often wonder when I hear liberals talking about gender neutrality, that their goal isn’t necessarily accuracy at all costs in their translations and that a bit of post modernism creeps in. Sort of we wish it said this and it would be fairer and nice so maybe it could be translated this way and therefore must be what the original speaker meant. I’m not saying this is happening, just wondering.

  14. Brant says:


    One might wonder the same thing about conservatives and their “gender accurate” translations.

    It is my observation that gender neutral translations are not that neutral and gender accurate translations are not that accurate.

  15. Wes says:

    Very clever; really.

    It was my impression that the Bible, especially the OT was written by Middle Eastern Men in a Middle Eastern culture. I never viewed them and still don’t as being pro feminist. If people today want to use the Bible to show that God viewed women as less than, then shame on them.

    . Its a matter of accurate translation reflecting the speaker which my guess wasn’t particularly PC at the time let alone now, BUT this only causes a disconnect if you believe GOD wrote every word in the Bible. I doubt the speakers usually addressed groups as brothers and sisters, but I could be wrong.

  16. Gary Simmons says:

    Gender-neutral translations cannot by any means change the Greek text itself, nor its cultural nuances of patriarchy. I think they could be acceptable, so long as they do not become the only translation type. (In other words, I don’t want for the ESV to be likened to the Cotton Patch)

    I don’t think any translation philosophy is truly practical. But if TNIV-style becomes the least impractical, then I will deal with that. There are flaws to translating the generic masculine as a plural though. What do you do with statements when it might not be generic, for instance?

    James 1:20 is an example where it might be generic. It’s obviously a proverbial expression. It says, rigidly, “for the wrath of a man does not work the righteousness of God.”

    What if it’s referring to that testosterone-laden aggression of men? Then, I’d translate it “For ‘manly anger does not serve God’s purpose.”

    If it’s generically inclusive there, then I could make a wittier translation. “For human anger does not engender divine justice.” Taking both andros and theou as qualitative nouns.

    If egalitarians will mirror read for 1 Timothy 2, then I (a complementarian) might mirror read here a problem with anger among males. However, I prefer the qualitative reading, because it just sounds more proverbial. Wrath and righteousness are contrasted, so it makes sense for “man” and “deity” to be in contrast here, too.

    P.S. I agree with Brant.

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