translation informations

I have been studying and doing translation for many years. I’m glad to see the increasing amount of interest in the discipline of translation, in particular, the various aspects of Bible translation. The Internet has helped increase people’s interest in translation. Translation informations appear on a variety of websites and blogs. Today I even became a fan on Facebook of a page devoted to translation informations.

I assume that most of us reading this blog post are native speakers of English. How did you react when you read the plural word “informations”? Did it seem odd to you or perfectly normal?

It does seem perfectly normal to many speakers of English as a second language (ESL). I have often read things written by ESL speakers in which they refer to “informations”. I assume that there is a plural for the translation equivalent of the English word “information” in their language, so it would seem perfectly normal to them to pluralize the word “information” in English, as well.

English, in fact, does not have a plural for the word “information.” That is, to the extent that anyone reading this believes that English speakers generally follow any rules of syntax or the lexicon, fluent English speakers regard the plural “informations” as somehow odd or ungrammatical. English “information” is what linguists call a noncount noun, that is, even though we can imagine information has having more than one part we only refer to information as a whole. Other English words used mostly (there are technical exceptions) as noncount nouns are “sugar,” “water”, and “wisdom.”

How do we discover whether something is a grammatical or acceptable word or syntactic unit in English or any other language? Some might answer, based on their “grammar” school experience that we discover what is grammatical by listening carefully to our grammar school teachers. Or perhaps by looking up what is grammatical in a grammar book or English style book. Others may google to find out if a particular word or form has been written by one or more people.

My training in linguistics tells me that we discover what is grammatical by careful observation. Astronomists Astronomers follow the same scientific process of careful observation when they discover the location, size, and composition of stars and other bodies in the universe. Biologists observe life processes.

We observe how people of any generation, social status, educational level, or gender speak to discover what rules or principles of language they follow. Now, because linguistics, like sociology and psychology are behavioral sciences, we discover that not everyone speaks the same way, just as not everyone acts or thinks the same way. But careful, scientific observation allows us to discover the rules of language that a majority of people follow.

Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that the words “information” and “informations” shift in their lexical and syntactic characteristics for many English speakers so that sometime in the future “informations” for these speakers comes to mean “pieces of information.”

Here are some questions for discussion:

1. At what point in the process of change, common to all languages, should we regard a word or other language form as sufficiently acceptable to include that form in an English Bible translation?

2. To what extent should “translation English”, that is, English based on the lexicon or syntax of another language, be included in English versions of the Bible?

34 thoughts on “translation informations

  1. Jesús S. says:

    1.- When the use of non-native forms become so widely spread and common that even literate native speakers hold them to be correct.

    2.- May I point out that this have already happened in English? Many linguistic constructions of the Hebrew and Greek languages(alien to pre- 16th century English) have entered the common usage because they were in the King James Bible.

    Another far-fetched example: Until the 18th centuries, English speakers used the double negative, it was considered correct, as in many other Western languages. Then the intellectual elite wanting English to be closer to Latin, imposed the idea that a double negative was not acceptable, Chaucer and Shakespeare nonwithstanding.

    Modern English versions of the Bible avoid the double negative and follow the rules made by Robert Lowth, clergyman and grammarian who also gave us the funny notion that a preposition could not be placed at the of a sentence.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    You pose excellent questions.

    But if an English book is in print for 400 years;
    if the book enjoys massive sales each year;
    if the book is widely quoted;
    if the book influences every other aspect of the English language;
    if the book is hailed as a masterpiece by critics both academic and lay;
    then it definitely is English.

    So, you can fairly say that I’m counting down the days to May 2, 2011.

  3. Mike Aubrey says:

    May I point out that this have already happened in English? Many linguistic constructions of the Hebrew and Greek languages(alien to pre- 16th century English) have entered the common usage because they were in the King James Bible.

    Actually most of those originated in Tyndale. The KJV was more revision than it was translation in many ways.

    But even still, I think you’re missing Wayne’s point. You’re talking about a diachronic process. Wayne is talking about a synchronic event.

  4. CD-Host says:

    Good topic.

    In answer to (1) most of the time when the shift is happening the new form understood long before it is used. So in your example there would be a period of time where the word “informations” was being used by some and not being used by others but understood by nearly all. In which case I think it is fine for a translator to use it. Translators are going to have enough of a snooty bias based on education and love for grammar; no reason they need further reinforcement.

    In terms of (2) I’d say if the structure is acceptable and understood then use with care.

    I actually took up this issue with a specific example a while back on my blog. Ebonics and the aorist tense .

  5. Dannii says:

    1. When you’re at the zoo with some seven year old children and you ask them what you can get at the stall with the big “i” out front and they reply “informations about the zoo animals!”

    2. As little as possible. However unnatural but comprehensible English should be preferred to all incomprehensible English!

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Many linguistic constructions of the Hebrew and Greek languages(alien to pre- 16th century English) have entered the common usage because they were in the King James Bible.

    Yes, many idioms and other sayings have entered the English language through the KJV and the Tyndale Bible. “Not by the skin of my teeth” is one that is similar to a KJV wording in the book of Job. There are others but it’s too far past my bed time for me to remember more of them right now.

    But I don’t know if very many syntactic constructions have, that is the syntactic forms without any words in them yet. I cringe when I read so many English words squeezed into non-English syntax in English Bibles.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    But if an English book is in print for 400 years;
    if the book enjoys massive sales each year;
    if the book is widely quoted;
    if the book influences every other aspect of the English language;
    if the book is hailed as a masterpiece by critics both academic and lay;
    then it definitely is English.

    I have no quarrel with the first five points. As for the last point, the KJV has English words, some of which are not in current usage. It also has quite a bit of English syntax, some of which is not in current usage, such as the outdated negative word order, e.g. “Think not that I have come to bring peace but a sword.” Even on that memorable day for the KJV (and its profound 400 effect upon English people and our literature), May 2, 1611, the newer negative word order, which is default/unmarked negative word order today, was being used. In less than 100 years after publication of the KJV, the new word order was dominant, e.g. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace but a sword.” (The older negative word order then took on a new rhetorical meaning which has literary power and great effectiveness in special sociolinguistic contexts such as that of JFK inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your county!”)

    But much of the KJV is written in non-English syntax and using non-English syntax does not make it English unless the majority of English speakers adopt the borrowed syntax as the new native forms.

    I’m not convinced that the KJV translators were native speakers of English–or at least not convinced that they were functioning as fully native English speakers or writing when they were translating the KJV, which included revising previous English versions. They, like many translators today, including those of the NRSV and RSV/ESV, and to a lesser extent the NIV and HCSB, were using seminary English with its abundance of biblical language syntax shoehorned into English.

    Now Shakespeare wrote as a native speaker of English. We can linguistically analyze the differences between the Shakespearean corpus and the KJV and note some important differences based on the extensive borrowing of biblical language syntax in the KJV. Shakespeare borrowed expressions from the English Bible, at times, but he himself wrote in his native English.

  8. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne, ask and you shall receive (Matt. 7:7). Your lonely idiom example is just a drop in the bucket (Isa 40:15). Perhaps my post is only the blind leading the blind (Matt. 15:14), but I feel my cup runneth over (Ps. 23:5) — even if you do not suffer fools gladly (2 Cor. 11:19). So, as a lamb among wolves (Luke 10:3), let me recite my shibboleths (Judg. 12:6), even though I may not be in my right mind (Mark 5:15) to expect the scales to fall one’s eyes (Acts 9:18). After all, there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9) and the with the stars in their courses (Judg. 15:20), let me get to the root of the matter (Job 19:28) of this riotous living (Luke 15:13), like a statement out of the mouths of babes (Ps 8:2). I will not cast pearls before swine (Matt 7:6) to the powers that be (Rom. 13:1) and their multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8) like an eye for an eye (Ex 21:24); rather I ask to see eye to eye (Isa 52:8) and appeal to the inner man (Eph. 3:16) — no more house divided (Matt 12:25) on this labor of love (1 Thes 1:3). How the mighty are fallen (2 Sam. 1:35)! My salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13) friends, remove this thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7), become a law unto yourself (Rom 2:14), and let my people go (Ex. 5:1).

  9. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne, I think I first raised the anastrophe of Kennedy’s inauguration speech with you!

    But anastrophe (and more generally, hypebaton) are well established as rhetorical devices in English. (The mere fact that they are English words is ample evidence of their signficance.) For example, you point out that Shakespeare wrote in “native English” but he had no problem tossing out a line like that Adriana’s classic quote about men in Comedy of Errors:

    Why should their liberty than ours be more?

    Now if it were not for the familiarity of that line, it would appear odd to us; but for Shakespeare, who realized the full flexibility of English, it was natural — a method for emphasis.

    We immediately find more examples in Stratford Bard’s corpus:

    Figures pendantical (from Love’s Labours Lost)
    Our lives upon, to use Our strongest hands (from Antony and Cleopatra)

    As you must agree — this is natural, native English — used to its highest effect.

    And we do not need to look far for more examples:

    Coleridge: The helmsman steered; the ship moved on; yet never a breeze up blew (from Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

    Longfellow: This is the forest primeval (from Evangeline)

    Tennyson: Worst of the worst were that man he that reigns (from Guinevere)

    Eliot: Arms that wrap about a shawl (from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

    and even Lewis Carrol: Long time the manxome foe he sought (from Jabberwocky)

    Deny not the power of English word order to add stress; Greek, it may not be, yet flexibility English achieves.

  10. Dannii Willis says:

    Looking at idioms seems irrelevant to determine whether on the whole it is standard English – after all idioms are idiosyncratic!

    As you must agree — this is natural, native English — used to its highest effect.
    I will do no such thing. It is neither natural nor native — anymore.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    How did you react when you read the plural word “informations”?

    I thought you were very clever, Wayne.

    Did it seem odd to you or perfectly normal?

    Is this our only choice? No, we completely get your brilliant wordplay (which may be different from the ESL learner’s “informations” or from that of Dannii’s seven year olds at the zoo). I look forward to the day when linguists remember Kenneth Pike’s view of language within the entire system(s) of human behavior(s) in contrast to the abstracted focus on “language” or “languages” as merely static ossified things. Our conversation (reduced to distinctions between “diachronic” and “synchronic” and the like) bogs down in our notions of language properties. Physicists, before Heisenberg and Einstein, used to be so bogged down in their notions of the properties of light. Pike used to quote Nelson Goodman (from “Ways of Worldmaking”) to emphasize “radical relativism” in language and other human behavior (albeit within “rigid restraints”). Pike used to look to Einstein’s talk of light, as “particle,” but also as “field,” and as “wave” too. Who would deny Einstein these perspectives on something so observable in repeated ways?

    “Informations,” when you use it here Wayne, is creative. We allow it. And the Bible (in Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic) is just as creative, just as human, in its behavior. It’s not just reduced to proposition, or to information.

  12. J. K. Gayle says:

    Oh, and Wayne. My ESL learners say “astronomists.” So do Dannii’s seven year olds when they visit the planetarium. And you said it too: “Astronomists follow the same scientific process of careful observation when they discover the location, size, and composition of stars and other bodies in the universe.”

    But “Astronomist is not a word.” At least it’s not an English word, not a “natural” one anyway, not according to this astronomist, who is struggling with “the inconsistencies of language,” even with “pluralizing,” and with “a priori knowledge whether the patterns you know will be valid for a specific case.” He bemoans the absolute fact that “those who are learning English may take science and make the new word scientists, but when they take astronomy and make astronomists they are punished for their clever deduction!”

    We easily get how Eugene Peterson can call God’s “loyalty astronomic” in his Message translation. We might as well let someone call Matthew’s Magi (μάγοι magoi) – looking at the stars – wise “astronomists.” No one’s going to punish the translator for that.

  13. Cory Howell says:

    Great points, Wayne! When I read the phrase “translation informations,” I immediately thought, “This was written by someone whose first language is not English!” Imagine my surprise when I scrolled down and saw Wayne Leman as the author. My next thought was, “Typo?” Then I read more of the article, and saw your point. You’re absolutely right, people often do not apply the same standards to Biblical language as they do to their quotidian language. They expect the Bible to sound stilted and alien. The question then becomes, are they really understanding meaning correctly, or are they on a whole different matrix? Food for thought…

  14. Theophrastus says:

    J. K., I think that if one had a purpose in choosing “informations” over “information” — such as wordplay, or an attempt to elucidate a point, or an attempt to reflect some underlying feature of a source language in a translation — then it would be a legitimate choice. English is incredibly flexible (consider, for example, Finnegans Wake) and there is no need to strait-jacket our language.

    However, if it served no purpose at all, if it were simply perverse, then I would reject it.

    The problem with Bible translation is that we don’t fully understand the source text. There are considerable debates over the plain-reading (peshat) of the text; and the mystical meanings of the text are even more remote. In this way, it is a little like trying to translate Finnegans Wake — we certainly understand part of the source text, but not all of it.

    Given this, the translator has a range of choices:

    [1] She can choose to simplify the resulting translation to encompass only her limited understanding. I would say that many popular translations, such as the NIV and NLT fall into this category.

    [2] Alternatively, she can choose to try to capture as many literary features as possible in the resulting source text, while still hewing to English. I would say that translations such as the KJV (and to a lesser extent, the NRSV) follow this route.

    [3] Or the translator can go even further — not only trying to capture the original features, but write the text in an open, fresh, original way that shocks us into an effect of seeing the original text in its manifold complexity. I would say that translations such as Everett Fox and Willis Barnstone attempt this.

    Of course, those who advocate for translations such as the NLT would argue in reverse. They would say that the Bible was intended to be read by ordinary people, and thus [1] is most faithful to this intent. They would say that literal translations [2] induce an artificial complexity and “un-English” quality. And they would say that sophisticated translations [3] present the Bible as an alien text, reflecting the experience of an English reader who has little Hebrew and Greek, rather than a hypothetical “native-speaker” Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek reader.

    I still stay with my position because I believe that most readers are intelligent, and capable of making the bridge to texts that may appear to be unconventional English. The Bible in translation is hardly as difficult as poetry we all learn in school — such as T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens or Ezra Pound. If reading a sophisticated text takes more effort, then it also yields greater rewards and understanding.

  15. J. K. Gayle says:

    if one had a purpose in choosing “informations” over “information” — such as wordplay, or an attempt to elucidate a point, or an attempt to reflect some underlying feature of a source language in a translation — then it would be a legitimate choice.

    Theophrastus, I agree with every bit of what you said so clearly. And you so beautifully give lucid analogies, such as comparing trying to understand “the source text” with “trying to translate Finnegans Wake — we certainly understand part of the source text, but not all of it.” I can imagine your [1], [2], and [3] types of translations for James Joyce, and I believe I’ve seen all three; yes, I do prefer [3].

    But I also want to add something to what you say about “purpose.” I’m not sure Wayne had a purpose for writing “astronomists” (and not “astronomers”). And yet I get his word (even though it is neither, as Dannii says, “on the whole … standard English” nor “natural nor native”). There is “legitimate” meaning making here. Wayne knows what he means, and we all can get what he means, and yet the irony is that what he writes in some ways contradicts one of his meanings. He wants to call “informations” illegitimate (while using it as a native-speaker riddle – to test our boundaries for intolerance of unnatural, illegitimate phrases); and yet his illegitimate phrase (i.e., “astronomists”) passes. It is legitimate for him, and for us it passes. It passes because it is purposeful, if not made on purpose at first.

    If I were translating Wayne’s blogpost and all our follow up comments from English into, say, Vietnamese, then I might want to show how purposeful his un-purpose is. (I would want a #[3] translation). I would want, as a translator, to be able to show my Vietnamese readers Wayne’s wordplay that had no purpose but that is purposeful. It should be clear to English readers (even to Wayne now) how his inventive word “Astronomists” so makes meaning between his two true English words, “linguistics” and “Biologists.” His newer word isn’t necessarily an entirely accidental word, like a spoonerism. I think it’s more purposeful because “-ist” makes sense (in the three words together). How can Vietnamese get some of that sense?

    Beyond Wayne’s word, there’s another example. There are, as you know, a good many mysteries as to the purpose(s) Eliot may have had with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. He starts the “song” exactly where The Waste Land ends, on purpose? He excises the subtitle containing “women,” on purpose? His “Prufrock” sounds like a real German word, or perhaps is a variant of Eliot’s name at the time, and/ or maybe it’s an allusion to a place where he lives, on purpose? How legitimate a proper noun can it be, when Eliot confesses (after writing it):

    “I did not have, at the time of writing the poem, and have not yet recovered, any recollection of having acquired this name in any way, but I think that it must be assumed that I did, and that the memory has been obliterated.” ?

    The coined words of the Bible may be like this. Let’s assume there are some. And haven’t some such coinages been identified? I’d guess that there are inventive words for Moses, David, Solomon, the prophets, Paul, Peter, James, and the gospel writer-translators, and the unidentified authors and editors and translators, and maybe even Jesus. Who can know and who can say what they did with language on purpose? And yet, even if these writers and rhetors and translators did not intend to “wordplay, or … to elucidate a point” with their neologisms, then aren’t their new and novel words (however un-intended) still purposeful, and legitimate?

  16. Theophrastus says:

    It is certainly the case that sometimes, the foreign “voice” of a non-native writer of English can be highly appealing and form part of the total effect (I am thinking here of Joseph Conrad, who was an outstanding English stylist while retaining a heterochtonous inflection.)

    It is also the case that unconscious factors can come into play — or that a happy fortuity may add meaning. I suspect that most careful authors choose character names that have meaning: this is obvious in authors such as Dickens or Melville.

    Specifically, I suspect that Eliot was being coy with his explanation of the choice of “J. Alfred Prufrock” — the form of the name is marvelously pompous and the last name (with its alliterative allusions to “prude” and “frock”) is full of hints of repressed sexuality. If Eliot had chosen names the way Dan Brown does, and named his poem “The Love Song of Robert Langdon” then I doubt the poem would have worked as well.

    In the case of the Hebrew Bible, at least, the proper nouns are hardly chosen at random, but mostly have very specific (and often ironic) meanings. An English footnote explaining a Biblical pun is not nearly as effective as actually seeing the pun in Hebrew.

    We would need to ask Wayne to find out if his choice of “astronomists” was meant sardonically or in a charming display of mock-dyslexia or was unconscious. We could always ask him if he is happy with his choice or not.

    But, in many other cases, I take a cynical view of grammar lapses: consider the widespread mockin’ of Ivy League educated politicians who drop the their “g”s (G. W. Bush, Obama) when they are talkin’ to audiences of mixed educational backgrounds.

    In contrast, the grammar lapses in the NLT appear to me to be the result of poor editing — I cannot discern any intentional or unconscious literary intent in most of its instances of non-standard grammar.

  17. Mike Sangrey says:

    . At what point in the process of change, common to all languages, should we regard a word or other language form as sufficiently acceptable to include that form in an English Bible translation?

    Technically? When it’s Relevant. And I use Relevant in its technical sense.

    You can see what I’m referring to by simply reading the comments to this post. It seems to me the comments are exemplars of their individual points. To test this further, one could print this post and its comments and show it to 100 people. Ask them to arrange the comments in the order in which they “make sense.” You would see that they align along a Relevancy cline. The sentence level grammar evidenced in the comments is fine. However, the vocabulary is considerably beyond many people’s experience.

    So, Wayne, to answer your question differently, at that point in time when the cognitive effect is greatest.

    Perhaps such a testing method would provide more objective field tests for English Bibles. That is, place translated paragraphs from a half dozen translations on a printed page. Include the “new” translation. Ask people to align them along a cline of cognitive effect (you would, of course, use different wording to explain what they’re to accomplish). If your translation (with a word like informations) is in the upper third, it’s good to go. If not, it needs edited.

    I think softwares exist today to do this kind of formatting. 🙂

    P.S. I totally missed the word astronomists. Even when J.K. was first explaining it, I was thinking, “I wonder what the issue is?” It wasn’t until he contrasted it with astronomers that it got clear. I’d have to think for a while why that is. Interesting.

  18. Dannii Willis says:

    “Astronomists” works because /-ist/ is still a productive morpheme. Now why there are right form is an interesting question for the lexicalists among us. It’s similar to how I frequently mix up /un-/ and /iN-/ even though there too there are right forms.

    Negative inversion, though uncommon, is still part of natural contemporary English. Both inverted and non-inverted forms have the same [V NEG …] structure after all, the difference is whether do-support is required.

    There is a lot of flexibility in English, as there is in all languages. But that is not limitless flexibility. SOV is almost certainly ungrammatical now, even if that was not the case a short while ago.

  19. Theophrastus says:

    SOV is almost certainly ungrammatical now, even if that was not the case a short while ago.

    What about a prepositional phrase indirect object? Do you allow locative inversion? Does this sound grammatical to you:

    The cat, in the garden, sat.

    To me it sounds grammatical, but unnatural.

  20. Dannii says:

    “in the garden” is an adjunct, not an object. Adjuncts can generally be positioned anywhere. “sat” is intransitive after all.

  21. Wayne Leman says:

    Theophrastus wrote:

    We would need to ask Wayne to find out if his choice of “astronomists” was meant sardonically or in a charming display of mock-dyslexia or was unconscious. We could always ask him if he is happy with his choice or not.

    Yes, you could. You know, I read Kurk’s comments before yours and kept wondering why he was saying that I had written “astronimists.” I hadn’t written that. And yet it’s there on the blog page. My brain would have typed “astronomers” if the connection between my brain and fingers were as stable as it used to be in my younger years. In the last few years my fingers have taken on a mind of their own. And there is one of the quandries for translators: Do they translate what they know (or can reasonably assume) is the original speaker’s intent or somehow try to get across to their translation audience that the speaker made a mistake, WITHOUT distorting the flow of the speaker’s speech. This situation often arises because we are all (I think, therefore we are, eh?!) human and part of being human is being fallible.

    You guys always manage to find so many more interesting things to discuss on my posts than I imagine when I write them!

  22. Wayne Leman says:

    Theophrastus, FWIW, I find “I to him gave it” totally unacceptable while I don’t have too much difficulty with “The cat, in the garden, sat.” I could imagine it occurring in some poem, perhaps where there is a focus on the cat and the different places where she sat.

  23. J. K. Gayle says:

    In contrast, the grammar lapses in the NLT appear to me to be the result of poor editing — I cannot discern any intentional or unconscious literary intent in most of its instances of non-standard grammar. – Theophrastus

    I read Kurk’s comments before yours and kept wondering why he was saying that I had written “astronimists.” I hadn’t written that. And yet it’s there on the blog page. My brain would have typed “astronomers” if the connection between my brain and fingers were as stable as it used to be in my younger years. In the last few years my fingers have taken on a mind of their own. – Wayne

    I get Theophrastus’s insistence on the author’s intent. Why should we readers have to tolerate “lapses”? Why can’t we readers appreciate elegance and wellformedness?

    So intentionally, here, I misspell “wellformedness” even if Wayne in the paragraph quoted above appears not to have intended to misspell “astronImists” (but in his Amercian English phonology, he hears to himself in the third syllable an unstressed vowel ‘reduced’ to ‘schwa’, and this sounds like his more properly spelled “astronOmists” – which as pointed out is not proper English at all). Wayne has finally confessed he didn’t intend and didn’t even realize what we wrote.

    How are we readers supposed to forgive that? Do we forgive Wayne? Can we forgive Bible translators whether Eugene Peterson for weak poetry (and let me invent a word such as “doggerelish” for a tendency to rhyme poorly)? Or can we even tolerate the T/NIV teams for continuing to use “lest”? Or how can we let it go when the NLT team at least appears to follow the phrasing and paraphrasing of Kenneth Taylor more than, say, the neologistic phrasing of Paul the New Testament writer?

    The point of this blog is “better” bibles. At some point, there has to be a standard, a line in the sand, for “better.” Are we, as readers of good writing, hoping for better art? Are we intending, as translators, to have better “relevance” better propositioning and informing with the product of our translation? We seem to be playing two different games at least: the high literary game and the game of the Vulgate.

    Having gone on too long, let me just end with something from George Steiner and then from Terry Eagleton (two of the “best” observers of language and human behavior ever, who are still among us). Note their radical, universal statements:

    “Language is, therefore, both embedded in its cumulative past and in a manifold present, with its physiological, temporal, and social modifiers. Even at its most casual, sub-literate levels, an act and deed of human saying are, to some degree, rhetorical. They aspire to being heard, to persuade, by enlisting, consciously or not, instruments attached to word and sentence but not, strictly considered, linguistic. The purely semantic leads into the semiotic, into the surrounding phenomenology of making and communicating sense. Thus well before it leaves itself behind in order to ‘danse its meaning,’ language is radically choreographic and ‘multi-media.'” — Grammars of Creation, page 155.

    “We speak of the complex network of meanings of a Shakespeare play without always supposing that Shakespeare was holding these meanings in his head at the exact moment of writing the words down. How could any poet of such prodigal imaginative fertility keep in mind all the possible connotations of his meanings? To say ‘This is a possible meaning of the work’ is sometimes to say that this is what the work can be plausibly interpreted to mean. What the author actually ‘had in mind’ may be completely beyond recovery, even for himself [or herself]. Many writers have had the experience of being shown patterns of meaning in their work which they did not mean to put there. And what of unconscious meanings, which are by definition not deliberately intended? ‘I really do think with my pen’, Wittgenstein observes [in Culture and Value], ‘because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing.'” — The Meaning of Life, page 47.

  24. Mike Sangrey says:

    J.K. wrote: Are we, as readers of good writing, hoping for better art?

    That is exactly what I was thinking about this AM on the way into work.

    🙂

    I thought about a posting that asked how we should define ‘accuracy’. Is a Psalm more accurately translated if it is “better art”? Is Galatians more accurately translated if it is more “Relevant”?

    I think those are interesting questions.

  25. Brian Whalen says:

    Isn’t this at the core of the whole literalism vs readibility debate? This will reveal my bias for sure, but do you want maximum truth or something that is watered down or incomplete but more easily read? I know all translation is approximation, but it seems we should do all we can to minimize error, God speaks of the cost of adding to or taking away from His Word.

  26. Mike Sangrey says:

    Isn’t this at the core of the whole literalism vs readibility debate? … do you want maximum truth or something that is watered down or incomplete but more easily read?

    I think this posits the problem along the wrong cline. At least, there is no way forward to a solution with the debate framed in this way.

    For example, what if we come at it differently. What about a speech presenting a rather complex truth. And, it presents it in a highly accessible way. The audience comes away saying, “Wow, that was lucid.”

    Now, was there maximal truth? Yes. Was it accessible (ie “readable”)? By definition, yes. So, we have a case in a “text” where both elements of this “truth versus accessibility” cline exist simultaneously. Therefore, I think it is safe to say, the cline is not really along a single dimension, but is actually two dimensional.

    The observations which generate the “literal vs readibility” debate really do need to be taken seriously. But, I don’t think framing it the way it is always framed leads to a solution.

  27. Dannii Willis says:

    “literal” almost always means “morph-syntactic literalness” which is basically the direct opposite of readability. But when other kinds of literalness are in view they can coexist with readability.

  28. Theophrastus says:

    The problem is that the literary quality of the Bible can be argued to carry theological meaning itself. I would certainly argue that this is the case in the Hebrew Bible, where we can show ample examples of this (and it has sprouted an entire industry of numerous (entirely distinct) forms of exegesis — ranging from higher criticism to Rabbinic analysis to many, many theories about poetry, etc.

    I was less familiar with this trend in the New Testament. One can certainly discern different “voices” in Greek of the different Gospels — distinctions that often are lost in translation. However, it is not clear that these literary qualities necessarily carry theological meaning. We may enjoy recognizing them, and they may lead to interesting source criticism — but do they change the essential message? If Matthew and Mark sound pretty much the same in translation, will that lead to errors in interpretation? The natural instinct is to firmly answer “no”.

    However, I recently saw a stunning argument that literary qualities in the Greek Scriptures do carry substantial theological meaning — in Douglas Campbell’s amazing Deliverance of God (Eerdmans 2009). Campbell’s massive analysis of Romans is a work of stunning originality (I think it is the most original piece of Christian exegesis I’ve seen since E. P. Sanders), and Campbell turns and turns again to the particular literary expressions that Paul used. While I suspect that many will disagree with Campbell’s conclusions, it is clear that the literary qualities of Romans are up discussion as impacting the theological inferences we make of his text. In this short comment, I can hardly do justice to a 1000+ page work (that has already seen dedicated sessions at SBL and furious back and forth in theological journals), but at least the structure of Campbell’s arguments put on the table the possibility that literary qualities of the Biblical text have theological import.

    Now, let me anticipate a response to this point of view. One could certainly argue that even highly literary translations may only capture some of these qualities (although I certainly hope that future translators consult Campbell to be on the alert for those qualities he identifies). However, even though perfect translation is impossible, should we not make the best possible effort? Should we not try to produce a translation that best reflects the literary qualities of the original, and one that can also be regarded as treasured part of English literature (and not just a “translation”)?

  29. Peter Kirk says:

    Brian’s question reminds me of the political hustings meeting I went to last night, in preparation for the UK general election. This was organised by the local Churches Together group. Four candidates (the BNP was not invited, and one other could not attend) answered questions from the audience. Some of the candidates seemed more impressive than others, and would do a better in debate as Members of Parliament. Some of the candidates’ policies were better than others’, in my opinion. Should I vote for the most impressive candidate or for the one with the best policies? I would certainly think that policy should come first (these are not presidential candidates), although if two candidates came close on policy I might use their personal characteristics as a tie-breaker.

    Similarly with Bible translation. Is what matters the substance of what the text teaches, or its style? If the substance is weak, because the translation is not accurate or clear, I would never choose a translation for its style. But other things being more or less equal, I would choose the one which had the better style for the application I was using it for – which might or might not mean the one with the higher literary style.

  30. J. K. Gayle says:

    that the literary quality of the [Hebrew] Bible can be argued to carry theological meaning itself

    that literary qualities in the Greek Scriptures do carry substantial theological meaning

    That’s a great pair of wonderfully amazing statements. I’ve been thinking about them all day.

  31. Don Johnson says:

    I absolutely believe that literary qualities such as structure, etc. needs to be a part of understanding Scripture.

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