Bible translation foundations – grammar

Another topic in which I have sensed that there is disagreement among the BBB readership has to do with what is “grammatical” in English, the language which we focus on, into which translations of the Bible are made. So let’s see if we can clarify some areas where we agree and disagree about English grammar as it relates to Bible translation.

  1. What, if any, grammatical rules should be generally followed in a translation of the Bible to English? Give at least one example so we can deal with some specifics of English grammar.
  2. How can/should we determine what the grammatical rules of English are?
  3. For which stage/period of the history of the English language should grammatical rules be followed in an English Bible translation?

I’m sure all the creative minds who meet here can think of some other questions having to do with English grammar and Bible translation in case I missed some.

11 thoughts on “Bible translation foundations – grammar

  1. Theophrastus says:

    Joking: The inverted verb-subject order is definitely OK and the “singular they” is definitely forbidden.

    More seriously, especially if it is a poetic translation, I am willing to forgive a lot in terms of grammar. For example, I have absolutely no problem with Everett Fox’s style of translation (here, I have slightly changed Fox’s text — changing the English Tetragrammaton to “the LORD”:

    22:1 Now after these events it was
    that God tested Avraham
    and said to him:
    He said:
    Here I am.
    2 He said:
    Pray take your son,
    your only-one,
    whom you love,
    and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya/Seeing,
    and offer him up there as an offering-up
    upon one of the mountains
    that I will tell you of.
    3 Avraham started-early in the morning,
    he saddled his donkey,
    he took his two serving-lads with him and Yitzhak his son,
    he split wood for the offering-up
    and arose and went to the place that God had told him of.
    4 On the third day Avraham lifted up his eyes
    and saw the place from afar.
    5 Avraham said to his lads:
    You stay here with the donkey,
    and I and the lad wish to go yonder,
    we wish to bow down and then return to you.
    6 Avraham took the wood for the offering-up,
    he placed them upon Yitzhak his son,
    in his hand he took the fire and the knife.
    Thus the two of them went together.
    7 Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, he said:
    He said:
    Here I am, my son.
    He said:
    Here are the fire and the wood,
    but where is the lamb for the offering-up?
    8 Avraham said:
    God will see-for-himself to the lamb for the offering-up,
    my son.
    Thus the two of them went together.
    9 They came to the place that God had told him of;
    there Avraham built the slaughter-site
    and arranged the wood
    and bound Yitzhak his son
    and placed him on the slaughter-site atop the wood.
    10 And Avraham stretched out his hand,
    he took the knife to slay his son.
    11 But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven
    and said:
    Avraham! Avraham!
    He said:
    Here I am.
    12 He said:
    Do not stretch out your hand against the lad,
    do not do anything to him!
    For now I know
    that you are in awe of God—
    you have not withheld your son, your only-one, from me.
    13 Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw:
    here, a ram was caught behind in the thicket by its horns!
    Avraham went,
    he took the ram
    and offered it up as an offering-up in place of his son.
    14 Avraham called the name of that place: the LORD Sees.
    As the saying is today: On the LORD’s mountain (it) is seen.
    15 Now the LORD’s messenger called to Avraham a second time from heaven
    16 and said:
    By myself I swear
    —the LORD’s utterance—
    indeed, because you have done this thing, have not withheld your son, your only-one,
    17 indeed, I will bless you, bless you,
    I will make your seed many, yes, many,
    like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore of the sea;
    your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemies,
    18 all the nations of the earth shall enjoy blessing through your seed,
    in consequence of your hearkening to my voice.
    19 Avraham returned to his lads,
    they arose and went together to Be’er-Sheva.
    And Avraham stayed in Be’er-Sheva.

    This is not “natural” English, but it is strikingly close to the Hebrew and preserves much of the rhythm and tone of the Hebrew. When it is presented at poetry, I think it becomes acceptable.

    I find artificial archaic use in a translation jarring. Thus, I find the NKJV’s archaisms unnatural (particularly since it is written in a dialect that never existed in English — neither Elizabethan nor modern). In the RSV, I understand the desire to use thee/thou forms (they are not completely extinct from contemporary English and they have greater precision than the plural 2nd person), but I am glad they were eliminated in the NRSV.

    On the other hand, for Bibles that are historic documents (e.g., Wycliffe, Tyndale, the Geneva, the Douay-Rheims and its revision by Challoner, the Authorized Version, etc.), I think it is obscene to change their grammar (although I have no problems with versions that intelligently modernize spelling and punctuation). These versions have lost none of their power or importance — and in many ways, in our own day, we are still trying to produce a translation that is as good as the KJV was.

    I find translations that use modern slang (such as the use of “slacker” in the HCSB) discordant to read. I am can accept “pisseth against the wall” (1 Samuel 25:22,34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8) because that was not idle slang at the time it was written. I can somewhat uneasily accept the “singular they” because at least it serves a specific purpose in the TNIV (although, every time I see it, I primarily notice the non-standard grammar — probably not the intentions of the TNIV translators).

  2. Theophrastus says:

    Notwithstanding my criticisms of the NKJV, I would like to congratulate Thomas Nelson for tonight (May 25th) winning The Audies (audiobook award) in the Best Audio Drama, Best Inspirational/Faith-Based Non-Fiction, and Best Package Design categories. I’m so happy to see increasing attention given to well-made audio Bibles.

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    What, if any, grammatical rules should be generally followed in a translation of the Bible to English?

    Wayne, Your questions on grammar follow your questions on audience(s), and that’s very helpful. The audience determines the grammar. Fox’s Bible, that Theophrasus gives us a wonderful excerpt from, is for a readership that appreciates “the rhythm and tone of the Hebrew” and a poetic English for that. Hence, this is both fine sentence-level syntax and also, what Robert Longacre calls, “discourse grammar”:

    Avraham took the wood for the offering-up,
    he placed them upon Yitzhak his son,
    in his hand he took the fire and the knife.
    Thus the two of them went together.

    Fox’s English grammar not only acknowledges the Hebrew rhythms of the Vav (ו) but it also avoids a syntax that sounds bald, prosaic, straightforward, requiring the typical conjunctive “and” for the series of events within the clause(s).

    The [N]KJV audiences, on the other hand, want faithfulness to the Hebrew syntax without regard to the “grammars” of English prose or (Hebrew) poetry:

    And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

    At another extreme (from N/KJV) is the NLT, which smooths out the English narrative grammar for its audiences:

    So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them walked on together, …

    Thus, I think the English grammar depends on the audience and its expectations and not so much on any particular stage of English in its historical development.

    I do think creative license, depending on the audience, is important in the translator’s grammar. For example, Clarence Jordan has rather conversational grammar when he writes his Cotton Patch Gospels. His audience likes and expects the following, for instance:

    From then on, Jesus began spreading his ideas. “Reshape your lives, for God’s new order of the Spirit is confronting you.”

    Notice how Jordan doesn’t need to give any sort of quotation device other than the quote marks, which come rather awkwardly and unconventionally — but conversationally — after the full stop, period, of the previous clause.

    In contrast is the very peculiar grammar of the Common English Bible. In an effort to follow conventional grammar rules, there are problems:

    From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

    Notice that “announce” introduces the imperative. This seems very unlike how anyone writes. If the infinitive verb had been “say” or “preach” or even “command,” then that part of the grammar might be more acceptable, even to the CEB’s “broad audience of Bible readers—from children to scholars.” And “Here comes the…” is reminiscent, for some in the CEB audience, of a pop-culture line from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the popular American tv comedy series in the 60s and 70s. This sort of creativity in grammar does not “ensure a smooth and natural reading experience,” which is the CEB goal.

  4. Dannii Willis says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “grammar” Kurk, for all of the examples you just gave seem to be grammatical in (at least my understanding of) contemporary international English. There are of course substantial stylistic differences though.

    Fox’s compound “offering-up” is odd, but understandable. But if it regularly made up new words I’m not sure I’d want to read it a lot.

    As for Wayne’s questions… a good start would be the CGEL. Until it too is outdated. I guess my answer for his third question would be the future 😉

  5. John Radcliffe says:

    As regards the CEB rendering of Matt 4:17 (which JK quotes), I’m interested to see that this has changed from the version I downloaded in November 2009. That had “Change your hearts and lives, because the kingdom of heaven has come near”. While I’d agree that rendering needed improvement, I’m not sure that’s what we’ve got with “Here is”.

    And am I the only person to wonder, after reading v18 (“he saw two brothers … throwing their nets into the sea, because they were fishermen.”), whether it should say “ex-fishermen”, as they seem to be throwing their nets away? To me at least, fishing nets are one of the few things that are still “cast” rather than “thrown” (unless of course, you just want to get rid of them).

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “grammar”

    Dannii, I’m glad you used scare quotes (as Wayne did initially too with “grammatical”). I like the *American Heritage Dictionary’s Chomskyesque definition: “The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language.” Chomsky, of course, has to concede that grammar, of his sort, also must include syntactic language rules “below” the “Sentence” as well; hence: an “offering-up” works for Fox and for you too, however novel at some respective point for you both. But, as I suggested, I also like the Longacre-esque notion of grammar (as “style” too), grammar that’s at chunked levels of language which are “above” and “beyond” the “Sentence.” I might even go so far as to appreciate very much the Pike-esque grammemics, an early name that the great Kenneth L. Pike gave to his language-based theory of epistemology that eventually became Tagmemics. This is exactly why I say that audience determines grammar (and you see that I’m including the translator[s] in audience). Grammar is the radically relative (albeit rigidly restrained) ways speakers and writers pattern language. (Don’t “contemporary international” Englishes allow “pattern” as a verb?)


    To me at least, fishing nets are one of the few things that are still “cast” rather than “thrown” (unless of course, you just want to get rid of them).

    To me too, John. (Thanks for pointing out the CEB translation evolution at Matt 4:17. The causal connection in the sentence was clearer if then it still “needed improvement.” The needed improvement is certainly “grammatical”, isn’t it?)

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    Wayne asks with his first question: What grammar rules?

    I couldn’t help but reword his question into what I think is a wonderfully ambiguous one. 🙂 One meaning is prescriptive, the other is descriptive.

    We should use the rules established in the individuals of our audience during their language learning period of their life. Those rules which were established through usage by the individuals and those around them which influenced their language formulation.

    And this brings up a related question: “How do we handle the variation?”

    For example, can “to bow down and worship” be “to humbly worship”?

    In other words, some people say, “Thou shalt not split infinitives!” Others say, “I never purpose to consciously split infinitives.”

    Since there’s variation in the audience, what do we do with it?

  8. Dannii Willis says:

    Mike, I think we should try to write in the common grammatical subset that our audience shares. We all have our own idiolects, and further than that, there are differences between the regional varieties of English. But there is still a common subset which is grammatical to all native speakers of “standard” English. You could probably look to the BBC international news for examples.

    As to a particular rule, how about one I found recently: you can’t use an infinitive clause as a relative clause.

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