Bible translation foundations – accuracy

Most, perhaps all, people who read the Bible in translation want the translation to be accurate. But Bible translation accuracy is defined and illustrated in different ways by different people. Let’s see what the range of opinions about accuracy is among BBB readers.

  1. How would you define accuracy for a Bible translation?
  2. What factors do you think should be considered in determining whether or not a translation is accurate?
  3. What relationship, if any, do you think there should be between attempting to retain grammatical forms in the biblical language texts and translation accuracy?
  4. If you can think of any, point out some specific Bible passage examples of inaccurate Bible translation.

110 thoughts on “Bible translation foundations – accuracy

  1. Theophrastus says:

    How can a translation possibly be gauged as “accurate” unless the evaluator of “accuracy” completely understands the source material?

    If I were czar, I would forbid the use of slogans such as “accurate” in the description of translations. Anyone who claims that a translation of the Bible (or of literature, or of a non-fiction work such as a history or philosophy book of at least moderate complexity) is “accurate” is stating a falsehood.

    Even as a comparative, the term “accuracy” is ill-founded. There is no absolute measure of one translation being “more accurate” than another. It is evident that there is no reliable single dimensioned measure, so we can not compare “accuracy” in the way that we might compare the weight of two bags of potatoes.

    (Incidentally, the same remark applies to those who claim a certain “reading-level” for books — e.g., claiming that a particular Bible translation is a 8th grade reading level.)

    Claiming a translation is “accurate” is simply a mendacious marketing slogan — just like claiming a purchase is “risk free” (no purchase is ever completely free of risk). Rather than load all the claimed virtues into a single word, we should demand more nuanced descriptions of our translations.

  2. John Mark Harris says:

    The translation should create a situation where the translator writes almost as though the original author was writing to the new audience. No need to keep the forms of Greek & Hebrew, they should be 100% English. Meaning is the key (and hard to get at).

  3. Gary Simmons says:

    1. How would you define accuracy for a Bible translation?
    Accuracy, for me, is conveying the intended meaning in like form. So, if there is a straightforward statement, it should of course be translated in a straightforward way. If a metaphor is used, then (ideally) the same metaphor should be used in English (if it conveys the same meaning as L1’s metaphor); barring this, a roughly equivalent metaphor should be used.

    In short: it should be rendered as figuratively as it is in L1, conveying the same meaning the author intended.

    2. What factors do you think should be considered in determining whether or not a translation is accurate?
    As mentioned: figurativeness-literalness, tone, emotion (ah!) or framing, and (denotative) meaning.

    3. What relationship, if any, do you think there should be between attempting to retain grammatical forms in the biblical language texts and translation accuracy?
    If the same grammatical form or syntax would give the same impression (which it rarely does), then retain the form/syntax. Else, find one that, to the best of the translator’s understanding [of L1], functions in likewise manner for L2. I stress L1 because it is more difficult for us to know the syntax of ancient Hebrew/Greek (e.g. “is the non-clitic eme/emoi/emou always emphatic?) than it is to discern emphasis in living languages such as English or modern Israeli/Greek.

    There are instances in which I would want to retain a certain grammatical structure despite its oddity in L2, and that would be when L1 is using a particular thing for emphasis. As an example, Jesus was obedient “to the point of death” in Philippians 2:8, but this phrase later is used of Epaphroditus to parallel him to Jesus as another living example of godly conduct (2:30). The use for E-Rod is often obscured in translation because it is not idiomatic. I would retain it in circumstances like that, though I do not condemn translations for more idiomatically saying “he neared death” rather than “came near to the point of death” as I did in my recent blog post on Philippians. Let me also shamelessly plug for myself in saying that I’m trying to make a literary translation of Philippians, and any feedback is appreciated.

    4. If you can think of any, point out some specific Bible passage examples of inaccurate Bible translation.
    Wayne, you know this will take up 90% of the comment thread, right? Maybe I’ll jump in when others start naming passages. Else, we’ll stick with Philippians 2:30 mentioned above.

  4. Theophrastus says:

    The fourth question is:

    If you can think of any, point out some specific Bible passage examples of inaccurate Bible translation.

    This is of course, no challenge at all. It is the opposite of the hard question.

    What I would love to see in the comments is an example of an extended passage which is defended as accurate.

    (To analogize to Maimonides’s negative theology: it is easy to explain what God is not ([i>Guide to the Perplexed 1.58]. It is much harder [Maimonides says impossible] to comprehensively explain what God is.)

    Apophatic examples of Bible translation are a dime a dozen. Are there any cataphatic examples?

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    “How would you define accuracy … ?”

    How would an astrophysicist define “light”? Physicist Alan Lightman rightly says that to “define” really is the task of the scientist. But the artist, the fiction writer, Lightman explains has a different task: to ring true, to appeal to those who would believe, to compel them to suspend their disbelief; Lightman, the acclaimed physicist, is probably more famous for his work as an artist, a writer of fiction. Ever read his first novel Einstein’s Dreams?

    The novel has been translated from English into more than 30 different languages. So I asked Lightman whether he prefers the translators of his novels to be more accurately “defining” scientists or cleverly “believable” artists. Lightman cleverly answered (without a moment’s hesitation): “Both!” Translators who are accurate must be accurate to the source and the target texts; and they also must be accurate to what Lightman calls, metaphorically, the writerly-readerly human enjoyment of texts from their “hearts” and their “stomachs” not just from their accurate “heads.”

    So, Lightman has to deconstruct the supposed binary between science / art. If you read Einstein’s Dreams in English (and presumably in any good translation of it), then you get how “accuracy” can be pretty dreamy.

    When we come to the question “for a Bible translation,” then we are much more deeply involved in the expansion of “accuracy” as not just the opposite of “inaccuracy.” Bible translator Kenneth Pike allows any human user of language, for example, to accurately talk of a “thing,” such as “light” in terms of a “particle” (i.e., something with fixed boundaries), or of a “wave” (i.e., something dynamic, fuzzy, in flux, and/or amorphous, etc.), or of a “field” (i.e., in relation to something else; such as light may become in relation to time, to space, to matter, to a human viewer, etc.). Pike makes us, lets us, discuss “accuracy” of – say – either “the forms of Greek & Hebrew” or “100% English” in terms of particle or wave or field. Any good accurate scientist will do so, he says.

    And more recently, Bible scholar and translator David Rosenberg says things like:

    [Unfortunately, w]e don’t expect our astronomy professors or law professors [i.e., those whom we usually require to be most ‘accurate’] to know much about the difference between Isaiah and Matthew. It has become clear to me, however, that what is missing is more than [Biblical] reading experience, historical knowledge, or religious belief. It’s time to recognize that what has been lost is the Judeo-Christian cosmic theater, with its penetrating vision of a future, its broader grasp of the limits of human knowledge, its deeper sense of time, and its larger universe that includes unknown as well as unknowable meanings of our existence as a human species.” (page 3, An Educated Man)

    What Rosenberg is getting to is being most “accurate” to the Bible. This sort of accuracy is inherent to the Bible writers and translators themselves – before and while they translate.

    In other words, to “define accuracy for a Bible translation” is dicey if we “define” differently from how the various Bible authors “defined.” And, likewise and similarly, when we try to reduce “accuracy” to something very foreign to the Bible itself, and then we use this notion of so-called (not inaccurate / absolutely accurate) “accuracy” to apply to our translations of the Bible, then we may be in deep trouble before we even start. Yes, we’d do well to cataphatic Hebrew! And then work with cataphatic English in return.

    Rosenberg goes on to say something worth emphasizing in this discussion. He says:

    “The Judeo-Christian educated man or woman is an interpreter of texts, skilled in the self-critical art of reading history. At its elemental level, this reading is what we call ‘reading between the lines,’ and … this interpreting power [… has to and] does … extend to the classic moral text of the Bible [and … ] to a disciplined understanding of how civilization forms [i.e., forms even by translating] a ‘classic’ [text, such as the Bible].”

    Accuracy first, for a Bible translation, has to include and to extend and to practice what Bible rhetors and writers understood and practiced as accuracy.

  6. CD-Host says:

    How would you define accuracy for a Bible translation?

    Conveying the aspect of the underlying text the translation claims to convey. So for example a dynamic translation is more accurate the more meaning it captures. A formal translation is more accurate the more it successfully gives insight into structure. A literal translation is accurate the more it reveals the original text….

    What factors do you think should be considered in determining whether or not a translation is accurate?

    How well does it convey and capture the different aspects of meaning and form.

    What relationship, if any, do you think there should be between attempting to retain grammatical forms in the biblical language texts and translation accuracy?

    I think it depends on the claims of the translation. How closely does it hold to the notion that it is translating “God’s words” and not just “God’s ideas”. I do think the translation should aim to be consistent and footnote when it is having trouble being consistent.

    If you can think of any, point out some specific Bible passage examples of inaccurate Bible translation.

    Isaiah 7:14 — Theological override of the underlying text.
    Similarly Romans 16:7

    1 Cor 2:8 — Difficulty in capturing double entendre

    2 Cor 12:2 — Complexity of translation vs. transculturation (to use your word).

    Romans 6:8 — Complexity of capturing meaning associated with tenses that don’t exist in English.

    Romans 11:36 / 12:2 The problem of not being concordant

    etc…

  7. WoundedEgo says:

    Accuracy relates to the small. When something is accurate, it not only gets the “sense” but also the “details” correct.

    Consider the difference between a typical “ruler” (CANON) that is intended to bring you within a 16th of an “inch” (an intrinsically crude standard) and a micrometer, which harbors the ambition of bringing you within a thousandth of an inch.

    I disagree with those who believe that if you get the “sense” of the passage then you are better off than if you get the details. They are decidedly excited about forest, and ho-hum about trees.

    The fact is, of course, that if you see the trees, but not the forest, you are in one mess, while if you see the trees but not the forest then you are in another. That is what threw me about “sociology.” That is a science that looks at the whole forest. If one person smokes crack, then walks through the streets quacking like a duck, that person has a problem. But if 34.2134% of the population of Nebraska exhibits the same behavior, then **Nebraska** has a problem! So, yes, you need to see things as a gestalt, as a whole. But you also need to see the details.

    Accuracy is that which enables us to see trees. Meditation is what helps us see forest *and* trees.

  8. Dannii Willis says:

    1. How would you define accuracy for a Bible translation?
    If we asked a reader some comprehension questions and backtranslated them and then travelled back in time and asked the text’s author what they thought, an accurate translation wouldn’t lead to anything where the author would go “WTF? How did they get that idea?”

    2. What factors do you think should be considered in determining whether or not a translation is accurate?
    All of them.

    3. What relationship, if any, do you think there should be between attempting to retain grammatical forms in the biblical language texts and translation accuracy?
    Generally, no attempt.
    The exception, possibly, is if the target language is closely related to the source language.

  9. Theophrastus says:

    If we asked a reader some comprehension questions and backtranslated them and then travelled back in time

    Since traveling backwards in time is physically impossible, isn’t this always a counterfactual? It seems it does not give us any effective test for determining whether a translation is “accurate” or not.

  10. Michael Nicholls says:

    In a fairly simple answer, to get an ‘accurate’ translation I’d start with a list of all the features of language (anyone have that list btw?;)), and try to be as faithful as possible to as many as possible.

    E.g.,
    lexical consistency
    focus
    style
    genre
    collocation
    idiom
    figures of speech
    register
    theme
    grammar
    etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc……

    Is it a perfect method? No. But we have to try, and I think it works pretty well.

    Also, as a guide (and I know it’s ultimately impossible), it’s nice to think in the back of your mind, “What would the author have said if he’d been speaking this language?”

  11. Mike Sangrey says:

    1. How would you define accuracy for a Bible translation?

    Accuracy in Bible translation occurs when a translation reasonably approaches the original meaning. The audience should be able to relatively easily use the skills expected of them to determine the meaning. A translation intended to be analysed should present what is needed by that audience in a reasonably accurate way. A translation intended to be used in much the same way the original was intended to be used should adopt the form appropriate to that audience.

    2. What factors do you think should be considered in determining whether or not a translation is accurate?

    I’m going to leave out many syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic factors which should be considered since I think they have and will be brought up in this discussion. However, I’d like to place one on the table I think is frequently missed: a documented rationale for the specific translation choices. I believe this is the key factor to be considered when determining whether a translation is accurate. The NET’s translation notes provide examples of my thinking.

    3. What relationship, if any, do you think there should be between attempting to retain grammatical forms in the biblical language texts and translation accuracy?

    None. The issue is in your question–it’s the word retain. If L1 and L2 coincidentally have forms that match, then great. But, that’s like the similarity between forms in the same language which have no relationship. For example, ear of corn and ear that hears.

    4. If you can think of any, point out some specific Bible passage examples of inaccurate Bible translation.

    You probably want easy ones. 🙂 Unfortunately, it’s the very difficult ones that come to mind.

    I’ve believed for some time now that Luke 15:17 is translated very inaccurately.
    εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. Literally, But/And/Now having come to himself. Frequently translated as But when he came to his senses. I think the meaning is much closer to I now know what I can do!. [For those who might think this destroys the whole point of the parable, please consider that repentance happens when this prodigal son is overwhelmed by the surprising sacrifice of his father running to meet him. There’s more details available from the socio-linguistic context which I won’t go into here. See Bailey here who presents, IMO, a wonderful and concise description of the translation inaccuracies of the parable (though he left out the shameful running of the father.]

    γλῶσσα, Tongue/Foreign Language in 1 Corinthians 14.

    These are quite difficult to deal with.

  12. WoundedEgo says:

    This morning I was reading from the NKJV:

    Numbers 14:11a:
    “How long will these people reject Me?…”

    I was struck that this was different from the KJV:

    “And the LORD said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me?…”

    Leaving aside the obvious difference between “reject” and “provoke” for now, I noticed that the KJV reading was racist, while the NKJV was personal. I don’t know Hebrew, but one or the other is inaccurate (as is the difference between “reject” and “provoke”). The answer might indicate whether Yehovah thought he would have better results from a new batch of people, or whether or thought that Moses would be better stock.

  13. Theophrastus says:

    I am somewhat amazed by the responses above, which depict “accuracy” as maintaining fidelity — at least to the meaning — of the original text.

    For example, John Mark Harris writes:

    Meaning is the key

    Gary Simmons writes:

    conveying the intended meaning

    J. K. Gayle writes (I am quoting him out of context):

    has to include … what Bible rhetors and writers understood

    CD Host writes:

    capture the different aspects of meaning

    WoudedEgo writes:

    gets the “sense” … correct

    Dannii Willis writes:

    an accurate translation wouldn’t lead to anything where the author would [make an outraged obscenity]

    Michael Nicholls writes:

    What would the author have said if he’d been speaking this language?

    All of these seem to presuppose a way to figure out the meaning of a text or authorial intention. However, in the case of the Bible, that is outside our ability in many, many places.

    (1) The text itself is obscure to the point that in many places, the meaning is uncertain. Thus, in the NJPS, there are hundreds and hundreds of footnotes saying “meaning of Heb. uncertain.” In fact, if you open to a random page of an NJPS translation, you’ll probably see that in a footnote. If we can’t even figure out what the constituent words mean, it seems hubris to speak about the “meaning of the original text”.

    (2) We lack the context to understand the intended meaning. In Job 40:3-5, is Job being defiant? Frightened? Sincere? How about God’s response at verses 11-14? The emotional tone we infer will result in different English text, because English has many markers for tone.

    (3) Exegetes strongly disagree over the meaning of passages: thus, in recent times, Moo*, Wright*, Fitzgerald*, Dunn*, Sanders, Campbell, and others have produced differing interpretations of Romans. (Those authors marked with an asterisk have also produced translations). At most one of these scholars can be correct in his interpretation because they are mutually exclusive. Moreover, these differences are reflected in actual English translations. Thus, for example, in his lecture series Romans in a Week, Wright strongly attacks the NIV as being inadequate because it mistranslates (by which he means it translates according to the Lutheran view of Paul).

    (4) In Catholic exegesis, there are four sense of scripture: literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 115-119, or even better, Henri de Lubac’s three volume treatment). Somewhat analogously, Jewish exegesis recognizes four sense: peshat (literal), remez (allegorical), derash (comparative/midrashic), sod (mystical/hidden). Typically “meaning” is assessed at the literal level for the purposes of translation; but there are many passages in the Bible which are simply nonsensical at this level. Perhaps the most famous example is Ezekiel 1. Here, there is no “literal” meaning separate from the deeper symbolic or mystical meanings; making assessment of accuracy of translation impossible.

    Whenever I meet someone who claims that he (or she) understands what the Bible “means”, I ask what version he read. Inevitably, the man who “understand” the Bible say he read it in English, French, German, etc. The man who admits that we only partially understand the Bible says he read it in Hebrew or Greek.

  14. WoundedEgo says:

    Um, Theophrastus, if you read my post more carefully, you will see that I am with you. Accuracy relates to precision, the small, the detail, rather than the sense.

  15. Michael Nicholls says:

    Thanks Theo, you quoted me well! 🙂

    Two more things to add:

    Just because ‘accuracy’ is technically/philosophically/realistically/linguistically/etc impossible, doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

    The second thing is a big one for me that I probably didn’t get until 4-5 years ago:

    You can’t translate accurately/well if you don’t understand the meaning of a text.

    And so people will respond, “Are you saying that you have the market on the meaning of the Bible?!” In response, “No.” But the statement still stands: unless you know what something means in one language, you can’t faithfully translate it into another language.

    If you don’t know the original meaning and you just resort to translating it literally, your literal translation could be changing the meaning and misleading the reader in his language.

    If you don’t understand the original meaning, then what will you write in the target language? More words, the meaning of which you don’t understand? Perhaps sometimes that’s necessary, but most of the time the translator has to take the ‘arrogant’ stance that he understands what the author is trying to say, and knows how best to say that to the people reading it in the target language.

  16. David McKay says:

    I’m reading the Contemporary English Version. It is my 9th read-through of the Bible since 2005, having previously read the ESV twice, the NIV once, the TNIV twice, the New Living Translation, 2nd edition once, the Good News Bible, Australian edition once and the New Jerusalem Bible once.

    Having now read 40% of the OT and 40% of the NT, it is fairly obvious that the CEV is as loose as all get-out. At times you would not know you were reading the same chapters, if you didn’t have the handy chapter headings.

    Despite its looseness and perceived inexactness, it is a pleasure to read through it quickly, having spent over a year reading all of the ESV Study Bible very slowly.

    The general sense is there, but you wouldn’t want to be looking for the specific meaning of many given passages.

    It would be crook if it were your only Bible.

    I don’t feel this way about any one of the other versions [though the study notes of the NJB are a worry].

  17. Mike Sangrey says:

    David wrote: …you wouldn’t want to be looking for the specific meaning of many given passages [in the CEV].

    Would you share with the group what you mean by ‘passage‘. I think everyone knows that the word is a bit vague, but I’m honestly interested in your thinking when you use it in this specific context.

    Thanks!!!

  18. Mike Sangrey says:

    If I might add to Micheal Nicholls’ comment…

    I think we pretty much understand the meaning of something like εδακρυσεν ο ιησους (Jesus wept). It might be Jesus cried or something very similar. Is wept accurate? Quite close. And, when understood in context, it is very accurate. Most texts weigh in on this side of the accuracy scale.

    However, consider Ezekiel 6:11 where the NLT has “Clap your hands in horror.” To my understanding, that makes no sense in English. Is that an accurate rendering? I don’t think so since it conveys no meaning to me. There’s some kind of horror thing going on; but, clapping hands makes no sense.

    I’m confident there’s a rationale behind the translation. This is one of those cases where one translates literally and therefore conveys meaning which weighs in on the wrong side of accuracy scale.

  19. J. K. Gayle says:

    All of these seem to presuppose a way to figure out the meaning of a text or authorial intention. However, in the case of the Bible, that is outside our ability in many, many places.

    Theophrastus,
    Rosenberg, speaking of the Bible, says that “revelation animates the unknowable.” And elsewhere, by drawing analogies to astronomy, Rosenberg says this of attempts to figure out Bible meanings with some accuracy, more or less:

    “And as the writing of the Bible becomes a narrative cosmic theater, it spills into the natural landscape of Israel, with the whole world in the wings. It’s a known world; even what is unknown stretches out into what can become knowable in the future. Once the Creator asked Abraham to count the stars, and we are still trying–so far we’ve counted a hundred billion galaxies but not yet the precise amount of stars in any one galaxy, including our own. Nevertheless, the unknowable–what is beyond our limitations as a primate species to know–is something we can still deduce. Homo sapiens have long inferred all that is unknowable in terms of the supernatural. Usually we call it religion.”

    So, it’s good that you point us to hermeneutics of religion. It’s good to be reminded of Catholic exegesis and of Jewish exegesis when approaching religious texts of the Bible. It’s good, in general, to see that epistemology is the crucial thing, that methods of knowing can construct “accuracy” in various ways. Of course, the inherent flaw in any human system of knowledge is the hubris that humans can know as if they (we included) know objectively.

    I think the problems you’re hoping we can acknowledge are even more problematic. I think that Phyllis A. Bird is right to say this:

    “It is not the translator’s duty to make her audience accept the author’s message, or even identify themselves with the ancient audience, except in the sense that any literary work invites identification with its subjects. I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard.”

    I think C. S. Lewis is right to say that even the original authors have “second meanings,” that is intentions in writing that they do not themselves intend at first.

    So this is why it is critical to see that “accuracy” which is so called “biblical accuracy” must embrace the sort of accuracy that belonged to Bible rhetors and writers (and translators, I must now add), who are the “original” speakers and composers and renderers of what make our “first” texts. These men (and some women) were those who could acknowledge how “revelation animates the unknowable,” those who “inferred all that is unknowable in terms of the supernatural.”

  20. J. K. Gayle says:

    Mike,
    It’s funny that you bring up εδακρυσεν when trying to discern its “accurate” meaning. This is exactly what Aristotle did pretty much for the very same word when he wrote (in the Rhetoric 1386a, line 21):

    διὸ καὶ ὁ Ἀμάσιος ἐπὶ μὲν τῷ υἱεῖ ἀγομένῳ ἐπὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν οὐκ ἐδάκρυσεν, ὡς φασίν, ἐπὶ δὲ τῷ φίλῳ προσαιτοῦντι· τοῦτο μὲν γὰρ ἐλεεινόν, ἐκεῖνο δὲ δεινόν· τὸ γὰρ δεινὸν ἕτερον τοῦ ἐλεεινοῦ καὶ ἐκκρουστικὸν τοῦ ἐλέου καὶ πολλάκις τῷ ἐναντίῳ χρήσιμον·

    What’s funny here is how Aristotle is trying to pigeon-hole the meaning of δακρύω. It’s funny when we imagine that the writer of John’s gospel (at John 11:35) might have been trying to consider whether Jesus actually had the sort of “pathos” Aristotle claims one must have in order to δακρύω (either pity or terror, either pitiful or terrible, as in http://www2.iastate.edu/~honeyl/Rhetoric/rhet2-8.html#1386b ).

    The other funny thing is that Willis Barnstone says John’s entire Greek clause is more accurately translated “Yeshua wept.” What’s the subject of the verb (the Proper noun) in its most-accurate English translation? Jesus, Joshua, or Yeshua? Which transliteration is most accurate?

  21. Mike Sangrey says:

    What’s the subject of the verb (the Proper noun) in its most-accurate English translation? Jesus, Joshua, or Yeshua?

    Yes, it’s an interesting question.

    This gets back to what you’ve kept before us–a translation of a translation. I think that issue is part of what needs to be considered when asking scholarly questions about the meaning of accuracy.

    My own position (at least currently) is this:

    Generally, I think you decide on the text. Once that’s done, you translate it. There’s a pile of considerations which go into this decision of the text, but it’s more a text decision than it is a translation decision. Depending on what the translator’s goal is, he or she spends more or less time on this decision. For example, if the language group being translated for hasn’t even a part of a translation, then one can easily and very safely assume the scholarship that went into the UBS text is plenty good enough. There are other choices, but one makes the decision and moves on.

    Specifically, I think the use in the text of the Greek Ἰησοῦς was fairly early and therefore testifies to the overall intent of the New Testament–a message to the Gentiles. So, using ‘Jesus‘ is probably the more accurate.

    I’m being pragmatic here. I’m glad for the scholarship that wrestles with some of these issues. However, I wouldn’t hold up any work waiting for a definitive answer.

  22. J. K. Gayle says:

    the overall intent of the New Testament–a message to the Gentiles.

    Thanks Mike. There are at least two difficulties here. First, “the use in the text of the Greek Ἰησοῦς was fairly early,” but early as in with the LXX. See Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, especially Numbers 13:16. Then there’s the whole book of Joshua (both main variants). And others with the same name in later books of the Septuagint. In Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, there’s another with the same name: in Luke 3:29. In Matthew (27:17), there are two with the same name (Ἰησοῦν τὸν Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν λεγόμενον χριστόν). In Hebrews 4, the two most famous Ἰησοῦι are mentioned but, by Christian translators of the English Bible, are usually named differently. The transliteration decision usually betrays how one reads the LXX and the NT; if the “accurate” determination is that the texts are Christian (or, as you put it, “to the Gentiles”), then “Joshua” and “Jesus” must be different, even in transliteration. Willis Barnstone, in contrast, renders all of the Ἰησοῦι as Yeshuas; and, if he ever translates the LXX, then I’m guessing it’d be the same for him. As you know, Barnstone believes “Jesus” (for the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew) is an English transliteration that’s not only inaccurate but is also anti-Semitic. But Barnstone is restoring the Jewish Hellenized text as Jewish text.

  23. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…In Hebrews 4, the two most famous Ἰησοῦι are mentioned but, by Christian translators of the English Bible, are usually named differently….

    As I have said before, the authoritative Jewish scriptures are the Masoretic texts, and the transliteration “Yeshua” seems the most accurate.

    But, the NT writers’ OT was the LXX, with which the NT scriptures agree, so in all cases in an “NT perspective” construct, one should transliterate OT (“Joshua”) and NT “Jesus” as “Iasou” to be accurate, or “Yasou” might do in a pinch.

  24. Theophrastus says:

    Mike:

    Re Ezekiel 6:11: obviously the verse is an ironic counterpart to Ezekiel 25:6 (where the Ammonites clap their hands in delight). There is a somewhat parallel expression in the Hebrew. How do you propose to capture the irony of the contrast between these two passages, which are obviously meant to be contrasted? (This is not meant as a polemical question.) The original Hebrew has this as a distinct literary feature, and without it, the passage at 6:11 makes little sense.

    Another perspective:

    Do you regard the phrase “clap your hands in delight” as meaningful English? “Clap your hands in horror” (in English) is a play on “clap your hand in delight”.

    So, while the English rendering of the verse might cause problems for a reader who simply reads one verse (as it does in the Hebrew), this verse makes complete sense when the book of Ezekiel is read as a whole. Isn’t that a more reasonable criterion? Can’t I take most books (say a nice conventional author such as Dickens or Austen), take a single sentence out of context, and say “hey, that doesn’t make sense.”

  25. Theophrastus says:

    E.g., do you regard this sentence as being unintelligible or not English:

    “After the play, Alice’s friends clapped their hands in delight, while Isaac’s friends clapped their hands in horror.”

    Substitute “the Ammonites” for “Alice friends”, the “Israelites” for “Isaac friends”, and you can see what is going on with the NLT translation. It seems like English to me.

  26. Michael Nicholls says:

    Good points Theo. I like the parallelism/allusion. I wonder if clapping your hands has more meanings in Jewish culture than in mine? Maybe for them the parallel language wouldn’t have sounded strange at all, even ripped from its context. Just a thought.

    So Wayne, when are you going to tell us the ‘answers’? 😉

  27. J. K. Gayle says:

    Michael asks “I wonder if clapping your hands has more meanings in Jewish culture than in mine?”

    Seems like the Hebrew verb in Ezekiel 6:11 / 25:6 has, in other Hebrew bible contexts, violent connotations. But the point is that there’s a literary meaning in Ezekiel. And isn’t it a problem to view “Jewish culture” so singularly, so monolithically? Those translators in Alexandria, Egypt who rendered the Hebrew into Hellene had no trouble using the very Greek phrases κρότησον τῇ χειρὶ and ἐκρότησας τὴν χεῖρά, which is softer (i.e., less violent than הכה בכפך). And, as much as there may be the translators’ allusion to anything Hebrew and Jewish, there’s an echo of the Greek Aristophanes and Xenophon. In our more anglo-centric cultures (religious and secular), we have little trouble finding and reading “clapping of hands in horror” or “one hand clapping” or “trees clapping” or “waves clapping.”

  28. J. K. Gayle says:

    WoundedEgo says one should transliterate OT (“Joshua”) and NT “Jesus” as “Iasou” to be accurate.

    But this still hasn’t answered the problem of finding the “OT” Joshuas in the “NT.”

    This is as problematic as Paul’s ironic use of Greek to address the “Jews” and the “Greeks” (and nobody else, not Gentiles or nations or Romans or uncircumcised or women) when he addresses them in Rome, the Latin capital of the empire (where all of the names of the Greek gods are changed, are Latinized).

  29. William Ross says:

    >>>…But this still hasn’t answered the problem of finding the “OT” Joshuas in the “NT.”…

    A footnote is necessary to distinguish the two people with the same name.

  30. Mike Sangrey says:

    How do you propose to capture the irony of the contrast between these two passages, which are obviously meant to be contrasted?

    That’s a good question, and based on a very interesting observation. The observation immediately makes me think in terms of chiasm, book-end structures, etc. So, I wonder what the larger formal structure of the text looks like.

    Before answering your question, though, I need another question answered: “What does clapping hands in horror” mean?

    What’s generating my question is this: You ask, “E.g., do you regard this sentence as being unintelligible or not English:

    ‘After the play, Alice’s friends clapped their hands in delight, while Isaac’s friends clapped their hands in horror.'”

    I have no idea what “clapping hands in horror” means. So, the sentence makes no sense to me. To me, it’s similar to “”Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”.

    However, I could and would understand something like this: “…while Isaac’s friends clapped their hands in mock praise.” But, not ‘horror’. I’d even understand “…clapped their hands and rolled their eyes”. But, I can’t put together the concepts of “clapping hands” and “great fear induced by a repugnant event or activity.” Not even ironically. At least, not as worded as it is.

    Are the Hebrew words for horror and delight antonyms? Or maybe is the meaning something more like, “In defiance, clap your hands at the horrific evil.”?

  31. Mike Sangrey says:

    In fact, clap your hands at the horror works for me. That’s ironic, to say the least.

  32. Wayne Leman says:

    Translation scholars consider a translation to be accurate which reproduces as closely as possible the meaning of a source text. Translation scholars recognize that grammatical forms vary widely among languages so it is often very difficult for a translation to attempt to maintain equivalence of forms as well as equivalence of meaning. But what was communicated by the biblical text language forms must be maintained for a translation to be accurate. Language forms are by no means unimportant, for it is those forms themselves that communicate meaning. When people speak or write they do not communicate language forms, but, rather, meaning. Forms themselves have no meaning until people give them meaning and this is usually done on the basis of societal consensus.

    Bible translation is no different from any other kind of translation. The language in the source text is human language. It is true, as has been pointed out in some comments on this post, that we are unable to consult with any living speakers of the original biblical languages, to ask them the meaning of some unclear words or syntax. But, this, of course, is just as true of translating any texts in any extinct language or dialect of a language, such as the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, or ancient texts in Sanskrit. Yet quite credible translations are regularly made of texts in such extinct languages. The fact that we have no living speakers of extinct languages or dialects does not mean that our attempts at accurate translation are futile. In the cases of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic of the Hebrew Bible, and Hellenistic (Koine) Greek of the New Testament, as well as Sanskrit, we do have living speakers of related dialects (Hindi descends from Sanskrit). We also have extra-biblical texts in the languages of the Bible which have demonstrated that the language in the biblical texts was commonly written and spoken. And we have inherited great philological wealth from scholars of these ancient languages which help us understand, for a high percentage (not every word or form, but a very high percentage) of the sentences in the biblical texts, the syntax and lexicon of the forms used in those texts. Even though we will never have perfect knowledge of the biblical languages biblical scholars do have excellent knowledge of those languages.

  33. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…Even though we will never have perfect knowledge of the biblical languages biblical scholars do have excellent knowledge of those languages.

    ISTM that there is barely a single word of “holy scripture” that has not been tortuously argued (sometimes with bludgeons and war hammers) ad infinitum. So far, it appears that no one gets anything right but moi. 🙂

    A “scholar” is just someone with the luxury of “time on his hands” to play raquetball and scripture-sparring.

    Command of grammar is not enough. You have to “get into” the mindset of the authors, with all of their allusions, animosities, agendas, and “givens.”

    Good luck.

  34. Theophrastus says:

    I’m sorry Wayne, but your responses simply don’t match up with the facts of Biblical Hebrew. We have 1300 hapax legomena in the Hebrew Bible, and at least 400 of those resist easy understanding from their root forms. We have no great cache of Biblical Hebrew — we have the Bible, we have some variants on the Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we have a few inscriptions. Of course, we have a vast collection of Mishnaic and later Hebrew, but even in the Mishnah the sages complain about not being able to know the meanings of words in Hebrew.

    In Job alone, there are about 145 hapax legomena (and 60 that do not seem to be derived from any known biblical roots), and in Isaiah, there are 201 hapax legomena (again about 60 that do not seem to be derived from any known biblical roots), and in each case, about a fourth of these have no known derivation. Even in the light of cognate languages such as Akkadian and Ugaritic, we don’t know what words mean. We have informed speculation, but there are raging debates about the meaning of many different verses.

    As I mentioned above, there are hundreds of places in the NJPS (“Tanakh”) translation where the translators have marked “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”. And even commentaries that you probably rely on (such as the UBS Handbook Series) remark at length on the problems of understanding the meaning of various verses.

    Of course, we have many speakers of Semitic languages, but for many centuries we have had no native speakers of Hebrew — people learned it as a second, formal language for religious discourse (much like the status of Latin today). Modern Hebrew (and the subsequent Israeli Hebrew) is the direct result of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s efforts. (I understand that there are a few children who grew up with Esperanto as their mother tongue — the first native Hebrew speakers were perhaps in an analogous situation). Other Semitic languages have drifted considerably — we may gain some philological insights, but not many. (I cannot reconstruct Old English, much less Old German, by listening to your speech.)

    There are of course, similar disputes (in many places) about other Classical texts: there are many places where Homer is unclear. (Although they are much fewer, we even have disputes about medieval texts — there are places in Dante or Erasmus where meaning eludes us. We even have disputes about early modern English — there are words in Elizabethan and Jacobean documents where the meaning is unclear.) However, we have far fewer sources for Biblical Hebrew than we do for Greek in its many historical dialects, and arguably people care more about the Bible than about Homer, so the disputes are more heated.

    Even when we understand the words, we in many cases miss the actual intent of the verses. I wrote above: “In Job 40:3-5, is Job being defiant? Frightened? Sincere? How about God’s response at verses 11-14? The emotional tone we infer will result in different English text, because English has many markers for tone.” No one today can answer these questions with any degree of certainty.

    Another example: what are the behemoth and the leviathan of Job 40-41?

    Now obviously, the Bible is not a completely closed book to us — we can clearly understand large parts of it at least as the plain, literal level — but even then, many religious traditions read the Bible on a mystical or allegorical level. Since no one has a complete understanding of those levels, literal translations may give allow those without ability to handle original language texts a chance to interpret those terms. Translations that interpret the texts using “dynamic translation” threaten to lose those meanings.

    Now, this may be less true of Koine than of Hebrew, but even then, as I discussed above, popular scholars such as N. T. Wright launch attacks on translations such as the NIV because they believe that the “dynamic translation” of the NIV wipes out original meanings.

    Just because we cannot precisely understand all of the Hebrew Bible is no reason to give up on translation, but it argues for more literal translations so those unfamiliar with the language will be able to gain insights into text that may have not been known to the translator. When the translator applies “dynamic translation”, those insights will generally be limited to only the insights the translator decided to permit in his or her translation. This is one reason that for many, “accurate” is a synonym for “literal”.

  35. Michael Nicholls says:

    This is one reason that for many, “accurate” is a synonym for “literal”.

    Luke 23:48 – And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.

    We translated this literally into the Kwaya language and readers assumed that the people smote their breasts because they were angry, because that’s the only reason to them that someone would smote their breast/chest.

    The attitude that you can just translate literally and it will be mostly accurate is ill-founded.

    There are tons of reasons why a literal translation of this is at first glance understandable, but under scrutiny changes all sorts of things.

    For example, beginning a sentence with ‘And’ in Kwaya does not have the same emphasis as in English or Greek.

    Using relative clauses in Kwaya does not have the same meaning, nor is it used in the same contexts as in English or Greek.

    Simply stating “and returned” in Kwaya does not make much sense without specifying to where they returned.

    Kwaya has a word for ‘things’, but to use it in this context would mark the language as strange. They use a word that means issues/matters.

    So, if you translate literally, you are changing the meaning and emphasis and register and style etc of all sorts of things. The result is an inaccurate translation.

  36. Theophrastus says:

    Regarding “smote their breasts” — that’s a matter of teaching cultural background, isn’t it? The same problem attaches to understanding the Last Supper without understanding the Passover seder, or understanding St. John the Baptist without understanding the mikvah, or understanding Jesus’s dialogues with the Pharisees without understanding the logic of the Mishna, or understanding Hebrews without understanding Melchizedek. Perhaps the best way to deal with this is by educating readers with the necessary background; if this is impractical, then perhaps an annotation would help.

    If I read a translation of Dante without knowing anything of Christianity, boy will I be confused. If I try to read Kant without knowing Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, then I will not gain understanding. We can hardly demand that books all be self-contained, and woe to the reader who attempts to read the Christian Scriptures without background knowledge of Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman culture.

    Regarding you other statements about Kwaya, I cannot comment because I am completely unfamiliar with Kwaya. However, I have noticed that in translating from Hebrew to English, it is often (but not always) possible to find equivalents, although it requires a very sensitive literary sensibility to do so (as Robert Alter successfully argues in several places). Since Hebrew and English have quite different phylogenetic derivations, and since the number of features defies pure coincidence, it seems that many language constructs are universal, or at least widespread. I wonder if a literary genius in Kwaya might not find better literary equivalents.

  37. Michael Nicholls says:

    Yes, “smote their breasts” is an issue that we’re dealing with. Teaching cultural background isn’t really an option, but footnotes are, although their effectiveness is questionable. We’re left with the unfortunate position in these cases of either changing the text, adding more explanation to the text, or publishing something that will communicate something very different from the original. The translator is a traitor. 😦

    As for the other issues though, those are just features of language that often get ignored when people translate ‘literally’. They maintain lexical fidelity while violating all the other language features that aren’t so obvious on first glance.

  38. Mike Sangrey says:

    Regarding “smote their breasts” — that’s a matter of teaching cultural background, isn’t it? … Perhaps the best way to deal with this is by educating readers with the necessary background.

    Here is what I understand you to be saying: translate literally and then teach the cultural background.

    Ok, I got a deal for you.

    You translate the Bible literally in a way you think best, and write up the details on the cultural background for the entire Bible. Provide this write-up as a companion text. Also, provide training sessions to answer the many questions which your companion text and literal translation will generate. Think of this as training the reader.

    When you’re done and the audience is trained, get back to us.

    And, now, quite a bit more seriously, how do you see your suggestion working in the real world?

  39. Theophrastus says:

    Well, I learned it in two ways: The traditional way is as a child to have a teacher, to read the Bible with a medieval commentator (Rashi, in my case) and a teacher aiding me.

    The second way was in secular university, where we read material (such as Pritchard’s Ancient Near East) that helped explain customs.

    Now, not everyone has a childhood tutor or has the chance to study at university. For them, there are a wealth of study Bibles — some better than others — that provide a detailed discussion.

    But if you are asking me: do I think someone without any prior training and no aids can just sit down and read the Bible and hope to understand it with a fair degree of comprehension — I would say “no”.

    On the other hand, I don’t think I could sit down and read Spinoza without any prior training or aids either. And I don’t think I could sit down and read a biochemistry textbook without any prior training or aids.

    That’s why we have a huge number of annotated editions (such as the Norton Critical Editions) — and that’s how I think it works in the real world.

  40. Gary Simmons says:

    It’s all well and good if we allow people to misunderstand “smote their breasts” and then we clarify for them, but what about if the literal translation generates an initial misunderstanding that is heretical?

    “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church.” Ephesians 1:22, NKJV, minus the insertions the translators provided. This gives an initial impression to an English speaker that is not just incorrect, but reprehensible. I kept the translators’ add-ins there and struck them out simply because I do not want to write the sentence literally in English. It would be not just inaccurate, it would be unacceptable.

  41. Gary Simmons says:

    [A correction of the above. I did not realize this blog did not utilize the strikeout tag.]

    It’s all well and good if we allow people to misunderstand “smote their breasts” and then we clarify for them, but what about if the literal translation generates an initial misunderstanding that is heretical?

    “And He put all [things] under His feet, and gave Him [to be] head over all [things] to the church.” Ephesians 1:22, NKJV, This gives an initial impression to an English speaker that is not just incorrect, but reprehensible. I kept the translators’ add-ins there in brackets simply because I do not want to write the sentence literally in English. It would be not just inaccurate, it would be unacceptable.

  42. WoundedEgo says:

    The NET Bible is a good model, because they either translate literally and explain in a footnote, or, they restate the text but supply the original and the rationale in the footnote. Perfect!

    But to me the Anchor series, if they made an online version that was free, would be the ultimate translation. Well, if they based their OT on the LXX, it would.

  43. J. K. Gayle says:

    Michael Nicholls,

    How did you translate Luke 18:13 into Kwaya? Was it “literally,” like this? “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”

    And did your readers there also assume “that the people smote their breasts because they were angry, because that’s the only reason to them that someone would smote their breast/chest.”

    How did Luke’s Greek readers understand τύπτοντες τὰ στήθη and ἔτυπτεν τὸ στῆθος? Was this a common Hebraism? Where? Greek phrase? No! How many of Luke’s readers would have been educated in Herodotus and his Histories? And even if they had been, would they have learned that such literal self beatings had to be interpreted always and only in some customary way?

    Where else but from Herodotus in his Greek (or from Luke and his Greek) do you find such? Do Herodutus’s readers really understand? Do Luke’s? Why should your Kwaya readers get a much clearer, less interpretable text?

    Here’s Herodotus’s Greek (and a “literal” not any more helpful translation into English by G. C. Macaulay).

    61. [1] ταῦτα μὲν δὴ ταύτῃ ποιέεται, ἐν δὲ Βουσίρι πόλι ὡς ἀνάγουσι τῇ Ἴσι τὴν ὁρτήν, εἴρηται προτερόν μοι· τύπτονται μὲν γὰρ δὴ μετὰ τὴν θυσίην πάντες καὶ πᾶσαι, μυριάδες κάρτα πολλαὶ ἀνθρώπων· τὸν δὲ τύπτονται, οὔ μοι ὅσιον ἐστὶ λέγειν. [2] ὅσοι δὲ Καρῶν εἰσι ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ οἰκέοντες, οὗτοι δὲ τοσούτῳ ἔτι πλέω ποιεῦσι τούτων ὅσῳ καὶ τὰ μέτωπα κόπτονται μαχαίρῃσι, καὶ τούτῳ εἰσὶ δῆλοι ὅτι εἰσὶ ξεῖνοι καὶ οὐκ Αἰγύπτιοι.

    61. Thus it is done here; and how they celebrate the festival in honour of Isis at the city of Busiris has been told by me before: for, as I said, they beat themselves in mourning after the sacrifice, all of them both men and women, very many myriads of people; but for whom they beat themselves it is not permitted to me by religion to say: and so many as there are of the Carians dwelling in Egypt do this even more than the Egyptians themselves, inasmuch as they cut their foreheads also with knives; and by this it is manifested that they are strangers and not Egyptians.

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh2060.htm

    Okay, okay, Macaulay guesses for us his English readers and adds “in mourning”; but is that really all we need? And would something so simple (assuming you’re not insisting your Kwaya readers find the text speaking at them) help your Kwaya readers? Can’t we just suspend our disbelief when reading Herodotus or Luke? Or them in translation without so much explanation?

  44. J. K. Gayle says:

    A. D. Godley completely erases the strange beatings (i.e., τύπτονται and τύπτονται) from his translation of Herodotus:

    61. [1] This is what they do there; I have already described how they keep the feast of Isis at Busiris. There, after the sacrifice, all the men and women lament, in countless numbers; but it is not pious for me to say who it is for whom they lament. [2] Carians who live in Egypt do even more than this, inasmuch as they cut their foreheads with knives; and by this they show that they are foreigners and not Egyptians.

    But what does it gain when the English reader knows that Herodotus surely meant “lament” and only “lament” and nothing more than “lament”? Maybe even Herodotus wasn’t sure of everything that was meant by the highly interpretable if “literal” beatings (i.e., τύπτονται and τύπτονται). Maybe Luke wasn’t sure what Jesus meant (when the former translated the latter in Luke 18:13). And could it be that Luke himself, reporting what he purportedly reports in Luke 23:48, did not understand the action (even if Greek readers might see that Luke’s Jesus and Luke himself are describing something uncommon that Herodotus has described, equally uncommon). Nonetheless, translator Godley, by omitting the odd behavior and by telling us English readers only what it must surely mean, commits what Robert Alter calls the translator’s “heresy of explanation.” How helpful is that?

  45. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>>…commits what Robert Alter calls the translator’s “heresy of explanation.”…

    Alter is someone worth hearing out, for sure. Did you know Crumb, the artist, recently released his Genesis text – and it is awesome?!

  46. J. K. Gayle says:

    It’s who’s hiding behind that Crummy comic book and what his wife says about him that’s sorely interesting. If you read this graphically illustrated Genesis, which gets more to the point of Wayne’s series on “accuracy” and “audience” and the like, then you can see how R. Crumb questions and even tampers with Alter’s translation in places.

  47. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>It’s who’s hiding behind that Crummy comic book and what his wife says about him that’s sorely interesting.

    Interesting to whom?

    >>>If you read this graphically illustrated Genesis, which gets more to the point of Wayne’s series on “accuracy” and “audience” and the like, then you can see how R. Crumb questions and even tampers with Alter’s translation in places.

    Please give examples of this “wife-disappointing” heretic’s “vile and possibly even debauched” handling of the text. THANX!!!

  48. Michael Nicholls says:

    J. K. Gayle wrote:
    How did you translate Luke 18:13 into Kwaya? Was it “literally,” like this? “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”

    Actually, we haven’t translated that yet. 🙂 We started with 1 & 2 (Christmas story) then jumped to 22-24 (Easter story), then picked up from chapter 3.

    Anyway, there are a lot of rabbit trails here, but my main point was that there are a lot of other features of language that are changed/lost/violated when we translate literally.

    Kwaya is capable of using relative clauses, but you can’t just stick them in a text willy-nilly (without care). They’re mostly used in background information in the beginning of a text. But Greek and English have them everywhere. So a literal translation can turn the climax of a passage into background information!! Is that good translation? NO!

  49. J. K. Gayle says:

    Please give examples of [R.Crumb’s] handling of the text.

    The graphic comix maker states: “I, R. Crumb, the illustrator of this book, have, to the best of my ability, faithfully reproduced every word of the original text, which I derived from several sources, including the King James Version, but most from Robert Alter’s recent translation, The Five Books of Moses.

    At Genesis 19:31b, he curiously introduces the word “world.” Compare his translation with Alter’s and then with KJV:

    Crumb: OUR FATHER IS OLD, AND THERE IS NO MAN ON EARTH TO COME WITH US LIKE THE WAY OF ALL THE WORLD! [Crumb’s caps and exclamation]

    Alter: “Our father is old, and there is no man on earth to come to bed with us like the way of all the earth.”

    KJV: Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth:

    Crumb offers no explanation for the change. If it seems just a small thing, the context here for Crumb remains huge, while the repetition in the original text gets lost from Crumb’s rendering it. Is “world” invoking something more worldly for Crumb? Who knows, but Crumb does have Lot’s daughters undressed in full view (naked female bodies and breasts graphically illustrated) while respectively copulating with their father, who himself is discretely covered (the male conveniently covered by Crumb in both instances though, according to the Bible, deeply drunk).

    Note how, in contrast to Crumb in this context, both Alter and the KJV in their respective translations retain the “literal” wordplay with the repeated “earth.” Alter, in a footnote, also goes on to explain the Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse for which he substitutes the English euphemism “come to bed with.” And speaking of the Hebrew, Alter says:

    “When the verb is followed by a direct object in sexual contexts, the meaning seems close to ‘rape.’ Ironically, the more decorous verb ‘to know’ is used twice here asexually (verses 33 and 35) to indicate the drunken Lot’s unconscious state as he deflowers each of his daughters.”

    The KJV does not offer any explanations. But it does retain the Hebrew wordplay with it’s literary literal English. Notice how the Genesis creation story plays with “earth” and “know” and “go/ enter into” in the KJV. And in Genesis 19 (both in the Hebrew and in the KJV English), there are further repetitions that are metaphorical and suggestive:

    19:23 The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar.

    19:31b Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth

    In this context, KJV seems most “accurate” to the Hebraic syntax and lexicon. Alter seems accurate to the Hebrew senses (i.e., the euphemisms with English euphemisms and footnotes). But Crumb is transposing the Bible in other ways.

  50. J. K. Gayle says:

    So a literal [Kwaya] translation can turn the climax of a passage into background information!!

    Michael, Does this mean you can’t translate Luke 18:13 or Luke 23:48 into Kwaya with something like “beat his chest” or “pounded their chests”?

    Translator Robert Alter talks about the “extraordinary concreteness” of certain imagery in language, “manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body.” Alter is, of course, talking in particular about “the most salient characteristics of biblical Hebrew.” But I think we could make the case for much of biblical Greek, even Luke’s Greek translating Jesus’s spoken Hebrew Aramaic (in 18:13) and Luke’s Greek reporting the events surrounding Jesus’s bodily suffering and death (in 23:48).

    Alter goes on rightly to complain that the “general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this concrete language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity but turn the pungency of the original into a stale paraphrase.” This is exactly what A. D. Godley does with his translation of Herodotus (shown above).

    Is Kwaya bound to follow the direction of modern translators, like Godley, who forgo the concrete imagery of the biblical languages, namely Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek?

  51. J. K. Gayle says:

    Oops! Freud might say I slipped when I was typing Crumb’s version of Genesis 19:31b. Sorry about that! Here it is now as it appears in The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb:

    OUR FATHER IS OLD, AND THERE IS NO MAN ON EARTH TO COME TO BED WITH US LIKE THE WAY OF ALL THE WORLD!

  52. WoundedEgo says:

    Well, Gayle, if you are ready to tar and feather Crumb for the innocuous choice of “world” then what will you do with the kazillion other translations that take way more frequent and rash translation decisions?:

    http://bible.cc/genesis/19-31.htm

    Are you certain that you aren’t just choking on a gnat?

  53. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…In this context, KJV seems most “accurate”…

    Actually, since the KJV has “all the earth,” I would say that it is not accurate, or is at least misleading. The referent of their statement is to universal human practice, not the dirt and not the planet. “All the world” is accurate in this context, because it is an affirmation that “everybody’s doing it” – universally; even the birds and bees, and the flowers and the trees are doing it. Just not his unlucky daughters.

    So I think your criticism of Crumb is hyper-critical.

  54. Michael Nicholls says:

    Michael, Does this mean you can’t translate Luke 18:13 or Luke 23:48 into Kwaya with something like “beat his chest” or “pounded their chests”?

    As I wrote above somewhere, in Kwaya, hitting one’s chest is a sign of anger.

    To show sorrow/remorse/regret, they would put their hands on top of their head (which, coincidentally, is similar to what athletes do in my culture for the same reason).

    So, it’s not that they don’t have a “fondness for images rooted in the human body,” but that those images don’t necessarily line up with other cultures. A literal translation of Luke 23:48 leaves readers thinking that the crowd “saw everything that happened and got angry.”

    But the cultural misinterpretations inherent in literal translations are relatively easy to overcome compared to the discourse misinterpretations inherent in literal translations, because for the most part most people don’t even consciously realise that these features of language exist (climax, register, topic/comment, participant reference, etc). ‘Literal’ is only literal to the syntax, grammar, and lexicon. Why don’t the literal translations try to translate literally the focus, style, background info, genre, collocation, etc of the originals? I believe that for the most part it’s because they’re only vaguely aware of these features, are not trained in dealing with them, and don’t understand the importance of them to language.

  55. J. K. Gayle says:

    in Kwaya, hitting one’s chest is a sign of anger.

    In English, baptising one’s baby or an adult new Christian is also a sign. Unfortunately, because the English verb “baptise” has been abstracted (via transliteration) and not translated concretely (as its counterpart in Greek is concrete), there are all kinds of divisive differences of opinions about what it must mean. Christian linguists may be “trained in dealing with” language “features” in order “to translate literally the focus, style, background info, genre, collocation, etc of the originals,” but which of them ever leaves the possibility that the Greek word refers to the mikvah?

    Notice, in contrast, is the literary literal translator, Willis Barnstone. He’s not at all unaware of the features you want him to be aware of. And yet, he’s not about to tell you that βαπτίζω cannot mean the mikvah because in English our “baptise” has no reference at all to the Jewish practice. Rather, Barnstone let’s the gospels’ Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστής be Yohann the Dipper. And the verb he allows to have “extraordinary concreteness” both in Greek and in English. In English, Barnstone’s βαπτίζω is “to immerse.”

    Notice that this sort of concrete translation (with images related to the human body) allows for allusions to the mikvah. It also allows all sorts of references to Christian “baptisms” of various kinds, even those that are completely divorced now from Jesus’s and his cousin’s practices in Judaism. On the other hand, the abstraction “baptism” cannot be Jewish at all.

    In English, “washing another person’s feet” is quite a peculiar thing. It’s something mothers might do for their children (or, possibly, that lovers might do for one another in the privacy of a room together). It’s certainly not something that a religious mentor would do for his apprentices. And yet all English Bible translators risk all the misunderstandings. We don’t worry that readers will think that Peter and his colleagues were objecting to Jesus washing their feet because they didn’t want to be treated like children (or like his lovers). The foot washing is full of imagery, but we don’t abstract it to the meaning that it must mean for us just because it doesn’t mean in English what in Greek it means. We don’t even know what it means in Hebrew Aramaic. And yet, John the gospel writer only give his Greek readers a concrete bodily image in Greek. When Greek readers see Mary in Bethany washing Jesus’s feet in Greek, then there are even more potential misunderstandings.

    Isn’t John, the Greek translator of Jesus and the Greek writer of the gospel, being “literal” but mainly “literal to the syntax, grammar, and lexicon”? Has he neglected trying “to translate literally the focus, style, background info, genre, collocation, etc of the originals”? Isn’t he “only vaguely aware of these features, … not trained in dealing with them, and do[es]n’t understand the importance of them to language”?

  56. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks for the comment, W.E. I meant to give Theophrastus due credit for the connections of the mikvah to “St. John the Baptist.” (I should also say that the earliest Greek uses of the word the gospel writers for the name this cousin of Jesus hearken back to two other directions, not necessarily the mikvah. First, the old Greek poets and playwrights used the word for immersion but in also in highly negative contexts, such as dipping a weapon in poison, tempering forged metal in water, ships sinking, and the like. Second, the LXX translators would also use it in senses that had negative connotations; see Isaiah 21:4 – ἡ καρδία μου πλανᾶται καὶ ἡ ἀνομία με βαπτίζει ἡ ψυχή μου ἐφέστηκεν εἰς φόβον – which Brenton translates into English as “My heart wanders, and transgression overwhelms me; my soul is occupied with fear.” He could have just as easily said “transgression overwhelms me,” but “transgression baptises me” seems way too positive for the context. I’ll leave foot washing connotations in early Greek and in the LXX to anyone else who want to find them.)

    As for Crumb, please know that my interest is mainly in how readers of his Illustrated Bible naively praise him without a single mention of his sexism and anti-Semiticism. I only offer a small example, above, of one little word change he makes as less accurate than the two translation he follows but modifies. I’m not prepared to be critical or even hypercritical of Crumb’s translation. But I will suggust that the example I give above is an illustration of how transpositions (as C. S. Lewis writes of transpositions) can be problematic. John Hobbins points to David L. Petersen’s review of Crumb’s Genesis as a “judicious” review; unfortunately, neither Hobbins nor Petersen look at why Crumb’s so called “satire” must be so disparaging of women and of Jews (and of Jewish women in particular). Petersen does give other comparisons between Alter’s Bible and Crumb’s that you may want to follow:

    http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/7316_7969.pdf

  57. Michael Nicholls says:

    J.K. wrote:
    Why should your Kwaya readers get a much clearer, less interpretable text?

    ?!

    A word-for-word translation does not make a text more interpretable. People will still generally interpret it one way – and more often than not they will interpret it with a less desirable interpretation (I’m trying to avoid the term ‘wrong interpretation’ so people won’t whip out “minority percentages of language examples” to show how we can’t have a ‘right interpretation’ of a certain word in Obadiah, etc. My example is translating relative clauses literally into Kwaya – Kwaya people don’t read them and think, “Oh, Jews use relative clauses a lot more than we do, but I should be aware that this is simply a feature of their language.” No, they think (subconsciously), “This sounds like background information… they must be setting up the story. I wonder what the point of this story is.” That is a less desirable interpretation when what you’re trying to convey is the climax of a passage!).

    If you translate the words literally, but ignore the register, style and genre, is that a good translation? If you translate the syntax literally, but ignore the rules for background information, participant reference, climax, and topic/comment, is that a good translation? If you translate the grammar literally, but place the translation into marked unusual language, change the focus, and violate collocation, have you translated well?

    Translating literally does not leave all these language features open so that the reader can interpret them. Anytime you translate you are making interpretive decisions about these features, whether you intend to or not.

    I’m running out of ways to say this. I don’t think I can add any more, or reiterate this again.

  58. J. K. Gayle says:

    I’m running out of ways to say this. I don’t think I can add any more, or reiterate this again.

    How about interacting with the analogies with John’s translation choices when bringing the Hebrew Aramaic of Jesus into Greek? More directly, how about discussing Willis Barnstone’s choices to render the gospels’ Greek as “immerse” instead of “baptise”?

  59. Michael Nicholls says:

    You’re dealing with relatively isolated and “minority percentages of language examples” about specific words and cultural connotations. I’m trying to discuss the big picture of translation, as it relates to ALL the features of language and translation (by ALL I don’t mean that we necessarily know and understand ALL the features of language).

    When I read,

    He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read (Luke 4:16).

    …I don’t think it’s too hard to understand. I’m trying to communicate in my translation that Jesus went to a place, the place was called Nazareth, he had grown up in Nazareth, on the 7th day of the week he went to the synagogue, he often/usually went to the synagogue, when he was there he stood up, while he was standing he read [from the Scriptures].

    And while I’m translating that I’m trying to be faithful to the original language’s features, as much as possible, and trying to transfer the appropriate ones to the target language – how does the target language handle narrative, what’s the point of this passage, who are the participants and how should they be introduced/referenced, how are places referred to, what implicit information needs to be expressed regarding standing to read in the synagogue (i.e., should I specify ‘Scriptures’)?

    Your insights into some of these interpretive issues are good, but I often don’t see how they could help me make a good, usable translation in many real situations.

  60. Theophrastus says:

    Michael — I know several languages, but Kwaya is not one of them. I also do not know the “truth on the ground” regarding how much education your readers have, the degree of literacy, etc. I don’t regard Kwaya as a major language — I am completely ignorant of its written literature.

    So when I am talking about translation, I am talking about translation into major modern languages such as, Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Russian — each of which enjoys a sophisticated and long literary culture and where a significant fraction of speakers are well-educated (although with very different cultural backgrounds). In these languages, we can (I argue) make good translations that have a fairly high degree of transparency into the underlying literary techniques of the source material.

    I don’t know Kwaya. Perhaps it lacks literary expressiveness or maybe there are few people with experience reading literary Kwaya. In that case, perhaps it would be better to prepare a retelling of the Bible, or even an a catechism in lieu of a proper translation. There is certainly a market for this in the US in certain groups — for example, even in English there are readers who desire to read a single “integrated gospel”, such as Leo Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief (which of course wipes out the literary and theological distinctions of the original four gospels).

    But my interest is in translations that challenge readers and allow them to get as close as possible to the source material — translations that can be used in the classroom of a college, university, or seminary with selective admissions. My hope is that at least some of that audience will want to go even further and consult the underlying source material.

    I’m glad that there are translations for people who aren’t yet ready to be that challenged (just as I am glad there are books such as Charles and Mary Lamb’s famous adaptation for children, Tales from Shakespeare.)

    I don’t think people who can profitably read more transparent translations are “better” than those who need more dynamic or paraphrased versions. But I do think that transparent translations are better translations — and if a reader can handle them, I strongly recommend that the reader use them.

  61. Dannii says:

    Theophrastus, can you please explain how morphosyntactic equivalence leads to transparency?

    Also, I’m getting tired of your dismissal of 99% of the world’s population. A translation philosophy that reduces its audience is not a philosophy that leads to a better translation.

  62. Dannii says:

    Kurk, I don’t know how this discussion of baptise relates to this blog, but translating it as immerse would be seem a perfectly natural choice to me. I’m not sure why it’s notable.

  63. Theophrastus says:

    Theophrastus, can you please explain how morphosyntactic equivalence leads to transparency?

    I didn’t say that, and I don’t believe it.

    Also, I’m getting tired of your dismissal of 99% of the world’s population. A translation philosophy that reduces its audience is not a philosophy that leads to a better translation.

    It would be nice not to personalize this discussion. This is a thread that solicits a variety of views.

    You badly misrepresent my view — I stated explicitly that I am all for interpretations of the Bible for those who are not able to handle transparent translations. This is clearly the case in the Evangelical community, which has produced versions such as The Manga Bible. However, those people are reading an interpretation of the Bible; just as people who watch Forbidden Planet are not watching The Tempest.

    Finally, claiming that transparent translations are inaccessible to 99% of the population is wild hyperbole. For example, only a few generations ago, when “dynamic” translations were not available, the entire population managed with fairly literal translations (which were, to boot, archaic). Indeed, some assert that a desire for all to read those literal translations was one of the major factors behind universal education. Your assertion that we have suddenly lost the ability to read literal translations flies in the face of a strong trend towards better literacy.

  64. Donna says:

    1. It seems clear that most people think “accuracy” refers to how equivalent the “meaning” is in the translated language.

    2. I think meaning works in 4 dimensions:

    1. Ideational meaning (that is, concrete meaning, what people usually understand “meaning” to mean)
    2. Emotional meaning (how the participants and original readers are affected emotionally by the ideational meaning)
    3. Intertextual meaning
    (how this passage of scripture interacts with other passages, usually this will include lexical, and narrative similarities
    )
    4. Pragmatic meaning (participants and original readers are intended to do with what they have read).

    Good literal translations tend to do 3 best.

    Good dynamic equivalent translations tend to do 1 best.

    Good free translations (or paraphrases) tend to do 2 and 4 best.

    What type of meaning needs to be emphasised in each particular passage depends on what the passage should be used for.

    3. No relationship, except for when the grammatical forms effect how we will interpret the meaning of the passage (say if a NT passage it copies a grammatical form from an OT passage because the author wants to point the reader to that passage and interpret the NT passage in light of the OT passage).

    4. I think pretty much every verse in every translation will have some degree of inaccuracy on one or more of the 4 types of meaning. Whether it will be popularly judged as “inaccurate” will depend on whether the inaccuracy leads to unreliability. If a passage is slightly inaccurate, but it makes no difference to my idea of God, or understanding of Jesus etc, then for purposes of reading the Bible, it is still “accurate”.

    I’d be interested to see what others think of these categories…

  65. Dannii says:

    Theophrastus, you said:
    But my interest is in translations that challenge readers and allow them to get as close as possible to the source material — translations that can be used in the classroom of a college, university, or seminary with selective admissions.

    Then you said:
    I stated explicitly that I am all for interpretations of the Bible for those who are not able to handle transparent translations.

    So are your “transparent” translations only for the <1% (in the classroom of a college, university, or seminary with selective admissions) or not? What about the many (I would think a majority by far) who cannot "handle" those translations?

    Why do you denigrate translations that attempt to convey semantics and pragmatics by calling them "interpretations of the Bible?" And how do you propose to keep interpretation excluded from your transparent translations?

  66. Theophrastus says:

    I wrote:

    But my interest is in translations that challenge readers and allow them to get as close as possible to the source material — translations that can be used in the classroom of a college, university, or seminary with selective admissions.

    Dannii wrote:

    So are your “transparent” translations only for the <1% (in the classroom of a college, university, or seminary with selective admissions) or not?

    It seems that this is the logical error of affirming the consequent. Just because transparent translations are appropriate for serious classroom does not mean that they can only be used by students (or graduates) of the classroom.

    If I say that I am interested in copper pots that are appropriate for French cooking, that does not mean one cannot use copper pots for cooking Italian food as well. If I say that I it is important for young children to eat a nutritious breakfast, it is does not mean that a nutritious breakfast does not also benefit adults.

    What about the many (I would think a majority by far) who cannot “handle” those translations?

    If they have an interest in the Bible, they should read translations appropriate to their skills, or they should have access to material which can teach them about the Bible. I hope that in doing so, their skills would grow so that they could move on to more challenging translations. Is this a controversial point?

    What I do object to is recommending “dynamic” translations as primary translations to those who can handle more challenging translations.

    Why do you denigrate translations that attempt to convey semantics and pragmatics by calling them “interpretations of the Bible?”

    This is a false dichotomy. Literal, transparent translations can also convey semantics and pragmatics. I reject the notion that translation is an either/or proposition.

    For example, Alter’s translation demonstrates strength in literary presentation, literal presentation, and clarity (it can doubtlessly be bettered, but it demonstrates that one must not give up one quality). We have certainly seen outstanding translations of Dante and Homer in the last 25 years. In contrast, mainstream Bible translation has been stuck in a literary backwater — perhaps because ecclesiastics and theology professors are not always the most gifted writers.

    Furthermore, I regard “dynamic translations” as a grand pedagogical failure. At least since the Living Bible of 1971, we have had translation/paraphrases that were aimed at the widest possible audience. Yet, despite this, Biblical literacy has actually dramatically in the last few years. For example, a 2007 survey found that

    Put to the test, Americans recalled the seven ingredients of a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger and members of TV’s “The Brady Bunch” more easily than the Bible’s Ten Commandments…. 80 percent of 1,000 respondents could name the burger’s primary ingredient — two all-beef patties — but less than six in 10 knew the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” Less than half of respondents — 45 percent — could recall the commandment “honor thy father and mother” but 62 percent knew the Big Mac has pickle. Bobby and Peter, the least recalled-names from the fictional Brady Bunch family, were remembered by 43 percent of respondents — topping the 34 percent who knew “remember the Sabbath” and 29 percent recalling “do not make false idols.”

    (Of course, there are other factors explaining the decline in Biblical literacy — nonetheless, given the ambitious goals of dynamic translations, it is a serious indictment of their efficacy in reaching a broad audience.)

    And how do you propose to keep interpretation excluded from your transparent translations?

    This is an excellent question, and an attempt to answer that question is one reason why fora such as this one are valuable — because (unless we are deliberately attempting to achieve an interpretation) we should strive for the greatest transparency possible. I am not satisfied with the status quo — I think we can do better.

  67. Dannii says:

    I think we’ll have to just agree to disagree about the ideal Bible audience.

    It’s interesting what you said there about Biblical literacy. I wonder how much the greater Biblical literacy of the past was actually due to people being able to read their Bibles and how much was it that the shared culture was far more Christian than it is today. Even if the majority of the society knew the 10 commandments, how many would know the context they were given in (for example, that the Israelites agreed to follow them before they knew what they were.) How many would know how Jesus interpreted them in the sermon on the mount?

    If there’s one thing that the new translations show, it’s that not all people will choose to read the Bible (I think we knew that already though!) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for better translations for the ones who will choose.

  68. J. K. Gayle says:

    Your insights into some of these interpretive issues are good, but I often don’t see how they could help me make a good, usable translation in many real situations.

    Thanks Michael. Wayne’s questions are concerning accuracy, and these are the focus of what you’re calling my “good insights.” When you brought in the concern that “in the Kwaya language” your “literal” translation was not “accurate” because “smote the breast” in Kwaya only means one thing, I thought that was a huge point. You yourself were making the point, a point that stopped you in your objective of making “a good, usable translation in many real situations.”

    I’m running back through the thread here in part because I’d like the conversation to be helpful and practical. I point to examples of translation of Greek (not to Kwaya but to English) to try to get at “accuracy” issues in a helpful way. I do think Donna’s making a good attempt at bringing the conversation back around to accuracy and what she calls “pragmatic meanings” too in the context of how “meaning works in 4 dimensions.”

    So I point to how A. D. Godley seems to want to be clear (not literal) in his translation of Herodotus’s “History” but how his translation suggests that “in English” something like “smote the breast” does not mean, in any pragmatic sense, “lament.” Thus, Godley feels free to cut out the literal gesture from the passage of Herodotus noted. Godley does the interpretation of the Greek for his English readers, but Godley seems afraid that we English readers won’t be able to see the “beating” as “lamenting.” And he’s probably right; but I’m not sure it was easier for the original and later Greek audiences of Herodotus to understand either. This thing that Godley does is exactly what you propose for Kwaya. I’m just asking if it’s really helpful for you to excise the image of chest beating from the Kwaya translation of Luke 18:13 just so that your Kwaya readers won’t misunderstand? You still haven’t answered that. I’m wondering if Luke’s Greek readers of his translation of Jesus’s Hebrew Aramaic didn’t misunderstand Luke 18:13. Luke doesn’t seem to give the Greek reader any help as if agreeing that in Greek “beating of the chest” does not really mean to “lament”; Michael, it doesn’t. So all the Greek reader has is Luke’s rather literal translation. And, pragmatically, it works. The Greek reader understands that this is an uncommon thing. Michael, you seem to want to dodge this, and I don’t know why.

    Likewise, I bring up “baptise” to show that it’s the choice of nearly all English translators of the Bible; and this has Dannii expressing doubt as to the relevance of my point here to the discussion. To try to be clear: “immerse” in pragmatic Christian English does not mean “baptise”; Bible translators have determined that English must use “baptise” (and not “immerse” or John “the Dipper”) for these very abstractly religious practices in the Christian church. So Theophrastus rightly notes that the mikvah is not something that “baptise” is normally associated with. I’m trying to suggest that the translator’s bringing across the concrete image of “immersion” opens up the meanings of the text in a more accurate way. Of course, the translator also takes the risk of English readers running in various different directions with the meanings. But then again the Greek gospel writers, translating Jesus and John the Dipper, took on the same risk. βαπτίζω /baptizo/ is a literal Greek translation of the Hebrew Aramaic, a concrete image, that conveys much more than the Aramaic does and in different Greeky ways (some negative meanings, as in ship sinking). Michael, you haven’t addressed the fact that the Greek gospel writers did what you say won’t help you “make a good, usable translation in many real situations.”

    So I also ask about John the gospel writer and Greek translator putting “foot washing” into Greek. In Greek, “foot washing” does not necessarily mean, literally, what it does in Hebrew Aramaic. The conversation between Jesus and Peter in the upper room, as the former washes the feet of the latter, is prone to all kinds of Greek misinterpretations. Likewise, the discussion of women washing Jesus’s feet in public, in Aramaic, makes very clear sense in Aramaic. And yet, in Greek, what can it mean? And yet and yet… in English, in Kwaya, in Greek, we translators are not afraid that our translations will be too literal here. Michael, you have not yet discussed this. I do hope it would be helpful to you! Cheers! J.K. Gayle

  69. Mike Sangrey says:

    Dannii wrote: Why do you denigrate translations that attempt to convey semantics and pragmatics by calling them “interpretations of the Bible?”

    Theophrastus replied:
    This is a false dichotomy. Literal, transparent translations can also convey semantics and pragmatics.

    So, you’re saying that literal, transparent translations are also interpretations?

    I agree! Though I suspect that is not what you mean. Generally, in practice, literal, transparent translations inject significant ambiguity into the text, so they do a rather poor interpretive job.

    So, you’re going to have to much more carefully nuance your statement.

    Kurk has pointed out ‘baptize’. This is literal and was motivated by a literal methodology. It does not convey semantics nor pragmatics (ie. contextual reference to the ‘mikvah’ which I think is rather likely). It couldn’t because is was a transliteration. The currently attached semantics and pragmatics which it has come to have, had to be created by its use in our language (which, sadly, means that each interpretive group has assigned their own meaning). When you move above the word level to the discourse level, the semantics and pragmatics of literal translations substantially evaporates (as pointed out by Michael Nicholls above).

    I’ve been recently pleasantly surprised by an example of this in Luke 4:22-30 which is chiastic. When one considers the way Jesus handled the Isaiah text, the pragmatics (socio-linguistics) of the ancient Jews disliking Gentiles along with the ancient Jews self-view of superiority at the time, and the chiastic form used by Luke, one needs to translate the dative in verse 22 in a disadvantageous way. παντες εμαρτυρουν αυτω (literally: all witnessed to him) is generally “all spoke well of him. (NASB)” Better would be, “all spoke against him.” The clauses that follow then take on an emotive sense of irony.

    In any case, dative of advantage or dative of disadvantage, both are interpretive. [FWIW: I dislike these categories. I think they conflate English and Greek syntax.]

    And Theophrastus also replied:
    I reject the notion that translation is an either/or proposition.

    I assume you’re referring to ‘literal, transparent translation’. In any case, I don’t follow you at all. What either/or notion do you reject?

  70. Theophrastus says:

    Mike —

    A “translation” that injects ambiguity where there was no ambiguity in the original is hardly transparent.

    This series of posts has posited a choice (actually a spectrum of choices) between literal translations on the one hand and translations that are “clear” on the other hand. We are thus offered the choice between
    (a) literal but hard-to-read translations versus
    (b) easy-to-read but non-literal translations.

    It may in fact be the case that most translations today fall into category (a) or category (b), but I see no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds. We’ve seen examples of translations of other literary material (I mentioned Dante and Homer in particular) that preserve literary characteristics while still retaining high readability. Indeed, for their contemporary audiences, the Tyndale/KJV translations did a fairly good job of this (although they have since become increasingly archaic to our ears).

    The conventional wisdom is that trade-offs are necessary, but I don’t agree. I think we should demand the best of both worlds, and demand that our translators be literary geniuses who do a good job at all levels — much as Tyndale did.

  71. Dannii Willis says:

    Kurk, I guess “baptise” is relevant, if only that it’s a clear example of an inaccuracy almost all translations make. It is also interesting that (IIRC) the NT authors coined the word βάπτισμα.

    I think it would be helpful to all if we stopped using the word “literal”, or at least explained what exactly we mean by it. I think most of the time it is used to mean “morphosyntactic equivalence”, though I think “clause-level semantic equivalence” is also a valid meaning of “literal.”

    That said, I think it’s perfectly possible to have easy to read literal translations, which I take to mean easy to read clause-level semantically equivalent translations. I don’t think you can have an easy to read morphosyntactically equivalent translation because the Biblical languages and English have typologically different grammars!

  72. Theophrastus says:

    I don’t think you can have an easy to read morphosyntactically equivalent translation because the Biblical languages and English have typologically different grammars

    Just so. And that is where literary genius is required — to find ways to capture “equivalence” on multiple levels at once.

    The KJV, for example, uses a relatively restrained range of vocabulary (compared with, for example, Shakespeare or Milton). Of course, Shakespeare and Milton were also literary geniuses, but it is a compelling hypothesis that the translators of the KJV had accessibility as a primary goal (as we know from their own preface!) — something that was a apparently a secondary goal for Shakespeare — and not a goal at all for Milton.

  73. Dannii Willis says:

    Suppose we have a great translation that covers the semantics and pragmatics perfectly. Suppose it’s a great literary read as well.

    My question is, for what reason would we want to attempt some level of morphosyntactic equivalence as well? What possible value would it add? Why should we attempt to find equivalent noun classes, verb aspects or clause structures?

    I think that the only time you should aim for morphosyntactic equivalence is when you can’t attempt anything else.

  74. Theophrastus says:

    That is an intriguing question Dannii, but perhaps my imagination is limited — I am finding it hard to imagine how a translation could capture the (principle) literary features of the original without hewing fairly closely to the original (which is not a radical suggestion like morphosyntactic equivalence).

    Did you have an example in mind?

  75. J. K. Gayle says:

    Dannii,

    I like your proposal that we all stop using the phrase “literal translation” as if we each agree what it means. Yes, you’re right that the noun βάπτισμα seems to be a neologism of the gospel writers and Paul. Mark’s translation of Jesus (and Matthew’s too) is just funny new/ old stuff: τὸ βάπτισμα ὃ ἐγὼ βαπτίζομαι βαπτισθῆναι. (See Mk 10:28, Mt 20:22 – in the variants of Mt that go w/ Mk’s translation). On the one hand, there’s the really old stuff of “baptising” as immersing, ship sinking, poison dipping, cloth dying, etc., was very old Greeky. And there’s the old LXX Hebraic meanings as well: body washings and transgressions overwhelmings.

    On the other hand, there’s the new, the creation and use of the noun form (the coined word, the nominalized version). It’s here where we have an inkling of the fact of possible “morphosyntactic equivalence.” I want to focus here on Mark’s (and Matthew’s) translation of Jesus speaking. It is translation, no?

    Maybe Jesus or Mark and Matthew or all three are thinking of what we call 2 Kings 5:14. I imagine the gospel writers translating Jesus had at least a peek at the LXX, where it translates into Greek as: καὶ ἐβαπτίσατο ἐν τῷ Ιορδάνῃ. The allusion to the dipping, the bathing, in the Jordan is hard to miss, when the gospel writers report Jesus and his cousin doing something similar (or identical) in the very same river.

    So writing and translating into Greek (from spoken Hebrew Aramaic), Mark does something fantastic. He plays with language. Why? Could it be that he’s also playing with Jesus’s playful language? Why else invent the Greek:

    τὸ βάπτισμα?

    Why else coin a nominal version of a overdetermined Greek verb if not to suggest a play on this very verb:

    ὃ ἐγὼ βαπτίζομαι βαπτισθῆναι

    Doesn’t this syntax and the awfully heavy alliteration of three words seem much more Semitic than Hellene?

    Notice how Barnstone brings the Greek into English but how he loses the redundancies:

    “dipped in the waters I am dipped in”

    Notice how “in the waters” is what Barnstone does with the coined new Greek “βάπτισμα.”

    Would it have made a difference if Barnstone would have tried to mimic the novel Hebraic Hellene? Something like this:

    “dipped in that deep-dipping I am dipped in”

    Isn’t Mark likely translating spoken Hebrew Aramaic into written Hebraic Hellene, by “aiming for morphosyntactic equivalence”?

    Now how does that compare with your favorite translation:

    http://bible.cc/mark/10-38.htm

  76. Theophrastus says:

    For what it’s worth, I prefer J.K.’s translation:

    “dipped in that deep-dipping I am dipped in”

    to Barnstone’s

    “dipped in the waters I am dipped in”

    — both viewing the translations in isolation, as English statements, and in comparing them to the Greek.

  77. Dannii Willis says:

    Kurk, I don’t like to speculate on what Jesus said, especially when my Hebrew/Aramiac is even more minimal than my Greek. And why speak as if Mark coined the word when Paul used it before him (according to traditional datings)? I prefer “immerse” to “dip” as well.

    You’re helpfully muddying the issue by asking about examples of word play. Word play is, in a way, unnatural language. To translate word play will in involve an attempt at morphosyntactic equivalence. But not all the Bible is word play, is it?

  78. Dannii Willis says:

    Kurk, I don’t like to speculate on what Jesus said, especially when my Hebrew/Aramiac is even more minimal than my Greek. And why speak as if Mark coined the word when Paul used it before him (according to traditional datings)? I prefer “immerse” to “dip” as well.

    You’re unhelpfully muddying the issue by asking about examples of word play. Word play is, in a way, unnatural language. To translate word play will in involve an attempt at morphosyntactic equivalence. But not all the Bible is word play, is it?

  79. J. K. Gayle says:

    Theophrastus,
    Thanks for your kind statement. Thank you even more for pointing out how a translation may be appreciated “in isolation” and in comparison with the original it’s attempting to translate. (I much prefer the diglot, the translation always in comparison, because it allows for, what Mikhail Epstein says is, “a multilingual variation on the same theme” or “stereotextuality” in which there can be, and actually are, “more metaphorical layers.”)

    Dannii,
    Not all the Bible is wordplay. When it comes to Wayne’s point for this post — accuracy in Bible translation — wordplay is critical.

    Not all the Bible is wordplay. Much of the Bible, however, is translation already. It’s not at all speculating too much to suggest that Mark’s written Greek is very much a translating of Jesus’s spoken language — was it Aramaic? — anymore than it is speculating (behind some “tradition”) that Paul coined a few Greek words first, and therefore Mark must have followed him, and therefore how Mark played with language when translating must be less “original.” In any case, the Greek of the NT contains many hapax logomena and other more common coinages and neologisms and L1 patterns in an L2 for a readership and an audience that clearly already has facility and familiarity with Semitic languages. What we don’t hear, in our mostly monolingual anglo-Centric contexts, is the silent backdrop of Hebrew and of Hebrew Aramaic.

    But even if we only suppose, or can only just pre-suppose as the multi-lingual backdrop for the NT, we nonetheless do well to look at how the Bible authors and translators (as real human beings like you and me) used language. When we consider “accurate” uses of our nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and the like, nobody is surprised how you yourself use language. Dannii, I got it the first time when you said to me, “You’re helpfully muddying the issue…” But I loved it that you were more accurate to your own intention the second time by clarifying, “You’re unhelpfully muddying the issue…” The first statement worked. “Muddying” is wordplay, regardless of your opposing modifiers.

    I was hoping to muddy our notion of linguistic “accuracy” a lot earlier in the conversation. You decide whether it’s helpful or unhelpful that the most intelligent scientists among us choose to talk differently (inter-changeably) about light as particle or / and as wave and/ or as field. But I do think it’s most helpful to insist (even when speculating from time to time) that “Accuracy first, for a Bible translation, has to include and to extend and to practice what [the original] Bible rhetors and writers understood and practiced as accuracy.”

  80. Theophrastus says:

    Much of the Bible, however, is translation already.

    When J. K. writes this, he means “Much of the New Testament, however, is translation already.”

    If we look at the Hebrew Bible instead, word play is persuasive. If we look at classical medieval commentaries, many commentators devote between about a third of all comments (Rashi) to almost all comments (Jacob ben Asher/Baal ha Turim) to issues of wordplay. Naturally, word play also thoroughly dominates the poetic books.

  81. Theophrastus says:

    Sorry — I just woke up. I meant to write “word play is pervasive” (although it is persuasive too!) Here is a corrected version of my comment:

    Much of the Bible, however, is translation already.

    When J. K. writes this, he means “Much of the New Testament, however, is translation already.”

    If we look at the Hebrew Bible instead, word play is pervasive. If we look at classical medieval commentaries, many commentators devote between about a third of all comments (Rashi) to almost all comments (Jacob ben Asher/Baal ha Turim) to issues of wordplay. Naturally, word play also thoroughly dominates the poetic books.

  82. Dannii Willis says:

    Kurk, my undefined definition of “wordplay” is a lot more restrictive than yours. I wouldn’t consider most metaphors or idioms to be wordplays. “Wordplays” are games of language, and not just games of cognition, perception and reference. “Immersed in the immersion which I am immersed in” is playing with language while “muddying the issue” is not, IMO.

  83. J. K. Gayle says:

    Dannii,
    Thanks for clarifying with a yet undefined definition if with a couple of examples. I see them. And yet, I still see as both pretty playful (and muddy):

    your “Immersed in the immersion which I am immersed in”

    and your “muddying the issue.”

    But then again I see Mark’s

    τὸ βάπτισμα
    ὃ ἐγὼ βαπτίζομαι
    βαπτισθῆναι

    about as wordplayful as something tradition attributes to Moses.

    Notice what Theophrastus says about the wordplay of the Bible in Hebrew, and notice Moses’s Hebrew here on mud as things to fasten words and bricks by. Please pardon my not writing in the vowels here, but the repetitive morphosyntactic play is evident enough in the babel of the consonants:

    ויאמרו
    איש אל־רעהו
    הבה
    נלבנה לבנים
    ונשרפה לשרפה
    ותהי
    להם הלבנה לאבן
    והחמר היה
    להם לחמר

    Everett Fox gets that in English this way:

    They said, each man to his neighbor:
    Come now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt!
    So for them brick-stone was like building-stone, and raw bitumen
    –was for them like red-mortar.

  84. Theophrastus says:

    Hebrew word-play includes extensive punning, alliteration, double meaning, creative uses of non-standard grammar, and deliberate use of redundancy.

  85. Joel H. says:

    However, consider Ezekiel 6:11 where the NLT has “Clap your hands in horror.” To my understanding, that makes no sense in English. Is that an accurate rendering?

    Mike (and others):

    It turns out it’s just a mistake. The Hebrew doesn’t say “clap” but rather “strike with.” I have more here.

    -Joel

  86. Joel H. says:

    That’s what clap means in English […]

    to strike the palms of (one’s hands) against one another

    Theophrastus:

    My point is that the Hebrew in Ezekiel 6:11 doesn’t mean “hit one hand against the other.” It means “hit with your hands.”

    -Joel

  87. Mike Sangrey says:

    Hi Joel,

    On the trackback to your web site you wonder what caused the confusion with Ezekial 6:11. I’m afraid I’m the one that started the confusion; or, perhaps, I simply brought the confusion to light.

    To explain: This posting is about accuracy, so when I noticed the NLT’s translation of this verse which says, “clap your hands in horror,” I scratched my head[1]. The translation is inaccurate since it does not communicate to an English speaking audience.

    Also, as you’re aware, gestures are notoriously noncommunicative when translated literally. ‘Strike’ is not much better since we English speakers don’t “strike hands in horror.” We might do that in frightened defense–striking out at the thing attacking us. But, if that is the meaning of this verse, then ‘horror’ is inaccurate.

    Furthermore, in English, when one says strike with hands a reference to the thing struck needs included. That collocational requirement probably drives the use of the more economical ‘clap’. This related topic is being handled by another posting specifically about collocation.

    So, I suspect this Ezekial verse refers to a gesture very similar to what English speakers do when they throw up their hands and cower at some horrific event in front of them. In any case, the NLT translation is inaccurate.

    ——
    [1] Which, of course, is a textually recorded gesture.

  88. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…The translation is inaccurate since it does not communicate to an English speaking audience….

    “inaccurate” does not mean “readily understood.” There is a tendency these days to confuse the two.

    Isn’t the gesture that E. is commanded to perform intended to portray the violent attack that will come on the people who were unfortunate to enter into a deal with God?

    11 ¶ Thus said the Lord Jehovah [to Ezekiel]: ‘Smite with thy palm, and stamp with thy foot [before the house of Israel], And say: Alas, for all the evil abominations of the house of Israel, Who by sword, by famine, and by pestilence do fall.

    I don’t think stomping one’s feet is an expression of delight or horror. E. is describing a furious pommeling, and a harsh and humiliating beating.

  89. Joel H. says:

    To explain: This posting is about accuracy, so when I noticed the NLT’s translation of this verse which says, “clap your hands in horror,” I scratched my head. The translation is inaccurate since it does not communicate to an English speaking audience.

    Mike:

    My point is that the translation is inaccurate because the Hebrew doesn’t say “clap” but rather “strike.” I was wondering why translations — including the NLT’s — missed this obvious fact.

    I agree that “strike with hands” isn’t much better, but at least it’s part of the right question. The wrong question is how to say “clap hands in horror” in better English, because that’s not what the original Hebrew is.

    Still, if you still want credit for the confusion, it’s yours…. 🙂

    -Joel

  90. Theophrastus says:

    I was under the impression that

    הכה בכפך

    was a variation on

    הך כף אל־כף

    at 21:19,21 (Hebrew numbering) and

    הכיתי כפי

    at 22:13.

    See also 2 Kings 11:12:

    יכו־כף

    It seems that translations that agree with me include ESV, GW, HCSB, Message, NAB, NASB, NCV, NET, NIRV, NIV, NJB, NJPS, NLT, NRSV, RSV, TNIV. See also Buber-Rosenzweig, LXX, Vulgate, and Targum Jonathan.

    Older translations such as the KJV, RV, ASV, and JPS1917 agree with Joel, so it seems that there was a general consensus to change to this newer meaning.

  91. Mike Sangrey says:

    Still, if you still want credit for the confusion, it’s yours…. 🙂

    Aaaahhhhhhhhh….I hear, off in the distance, the faint sound of clapping. Thank you. Thank you for the credit. I’m here all day.

    LOL

    Let me ask the Hebraists that comment here a question (or two): Is the following an accurate[1] translation of the Hebrew?

    Strike Israel with your hand. Stamp Israel with your foot.

    Or is the following accurate?

    Strike your hand with your hand. Stamp the ground with your foot.


    [1] In my question I’m assuming a particular definition of accuracy. As we’ve all come to appreciate on this list, a definition of accuracy seems to be a bit tricky. 🙂 So, for my question, can we assume that literary context matters and original audience context matters. In other words, one can support the accuracy of a translation by linguistic rationale in support of meaning and argued from both the literary context as well as the socio-linguistic one. So, I’d like to assume an answer to Wayne’s question #1.

  92. Joel H. says:

    Let me ask the Hebraists that comment here a question (or two): Is the following an accurate translation of the Hebrew?

    Strike Israel with your hand. Stamp Israel with your foot.

    Or is the following accurate?

    Strike your hand with your hand. Stamp the ground with your foot.

    As nearly as I can tell, neither. It means “strike something with your hand and stomp on something with your foot.” “Lash out with your hand and foot,” might be the point. (“Kicking and screaming” comes to mind.)

    I think that 6:11 (“strike with your hand…”) contrasts with 25:6 (“because you clapped hands…”), and I think it’s a mistake to use the same English verb (“clap”) when the Hebrew has two different ones.

    -Joel

  93. Theophrastus says:

    But it is the same verb root as in 21:19,21 (Hebrew numbering) and 22:13 where strike seems inappropriate.

    In any case, it is a bit of a moot point because clapping as a negative activity is common in Hebrew, albeit with different verbal roots: Job 27:23, Lamentations 2:15, and Numbers 24:10

    We also have multiple verbs in English: applaud, clap, give a big hand — but they have a common meaning.

  94. Joel H. says:

    But it is the same verb root as in 21:19,21 (Hebrew numbering) and 22:13 where strike seems inappropriate.

    Yes, but in those places we just have hikah (“strike”), whereas in 6:11 we have hikah b’ (“strike with”).

    -Joel

  95. Mike Sangrey says:

    Since I don’t know Hebrew, what about Ezekiel 16:27?

    The NLT uses the word ‘struck’. Other translations seem to prefer ‘stretch’. If it’s a different word (which I suspect), how does it fit into the semantic domain of the word in 6:11? Is there any impact? Is there any violence? That sort of thing?

  96. Theophrastus says:

    The NLT uses the word ‘struck’. Other translations seem to prefer ‘stretch’. If it’s a different word (which I suspect), how does it fit into the semantic domain of the word in 6:11? Is there any impact? Is there any violence? That sort of thing?

    Yep it is a different word. That’s a word (natah) which is still used in Hebrew and Arabic, and it means spread out (as in spread out a tent.) Thus God spreads out the heavens like a tent, Isaiah 40:22, 42:5, 44:24, 45:12, 51:13.

    But the idiom “God stretches out his hand” with the same verb often means that God acts against: see Isaiah 31:3, Jeremiah 6:12, 15:6, etc.

  97. WoundedEgo says:

    Is it clear “from the Hebrew” whether or not it is Ezekiel who “strikes” hands and feet?

    Is it ambiguous?

    Is it definitely the Jews?

    Again, I don’t know Hebrew, but the context strongly suggests to my mind that it is E. that is to perform the gesture.

    If so, isn’t all this hair splitting moo[t]?

  98. Cher says:

    1Jn4:19
    We love him because he first loved us. KJV

    We love, because he first loved us. NIV/ESV

    The KJV gives the direct object of love: God
    The others do not.
    The others implies phileo love; we can love OTHERS but no one particularily.
    The KJV says we love him (God)BECAUSE or AS A RESULT OF him loving us.
    I love the KJV..it gives honor and glory where it’s due; to God.

  99. Dannii says:

    Cher, the modern translations are being accurate to their source texts, which do not specify the object. I’m not sure what the text the KJV used has for this verse, and I guess it may also be accurate to its source (if the source explictly states God as the object.) If that’s the case we then get into textual criticisms: which source text is the most accurate.

    There are numerous other verses which state that we love God, so I don’t think we need to worry that the new translations aren’t giving honour and glory to God. There are also numerous other verses which state that we must love others! So both translations are in one sense correct. But just because two things are true does not mean that John meant to say both things in that verse, and so we must be careful that we translate what he actually intended to say, to the best of our abilities.

  100. Sammy Finkelman says:

    Theophrastus on June 4:

    “We have no great cache of Biblical Hebrew — we have the Bible, we have some variants on the Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we have a few inscriptions. Of course, we have a vast collection of Mishnaic and later Hebrew, but even in the Mishnah the sages complain about not being able to know the meanings of words in Hebrew.”

    Not in the Mishnah – in the Gemorah. There are questions in the Gemorah about what the Mishnah meant. The students of Rabbi (Yehuda ha_Nasi, (circa 135-218) who is often called the compiler of the Mishnah – he was really someone who fixed up the text) got the meaning of a word from something Rabbi’s housemaid said (Rabbi was a promoter of the speaking of Hebrew and he had hored someone who spoke it)

    I think a passage giving a lot of examples is located at Roshanah 26a.

  101. keith says:

    My girlfreind has a new liveing translation..I have A NIV..I have been told king James is what other Bible Trans. Are based from Scripturely..is that correct?..and NIV..and new liveing have Scriptures left out according to king james..is this correct..and could u tell me how many verses they leave out of each translation NIV and new liveing translation?

  102. Peter Kirk says:

    Keith, I think these are the New Testament verses found in KJV which are completely left out in most modern translations:

    MAT 17:21
    MAT 18:11
    MAT 23:14
    MRK 7:16
    MRK 9:44
    MRK 9:46
    MRK 11:26
    MRK 15:28
    LUK 17:36
    LUK 23:17
    JHN 5:4
    ACT 8:37
    ACT 15:34
    ACT 24:7
    ACT 28:29
    ROM 16:24

    This list is taken from a (zipped Word) document I prepared several years ago. But there are other verses, most notably 1 John 5:7-8, which are much shorter in modern translations than in KJV.

    The reason for most of these omissions is very simple: these verses were not in the original text of the New Testament, according to most scholars, but were added by copyists during the Middle Ages. In most of these cases the additions were simply to harmonise the wording of parallel passages.

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