Bible translation foundations – collocations

I am fascinated by the varying lexical collocations different languages have in their linguistic toolkits. In English we use the metaphor of distance or travel to refer to time. For instance, in English we can say that some romantic episode is “past” or that my birthday will “come” soon. But English does not collocate time words with elevation (“up” or “down”) or thickness (“thin” or “thick”). Hebraisms in the biblical language texts contain a number of references to time in terms of capacity. So, the equivalent of English the time has “come” would, in Hebrew thought, be that the time is “full.”

The Cheyenne language, which has been the focus of my study since 1975, collocates price with degree of “ease”. So, something which is inexpensive is literally “easy-priced.” English, on the other hand, allows price references to collocate with vertical words such as “up” or “down”. The stock market goes “up” and “down.”

In English the color green collocates with the emotion of jealousy, while red can collocate with anger. A major mistake can be a “black” mark on someone’s reputation. In some languages there are no color collocations with emotions.

English speakers can, according to English lexical rules, refer to someone in terms of their intelligence as “bright”, or “sharp,” or “dull.” None of these terms is an appropriate collocation with references to intelligence in Cheyenne.

What English translation equivalents would you consider most appropriate for expressing the meaning of the following literal translations of biblical language collocations:

  1. ripeness: “He lived to a ripe old age.”
  2. easy: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
  3. say in the heart: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”
  4. taste: “Some standing here will not taste death until the kingdom of God has come.”
  5. rich: “God is rich in mercy.”

14 thoughts on “Bible translation foundations – collocations

  1. Theophrastus says:

    Well, because these are all well-known phrases from traditional translations of the Bible, they are now part of English. For example, I have just been writing a paper in Japanese, so I looked, I found them in an English-Japanese dictionary intended for native Japanese speakers.

    However, I’m a little surprised by your query, because freshness in metaphor is something that native English speakers delight in. For example, look at this funny list of insults for referring to someone who is “dim”.

    The only problem seems to come when we try to overload a new metaphor with one that has an existing meaning: e.g., I can say “Mr. X is slow” or “Mr. X is dim” or “Mr. X is backwards” but I can’t say “Mr. X is down” because “is down” already has a different set of assigned meanings (e.g., “is depressed”).

    The only problem I see with the metaphors you listed is that they have become so familiar that they are a bit tired (oops, another collocation there) — whereas they may have been fresh in the Biblical text.

    Finally, on another level, the suggestion to restrict collocation is disturbing to me. Collocation is a type of symbolism, and that’s a very important way of reading the Bible. One very important way of reading the Bible is symbolically/allegorically. There are many places in the New Testament where the Hebrew Bible is read symbolically; similarly, in rabbinic writings (especially in the midrash) the Bible is regularly read symbolically. Indeed, in many cases, it seems that a symbolic reading is the only natural reading. For example, it is rather hard to read Job literally (God and the satan were making a wager?); Songs has traditionally been read symbolically (for example, as description of union between the divine and the human) rather than as an X-rated poem; Revelation is full of symbolism (and, indeed, one serious interpretation is that it is entirely a commentary on Roman rule.)

    I’ve seen translations that, in fact, interpret the symbolism — for example, the (Orthodox Jewish) ArtScroll translation of Songs interprets the book entirely allegorically, beginning:

    [1] The song that excels all songs dedicated to God, Him to whom peace belongs:

    [2] communicate Your innermost wisdom to me again in loving closeness, for Your love is dearer to me than all earthly delights. [3] Like the scent of goodly oils is the spreading fame of Your great deeds; Your very name is “Flowing Oil,” therefore have nations loved You. [4] Upon perceiving a mere hint that You wished to draw me [near], we rushed with perfect faith after You into the wilderness. The King brought me into His cloud-pillared chamber; whatever our travail, we shall always be glad and rejoice in Your Torah. We recall Your love more than earthly delights, unrestrainedly do they love You.

    [5] Though I am black with sin, I am comely with virtue, O nations destined to ascend to Jerusalem; though sullied as the tents of Kedar, I will be immaculate as the draperies of Him to Whom peace belongs. [6] Do not view me with contempt despite my swarthiness, for it is but the sun which has glared upon me. The alien children of my mother incited me and made me a keeper of the vineyards of idols, but the vineyard of my own true God I did not keep.

    [7] Tell me, O You Whom my soul loves: Where will You graze Your flock? Where will You rest them under the fiercest sun of harshest exile? Why shall I be like one veiled in mourning among the flocks of Your fellow shepherds?

    [8] If you know not where to graze, O fairest of nations, follow the footsteps of the sheep, your forefathers, who traced a straight, unswerving path after My Torah. Then you can graze your tender kids even among the dwellings of foreign shepherds. [9] With My mighty steeds who battled Pharaoh’s riders I revealed that you are My beloved. [10] Your cheeks are lovely with rows of gems, your neck with necklaces, My gifts to you from the splitting sea, [11] by inducing Pharaoh to engage in pursuit, to add circlets of gold to your spangles of silver.

    Now, this version has interest, but it is not at all a translation — it is a specific allegorical reading of the text. Even if one subscribes to a viewpoint that this is the “correct” reading of the text, is it not better to have the reader make the connections rather than force them upon the reader? Similarly, should I rewrite Revelation to make it a discussion of Roman rule?

    It seems that if English (or, in general, the target language) can support a metaphor or symbolic reference, then we should allow it to remain in the text, lest our text end up looking like the ArtScroll Songs.

  2. Tapani says:

    With reference to (1), I suppose you could say “grand old age”, but not without a grimace. “Ripe old age” may have started life as Biblish, but it is now a common and widely-used English colloqualism, so doesn’t really qualify for qualification or re-translation.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo wrote:

    Well, because these are all well-known phrases from traditional translations of the Bible, they are now part of English.

    And right you are, Theo. But they are not part of English for many English speakers. It is this audience of English speakers that I am usually thinking about when I write my posts on this blog. They are fluent speakers of English, with a wide range of education, some including post-high school. Some of them can write quite well. Some are widely published authors.

    My field testing with this other audience, as well as my own reactions to these words, leads me to conclude that there are quite different audiences of English speakers when it comes to English Bibles. I happen to be in the audience of those for whom the literally translated terms still sound odd. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a village where the first language of my father and many of our relatives was not English. Perhaps I am a language populist. Whatever … I’m just saying 🙂

    We can keep exposing “my” audience to the literal biblical terms and with enough teaching and explanation they will be able to understand the words and include them in their personal lexicons. I have done that partially in my own personal lexicon, but a part of me still does not respond to those terms as I do to the vocabulary and lexical collocations of the “my” audience.

    Careful field testing would need to be done to determine which audience is larger, IF we want to translate for larger audiences.

    There is no right or wrong when it comes to language usage or audiences. The usage facts simply are. You are right for many English speakers and I think I am right for many. We have enough variety among English Bible versions now to satisfy the needs of both audiences (and probably others).

  4. Michael Nicholls says:

    1) and 2) to me sound fairly normal. I’m not sure how you could get around “yoke is easy”. Perhaps “yoke is light” and then change the following phrase? Maybe part of the problem is that in many English speaking cultures we no longer talk about yokes.

    3) doesn’t collocate well to my ears.

    4) is probably the worst. In English ‘taste’ usually means to try without fully participating. It makes me think that the passage is saying “some won’t experience a little bit of death until the kingdom of God has come.”

    5) is kind of biblish (I wouldn’t usually use it about another person – “Oh yeah, Jack is rich in patience,” or “Our Director is rich in leadership skills). It’s been so biblished into me though that at first glance it seems very normal.

    Btw, Swahili also talks about prices as ‘easy’, something useless as ‘free’, pain is something you ‘hear’, and you ‘beat’ just about everything to show something in operation – ‘beat the phone’ – call someone, ‘beat the vote’ take a vote, ‘beat the iron’ – to iron [clothes].

    I agree that “freshness in metaphor is something that native English speakers delight in.” As long as the metaphor is clear and communicates well. But I’m not going to translate something from Swahili to English and write “He’s beating water” and expect my readers to appreciate the new metaphor, i.e., that he’s drinking alcohol.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    I’m not going to translate something from Swahili to English and write “He’s beating water” and expect my readers to appreciate the new metaphor, i.e., that he’s drinking alcohol.

    If the English were to sound Swahili-ish (especially when there were bilingual Swahili-English speakers), then couldn’t there be some fresh creativity here? Analogously, there was a fresh metaphor for English speaking colonists arriving in America and learning Ojibwa, and native speakers of Ojibwa learning English, none of whom seemed afraid to bring across “fire water” (a calque of an Ojibwa compound) for “alcohol.” This new English sounded (for better or for worse) like the indigenous language, metaphorically. Why not “take a hit of crazy water” for something like “piga maji”? In English, “take a hit of,” of course, is something as slangy as the Swahili, no? And, of course, it collocates with addictive, abused substances.

    I don’t want to make too big a deal about trying to maintain collocates of the L1 when translating into the L2. But I do think wordplay is important. The imagery of the L1 may actually violate L1 collocation principles. But even if the L1 collocations are tried and true, and are well worn, and so forth and so on, isn’t there a place for them in the L2 translation when they are imaginative?

    So, on #5, “rich: ‘God is rich in mercy'” — If we English translators see Paul’s Greek ὁ θεός πλούσιος ὢν ἐν ἐλέει as some sort of “natural” Hellene collocation, then we may or may not be right about that. In fact, Paul seems to be using some creative or to use Theophrastus’s word) “fresh” Greek metaphors. (Please know this was exactly Aristotle’s problem with most metaphors — the collocations were too fresh, to un-natural). Paul goes on to write just a few lines later τοῖς ἐπερχομένοις τὸ ὑπερβάλλον πλοῦτος τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ ἐν χρηστότητι ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς ἐν χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ! I’m using an English exclamation point because Paul’s very un-natural hyper-Greek here almost shouts new-ness, fresh-ness. Here, he’s repeating the word πλοῦτος (something like “rich”) but now the topic is shifted just a bit to describe the “richness of God’s mercy” if you will: what is shown in the “extraordinarily hyperbolic richness of his favor in magnanimity towards him and his audience in Messiah Joshua.” It’s pretty strange, CAPITAL LETTER SHOUTING, Greek. If the English doesn’t sound like the Greek does with the couple of weird “rich” (πλούσιος) collocations, then is the L2 English translation really successful? In other words, doesn’t the translation do well to be as newly metaphorical?

  6. Theophrastus says:

    OK, I looked up the various terms in the OED, and three of them predate Tyndale; they appear to have non-Biblical origins in English:

    (a) Ripe old dates back to c. 1375 (Legends of the Saints):

    þe tyme..þat he of þis lyf suld pas, of parfit dat & rype elde.

    (b) Easy yoke dates back to c. 888 (Ælfred’s translation of Boethius De consolatione philosophiae):

    Æala, ofermodan, hwi ȝe wilni{ȝen þæt ȝe underlutan mid eowrum swiran þæt deaðlice ȝeoc

    and its Biblical use in English dates to c. 1000 (Anglo-Saxon Gospels):

    Nimaþ min ȝeoc ofer eow

    (e) Rich in non-material things dates back to c. 1290 (South-English Legendary or Lives of Saints):

    Huy bi-heten him þe Ioye of heouene þat so riche was and is

    See also Arthur and Merlin c. 1330:

    Arthour þouȝt gode afin þe riche conseyl of Merlin

    I am still researching “said in his heart” (which I think is definitely a Hebraism) and “taste death” (I am uncertain of the origin of this one).

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    So, the equivalent of English the time has “come” would, in Hebrew thought, be that the time is “full.”

    Wayne, I think it’s right to see “the fullness of time” as being a Hebrew metaphor. But it’s the Hebrew of Hebrews (who’s also a Roman citizen and one of the world’s first Mesianic Jewish Christians) who thinks this, no? I’m talking about Saul or Paul, who who writes in Greek. Or it’s the translator of Hebrew-Aramaic into Greek, translating the spoken Hebrew thought of Jesus. I’m talking about the Greek-gospel writer Mark. (See Galatians 4:4 and Mark 1:15).

    I don’t find this thinking (i.e., the collocation of “time” and “full”) in the Hebrew scriptures. Does anybody else? And it’s not in the Greek LXX either.

    The collocation of πλήρωμα (“fullness”) and χρόνος (“time”) does occur in Thucydides the historian and in Euripides the playwright a couple of times each. But I still think it’s fair to call the collocation not only Greek but also Hebraic Greek, and therefore Hebrew thought.

    I think it’s also good English now. If you do a google search of “fullness of time” but omit from the search words like “Bible” “Galatians” “Paul” “Mark” “Jesus” “Christian” “Church” and “God,” you find a number of English writers using the phrase. There are several books all by different titles with this same English phrase too — none of these several have Biblical allusions (although, of course, plenty of books with the phrase do have biblical references).

    My point is really a question? How do we decide when collocations are a natural part of a language, after they’ve been used many decades and centuries and millennia?

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asks:

    How do we decide when collocations are a natural part of a language, after they’ve been used many decades and centuries and millennia?

    Very appropriate question, Kurk. My own answer would be that imported (borrowed) collocations are a natural part of the language any time a large majority of the speakers of the language understand it. This process can take place rather quickly, just as some new slang or technological term can spread quickly through a language community.

    I have no problem retaining biblical collocations in English Bible translations as long as they are understood by those who will use those translations. If they are only used by a small subset of English speakers, such as scholars, theologians, or preachers, then I don’t think they should be used in English Bibles.

    I think it is interesting and perfectly appropriate that so many literal phrases from English translations of the Bible have made their way into English language usage. But English translators always need to ask, for each one, if they are still well understood by the audience(s) for whom they are translating.

  9. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne: a very interesting comment. I want to ask some follow-up questions. Let me set it up a little (I’m going to limit my discussion to the Americans who read English as a first language because that is situation I know best — I know that in other countries, such as Greece or Israel, the situation is quite different):

    We all know that Bible translations are very widely distributed in the US. I actually don’t know any middle class family that does not own a Bible (except those people who make an explicit point of not owning a Bible as a personal statement). However, I also suspect that Bibles are not very widely read — I think relatively few people have made the effort to read more than a fraction of the Bible. My evidence: the appalling results every time the issue of Biblical literacy comes up.

    Now, you’ve hinted that this may be in part because of inaccessible translations, and you’ve made some persuasive arguments. But I’m don’t completely buy this because (1) we have translations such as the NLT which enjoy strong sales and are quite accessible; and (2) even at elite American universities (where students have strong reading skills), there are still high levels of Biblical illiteracy.

    I think many people may *start* to read the Bible but get bogged down in the Pentateuch — particularly Leviticus and Numbers (which I love — but maybe I am in the minority).

    My questions:

    (1) Do you have any statistics on how many Americans actually have read the entire Bible (as opposed to simply using it for reference)?

    (2) Of those people who do read the whole Bible, what fraction of them do you think are “scholars, theologians, and preachers” or people who aspire to be that?

    (3) Suppose it turned out that those “scholars, theologians, and preachers” etc. represented a major fraction of those people who read the Bible seriously. Would that change your mind about the standards of English we should use in Bible translations?

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo commented:

    Now, you’ve hinted that this may be in part because of inaccessible translations, and you’ve made some persuasive arguments.

    Hmm, I don’t remember making that connection but I may have. (I’m not remembering more and more!) I think that lack of regular Bible reading and biblical illiteracy is probably more due to other reasons, such as a decrease in the percentage of people active in a faith community, a preference for easier material to read where the plot or line of argumentation is native to English speakers, probably an increase in mental laziness (the Bible is often not an easy book to read, even in the versions with more natural English). Lack of natural contemporary English might contribute some but I think that a general disconnect between English speakers and the Bible is more to blame for less Bible reading and study.

    Also, some of the people who read and study the Bible the most are those who continue to use the KJV or some other fairly literal translation such as the NKJV, NASB, NAB, or one of the JPS translations. So that would go against the idea that just increasing the naturalness of English Bible translations will increase the amount of Bible reading.

    My questions:

    (1) Do you have any statistics on how many Americans actually have read the entire Bible (as opposed to simply using it for reference)?

    I can’t think of any. The only stats I can think of at the moment are that the average reading level for American English speakers is 6. I don’t have a source for that, however.

    I will guess an answer to your question, however. I think the percentage would be quite low, probably less than 5% for the overall population. Among theologically conservative Protestants who hear many sermons based on longer passages of the Bible (not simply a phrase or a single verse)–and not all conservative pastors preach from longer passages–or who are in Bible studies going through, let’s say, a book of the Bible at a time, I would guess that the percentage of those who have read the entire Bible is still not very high, perhaps 15%.

    (2) Of those people who do read the whole Bible, what fraction of them do you think are “scholars, theologians, and preachers” or people who aspire to be that?

    I would hope the percentage is higher than 15% but I really don’t know. These are such good questions and surely there are some answers somewhere. I hope we can find them someday. I suspect that there are even many theologically conservative Protestant preachers who preach verse-by-verse from entire books of the Bible who they themselves do not regularly read the Bible completely through very often.

    (3) Suppose it turned out that those “scholars, theologians, and preachers” etc. represented a major fraction of those people who read the Bible seriously. Would that change your mind about the standards of English we should use in Bible translations?

    Yes. It would tilt me more toward a higher register of language which would be more pleasant for them intellectually than Grade Level 6 writing.

    But I would still have mixed feelings if the register of language in Bible translations would be above the register of language in the biblical language texts themselves. I don’t personally know what grade level the biblical language texts might be, but I’m guessing they would have been somewhere around Grade Level 8. It seems to me that the fairly low percentage of people who were literate in the biblical languages would have been more of the educated and higher levels of society. However, I also believe that the authors of the Bible often assumed that what they wrote would be read aloud, so it is only necessary for one person, the reader, to be literate in such cases.

    I wish I knew the answers to your questions, Theo. They are good ones and relevant to issues of complexity of vocabulary and syntax in Bible translations. Perhaps others listening will be able to answer your questions with more certain statistics.

  11. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne, thanks for your excellent and thoughtful comments.

    A few notes: I’ve seen figures that are a little higher for reading level — 8th-9th grade reading level for Americans. If one takes immigrants, the poor, and prison population out of the mix, the level is considerably higher.

    You are definitely correct that much of the Bible is oral literature (and in Jewish liturgy, it is still oral literature — a typical Saturday morning service lasts several hours and includes lengthy sessions of reading aloud the Pentateuch [usually about 6-7 chapters] and the “Haftorah” with full cantillation, as well as individual recitation of Pslams, and several other biblical passages).

    However, oral ≠ simple or “simple vocabulary”; for example, Homer’s poems are also oral literature (as are, for example, all of Shakespeare’s dramatic works!)

  12. Michael Nicholls says:

    J.K. wrote:
    Why not “take a hit of crazy water” for something like “piga maji”? In English, “take a hit of,” of course, is something as slangy as the Swahili, no?

    Yes, “piga maji” is colloquial Swahili, but not to the same degree as “take a hit of crazy water” is in English. Is it ok to increase the ‘degree’ of slangyness in a translation? Still, I think your translation isn’t bad. I’d give you that one.

    What about “beat the phone” though? There’s nothing slangy about that in Swahili. You could be creative and say something like, “I’ll hit you up on your cell,” but the Swahili isn’t slangy or informal like that, or restricted to certain uses (generally in English we wouldn’t use this idiom except in first person singular, and definitely not in certain registers).

    The point is that “beat” and “phone” collocate normally in Swahili, but don’t collocate normally in English. If this is a normal, simple, standard, unmarked collocation in L1, then we should try for a normal, simple, standard, unmarked collocation in L2 (while still allowing for creativity and freshness where appropriate).

  13. Cory Howell says:

    This discussion reminds me of the promo video I just watched on the Common English Bible website. The video has some typical footage of a young man talking about how much he hates Shakespeare, because he doesn’t talk like that. He then proceeds to talk about how the Bible is the same kind of thing, with all the thee’s, thou’s, and walketh’s. Funny thing, that, because we all know that translations with much more modern language have been widely available for decades. And yet, the public perception of “Bible language” is still that it’s mired in a Jacobean English that no one speaks any more. And that public perception is routinely used by marketers to sell modern translations. Meanwhile, the public perception, in this case, is pretty far off base. Better Bibles Blog, of course, has been quite good at pointing out the many cases of odd “Biblish” language, even in the “easy to read” translations, but I think many of the people who don’t read the Bible because “it’s too hard and the language is ancient” would be very surprised to find out how many modern translations are available.

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