Bible translation foundations – word order

How closely should English Bible translations follow the word order in the biblical language texts?

19 thoughts on “Bible translation foundations – word order

  1. Michael Nicholls says:

    They should follow the word order exactly, unless by following it it changes the English focus, register, genre, style, illocutionary force, background/foreground info, participant reference, discourse unit, theme, climax, implicit information, collocation, key terms, culture, tone, idiom, etc….

    In those cases, it might have to be careful. But if those aren’t affected, go for it!

  2. Theophrastus says:

    I think the verse order should be followed — a number of translations, such as JB/NJB and NEB/REB change it, which does violence to the manner in which the original text presents concepts.

    In terms of word order, it is almost impossible to preserve this, but care should be taken to make sure that the thematic stress of the sentence is preserved in the translation.

    If we translate English->English, we may be tempted to translate:

    “The hat contains the cat”


    “The cat is in the hat”

    but such a translation would change the stress of the sentence from the hat to the cat.

  3. Michael Nicholls says:

    Theo wrote:
    I think the verse order should be followed — a number of translations, such as JB/NJB and NEB/REB change it, which does violence to the manner in which the original text presents concepts.

    Sorry to derail a thread so early, but can you give an example of what you mean? In some languages it’s necessary to shuffle around some of the things in adjacent verses, because different languages handle background information differently, or because certain types of narratives have to straighten out some of the chronology to be understood. Mark 6:14-29 is a good example of this.

    I thoroughly agree with the rest of what you wrote (although I don’t often translate English->English in my line of work 🙂 ).

  4. Theophrastus says:

    I would like to take this opportunity to once again mention Robert Mounce’s rather remarkable translation of the New Testament which does preserve word order (which is available in any of the following books ISBN 0310290821, ISBN 0310241391, or ISBN 0310241642). I don’t care for interlinears as a pedagogical tool (they put distance between a learner and the source language), but Robert Mounce’s translation is fairly amazing: he manages in almost all cases to use English to capture the Greek word order (thus teaching us all a lesson about English and inflection — English is far more flexible than most of us suspect.) This is a virtuoso display of English ability — although, of course, the resulting English is frequently awkward.

    Just take a look at it to see what I mean.

  5. Theophrastus says:

    I should mention that the verse division of the Hebrew Bible is normally accorded by an ancient tradition; see for example Mishna Megilla 4.4; this was subsequently committed to writing by the Masoretes in the seventh century.

    In the New Testament, verse division is a much later innovation (16th century, Robertus Stephanus).

  6. Gary Simmons says:

    Since word order works differently in different languages, one will often need to deviate from the original word order. Unfortunately, stress can become lost this way, but perhaps we can mark stress in some other way, such as through using italics or bold text, which is what I do in my translation of Philippians.

  7. Joel H. says:

    I think the attempt to preserve word order is usually one of the most misguided.

    For example (as I describe here), even though many word orders are grammatical in both modern Hebrew and in modern Russian, a particular word order will be interpreted differently in each language, so preserving the word order diminishes the quality of the translation.

    Another example comes from the common phrase “more or less,” which we find in many languages. For example, Spanish has mas o menos, literally, “more or less.” As it happens, in modern Hebrew the phrase is pachot o yoter, literally, “less or more.” But even though “less or more” is grammatical in English, it’s certainly the wrong translation for the Hebrew pachot o yoter.

    Even when the word order conveys emphasis or similar information, I don’t think that mimicking the word order in translation is necessarily called for. Rather, the plan should be to preserve the information encoded in the original word order. Sometimes the best way to preserve that information will be with similar word order, but sometimes it will be through other means.


  8. Cory Howell says:

    I can’t see that preserving word order is very sensible. It often leads to an odd kind of “Yoda-speak,” as my hymnology professor called it. Me gusta Taco Bell= Me it likes Taco Bell. Ridiculous!

    Meaning is far more important than form, when it comes to translation.

  9. jkgayle says:

    Jorge Luis Borges says word order is orden de las palabras.

    Then notice how he himself, in translation of either his español to his English or vice versa, works this out in his commentary on his poetry (su poesía):

    Mi suerte es lo que suele domoninarse poesía intelectual. La palabra es casi un oximoron; el intelecto (la vigilia) piensa por medio de abstracciones, la poseía (el sueño), por medio de imagenes, del mitos o de fábulas. La poesia intelectual debe entretejer gratamente esos dos procesos.

    My luck lies in what might be called intellectual poetry. The term is almost an oxymoron; the intellect (wakefulness) thinks by means of abstractions; poetry (dream) by means of images, myths, or fables. Intellectual poetry should pleasingly interweave the two processes.

    What might Borges advise us on word order in Bible translation?

  10. Theophrastus says:

    We know from Borges’s unpublished writings that he was a close reader of Buber. Borges taught himself German (shades of Joyce teaching himself Norwegian to read Ibsen). When the Argentinian anti-Semitic movement grew in 1934, he wrote, “Our inquisitors are seeking Hebrews, never Phoenicians, Numidians, Scythians, Babylonians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonians, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Lybians, Cyclops, and Lapiths.”

    I believe that Borges must have read the Buber-Rosenzweig translation, which for me is a high-water mark in 20th century translations. (Sadly, the practice of learning a language to read a book is fading out of fashion, but you can get a sense of B-R’s genius from Everett Fox’s amazing translation — certainly the closest the English reader can get to the Hebrew.)

    Emmanuel Levinas wrote in his essay on Buber:

    Les vocables eux-mêmes sont traités par Buber comme des palimpsestes. Il s’agit de découvrir, sous la couche des termes conventionnels que sont devenus les mots hébraïques désignant par exemple la Thora, le prophète, l’ange, le sacrifice, le tétragramme lui-même, une signification moins usée

    [Buber treats words themselves like palimpsests. It’s a question of discovering a lesser-used meaning under the layer of conventional terms that such Hebrew words as Tora, prophet, angel, sacrifice, and even tetragrammaton have become.]

    Some attack Buber-Rosenzweig (and Fox) for producing a translated text that seems unworldly, and alien to the German (and English) reader. Such people, I think, must never have read Rashi, and his extensive enumeration of the many parts of the Hebrew original that seem unworldly, and alien to the experienced Hebrew reader.

    Borges may not have spoken of word order, but he certainly appreciated how to the Bible, and how to its translator Buber, each word was pregnant with many meanings — Borges was interesting in scraping off the palimpset-text to discover the writing underneath.

  11. Theophrastus says:

    J. K. —

    The most exciting part of your comment above, of course, was the hidden announcement of your new blog, with the enticing blog name of “Mind Your Language” (I like the URL even more: “never mind the tagmemics”.) Tell it, brother!

    The only problem with your blog’s name is that, of course, it is already taken by The Guardian newspaper for its language blog. When they send you a cease and desist order, tell those Brits you’ll only consider it after they finish cleaning all the oil from the Gulf.

    We can only hope that with your new blog delivers on its implicit promise of its title with plenty of heady debate in the philosophy of language (Sapir-Whorf? Grice? It looks “Gorgias”!)

  12. jkgayle says:

    its implicit promise

    Yep, word order is important in translation of the Bible. Nos olvidamos de Ken Pike (que siguieron Edward Sapir y que suena como Gorgias también), pero yo estoy empezando de nuevo. (I like your points from Borges, et al, above. Thanks for the encouragement, Theophrastus.

  13. Dannii says:

    Translations should follow the source’s word order only to the extent that the translation’s word order will express whatever the source’s word order expresses.

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