In this post I want to play with a technique for determining naturalness of English expressions in Bible translations.
Let’s begin with a question that came up recently on the Better Bibles Share page about John 3:16. Look at the comments there and you’ll see that we’ve mostly been looking at the Greek. But here I want to turn it around and look at the English translation and ask, “Is it natural English?” and “Is it communicating the probable meaning of the original text?”
At Better Bibles we often talk about “Biblish.” Biblish is what we call “Bible English,” a dialect of English found only in Bible translations. But how can you tell if a Bible translation is using Biblish? We can make an intuitive statement about a translation, “That doesn’t sound natural.” But that’s anecdotal rather than scientific evidence.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
This does not feel like natural English to me. We don’t say, “Enter not.” Or “Talk not.” But maybe my English is too limited. Let’s try out some search engines and see what kinds of results we get for “Judge not.”
As I type in the word judge on Google, I get these instant results:
- judge Judy
- judge Mathis
- judge Joe Brown
Now look at what happens when I add “not”:
- judge not lest ye be judged
- judge not
- judge not that ye be not judged
- judge not lest
- judge not lyrics
Verdict: The phrase “Judge not” is Biblish since search results are predominantly referring to the Biblical translation.
A second test that I will often do for this kind of phrase is search news items. If the only exact word matches are literary allusions to the Bible verse then it’s further evidence that this is not natural English.
Now let’s have a look at “God so loved the world.” My question has to do with “so” preceding a verb and being used as an adverb of degree. In plain English, I’m asking, “Does ‘God so loved the world’ mean ‘God loved the world so much?'”
Instead of using “God” I’m going to substitute “I” and see if we can get a broader sample.
Results for “I” with a following space:
- I like it
- I like it on
- I like it on the floor
- I am not a human being
OK, that’s pretty weird. Let’s move on to “I so ”
- I so hate consequences
- I so hunt
- I so don’t do mysteries
- I so hate consequences chords
- I so
These results are pretty obscure. “I So Hate Consequences” is a song by Relient K.
Now for “I so love”
- I so love you
- I so love you quotes
- I so love this song
- I so love this
- I so love
Looks like we definitely have strong evidence of pre-verbal “so” being used as an adverb of degree. In my Oregon dialect of English, this phrase is often expanded to “so totally,” as in, “I so totally messed that up” or “I could so totally eat a taco right now, dude.” This goes back to “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times” stoner slang from the 80’s and is used in a mock ironic way. Whether that was the register that St. John was shooting for in his Gospel is an interesting question, dude!
What’s the verdict on this one? Conceding that it is natural English, I think we need to answer two questions:
- Is this an accurate translation of the original text?
- Is this the most natural way to express this idea?
Members of the jury, let your deliberations begin.
Here are some of the links to posts about this verse:
Scripture Zealout: “For God so loved the world”
God Didn’t Say That: So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer
Lingamish: So What?
Please let me know of others.
UPDATE 2: Comments are now closed. See Discourse considerations in John 3:14-17 for more on this topic.
All the posts in this series: