Layers of language and translation

Linguistics is a great thing to study! Anyone who has done a bit of formal study of linguistics will know that it has many sub-fields such as phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics and pragmatics. In this post we’re going to dig down through the layers and see how focusing on each layer results in significantly different translations. For this we’re going to use the following verse as an example:

Matthew 26:33: ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ· εἰ πάντες σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν σοί, ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι.
NLT: Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”

Each layer is a little further from the source, a little more abstract and a little (or a lot) harder to study. But I hope you’ll see that the deeper you go the more potential there is for exciting and powerful translations!

Phonology is the study of sound in language. There is of course no translation which attempts to fully convey the phonology of its source – such a translation would really be a transliteration instead! Most translations do however transliterate occasionally. Although names, both of people and places, frequently are given a meaning in in the Bible, they are usually transliterated or transferred into the target language. For example Πέτρος /petros/ becomes Peter in most Bibles.

Many translations however also transliterate other words. These transliterated words have become English religious jargon, but in many cases they were regular words in the Hebrew or Greek. Words like apostle, baptise, messiah and sabbath are all basically transliterations. While it might be easiest to stick with tradition and use these words, it is worthwhile considering if they can be translated, and what effect that would have on the translation as a whole.

Morphosyntax, or morphology and syntax, is the study of structure in language, of words and sentences respectively. Translations that focus on morphosyntax will try to mimic the structure of the source text as much as is possible. Our example has two verbs in the main clause, ἀποκριθεὶς and ἀποκριθεὶς, and the strictest mimicking translations will actually include both, such as the NKJV: “Peter answered and said to Him…” Most translations recognise that this phrase is a common idiom and instead just use a single verb in English: for example the ESV has “Peter answered him…”

A better example is found in the next phrase, for which the ESV has “Though they all fall away because of you…” Some verbs must always have a preposition, as David Ker recently discussed. These are sometimes given the technical name of bipartite verbs, i.e. two-part verbs. The phrase looked over has a unique meaning which look by itself does not have – essentially it is a distinct verb. I suspect that σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν is similar. Translations which are attempting to mimic the source’s morphosyntax will translate this phrase with a verb and a preposition, as the ESV did, with “fall away / because”. Okay, that’s really a three part verb! Other translations however might treat the Greek verb as a unit, and replace it with whatever conveys the meaning of the whole unit best. That may also be a multi-part verb, or it might be a single word. This is what the NLT does, which translates it as desert.

A morphosyntax-mimicking translation might be written by using the same types of clauses and phrases as the source, representing them as is natural for the target language. The most extreme mimicking translations however also attempt to mimic the source’s word order of regardless of whether that is the target language’s normal way of representing those structures. To me this seems especially ironic considering that both Hebrew and Greek have a significantly free word order, and so any significant word orders will be for reasons other than syntax!

Semantics is the study of meaning! To some extent I covered this in the previous section, as most translations which don’t focus on conveying morphosyntax instead focus on conveying semantics. So semantic translations are free to pick whichever words and sentences they need to most closely translate the meaning of the source, regardless of whether the structures are similar or not.

Each of these layers we’ve been digging through is more abstract, and so translations that focus on lower layers are harder to produce. Sometimes there is significant ambiguity, or even if the source is understood clearly, the target language’s culture may think about some issues in a very different way. One further example from our verse is the noun πάντες, which has the basic meaning of all. There are though a great many ways in which it has been translated, some of which are all, all men, or everyone. A semantics-sensitive translation will ask what was implied in the source language, and what will be inferred from the translation, and if they do not match up the translation will need to be edited further.

Pragmatics is the study of language in context. This is necessarily more abstract than the other layers we’ve covered as we have a far from complete knowledge of the context in which the Bible was written. As the focus of pragmatics is context, a big part of it is studying language as whole texts or conversations, rather than as individual sentences or words. Mike looked at some interesting contextual issues in Matthew recently.

One thing that comes under pragmatics is the intent of a text’s author. Everything ever said or written has been said or written with some purpose. Parts of the Bible have been written to encourage and to rebuke, to excite the readers and to express deep grief. I suspect that The Message as a translation aims to convey these author intentions as its highest priority, even if that means that the individual semantics of a sentence must be changed. Sometimes I think it does this very effectively, but at others times I think the intentions it conveys have been too strongly tainted by speculation. While The Message is an interesting experiment and other translation teams would be wise to study it, I personally don’t think that intentions should be ranked over semantics for most general purpose translations. These translations will remain a niche item.

Another aspect of pragmatics is to do with information. The study of information structure looks at how language is used to mediate between the different collections of knowledge we all have. One significant concept is that of focus, which is used to bring to the forefront something which the speaker thinks their listeners do not know. In Biblical Greek pronouns, like ἐγὼ “I”, are frequently optional, and using them adds emphasis. Both οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι and ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι have the semantic meaning of “I will never desert you,” however the second has a pragmatic focus on the “I”. A translation could even consider printing I in italics in this verse. I’ve only found one translation which seems to convey this emphasis, the ISV: “Even if everyone else turns against you, I certainly won’t!”

Other layers
There are many other layers to language which are rarely considered to much depth for Bible translations. Some of these are the genre of texts, the register of texts (is it high brow or low brow?), the differences between individual authors etc. The list just keeps on going! I believe that the majority of current Bible translations focus on either morphosyntax or semantics. Clearly there is still much room for improvement!

4 thoughts on “Layers of language and translation

  1. Micah Schmidt says:

    I’m not sure if this would fall under phonology or not, but I know that Joseph Gelineau was unique in that he was concerned with syllables in his translation of the Psalter. I think that this too, at least in poetry, can be an important aspect of translation.

    For example, take the refrain in Psalm 136. In Hebrew, it’s 6 syllables long: כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ. But some English translations say, “for His steadfast-love endureth forever.” (11) An okay translation, but all liturgical worth has been lost. Instead I propose, “for His kindness endures.” Or “for His love is for aye” for those who like older English.

    Anyway, those are just my twenty cents. A great post, Dannii, especially since I’m in an hermeneutics class here at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, lol!

    (I don’t mean to offend anyone by just blurting out like this, but I have been following this blog for a long time and have often found it helpful and thought-provoking.)

  2. Iver Larsen says:

    A nice post, Dannii.

    A linguistically trained and experienced translator should be able to juggle all layers simultaneously. A less trained translator will focus on the semantics of words and correspondence in translation, and I am not saying that this is not important. In the case of Bible translation, we have the added layer of what the readers expect and will accept – which of course depends on the reader. It is impossible to please everybody.

    Micah mentioned syllables in poetry. It is generally recognized that Bible translations are poor in poetry because of the tradition of word-for-word correspondence. But to re-create poetry is not just a matter of counting syllables, but a question of what are the features of poetry in the two languages. That could well be the topic for another post, a huge one even, since it is complex and interesting. One of the traditional features of poetry in English is alliteration, but stress and rhythm is also important. For Ps 136, I might suggest “(for) God forever is faithful” in order to get the f-alliteration and also because I think faithful is a good translation of “hesed”. I am not sure about the first “for”. I think alliteration can be overdone.

    Quite a bit of thought goes into choosing the right word or words for a Greek word like σκανδαλίζω in Mat 26:31,33. One needs to look at other places also where the word occurs. It is good to be consistent when a word is used in different places with the same sense, but it is a judgment call whether the sense is really the same. I don’t think the NLT did particular well in this respect.

    It is not a simple matter to choose the best word, especially when we can see that English versions have made many different choices. KJV used “be offended”, RSV chose “fall away” (followed by NIV, NET etc.), NLT chose “desert”, GW “abandon”,
    TEV “run away”, CEV “reject.” The word form here is passive, which means that it is a negative reaction to something Jesus has said or done or will say or do. That is where the “be offended” comes in. But it is a very serious matter, and the word often refers to losing faith or falling away from faith. That is what RSV, NIV etc try to aim at. I consider “reject” the best option of those above.

  3. Dannii says:

    Hi guys, thanks for your comments. I somehow forgot an idea which I’d been planning to include in this post for a while, so I’ve just edited it to add the paragraph about pragmatics and The Message.

    Micah, I don’t know too much about Hebrew poetry, but I do know that liturgical worth is not found in ensuring the translation has the same number of syllables! It may be that an effective translation could keep that syllable count, but I suspect that, as Hebrew and English have very different types of poetry, it is more likely a translation aiming to produce natural English poetry would use different poetic techniques. Who knows, it might even use iambic pentameter!

    Thanks for filling in some of the Greek details Iver. I’ll just quickly note that while morphosyntax-mimicking (ie, word-for-word/formal equivalent) translations might think that keeping that passive voice is very important, while other translations have the freedom to choose whichever construction most accurately and naturally conveys the meaning.

    I’ve said for a while that if the Bible had been written in a polysynthetic language no one would think that word-for-word was a good translation strategy. Maybe I should add to that that if it had been written in a language which had antipassives instead of passives no one would either!

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