democratic Bible translation

These days we are watching masses of people in Middle Eastern countries demonstrating in public against autocratic rulers. The masses want freedom. They want to be able to choose their leaders. They want their leaders to be responsive to their needs.

Bible translation has often been a top down enterprise. Exegetes, well trained in how to interpret the meaning of biblical language texts, word translations as they believe they should be worded. However, those wordings often are not the way the masses actually speak and write their own languages.

Wise exegetes open the translation process up to the masses for whom they are translating. They field test their translations to determine if they are worded as native speakers of the language speak and write.

Click here for an opportunity for you to practice democratic Bible translation. Your responses can help the translators know if their wordings sound like native-speaker English or not. You will be able to view the survey results so far after you have taken the survey.

33 thoughts on “democratic Bible translation

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Nice picture. I remember that square. I think the golden building at the top right is the museum, where the mummies and Tutankhamun’s treasure can be viewed. I hope the really valuable stuff is safe.

    Is there meant to be a link to take the poll? If so I can’t find it.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Peter asked:

    Is there meant to be a link to take the poll? If so I can’t find it.

    I couldn’t either, Peter. I finally remembered that the only poll service which WordPress allows on its blogs is PollDaddy. And PollDaddy’s survey options do not allow for format of the survey I just made. So I’ve put the survey on a separate webpage and put a link to it in the final paragraph of the blog post.

    Thanks for the heads up.

  3. Jay Griffin says:

    None of those options sounded like ‘native English-speak’ to me although a couple were close. I didn’t want to pick them because either the vocabulary wasn’t common (e.g. glory) or there were one too many words (e.g. I wouldn’t say the “now” on the end of #4)

  4. Donna says:

    Thanks for asking our opinion! I’m honoured! I do wonder how much some translations of English have done community testing and therefore how much they have really tried to capture natural language.

    I suspect you’re getting some skewing from Biblish – is there anyone who would actually say “Your X is higher than the heavens”? or “wrath came up”?

    I agree the “now” sounds odd on the end of #4, it’s natural for me, but more natural would be “listen to me right now”.

    “you alone” (also in two choices) sounds like church song speak to me (which might be what you’re aiming for in a translation of the Psalms) but “only you will keep me safe” I think would be more natural for most native English speakers in ordinary contexts.

    I really like “my eyes are vacant with trauma”. Powerful. It’s not normal language, but it’s vivid and natural. Great for poetry.

  5. Tim Bulkeley says:

    I found the poll difficult because of the lack of context, and the question how natural is natural, we accept some rule breaking (or excessive rule keeping) in literary or high-faluting writing that are not normal street speech. Which also raises the question of the register and purpose of the discourse…

    So frustrating because in some senses all were “unnatural” as in I would not expect to hear non-Christian strangers us them on the bus. But some seemed to me good literary English using some churchy language – e.g. “Lord” as a name.

  6. Kirsty says:

    The only two I thought were really normal english were: ‘Listen to me now’ and ‘he lives with integrity’ (maybe)
    But of course, some of these are clearly poetry, which is not normal english.

    Below are comments/possible rewordings, though I wasn’t always sure what the original meant:

    I’ve run for dear life to you: Maybe OK – I can’t think of a context when anyone is likely to say this.
    they talk with slick lips: ‘when they speak, they sound very plausible’ ‘they speak glibly’
    When you bring your breath back: no idea what this means
    turn your ears to me now: absolutely not!
    listen to me now: yes
    you alone let me live in safety: ‘only you allow me to live safely’
    My spirit is all used up: again, poetic, and I’m not sure what it means. Maybe ‘I’m empty inside’
    When my anxieties multiply: ‘when my problems/worries keep accumulating’ or ‘when my problems/worries don’t stop coming’
    I always put the LORD right in front of me: ‘I always keep my eyes/mind on the Lord’ or ‘The Lord is the focus of everything I do’
    he lives with integrity: I think this is fine. Or ‘he/his life is marked/characterised by integrity’
    The Lord examines both the righteous and the wicked: using ‘the righteous’ and ‘the wicked’ is not natural. ‘righteous people’ and ‘wicked people’ would be more natural construction, though evil would be far better than wicked.
    my insides rejoice: ‘ I am really happy inside’ or ‘I am full of joy inside’ Insides suggests intestines etc, which is rather gross in English!
    you won’t leave my life to the grave: poetic. Normal english: ‘you won’t leave me dead’?
    I will open my mouth with a proverb: Normal English: ‘I am going to tell you a proverb’ or ‘here is a proverb’
    my eyes are vacant from trauma: poetic
    wrath came up against Israel: ‘there was great anger/fury at Israel’. Kind of odd in the passive, though. If the original makes it clear who was angry, it would be better as: ‘x was extremely angry/ furious with Israel’
    the memory of them is dead: poetic, so OK. In non-poetic english, something like ‘no-one remembers them now’:
    Your rules are too high for them: does this mean too difficult?
    you alone will keep me safe: ‘only you will keep me safe’
    Your glory is higher than the heavens: something about the ‘entire universe’ might be better? Trouble is, their cosmology was different from ours.

  7. Refe Tuma says:

    “My eyes are vacant with trauma.” What a great phrase! Most people would never say this, but only because most people would not spend the energy to turn a phrase so eloquently. Does that mean that a phrase like this won’t resonate with readers? The opposite is actually true in my opinion – I think that poetic phrasings like ‘eyes vacant with trauma’ stick with a reader and communicate the emotion behind them far more effectively than something less vivid.

  8. Gary Simmons says:

    I still don’t necessarily get why Biblish is to be avoided. I sure haven’t seen much success in the attempt to reform the language of the Bible.

    Whom are we to ask what the natural way to say “Your X reaches to the heavens” is in a worship context? Shall we seek to find everyday worship contexts not influenced by the Bible, and then rearrange biblical expressions accordingly?

    Personally, I think it’s difficult to find everyday worship contexts not influenced by the Bible. Surely there’s no such thing as an everyday worship context within the wider culture. As such, any worship language will be somewhat obscure to those not accustomed to worshiping. And, then, would the worship phrases of other religions somehow be any more natural (or less unnatural) than “your X reaches to the heavens?”

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Whom are we to ask what the natural way to say “Your X reaches to the heavens” is in a worship context?

    That question would also be a good one to ask, Gary. That question, however, isn’t on this survey which has “Your glory is higher than the heavens.” There is no right or wrong answer on any of the entries on the survey. The survey only asks respondents if the wordings sound like they were written by a native English speaker.

    Perhaps you are thinking about the word “heavens” in either wording. I don’t know whether or not this word is Biblish. As far as I know, it was not part of a specialized sacred language when it was used in the biblical language texts. If the English word “heavens” is not known by the same kind of audiences that the biblical authors had, then some respondents to this survey may have marked the last entry as sounding like it was not written by a native speaker of English. And that would be fine. Different people respond differently to different parts of the wordings in the survey. (Hmm, did I get the word “different” in there enough times?!)

    This particular survey is not about Biblish (sacred language) but about whether or not specific wordings follow the native/normal conventions (rules) of English. Someone who follows such rules will generally write things which sound like they come from a native speaker of English. Perhaps you have had the experience of reading an instruction manual for a device manufactured in a non-English speaking country. If the manual was written by someone who is not a native speaker of English, native English speakers can tell that right away by the odd word usages.

  10. Refe Tuma says:

    Refe, I agree that that phrase has emotion. Besides emotion, what meaning does the sentence communicate to you?

    I think it beautifully describes the state of shock you might find someone in after a significant traumatic experience. The ’empty’ look in their eyes when their emotions have been overwhelmed and exhausted.

    As for the other phrases in the survey, many that came across as odd or strange were off because they followed the word order of the original language too closely. “I’ve run for dear life to you.” This phrase is awkward for multiple reasons, but it could be helped by switching it around to read “I’ve run to you for dear life.” “When you bring your breath back” is tough to figure out, but at least if it were rearranged to read, “When you bring back your breath” it would follow a more natural English word order.

  11. Gary Simmons says:

    Wayne, I have certainly seen a few English instructions that were clearly written by nonnative speakers.

    In Mexico, a hotel pool had this rule posted: “Do not swim in the pool if it has ingested alcoholic beverages.” Definitely a favorite.

  12. bzephyr says:

    What is the saying — “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”? The democracy of naturalness must serve the rule of exegesis. On the other hand, I applaud your undying efforts to cast a broad net in getting feedback on natural English. Too often, naturalness is approved on the basis of too few speakers, sometimes only one. And then all we have is one person’s (flawed) opinion. I do really appreciate the comments above from Tim. That was my first thought, that I really needed more context even to judge naturalness, not only meaning. How can I judge naturalness if I don’t have the context to inform the meaning? Regarding church language, I agree with Gary that our worship contexts are informed by the Bible and the Bible informs our worship language. On the other hand, sometimes church language has become so cliche that is sounds perfectly natural to me but it goes in one ear and out the other without me catching its meaning. For this reason, more secular language usage can make the Bible text come alive with meaning. But then again, it’s a question of register.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Good one, Gary! I enjoy reading lists of signs like this from around the world. Of course, they demonstrate one of the dangers of translation when one does not know the target language well enough.

    And you’re right: there are many good English wordings written by non-native English speakers. I was only referring to how we sometimes read non-native English in appliance manuals. They get the point across, but don’t say it the way native speakers would. It reminds me of how many English Bibles sound: they often get the point across but not in the way native English speakers would. Some people like this in a Bible, so that it won’t sound like ordinary language.

  14. JKG says:

    how we sometimes read non-native English in appliance manuals. They get the point across, but don’t say it the way native speakers would. It reminds me of how many English Bibles sound: they often get the point across but not in the way native English speakers would. Some people like this in a Bible, so that it won’t sound like ordinary language.

    What you’ve said here is wonderfully clear! The Bible passages we must read as appliance manuals should be translated, as in the ordinary language of appliance manuals, just as appliance manuals, in order not only to “get the point across” but also to do so “the way native speakers would.”

    The Bible passages, nonetheless, that we can read as more than appliance manuals — what about them? What of rhetorical language, of political discourses, of lines that (as Kirsty puts it) “are clearly poetry,” of proverbs, of parables, of buried meanings, of jokes, of insider language, of “foreign” language and of loan words embedded and inserted, of riddles, of hyperbole, of sophisticated one liners, of developed parallelisms, of alphabetical acrostics, of puns, of chiasms, of metaphors, of dream language, of riddles, of song lyrics, of narrative episodes and peaks and climaxes and dénouements?

    What of playful language of democracies? What of the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, of the U.S. Constitution, of the Gettysburg Address? What of the “N-word” in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? What of it in the title of Carl Van Vechten’s novel? What of Martin Luther King Jr.’s two explicit uses of it in his letter from a Birmingham jail? What of how it appears so clearly in the comic routines of Chris Rock or in the lyrics of Snoop Dogg? Would or can any of this demotic and democratic language of “native speakers” ever pass our “field tests”?

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk, as I’ve stated many times before, each genre of biblical texts must be translated into English that reflects that genre. Biblical poetry needs to be translated in a way that it sounds like poetry in English. There will sometimes be poetic license taken with English wordings. Field testing does not negate any of the genre and other literary translation needs. Instead, field testing can tell us, among other things, whether what was written sounds like it was written by a native speaker of English. Field testing can address any aspect of language usage for which we desire a test. For instance, if we want to find out if translation wordings sound poetic, we can test for that.

    Here, let’s get specific. We can field test four attempts to translate Psalm 23:1:

    1. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    2. The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.
    3. The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need.
    4. The Lord is my shepherd, I’ve got all that I need.

    As with my “democratic” field test, there is no right or wrong answer. We’re just testing people’s intuitions as they hear/read each sentence.

    For these 4 options some subjects may score #1 lower because they are not familiar with its usage of “want.”

    Some subjects may respond differently to the use of “everything” vs. “all”.

    Subjects with a good feel for English poetic prosody may score #4 higher than #2-3.

    A translation team then examines the results of the “vote” of the people and decides what to do with it. If one of the team’s goals is to retain Elizabethan English and the KJV tradition as much as possible while still making it possible for current readers to understand the translation, they may conclude that the survey results allow them to go with option #1.

    Teams which aim for current English but emphasize genre distinctives may go with survey results for option #5. Just saying.

  16. JKG says:

    each genre of biblical texts must be translated into English that reflects that genre

    Thanks Wayne! Your 23rd Psalm example really helps me. Did you mean “#5” in your last sentence? Is there a fifth translation attempt you intended to share?

    And why wouldn’t native English speakers question the first part of the line, i.e., “The Lord is my shepherd”? Translator Pamela Greenberg does, it seems, and has for her translation, “God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.” Her “God” seems not only a good rendering of the Hebrew tetragrammaton but also a more natural English to be democratically judged by native English speakers than “the Lord,” which seems, if not really regal and royal, so United Kingdomish. (Or is it just American English speakers who no longer refer to people as “Lord”? Why that for the Jewish “YHWH”?)

  17. Tim Bulkeley says:

    Since the text in this second example is poetry, you have set a difficult range, as none of the attempts at a modern rendering sound poetic. In particular they lack terseness. Instead I’d suggest “I’ll not be needy”. But I do wonder at most attempts to translate Hebrew poetry, the translators often seem to feel they can use English padding words just as freely as if they were rendering prose. The one-person teams are often better… Why?

  18. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks Wayne! Your 23rd Psalm example really helps me. Did you mean “#5″ in your last sentence?

    Your monitor didn’t display 5 sentences? Hmm, now that I look again, neither does mine 🙂

    Thanks for accurate field testing response. I have corrected the errors of my ways, at least in that one comment.

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk also asked:

    And why wouldn’t native English speakers question the first part of the line, i.e., “The Lord is my shepherd”?

    Since field testing hears the voice of the people, they have every right to question anything that doesn’t sound right to them. So they could question that clause as well.

    Power to the people!

  20. Wayne Leman says:

    Tim asked:

    The one-person teams are often better… Why?

    I think poetry comes out of the soul of an individual and their unique way of thinking about the world and playing with words to describe their world. Committees can draft constitutions, detailed laws, etc., but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen beautiful literature come from committee work. Committee work often levels the literary peaks, valleys, rivers, trails, and poetic license of individual authors.

    Similarly, I think some of the most powerful literary Bible translation has come from individual Bible translators. Beauty and power from individual efforts, yes, but sometimes exegetical flaws. For those flaws we need the input of committee members. Yes?

  21. Peter Kirk says:

    “the Lord,” which seems, if not really regal and royal, so United Kingdomish. (Or is it just American English speakers who no longer refer to people as “Lord”? …)

    The only people we British refer to as “Lord” are members of the House of Lords and judges. But even then it would be “My Lord” or “His Lordship”, never “the Lord”.

    YHWH is not in the House of Lords, but he is a judge. Perhaps you Americans should use the term you would use to refer to a senior e.g. Supreme Court judge.

  22. JKG says:

    Perhaps you Americans should use the term you would use to refer to a senior e.g. Supreme Court judge.

    Perhaps, but that could be so very un-American of us. By “us,” “we, the people,” mean “all… created equal.” “The Chief Justice is my shepherd” or “Mr. President is my shepherd” or “Madam Secretary is my shepherd” are so very official sounding, and seem much different from the “Creator” who has “endowed [us] with certain unalienable Rights” 🙂

  23. Iver Larsen says:

    Although I shall leave it to you native speakers of English to discuss what is good poetry in your language, I was interested in Psalm 23.

    When I looked at what we did, we said: “The Lord is my shepherd, he always takes care of me.” (The rhythm is better in Danish than in English. Those aspects cannot be translated.) We preferred to focus on God and his character rather than me and my need. Another reason is that the second line has only 5 words in Danish. To say “I have all that I need” would require 8 words.

    We thought about what to do with LORD, but we decided that the tradition for this word was so strong that we had to keep it in order not to alienate our readers, the vast majority of whom are Christians who are used to this word.

    Another reason was that the Danish: “Herren er min hyrde” has both alliteration on the two stressed syllables and a good rhythm.

  24. Iver Larsen says:

    Gary said: I have certainly seen a few English instructions that were clearly written by nonnative speakers.

    Wayne responded: And you’re right: there are many good English wordings written by non-native English speakers.

    You lost me there. I thought Gary used “clearly” in the sense of “obviously”, and Wayne seems to understand it to mean “good English”. But then, I am clearly not a native speaker, even though I try my best to speak clearly.

  25. JKG says:

    Herren is min hird

    Iver, Din danske oversættelse er poetisk! De alliterations er vidunderligt! Is there any phonemic (or phonetic) difference between the /r/-s in “Herren” and the one in “hird”?

    I like the LXX’s repetition, it’s reinforcement of the personal:

    κύριος ποιμαίνει με
    καὶ οὐδέν με ὑστερήσει

    Compare this with the (differently democratic) Vamva Greek bible, which inadvertently stresses something else:

    Ο Κύριος είναι ο ποιμήν μου·
    δεν θέλω στερηθή ουδενός.

    HT Suzanne

  26. Iver Larsen says:


    I am afraid I am moving off the topic a bit, but translation of poetry is fascinating, and since you asked:

    The Danish words are:
    Herren er min hyrde.

    It is the same /r/, but for alliteration I normally only count the initial sound, that is here the ‘h’. (Double consonants in Danish writing indicate that the preceding vowel is short. It is not a long or double consonant sound.)

    What was most interesting and challenging for us was to make Lamentations 1-4, portions of the Psalms and Prov 31:10-31 acrostic. In case you are interested you can check it out at It is called Bibelen på hverdagsdansk and found under the Danish flag which is a white cross on red background. If you look at Proverbs 31:10-31 you will find that the verses start with these letters: a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,k,l,m,n,o,p,r,s,t,u,y,æ. The letters q, w and z are not Danish, but then we have 3 extra vowels: æ, ø and å, plus we use the y is a vowel like the u in French. We did not use all the letters of the alphabet, since only 22 was needed. However, as I was checking the website just now, I discovered that they have messed up the alphabetical order, so I’ll need to ask the webmaster to correct it.

    Another fun one was Psalm 119, where each of the 22 groups of 8 verses each start with the same letter. We could not manage to use all the letters here, only those that were most productive, so the first 8 verses all start with v, the next 8 with j, the next 8 with l and so on. (Unfortunately, that also got messed up in the transfer of the text to the website. I only realized it now, so I am asking them to correct this, too. I am glad you asked.)

  27. JKG says:

    translation of poetry is fascinating

    To move more back on topic, is your translation effort democratic? Are you translating to make the Bible sound popularly Danish? Is Danish poetry alliterative? Rhyming? Yes, I caught the ‘H’ alliterations but am also interested in how the medial consonants interact with the vowels. (Thanks for correcting the spellings: in “Herren er min hyrde” there’s “err” and “er” and “yr” — is that good Danish poetics?)

    Thanks for sharing all the very wonderful acrostics in the various passages you pointed out and helped us link to. Again, is this a democratically approved thing to do in the poetry or song lyrics of Denmark? Or does this give allusion to the Hebrew wordplay?

    It is fascinating how you decided to translate the critical words of Judges 12:6. You have »shibbolet« for the correctly pronounced version of the Hebrew word “shibbóleth” (שִׁבֹּלֶת) and »sibbolet« for the incorrect, deadly pronunciation. Is “sh” pronounced /ɕ/ in Danish? Does the translation of this passage work well for most Danish readers? (Seems that the English Douay-Rheims Bible — following the Latin Vulgate — seems to make this more understandable with “Say then, Scibboleth, which is interpreted, An ear of corn. But he answered, Sibboleth, not being able to express an ear of corn by the same letter.” And Jerome, using the democratic or vulgar language, perhaps was following the LXX, which translates the Hebrew word as the Greek Στάχυς rather than as some transliteration. Now this may really be off topic — but I’m trying to ask what “the people” might prefer in a translation.)

  28. iverlarsen says:


    The phoneme /sh/ does not exist in Danish. We use “s” or “sj” = “sy” instead. However, in the last few decades we have adopted many English words, and all Danes speak some English except a few old people. This means that “sh” is a foreign sound that most people know how to pronounce, but some would be unfamilar with it. The first “sh” we have in the bible is in Gen 2:11 – Pishon. In older Danish translations this was adjusted to Pisjon (English Pisyon). The newest authorised Bible from 1992 wrote Pishon. Bathsheba is traditionally adjusted to Batseba, but we used Batsheba. (The phoneme /th/ does not exist either, but the Hebrew sound is not like English /th/ anyway.) So, we used “shibbolet” and “sibbolet” knowing that some Danish people would find it difficult to pronounce the sh, but would have no problem with s. “Shibbolet” definitely looks foreign, while “sibbolet” could have been a Danish word. That seemed to us to get the general idea of the test across. What the word might mean is irrelevant.

    The translation we made is not a committee translation. It is a thorough revision of the old Living Bible somewhat like the New Living Bible. My wife and I were the main translators, and we had several reviewers. It has also kept some of the expressions from the earlier Living Bible, so a number of different people have been involved. When we did Proverbs 31 in acrostics we sent it to several people asking them what they thought about it. The responses we got were all positive, so we decided to do it for the published version. This has never been done before in Danish bibles.

    In traditional Danish poetry the main features are rhythm, alliteration and rhyme. I can illustrate the alliteration from the beginning of Psalm 1:
    Gud velsigner de mennesker,
    som ikke går efter gudløses råd,
    står bag syndige handlinger,
    eller sidder og håner Herren.

    (English: God blesses those people who do not follow the advice of godless people, are responsible for sinful acts or sit and scorn the Lord.) You cannot see it in English, but we decided to retain the traditional walk-stand-sit. To “walk after advice” in Danish means to follow, and to “stand behind sinful acts” means to instigate, do, or be responsible for.

    We played with the idea of adding line end rhyming to all poetry, but gave up. It would require a more radical rewriting than we thought most readers would accept. We did use rhyming a few places like the first chapter of Ecclesiastes:
    3 Hvad får man ud af al sin møje?
    Alt det, man her i livet må døje?
    4 Generationer kommer og går,
    men verden kører videre og består.
    5 Solen står op, og solen går ned
    dag efter dag i uendelighed.
    6 Vinden blæser mod syd og skifter om i nord, (the final d is not pronounced)
    det hele kører rundt, men ændrer ikke spor. (an untranslatable pun)
    7 Floder hælder vand i havet uden stop,
    alligevel bliver havet aldrig fyldt op.
    Vandet fordamper og kommer tilbage til floden,
    sådan kører det bare rundt på hele kloden.
    8 Alting er så kedsommeligt,
    fordi det er så forudsigeligt.
    Det er altid det samme, man ser,
    altid det samme, man hører.
    9 Hvad der før er sket, vil ske igen,
    Hvad der før er gjort, vil blive gjort igen.
    Der er intet nyt under solen. (There is nothing new under the sun)
    10 Der er intet nyt, der kommer op i tiden,
    som ikke allerede er sket for længe siden.
    11 De gamles heltemod huskes ikke mere,
    i fremtiden vil nutiden ikke eksistere.
    The only line without rhyme is the famous phrase: there is nothing new under the sun.

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