Does a Translation Have to Sound like a Translation?

I raise the question of whether a translation should necessarily and inevitably sound like a translation because there are people who seem to think that this is the case. That is, since the translation takes as its starting point a text in a foreign language–if it weren’t “foreign,” we wouldn’t be translating it, would we?–and probably also takes as its point of departure different historical and cultural settings and a foreign worldview, then, according to this understanding of translation, a translation could not be faithful unless it were to retain some of that foreignness. According to this understanding of translation, domestication does violence to the translation. I disagree. This does bring us, though, to the whole question of what translation is, which we might try to explain in terms of purpose.

Let’s think about this by using a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. This book is very compelling reading. Here is a relevant sample:

By eliminating simple obedience on principle, we drift into an unevangelical interpretation of the Bible. We take it for granted as we open the Bible that we have a key to its interpretation. But then the key we use would not be the living Christ, who is both Judge and Saviour, and our use of this key no longer depends on the will of the living Holy Spirit alone. The key we use is a general doctrine of grace which we can apply as we will. The problem of discipleship then becomes a problem of exegesis as well. If our exegesis is truly evangelical, we shall realize that we cannot identify ourselves altogether with those whom Jesus called, for they themselves are part and parcel of the Word of God in the Scriptures, and therefore part of the message.

I highly recommend this book. And to merely reflect on what Bonhoeffer says would be to do negate everything he says.

But my real point in bringing this up here is to illustrate what I mean about translation. I had gotten past this point in reading the book when I started to ask myself, “Isn’t this a translation? Bonhoeffer wrote in German, didn’t he? Why doesn’t it sound like a translation?” I checked, and on the copyright page it says, “Translated from the German NACHFOLGE first published 1937… by R.H. Fuller, with some revision by Irmgard Booth.” I double checked elsewhere, and, yes, the translator was Reginald H. Fuller, though you have to look at the fine print to get this information.

I was originally hesitant to read The Cost of Discipleship because I assumed it must be very difficult to slog through, especially since so few people seem to actually read it. I’ve been surprised to discover that, whatever problem people might have in reading Bonhoeffer’s book, it is not because of the difficult language or because it reads like something that came from another language. Bonhoeffer is a very clear–though challenging–writer. You literally would not know that this is a translation. I am glad that this book reads like Bonhoeffer is a good English writer, because otherwise I would be distracted by the strangeness, in which case I might not be able to get all the way through it, or if I did, it would be arduous work. This book reads like it was written for me.

Back to Bible translation, I have dialogued in the past with someone who has a keen, though amateur, interest in Bible translation, who says that when reading the Bible (such as in English), one should have the feeling that one is reading a book that was written for someone else. In other words, my friend would insist on a foreignizing kind of translation. I disagree. One certainly could do that kind of translation if one wanted to, especially if one had in mind an audience looking for that kind of translation. But I would not agree that a translation of the Bible should necessarily sound foreign. I believe that the scriptures are for all generations, and that even though the first audience might have lived in a different culture with a different worldview and thousands of years ago, the scriptures were also written for me, and that’s why I am reading them.

I have communicated with someone else who does have a rich background of translation into other languages, and he started asking himself (and us) more recently how it can be possible to translate worldviews in the process of Bible translation. In studying the creation story in Genesis, he realized this worldview issue was so rich and deep, and yet it seemed impossible to do justice to translating worldviews in the process of translating the Bible. My response to him was that, generally speaking, the purpose of translation is not to communicate worldviews, but the text itself. In translating the scriptures, it just isn’t possible to convey everything about the worldview surrounding the original text in the translation, except maybe by using lots of footnotes.

So what is the purpose of translation? In essence, the purpose of translating is to bring a text to a new audience. The purpose of translating the Bible, specifically, is to bring the Bible to a new audience. It is to allow a new audience to “own” the text, to make it theirs. If we are talking about the epistles of Paul, for example, the purpose in translating them would be so the new audience that doesn’t know Greek can understand what Paul was saying. It may be inevitable that sometimes the message sounds foreign, but there is nothing about this that suggests that the translation should sound foreign, generally speaking. Unless, of course, someone, for some reason, set out specifically to make a foreign-sounding, special-purpose translation.

We take the Bible for granted in English. We might say, “I was reading my Bible,” referring to an English Bible, and this is perfectly appropriate. I once heard a seminary student report how the Greek professor held up an English Bible and said, “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.” Again, I disagree. If a translation of the Bible has accomplished its purpose, then the result is your Bible.

I understand that the early, Greek-speaking, church father John Chrysostom said, in reference to the Hebrew scriptures, that even though the biblical text was Jewish in origin, “The text and the meaning are ours.” That’s cool. We should all be able to appreciate the scriptures as ours. Over the past nearly 30 years I have had the privilege of helping produce translations of the Bible into several Creole language varieties. It is incredible and satisfying to hear the reactions. Here are some recent, real testimonials, from bilingual Creole/English speakers: “I had no idea how wonderful and fulfilling God’s Word could be until I began reading those words in my native tongue. It gives me a sense of ownership.” “When I heard the [Creole Gospel of John] recording I felt a personal connection to it. It just went right inside, to the deepest part of me.” “It is SO meaningful!” Here are a couple of other quotes from a little further back, translated from French Creole into English: “The work is ours, the New Testament is ours.” “We see the Word of God in our hands today, and it is in our mother tongue…. And we have already seen that there is understanding. Understanding takes place in our church when we use the Word of God in the language we are most comfortable with.”

Do you read a Bible that speaks your language? You should.

54 thoughts on “Does a Translation Have to Sound like a Translation?

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    if it weren’t “foreign,” we wouldn’t be translating it, would we?

    Not necessarily, as a general rule. If native Americans translate their traditional texts into English because the next generation is losing the original language, that is not a “foreign” text. Similarly when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, as the original Septuagint. And I’m sure a lot of translation of texts which are not foreign is done in bilingual cities like Montreal and Cardiff.

    On the other hand, in my own English there are some very foreign texts coming out of India for example, not to mention Dannii’s weird examples.

    My point here is that language can and should be decoupled from foreignness.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    The problem is with understanding and how you understand that. You don’t get married in order to understand your spouse. You never understand your spouse. Equally you don’t make the word of God yours by understanding it. You make your Beloved yours by listening, by expressing, and by mutual love. Most Christians, as I have had opportunity to repeat this morning three times, keep their Beloved at arms length by proof-texts and labels. Love is more than understanding.

  3. Theophrastus says:

    In essence, the purpose of translating is to bring a text to a new audience.

    It seems rather that you are arguing here that the purpose of translating is to bring aspects of a text to a new audience.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Good post, David.

    The Bible sounds foreign to me when it refers to foreign concepts and cultural items. It sounds foreign to me when it speaks of Levirate marriage, wave offerings, praying for the dead, temple prostitution, the year of jubilee, concubines, etc.

    But there is absolutely no sound reason that I know of for this foreignness to be communicated in foreign English.

    I don’t believe we should domesticate the religious and cultural foreignness of the biblical texts. David Ker correctly states the foreignness of the Bible in his recently published book, The Bible Wasn’t Written To You.

    We do wrong, IMO, to domesticate the biblical texts, trying to make them sound like they were written to us.

    Proper translation, done by translators trained in how to translate, keep the foreignness of the concepts in the texts, avoiding transculturation of those concepts, while allowing the translation audience to understand in their own language, with its unique syntax, word combinations, and pragmatics, what was written in a different language. There is no theoretical reason why a translation should sound foreign linguistically. If it does, I would contend it’s not yet a true translation.

    This is such an important principle of translation, yet few English Bible translators understand it. For some reason, they have the mistaken idea that the translated text should not sound like it was written by native speakers of English, writing their own language well.

    When foreign concepts in translation are not understood *conceptually*, we need to leave explanations of those concepts for those who have training in those concepts, such as Bible scholars, Bible commentators, etc. But the text itself and even the words used by scholars to explain the foreign concepts, can and should be in the actual language of the translation audience, not some artificial, foreignized dialect of English.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob wrote:

    Equally you don’t make the word of God yours by understanding it. You make your Beloved yours by listening, by expressing, and by mutual love. Most Christians, as I have had opportunity to repeat this morning three times, keep their Beloved at arms length by proof-texts and labels. Love is more than understanding.

    Bob, thanks for your intriguing comments. My marital experience has taught me, also, what you concluded so well: “Love is more than understanding.”

    I don’t understand what you mean by: “you don’t make the word of God yours by understanding it”.

    Since you are speaking to the parallelism with marriage, I’m assuming that you mean that the word of God is ours–or ours to relate to–whether we (fully?) understand it or not. Please correct me if I’m wrong?

    Does it not help us to obey the word of God, however, if we have at least some understanding of what it is we are to obey?

    I know I will never completely understand the word of God, no matter whether I read it in the biblical language texts or in translation, however good those translation are. I assuming, however, again, that you are speaking to the principle of relationship rather than saying that there is *no* role at all for understanding in that relationship. Again, am I assuming right about what you mean? If not, please do correct me.

    That’s the wonderful thing about real-time relationship, isn’t it? We can clarify. How nice it would be if we could enter a time capsule and have the biblical authors clarify what we don’t understand of what they wrote. Without that, however, I still want to *relate* intimately to what they wrote.

    Thanks, again, for your comment.

  6. David Frank says:

    Wayne, you prompted me to go back and look again at David Ker’s The Bible Wasn’t Written To You, a collection of essays, the first of which was the basis for the book title. I may be arguing against Ker, who is incredibly insightful and interesting. I guess my first problem is with making sense of the title, namely the word “to”. I can’t say the Bible was written to me, but was still written for me. His main point seems to be that you have to make proper sense of the context in which things were written. I would certainly agree with that. If it still turns out I am disagreeing with him, well, I’m sorry for that, but it doesn’t change my mind about what I have said.

  7. David Frank says:

    Peter, I could argue with your argument against me, but it’s not worth it. I wasn’t saying that the source language of a translation always has to be a foreign language to the translator(s), but rather it makes sense that the source language would be a foreign language to the translation audience, or else there wouldn’t be much point in translating. If you have something you want to say about that, I would encourage you to explain in a blog post of your own. However, I can’t make sense of what you meant when you said, “My point here is that language can and should be decoupled from foreignness.” If you really meant “My point here is that translation can and should be decoupled from foreignness,” then I could try to make sense of it, but I’m still not sure I could completely. If you have already made this point elsewhere, let me know.

  8. David Frank says:

    Theophrastus, if your point is that someone could never fully get all of the meaning of a source text such as the Bible in its original languages by reading a translation, then I certainly agree with you. I have always said that it is absolutely impossible to simultaneously translate all of the meaning of a text as rich in meaning as the scriptures. You have to make choices. That fact doesn’t change my point that the purpose of translation is to bring the text to a new audience. Just don’t interpret that to mean that the purpose of translation is to bring the total richness of the scriptures to a new audience, because if that were the case, then the attempt would always fail.

  9. David Frank says:

    Bob, when you say, “The problem is with understanding and how you understand that,” I’m not sure what problem you are referring to. You never understand your wife? I can’t understand you, unless for you “understanding” means “total understanding,” in which case you are right, in that we can’t totally understand another person (and probably not ourselves either). As for the scriptures, we see now as in a mirror dimly. Our understanding is partial, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
    Love is more than understanding? Sure, I’ll go with that. And our connection with the Bible–our “ownership” of it–is more than just understanding? I think I would go with that too. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    David, I am sorry if I wasn’t able to make myself clear the first time. I was trying to make a clear distinction between the cultural foreignness of a text and it being in a language which the audience doesn’t understand. As I pointed out, a text can be culturally very foreign to me while still written in a language I understand well – for example, something written by an English-speaking Indian about Hindu customs. On the other hand, a text can be written in a language I don’t understand but not be culturally foreign at all. My point about bilingual cities was that such texts are common in these cities – and I lived in such a city (not one of the ones I named) for several years, where many people really did not understand for example many of the local newspapers.

    So we should not assume that a text in a different language to ours is culturally foreign, or vice versa. There is a fallacy here which seems to lie behind the claim that translated texts should sound culturally foreign.

  11. Bob MacDonald says:

    Wayne and David – thanks for the interaction. My play was on the deceptiveness of thinking that we ‘get’ it. And yes I played on the marriage metaphor – a good Biblical metaphor.

    It’s not a matter of partial or complete ‘understanding’. Usually what humans mean when they ‘understand’ is that they have a measure of power over something. I am deeply suspicious of such claims when it comes to God, the word of God, or one’s wife or husband, or any other human being, even practically speaking any other aspect of creation, animal or mineral.

    Having written that, I don’t give up, because the joy is not in what I ‘get’ fully, deceptively, or partially, but in the interaction if – if I type – if there is the possibility that one might really find the love that is between the created and the creator and the created and the created, even if it is stones that have to be raised up as the children of Abraham.

    The Bible is as foreign as I am foreign – because we are foreign to each other. But we do have a time capsule in the aspect of prayer that accompanies our research. We do not do research on translation and read many hard books in order to regurgitate our words given to us by someone else. Yes we do the best we can and the most we can, but we cannot do it – there is too little time and there are too many books. What we can do – thank God for a canon that is almost of manageable size – is read, sleep (as given by the Beloved), mysteriously process all those rules and knowledge that we think we have, and awaken to the gift of meaning that comes in the morning (Psalm 5).

    יְהוָה, morning
    you will hear my voice
    Morning I will set forth to you
    and I will be observant

    We will be incomplete, we may be wrong, and it may take centuries to ‘fix’ our errors (as it was for the beloved KJV). But we will have been loved and will have learned from love.

    Remember who it is that we write of
    If יְהוָה does not build a house
    in vain its builder toils in it
    if יְהוָה does not keep a city
    in vain the alert keeps watch
    If יְהוָה does not unstop the ear
    in vain the writer types the word
    if יְהוָה does not open the eye
    in vain the reader reads the verse

    Is that ever foreign! But I want it and I am insufficient without it. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch, English is very close to Hebrew. I am becoming more and more Hebraic as I study – but my tongue is English. As I conform my patterns carefully to the words of the Hebrew, I find the English becomes clearer and clearer, more and more transparent. I have made my inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb, but I translate into my own unique English, processed by me. Day by day and morning by morning, me ear is opened, my eyelids flutter like those of Leviathan,
    his sneezing shines a light
    and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn
    … after him is an enlightened track

    I can do Job’s Leviathan in words of few syllables – but who will understand the first of God’s ways – Behemoth? Is he not foreign and will I not let him sound foreign?

    behold please Behemoth which I made with you
    grass like an ox he eats
    behold please his strength in his loins
    and the vigor in the navel of his belly
    he desires his tail – like a cedar
    the sinews of his testicles are intertwined
    his bones are a stream of brass
    his reserve like bars of iron
    he is the beginning of the ways of the One

  12. Theophrastus says:

    I have always said that it is absolutely impossible to simultaneously translate all of the meaning of a text as rich in meaning as the scriptures. You have to make choices.

    And so the debate continues which translation method gives the richest set of meanings.

    The Bible cannot really be compared to Bonhoeffer — for example:

    * Bonhoeffer wrote in grammatical German; the Hebrew Bible is famous for its lapses in grammar

    * Bonhoeffer is essentially unambiguous; the Bible is full of ambiguity

    * Bonhoeffer’s language (German) is well understood and we have many examples of literature written in German; while many words and idioms in Biblical Hebrew are still not understood with accuracy and we have few examples of literature written in Biblical Hebrew.

    * Bonhoeffer and you were born in the same religion

    * Bonhoeffer and you were born in the same century

    * Bonhoeffer and you are both children of Western culture.

    * Bonhoeffer wrote narrative and not poetry.

    A better example would be to compare Bible translation with other ancient works (my favorite example is comparing the Bible to Homer.)


    As a side-note, I notice that for some reason you are reading the 1959 translation of Discipleship rather than the 2000 version. The translation in the 2000 version of your passage is quite different (p. 82 of the 2000 edition):

    Fundamentally eliminating simple obedience introduces a principle of scripture foreign to the Gospel. According to it, one first must have a key to interpreting it. But that key would not be the living Christ himself in judgment and grace, and using that key would not be according to the will of the Holy Spirit alone. Rather the key to scripture would be a general doctrine of grace, and we ourselves would decide its use. The problem of following Christ shows itself here to be a hermeneutical problem. But it should be clear to a Gospel-oriented hermeneutic that we cannot simply identify ourselves directly with those called by Jesus. Instead, those who are called in scripture themselves belong to the word of God and thus to the proclamation of the word.

    It is immediately evident that the 1959 and 2000 translations approach the text in a rather different way. (I am not familiar with the original German text, so I cannot say definitively if either of the two is particularly faithful to the original text.) Your example — supplemented by the 2000 translation of Bonhoeffer, amply shows some of the difficulties associated with translation — even for a text that is well-understood.

  13. David Ker says:

    I keep thinking of the quotes by Creole speakers. Were those translated into English? 🙂

    I’m reading Hamlet at the moment and wondering how translation might improve it. The purist in me hates the thought of tampering with the text. But the language is such that I can’t really get carried away by the story. The text interestingly is a “translation” of a work for theater to the printed page. And it has been translated into other forms very successfully (comic books, movies).

    My daughter finished Pride and Prejudice last night inspired by the 6-hour adaptation to the small screen. She knows the book so well that she is constantly aware of translations of the text and plot.

    Since we’re talking about German to English translations I might mention that two of my Cyber-Psalms were translated from English to German. In one “Praise, Dog” became “Praise Bear.”

    Finally the TO/FOR dichotomy in The Bible Wasn’t Written To You helps us answer the title of your post. If we are translating in order to get close to the original text or writer/reader (an exegetical task) we will work much differently than if we are writing for modern readers (a hermeneutical task).

  14. Iver Larsen says:

    Last night I (and my wife) watched an American movie with Danish subtitles. It is an excellent way to follow how a professional translator works. We hear the English and read the Danish translation at the same time.

    The title was “Only you”. My gut reaction was to translate word for word which would be “Kun dig”, so I was surprised when it was translated “Den eneste ene” (The one and only). But as the theme of the movie started to develop, I had to admit that the non-literal translation was much more accurate in terms of communicating the intention. It was natural, clear, accurate and had a much greater impact for understanding than the literal translation would have had. I would say the first thing a translator needs to learn is to be released from the straitjacket of word-for-for correspondence and embrace contextual meaning correspondence.

    Words are usually something that is supposed to trigger a scenario that is present in your background knowledge. “Only you” was meant to trigger the words of a famous American song, but the literal rendering would not trigger anything like that to a Danish audience. On the other hand “Den eneste ene” is a known concept and the title of a famous Danish movie. Different cultural scenarios were triggered by the original words when heard by the originally intended audience as compared to a comparable scenario triggered by the translation when heard by another audience from another culture.

    The movie had translation challenges in terms of concepts or words which were potentially unknown to the receptor audience. For instance, the two ladies at one point ran out of petrol/gas and one said: “One liter is less than a gallon.” And later “But one kilometer is less than a mile”. It is easy to translate “liter” and “kilometer” into Danish, but “gallon” and “mile” are unknown concepts. The translator decided to keep the foreign words “gallon” and “mile” and put them in italics. Most Danes know enough about American culture and language to have heard about a gallon. Even for the few Danes who do not know this, the context was enough to show that it was a larger measurement for petrol/gas than liter, just as a mile is longer than a kilometer.

    My point is that tackling unknown concepts is a major challenge in any translation. It also raises the question of the audience. Unknown to whom? Many Biblical concepts are not unknown to theologians and “old” Christians, but they are unknown to non-Christians and people not familiar with Biblical jargon. If your intended audience is very narrow, you may well choose one strategy. If it is broad and general, you will chose a different strategy. Pastors may prefer the narrow type of translation that uses Biblical jargon, but they should not impose that type on their congregation. It would be better to explain the differences and let people choose for themselves. From the many testimonies I have heard, a meaning-based, natural translation speaks to the heart in ways that a literal and stilted translation rarely does.

  15. David Frank says:

    Bob MacDonald, I agree, and I have made the same point before in a paper entitled “Do We Translate the Original Author’s Intended Meaning?”, citing Isaiah 55:8ff. If the scriptures are inspired by God, then even the original authors, humanly speaking, didn’t completely “own” what they themselves were saying, and see 1 Peter 1:10ff in support of that idea. However, this doesn’t have to stop us from translating, though we have to acknowledge our own limitations. And it doesn’t have to stop the translation audience from embracing the (translated) scriptures as “their own,” though they should do it with humility. Using your marriage analogy, “embracing” might be a better term than “own.” I can’t say that I own my wife, but I can embrace her as my own.

  16. David Frank says:

    Peter, your comment points out that there are different kinds of foreignness. I was talking in terms of foreign languages, but, as you point out, translating a text like the Bible into contemporary language still does not take away all its foreignness. Proper names that are transliterated rather than translated give the sense of foreignness, and just the differences in contexts and ways of thinking can make a text seem foreign, even if the text is translated well into contemporary language. Plus, of course, there will be stuff presented in the text that will be foreign because is not already part of the speaker’s cognitive environment, as it is sometimes put theoretically. With this further explanation, I think we are in agreement, though I would encourage you to further expound sometime, if you haven’t already done so.

  17. David Frank says:

    David Ker, you asked about the quotes. The first several were said in English. I could explain that these comments were prompted by the Gullah audio recording project for the Gospel of John, which is still in production. The people of Gullah heritage that I have been working with sort of live in two worlds: their heritage and heart language and culture, and the American English world of education and business. The people I cite are familiar with the Bible in English, but hearing it in their heart language draws them in and stirs something in them, and they say that it is rich in meaning and significance to them, because it is in their language, a language that has been denigrated as broken English, but which the speakers know to be a real and valid and meaningful language to them. The Gullah translation has been part of what has helped to publicly validate the Gullah sense of identity. One man who read a part in the dramatized audio recording of the Gospel of John in Gullah said that after he read his part, he went outside and started crying; he just couldn’t stop crying. So those quotes, and other similar ones expressing the same sentiment, were made in English by people living in the two worlds. I have a few other quotes expressed in Gullah, like the man who said in reaction to hearing the Gospel in Gullah, “Fa de fus time, God talk de way A talk.” The other quotes that I gave were originally in St. Lucian French Creole, and I translated them into English. I could give them to you in Creole, if you want to see that.

  18. David Frank says:

    And thanks, Theophrastus, for the tip about a newer translation of Bonhoeffer’s book. I would be interested in looking into that. There’s more than one way to translate most things. I have been happy with the translated version I had, but it would be good to check out the newer translation, and compare.

  19. Theophrastus says:

    The editors of the 2000 translation of Discipleship claim several advantages:

    * It is based on the 1994 critical German edition rather than on the 1937 German edition which had many typographical errors.

    * It stands opposed to the 1959 translation of Discipleship which the editors claim has “mistranslations and glaring omissions.”

    * It restores the two-part structure to Discipleship, as opposed to the four-part structure of the 1959 translation

    * It translates key terms consistently such as Stellvertretung, Gemeinde, and Gemeischaft — as opposed to the 1959 translation which uses differing terms. It also deals with the difficult term Volkskirche (which needs to be compared to the Nazi volkisch and thus refers to a type of “Teutonic transformation of Christianity” which “Bonhoeffer categorically criticizes and rejects.”)

    * It uses gender-neutral terminology when Bonhoeffer’s reference is to human beings in general.

    * It is heavily annotated, and also boasts an extended introduction and afterword.

    I am not familiar with the original German work, but having read both English translations, it seems to me that the 2000 translation is more cogent and eloquent.

    Here is a favorable review of the new translation.

  20. David Frank says:

    Theophrastus, I was completely unaware that there was another translation of Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, not that I was unhappy with the one I had. I have now found the new translation on, and here is a note about the new edition, from a review there: “The updated translation is excellent, and though there are times when one longs for a particular turn of phrase from older translations there is little doubt that what is presented here is closer to the actual thought of the author.” I have yet to figure out what I think about all of this.

  21. Joel H. says:

    What a great question, David.

    I started to put together some thoughts in response, but when I realized how long my reply was, I made it into a post of its own, here.


  22. J. K. Gayle says:

    How can we agree what sounds foreign? For example, “discipleship” sounds more like Latin to me than “following” does. And “exegesis” and “hermeneutics” both sound foreign. Seems to me, we are not in agreement about which words to use in translation.

    David Ker, for example, says:

    If we are translating in order to get close to the original text or writer/reader (an exegetical task) we will work much differently than if we are writing for modern readers (a hermeneutical task).

    What’s fascinating is that David Frank excerpts Dietrich Bonhoeffer as writing this [in an English translation]:

    The problem of discipleship then becomes a problem of exegesis as well.

    But then Theophrastus shows us [in a different English translation and interpolating “Christ”] what Bonhoeffer wrote as this:

    The problem of following Christ shows itself here to be a hermeneutical problem.

    I believe Bonhoeffer intended this:

    Wie wir gleich sehen werden, erweist sich die Frage der Nachfolge auch als ein hermeneutisches Problem.

    And Bonhoeffer’s adjective “unevangelisches” is made “unevangelical” by David Frank’s translators but actually “foreign” by the translators Theophrastus introduces. Which sounds better? Which is foreign sounding? Who gets to judge?

  23. J. K. Gayle says:

    Not but a few sentences following David Frank’s excerpt, Bonhoeffer actually includes real foreign language into his German:

    Dabei wollen wir den Verdacht, es könne mit diesem einfältigen Gehorsam von irgendeinem Verdienst des Menschen, von einem facere quod in se est („das Seine tun“, d.h. das, was an einem selbst liegt, tun), von einer zu erfüllenden Vorbedingung des Glaubens geredet werden.

    David Frank’s translator renders that into English this way:

    There remains just a word to be said about the suspicion that this simple obedience involves a doctrine of human merit, of a facere quod in se est, of insistence on preliminary conditions before faith becomes possible.

    Theophrastus’s translators interpret it another way:

    That nearly takes care of the suspicion that simple obedience might mean some sort of meritorious human achievement, a facere quod in se est [to do what is in oneself], and a precondition one would have to fulfill for faith.

    But notice how Bonhoeffer gives an exegetical and a hermeneutical German rendering of the Latin. The English translators sort of collapse the two different German renderings into one not-so-foreign-sounding English rendering of the Latin. But what gets lost in this attempt to sound less German and more English? Both Bonhoeffer and his translators leave the foreign Latin right in.

  24. David Frank says:

    JKG, my answer to your question is that each individual gets to answer the question of what sounds natural and what sounds foreign. Then when the individual reactions are brought together and negotiated, that brings in the social dimension of translation. In my understanding of translation, both the subjective and the sociological dimensions of translation are unavoidable.

  25. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asked:

    And Bonhoeffer’s adjective “unevangelisches” is made “unevangelical” by David Frank’s translators but actually “foreign” by the translators Theophrastus introduces. Which sounds better? Which is foreign sounding? Who gets to judge?

    The target audience gets to judge. Translation needs to be democratic, based on the language that translation users actually speak and write. We learn how a target audience speaks and writes through extensive observation and field testing.

    We who post on this blog and comment on it are generally not very good subjects for testing translations, if translations are intended for a wider audience that includes, let’s say, people with a basic education and reading skills to college educated people. And googling does not give us the most reliable exemplars because often the hits are of marked forms, such as titles of songs, books, oratory, etc. Field testing needs to be done on equivalent genres and registers. Better corpuses (corpii?!) would be the huge databases of English that have been transcribed and are accessible. I’m having a senior moment and can’t remember the name of the biggest database, so maybe someone else here can help out an aging brain.

    I should emphasize equivalence of genres and registers. We’ve discussed the need for genre equivalence on this blog before. But we haven’t had much about register equivalence. I’m guessing that this lack accounts for some of the disagreements there have been about what kind of language and what degrees of naturalness to use in a translation. My thinking, at this point, is that if an original text was written in a higher register, a translation should reflect that. The converse would be true for lower registers. We need to think about the level of education of, for instance, the believers in Corinth and also think about the register Paul used as he wrote to them. We need to try to emulate that register when we translate the letters to the Corinthians.

    Similarly, a translation of Isaiah needs to reflect the exalted oratory of the original Hebrew.

  26. David Frank says:

    JKG, you are so intelligent and so well-read and so inquisitive that you can run circles around the rest of us (or at least around me) as you consider every angle of something. I can’t keep up with you.

  27. Mike Sangrey says:

    Wayne, you wrote:
    My thinking, at this point, is that if an original text was written in a higher register, a translation should reflect that. The converse would be true for lower registers. We need to think about the level of education of, for instance, the believers in Corinth and also think about the register Paul used as he wrote to them. We need to try to emulate that register when we translate the letters to the Corinthians.

    Let me poke at this a little, following David’s lead regarding the importance of the translation’s audience.

    If we knew (and admittedly, this is difficult, if not impossible to determine), but, if we knew that the original was written in its register because the original author-audience situation required it, then would you change what you say here if the translation’s author-audicence situation were different?

    I’ve often thought that audience determines register, no matter what the language. So, more generally (setting aside our acknowledged ignorance of the original audience) what if the audience were just, simply different from the original one? In order for a translation to be accurate, must some specific types of new audiences be marginalized? How would the register of Isaiah sound in an English translation for Appalachians?[1]

    If register is choice of syntax and lexicon based on social situation, then what do we do when the social situation for the translation is different?

    Perhaps we should formalize the definition of register here and then talk about different education levels as a separate topic.

    [1] This question is actually quite complex, but I’ll not spill my thoughts quite yet on why I think that is so.

  28. Wayne Leman says:

    Mike asked:

    How would the register of Isaiah sound in an English translation for Appalachians?

    I would think that such a translation should be written using the exalted oratory of Appalachia. And that area of the U.S. has a wonderful, rich heritage of song, story-telling, and oratory.

  29. Mike Sangrey says:

    Ok. Thank you. But that doesn’t really answer my question since it really only deals with one example.

    Can we say, generally speaking, that all language groups have a register scale?

  30. Wayne Leman says:

    Mike asked:

    Can we say, generally speaking, that all language groups have a register scale?

    I think so, Mike. If nothing else, there is usually a register for baby talk. But I think many (most?) languages also have an oratorical register. I don’t know if it would be called register but sometimes there is a male language and a female language.

  31. Theophrastus says:

    Bonhoeffer’s adjective “unevangelisches” is made “unevangelical” by David Frank’s translators but actually “foreign” by the translators Theophrastus introduces.

    So, the word in context is:

    Wo der einfältige Gehorsam grundsätzlich eliminiert wird, dort wird ein unevangelisches Schriftprinzip eingeführt. Voraussetzung für das Schriftverständnis ist dann die Verfügung über einen Schlüssel zum Schriftverständnis. Dieser Schlüssel ist aber hier nicht der lebendige Christus selbst in Gericht und Gnade, und die Handhabung dieses Schlüssels liegt nicht mehr allein im Willen des lebendigen heiligen Geistes, sondern der Schlüssel der Schrift ist eine allgemeine Gnadenlehre, und wir selbst verfügen über seine Handhabung.

    So the 2000 translators are interpreting unevangelisches Schriftprinzip as “foreign to the Gospel.” In other words, they are treating it as wordplay, in the sense of the Evangelists — e.g., the Gospel.

  32. Theophrastus says:

    If register is choice of syntax and lexicon based on social situation, then what do we do when the social situation for the translation is different?

    I don’t understand this question. What is the “social situation” of the Pentateuch? Is it determined by the time of composition? Is it determined by the most ancient material? Is it determined by the time of redaction? Is it determined by Jesus’ reading? Is it determined by the Talmud’s reading? Is it determined by Julius Wellhausen’s reading (the developer of the JEDP “documentary hypothesis”)? Is it determined by those who read it today?

    These are of course problems you should be well familiar with. Although Jesus would have read the Pentateuch in Hebrew, the New Testament authors quote the Septuagint, which in many places differs from the Hebrew. When a contemporary editor prepares a translation of the Christian Bible, she must decide whether to artificially harmonize the verses (that seems to be the logical conclusion of an effort that eliminates original “register” and “tone” and instead puts everything in a monotone “register”) or whether to distinguish the Hebrew from the Greek (e.g., to translate more literally, accurately reflecting the differences from the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translations).

    The study of how a work is read in different times by different people is called reception history. It is a valid inquiry for any significant literary work, but especially for the Bible, which has influenced so much philosophy, theology, and literature. If you “translate away” the Bible so that its tone is lost, so that text only corresponds to the current social situation, then we can no longer see Scriptural references in Melville or Faulkner or Augustine or Milton or Dante or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky or Beowulf. Even if you find no literary greatness in the Bible, it is a tragedy to steal away our ability to see how prior generations found literary greatness in the Bible. If one wants to understand the role of Bible in history and literature, then one will want translations that allow deeper connections to be made.

    Translating the Bible without register makes sense if the Bible is the only book one will ever read — because then one may not need to worry about how others have read the Bible. But, as the English poet and Anglican priest George Herbert wrote in Jaculum Prudentum (published 1651): “Woe be to him that reads but one book.”

  33. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, in order to avoid the regrettable situation in which “we can no longer see Scriptural references in … Augustine … or Dante or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky or Beowulf.”, is it necessary to have Bible translations in the foreign languages of these authors, or in the ancient English of Beowulf, or in language which mimics those languages (all of them at the same time, or each of them separately?)? Surely not. Those who can read these authors in the original languages can read the Bible in those languages. For most of us who need to read them in translation, to appreciate their Scripture references we need to have the Bible in a matching translation, and we are bound to miss any word plays unless they are footnoted. And if the translations of these authors are, in the normal scholarly way, written in good modern English and foreign-sounding only when they need to be, an appropriate Bible translation to use with them would have those same characteristics.

  34. Theophrastus says:

    Peter, of course you have a valid point if we limit ourselves to the English Bible; but if we are speaking of the English Bible it would suffice for my argument to limit myself purely to English literature.

    However, even in English translations of foreign works the translator will often take care to use a familiar translation (typically from the Tyndale family). For example, we find phrasing from the KJV in Chadwick’s Oxford translation of Augustine’s Confessions

    In fact, this tendency is so strong that I notice that many non-Tyndale Bible translations feel compelled to keep traditional phrasing for the best-known verses; for example, the TNIV/NIV11 keep the phrasing “hallowed be thy name” in Matthew 6:9 and Luke 11:2 followed hard on the heels by “kingdom come”; even if these phrases are not in the vernacular of some of its audience.

  35. Theophrastus says:

    The force of the traditional phrasing was so great that I mistyped the quote from the TNIV/NIV11 above — the translators do update “thy” to “your”, although they keep the traditional phrasing “hallowed” and “kingdom come”, thus paying homage to the familiar KJV.

  36. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, I understand. But your argument makes this into a self-perpetuating unchangeable tradition: authors quote old translations, so new translations should not be allowed. The problem with that is that over the centuries the quoted translations become less and less comprehensible because of gradual language change. The major church in Italy, France, Spain etc was still using the Latin Vulgate 1500 years after it was translated and long after Latin had gradually morphed into completely different languages. Would you expect KJV or minor modifications of it still to be in use in the 32nd century just to preserve literary illusions in second millennium English literature which by that time only specialists will be able to read? Or after how many centuries will the time come to abandon KJV language?

  37. J. K. Gayle says:

    What is the “social situation” of the Pentateuch? // reception history…. is a valid inquiry for any significant literary work, but especially for the Bible, which has influenced so much philosophy, theology, and literature. If you “translate away” the Bible so that its tone is lost, so that text only corresponds to the current social situation,….

    David Frank,
    You’ve asked some important, helpful questions:

    “Do you read a Bible that speaks your language? You should.”

    For the Germans in the current social situation that Bonhoeffer’s churchmen found themselves in [i.e., National Socialist situation], the question was critical. In the USA, where he lived much of the wartime, he could read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in James Murphy’s American-English translation, the heart language on this side of the Atlantic, language which worked to wash away and to water down objections to the Nazi anti-Semitisms. The early and crucial questions that Bonhoeffer’s fellows faced were 1) whether to include Jews with them in worship and 2) whether the German church should be a state church under the Fuerher’s ultimate leadership.

    So how did the Bible sound to them? Well, in 1940, Bonhoeffer wrote Das Gebetbook der Bibel, to be sure to say that the Bible really must sound foreign, if you will. It had to be a Jewish, not a German, book.

    Historian Geffrey Kelly says, “One should make no mistake about it; in the context of Nazi Germany’s bitter opposition to any manner of honoring the Old Testament, this book, at the time of its publication, constituted an explosive declaration both politically and theologically.”

    Historian Eric Metaxas says, “In the book, Bonhoeffer… [was] saying that we [Christians] cannot reach God with our own prayers, but by praying “his” [Jewish] prayers — the Psalms of the Old Testament, which Jesus prayed – we effectively piggyback on them all the way to heaven…. The idea would have seemed impossibly ‘Jewish’ for the Nazis….

    In one slim book, Bonhoeffer was claiming that Jesus had given his imprimatur to the [Hebrew – sounding] Psalms and the [more foreign to the Church] Old Testament; that Christianity was unavoidably Jewish; that the Old Testament is not superseded by the New Testament, but is inextricably linked with it; and that Jesus was unavoidably Jewish…. The following March he would find that publishing this small exegetical tract resulted in his being forbidden to publish anything again.”

  38. Theophrastus says:

    Peter, the late use of the Latin Bible in France, Spain, and Italy was largely due to Paul IV’s blanket restriction on vernacular Bibles and Pius IV’s fourth rule which restricted Bible reading in vernacular languages unless the parishioner received license from his parish priest; these restrictions are explicitly discussed in the translator’s preface to the KJV: were not lifted until 1757 by Benedict XIV. See discussion here (particular at III.2).

    These restrictions were famously repeated and opined on in the KJV translator’s preface.

  39. David Frank says:

    Theophrastus, I actually think I understand and sympathise with your point. Translating the Bible is not simple and straightforward. There are lots of factors to take into consideration, one of which is tradition. For example, if we understand Simeon to be saying to God, upon seeing the baby Jesus at the temple, “Lord, you can let me die now,” we might not want to translate it that way when we consider how churches use the Song of Simeon, “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace,” as a theme for themselves departing a worship service. We have to take tradition into consideration, and how things have been understood and used by others. I say that with respect to languages that have a long literary tradition. In the case of Gullah, the translation is basically a dynamic-equivalence type, but the community wanted the King James Version in the margins, to lend authenticity to the translation and give them the connection they wanted to their Bible tradition. I resisted, thinking that having the KJV and the Gullah side-by-side might lead to unfavorable comparisions, but we did what the Gullah community wanted, and the result has been good.

  40. Theophrastus says:

    I was so impressed by David Franks’ description of the favorable reaction given to the Gullah translation of the New Testament that I decided to buy a copy for myself. And, indeed, it is an interesting translation that I can heartily recommend to anyone interested in African-American language and worship.

    However, here is the interesting point: this volume does not contain just one translation, but two — it a diglot, with a reference translation next to the Gullah translation. And what version do you supposes is chosen for the reference version?

    Go ahead, guess.

    That’s right — the King James Version. The publisher even keeps the italics from the KJV. So much for the KJV being hard to understand or archaic or inaccessible — it is so straightforward that it is offered as a guide for creole speakers.

  41. Theophrastus says:

    David, I was composing my last comment just as you were posting yours, so they overlapped in observing that the printed Gullah De Nyew Testament includes the KJV.

    I do want to take the moment to say that I find your translation very interesting, and I will continue to read it from time-to-time — your translation does include a fair amount of admirable poetic interpretation.

  42. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, the Bible in the vernacular was frowned on and in practice more or less forbidden long before Paul IV (pope 1555-1559). The explicit ban was no doubt a response to the Reformation and the various Bible translations it was producing. But more relevant to your argument is the situation in the Middle Ages, when few vernacular translations were attempted and some of the translators e.g. Wycliffe were persecuted. Indeed that situation continued into the Reformation period, e.g. with Tyndale, and so the papal ban was merely a formalisation of the existing situation.

  43. David Frank says:

    I cannot claim credit for the the Gullah translation as “my” translation. I was involved, for sure, but it was a big project that took place over 27 years and involved lots of people, most of whom were members of the Gullah community. So rather than this being my translation of the New Testament into Gullah, this is the Gullah Nyew Testament. It is theirs. As for the person who said he couldn’t stop crying when confronted with the Bible in his language, this dear man is profiled at I’m referring to the current issue, April/May 2011, and his picture is on the cover. His reaction is not all that unique.

  44. David Frank says:

    I can’t continue this interesting dialogue, with all I need to be doing, but I just wanted to point out that I have stated before, Theophrastus, that in translating we need to take into consideration, as one factor, how the scriptures have been understood and used by people before us. See a paper I presented at the last Bible Translation 2011 conference in Dallas, entitled “Do We Translate the Original Author’s Intended Meaning?” I am working on another related paper to present at the next BT2011 conference, coming up in Dallas this October. I recognize that (Bible) translation is complex, and there is a multitude of factors to take into consideration, including the fact that meaning is not unitary, but part of what I want to say is that that fact shouldn’t lead to thinking that translation just isn’t possible.

  45. Theophrastus says:

    I noted with pleasure that p.11 of the issue of Beaufort Lifestyle mentioned by David reports on a project recently completed by Scott Gibbs to record the Gullah New Testament for release on CD. Because of the nearly-musical nature of Gullah, and because Gullah is frequently intelligible to speakers of Standard English, this could be quite interesting.

    I will keep my eyes open for this.

  46. David Frank says:

    Currently a sample of the Gullah Bible being read aloud can be heard at by clicking on a link at the bottom of the page. However, shortly, like maybe later this week, I will substitute those readings with ones that were made this past March. I am also working on preparing a video for YouTube, showing Gullah speakers doing a dramatized reading of selections from the Gospel of John. Right now I have too much going on, but as soon as I manage to upload these things, I will let you all know. Theophrastus, I’m sure you would agree that how the Bible sounds when read aloud should be a crucial consideration. It was one of the priorities of the translators of the Authorized Version.

  47. J. K. Gayle says:

    Speaking of “how the Bible sounds when read aloud,” blogger Maggi Dawn has posted a video of Glen Scrivener speaking “100 phrases in common usage that originated in the 16th/17th century English translations of the Bible.”

    Sometimes the foreign-sounding Bible translation can actually help speakers of a language evolve their language. On that point, Eric Metaxas notes (in his biography of Bonhoeffer):

    The Luther Bible was to the modern German language what the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible were to the modern English language. Before Luther’s Bible, there was no unified German language. It existed only in a hodgepodge of dialects. And Germany as a nation was an idea far in the future, a gleam in Luther’s eye. But when Luther translated the Bible into German, he created a single language in a single book that everyone could read and did read. Indeed, there was nothing else to read. Soon everyone spoke German the way Luther’s translation did…. Luther’s Bible created a single German tongue. Suddenly millers from München could communicate with bakers from Bremen. Out of this grew a sense of common heritage and culture.

    (I’d only add that a similar phenomenon occurred with the writing of his Commedia by Durante degli Alighieri – aka Dante. Since the middle ages, he’s been called the father of the Italian language, since, because of his work, the Florentine vernacular became the standard for all of Italy, and it basically still is today.)

    Is Gullah already well established as a literary (if also orally performed literary) language? What impact might the Bible translation that David Frank has helped with have on further developments of the language?

  48. Theophrastus says:

    Is Gullah already well established as a literary (if also orally performed literary) language?

    This is a controversial topic laced with emotion and charges of racism — e.g., Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus collections.

  49. David Frank says:

    JKG, please don’t refer to the Gullah translation as my translation. It was a team project involving a number of members of the Gullah community. I was a consultant and facilitator. It would be offensive and inaccurate for it to be considered my translation. And in response to the question that you asked and that Theophrastus commented on, I would say no, Gullah was not previously established as a literary language.

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