Over the years I have read statements by English Bible translators that one should keep word classes in a translation the same as those in the original text. You may be more familiar with the term parts of speech for word classes. So, if a word is a noun in a biblical language text, according to the claim, it should also be translated by a noun in the target language.
I was reminded of this claim recently when I suggested a change to an English Bible translation which would have resulted in better English. I was told, however, something to the effect that “translation policy tells us not to change word classes.”
Let’s examine this claim to determine if it is a valid translation principle.
Think about trying to find out from someone what their name is. How would we get the desired information from them, using a typical utterance of native speakers of whatever language is being used?
In English one would ask: “What’s your name?” (or in a more formal register, “What is your name?”)
In Spanish one would ask: “¿Cómo se llama?” to someone who you has a higher social status than you or to whom you are showing respect.
In Cheyenne one would ask: “Netoneshevehe?”
In Biblical Hebrew one asked: מִי שְׁמֶךָ
In Koine Greek one asked: Τί ὄνομά σοι
To compare the forms of these questions, here are the glosses and “word” classes of the meaning parts (morphemes) of the English, Spanish, Cheyenne, Hebrew, and Greek:
English: what be.3PERSON your name (INTERROGATIVE.PRONOUN VERB-PERSON POSSESSIVE.PRONOUN VERB) (i.e. What’s your name?)
Spanish: how self call-you (INTERROGATIVE REFLEX PRONOMINAL.SUFFIX) (i.e. How do you call yourself?)
Cheyenne: you-how-named (PRONOMINAL.PREFIX-INTERROGATIVE.PREVERB-VERB.STEM) (i.e. How are you named?)
Hebrew: your-name what (INTERROGATIVE POSSESSIVE.PREFIX NOUN) (i.e. What (is) your name?)
Greek: what name your (INTERROGATIVE NOUN POSSESSIVE.PRONOUN) (i.e. What (is) your name?)
The word (or morpheme) classes used are different in each of these four examples. If we had the time and space, we could have hundreds of more examples showing that the word classes vary in the question asked from one language to another. But the meaning remains the same from one language to another. In each language we are trying to find out from someone what their name is. The examples are accurate translations of each other.
Logically, it requires only a single counter-example to disprove the claim that in Bible translation word classes must be retained. The Hebrew and Greek examples already given are taken from the biblical language texts, Gen. 32:27 (28) and Mark 5:9, respectively. The Hebrew example uses an interrogative pronoun and a noun which consists of a possessive pronominal prefix and a noun stem. Already, we can see a difference in the classes from the English question (“What’s your name?”) which uses an interrogative pronoun, a verb (contracted to a possessive clitic suffix to the end of the pronoun, and a noun. And the classes are different, again, in the Greek which has an interroative pronoun followed by a noun followed by a possessive pronoun. Some might suggest that these differences, such as the pronominal meaning being expressed by a full word pronoun versus a pronominal affix, are not sufficient to disprove the claim that word classes should be retained in translation.
So let’s look at one more biblical example. Here is the Greek of Phil. 1:3 with word/morpheme classes and lexical glosses noted:
θεῷ μου ἐπὶ
god me-OF.GENITIVE at
NOUN-DATIVE PRONOUN-GENITIVE PREPOSITION-DATIVE
A rough literal gloss of this sentence to English would be: “I thank the God of mine at every remembrance of you.” But no native speaker of English says this, either today or in a past stage of English. We could smooth up the rough gloss a little to: “I thank my God at every remembrance of you.” I doubt that native speakers of English have ever written this, either.
Instead, to communicate the meaning of the Greek, native speakers of English say something close to this: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Notice that the Greek noun μνείᾳ in this original sentence is translated by an English verb when the sentence is spoken or written by native speakers. Is this English an accurate translation of the Greek? Yes. There are no meaning parts of the Greek that have been changed or left out. The translation is accurate and natural, or at least as natural as I can think of right now without the possibility of changing meaning, however slightly.
Can the principle of not changing the classes of words (or morphemes) be maintained while translating, whether from the Bible or any other utterance or document? No. As far as I know, such a principle is never taught in professional translation training programs. There is no logical reason why English Bible translators should follow such a principle, either, even as a basic guide which would have exceptions.
The more important principle for any translators, including Bible translators, to follow is to use translation equivalents which are normally used by native speakers in any particular context. As always, this context is subject to its pragmatics which may call for change from usual (“unmarked”) forms due to some rhetorical (including oratorical) effect found in the context.
UPDATE May 14: Comments about acceptance of the NRSV were off-topic for this post. They have been moved to their own post where you are welcome to add other comments on that topic. Please read the introductory comments on the post about following BBB’s guidelines for commenting on NRSV acceptance.