Five More Myths by Dan Wallace

Dan Wallace looks at five myths about Bible translations and textual criticism:

  1. The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.
  2. Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. Heretics have severely corrupted the text.
  4. Orthodox scribes have severely corrupted the text.
  5. The deity of Christ was invented by emperor Constantine.

Now hopefully none of the BBB readers have fallen for any of these, but you still might find his answers if you run into someone who has.

Out of the mouth of babes

A friend asked me about these two verses, and I don’t believe that we’ve looked at them before:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes (Psalm 8:2a, ESV)

And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:16b, ESV)

Now as your Bible’s footnotes probably tell you, this is another example where the New Testament has followed the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text.

Why though did the authors of the Septuagint translate this verse as they did? I don’t know, but maybe you do, and can help explain these strange verses.

It is also worth noting that our many English translations vary quite widely on these verses. Which do you think conveys the meaning best?

NIV11 review by Rodney Decker

The NIV translators sought to communicate clearly to their generation. But English stops for no one. Our language has continued to change, and it has changed much more rapidly during the past hundred years than it did in the seventeenth century. The swirling vortex of technological and social transformation that has surrounded us with increasingly swift winds of change has impacted our language. Our language has changed. Oh, perhaps you speak largely the same way you did in the middle of the twentieth century (at least if you are near my age or older). That is quite possible if you’ve lived in relatively conservative areas of our country or ministered in conservative churches that have long since celebrated their golden anniversary (and perhaps their centennial or even their bicentennial). But English has changed. That is undeniable. (I will return to this subject a bit later in this article.) That is why new translations appear periodically and older ones are revised. Whether we like it or not, we do not live in an era where a translation can reign as sole monarch for several centuries. Perhaps such a time will once again be enjoyed by our heirs should the Lord tarry; but it is not this day, and it does not appear to be tomorrow either.

I’m late to the party, but not too late to link to Rodney Decker’s thorough review of the NIV11 in Themelios.

Particularly informative is his description of a report on English language change based on the Collins Bank of English. I think that using such a data corpus is essential, and hope our other translations are similarly grounded in real language data. He also looks at gender issues in some detail, quite fairly in my opinion.

Thanks Rod for another quality review!

Weird books in normal language

John Hobbins recently commented:

It’s important to me that we understand that the Bible is a weird book that teaches things at great odds with the way we believe and the way we do things. A quaint translation like RSV or ESV helps in making that understood. The conclusion many people draw from reading a translation that sounds familiar is that the text is on their side. An unintended consequence, but still: translation FAIL.

I must disagree, and I have an example. Unless you’re familiar with new world order, reptilian and zionist conspiracy theories the following quote from David Icke will surely be one of the weirdest things you read today. The worldview of modern conspiracists is hugely conceptually distant from the worldview of non-conspiracists – a distance that I think would rival the distance we are from the Biblical days. Conspiracists must have a completely different and foreign way of viewing the world around them, of governments and businesses, of the past and their hopes/fears for the future. But despite that distance, David Icke is able to express his views in ways which an outsider like me can understand. I perhaps might not fully understand the total significance of everything he says (significance in the context of his writings and those of others who share his views), but I can understand what this paragraph itself is saying.

The members of this Elite are either direct incarnations of the fourth-dimensional Prison Warders or have their minds controlled by them. The aim of the Brotherhood and its interdimensional controllers has been to centralise power in the hands of the few. This process is now very advanced and it is happening on a global scale today thanks to modern technology. The game-plan is known as the Great Work of Ages or the New World Order, and it presently seeks to introduce a world government to which all nations would be colonies; a world central bank and currency; a world army; and a micro-chipped population connected to a global computer. What is happening today is the culmination of the manipulation which has been unfolding for thousands of years. [Source]

John argues that nonstandard language helps make a text’s foreignness apparent, but I disagree: it’s foreignness will be easily apparent even if it uses standard language. No matter what language is used, if that foreignness isn’t apparent then that is a mark of a poor translation.

What we’re talking about here is the concept of reference: language can be seen as symbols which refer to real world, or conceptual, things (the referent). But one of the beauties of natural human language is that a fairly small set of symbols have the capacity to refer to an almost limitless number of things. And as the purpose of language is to communicate new things, most of the things which we refer to are actually new. Sometimes what is new is only the connection between two facts we already know, or is only the knowledge of a new specific something for which we know lots about the generic something, but often what is communicated to us is entirely new. For example, think about when you learnt about a new gadget, like an iPad. Many gadgets are variations on a theme, but some perform totally new functions for totally new purposes. And while we may need to learn a new noun or two, we can learn about these things with our normal language. But what John is effectively arguing is that weird referents require weird references.

We may have to learn many more new things all at the one time when we read the Bible, but that doesn’t require weird language. All human languages have the capacity to express the new concepts which the Bible teaches, although for convenience’s sake sometimes a few new words, introduced by the language’s existing conventions for introducing jargon, can help. Keep your symbols familiar, even if what they reference is not!

Words to avoid

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.
(Mark 10:13, ESV)

We read this verse in church recently. I had to stop myself from laughing.

What’s wrong with it? Any ideas on how could it be translated differently?

Apostles and missionaries

I’ve been having an interesting Facebook discussion with a friend, part of which concerns whether the mission word family would be a good translation choice for the ἀποστέλλω word family, and particularly whether missionary is a good choice for ἀπόστολος, which we normally transliterate apostle.

What do you think, and why?

And if you don’t think it’s a good choice, can you suggest other non-transliterated options?

Defining “general-purpose”

I used the term “general-purpose translations” before here, but I don’t have a clear definition of what it really means. It feels pretty intuitive to me however. I would classify translations such as the NIV, ESV, NLT, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET and the Good News (among many many others) as general-purpose translations. The intended audience is any adult native speaker of English, and the intended use is, well, general: it could be for reading privately, devotionally, for studying, for preaching from or for reading out aloud.

What about those non-general-purpose translations? Well I’d classify The Message and the LOLCat Bible as non-general-purpose due to their deliberately unusual language, and the reasons for their being translated in the first place. The CEV was translated for those with lower reading abilities. The Amplified bible would be classified the same due to its intention as a study tool (or something). The Conservative Bible Project and The Woman’s Bible are non-general-purpose because of the agendas they push.

So there are some examples. Can you help me find a clearer definition of “general-purpose”? Do you disagree with any of my classifications? And if a translation is supposed to be general-purpose, and is marketed as such, are there aspects of translation that actually betray that purpose? As an example, although I have previously always considered the NASB to be a general-purpose translation, I’m now wondering if its great focus on morphosyntactic equivalence really means that it should really be classified as (and marketed as) a Bible for the purpose of study only… what do you think?

When the waters don’t stop

This blog tends towards the academic and the theoretical. We critique Bibles but rarely post about them devotionally.

But let us not forget why we do this – why we bother running blogs like this, why we spend much longer studying the Bible personally, and why some of us have even dedicated our working lives to translating the Bible for those who otherwise would never have it.

We do these things because we believe that God’s word, as contained in the Bible, are the most important words we will ever hear. It is God’s message to the world, and to us individually.

My home town Brisbane is currently flooded, with waters reaching up to 19.5 meters in some areas. Here are some pictures. I’m away right now, but my family is there. Thankfully they are safe, it’s very unlikely that the waters will reach them, and they even still have power. But thousands have had to evacuate their homes, or are without power. Many supermarkets have no food to sell. Even parts of the CBD are now under water. If that’s not extreme enough, three quarters of the rest of the state has been declared a disaster zone. Flood waters cover or have covered an area greater than the size of France and Germany combined. Once the waters eventually clear life will continue to be hard as the clean up begins, while the loss of crops will drive up food prices around the world.

But God has spoken to us about this. In Genesis 9 he made a covenant with every living creature on the earth not to destroy the earth with a flood. As bad as these current floods may be, God has promised to set limits on them. The rainbows in the sky are there to remind him of this – so I know that he is keeping careful watch over all the people afflicted by these floods. But he has also promised that one day he will judge the earth again, in fire. We live in the “end times” and the days of suffering are nearing an end. Despite the worst things that happen to us we can know that God has planned for it to end. We can know because of his word. Even though we may not fully understand his wisdom, he cared enough to write to us so that we could have at least some confidence in him.

If you trust in this same God, I along with innumerable others here, would of course appreciate your prayer.

And if you know the value of being able to hear God’s message in your own language, please consider supporting those who are working to translate the Bible into minority languages.

Because disasters don’t happen only to those who already have the comfort and confidence found in God’s word.

Layers of language and translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In which I rant about paraphrases

paraphrase n.

  1. a restatement of a text in different words, often to clarify meaning [Wiktionary]
  2. a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form [Merriam-Webster]
  3. A rewording of something written or spoken by someone else, esp. with the aim of making the sense clearer; a free rendering of a passage. [OED]

Something that quite annoys me is when people refer to translations such as The Message or the NLT as paraphrases, when they aren’t! They are both translations from the original Biblical languages (although the Living Bible was a paraphrase, from the ASV).

A paraphrase is a text reworded in the same language. The NKJV, ESV and NIV 2011 are all far more paraphrasistic than The Message is! (As is the 2nd edition of the NLT too.)

I don’t know why people love to call these translations paraphrases when they are not. I think it’s probably because they don’t agree with their translation philosophies in some way: maybe they’re not “literal” enough (see my last post for what I think about that); maybe they’re too idiomatic; maybe they’ve been too corrupted by the author’s interpretations.

In any case it does no one any good to keep calling them something they are not! Instead, name the specific flaws of each translation! If there’s too much interpretation just say it! Not “literal” enough? Okay, we’ll agree to disagree on that. Just don’t insult a translation you dislike by calling it a “paraphrase” while promoting another English Bible revision as a “translation”!