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!

Genitives and the semantics of love and faith

The question is often asked: ”Is this genitive an objective or a subjective genitive?” I am going to suggest that this is an old-fashioned and unhelpful question, which can lead to questionable conclusions. It is based on the grammatical concepts of subject and object and it was asked long before people started to talk about semantics.

I am saying it is unhelpful, because it is too restricted. In terms of syntax there are three kinds of potential participants in a clause. They are best illustrated with a common ditransitive verb like ”give”. A gave B to C. A is subject, B is object and C is indirect object. In terms of semantics for ”give”, A would be the Agent, B the Patient and C the recipient. In semantics we operate with a bigger set of roles, including Experiencer, Location, Source, Goal, Direction, Instrument, Beneficiary, Recipient. Different theories of semantics operate with slightly different sets and the borderline between the roles are at times fuzzy.

Sometimes people ask about a phrase like ”the love of God”, is it a subjective or objective genitive? But quite often it is neither.  In a clause like ”I love you”, it is more interesting to ask what are the semantic roles than what is subject or object. Is the subject an Agent? Is ”love” an action? Or a feeling or an attitude? It seems to me that the subject expresses the role of Experiencer. This semantic role is somewhere in-between Agent and Patient, probably closer to Patient. When I say ”I am in love”, or ”I love you” I am describing my feelings, not my actions. So, if the grammatical subject is Experiencer, what is behind the grammatical object? I would suggest the role to be a Goal or Direction. My love is directed towards ”you”. Similarly, in the phrase ”the love of God”, God might be the Direction (A loves God) or the Experiencer (God loves A) or the Source (love from God).

The Greek verb πιστεύω is usually translated by ”believe” or ”trust”. A few times it corresponds to ”entrust”.  In the sense of ”entrust” it may take an accusative direct object and a dative indirect object in Greek (e.g. John 2:24, Luke 16:11), but it never has an accusative object in the common sense of ”believe, trust”. I suggest that the subject is best described as Experiencer and the ”object” for belief is the semantic Direction. The Direction can be expressed in different ways in the grammar.  The most common Greek preposition used is εἰς, and this is understandable since εἰς indicates Direction. A quite rare preposition with πιστεύω is the Greek ἐν (Mark 1:15, John 3:15).  In Koine Greek a prepositional phrase with ἐν is often equivalent to a simple dative, and we find that the ”object” for faith is often expressed in the dative, especially if it is a pronoun. This is understandable since the dative is often connected with the semantic roles of Direction, Goal and Beneficiary.  It is common to have a mismatch between semantic roles and grammatical cases. One case may correspond to several roles, and one role may correspond to several cases or prepositions. Another preposition used with this verb is ἐπί (Matt 27:42; Luk 24:25; Acts 9:42, 11:17; 16:31, 22:19,; Rom 4:24,9:33, 10:11; 1Tim 1:16; 1Pet 2:6). Again, ἐπί with accusative often indicates Direction or Goal.

Now, when a noun is used rather than a verb, all semantic roles are made implicit and must be deduced from context. In order to indicate at least one of the roles, another noun or pronoun is often connected to the first noun by way of a genitive construction. The genitive in itself does not determine whether the second noun functions as Experiencer or Direction. In the case of a genitive pronoun, we find the following:

1st person singular: faith in me (Jesus speaking) – Rev 2:13, my faith – Rom 1:12

1st person plural: our faith – 1Jn 5:4 (once in NT)

2nd person singular: your faith – Matt 9:22 etc. (11 times in the NT)

2nd person plural: your faith – (24 times in NT)

3rd person singular: his faith – (Rom 4:5), faith in him – (Eph 3:12)

3rd person plural: their faith – (4 times in NT)

In each and every case the Direction for this faith is Jesus or God. Only two places do we have the pronoun in the role of Direction. That all the others are what is traditionally called ”subjective genitive” has nothing to do with the grammar or semantics, but is what is to be expected pragmatically. Faith is assumed in these contexts to be faith in Jesus and different people can have faith. In a few cases the role of Direction is explicit by way of a prepositional phrase, e.g. ἐν (1 Cor 2:5, Col 1:4), εἰς (1 Pet 1:21; Col 2:5) and πρός (1 Th 1:8), but it is rarely necessary to make this explicit.

If we look at those cases where no pronoun or genitive is involved, we find the same three prepositions (εἰς, ἐν and ἐπὶ) used to indicate the Direction role:

Acts 24:24 περὶ τῆς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν πίστεως about the faith in/towards Christ Jesus.

Rom 3:25 διὰ [τῆς] πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι through (the) faith in his blood

Gal 3:26 διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ through the/our faith in Christ Jesus

2 Tim 3:15 διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ though a faith that is in/towards Christ Jesus

Heb 6:1 πίστεως ἐπὶ θεόν faith in God

We found with the verb form that the dative case was used more often than a prepositional phrase, and in the case of a noun plus genitive we find that a genitive is also more common than a preposition.

These cases are somewhat debated, because it is a matter of context whether the genitive indicates Experiencer or Direction or even Source. One would need to look carefully at the context, and I am only giving references here:

Mark 11:22 πίστιν θεοῦ – probably faith in God (possibly Source)

Rom 3:22 διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – probably through faith in Jesus Christ

Rom 3:26 πίστεως Ἰησοῦ – probably faith in Jesus

Rom 4:12  πίστεως τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἀβραάμ – the faith of our father Abraham

Rom 4:16 πίστεως Ἀβραάμ – the faith of Abraham

Gal 2:16 διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν – through faith in Jesus Christ, and WE have come to believe in Christ Jesus.

Gal 3:22 ἵνα ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοθῇ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν – so that the promise based on faith in Jesus Christ could be given to those who believe (in him)

Php 1:17 τῇ πίστει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου – probably a genitive of Source, the faith that is contained in and brought by the Good News

Php 3:9 μὴ ἔχων ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐκ νόμου ἀλλὰ τὴν διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ, τὴν ἐκ θεοῦ δικαιοσύνην ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει – not having a righteousness of my own which is based on (keeping) the law, but the (righteousness) that (comes) through (having) faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on (us having) faith (in Christ)

Col 2:12 διὰ τῆς πίστεως τῆς ἐνεργείας τοῦ θεοῦ – through faith in the (powerful) operation/working of God

Rev 14:12 οἱ τηροῦντες τὰς ἐντολὰς τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν πίστιν Ἰησοῦ – those who keep/hold on to the commands of God and the/their faith in Jesus.

As can be expected, when the genitive refers to a person (like Abraham), the genitive indicates the Experiencer (”subjective genitive”), and where the faith is directed towards Jesus or God or an activity of God then we have the role of Direction.

Some people have argued that a ”subjective genitive” is possible in some of these constructions as long as we understand πίστις to refer to ”faithfulness” rather than ”faith”. Normally ”faithfulness, trustworthiness” is expressed by the adjective πιστός, but πιστός can occasionally also mean ”a believer” and πίστις can at times mean ”faithfulness”. There is one genitive construction where the context demands this sense, namely Rom 3:3:

εἰ ἠπίστησάν τινες, μὴ ἡ ἀπιστία αὐτῶν τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ καταργήσει;

If some were unfaithful, surely their unfaithfulness does not obliterate God’s faithfulness. Here the contrast is between the unfaithfulness of people and the faithfulness of God, a common topic in the Old Testament.  The faithfulness of God is not a common topic in the NT, because that is assumed to be a known fact. When the writer wants to remind the hearers of God’s faithfulness, the adjective πιστός is used. I have only found two places where the faithfulness of Jesus is being mentioned (Heb 3:2, Rev 1:5)

A Call for Coherency Scholarship

David Frank posted Reflections on the nature of Bible translation. And I really like what he said. So, I thought I would interact with it a bit (and hopefully encourage him to post more).

What he said there is why my “hobby-horse” is coherency.

The underspecification of the text, and the resulting ambiguity, provides the fuel for us to rip apart the text. We’re then left with pieces of text that we typically reform into a theological quilt of our own making. The fault is ours; it’s not the text’s fault. In fact, the ‘text’ is a ‘fabric’ and ripping harms the text as a text (Latin: textere). But, the ripping is a single step across the two step chasm of interpretation. So, that first step is needed. More on that in a moment. Also, the fault certainly isn’t the author’s (or Author’s). Language is what language is. It is cohesive in its very nature. And communication follows the same maxim. We’re good at this ripping, also known as analysis.

And we certainly need the analysis. In fact we need more of it. As Richard mentions, we haven’t yet analysed the pragmatics (ie. contextual connections where ‘context’ is the original interpretive environment) of the original Koine (let alone the Hebrew of the OT). Richard, we’ll get there–we’re good at analysis. I don’t want to oversimplify, but all we have do is to rip into the soil and unearth the data. We have, we really have, the analytical capability–we just have to do it.

But, we’re astoundingly poor at synthesis. In fact, I suggest that whenever a synthesis of the data is presented, people from all their different factions, whip out their ripped textual fabrics quilted into various theological wall hangings. They hang them up, and they point to chapter and verse, and then claim they have held back the fall of “orthodoxy.” I wish the mere existance of pragmatic data would not only foster, but determine synthetic expertise. It won’t. We have to develop our capability to process the data toward a coherent understanding (ie. comprehension) of the text. We are no good at comprehension.

We need the data that pragmatic analysis will bring; but, we absolutely must gain appreciation of coherency. Without coherency, we simply have more ripped pieces of cloth to sew into our factional quilts (as beautiful as they might appear to each of us).

David, your concern for the current state of factionalism is, in my opinion, well founded. And I believe the only solution is to develop our synthetic capability. We have to learn what it means to practice coherent interpretation. We have to learn what it means to have a text not only cohere with the text around it (cf information flow), but also how that text coheres with its greater context (cf pragmatics). We’re no good at either of these today. But, if we do it, then we will witness the fall of factionalism. We’re really talking about one and the same thing–coherent text, coherent community. I believe these two are joined at the hip.

If I’m right in my epistemological assumptions that truth is inherently coherent, and that truth practised results in godly growth, then the maturation of our capability to comprehend the text will unavoidably defeat factionalism. But, to do that, we not only need the analysed contextual data (so, we need to do the ripping), but we need to develop our capability to synthesize the data into a meaningful wholes. We don’t understand the wholes. We don’t know how to understand the wholes. We can sew our own theological quilts; but, we don’t know how to let the texts as wholes be the fabric as it has been given to us. We don’t know how to interpret the text within its original context. We don’t know how to follow the flow of the text.

This is a deeply philosophical posting. I admit that. So, the connection to Bible translation might not be immediately obvious. So, let me be more explicit. We need scholarship around coherency development so that we have such scholarship supporting translation decisions.

We’re making those translation decisions now without the benefit of such coherency capability. And so our translations jerk and stutter. The text is not coherency informed. And the factionalism is simply more evidence of such uninformed decisions.

Our translations are not inaccurate (sorry for the double negative) as if they are drunken men meandering around in sloshed stupors. It’s not that they aren’t on the right path. They are more like an unoiled tin-man, jerking with stuttering movements as he tries to walk the road laid with gold. With coherency scholarship we could make much more informed translation decisions. We would oil the translated text for the reader. The result would be linguistically smooth renderings, accurately capturing the intended meaning in the language of the audience. This incarnation of the intended meaning would produce godly growth as the Spirit fills the soul. It would fan the flames of unity because people would comprehend the Biblical text.

This is what I believe. I wish I could do it. But the only thing I can muster right now is to call for it to be done. May this little piece be part of the whole.

Reflections on the nature of Bible translation

I have been strangely quiet on this blog for a long time now. Part of the problem is that I don’t have much that I want to say about the particular wording of English Bible translations. I am much more interested in the bigger issues, like the philosophical, theological, theoretical, cultural and sociological dimensions of translation.

I see trust and competency as huge issues in Bible translation. The average Bible user has to trust that those who produced a certain translation are trustworthy and competent. And in fact, without an expert knowledge of biblical languages and textual criticism, the average reader of the Bible does put a great deal of trust in whoever provided the Bible version that their church recommends. That’s good. It makes sense. Trust is a good thing, assuming you trust in something that is trustworthy.

It is also easy to see a lot of mistrust these days, which is sad. Factionalism seems to be on the rise with respect to Bible translations, as it is with respect to politics. “You can trust the translation that we endorse, but don’t trust that other one. They have an agenda.” Regardless of whether I can be happy that a translation I like is at the top of the best-sellers list, or whether I can be disappointed that a translation that I wouldn’t endorse is at the top of the list, the bigger issue for me is the distrust and factionalism.

A recent development that prompts me to write is a report I heard, that seminaries are starting to develop translation courses that support their distinctive views on translation. I should be happy that translation is being taught in seminaries, but the impression I get is that these new study programs are intended to support a word-for-word approach to translation that I think is misinformed. I heard this from a colleague who is an ordained minister in one of these denominations and who is better informed about seminary and denominational trends than I am.

It looks like, rather than leading to a common understanding on the nature of Bible translation, the trend in the seminaries will lead to further factionalism. I am not an ecumenist, necessarily, but I would hope that Christians could at least agree we are all reading essentially the same Bible, even if it is in different forms.

Certain other religions and worldviews hold that holy scriptures are not translatable. For Christians, translation is integral to our view of the Bible, God, salvation and Christianity in general. The words of the scriptures are not like an incantation. It is the message the words convey that is important. As Lamin Sanneh said in his 2003 book Whose Religion is Christianity? (p. 97), “Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their Scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it.”

I read a story a few days ago that I can’t properly document right now, and it might not even be true, but it was about a woman who was so mad at her husband over their disagreement concerning the interpretation of a verse from the Bible, she scalded him with hot water while he was sleeping. Obviously, in this story, somebody’s missing the bigger picture.

As a professional linguist, I could tell you that one of the most basic things about language is that it both underspecifies meaning, and at the same time is redundant. There is more than one way to say the same thing. The redundancy and the contextual information help make up for the underspecification. There is no perfect language and there is no perfect translation. We would all be better communicators if we made an effort to understand, and didn’t use (one’s favorite translation of) the Bible as something to beat each other over the head with.

Get behind me – or – Follow me

For the past several years my pastor and I have read his sermon texts in Greek and/or Hebrew and shared insights before he delivered his sermons.  In his recent sermon text of Mark 8:27-38, he noticed that the Greek word OPISO (usually translated “after” or “behind” in the KJV) occurs in verse 33 in the clause “Get behind me, Satan” and again in verse 34 in the clause “If any want to follow after/behind me…”

Our first thought was that the Greek word OPISO was used in two different senses; the occurrence in verse 33 in the sense in which the TEV (“Get away from me”) and the NIV (“Out of my sight”) translated it; the occurrence in verse 34 in the sense of following Jesus.  But then I began to wonder if the occurrence in verse 33 may have been intended to convey the same sense as the one in verse 34.  A look at a concordance supports that likelihood since nearly all uses of OPISO in the New Testament occur in contexts that convey the sense of following Jesus.

If Jesus were rebuking Satan in verse 33, I could understand why he might say “Get away from me” or “Out of my sight.”  But Jesus was scolding Peter, a devoted follower of his, who was not acting as a follower should.  I don’t think Jesus was rejecting Peter, which “Get away from me” implies.  I think Jesus was reminding Peter of what it meant to be his follower.  So I prefer the rendering of The Better Life Bible:   “Stop acting like Satan, who wants everything to go his way.”  I wonder if any other translations convey this idea.

Translating “in Christ”

The expression in Christ (and its equivalents in Jesus, in the Lord, in the Son, etc.) occurs 174 times in the New Testament. While it does not occur in any of the Gospels, Hebrews or James, it occurs 21 times in the first two chapters of Ephesians and 10 times in chapter 16 of Romans.

The interesting thing about this seemingly simple expression is the wide range of meaning it conveys in various contexts. In Dr. Clarence Hale’s booklet entitled, The Meaning of IN CHRIST in the Greek New Testament, he suggests 241 ways to translate it. I’ll list just a few:

by Christ – Ephesians 2:22
Christians – Romans 16:7
through Christ – Ephesians 1:9
because of Christ – Ephesians 1:7
in the service of Christ – Romans 16:12
under the authority of Christ – Ephesians 1:10

Hale points out that the meaning of in Christ is unclear in many contexts. For example, in Romans 16:9 – “Greet Urbanus our fellow worker in Christ”  (NKJV), he suggests that in Christ could serve as an adjectival phrase to modify fellow worker, an adverbial phrase to modify greet, or a noun phrase to mean a Christian.

In my translation of this verse in The Better Life Bible, I convey the idea that in Christ identifies the common task of the fellow workers:

“Please give my greetings also to Urbanus,
who helps us tell others about Jesus.”

Since the Bible is not sufficient…

[Things have been quiet here at BBB so I’ll try to shake things up.]

This semester at the Mozambican Bible Institute, my third-year students have been studying the Pauline epistles. What is different about this semester is that the day students and night students are studying all the third-year courses together. The day students are Christians and pastoral candidates with a long history of involvement in the church. The night students are for the most part pagans. We have journalists, school teachers, and shopkeepers all in this night course because they’re hoping to get a degree. The mix of secular and saintly students is a recipe for excitement. It is the most stimulating course I have ever taught. Discussions range from hot to heretical. But they are never dull.

As part of the course, I paired the students up and asked them to make a short presentation to the class on difficult passages in 1 Corinthians. This led to some awkward moments such as when the attractive young lady from the night students was paired up with one of the male day students and their topic was Paul’s instructions on couples abstaining from sex. In general, the students have done an excellent job even if by and large they haven’t the foggiest idea how to exegete the text.

Last night was a good example of the exegetical problem. Two groups made presentations. The first group explained the passage where Paul instructs women to keep their heads covered (1 Cor. 11:2-16). The second group spoke on Paul’s instructions regarding believers taking each other to court (1 Cor. 6:1-12).

Regarding disputes between believers, there were direct connections between the Corinthian and Mozambican situation. But the presenters on women’s head coverings were pretty much flummoxed by this passage. They were able to make the connection between ancient culture and Mozambican culture and assert that “women normally have long hair.” But they weren’t really able to make any kind of exegetical leap and say something like, “In Paul’s day, women covered their heads as a sign of modesty. The women in our churches should likewise dress modestly.” Very few of the students have study Bibles and most of them are too busy to spend time hunting for information in the library. So they just have a bare bones Bible. And with obscure passages like this one they have to make guesses at how to apply the message. 

Which brings me back to the teaser in this post’s title. Assuming that the average reader will misinterpret much of the Bible most of the time should we be looking for a better Bible: a Bible that disambiguates? The options are legion in the English speaking world, but step across the linguistic divide and you will find the majority of believers around the world using Bible society editions. Bible Societies like ABS have a mission that involves “producing materials that avoid endorsing or advocating any doctrinal positions.”1 So they get the sixty six books and maybe a couple of maps. I’m thinking about those students in my third-year class. They are heading into society, some of them into pastorates, with a Bible that they do not understand. And yet a proper understanding of 1 Corinthians would be incredibly helpful in addressing the problems they will face in their churches. Since the Bible is not sufficient in this situation, what needs to be done?


1 from Mission Statement of the American Bible Society

Ambiguity and humility

I have been reading The Work of Poetry by John Hollander recently. The essay on the psalms ties in nicely with a couple of recent posts on translation. Lingamish alludes to the ambiguities and mysteries of certain passages in Please be so kind as to laugh, then Iyov, Least common denominator wrote,

    Yet, some advocate producing Bible translations as if they were just another piece of writing — written in everyday speech. This is a great disservice to Scripture. First, it causes us to forget that the Bible is kadosh/holy/separate from other literature. Second, it obscures the highly specialized style in which the Hebrew Scripture is written. …. Third, it causes us to lose humility, because we can master the language of some simple translations — but in our generation, we have no sage who can fully understand the original Hebrew, much less the profound wordplay and connections present in the language.

Forgive me for taking such a short excerpt from a fascinating post. The psalms are uniquely suited for the study of commentary through the centuries, for seeing how diversely and personally the Hebrew has been translated by one generation after another, for simply surrendering the rational mind to an acceptance of ambiguity in the original text.

Along similar lines Leland Ryken writes the following in The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (now available through Google Books) which devotes a considerable amount of space to a discussion of ambiguity.

    I can imagine that some of my readers have been uneasy with the emphasis on ambiguity that has surfaced at several places in this book. As a literary scholar, I deal regularly with that quality of literary discourse. But I also found while doing the research for this book that the word ambiguity has been entrenched in discussions of translation for a long time. That the original text possesses the quality of multiple meanings, multiple interpretive options, and an open-ended or mysterious quality is widely recognized by Bible translators. The question is whether an English translation should preserve these qualities of the original.

    On this matter, as on many other translation issue, the crucial question is whether priority should be assigned to what the original text says or the assumed needs of modern readers. When translation committees assign priority to their audience, they have in that very act decided that certain qualities of the original text are expendable. … I believe that a good English translation passes on the qualities of multiple meanings and mystery that the original text possesses. Another way of saying this is that a good translation resists the impulse to spell everything out. page 289

I would like to share part of the chapter by John Hollander (see image) on his experience growing up with the psalms. He compares his first response to the psalms, in his Jewish childhood, to learning Hebrew and studying the commentary of the psalms throughout his later life. Near the beginning of the essay he uses this story to illustrate his point.

    The child in the American joke who innocently deforms Psalm 23’s penultimate verse, assuring her adult listeners that “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life,” will only learn with “a later reason” as Wallace Stevens called it, that she was getting something more profoundly right about the line, the psalm, and poetry in general than any of her correctly parroting schoolmates. For the “mistake” personifies the “goodness and mercy”- the tov vachesed of the Hebrew – as a beneficent pursuer (the Hebrew lines imply that they are the poet’s only pursuers, dogging one’s footsteps, perhaps, but never hounding). Good Mrs. Murphy following the child about like a beneficent nurse is a more viable, powerful homiletic reconstruction of what had otherwise faded into abstraction than any primer’s glossing. The child rightly attended to the trope set up by the intense verb “follow me” and supplied fan appropriate subject for it, thereby turning mechanical allegory into poetic truth. Losing, in mature literacy, the ability to make such mistakes can mean being deaf and blind to the power of even the KJV text, let alone that of the Hebrew.


    In short, losing the mysterious poetry of engendered by mistranslation, or even by distance from the English usage of a much earlier text, is compensated for many times over by reentry into the original. Confronting the psalms in yet another identity, decked out and bejeweled by linguistic and homiletic commentary, had been an activity of my later life. More and more mysteries open up in these versions as well.

    For example, back in Psalm 23:4, the famous crux of “the valley of the shadow of death” comes from a tendentious repointing of the word tzalmavet, which could mean either “deep shade” or “death shade”,” and probably the former. … But knowing all this in no way makes the poem shed its outer garments for the sake of a naked linguistic truth, and the various translations and versions and misprisions all coexist, and inhere in every phrase.


    The layers of misreading and rereadings are part of the poetry of the text itself in the poetic portions of the Bible. And the problems and puzzles of the psalms will remain eternal occasions for the reader’s negative capability as well as for the interpretive with that turns every reader into a poet, if only momentarily. (chap. 7 Hearing and Overhearing the Psalms, page 113-128 in The Work of Poetry by John Hollander)

He expresses for me the initial frustration and eventual fascination which I have enjoyed in reading the various commentaries with which Ps. 68 is ‘bejeweled.” I soon realized that I would not be able to reduce even one of the ambiguities of the text, but could rather open up more each time I looked at the Hebrew text.

I regret that there is no recent Bible version which reflects this pattern of multiple meaning in the way the KJV does. Leland Ryken makes a good point with respect to ambiguity and literary quality. However, I am slowly coming to the realization that the Christian scriptures are not represented in any modern translation in a manner which does justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original. Have we ‘lost our humility’ vis-á-vis the text?

translation problems poll results

It’s time to discuss the results of a poll which has been in the margin of this blog for quite a few months. The poll has five verses from various Bible versions and respondents were asked:

Check any of the following wordings which seem to you to have a translation problem. Feel free to use any resource you need, including other Bibles.

225 blog visitors responded, with the following results:

First, the number of responses is lower than we normally get for the amount of time the poll was up. I don’t know what this means. Perhaps it means that looking for translation problems is more difficult than some other exercises which have been in BBB polls. Perhaps this is especially true for those who typically visit BBB, who, I’m guessing, are more accustomed to “Bible English” than are other audiences.

There is at least one problem with the English of each of the verses in the poll. I’ll state the problems that I see. They line up with what some others noted about these verses when this poll was first posted.

In the first verse, it sounds like people are being told to brag about themselves: “Let everyone know how considerate you are.” Now, of course, Paul did not intend for the Philippians to brag about how considerate they were. The bragging meaning was unintentionally inserted by the English translators. We can see how this could happen when we look at a literal translation of the Greek of this verse:

The gentleness/considerateness of you let it be known to all people.

It is, grammatically, not very far from “let it be known to all people” to “let everyone know”, yet there is an important difference. In the intended meaning, people will know that we are considerate by how they observe us acting. Paul did not instruct the Philippians to verbally point out how considerate they were. 141 respondents spotted a problem with the test wording, the largest number of responses for any of the verses. For those who are interested, this translation wording is from the God’s Word translation, which is a quite good translation. Unintentional wrong meanings, such as in its translation of Phil. 4:5, are not at all characteristic of the God’s Word translation.

The problem with the wording of Ps. 119:105 was more difficult for most people to spot. This is probably so because we are so accustomed to this traditional wording that we find it difficult to sense anything wrong with it. This verse is one of many examples of Hebraic parallelism in the Bible. For poetic purposes, light and lamp are parallel. They refer to the same thing. In addition, my feet and my path actually refer to the same thing, for purposes of the poetic parallelism. Both refer to the where our feet go as we walk. When it is dark, we need a light to help us see where we should plant our feet, so that we can avoid anything that might cause us to stumble.

English and Hebrew differ in that Hebrew parallel meaning comes through just fine with the Hebrew conjunction, vav. In constrast, English conjunctions block parallel meaning. We cannot conjoin synonyms in English and expect others to understand that we intend the conjoined terms to be synonymous. One example that I like to use to illustrate this is:

I love my wife and my spouse.

This sentence just doesn’t work for English. It looks grammatical but most people sense that there is something wrong with it, because “my wife” and “my spouse” are functioning as synonyms. (For the purists, they are not exact synonyms–there may not be any exact synonyms in any language–but for all practical purposes, the function as synonyms in this context.)

For the majority of English speakers, who have the rule of conjunctions blocking synonymous meaning, the traditional English translation of Ps. 119:105 is ungrammatical. English “and” does not allow us to sense to the fact that “light” and “lamp” refer to the same object, unless we are so “biblicized” that we have adopted the Hebrew rule of a conjunction allowing synonymous meaning. One accurate English translation equivalent of the Hebrew conjunction in poetic parallelism is the comma. The comma results in appositive English syntax which can accurately communicate the parallel meaning of the Hebrew. Some English Bible translation teams had members who understood the different syntactic behavior of Hebrew and English conjunctions with regard to parallelism and accurately translated that parallel meaning. I have found only one version which retains the poetic couplet structure form closely and uses the appositive comma:

Your word is a lamp to my feet,
a light on my path (REB)

Two other versions make additional adjustments to the form of the couplet to retain the parallel meaning:

By your words I can see where I’m going;
they throw a beam of light on my dark path. (MSG)

Your word is a lamp
that gives light wherever I walk. (CEV)

I do not wish to discuss the merits of this more extensive restructuring in this post. I simply want to make the point that it is possible to retain the Hebraic form and its parallel meaning by substituting a comma for English “and” in translation.

I will complete my analysis of the results of this poll in my next post.