Translator in the translation

This is an interesting meditation on Bible translation: First, it is a notice about yet another English Bible translation becoming available, and then a commentary on that. I’m not really aware of this new translation from Thomas Nelson Publishing, but Rev. Ken Klaus of Lutheran Hour Ministries reveals a few things he knows about it and then expresses his concern. Instead of “Christ,” Jesus is called “the Anointed One.” Instead of being called “apostles,” the twelve are called “emissaries.” I wrote a blog post here more than a year ago about the translation of logos in John’s gospel chapter one, and this new translation uses “the Voice.” Some of the wordings (or maybe many of the wordings, as I haven’t seen it yet) are not what one is accustomed to.

The LHM devotional writer’s concern is that he senses the presence of the translator in the translation rather than hearing the voice of God: “Wow! I can’t speak for you, but I see a lot of translator and not a lot of God. Now I would not condemn this new translation. The Holy Spirit has managed to accomplish His purpose by using good translations and bad translations. He can do the same here. That being said, I would urge you to use a translation where the Lord shines clearly and without a translator’s filter.”

There is certainly something to be said for familiar, traditional wordings of the Bible as we read it in translation. I think there is also something to be said for starting afresh and saying things in a new way. The only way I can make sense of these comments about the problem of hearing the voice of the translator in the translation is that the wording is non-traditional. The Bible doesn’t sound here they way we are accustomed to hearing it sound.

Vernaculars and Lingua Francas, Part Two: Translation Implications

I have already explained something about vernaculars and lingua francas. They are not two types of languages, but two uses of language, depending on whether or not the language is the mother tongue of the speakers or is an “other-than-mother-tongue” that speakers use to communicate with each other. I wouldn’t say that there is a contrast between vernaculars and lingua francas, but rather that there is a distinction that can be made between language as vernacular and language as lingua franca. The same language can be a vernacular in one context and a lingua franca in another.

So what does this have to do with literature and translation? Recently on this blog, an essay in the New York Review of Books by Tim Parks was referenced that brought the words “lingua franca” and “translation” together. Here, apparently, the term “lingua franca” was used as a sort of metaphor. Parks was drawing on an earlier article by Sheldon Pollock entitled “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History,” where instead of lingua franca, “cosmopolitan(ism)” is used in comparison and contrast with “vernacular.”

I like what Pollock has to say. He starts his article,

Few things seem to us as natural as the multiplicity of vernacular languages that different peoples use for making sense of life through texts, that is, for making literature. And few things seem as unnatural as their abandonment and gradual disappearance in the present. In fact, literary language loss is often viewed as part of a more general reduction of cultural diversity, one considered as dangerous as the reduction of biological diversity to which it is often compared. The homogenization of culture today, of which language loss is one aspect, seems without precedent in human history, at least for the scope, speed, and manner in which changes are taking place.

This common sense view of the world needs two important qualifications. First, the vernacular ways of being that we see vanishing everywhere were themselves created over time…. Second, by the very fact of their creation, the new vernaculars replaced a range of much older cultural practices. These earlier practices, which seemed to belong to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular, affiliated their users to a larger world rather than a smaller place. They were, in a sense to be argued out in this essay, cosmopolitan practices….

This quote agrees with my very democratic beliefs about languages (mother tongues/vernaculars) and my regrets that the major world languages like English might be crowding out the minority languages of the world, along with their associated literatures and views of the world.

Here is Tim Parks’ summary of Pollock: “We needn’t think about the spread of English as necessarily in conflict with the world’s vernaculars; he wants us to avoid thinking in terms of ‘either/or’ and work towards a relationship that is ‘both/and.’” That agrees with my disinclination toward structuralist approaches to language and my rejection of sharp dichotomies (if that is not a self contradiction).

So what does Parks say about vernacular vs. lingua franca in relation to translation? He makes an interesting observation, though it is not about approaches to translation. Rather, it is about original text authorship with translation in mind. Parks says that authors tend to write in a different style when they think of their language as a lingua franca than when they think of it as simply a vernacular. Or, to put it another way, if an author envisions his or her literary work being translated into other languages, that has a bearing on the writer’s style. Using a literary work written in Italian, for example, if the author’s intended audience is mother tongue speakers of Italian, the writing style will tend to take greater advantage of inwardly-turned, language-specific literary devices. However, if the author wants the work to be translated and brought to an international audience, then even if the work is written in Italian, it will be a different sort of Italian, a more easily-translated form of Italian that does not capitalize as much on language-specific literary devices. Awareness of translation and a desire to have one’s works understood as widely as possible will influence how someone writes.

Parks’ intuition (as he calls it) is that the contemporary writers he studied…

had already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things. Naturally, there was an impoverishment… but there was also a huge gain in communicability….

He observes that “there is a spirit abroad, especially in the world of fiction, that is seeking maximum communicability and that has fastened onto the world’s present lingua franca [viz., English] as something that can be absorbed and built into other vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily translated into each other.”

Parks’ essay was about the composition of original texts rather than the translation of those texts into other languages, except where he says, twice, that “the success of translation very largely depends on the levels of complexity in the original text.” His point was that as authors become aware of translation and a wider international audience, they tend to write in such a way as to make translation easier. A way of putting this is that the authors become aware of their language as being not just a vernacular, where the target audience is comprised of fellow speakers of the same language, but as a lingua franca, i.e., they are conscious of their language as a gateway for communication with speakers of other languages, through translation.

So how do we who are concerned with translation make use of this information? While it is not correct to say that some languages are vernaculars and other languages are lingua francas (except in the case of pidgins, which, by definitions are only lingua francas and not vernaculars), I think there is indeed a connection, in that translators, like authors, have to be aware of their target audience and its needs. In fact, translators have to be aware both of the original audience of the original text and of the target audience for the translation. One of the basic principles for any kind of communication is to know your audience. One of the cardinal principles of translation is to identify the target audience for the translation. It is not reasonable or wise to consider all the speakers of a certain language as being the target audience, especially in the case of a language with so many dialects and registers as English. There are translations directed toward children, translations directed toward speakers of English as a second language, translations for educated people who want to get as close to the source language as possible, translations for educated people who want to see the scriptures communicated in contemporary language, translations for reading aloud, translations for liturgical use, translations for very average North Americans without a lot of theological sophistication. It is not a matter of one-size-fits-all. In the case of English, we have so many translations of the Bible to choose from, and different translations each have at least the potential of being valid for their target audience and stated purpose. Obviously, though, translators, when going through so much effort, and publishers, when investing so much, are going to be concerned about getting as large a market share as possible.

Even in the case of languages that don’t have the luxury of multiple translations, Bible translators have to pinpoint their target audience and dialectal variety.

Vernaculars and Lingua Francas, Part One: Foundations

I have an interest in lingua francas (or linguas franca, or linguae francae, or whatever). The phrase means, literally, “language of the Franks.” The explanation is that from an Arabic perspective, all Europeans were “Franks.” In the first half of the Second Millenium, there was a specific language form called Lingua Franca, a Romance-based pidgin spoken in the Mediterranean area. The term has come to be generalized to refer to any language used for communication among a group of people who do not have a mother tongue in common.

Recently on this very blog the matter was discussed of whether one can properly translate from a vernacular into a lingua franca or vice versa. Specifically, the issue seemed to be whether one can translate from a vernacular like ancient Hebrew into a lingua franca like English without compromising the accuracy and integrity of the foreign text. The implication seemed to be that translation of this sort was not really possible. I’ll tip you off to where I am going with this by saying that I don’t see any reason why this sort of thing ought to be problematic. Of course, you have to recognize that whatever languages you are dealing with—vernaculars or linguafrancas or whatever—there is always going to be some compromise in translation. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Italian aphorism, “the translator is a traitor” or “translation is treason.” So it depends on what your purpose is. If the purpose in translating is to examine and appreciate every nuance of the source text, that is basically just impossible in translation. You would have to study the source text itself, and even then, if we are dealing with something as remote to us today as the Hebrew scriptures, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever fully recover all the information in, and surrounding, the text. But if our purpose is to treat the source text as a meaningful message to be shared—something that people need to hear, to bring a text to them that would be inaccessible to them because of linguistic and cultural differences—then translation certainly is possible, whether we are talking about vernaculars or lingua francas. What would be the status of the church today if the scriptures were not translated, because people thought it was not appropriate to do so? The history of Christianity is a history of translation. Some other time we could draw out some quotes from famous people like Jerome, Wycliffe, Erasmus, Luther, and Tyndale about the value of translating the Bible, or more contemporary figures like J.B. Phillips, Andrew Walls or Lamin Sanneh.

I will first explain my qualifications to discuss topics like lingua francas and translation into them. I’m a PhD linguist (1983) with a specialty in creole languages. When we’re discussing lingua francas, we are dealing in the area of contact languages and language contact (two slightly different things). The one language that I speak fluently other than English is St. Lucian French Creole. I speak some French and Spanish, too, and Gullah, but I speak French Creole better than I speak French. I regularly participate in conferences on pidgin and creole languages and have published some of these papers, on the topics of the grammar or the sociolinguistics of creole languages, and other papers I have presented are available in sort of a semi-published form. One of the topics I have dealt with is the translation of the Bible or other literature into creole languages, and I have presented papers like that to groups of creolists, groups of Bible translation scholars, and once as an invited lecture at the National Museum of Language. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will add that I am pretty well familiar with the basic literature on language contact, and personally know pretty much all the major players in that area, and they know me as colleague.

So let’s start by defining our terms. A vernacular language is a language that people grow up speaking as a mother tongue and as the language they are most comfortable with. It’s not a tricky thing to explain. Whether or not something is a vernacular language doesn’t depend on its internal make-up, but rather what use it is put to. English—or rather a specific dialect of Engilsh—is my vernacular. What is a lingua franca? Whenever I hear the term “lingua franca,” I automatically mentally paraphrase it as “trade language.” That is, it is a language that is not the mother tongue of a set of interlocutors, but which they use as a medium of communication. Again, the term “lingua franca” does not describe what a language is like, internally, but rather the use to which it is put.

Here is an important point: A particular language can be both a vernacular and a lingua franca. In fact, that is quite often the case. For me, English is my vernacular, but for other people, English might be a language that they use to communicate with, but it is not their mother tongue. Here’s an example. Once when I was in East Germany (you can tell this was a while back), giving a paper at an International Congress of Linguists, I went on a bus tour to Dresden at the end of the conference and sat next to a woman from Japan. She didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, but I figured out that she was a French professor back in Japan, and I speak some French. So we carried on a sort of conversation in French. For many people, French is their vernacular, but in this case, when I was talking with a Japanese woman in Germany, French was our lingua franca.

I pulled a standard reference book off my shelf entitled Pidgins and Creoles (1989, Cambridge University Press), written by my friend John Holm, and found this definition on p. 607: “Lingua Franca is the earliest known European-based pidgin: the term lingua franca (uncapitalized, often with the English plural form lingua francas) has come to mean any vehicular language used as a means of communication between two or more groups with no other language in common.” Terms like vernacular and lingua franca do not describe types of languages, but rather uses to which languages are put. English is a vernacular to many, many people, especially in North America, the U.K., and Australia, but it is also becoming increasingly a lingua franca for scholarly work, business, politics, etc.

There are two main types of lingua francas: some are languages that are used as vernaculars in other contexts, like the English and French examples I gave, and then there are pidgins, which by definition are nobody’s mother tongue. A pidgin is a language form that is not fully developed as a normal language and has no native speakers but is used as a medium of communication between groups that do not have a language in common. Note that there are some languages that have “pidgin” in the name but which are no longer pidgins, but rather have become creoles, in that over time they have become mother tongues and the language of a community. Examples are Hawaiian Pidgin or New Guinea Pidgin English. A creole language is a vernacular language that has its origin as a pidgin.

When I say there are two main kinds of lingua francas—languages that also serve as vernaculars in other contexts, on the one hand, and pidgins, on the other—I should acknowledge that there are a few exceptions that I don’t think are relevant here. An exception would be artificially created languages like Esperanto, which are not pidgins, and are not, as far as I know, anyone’s mother tongue. A creole language, however, despite its origin as a pidgin, is by definition a vernacular. As I said, creoles are my professional specialty, including translation into creoles.

I’m afraid I’m being too pedantic here, but one point is that vernacular and lingua francas are not two different types of languages, but rather two different uses to which language types are put. Any language can be a vernacular as long as it has native speakers, but it could at the same time be a lingua franca in other contexts, for other sets of people. A pidgin is a particular kind of lingua franca that does not have native speakers. Pidgins, as a specific type of lingua franca, are typologically distinctive. I could teach a graduate level course on this stuff, or give a lecture, or, in this case, try to boil it down to a short, comprehesible blog post.

There is nothing about a lingua franca that would disqualify it from being a language that you could legitimately translate into or out of. However, I will leave that discussion for part two, to follow.

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.

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!

In which the jargon takes over

In general I don’t like Biblish – it’s not the language I speak nor is it the language of those I’d hope to introduce to God. Biblish is marked by strange or ungrammatical language choices and is often insensitive to idioms. And it’s vocabulary? Obscure, transliterated, oblivious to polysemy and maybe even archaic.

But over at God Didn’t Say That Peter Bishop made an insightful comment:

If the Greek “baptizo” had been translated as “submerse” from the beginning–or if it were adopted now and became the accepted standard for a few centuries–wouldn’t “submerse” come to have the same technical meaning that “baptize” does today? “Submerse” would start out as a faithful and accurate translation, but after a while it will become incorrect usage for anyone to talk of submersing pickles, just as today it would be incorrect to talk of baptizing them. The technical meaning of the _act_ of baptism is so ingrained in our culture that when _any_ word is wedded to that act, the act will subsume the entire meaning of the word long before the word has had a chance to shed any light on the act.

This got me thinking: how much has Biblish taken over English? How many English words have become technical religious jargon? How many times has the main meaning of a word become that of Biblish, even for those who aren’t fluent in Biblish? And what does this mean for our attempts at Biblish-less translations? (A related question: how should we translate what was clearly jargon to begin with?)

I’m on the look out now for terms which still communicate clearly and haven’t become religious jargon. I thought I’d start with Wikipedia, though I’ve been disheartened to see how few words qualify. Here’s my list for now (note it’s quite subjective, and you may have a different opinion about what is jargon and what isn’t):

  • blood, as in Jesus’ blood
  • end times
  • eternal life
  • proselyte
  • resurrection

Can you think of other words which aren’t Biblish jargon and still communicate clearly? Which Biblish words can you not think of non-Biblish alternatives for?

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.

Common language Bible versions

I often post about natural language in Bible translation on this blog. Recently I blogged that there is a difference between natural language, which is language normally spoken or written by native speakers of a language, and common language. Natural language for someone who is highly educated and/or is able to use a high register of the language will often be different from natural language of other speakers.

Common language, on the other hand, is vocabulary (lexicon) and syntax which is shared by all native speakers of a language. The TEV (GNT) and CEV were produced as common language versions of the English language. The translation Dios Llega al Hombre is the common language equivalent for Spanish. There are common language translations, as well, in a number of other languages. Common language translations are typically made under the umbrella of one of the United Bible Societies. (The TEV and CEV were produced by the American Bible Society, one of the member societies of the UBS.)

This last weekend I charted usage of three English words for English Bible versions. These three words are “justify”, “grace”, and “flesh.” The meanings of these words, as they are understood by current common language speakers of English, is different from the meanings these words are intended to convey when they appear in English Bible translations.

Most English speakers have a meaning for “justify” that has to do with someone making excuses for their actions. We sometimes hear sentences like, “He is trying to justify his behavior.” This is not the meaning of the Greek word δικαιόω (DIKAIOW) translated as “justify” in traditional English Bibles. This common contemporary meaning in meaning to the word “rationalize.” (Some English speakers also have the meaning intended in the Bible, but because they are only a portion of all English speakers, that meaning would, by definition, not qualify as being part of common English.)

Most English speakers today understand “grace” to refer to elegance of movement or behavior. An ice skater who skates with grace is one who skates fluidly, with beautiful movement, and smooth transitions from one skating form to another.

The word “flesh” is not used very commonly by English speakers today (hits on Google are not very informative here, since Google does not compare how often a word is used by English speakers in contrast to how often its synonyms are used by them; Google does not give us the detailed statistics that we need to accurately understand word usage). I have heard it used, infrequently, in sentences such as “Oh, it’s just a flesh wound.” Instead of the word “flesh,” today most speakers use words such as “skin,” “body,” and “muscles.” Use of the word “flesh” in English Bibles is nearly meaningless for a very large percentage of English speakers.

OK, here is how the English versions translated Greek words δικαιόω (DIKAIOW), χάρις (XARIS), and σάρξ (SARKS), which have been traditionally translated as “justify,” “grace”, and “flesh,” respectively:

Rom. 3:30 Rom. 5:20 Rom. 7:5
δικαιόω χάρις σάρξ
BBE give righteousness grace flesh
CEV accepts God’s kindness thought only of ourselves
ESV justify grace flesh
GNT/TEV put right with himself grace flesh
GW approves God’s kindness corrupt nature
HCSB justify grace flesh
ISV justify grace human nature
KJV justify grace flesh
NAB justify grace flesh
NASB justify grace flesh
NCV make right with him grace flesh
NET justify grace flesh
NIrV justify grace sinful nature
NIV justify grace sinful nature
NJB justify grace natural inclinations
NKJV justify grace flesh
NLT makes right with himself grace flesh
NRSV justify grace flesh
NWT declare righteous undeserved kindness flesh
REB justify grace mere human nature
RSV justify grace flesh
SENT find innocent grace flesh
TM sets right grace old way of life
TNIV justify grace sinful nature

I was surprised to discover that NWT used common language translations for two of the three terms. My impression of the NWT had been that it was a fairly literal translation using traditional English Bible words.

I was also surprised to find that the NLT, which, overall, uses relatively natural English, retained both “grace” and “flesh”. The same surprise comes from the NCV which was designed to be an easier to read translation.

The TNIV makes no changes from the NIV in translation of the three words charted.

I am limited in what else I can say by lack of time. The rest of today I need to run errands and pack my luggage. Early tomorrow morning I leave to fly to Alaska. I will spend a week visiting my parents in their care home. Saturday will be their 62nd wedding anniversary. We will have a small family meal with them with some of their favorite Alaskan foods, clam chowder, salmon, and likely some smoked salmon.

I will have Wi-fi Internet access at the care home, so I can read comments on this blog post. As you comment, please try to stay on topic for this blog post. This post is about how three Greek words in the book of Romans are translated in English versions. This post is about how these words have been translated into common English. Common English is not slang, nor is it a dumbed down form of English. It is simply good quality grammatical English that is shared in common by all English speakers. The word “common” here is equivalent to an old meaning sense of the word “vulgar” (not the primary current meaning of “nasty, ribald”). Note the name of the Bible translation, the Latin Vulgate, where “vulgate” meant that the language used was common to all of the people, not a specialty dialect of Latin spoken or written by a sub-segment of Latin speakers.

I realize that some of you will want to express the fact that you prefer the traditional words “justify,” “grace,” and “flesh” in the Bible versions you use. It is fine if you say that, but please allow others to focus on the post’s topic of common language translation. Please follow the posting guidelines for staying on topic for this post. If you wish to discuss something that is off-topic, feel free to email me privately to suggest that as a topic for another post.

The Greek of Romans was not Attic Greek or some other earlier dialect of Greek. It was not classical Greek. The Greek of the entire New Testament was Koine Greek, which was the common language of Greek spoken and written during the time of Christ and for some time afterwards. It was not a dumbed down Greek. It was a dialect of Greek that all Greek speakers knew and understood. Good literature could be written in Koine Greek. In fact, some of my favorite Greek books were written in that common language dialect, books such as Luke (a more polished variety of Koine Greek), John, Romans, Philippians, 1 John, and several others!

Which of the English translations for the three charted words do you think communicate the most clearly and accurately to speakers of common English? (Remember, common English is different from Church English, which may have a proper place in the life and liturgy of some people.)

What are advantages and disadvantages to translating in common language?