Bible translations unto the pain of their translators

Each day I check on BBB hoping to see a new post by one of the other bloggers. I’ve been busy lately, not the least part of my busyness has been wrestling with a kidney stone for 1 1/2 weeks. I even got to take my first ride in an ambulance to go to an ER to lower my pain. I’ve never had pain that bad before. And if I weren’t taking pain pills, the pain would still be intense. We men are told that if we want to know what the pain of childbirth is like, get a kidney stone. But taking pain pills can decrease one’s ability to think as clearly as one would like!

Well, by now, many of you may be glad that I haven’t posted any other BBB essays recently! This is going to be one of those “throwaway” posts, done when I feel the necessity for a post but my brain isn’t working well enough (it’s hard to multitask with pain or fuzzy brain) to write something more interesting. But at least maybe I can write something which can tweak your interest a bit.

Was there any word in the title of this blog post which stood out to you as not being a word that you commonly use? If so, I suspect it was the word “unto.” We can all spell “unto.” Perhaps we can even recite some memorable phrase from the past which contains the word “unto.” But I suspect that it has been several years since most of us have read or written any sentence with the word “unto” in it.

I suggest that words like “unto” which are not commonly used by people who we hope to use our Bible translation should not be used in our translation. Such words may be accurate, if we determine accuracy by dictionary definitions without regard to usage. They may have been used commonly at some time in the past. But use of even a word as short and simple as “unto” can communicate to users of a translation a message that we may or may not intend to communicate, namely, that the message of the Bible itself is out-dated, irrelevant for issues we face today, that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature, not intended to be written with words which are used by most elements of a society. Now at this point, let’s not get sidetracked by a common detour that often comes up at this point in many BBB blog posts that have to do with word usage in Bible versions. Please note that I am not suggesting that we avoid all “educated” or more difficult words of a language; I am now only addressing the issue of whether or not a word is used and understood by all levels of a society for whom we intend a translation to be used.

When is the last time that you composed a sentence with the word “unto”?

What are some words besides “unto” which are used in some English Bibles which you believe are not used by enough elements of English-speaking society to justify their use in a Bible version?

Is the ESV written in beautiful English?

Tim Challies blogs today that the ESV is written in beautiful English. Tim discusses some wordings in the ESV which he considers beautiful:

Let’s begin with 1 Kings 2:2 where King David gives his final wishes to his son Solomon. The ESV renders this “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man.” The other essentially literal translations agree with this translation as the NASB, KJV and NKJV are all very similar. There are two constructs here that I feel are essential to the text. “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” and “show yourself a man.”

For this verse Tim concludes:

What is lost in the NLT and the CEV is the metaphor “the way of all the earth.” It is an important term, beautifully poetic, and surely one that is worth some time in meditation. There is a depth of meaning to that phrase that is clearly missing in words like “I will soon die, as everyone must.” Readers of the NLT and CEV have no access to this phrase and miss out on the wonderful opportunity to meditate upon it and learn from it.

Then Tim writes:

Another example comes only one verse later. 1 Kings 2:3 continues David’s instruction to his son. David exhorts Solomon to follow God and “walk in His ways.” The ESV translates the verse as “…and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.”

For 1 Kings 2:3 Tim concludes:

The term “Walking in his ways” is a wonderful metaphor for living a life that honors God. We seek to emulate Him by following carefully in the footsteps of God. I am reminded of a song by the Smalltown Poets, “Call me Christian,” where they sing, “As a boy I’d put my steps / In my brother’s bigger tracks / To match his stride / And just like that I follow Jesus / Jesus is my guide.” That type of imagery is absent from the New Living Translation as well as the CEV. The Message is quite close and the NIV is, once again, accurate.

Next Tim writes:

Moving along we come to 1 Kings 2:9. David asks Solomon to exact revenge against Shimei, a man who had cursed David. “Now therefore do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man. You will know what you ought to do to him, and you shall bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” The metaphorical phrase here is “bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” Again, this is a wonderfully descriptive phrase that has more meaning than simply “kill.” Yet several translations provide only this meaning.

I don’t know what it means to bring someone’s head “down with blood” so I am unable to determine if this Hebraism is beautiful in English. It clearly sounds unusual which is what some people desire in a sacred text in order for it to sound like it is written in sacred language.

Tim ends:

I am grateful that I have access to such a solid translation of Scripture. While I do not know Hebrew, I still have access to an accurate translation of the author’s original words, complete with the phrases, words and metaphors that set one author apart from another. I have access to the full meaning, or as close as I can come without access to the original language, of what was written so long ago. I simply can’t understand how anyone would be satisfied with anything less.

I disagree. I don’t believe that readers of the awkward, obsolete, and often obscure English in the ESV (or any other similarly written translation) have “access to the full meaning”. Instead, they have syntactic transliterations of the original languages, but not the meaning of the wordings in those languages expressed accurately and beautifully using the natural syntax and lexical combinations of English.

I disagreed in a comment on Tim’s post. You can go to his post to read my comment.

What do you think? Can a book (including any English version of the Bible) which is written with many obsolete expressions, unnatural syntax, and other literary problems sound beautiful for current speakers of English? What percentage of native speakers of English will have “access to the full meaning” of the biblical language texts in the English of the ESV?

UPDATE (Feb. 10): John Hobbins and ElShaddai Edwards have continued this discussion on their blogs. I left the following comment on John’s post:

John wrote: I am going the way of all the earth” is a colorful biblical idiom which not by accident occurs as such in only one another passage

John, I agree: it is a colorful biblical (Hebraic) idiom. But what does it mean? I don’t know what it means, so how can it be beautiful? I guess art lovers split on this. I find beauty in realistic and impressionistic art. I do not find beauty in modern art, because I do not understand it.

I totally agree with you that we should not flatten out the literary style of the Bible. But we must never forget that a translation is supposed to communicate the meaning of the biblical texts to native speakers of another language. If we translate so that only people who have specialized knowledge of biblical metaphors and idioms can understand them, then how can we call such a translation beautiful. I would far prefer to call the original biblical texts themselves beautiful. The beauty of their figures of speech is found within their original languages. Figures of speech, for the most part, are language-specific. We can learn to appreciate their beauty by education, footnotes, other Bible resources that explain the meaning of the figures. But the purpose of translation is to enable a speaker of another language to understand the meaning of the biblical text, not to educate someone to the figures of speech uses in those texts. Literal translation of figures of speech and understanding their meaning almost never are compatible. We are trying to ask too much of general audiences if we think they can be served by essentially literal translations. Professional translators are not allowed to obscure meaning by translating figures of speech literally from one language to another. Why should we not hold Bible translators to the same standard of accuracy and excellence in translation?

There is very much a place for idioms and figures of speech in a translation, and it is to use the idioms and figures of speech of the target language, when appropriate, to communicate the meaning of the biblical texts.

Vivid, idiomatic, expressive literary language is beautiful and is recognized as such by literary awards such as the Pulitzer, Nobel Prize for literature.

I agree with Tim and with you that the idioms of the Bible are beautiful. I agree that there is little literary beauty in the CEV. I’m starting to use the NLT more and I’m actually finding more literary beauty in it than I expected. But I will always caution us not to take the advertising claims for translations such as the ESV too seriously when they are called “beautiful” based on having literal translations of figures of speech, if those translations do not accurately communicate their figurative meanings to the audiences for whom a translation is said to be appropriate. (The ESV is published in inexpensive evangelism editions. Sigh!)

Categories: ESV, literary English, Tim Challies