Hearts and minds

Mark 6:45-52 is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water, which comes right after the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The narrator in v. 52 concludes that the disciples might have understood how Jesus could walk on the water if they had been able to really understand that he was able to feed the five thousand. In the Authorized Version, verse 52 reads, “For they considered not [the miracle] of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.” Is that a good translation? Well, we all know the language of the KJV is archaic, so let’s look at the RSV: “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Okay, we know that the RSV is a faithfully literal translation, so we can be assured that the original really does say here something about hearts and about hardness. (A look at the wording of the Greek original confirms that fact.) That must be a good translation, right? Because it reflects what the original says. The NIV (both the 1984  and 2011 versions) says, “For they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” Looking also at the New Living Translation, we see “For they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.”

So, what does that mean? My understanding of the expression “hard-hearted” is that it means that someone is callous toward other people’s feelings. Huh? Is this saying that the disciples were insensitive to Jesus’ feelings? Or was it someone else, to whom their insensitivity was directed? To confirm my understanding of the expression, I looked it up, and according to the Random House Dictionary, hard-hearted means unfeeling, unmerciful, pitiless, heartless, merciless, mean, unforgiving, from Middle English hard herted. This means that the disciples couldn’t accept what was going on because they were pitiless, mean, and insensitive. Right?

Compare this with a set of other English Bible translations that do not use the word “heart” in Mark 6:52. Is it possible that these could be correct, accurate, even if they are missing a word that is in the original?

TEV: “because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand; their minds could not grasp it.”

CEV: “Their minds were closed, and they could not understand the true meaning of the loaves of bread.”

GW: “They didn’t understand what had happened with the loaves of bread. Instead, their minds were closed.”

JB: “because they had not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant; their minds were closed.”

Here is what one commentary says about this expression: “This hardness of heart is something quite different from our use of the same words, denoting blunted feelings and moral sensiblities. The Biblical καρδία denotes the general inner man, and here especially the mind, which is represented as so calloused as to be incapable of receiving mental impressions.” If this commenary is right, and I believe it is, based on my own studies, then it is possible that a translation that translates καρδία into English as “mind(s)” is more accurate than a translation of “heart(s)” in this context. Or maybe an analogous idiom like “thick-headed” would be appropriate. Along those lines, we translated this verse into Saint Lucian French Creole (1999) as “paski yo p’òkò té konpwann miwak-la Jézi té fè èk sé pen-an. Tèt yo té wèd toujou.” (I’ll leave it to you to figure out that one.)

The problem, of course, is that in different cultures, different qualities are attributed to different body parts. That’s a simple way of putting it. The translation problem is cultural and linguistic. In this case, it might not be so bad if the resulting translation resulted in no meaning, such that the reader/listener might realize that a proper understanding is lacking and go looking for it. But what is worse here is that a literal translation involving “hardness of heart” would prompt a wrong interpretation without the reader/listener being aware of it. This may be debatable, but I believe that a translation cannot be accurate if does not prompt, or at least allow, a proper interpretation in the mind/heart of the reader.

Now let me back up and qualify that a little. There are different kinds of translations. There are what I consider normal, good translations, suitable for lectionary or devotional purposes or personal reading, and then there are special purpose translations, such as quite literal ones. A literal translation has a purpose of giving a word-for-word rendering, and if this results in an incomplete or inaccurate understanding, that is not their problem. The RSV falls into this category, and I appreciate the RSV a great deal. It is very dependable for certain purposes. I use it for study purposes, to get at the forms of the underlying original texts. But it is a special purpose kind of translation that I would use for study but not for general use. So I am not criticizing the RSV, considering its special purpose, and when it first came out, it was one of the few Bibles available that did not use the archaic language of the King James. What I am saying is that a normal translation is not so tied to the words of the original that it does not take responsibility for accuracy of understanding on the part of the reader, and that accuracy in a translation is tied to an accurate understanding on the part of the reader/hearer. Of course, no translation is perfect.

Norms and accuracy

I’ve been absent for quite a while here. I’m on sabbatical and trying to finish not one, but two, books. Since I last posted I’ve been to India on a spur of the moment trip.

One of my wife’s work colleagues got married and invited us to the wedding. So we went. I have for years been telling my wife that I wanted to visit India some day. Seeing the Taj Mahal was on my bucket list. So she called my bluff.

Anyway, we also got to visit some longtime friends in Tamil Nadu as well. Mary met them in Ethiopa in the 60’s. They are a family of polyglots. They speak excellent English in addition to their native Tamil. From their years in Ethiopia, they speak Amharic. Their son, who has had a most interesting work history, went back to Africa to work so he speaks Swahili as well as Hindi and all the major Dravidian languages (Kannada, Malayalam, and Telegu). This is an example of something we linguists say over and over. Much of the world is multilingual. People who speak only one language are the exception, not the rule. And Vinod didn’t learn his languages by studying them in school for years. Rather he picked them up mostly in the context of living and working in places where he needed to have them. Needless to say, he thinks about language and translation in a very different way from you and me. To him language is the tool you use to communicate with.

That’s a position I’ve been arguing for in this blog for years.

If you think it’s the words of the original that are important and that wording must be preserved up to the limits of intelligibility, then you have to be willing to distort the meaning because no two languages work the same way — even if they are closely related.

Let’s look at a subtle example where Koine and English match in categorial distinctions but the where the norms of usage are different, and see what the distortion of meaning is.

The words in question are man, woman, and person on the English side and ἀνήρ, γυνή, and ἄνθρωπος on the Koine side. The categories match.

man = [adult male human]
ἀνήρ = [adult male human]

woman = [adult female human]
γυνή = [adult female human]

person = [human being]
ἄνθρωπος = [human being]

The difference I want to focus on is a subtle one.

In English one normally includes the gender of the referent unless there is reason not to. As a result man is about four times as frequent as person in running text, and woman is about three times as frequent.

But in Koine, it’s the other way around. You don’t use the gender based term unless there’s a reason to.  So ἄνθρωπος is a little more than twice as common as ἀνήρ, and in one in eight of those cases, ἀνήρ means ‘husband’, not ‘man’. The patterns are similar for woman.  Ἄνθρωπος is a more than four times as common as γυνή, and in half of the cases, γυνή means ‘wife’, not ‘woman’.

If you saw a man standing on the corner and you say (1), it is not just a simple report. You imply something more.

(1)  I saw a person standing on the corner.

Because (2) is what we normally say, unless there’s a reason to withhold the gender of the referent.

(2)  I saw a man standing on the corner.

For that reason alone, translations that try to push the gender neutrality of  ἄνθρωπος often sound odd in English. Here are some examples.

καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν, … (Matt. 8:9a)
The Source: I, too, am a person under authority, …
Stylistically better: I, too, am a man under authority, …

Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος ὃς εἶχεν οἰκονόμον, καὶ οὗτος διεβλήθη αὐτῷ ὡς διασκορπίζων τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ. (Luke 16:1)
The Source: There was a certain rich person whose manager was accused of wasting money.
Stylistically better: There was a certain rich man whose manager was accused of wasting money.

Δεῦτε ἴδετε ἄνθρωπον ὃς εἶπέ μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα· … (John 4:29)
The Source: Come see a person who told me everything I ever did!
Stylistically better: Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!

In these cases ἄνθρωπος is best translated man. That choice isn’t driven by sexism, but by the norms of English usage.

But then that knife cuts two ways.

There are places where translations in the King James line say man (for ἄνθρωπος) where person, someone, or human or some kind of indefinite is a more accurate translation, both referentially and stylistically.

τί γὰρ ὠφελεῖται ἄνθρωπος κερδήσας τὸν κόσμον ὅλον ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἀπολέσας ἢ ζημιωθείς; (Lk 9:25)
ESV:For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
Stylistically better: What will you gain, if you own the whole world but ruin yourself or waste your life?

Of course, we’ve heard enough sermons now to know what Matt. 15:9 means, but apart from Biblish (or in fixed phrases) we don’t use a nominal construction with man when we mean to highlight humanness.

Human nature does not mean the same as the nature of man.

This is especially when we want to highlight the distinction between human and divine.

To err is of man, to forgive is of God.

So

8 Ὁ λαὸς οὗτος τοῖς χείλεσίν με τιμᾷ,
ἡ δὲ καρδία αὐτῶν πόρρω ἀπέχει ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ·
μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με,
διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων. (Matt. 15:8-9)
ESV: 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Stylistically better: “‘These people honor me with their words,
but their hearts are far from me;
9 their worship is useless,
they teach human commandments as doctrine.’”

None of our translations even begin to grapple with questions of style beyond the frequently cited argument that Biblish sounds like better English. (A point I roundly dispute.)

But, I fear, that by pointing out the stylistic problems associated with the use of gendered terms, I may have stepped into a mine field.

So let me affirm that I’m saying there are specific passages (and not a few of them) where using man makes for better English than using person or human (being). In asserting that I’m responding to stylistic concerns, not pushing an anti-feminist or complementarian agenda. I’m certainly not a feminist, but I am egalitarian. So if I say there are places where ἄνθρωπος is better glossed man, it’s not because I have a theological ax to grind.

(WARNING: If the comments start to wander off into a debate, theological or otherwise, about men’s and women’s roles, I’ll moderate with a heavy hand.)

Translator in the translation

This is an interesting meditation on Bible translation: www.lhm.org/dailydevotions.asp?date=20120430. 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.

CANA translation

Remember the first recorded miracle of Jesus? That’s right. He turned water into wine when the wine ran out at a wedding feast.

Good Bible translation is like that miracle wine. Such translation can take words that are like water, good for you, adequate for understanding, but without much flavor, and make a miracle out of them, impacting you, leaving you with a taste in your mouth that you cannot forget.

CAN has been a traditional acronym among missionary Bible translators. It stands for Clear, Accurate, Natural. Those are the qualities that our Bible translation courses have taught that a good Bible translation should have. Such a translation should be as Clear as the original (but no clearer and certainly not more obscure). Above all, it must be Accurate. And it should follow the Natural patterns of the target language, at least as much as the original biblical texts followed the natural patterns of their languages. (And, yes, there were times when for poetic effect or authorial lapses, natural patterns were not followed but they are in the minority not the majority of biblical text passages.)

For years missionary Bible translators were taught the CAN approach. It was good. It produced translations which were of high quality. But sometimes the translations were not used much. Sometimes they languished in warehouses. Reasons for the lack of use have been numerous, including people’s feeling of inferiority about their own language in contrast to a higher prestige LWC (language of wider communication), such as Spanish, English, or French.

But in more recent decades, those who care about unused translations have noted another important reason why translations are not used, Acceptability. No matter how Clear, Accurate, and Natural a Bible translation might be, if church gatekeepers and parishioners do not like a translation it will not be used.

There are many reasons why a translation may not be liked. The reasons are often discussed on this blog. One that is very important to many Bible users is that a Bible translation may not sound the way people think a Bible should sound. If there has been one or more Bible translations already in the language which have gained a prestige status, they will not be displaced by a newer Bible translation unless the newer translation also has the traditional sound. For such Bible users, for any new translation to replace an older one, the new one has to be “traditioned” (a verb used by John Hobbins).

Bible version acceptance is a point that John Hobbins keeps repeating in his posts and comments and it is a point which can make or break a new translation. Hobbins, like other ministers, may personally prefer some other Bible translation(s), but he knows that if the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t sound like the Lord’s Prayer to his congregation, he might just as well leave the prayer out of the liturgy than to try to have it prayed in clearer, more accurate, or more natural English. [John, I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth here. If I am, we can change your name to Pastor John Doe since the principle remains: people don’t want anyone to “mess” (another of John’s terms about Bible versions!!) with their Bible.]

I don’t have a favorite English Bible version. Instead, I have several favorites which serve me well, often for different purposes.

I can’t say which is the most accurate English Bible versions. A few days ago I was again asked by someone which is the most accurate English Bible version. I answered honestly, “It is not possible to say. There are many accurate English Bible versions. Almost every English Bible translation team has attempted to make translation accuracy their highest goal.”

I can tell you which Bible versions impact me the most spiritually. I hope that is one of the criteria that pastors and congregations use to evaluate which version to use as pulpit and pew Bibles. But I don’t know that it is.

I do know that people want their Bible to sound like a Bible. If we honestly believe that people would get a more accurate, clearer understanding of the Bible through some non-traditional sounding Bible, we have to be willing to set an example to others of the benefits that can come from CAN Bible translations. If we do, and if some people gain spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually from a Bible version outside a traditional mold, it requires a miracle that helps people Accept the newer version.

Such acceptance is a CANA miracle. The miracle at Cana was only one of Jesus’ miracles. And Bible miracles still take place through traditional sounding Bible versions. But there is something special about “the taste of new wine” (that would make a good book title, eh?!!) that satisfies the celebrants at CANA.

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.

classy translation

Over the years I have read statements by English Bible translators that one should keep word classes in a translation the same as those in the original text. You may be more familiar with the term parts of speech for word classes. So, if a word is a noun in a biblical language text, according to the claim, it should also be translated by a noun in the target language.

I was reminded of this claim recently when I suggested a change to an English Bible translation which would have resulted in better English. I was told, however, something to the effect that “translation policy tells us not to change word classes.”

Let’s examine this claim to determine if it is a valid translation principle.

Think about trying to find out from someone what their name is. How would we get the desired information from them, using a typical utterance of native speakers of whatever language is being used?

In English one would ask: “What’s your name?” (or in a more formal register, “What is your name?”)

In Spanish one would ask: “¿Cómo se llama?” to someone who you has a higher social status than you or to whom you are showing respect.

In Cheyenne one would ask: “Netoneshevehe?”

In Biblical Hebrew one  asked: מִי שְׁמֶךָ

In Koine Greek one asked: Τί ὄνομά σοι

To compare the forms of these questions, here are the glosses and “word” classes of the meaning parts (morphemes) of the English, Spanish, Cheyenne, Hebrew, and Greek:

English: what be.3PERSON your name (INTERROGATIVE.PRONOUN VERB-PERSON POSSESSIVE.PRONOUN VERB) (i.e. What’s your name?)

Spanish: how self call-you (INTERROGATIVE REFLEX PRONOMINAL.SUFFIX) (i.e. How do you call yourself?)

Cheyenne: you-how-named (PRONOMINAL.PREFIX-INTERROGATIVE.PREVERB-VERB.STEM) (i.e. How are you named?)

Hebrew: your-name what (INTERROGATIVE POSSESSIVE.PREFIX NOUN) (i.e. What (is) your name?)

Greek: what name your (INTERROGATIVE NOUN POSSESSIVE.PRONOUN) (i.e. What (is) your name?)

The word (or morpheme) classes used are different in each of these four examples. If we had the time and space, we could have hundreds of more examples showing that the word classes vary in the question asked from one language to another. But the meaning remains the same from one language to another. In each language we are trying to find out from someone what their name is. The examples are accurate translations of each other.

Logically, it requires only a single counter-example to disprove the claim that in Bible translation word classes must be retained. The Hebrew and Greek examples already given are taken from the biblical language texts, Gen. 32:27 (28) and Mark 5:9, respectively. The Hebrew example uses an interrogative pronoun and a noun which consists of a possessive pronominal prefix and a noun stem. Already, we can see a difference in the classes from the English question (“What’s your name?”) which uses an interrogative pronoun, a verb (contracted to a possessive clitic suffix to the end of the pronoun, and a noun. And the classes are different, again, in the Greek which has an interroative pronoun followed by a noun followed by a possessive pronoun. Some might suggest that these differences, such as the pronominal meaning being expressed by a full word pronoun versus a pronominal affix, are not sufficient to disprove the claim that word classes should be retained in translation.

So let’s look at one more biblical example. Here is the Greek of Phil. 1:3 with word/morpheme classes and lexical glosses noted:

Εὐχαριστῶ τῷ
thank-I the-of.GENITIVE
VERB-PERSON.NUMBER.MOOD.TENSE.VOICE DETERMINER-DATIVE

θεῷ μου ἐπὶ
god me-OF.GENITIVE at
NOUN-DATIVE PRONOUN-GENITIVE PREPOSITION-DATIVE

πάσῃ
every-DATIVE
ADJECTIVE-GENDER.NUMBER.DATIVE

τῇ μνείᾳ
the-DATIVE remembrance-DATIVE.FEMININE
DETERMINER-GENDER.NUMBER.CASE NOUN-CASE.GENDER

ὑμῶν
you-of.PLURAL.GENITIVE
PRONOUN-PLURAL.CASE

A rough literal gloss of this sentence to English would be: “I thank the God of mine at every remembrance of you.” But no native speaker of English says this, either today or in a past stage of English. We could smooth up the rough gloss a little to: “I thank my God at every remembrance of you.” I doubt that native speakers of English have ever written this, either.

Instead, to communicate the meaning of the Greek, native speakers of English say something close to this: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Notice that the Greek noun μνείᾳ in this original sentence is translated by an English verb when the sentence is spoken or written by native speakers. Is this English an accurate translation of the Greek? Yes. There are no meaning parts of the Greek that have been changed or left out. The translation is accurate and natural, or at least as natural as I can think of right now without the possibility of changing meaning, however slightly.

Can the principle of not changing the classes of words (or morphemes) be maintained while translating, whether from the Bible or any other utterance or document? No. As far as I know, such a principle is never taught in professional translation training programs. There is no logical reason why English Bible translators should follow such a principle, either, even as a basic guide which would have exceptions.

The more important principle for any translators, including Bible translators, to follow is to use translation equivalents which are normally used by native speakers in any particular context. As always, this context is subject to its pragmatics which may call for change from usual (“unmarked”) forms due to some rhetorical (including oratorical) effect found in the context.
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UPDATE May 14: Comments about acceptance of the NRSV were off-topic for this post. They have been moved to their own post where you are welcome to add other comments on that topic. Please read the introductory comments on the post about following BBB’s guidelines for commenting on NRSV acceptance.

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.

Translating Punctuation when there is No Punctuation to Translate

Jonathan Morgan, on our share page, asks this,

One thing I have heard a number of times is the assertion that “Greek has no punctuation”, and that as a result we can choose to repunctuate the *English* in any way we like, because “it’s all just been added by the translator anyway”. I’ve never been entirely convinced by this…

First, good for you not being convinced by the apparent, and incorrect, logic of “no punctuation in the original means we can punctuate the translation any way we like.” We are never free to translate “any way we like.” The goal is accuracy. Secondly, there’s an underlying assumption (if I myself may assume such) in the “logic” that punctuating is not translation. The use of punctuation in the destination text most certainly is translation as is such things as paragraph breaks and section breaks.

English uses punctuation. So, punctuation is required in the translation, or it wouldn’t be clear and natural—it wouldn’t communicate to an English audience. However, just because there were no punctuation marks, per se in the original, does not mean the function of punctuation was not performed in the original. The function of punctuation is to generate meaning pauses for the reader so as to generate cognitive chunking (think of this as taking bites of the text with your mind). And so it is such a basic cognitive requirement that, as far as language goes, this function is a language universal. So, the function is there; we just need to determine how that function is formally captured in the original so we can accurately translate the meaning into a language that uses punctuation marks.

Before I give some explanation, I’ll point out that the web page you point us to gives a good explanation. The question the web page answers shows a wrong assumption about the translated text. It says, “Holman, CEV and others place the comma in a way that implies that Jesus had already risen, before the first day of the week,” citing Mark 16:9–“very early on the first day of the week, after Jesus had risen to life, he appeared…” While the translation might imply that Jesus had risen before the first day, the translation does not say that. It simply and only says that the resurrection happened before the appearance, and that Mary saw Jesus very early. Sometimes I think we judge a text by the cover we ourselves project on to it. While an important criteria for translation is to be unambiguous, we can’t prevent people from wrongly interpreting a text no matter how clearly we write it (see 2 Peter 3:15-16). I think there’s a tacit contract between translator and reader that each will do the best they can. There are no major translation publications where the translators have intended to lead the reader astray. I felt I had to get this out of the way.

I’m going to illustrate from the Greek. I assume Hebrew and Aramaic are analogous. Basically, the question is: What are some of the mechanisms ancient koine Greek used to “punctuate” the Biblical text?

Well, for example, Mark (and others) frequently used καί (KAI, ‘and’) to mark a sentence break.[1] Open an NASB to Mark 3:13-20 for a good illustration of this. The function καί brings to the text is to mark the closing and opening of two sentences. This “punctuation mark” (if you will) is much like our English period and a capital letter. Δέ (DE, ‘and’, ‘so’) frequently performs the same function.

Also, one should not think that the Gospel of Mark is rapid fire because he uses so many καί–“and this, and this, and this”. That’s not what is going on. That’s interpreting the Greek using an English idiom (ie. way of thinking with our language). Many times καί “provides” the punctuation between two sentences.

However, let me be clear here. Καί and δέ perform other functions, too; the ones we normally think of them doing. Καί connects two semantic items which are otherwise equal. Δέ adds supporting material to what has just been written. However, just like so many things in translation, there is no one-to-one mapping between the form in the original and its analog in the destination. The mapping between the languages is nearly always many-to-many. That is, the characteristics that a specific form brings to the text in the original will map to multiple forms in the destination and vice-versa.

This complexity is why the Tower of Babel was so successful, and it makes translation hard. I’ll also point out that translating punctuation is clearly one place where a naive adherence to a formal equivalent methodology breaks down. A naive adherence that no formally equivalent translation follows. Since there was no punctuation in the original, there’s no way to formally map it to the destination. The point being: Even the formal equivalent methodology must follow a functional equivalent methodology when it comes to punctuation.

So, there were no punctuation marks in the original; but that function is dispersed through many Greek forms. And one of the characteristics of those original forms (a punctuation function) maps to the many punctuation marks in English. So, it’s not arbitrary. But, nor is it formally equivalent.

Furthermore, Greek has flexible word order, but it is certainly common for the Greek sentence to either begin or end with a verb. This, too, tends to mark the breaks between sentences. Obviously, I’m not describing this in a mechanically precise way. Nor is its use or non-use determinative. To illustrate, I’m saying that the sentence in Acts 1:2 ends in a verb and the one in Acts 1:3 begins with one.

ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας … ἀνελήμφθη. οἷς καὶ παρέστησεν ἑαυτὸν ζῶντα…
“Until which day…he was taken up. To whom he also presented himself alive…

It’s very natural and expected to have the phrase οἷς καὶ pre-positional to the verb and still think of the verb as being “first” in the sentence. An author will vary the verb’s position for a variety of reasons. I believe “punctuation” to be one of those reasons. Again, there’s no, neat, sweat, simple one-to-one mapping.

There are other forms, too. I may be wrong, but I’ve often thought that one way of making direct speech very clear is the often used combination of two verbs of speaking used in close proximity. For example, ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς (Literally: “Answering, the Jesus said to-them.”) In English, we punctuate with double-quotes. In Greek, the ἀποκρίνομαι does more than just help fulfill this punctuation function, it also characterizes the way Jesus said what he said. Again, it’s many-to-many. An accurate translation is: Jesus answered, “…” or even Jesus responded, “…”. For our purposes here, note the quotation marks in the translation. They are not in the original, per se. But, their function is.

There’s much more that could be said. Hopefully, this provides enough meat so you and others will have confidence that punctuation is not arbitrarily decided. Punctuation, like every other form (or symbol as used in semiotics) signals something. The way at getting at that “signaling something” is to ask and answer, what function is it performing. Since the function punctuation performs is so cognitively basic, we expect the function to be in the original even when the English way of performing that function is no where to be found. I hope my start of an answer generates some further examples in the comments as well as some discussion.


[1] The so called definition that καί and δέ mean ‘and’ or ‘but’ is far too simplistic, and it is either wrong or at best an insufficient explanation. The continuity or discontinuity provided by the English ‘and’ or ‘but’ is provided in the Greek by the semantics of the sentence. Καί connects two equal items; δέ adds supporting material. Again, there’s a mapping between the original and the destination languages, but one cannot simply match the forms.

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!