Layers of language and translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim West plugs the NLT

Further proof that we’re living in a crazy world: one of the most outspoken critics of modern Bible translations has some nice things to say about the New Living Translation:

it’s a pretty good translation. i have two ‘test passages’ for any translation – jeremiah 25, and romans 8.

if translators can do justice to these two passages (both of which are very significant) then more than likely they’ve done a good job throughout. but if they bungle these two sections, chances are pretty good they will bungle most.

so, that said, the nlt handles those test texts well enough.

From: Tyndale Is Launching a New Site

This week while away from my Contemporary English Version I’ve been reading the NLT and have enjoyed it so much that I considered pinching the copy I found at our office. Fortunately the book is so big that it won’t fit in my luggage and so I won’t be guilty of stealing a Bible.

Explaining Bible translations

Kathy Mansfield (wife of blogger Rick Mansfield) has just posted a cute, but truth-telling, poem under the blog title Flirting With NLT:

Today the pastor flirted
With a little NLT.
It made the sermon real;
It spoke so much to me.

But then he shifted back
To old favorite: NIV.
The pastor ended up
Explaining words to me.

Why explain God’s Word
When the explanation’s here–
Waiting to be read
From NLT, the Truth made clear?

So, what’s the point? It’s not really a debate about whether the NLT or NIV is better, or whether the ESV is better than the TNIV or NET. The issue is whether or not someone has to further explain the meaning of a Bible translation to others. Now, obviously, as we have often said on this blog, there are plenty of matters in the Bible which are difficult to understand. Those concepts, such as the nature of the atonement, cessation or continuation of charismatic gifts, the role of Torah in the life of Christ-followers, God’s sovereignty vs. people’s free will, will be difficult to understand no matter what Bible translation we use to study them. But the language structures of Bible translations should not require further translation in order for people to understand what those structures communicate.

Our former pastor has told me more than once about fellow pastors of his who would be asked why they continue to preach from the KJV, whose language is outdated for (most) current speakers, when Bible versions with more current English were available for them to preach from. The answer from these pastors would be, “Well, if I [didn’t] use the KJV, what would there be left to preach about?”

If we view the job of rabbis, pastors, and Bible teachers to be explaining obscure words and non-standard syntax in Bible versions, then we are asking these teachers to waste their valuable time. They should use translations of the Bible which are written in the language of the people they are teaching. Then they can focus on helping people understand how they can put into practice what can be clearly understood by any reader if they use a translation written as they themselves normally speak and write, as well as understand any concepts which the current translation language by itself does not adequately convey.

comparing the five leading versions

ESV Blog has just posted a chart comparing the five leading versions. Here it is:

Note that none of the versions listed as being “word-for-word” are, in fact, word-for-word translations. A truly word-for-word translation would be an interlinear translation. Each of the versions listed in the chart changes word order from the original biblical texts, as well as making other changes to try to make the translation more usable by English readers. I think what the ESV folks actually mean when they say “word-for-word” is:

  1. There is greater concordance of words within the KJV, NKJV, and ESV than within the NIV or NLT.
  2. There is a higher degree of formal equivalence within the KJV, NKJV, and ESV than within the NIV or NLT.
  3. There is an attempt to translate each word of the original biblical text with some word or words in English.

There is no word-for-word English Bible version published today. Such a translation would essentially not be readable by English speakers, even though it would have English words. For instance, here is a true word-for-word translation of John 3:16:

Thus for he loved the God the world that the son the only/unique he gave so that every the one believing in him not may perish but have life eternal.

As you can see, that actual word-for-word translation does not match, word-for-word, any of the five versions featured in the ESV Blog chart:

For God so loved the world,  that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (NLT)

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (NKJV)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)

What differences, if any, do you sense among the five versions in the chart for the translation of John 3:16?

More NLT buzz

No, that’s not a variation on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich!

Here are a couple of places where people are talking about the NLT:

Tyndale seems to be doing a lot of things right in the marketing of this Bible version. They’ve avoided firestorms while also coming out with a lot of attractive editions of their Bible. The CEV by the American Bible Society and the TNIV by Zondervan seem to be struggling to gain momentum by comparison.

Any other buzz out there about the NLT?

BTW I heard that all the review copies of the NLT Study Bible have been sent out.