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.

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.

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