What is a translation, and how might it be bad?

A translation is a text with qualities of equivalence to a prior text in another language, such that the new text is taken as a substitute for the original. You may not realize it, but “equivalence” is a problematic concept in translation theory. I include it anyway in my definition of translation, because without some notion — some intention and perception — of equivalence, you wouldn’t call the new text a translation. My solution is to make it subjective. For something to be considered a translation, the translator and the audience for the translation have to recognize that the newly constructed text is somehow equivalent to the original text.

I’m not going to try to explain translation in objective, scientific terms, because all attempts I have seen to do so have been problematic and unsatisfying. Despite the problems, translation has been taking place as long as there has been a diversity of languages, and the fact of translation is not dependent on scientific explanation. As philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser said, “To explain why a man slipped on a banana peel, we do not need a general theory of slipping.”

You might call this explanation of translation anthropological or sociological, rather than linguistic or psychological. All definitions that I have seen that attempt to be psychological or linguistic have either recognized their own inadequacy, or else have just looked wrong to me. If this definition doesn’t jive with common sense, then as far as I am concerned it is wrong. It is based on people, and the central character is the translator, who has to be able to understand two languages. Of course the intended audience for the translation is crucial too. For the translation to accomplish its purpose, the audience has to accept it as a substitute for the original text.

Okay, now, given this definition of translation, what counts as a legitimate translation and what does not? For a translation to be good, it has to accomplish its purpose(s). Basically, that means that the translation has to be somehow equivalent, in the mind of the translator, to the source text, and the audience of the translation has to accept it as a substitute for the original. One could add the theological element in the case of Bible translation, namely that God is also one of the active participants in the process, and He gives His blessing on the resulting translation as a new expression of His message. But that part of the equation is least susceptible to analysis, except that you could say that the success of the translation and the happy reception of the translation among the target audience is a sign of God’s blessing on the translation as an expression of His own message.

What does it mean to say that a translation is bad? Notions of “good” and “bad” are a little naive in relation to translation, and I would rather talk in terms of a translation as being successful or unsuccessful, or to use terms that I like but are maybe a little more pretentious, felicitous or infelicitous. There are three ways a translation can get off track. First, the translator could misunderstand the source text. Secondly, the translator could produce a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience. These are two types of mistranslations. A third thing that could go wrong is that the translator is dishonest, and presents the translated text as an equivalent of the source text when he or she knows it is not.

It should be obvious that if the translator misunderstands the language of the source text, a mistranslation will result. If we are talking about Bible translation, that is where exegesis and hermeneutics and a knowledge of the Biblical languages are important. Or, the translator may not be able to correctly anticipate how the audience of the translation will receive and understand the translation. There are lots and lots of examples, many humorous, where the translation doesn’t work because the translator doesn’t adequately understand the target language, or otherwise fails to anticipate how the audience will receive and understand the text. Here’s a recent example I like: According to the BBC, the Swansea Council wanted to make a bilingual road sign in both English and Welsh that read, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” They sent this text by e-mail to a translation service, and when they got the response, they added the Welsh to the road sign, and what the Welsh part of it says, in back translation, is “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” For other examples of humorous mistranslations, go to www.engrish.com.

Now in addition to mistranslations based on misunderstandings of either the source language or the target language, a third way a translation might be what we could call infelicitous is if the translator is either dishonest or cavalier in how the translation is presented as an equivalent of the source text. I don’t have specific examples to give, and we have to be careful about accusing people of dishonesty, but I am saying that it is something conceivable. And one reason I bring it up is to say that unless it can be demonstrated that the translator misunderstood the source text, or unintentionally communicated poorly to the target audience, or was dishonest, then I don’t think you can say that the translation is bad or wrong. This message has gotten too long, and I will have to continue this thought later, but there are some translations that are unfairly criticized as being out of the bounds of proper translation, when in fact there was no dishonesty and nothing unintential.

The Lord’s Prayer (reprise)

Last Sunday the sermon at Berkeley Covenant was on the Lord’s Prayer. (Find it here.) Pastor Andrew has been working through Matthew, pretty much verse by verse, and it’s been very profitable. From time to time he hands off a passage to one or another of the church leaders when he or she has something worth saying on a particular topic, or when there is a need for is attention to be elsewhere in a given week.

This week it was Jeremy, who a former BCC youth leader. Jeremy had a lot of good points, but he bit off more than he could chew. Actually I suspect he fell prey to the problem that Pascal famously summarized in a letter to a friend:

Je n’ai fait cette lettre-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
I have written this letter longer than I should, because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.

(This quote is often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain.)

But I was struck because I have my own opinions about how the Lord’s Prayer is to be interpreted, as I’ve discussed in this blog before. But it was one of those God moments, because I’ve been mucking around in 19th century Ottawa texts. (That’s the Ottawa dialect of the Ojibwe language, a Native American language and my area of academic specialization.) The text I’m working on is a Shorter Catechism published in 1864/1869 and available online here and in a well-processed version here.  Not surprisingly, the Lord’s Prayer is featured prominently. (It’s presented here with the original spelling in bold, the modern spelling in italics, and a back translation from Ottawa into English. (I’ve revised it from the one on the web where I disagree with Kees’ interpretation.)

Odanamihewin awi Debenjiged.

Nosina wakwing ebiian,
Noosinaa waakwiing ebiyan.
Our Father, who is in heaven.

apegish kitchitwawendaming kidanosowin,
Apegish gichitwaawendaming gidanoozowin.
May your name be sacred.

apegish bidagwishinomagak, kidogimawiwin,
Apegish bi-dagwishinoomagak gidoogimaawiwin.
May your kingship arrive.

enendaman apegish ijiwebak, tibishko wakwing, migo gaie aking.
Enendaman apegish izhiwebak dibishkoo waakwiing mii go gaye akiing.
What you think [should be], may it happen the same on earth as in heaven.

Mijishinang nongo agijigak nin pagwejiganimina minik eioiang memeshigo gijig,
Miizhishinaang noongo a-giizhigak nimbakwezhiganiminaa minik eyooyaang

Give us our bread today, as much as we use every day.

bonigitedawishinang gaie ga iji nishkiinangi,
Boonigidetawishinaang gaye gaa-izhi-nishki’inaangi,
And forgive us who have angered you,

eji bonigitedawangidwa ga iji nishkiiiamindjig,
ezhi-boonigidetawangidwaa gaa-izhi-nishki’iyaminjig.
in the way we forgive those who angered us.

kego gaie ijiwijishikange gagwedibeningewining,
Gego gaye izhiwizhishikaange gagwe-dibeningewining,
Do not lead us into a trial.

atchitchaii dash ininamowishinang maianadak.
ajijayi’ii dash ininamawishinaang mayaanaadak.
and put what is bad far from us.


Back translation is an interesting exercise. It is a regular part of the the translation process for modern Bible translations into minority languages.

From the back translation, one can see that the Ottawa translator got a lot of things right, and some things wrong, including one glaringly wrong. (Gagwe-dibeningwewin is a legal trial, not a metaphorical reference to a test of our moral fiber.)

But the back translation also highlights what happens in translation when there is no history of translation practice to cast a long shadow over the contemporary translator’s product.

What I mean is that this particular passage bears a lot of emotional weight for us. We don’t want to mess with the translation of this passage so much so that even the TNIV says something fairly archaic sounding:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

That’s because if we translate into natural, contemporary English, the meaning of the Greek original like the New Living Bible does:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored.

May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done here on earth, just as it is in heaven.

Give us our food for today, and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

then we feel like it’s somehow not really the Lord’s prayer.

Have you read the Bible?

Most people would say, “Of course I’ve read the Bible.” Some might add something like, “I read it in a different version every year.” But this brings to mind the seminary professor who pointed to a copy of the Bible in English and said to his students, “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.” How do you respond to that? Should we acknowledge, “Well, that’s what I really meant when I said I had read the Bible”?

I’m going to argue that when you have read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible, and it doesn’t have to be qualified. This raises questions, though, that linguists, theologians and philosophers might argue about. It raises questions about the nature of meaning, communication and identity. These are questions that I have been trying to come to grips with, and my first published paper on the subject should be coming out in 2009, for a technical audience. I am coming up with a definition of translation that I, at least, find satisfying, and the feedback I have gotten is that it works, more or less, for some others as well. This isn’t the place to wax too philosophical, but I will get back to the point by saying that, according to my view, when a book has been successfully translated, then the translation becomes a substitute for the original, for a new audience. So a translation of the Bible is the Bible.

I appreciate the insights expressed in the original preface of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible:

“We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession… containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere…. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it.

I would agree with these very self-aware 17th Century translators that, even if a translation isn’t somehow “perfect,” if you’ve read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible. Similarly, if you have read, for example, War and Peace in English, you have read Tolstoy’s book, or if you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls in French, you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Now, I have another point to make about this identity issue that I will get to in part two, and I will just give you a preview here: the message is to lighten up. In English, because there is such a large market, we are privileged to have all kinds of translations of the Bible, sometimes with different translation philosophies behind them. If the Bible in English is the Bible, then how do you make sense of the variety of expressions? Is only one right and all the others wrong? Or do all translations sharing a certain philosophy contend for being called “right” while another set is “wrong”? Or should every translation be considered imperfect, yet varying in degree of closeness to the (unobtainable) ideal?

In trying to answer these questions about variety and good vs. bad translation, in part two of this message I am going to bring in some theological factors that I believe are well-grounded and not speculative. The result may surprise you.

when "in" is out

Every language is different from every other language. One of the principles of translation from one language to another is that the linguistic patterns (lexical, syntactic, pragmatic, etc.) used in the translation should be those of the target language, rather than the source language. If linguistic patterns of the source language are used, there is a very good chance that those who use the translation will not be able to understand it.

Formal equivalence can only accurately communicate the original message in translation if the language form used in the biblical language already exists in the target language. (The claim of the last sentence can be nuanced if we engineer new forms in the the target language which match forms in the biblical language texts and teach the meanings of the new forms to its speakers. But, to my mind, anyway, this defeats the purpose of translation, which is, again, to allow speakers of one language to understand a message first produced in another language.)

These facts are true whether the source language is Spanish, Navajo, Japanese, or one of the biblical languages. Translating the Bible does not give us the privilege of importing biblical language patterns to English if our aim is to accurately communicate the biblical language message to those who use the target language translation.

The longer I have been working as a Bible translator and Bible translation consultant, the more I have come to realize that many of the English Bible phrases I was raised on are not part of the English language. Many such problem phrases are prepositional phrases which begin with the preposition “in”. I have written about this issue a number of times in the past, but I want to do so again, because this week I found that one English version does a good job of avoiding the non-English “in” phrases.

I grew up reading Romans 8:1 like this:

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Notice the phrase “in Christ Jesus”. Notice also that the verb which “controls” it is “are,” a form of the verb “be”.

If we listen to English speakers, or study what they have written (or if we simply want to remember what our English teachers taught us), we can discover that English speakers have a linguistic rule that allows for “in” to be used with an object that states a location, for example:

  1. John is in Madison.
  2. Mary lives in Dallas.
  3. The bees are making honey in their hive.
  4. We ate supper in the dining room.
  5. The surgeon’s hands are in Ralph right now.

There are a few other grammatical uses of “in” where the object is not a location, as in:

  1. John and Mary are in love.
  2. Elmer is in trouble.

As far as I have been able to determine, observing “in” usage for many years, the only time English speakers use the preposition “in” with the name of a person is when that person is a location, as in my somewhat odd sentence #5, above. Fluent English speakers do not speak or write sentences with the “in” phrase found quoted in Romans 8:1 at the beginning of this post. That usage of “in” has been imported to English from the Greek source text, which has the Greek preposition en followed by the name Christ Jesus. Greek en does properly translate to English “in” in locative phrases. But the Greek of Romans 8:1 does not have a locative phrase. Christ Jesus is not a location where a person can be “in”. Here we see that Greek and English differ in how what they allow as the object of a preposition, Greek en or English “in”. Prepositional phrases in Greek and English with these prepositions are sometimes formal equivalents and sometimes they are not. In other words, the proper translation equivalent in English to a Greek phrase beginning with en sometimes is an English phrase beginning with “in” and sometimes it is not.

This week I noticed that the NLT translates Romans 8:1 as

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.

Now, for the moment setting aside the question of translation accuracy, is this sentence grammatical English? It seems so to me. The phrase “belong to Christ Jesus” is intended to translate the meaning of the Greek phrase beginning with en.

Now, does “those who belong to Christ Jesus” mean the same as the intended meaning of the non-English prepositional phrase “those who are in Christ Jesus”? My understanding, from reading theological explanations of the intended meaning of phrases like “BE in the Lord”, “BE in Christ,” “BE in Christ Jesus,” and “BE in God,” is that “those who belong to Christ Jesus” is a good translation equivalent to the original Greek phrases. Clearly (at least to me!), if we say that someone belongs to Christ Jesus, that communicates meaning to more English speakers than does saying that someone is “in Christ Jesus.”

The NLT includes a footnote in a parallel passage, 1 Cor. 1:4, to help those who might question the accuracy of a translation which does not use “in” to translate the Greek phrase en + Christ Jesus:

now that you belong to Christ Jesus (literally in Christ Jesus): Paul frequently uses the phrase in Christ Jesus to refer to the saving relationship believers have with Christ (e.g., Rom 3:24; Gal 2:4; Eph 3:6).

Are there other English Bible versions which avoid using the non-English phrasing “in Christ Jesus”? Yes, there are a few but not many. Most English versions import the form of the Greek prepositional phrase to English and supplement it with teaching to explain its meaning. But teaching does not transform the phrase into a genuine English, unless so many speakers of the language are taught the meaning of the phrase and so many speakers decide that they will add “in” plus Christ or God to their list of grammatical prepositional phrases. When that happens, language change will have occurred and teaching will not be required to understand the “in” phrase of Rom. 8:1.

Here are some other versions which attempt to use genuine English forms as translation equivalents of the Greek prepositional phrase for Rom. 8:1:

There is no condemnation now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus. (TEV)

If you belong to Christ Jesus, you won’t be punished. (CEV)

So those who are believers in Christ Jesus can no longer be condemned. (God’s Word)

It follows that there is now no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus. (REB)

There is much more that could be added in a larger study of translation equivalence to the Greek phrase en + name for God or Christ, but this should be enough to introduce us to the issue and some genuine English solutions.

Beating a dead metaphor

Here’s an email I received from one of the readers of my Lingamish blog [Some details removed]:

Dear Friend in Christ, Greetings in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ! I have been going through the studies at your web site, and I am deeply inspired with all of the teachings and studies thereon like Bible studies, sermons, children’s sermons and other teaching materials on our Web site. This is such a wonderful studies you have arranged for all the nations, in the long run of your service for the nations of the all the world. I am from [a politically/religiously repressive country] where it is difficult to have Radio and TV channel for preaching purposes. They would not allow us to do that here; the Satan has real strong hold over everything. I often say that we are living in the land of the enemy. Friend, I humbly request you to expand your outreach your program in [a language] and [another] language. […]I would ask you to pray and share it among the brethren. I would offer my services for being translator, recorder and distribution/sales. I pray that your consideration will have His mark over your decision. May God bless you abundantly! May His perfect will be done! Grace and Peace be with you, all brethrens. Yours brother in Christ, [Name removed]

Notice anything wrong here? While you can only applaud this man’s desire to translate my witty blog into the languages of his home country, I can guarantee that the result wouldn’t be anything like my blog. It is entirely possible that this isn’t just some devious huckster trying to flatter me and then make a buck. Maybe he did read my blog and see nothing but spiritually uplifting “Bible studies, sermons, children’s sermons and other teaching materials.” But the truth is he missed the point. He didn’t get the joke.

And if the joke’s on him, I’m afraid that the same can be said of some of us Bible bloggers who have been blogging ourselves blue in the face on 1 Corinthians 9:27. If the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath is “Do no harm” then the first rule of translation should be George Orwell’s: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Yet most of the suggestions I’m seeing so far are barbarous. And  barbarous for the simple reason that they’re mixing dead metaphors.

The word in question is this one: ὑπωπιάζω. (hupopiazo) This word has a fantastic etymology: hupo-op-piazo “hit under the eye.” Unfortunately we only have two occurrences of the word in the New Testament:

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” (Luke 18:4-5, NRSV)

So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:26-27, NRSV)

The reason this word gets used in such different contexts is that the word is a dead metaphor, or “semantically bleached” (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase on a blog). And further proof of this is that Paul collocates it with “body” which would really be strange: “I hit myself on the face my body.” Finally, this is just a small word in a big mixed metaphor that rambles through chapters 9 and 10 and includes slavery, boxing, athletic training and yoga. Well, maybe not yoga. But I hear John Hobbins found some yoga in this passage so it must be there.

This is one of those cases where we as translators just have to laugh at ourselves and say, “Gee, I don’t really know how to bring in the meaning of ὑπωπιάζω into my translation, but I can at least make sure I don’t say anything barbarous.” And that is what English translators have been doing far into the distant past when they all walked around wearing powdered wigs. KJV and all the rest simply say “discipline” and who am I to contradict such an illustrious crowd?

For another example of Paul’s use of mixed metaphors, see 1 Timothy 1:18-20.

Well, this is my first ever post on BBB and I deserve a good beating for it I’m sure. But right now I’m hungry so I’m going to head over to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

translation equivalence – possession #3

If this is the first post in this series that you have read, please be sure to read preceding posts. They contain background information which will help you understand this post better.

We now begin looking at biblical examples expressing possession as we examine translation equivalence.

In a previous post in this series we noted that the semantics of relationship (e.g. his daughter) is usually expressed the same grammatically in English as is the semantics of possession (e.g. his boat). In fact, for study of Greek, some consider the genitive of relationship (e.g. ho huios tou theou, lit. ‘the son of God’) to be a subset of the genitive of possession. In Biblical Hebrew both semantic relationships are encoded by the same set of possessive suffixes.

The Hebrew of Gen. 2:24 with a morpheme-by-morpheme(1) interlinear translation is:

עַלכֵּן יַעֲזָב-אִישׁ
man-leave-he therefore

אָבִיו וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ
mother-his-and father-his-and

וְדָבַק בְּ
wife-his-to cleaves-he-and

וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד
one flesh become-they-and

I have highlighted the possessed nouns and their possessive suffixes in red.

While Hebrew uses possessive suffixes, Cheyenne (the language I have been studying for many years) uses possessive prefixes. If we translate this verse from Hebrew to Cheyenne, translation equivalence requires that the form changes, from Hebrew possessive suffixes to Cheyenne possessive prefixes, but the meaning stays the same.

Greek uses a third kind of form, the genitive case, to indicate possession. Here is the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Gen. 2:24 with an interlinear translation:

ἕνεκεν       τούτου   καταλείψει      ἄνθρωπος
because.of this leave-he-will person/man

τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ
the father him.of and the mother him.of

καὶ προσκολληθήσεται πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ,
and cleave.to-he-will unto the woman/wife him.of

καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν.
and become-they-will those two for flesh one

(I highlighted the genitives of possession in red.)

The translators of the LXX used a different Greek form (genitive case) to express the same meaning that the original Hebrew had expressed with possessive suffixes on nouns. That is translation equivalence.

English uses yet a fourth way to indicate possession, separate words called pronouns. (We write them as separate words, but they often are pronounced as prefixes to the noun they modify. So English, like many other languages, has a difference between orthographic words and what we can call phonological words.)

Here is an English translation of the Hebrew of Gen. 2:24:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (NASB)

(I highlighted the English possessive pronouns in red.)

The NASB translators used different forms (possessive pronoun words) than the possessive suffixes of the original Hebrew, but kept the meaning the same, resulting in translation equivalence. Translators of all other English Bibles that I have examined do the same as the NASB translators did. They all use possessive pronouns instead of forcing the Hebrew syntax of possessive suffixes upon English. Using the Hebrew syntax with English words and affixes would not give us English translation equivalence. It would not be natural English to use Hebrew syntax with English words.

I think everyone can clearly see how obvious the English translation equivalents are when we deal with the examples of the possessive syntax of Gen. 2:24. Yet too many Bible translators have forced Hebrew (or Aramaic or Greek) syntax upon English for other kinds of grammatical forms in other passages of the Bible. And we Bible users often affirm them for doing so, thinking that somehow we are honoring the “words” of the Bible better doing so. In our next post we’ll look at some biblical examples where English translation equivalence may not be so obvious to everyone.

(to be continued)

P.S. If any of you spot any errors in my interlinear glossing, please let me know by private email so that I can correct them. I don’t want discussion in the comments of my glossing errors to detract from the main translation points of this post.

(1) A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning. The English word “cats” has two morphemes, “cat” plus the suffix “-s” which means plural. In the interlinear translation a hyphen indicates a morpheme break within a Hebrew word. Not all morpheme boundaries are marked in the Hebrew here.

translation equivalence – possession #2

Thank you to each one who commented on the preceding post in this series. Information from the comments is critical to what we need to discuss next, which is how do we translate instances of semantic possession to English translation equivalents.

As always, to review, a translation equivalent is how speakers of a target (translation) language actually express the meaning of a form in a source language. By “meaning” we are referring to “rich” meaning, that is meaning which is referential, connotational, rhetorical, figurative, etc. In both the source and target languages, the forms used to express rich meaning are essential. It is the forms themselves, plus inferences we draw from them (a la Relevance Theory), that are the vehicles by which we communicate meaning to one another.

In our preceding post we introduced English possessive syntax which is the usual grammatical form to communicate the semantics of simple possession. English possessive syntax for nouns consists of an apostrophe plus the letter “s” added to the end of a word which refers to a person who is the possessor, that is, the person who is considered to “own” some object as in:

“Sally’s sister”
“Bill’s computer”

Blog reader correctly noted that English speakers sometimes use an “of” prepositional phrase to express possession and gave these examples:

-“Son of Sam” killer
-“children of a lesser god”
-“son of a preacher-man”

We could add a couple of others such as:

daughters of the American Revolution
son of the South

When a language has more than one syntactic form to express a meaning (in this case, possession), we always need to ask: When do we use each form? What is the difference between them?

Rich Rhodes noted in a comment that the “of” prepositional phrases are “marked”. “Marked” is a technical linguistic term referring to a form which is somehow unique, special, out of the ordinary.

By far, possession in English is most commonly encoded with possessive (apostrophe-s) syntax. Whenever we come across an “of” phrase encoding possession, we sense that there is something special about it. It stands out as unusual from the “unmarked” (normal, default) possessive syntax with apostrophe-s. It could easily take an entire Ph.D dissertation (as Rich noted in his comment on the preceding post) to describe English possessives. Including in that research should be study of the contexts in which “of” possessives are preferred over apostrophe-s possessives. My beginning hypothesis is that phrases such as “son of Sam” and “daughters of the American Revolution” have some greater literary or cognitive salience than do possessives expressed with apostrophe-s.

Notice how bland “Sam’s son” sounds compared to “son of Sam”. “Sam’s son” could refer to any son of any man named Sam and we would not think that anything of special consequence is going to be said about this Sam’s son. But saying “son of Sam” catches our attention, since it is the less common way of expressing English possessive. And, indeed, the Sam of “son of Sam” had a very unique “father” relationship to psychologically tortured serial killer, David Berkowitz.

If I spot some blood on our floor after our grandchildren have been playing (our grandsons like to wrestle), I can ask my wife, “Whose blood is that?” If she saw what caused the blood to get on the floor, she would answer with something like:

Oh, it’s Jonah’s blood.
It’s Jonah’s.

She would never say, and I suggest most other English speakers would never say, either:

Oh, it’s the blood of Jonah.

The appropriate response uses the normal, unmarked apostrophe-s syntax, not an “of” prepositional phrase.

Similarly, if I wonder which of our grandchildren left their mitten on our living room floor, I can ask: “Whose mitten is that?” Appropriate responses could be:

It’s Talea’s.
It’s Talea’s mitten.

But it would not be appropriate to use the marked “of” phrase:

It’s the mitten of Talea.

Someone *could* use the “of” phrase. But it would not be good English. It would not be the proper syntax for this situation.

And that gets us back to Bible translation. As I’ve noted before, when trying to find a translation equivalent for a source text expression, we should not ask: “Could we say it this way in English?” but, rather, “How would it be said in this context in English?” This requires very careful attention to how the various kinds of English syntax are used in different contexts. There is just as much English scholarship needed for Bible translation as there is biblical language scholarship.

Well, it looks like I’ve filled up the message buffer of the blog editor and still have not gotten to discussion of translation of biblical examples of translation equivalence for possession. And that’s OK. We need to establish the background information necessary for being able to properly discuss translation of the biblical forms. It is so important when doing Bible translation that we not only pay full attention to the language forms of a source text, but that we also are aware of all of the forms of a target language and when each is properly used. Too often Bible translators have paid insufficient attention to the linguistics of English when translating to English from the biblical languages. The result has been Bibles which are technically inaccurate since they communicate wrong or distorted meanings, such as wrong meanings communicated by using the marked “of” possessive syntax when the unmarked apostrophe-s syntax should have been used.

Oh, as I awakened too early this morning with thoughts about this post running through my brain, I realized that all translation (whether biblical or not) is an incarnational act. In translation to any language the meanings of the forms of a source text (such as the written Word of scripture) take on the human flesh (form) of yet another language.

This process requires great humility, partly because we need to be patient to search for appropriate translation equivalents, which communicate full, rich meaning of the forms of the original written Word. And when we discover those forms, we need to humbly submit to them in kenotic (Philippians 2) fashion. We must resist the temptation of linguistic colonialism that forces source text syntax on to the target language where it doesn’t belong. None of us would be so foolish as to try to change a rose into a carnation. We recognize that both are beautiful. All linguistic forms of every language are, in some sense, beautiful. Our job as Bible translators, women and men alike, is to let their unique beauty shine forth, without being forced into some other linguistic mold.

(to be continued)

translation equivalence – possession

Before we look at biblical examples of translation equivalence for possession, let’s review what would be standard, natural ways of indicating possession or ownership in English. By possession we mean that something is owned by someone. Here are some English examples that come to my mind:

our dog
John’s blog
Peter’s house
my car
Suzanne’s son
Dan’s father
Mike’s children
our daughters

We might wonder whether or not the last four examples indicate possession or something else. Good question. Suzanne doesn’t really “own” her son, not does Dan “own” his father, nor Mike his children, nor do my wife and I “own” our daughters. A kinship relationship is grammatically indicated in English (and some other languages) using the same syntax as that used for possession. For now, let’s simply agree to say that possession and kinship relationship are both encoded by possessive syntax in English.

Note that we can also talk in English about:

Rich’s book

Here, outside of enough context, we do not know if the meaning (semantics) is that Rich owns the book or that he authored it, or, neither, but that it is the book which Rich happens to be reading at the time. In English, we use possessive syntax to encode each of these semantic relationships.

OK, before we look at biblical examples of possession or kinship relationship or authorship, let’s find out if we’re all on the same page.

Does anyone disagree with what I have said so far about the examples above being natural, good quality English?

Can you think of any other ways that fluent speakers of standard dialects of English grammatically indicate possession, kinship, or authorship?

translation equivalence – in the Bible

In previous posts in this series we have introduced the concept of translation equivalence. We have given a number of examples of translation equivalents between languages where literal translation isn’t proper, when one follows the rules of both the source and target languages. Many people accept this to be true about languages they have studied …

except when it comes to Bible translation!

Look at this example:

Some critics of the TNIV dissed it for revising Matthew 1:18 from NIV:

she [Mary] was found to be with child


she was found to be pregnant

in the TNIV. The TNIV properly uses a common English translation equivalent for the underlying Greek, eurethe en gastri eksousa, literally,

she was found in the belly having

or with more natural English word order,

she was found having in the belly

But English speakers today do not usually say that a woman is “with child”. The NIV and other translations (KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB) which use that outdated phrase are not using a current translation equivalent. The HCSB and TNIV both use the word which is commonly used, “pregnant”.

By the way, those who objected to the TNIV’s not using “with child” cannot be objecting on the basis of literal translation since “with child” does not literally translate the Greek idiom “have in the belly”. There is no word for “child” in the Greek text. There is just a tradition of saying “with child” in English Bibles in the KJV-Tyndale tradition. But tradition does not determine accuracy, naturalness, nor translation equivalence. Objective attention to the linguistic facts of the biblical languages and equal attention to the linguistic facts of a target language determine accuracy and naturalness. The result will be translation equivalence.

Next let’s look at specific categories of translation equivalence when translating the Bible to English.

(to be continued)

translation equivalence – introduction #2

(This is the second post in my series on translation equivalence. Be sure to read the first post for background information.)

Sometimes an idiom in one language can have a different idiom in another language as a translation equivalent. Cheyennes say, “Nato’semhaeto ho’honaa’e,” literally, “I’m going to swallow a rock.” One possible English translation equivalent is the idiom, “I’m going to stick to my guns.” Another would be the English idiom, “I’m not going to back down.” As with all idioms, the meaning of the Cheyenne idiom has nothing to do, literally, with the meaning of its parts. The meaning of the Cheyenne idiom has nothing to do with swallowing or rocks. A literal translation of the Cheyenne idiom, therefore, is not a translation equivalent, since a translation equivalent, by definition, must match meanings between two languages.

Anyone who has studied a language beside their own knows that many wordings between the two languages do not match up word for word, or even the same words in different orders. To speak or write a language well, it is necessary to express concepts in that language the way that social conventions have determined those things are worded in that language. To be a fluent speaker of a language you must follow the syntactic and lexical rules of that language. To translate properly, we need to match equivalent form-meaning composites, as the late tagmemicist, Ken Pike, would have said. The meanings of the forms must match for there to be translation equivalence.

But this most basic principle of translation equivalence is often thrown out the window (translate that italicized phrase into any other language!) when it comes to Bible translation. For some reason, Bible translators often try to match up forms of one language with forms of another language even when their meanings do not match, or at least when those forms are not used in the target language. In other words, Bible translators often do not use translation equivalents of the forms in the biblical languages. As a Bible translator myself, observing lack of translation equivalence is the most frustrating experience I have as I work with native speakers of languages who are translating the Bible and as I evaluate English translations of the Bible.

Instead of asking the question: “How would a native speaker of this language express the meaning of the wording of the source language,” Bible translators often force the target language wording to answer a question more like: “How can we say it as closely as possible to the form of the source language so maybe it can be understood?” The idea of actual translation equivalence is often not considered.

We might be able to understand a Spanish speaker who is learning English if they say to us, “How are you called?” But we immediately know that they are not saying it in English the way we actually ask someone their name. Would that matter to us? I think so. Most of us understand better and feel more comfortable when things are said following the normal rules of our own language.

(to be continued)