A Book on Literary Translation

For those of you who may have missed it, there is a new book on translation out.

Translation and the Meaning of Everything
By David Bellos

It was reviewed in the NY Times Sunday Book Review last week. Find the review here.

In brief, Bellos, himself a well-regarded translator of literature, attempts to re-frame the translation argument, and ends up with something in the spirit of dynamic equivalence, but one which is at the same time both more constrained and more free. His approach includes translating style, even if it entails referential inaccuracies, since the style is part of the message. (Yes, Virginia, sometimes the medium is the message.) Or it allows for displacing information, if that’s what it takes.

Bible translators, especially those of us who are interested in the questions of style and literary translation, should take careful note.

(For those of you not up on the popular culture of the ’70’s and ’80’s, the allusion is to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

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 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.

Why biblical literature resists translation (guest post)

A few weeks ago I invited John Hobbins who blogs at ancient hebrew poetry to guest blog at BBB the theoretical underpinnings of his preferred approach to Bible translation. In response, John has just posted on his own blog “Why biblical literature resists translation.” He has let me know that I am welcome to cross-post to BBB what he written. That is what this post is.

From John’s post it is clear that he shares much of what we emphasize at BBB: John believes, as we at BBB do, in “reproducing … the register of the original.” I don’t want to put words in John’s mouth, but I assume that he would consider accuracy to be the highest priority in translation, as we at BBB do, and that he would share our belief that an accurate translation reflects in the target language the varying genres of the original biblical texts. I’m sure that as I better understand how John’s approach to translation works out where the rubber meets the road, we will likely find points of disagreement. And that is just fine. I want to learn from him as I do from anyone else who takes Bible translation seriously. I hope John can find time to turn his thoughts on translation into a series which will give examples of translation which could be compared with how we might prefer to translate here at BBB.

Well, let’s hear John in his own words from this point on:

My friend Wayne Leman over at Better Bibles encouraged me not long ago to describe the theoretical foundations that undergird my take on Bible translation, since I often find myself at loggerheads with the Better Bibles board of directors, to a man well-trained in linguistics, to a man enamored with translations committed to clarity and naturalness of expression, whereas I prefer translations committed above all to reproducing the wording and register of the original, translating metaphors with metaphors, and sounding strange wherever the thought and language of the source text is strange relative to our cultural matrix.

    The first linguistic concept I would like to throw into the discussion – like a Molotov cocktail – is the distinction between lingua franca and vernacular. A lingua franca is an inter-language used as a medium of communication by people whose mother tongues are different. For a short-and-sweet introduction with examples, go here. A vernacular is the mother tongue of defined population groups; a mother tongue is often associated with a father land. A lingua franca is the linguistic coin of an empire, a commercial slash cultural network. A vernacular tends to be the linguistic coin of an (incurvatus in se) ethnos.

Turning now to the languages of the Bible: the bulk of the Bible is written in a vernacular: ancient Hebrew. Never mind that standard biblical Hebrew in particular was also, quite probably, a lingua franca relative to spoken dialects of Hebrew, regional or otherwise, in the late First through Second Temple periods, in the land of Israel and (as time went on, very importantly) in the diasporas of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic periods. The point here: at the same time, and of utmost importance relative to the cultural confrontation of which ethnoi then and now are vehicles, standard biblical Hebrew was a vernacular.

Not just the content expressed in “classical” Hebrew, but the written language per se, form part of an anti-colonial project, in opposition to the culture and propaganda of which (the neo-Assyrian version of) “standard Babylonian” was the vehicle – assuming that (some of) the scribes who gave us the Bible were literate in that language and the “course” or curriculum to which it gave expression (the thesis of people like David Wright and Bernard M. Levinson); in opposition to (content expressed in) the more pervasive (and perhaps less insidious, though one should never forget Jeremiah 10:11, to be read in strict conjunction with Ps 82) the more widely used (and still often unknown, or poorly known) lingua franca of the Assyrian empire, Aramaic. These facts form part of the background of a comment like that found in Isaiah 36:11 and the style-switching that Gary Rendsburg has noted.1 On “the invention of Hebrew,” on Hebrew as a vernacular and vehicle for culture expressive of oppositional political theory (a theology), see the volume by Seth Sanders of that title, introduced here.

Still don’t understand why the difference between a lingua franca and a vernacular is a big deal? Try this article on for size, by Tim Parks (HT Charles Halton for the link). The title alone is worth the price of admission: “Your English is Showing.”

To be clear, in the Hebrew Bible there are parts of the books of Ezra and Daniel that are written in the lingua franca of much of the ancient Near East: standard Aramaic (later: Syriac). But the Aramaic parts of Ezra and Daniel are incapsulated in the ethnic-religious vernacular, Hebrew. The embedment is not fortuituous. It is iconic.

All this changes with the New Testament and the Talmud. The NT is written in a lingua franca: the Greek of an empire (see the article by Parks, and its summary of the theses of Sheldon Pollock). Still, when I read the NT, I can’t help but think, in terms of genres, concepts, and the occasional calque, “Your Hebrew is showing,” or (I’m guessing; if only we had more of it from the right period and places for comparative purposes) “Your Aramaic is showing.” The Talmud is written in Aramaic but encapsulates a tremendous amount of Hebrew. Still, in this instance, one cannot help but think (Saul Lieberman docet), “Your Greek is showing.”

Everyone knows, or should know, that it is not particularly easy to translate from a vernacular par excellence (biblical Hebrew) to the greatest lingua franca the world has ever known (standard [American or Americanizing] English, the language of current Bible translations in the English language). But you might not notice if you read the Hebrew Bible in a post-modern translation, for example, NIV (especially NIV 2011), NLT (especially the first iteration; even more so, The Living Bible), and CEV (GNB was the pomo translation of my youth).2

In pomo translations, so much is made so easy. At what cost?

On the other hand, one might think that it ought at least to be easy to translate from one lingua franca (Hellenistic Greek) to another (standard English). It’s not easy, because (1)  Hebrew and Aramaic form a substrate in the Greek; and (2) the New Testament expresses a decolonizing anti-Unitarian theological project within the Hellenistic ecumene –  which amounts to the same thing (if you don’t get what I am hinting at, ask me to clarify in the comments).

The Bible resists translation because so much of the Bible’s focus, so much of its Sache, to paraphrase Tim Parks, consists of a mining of the linguistic richness of a vernacular, of a communicative iter tending to exclude, or simply be unconcerned about, “the question of having the text travel the world” across ethnic and linguistic barriers.

And yet the Bible has traveled the world. I blame the fact that no truer prophecy was ever spoken than the one found in Joel 3:1-4 (Hebrew verses) – though one has to know how to read apocalyptic language in order to “get” 3:3-4; and one has to read 3:1-2 in its expansive original sense, so different from the peculiarly religious sense the words are usually given.

1 A classic study: Peter Machinist, “Assyria and Its Image in the First Isaiah,” JAOS 103 (1983) 719-37. See further Gary A. Rendsburg, “Kabbir in Biblical Hebrew: evidence for style-switching and addressee-switching in the Hebrew Bible,” JAOS 112 (1992) 649-651, online here.

2 I am thinking of post-modernism in the sense of Fredric Jameson for whom it is the “dominant cultural logic of late capitalism,” more accurately, of “globalization.” This is my (reprehensible) thesis: the identification and privileging of “barrier-less” translations of the Bible in the language of the empire through fluency testing serves the the interests of the empire, whereas a translation of the Bible in a form of Biblish – i.e. in an ideolect with a narrower and deeper set of cross-references – has the advantage of creating a wedge between two cultures in conflict: that of market capitalism, built around a perverse notion of economic communion; that of the Bible, built around a commitment to the communion of the saints.

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.

Defining “general-purpose”

I used the term “general-purpose translations” before here, but I don’t have a clear definition of what it really means. It feels pretty intuitive to me however. I would classify translations such as the NIV, ESV, NLT, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET and the Good News (among many many others) as general-purpose translations. The intended audience is any adult native speaker of English, and the intended use is, well, general: it could be for reading privately, devotionally, for studying, for preaching from or for reading out aloud.

What about those non-general-purpose translations? Well I’d classify The Message and the LOLCat Bible as non-general-purpose due to their deliberately unusual language, and the reasons for their being translated in the first place. The CEV was translated for those with lower reading abilities. The Amplified bible would be classified the same due to its intention as a study tool (or something). The Conservative Bible Project and The Woman’s Bible are non-general-purpose because of the agendas they push.

So there are some examples. Can you help me find a clearer definition of “general-purpose”? Do you disagree with any of my classifications? And if a translation is supposed to be general-purpose, and is marketed as such, are there aspects of translation that actually betray that purpose? As an example, although I have previously always considered the NASB to be a general-purpose translation, I’m now wondering if its great focus on morphosyntactic equivalence really means that it should really be classified as (and marketed as) a Bible for the purpose of study only… what do you think?

It is easier for a hippopotamus to…

I recently returned from Africa, where I was working with a translation of the Gospel of Luke into a language that has had no previous Bible translation and a culture that has had very little contact with Christianity. I was not responsible for producing the translation into this language, but I was responsible for evaluating the translation. This was a very isolated language group, geographically and culturally. But the people were not what I would consider primitive. They are sophisticated in their own way. The traditional language and culture provided some key language for the translation that I would not have expected, including words for “altar,” “priest,” “miracle,” “holy,” “spirit,” “disciple,” “righteous,” “grace,” “savior,” and even “synagogue” (literally, their word for a meeting house).

As to be expected, there were some translation challenges when it came to certain terms for flora and fauna and geography. Though there are sheep and cows, this group has no donkeys or camels, and no words for them. It is possible to say “east” (the side where the sun rises) and “west” (the side where the sun sets), but no simple way to say “north” or “south.” Some concepts in the Bibe have to be translated as a phrase, such as “people mouth of God” for “prophets” and “woman death of man” for “widow.” (I believe these phrases come off sounding better in this language than they do in English.) It is just a fact of translation that you cannot always expect to have a matching target language word for every source language word, but that doesn’t render translation impossible.

I was fascinated to find out that in this language group, people ride cows. And their translation of Jesus riding into Jerusalem had him riding in on a cow. Interesting! Unfortunately, this was not historically accurate. I would only resort to borrowing a word if there is no other good option, because if you are borrowing words, you aren’t translating. However, in this case, we borrowed a word for “donkey” to say what Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The story of the Good Samaritan still has the Samaritan putting the injured man on a cow to take him somewhere where he can be fixed up. Some English translations like the NIV, CEV and NLT have “donkey” there, but the Greek has a more generic word.

This brings us to the verse in Luke that reads, in this language, “It is more easy for a hippo to pass in the hole of a needle than a rich person to accept that God can be king over him.” This is the English backtranslation of Luke 18:25. Interesting! Is this legitimate, or, for the sake of accuracy, do you have to insist that a word for “camel” be borrowed into the language to translate this verse? I have a hard time saying that the translation is not accurate and legitimate. I kind of like it, really. Now, obviously, if you were looking for a match for the Greek word κάμηλος, this target language word backtranslated as “hippo” wouldn’t seem to be a good match. But if you widen your perspective a bit, and don’t just look at words but rather at meanings in context, then in this particular context, a target language word for “hippo” is arguably a good translation of Greek κάμηλος.

In Bible translation, as in any kind of translation, there are norms that govern acceptable behavior. The norms don’t answer the question of what is and is not legitimate translation, which is very elusive to try to answer, but rather what is and is not considered acceptable in a community of practice. Granted, there are different subgroups, and not all Bible translators adhere to the same set of norms. But one norm in Bible translation that is widely–though not necessarily universally–accepted is that it is possible to take a little more liberty in translating an idiom, metaphor, proverb or parable, because the meaning of those language units is more than just the sum of the parts. I would argue that, for a language group that knows about hippos but not about camels, and based on testing with representatives of the target audience, it might be more accurately meaningful to translate Luke 18:25 using a target language word that corresponds to our English “hippo” than to try to find some way to use a word that corresponds to our English word “camel” that is not naturally a part of that language.

In which I rant about paraphrases

paraphrase n.

  1. a restatement of a text in different words, often to clarify meaning [Wiktionary]
  2. a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form [Merriam-Webster]
  3. A rewording of something written or spoken by someone else, esp. with the aim of making the sense clearer; a free rendering of a passage. [OED]

Something that quite annoys me is when people refer to translations such as The Message or the NLT as paraphrases, when they aren’t! They are both translations from the original Biblical languages (although the Living Bible was a paraphrase, from the ASV).

A paraphrase is a text reworded in the same language. The NKJV, ESV and NIV 2011 are all far more paraphrasistic than The Message is! (As is the 2nd edition of the NLT too.)

I don’t know why people love to call these translations paraphrases when they are not. I think it’s probably because they don’t agree with their translation philosophies in some way: maybe they’re not “literal” enough (see my last post for what I think about that); maybe they’re too idiomatic; maybe they’ve been too corrupted by the author’s interpretations.

In any case it does no one any good to keep calling them something they are not! Instead, name the specific flaws of each translation! If there’s too much interpretation just say it! Not “literal” enough? Okay, we’ll agree to disagree on that. Just don’t insult a translation you dislike by calling it a “paraphrase” while promoting another English Bible revision as a “translation”!

A Call for Coherency Scholarship

David Frank posted Reflections on the nature of Bible translation. And I really like what he said. So, I thought I would interact with it a bit (and hopefully encourage him to post more).

What he said there is why my “hobby-horse” is coherency.

The underspecification of the text, and the resulting ambiguity, provides the fuel for us to rip apart the text. We’re then left with pieces of text that we typically reform into a theological quilt of our own making. The fault is ours; it’s not the text’s fault. In fact, the ‘text’ is a ‘fabric’ and ripping harms the text as a text (Latin: textere). But, the ripping is a single step across the two step chasm of interpretation. So, that first step is needed. More on that in a moment. Also, the fault certainly isn’t the author’s (or Author’s). Language is what language is. It is cohesive in its very nature. And communication follows the same maxim. We’re good at this ripping, also known as analysis.

And we certainly need the analysis. In fact we need more of it. As Richard mentions, we haven’t yet analysed the pragmatics (ie. contextual connections where ‘context’ is the original interpretive environment) of the original Koine (let alone the Hebrew of the OT). Richard, we’ll get there–we’re good at analysis. I don’t want to oversimplify, but all we have do is to rip into the soil and unearth the data. We have, we really have, the analytical capability–we just have to do it.

But, we’re astoundingly poor at synthesis. In fact, I suggest that whenever a synthesis of the data is presented, people from all their different factions, whip out their ripped textual fabrics quilted into various theological wall hangings. They hang them up, and they point to chapter and verse, and then claim they have held back the fall of “orthodoxy.” I wish the mere existance of pragmatic data would not only foster, but determine synthetic expertise. It won’t. We have to develop our capability to process the data toward a coherent understanding (ie. comprehension) of the text. We are no good at comprehension.

We need the data that pragmatic analysis will bring; but, we absolutely must gain appreciation of coherency. Without coherency, we simply have more ripped pieces of cloth to sew into our factional quilts (as beautiful as they might appear to each of us).

David, your concern for the current state of factionalism is, in my opinion, well founded. And I believe the only solution is to develop our synthetic capability. We have to learn what it means to practice coherent interpretation. We have to learn what it means to have a text not only cohere with the text around it (cf information flow), but also how that text coheres with its greater context (cf pragmatics). We’re no good at either of these today. But, if we do it, then we will witness the fall of factionalism. We’re really talking about one and the same thing–coherent text, coherent community. I believe these two are joined at the hip.

If I’m right in my epistemological assumptions that truth is inherently coherent, and that truth practised results in godly growth, then the maturation of our capability to comprehend the text will unavoidably defeat factionalism. But, to do that, we not only need the analysed contextual data (so, we need to do the ripping), but we need to develop our capability to synthesize the data into a meaningful wholes. We don’t understand the wholes. We don’t know how to understand the wholes. We can sew our own theological quilts; but, we don’t know how to let the texts as wholes be the fabric as it has been given to us. We don’t know how to interpret the text within its original context. We don’t know how to follow the flow of the text.

This is a deeply philosophical posting. I admit that. So, the connection to Bible translation might not be immediately obvious. So, let me be more explicit. We need scholarship around coherency development so that we have such scholarship supporting translation decisions.

We’re making those translation decisions now without the benefit of such coherency capability. And so our translations jerk and stutter. The text is not coherency informed. And the factionalism is simply more evidence of such uninformed decisions.

Our translations are not inaccurate (sorry for the double negative) as if they are drunken men meandering around in sloshed stupors. It’s not that they aren’t on the right path. They are more like an unoiled tin-man, jerking with stuttering movements as he tries to walk the road laid with gold. With coherency scholarship we could make much more informed translation decisions. We would oil the translated text for the reader. The result would be linguistically smooth renderings, accurately capturing the intended meaning in the language of the audience. This incarnation of the intended meaning would produce godly growth as the Spirit fills the soul. It would fan the flames of unity because people would comprehend the Biblical text.

This is what I believe. I wish I could do it. But the only thing I can muster right now is to call for it to be done. May this little piece be part of the whole.

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.