classy translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Cheyenne one would ask: “Netoneshevehe?”

In Biblical Hebrew one  asked: מִי שְׁמֶךָ

In Koine Greek one asked: Τί ὄνομά σοι

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

πάσῃ
every-DATIVE
ADJECTIVE-GENDER.NUMBER.DATIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

38 Comments

  1. Posted May 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree. You can make the same point with pairs of languages that do not have the same categories. An easy example is that of prepositions and postpositions. If you’re translating from Greek, a language with prepositions, to a language like Carrier or Japanese or Korean that has only postpositions, you can’t maintain the category unless you abstract it away to “adposition”.

    It is also problematic to translate from a language with adjectives to one with few or no adjectives. Carrier, for example, has only a handful of words whose syntactic properties identify them as adjectives. These are words like “other”. The overwhelming majority of English adjectives have as their translation equivalents verbs conjugated just like any other verb. There is no word “big” or “red” or “short”, only “to be big”, “to be red”, and “to be short”.

  2. Posted May 11, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Bill. Cheyenne is much the same with regards to how it expresses “adjectival” meanings. Those meanings usually end up as verbs. There are very few adjectives in Cheyenne, so few, in fact, that I hesitate to call them adjective. They are actually prenoun prefixes which are derived from corresponding verb stems.

  3. Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Or a translator may choose to mimic the surface structure of the source text, insofar as the target language allows it.

    Many of us love a hymn, translated from the German of Martin Rinckart (1586–1649) by Catherine Winkworth. Here is the original first verse:

    NVn dancket alle Gott
    Mit Hertzen Mund vnd Händen
    Der grosse Dinge thut
    An vns vnd aller Enden
    Der vns von Mutter Leib
    Vnd Kindes Beinen an
    Vnzehlig viel zu gut
    Vnd noch j[e]tzund gethan.

    Winkworth carries over (“translate”) a number of small details of her Vorlage into English, however wonderful those details are. She is also not afraid to rebalance and restructure:

    NVn dancket alle Gott
    Now thank we all our God,

    Mit Hertzen Mund vnd Händen
    with heart and hands and voices,

    Der grosse Dinge thut
    who wondrous things has done,

    An vns vnd aller Enden
    in whom this world rejoices;

    Der vns von Mutter Leib
    who from our mothers’ arms

    Vnd Kindes Beinen an
    has blessed us on our way

    Vnzehlig viel zu gut
    with countless gifts of love,

    Vnd noch j[e]tzund gethan.
    and still is ours today.

    That’s a classy translation.

    It’s not about natural English though. Something of the German shines through, as well as something of the grace of English.

    The Bible is, according to Jewish and Christian teaching, verbally inspired. So it’s not possible to engage in the poetic license that Winkworth does, without giving up that tenet of the faith.

    But one can learn from her willingness to bend the English language to the diction of the German where such was possible to good effect.

    Back to Philippians 1:3.

    Straight out I will state my preference for Anglican/Protestant KJV -> RSV=ESV, quite close to Catholic Douay-Rheimes -> NAB:

    I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.

    Whereas I find NLT too colloquial and too formal at the same time:

    Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God.

    Remove “remembrance of you” from the Bible at your own risk. It has become a beloved phrase in English. One example among many:

    http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/talk/blogs/r/a/ramona/2010/05/ernie-harwell—in-remembrance.php

    Remove “remembrance of you” from the Bible, and you also risk making one of the most important phrases of the Bible “do this in remembrance of me” (NIV, NRSV, HCSB, etc.) an island unto itself – never a good thing.

    Now if you want to insist on translating Philippians 1:3 as NIV and NRSV do, then at least be consistent and translate Luke 22:19 and parallels likewise. Since NRSV and NIV do not, I regard them as hodgepodge translations. They are not thought through as carefully as they should be, given that they aim to translate the words of life.

    For the reasons stated, I prefer the slightly more difficult diction of ESV in the relevant loci over ESV’s inconsistent competitors (NIV, NRSV, HCSB, NIV, etc.)

  4. Posted May 11, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Why not translate it as “Do this to remember me”? As far as I can see that says exactly the same thing as “Do this in remembrance of me”.

    I have never heard ‘remembrance’ used regularly for anything else other than ‘Remembrance day’. Why translate it with a weird word that nobody uses?

  5. Posted May 11, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Or, if you want to keep the noun, ‘in memory of me’ – though the association with funerals might give the unfortunate impression that Jesus is still dead!

  6. Posted May 11, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    John, it would be expected that related languages would share word classes/categories more than unrelated languages…

    I think it’s worth noting that some extreme forms of Generativism argue that all word roots are actually category-less, and that the categories we see are all the result of additional morphology.

  7. Mike Sangrey
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    I understand that Swahili has no prepositions.
    Latvian has no article.

    John, I think showing one example where it appears to work, even work well, doesn’t really show all that much. What you would have to do is show that it works in the majority of cases. Also, there’s much more going on in the hymn’s translation than just the matching of classes. I think these other things play a significant role in making the English hymn beautiful, not the least of which can be attributed to Felix Mendelssohn.

    By the way, that is one of my favorite hymns.

  8. Posted May 12, 2011 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    As the above comments show, it is not so easy to come up with an alternative to a memorable phrase like “in remembrance of me.”

    One comment I expected, but which hasn’t been made yet: the Greek of Luke 22:19 / 1 Cor 11:24-25 is not identical to that of Phil 1:3. But that misses the point. The point is that NIV and NRSV, by failing to use “remembrance” at all in translation of relevant passages from the Old and New Testaments, except in the words of institution, do a supreme disfavor to the reader. They render the expression context-less.

    KJV uses the word “remembrance” 50x across the canon; ESV 25x; NIV, just once outside of the words of institution.

  9. Posted May 12, 2011 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Mike,

    There are languages that are very different, typologically, from languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, though Latvian and Swahili do not qualify. After all, Swahili has the equivalent of prepositions. Even if they are not pre-positioned right before the complement of the verb, but are part of verbal morphology. I haven’t worked with Latvian, but Latin also lacks the article. Still, take a look at the Vulgate. Jerome tried hard to mimic the surface structure of the Hebrew where possible. It is both a strength and a weakness of his translation technique, if you will.

    For languages that are very different typologically from the languages of the Bible, it is certainly the case that the translation technique touted by NRSV, “as literal as possible, as free as necessary,” will mostly mean: “as free as necessary.”

  10. Posted May 12, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    John wrote:

    As the above comments show, it is not so easy to come up with an alternative to a memorable phrase like “in remembrance of me.”

    Memorability is one parameter that can be used to increase the attractiveness of translations. Another, often competing, parameter is using forms that are already in use by native speakers. Such language is called their heart language. It communicates in a way that non-native English cannot. We’ve heard of a number of cases where native speakers cried when they heard their heart language in a Bible translation. One of these who cried was a lady from Canada whose first language was Plautdeutsch. She learned English as a second language, got professional translation training, and used it to help speakers of an Indian language in Mexico translate into their heart language. She was fascinated how they responded to that heart language translation, with depth of emotion not felt when they tried to understand a Spanish translation. She finished her work in Mexico and returned home to Canada. There she helped produce a translation into her heart language. She, too, cried when she heard the translation. She then understood why her Mexican Indian friends had cried when they heard the Bible in their heart language.

    Non-native English is difficult to cause people to understand as accurately and emotively as native English does for native speakers of English.

    What you say, John, is true for people who have a bilingual background in German and English. My wife and I fellowshiped with Mennonites for a number of years. Oh, how lustily (not lustfully!) they sang the German hymns they grew up with. And even if they were translated to English, they were still triggered emotively by the tune and those who were singing with them who shared a bilingual church and background.

    My post is about the typical native English speaker context, not a context where someone has two languages as part of their heritage. BTW, I respond emotively to Russian hymns in the way that you have described, even though I did not become a fluent speaker of Russian when my father and other relatives spoke it around me. (My mother was not a Russian speaker.)

    I told someone else recently (it probably was Kurk Gayle) that I understand how a translation of Bonhoeffer to English can have, as Kurk suggested, a special impact if the translation is read by someone whose first language is German and second language English. The flavor of the German translation can come through better if the reader sounds German.

    You are keying in to important aspects of the emotive context of language heritage. Note how Irish-American ladies love to request that Danny Boy be sung!

    But these bilingual aspects of emotive impact is a side issue to the central point of my post and I’d like us to stay focused on the main point which is whether or not it is a legitimate translation policy to retain word classes in translation when native speakers do not use those retained word classes as they normally speak. I don’t think it is the role of exegetes or linguists to decide what kind of English should be in a translation. I think that decision should be made by careful study of the language actually used by the target audience.

    FWIW, I don’t consider that “as literal as possible, as free as necessary” is a principle to be followed by professionally trained translators. It’s a phrase made up by exegetes who themselves prefer more formally equivalent translation and has nothing to do with accuracy or adequacy of translation. Translation adequacy is a very complex issue where many parameters need to be considered, including how the target audience(s) emotively respond to different translation styles. Some Bible readers who grew up with formally equivalent translations will prefer them, because that is what is familiar to them, and what is familiar has a, well, familiar feeling. And familiarity does not always breed contempt. Sometimes it breeds warmth and comfort.

    Oh, a good alternative to “in remembrance of me” for most native speakers of English today is “to remember me”. If enough English translators used this contemporary native speaker English, it would develop the familiarity and memorability that mean so much to you (and to me, as someone who grew up on the KJV).

  11. EricW
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Philippians 1:3 “in all my remembrance of you” and the Last Supper’s “in remembrance of Me” are so dissimilar in wording that it would be a good thing to isolate them in the readers’ minds.

  12. Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    That’s interesting that you have come to that conclusion, Eric.

    Can you expand on that? Do you think a different kind of remembering is at stake?

    Later theology moved in that direction, and sometimes in the opposite direction at the very same time, in which all remembering comes to have a sacramental quality.

    My sense is that, just as many people today have a hard time thinking about holiness – everything is common to them – they also have a hard time holding someone in remembrance in a deep and sustained way.

    Both holiness and memory in the strong sense are conspicuous by their absence in contemporary culture: should we resign ourselves to the poverty of our experience, or seek renewal based on scripture?

  13. Mike Sangrey
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Getting back to word classes…

    It just dawned on me that different languages would have different classes. As I mentioned above, Swahili doesn’t have prepositions.

    So, I wonder, are there languages which have word classes which English doesn’t have?

  14. Posted May 13, 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Mike,
    What word classes a language has depends on how inflectional it is. Languages that don’t have prepositions have cases in which each case marker takes the place of a different preposition (Finnish). Nouns can function adjectivally to the point where there is nothing distinctive about an adjective (Arabic). As uninflected as English is, it has to have a lot of word classes to carry meaning in a sentence. More agglutinative languages have morphemes within the words to carry the same meaning.

  15. Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    If we had to maintain word classes in translation, I would have to prepare to starve to death. There would be no way to express feeling hungry in French.

    http://www.freedict.com/onldict/onldict.php

    It would also be impossible for an English speaker to express in French the difference between being pregnant and being satiated. No end of problems – what an odd idea.

    The real issue here is that “in remembrance of” is an especially emotive phrase, stored in the auditory memory and so any change offends on a subconscious level.

    I meet this kind of challenge all the time in different translations. There is a short list of passages which my grandfather read out loud in the brethren breaking of bread with regularity. “Do this in remembrance of me” was one. There are also two or three verses which I memorized before I could read. Isaiah 40:11 is one of them.

    “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”

    For me, the “bosom” was the ultimate expression of intimacy between shepherd and lamb, leader and nation (Numbers 11), parent and child, and woman and man. So, when this is changed to “at the side of” it is a rather abrupt weaning from the breast. However, it happens that “at the side of” preserves word classes. But I still prefer “in closest relationship,” which sort of preserves word classes, but in a looser way. It completely loses meaning, but it does preserve word classes, and sounds more like a guy thing.

    I can handle quite a bit of rephrasing, but I like to hear the original words, or at least meaning, in John 1, Phil. 2, Is. 40, 53, and other iconic passages like 1 Cor. 13 – where “love suffers long” has rather insipidly been replaced by “love is patient.”

  16. Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I meant “at the side of” sounds like a guy thing, while “in closest relationship” brings one back to the breast.

  17. Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    1 Cor. 13 – where “love suffers long” has rather insipidly been replaced by “love is patient.”

    Suzanne, the problem with this is that almost no one understands now what “suffers” meant for the KJV translators, which is quite different from how the word is used today. Paul is certainly not trying to link love with suffering in the modern sense. But I agree that “love is patient” is lacking something.

    I don’t know if you remember what you wrote in a post here in 2008 Long in the nose. I was reminded of this when I recently looked at a post of mine linking to it, and posted a further link to that post. In 2008 you preferred the rendering “Love is slow to anger.” Would you still agree to that?

  18. Posted May 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    No one, of course, is saying that morphological, syntactic, and word-class patterns of the source *must be* reproduced in the target text. Instead, I am arguing for that as a default strategy.

    “Literal as possible” was the default strategy of the majority of Jewish translators of the Hebrew and Aramaic of scripture into Greek (see James Barr, The Typology of Literalism). It was the default strategy of Jerome, Luther, Tyndale, and so on. It is also the default strategy of Pevear and Volokhonsky, translators of Russian classics who are sweeping the field; of the new Zuercher Bibel (with one exception only: the politically sensitive question of gendered language), and the newly revised version of official Catholic translation in Italian.

    I agree with Wayne that “Do this to remember me” would acquire, if widely used, the same emotional resonance that “Do this in remembrance of me” now has. The reason I do not want the traditional diction changed is that tradition in the context of Bible translation has advantages. It binds one generation of believers to another. It helps give content to the communion of saints. It also keeps the Bible firmly planted in its history of effects (Rezeptionsgeschichte) in English literature, hymnody, and so on.

  19. Posted May 13, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Peter,

    I think that I have had several theories on makrothumeo, and that was not my most recent one.

  20. EricW
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    John Hobbins Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:24 pm wrote:

    That’s interesting that you have come to that conclusion, Eric.

    Can you expand on that? Do you think a different kind of remembering is at stake?

    If Jesus’ words at the so-called Last Supper were patterned after the Jewish zikkaron prayer, as Louis Bouyer of the Oratory (EUCHARIST) and others assert, then, yes, it was/is a different kind of remembering.

  21. EricW
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    But not entirely a different kind.

    Paul seems to be saying that he gives thanks to God every time he remembers them, and that it’s always with joy that he prays for them because of who they are and what they’ve done in and for the Gospel.

    I wonder if Εὐχαριστῶ τῷ θεῷ μου might require an idiomatic, rather than a literal, rendering? Maybe it means the same as “I bless God,” the way blessed/gave thanks is interchanged in the Last Supper accounts?

    The anamnêsis, if a zikkaron type of memorial, is also a remembrance to God. I’m sure one could argue for similarities between how Paul remembers the Philippians to God and how Jesus asks His followers to remember Him to God. But I think Jesus’ “thus anamnêsize me to God” is different enough from what Paul is doing in his prayers for the Philippians that one should not strive to make the English translations of the passages conform to each other in wording.

  22. Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Eric,

    I think you have an interesting thesis. Based on what you said, the use of language in Phil 1:3 similar to that used in the words of institution is a defensible option, but not the only defensible option.

    Here’s the deal. NIV 2011 mistranslates zikkaron in relevant loci, if severance of semantic ties between the Old and New Testaments is considered to be an index of mistranslation.

    Here is an example from Numbers 5:15:

    KJV: it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

    ESV/NRSV: it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

    NIV: it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

    NIV in this instance, as it does too often, erases the connection between Torah language and concepts and Jesus’
    language and concepts.

    When I explain what is going in our remembrance of Christ in the Eucharist, I want to be able to point out that “a grain offering of remembrance which calls iniquity to remembrance” is part of the background to the deed and words of Jesus, who took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body, broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

    If I didn’t know better – I do know better; this is just one of many examples in which NIV is a relatively free translation in OT but literal in NT – I might guess that NIV has a theological axe to grind: an anti-Catholic bias manifesting itself in an allergy to understanding remembrance as a type of sacrifice.

    IMO when it comes to the language of hallowing and remembrance, ESV and NRSV make healthier choices than NIV. Why will ESV be preferred over NRSV by many? Because NRSV is unacceptable in the eyes of most evangelicals and Catholics on other grounds.

  23. Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Mike asked:

    So, I wonder, are there languages which have word classes which English doesn’t have?

    Sure, One would be case. Early English retained a fair amount of the case system found in other Indo-European languages. For hundreds of years English speakers have dropped the use of almost all cases, except for nominative vs. objective case as in “she” vs. “her”. But English speakers today are losing the previous contexts for these and substituting one one. English continues to change and Bible translations into English must keep up with the changes used by a majority of English speakers.

    Another “word class” not found in English is honorifics, found in Japanese, Korean, Thai, and many other languages.

    And there are other “word classes” found in other languages which are not found in English.

  24. Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    The point of this post, of course, is that best translation practices, followed by professionally trained translators, do not retain word classes in translation. There is no theoretical reason to do so if one focuses on accuracy connected with language spoken by native speakers. Too many English Bible translations are produced by English speakers who put aside their native speaker competencies when they translate to English. But then what becomes of the professional translation requirement that anyone translating INTO a language be a native speaker of that language, if native speakers don’t use their native speaker competency when they translate? Such practice goes against the very purpose of the translation rule of native speaker fluency in the target language.

    There is no theoretical translation principle that calls for retaining word classes, even as a default strategy. The default strategy, instead, should be: What is the natural (i.e. native-speaker) translation equivalent of the original language form and its meaning in the target language. If the most natural translation equivalent turns out to retain word classes of the original language text, fine. But no one should *try* to retain word classes if their desire is for a translation to be of the highest professional quality possible. Retaining word classes, as a default practice, distorts translations.

    I think it is only a small percentage of native English speakers who would ordinarily prefer non-native English forms in English Bibles. It is the heart language which communicates most accurate and clearly to anyone around the world.

    Non-native English speciality translations for scholars or polygots are a niche market, but do not serve the majority of language communities well.

    John Hobbins, I’m glad that you like the translations made by some who do not translate to native speaker English. But those who translate in a non-native voice are, I would guess, not trained as professional translators. If you are hired to translate at the U.N. or any other multilingual global institution, you need training to translate in ways that we try to explain here at BBB.

    At BBB we recognize the emotive and academic value of some kinds of speciality translations which were made not following standard professional translation principles. But at BBB we try to focus on the needs of the majority of speakers of language communities, not the translation desires of niche markets. I really do believe in democratic Bible translation, in the rule of the majority. I’m happy to protect the rights of minority viewpoints in translation for specialty translations. Actually, those minority viewpoints have been in the majority for most of the history of English Bible translation. It is difficult to help English Bible translators understand that their translations can communicate even more accurately, clearly, and emotively if professional translation principles are followed. If I directed any English Bible translation team, I would require everyone who worked on the team, whether an exegete, stylist, or editor, to successfully complete professional translation training programs.

  25. Posted May 13, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Wayne,

    Thanks for expressing your views so clearly and forcefully.

    What I think you fail to acknowledge is that there are competing schools among translation theorists and translation practitioners.

    There are those who agree with Eugene Nida and/or Mona Baker; there are those, like myself, who feel more kinship with Toury, Pym, and/or Venuti.

    Among translators of classics, there are paraphrasers like Briggs, and “Puritans” like Pevear and Volokhonsky who produce “close” translations for “close” reading. The translations of the latter are selling very well, I might add.

    “Close” translations for “close” reading may not thrill you, but they do appeal to plenty of Bible readers, not just academics, who believe in verbal inspiration. Since I believe that Homer and Dante and Tolstoy’s inspiration, such as it was, was at the verbal level, I prefer “close” translation for their writings as well.

    As you know, I have a particular interest in ancient Hebrew poetry – a third of the OT is written in verse. I believe that thought-for-thought translations in verse, not just prose, are inadequate for a text like the Bible, and I know I am not alone.

    That is why NLT was revised – though I don’t think the revision went far enough. That is why translation after revered translation has been revised of late to bring it closer to the wording of the original.

    The wonderful Grail Psalms, for example, have served the English speaking Catholic world well for half a century. But a revision was felt to be necessary. With what goals? I quote from a 2011 press release of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

    Why was there a need for a revision of the Grail Psalms? When the Grail Psalms were first translated in the 1950s . . . they would often abbreviate or paraphrase a text in preference to a more literal translation. By doing so, some instances of the rich biblical imagery of the Psalter were lost. Furthermore, in later decades, significant progress was made in the understanding of Hebrew rhetoric and how to incorporate the Hebraic style in English translation. Finally, there also arose a desire to return to a more elevated sacred language, in contrast to the informal and colloquial approach of the 1950s and 1960s.

    End quote.

    Now perhaps you think that a Psalms translation like CEV or the Message (David Ker) suits your devotional prayer needs just fine. I am not going to argue about this to the break of day. I’m just glad you and yours are reading the Psalms.

    But please do not be too surprised, or brand us who are well-read in translation theory as unprofessional, if we continue to prefer to read the Psalms in a more traditional translation.

  26. Posted May 13, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    John wrote:

    But please do not be too surprised, or brand us who are well-read in translation theory as unprofessional, if we continue to prefer to read the Psalms in a more traditional translation.

    John, I sincerely apologize if it sounded like I was branding you or anyone who believes as you do as unprofessional. I was not. I was referring to English Bible translators lacking training in professional translation theory. Think of my “you” in my sentence where I wrote: “If you are hired to translate at the U.N. or any other multilingual global institution, you need training to translate in ways that we try to explain here at BBB” the inclusive “you” (similar to the inclusive “we”), not you specifically, John Hobbins. I’m sorry for not using a clearer way to express the inclusive, generic reference there since “you” is ambiguous in that context between “you” specific and “you” generic. I see now that I could have begun that sentence with “If one is hired …” but that sounds more pretentious in English than I prefer for what I usually write. I should have used the indefinite pronouns “anyone” or “whoever.”

    I continue to believe that translators at the U.N. receive the kind of professional training needed by English Bible translators. As far as I know, no English Bible translation team has had such training. Nor do they have training in other translation philosophies or translation theorists that you prefer. You may have heard of some humorous “close” translations at the U.N. which communicated inaccurately and caused some international problems. I can’t remember those details now, but one of them may have been a literal translation of “There is something rotten in Denmark …” :-)

    I continue to see a role for a certain amount of “close” readings in specialty translations. But I don’t think the product is well suited for the majority of English speakers. Do the field detailed field testing needed to determine what meanings users of English Bible versions get from the wordings used in them. We always need to keep in mind who we are translating for. Are we translating for ourselves and people who have similar theological and literary backgrounds? Or are we translating for wider audiences? How theologically sophisticated were the original biblical text audiences? If they usually did not have as much theological and literary training and you or I have, should that help us determine how much theological and literary background is required by users of Bible translations today?

    Do you believe that such reader feedback is relevant for how a translation should be worded?

    Do you believe that a translation can stand on its own linguistically (not cconceptually, which is another matter), or do you believe that Bible readers often require a commentary or Bible teacher alongside them to understand a Bible translation *linguistically*?

    How is the latter belief different, other than in degree, from what non-Reformationists believed, that the laity was not sufficiently educated to be able to understand the Bible in their own language?

    What amount of understanding do you think the authors of the Bible expected their audiences to get from their writings? When Paul asked for his letters to be read to a church in some location (as well, sometimes, to a church in another location), what amount of theological education do you believe that Paul expected of those who heard his letters read?

    As always, I am referring only to linguistic understanding, not necessarily conceptual understanding.

    For instance, I would suggest that “sin unto death” will not be linguistically understood by very many English speakers today. But its equivalent in native speaker English, “sin that leads to death” (or, “sin that causes death”) will be. Now, the concept will often need discussion, perhaps help from a Bible teacher, who might suggest to people what such a sin might be. But that conceptual understanding is not required for the linguistic understanding that the Greek meant what we express in English as sin that causes someone to die.

  27. Posted May 14, 2011 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    John said

    When I explain what is going in our remembrance of Christ in the Eucharist, I want to be able to point out that “a grain offering of remembrance which calls iniquity to remembrance” is part of the background to the deed and words of Jesus, who took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body, broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

    If you have to explain it, doesn’t that mean your aim for concordance and syntax-mimicking has failed to achieve its goals? No explanation should be needed, only reminding people of the cross references if their OT knowledge is slipping.

  28. Posted May 14, 2011 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    Wayne,

    I think Paul expected a lot from his first readers. As another NT writer put it, his writing is difficult. For us two thousand years later, difficult is an understatement. Not only are Paul’s original thoughts, paradoxical as they often are, hard to follow, so are his allusions to scripture. He pretty much expected his readers to know the Bible inside and out. That’s different than today, when the average person who might be field-tested, churchgoer or non-churchgoer, cannot put a randomized list of biblical worthies like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah in sequence.

    So yes, I mistrust a translation of Paul which makes him clear and easy to understand.

    Regardless, I don’t buy the premise that the linguistic profile of the Bible should be dumbed down to make it just as understandable on the fly in translation as it was to those for whom it was written eons ago. That sounds both unrealistic and inadvisable.

    I certainly don’t buy the idea that the Bible should be translated according to the principles of simultaneous translation at the UN. The Bible is a text of great prestige and is therefore translated with far greater attention to detail than a simultaneous translator could ever muster.

    Better analogies are translations of classics. Or of the writings of Marx (whose writings were once read with the same obsessiveness as Jews and Christians read Scripture). Close translation designed for close reading is the norm for Plato, Aristotle, and Marx. It cannot be otherwise for Jesus and Paul.

    I say “dumbing down” because I don’t think that the conceptual and the linguistic can be held apart. For example, if you think concepts matter, then “hallowed be your name” will sound right. I teach college students and they tell me straight out they have no idea what holiness means. And they are right. Everything is common for them.

    Furthermore, I have argued at length that the proper context for making sense out of the Bible is a community of faith that reads it as the Bible – the ultimate rule of faith and practice.

    The notion of a Bible people can just pick up and understand may sound ideal to practitioners of drive-by evangelism.

    But I don’t believe in that kind of evangelism. In campus ministry, I see people come to Christ on a regular basis. It’s always a beautiful thing. I do not believe that the quirky language of the Christian faith is a problem. The peculiar concepts are strength and weakness at the same time, in whatever language they are expressed.

    In my experience, brand-new Christians revel in the quaint language of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Apostle’s Creed, from the get-go. An expression like “the quick and the dead” is cool, super-cool, once it is explained to you. Once you know what it means, why on earth would you want to exchange it for a bland equivalent?

    I don’t believe any of the texts just referred to were meant to be understood by isolated individuals reading on their own. For example, Jesus taught his prayer to a group of people who had years and then a lifetime to figure out what the prayer meant. The preferred method of Jesus was to teach in parables. Parables raise questions. They are open, by definition, to interpretation. So if you build interpretation into your translation of a parable, you subvert the genre.

    The Reformation did not mess with the wording of the Bible and other faith standards, in the specific cases mentioned above, or in others except insofar as there was a commitment to ad fontes.

    I admit however that your example from Romans 6:16 shows that a literal translation is not always possible. But I am far from convinced however that the standard workaround in translation, which you cite and which can be found in all translations from NABB and ESV to NLT, is successful.

    οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι
    ᾧ παριστάνετε ἑαυτοὺς
    δούλους εἰς ὑπακοήν,
    δοῦλοί ἐστε ᾧ ὑπακούετε,
    ἤτοι ἁμαρτίας εἰς θάνατον
    ἢ ὑπακοῆς εἰς δικαιοσύνην;

    Do you not know that
    the one with whom you sign up to be
    obedience-perfect slaves,
    slaves you are, of the one you obey:
    of death-dealing sin
    or righteousness-producing obedience.

    I’m not happy with the translation I offer. It’s wordy and unwieldy. My point is this: much is lost in translation if the following triad is not carried over (“translated”):

    δούλους εἰς ὑπακοήν
    ἁμαρτίας εἰς θάνατον
    ὑπακοῆς εἰς δικαιοσύνην

    Maybe someone else, once they see the challenge, will succeed in capturing the epimone.

  29. Posted May 14, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    Dannii,

    I find that people need to be reminded of the most basic things in the Bible of Jesus which Jesus could take for granted. No translation can make up for fundamental gaps of this nature.

    Bread offerings of remembrance were part of the daily life of the religious culture of Jesus and his disciples. The offerings called a specific sin to remembrance, a powerful means of engaging in contrition.

    Now Jesus turns around and declares the offering of bread, his body, an offering for sin. The three are one. He asks us, now and forever, to break bread, not in remembrance of our sin, but in remembrance of his broken body. An extremely powerful means of contrition is thereby created.

    I do not apologize for having to explain this; if you are still uncertain, look up the word “contrition” and/or read Psalm 51 – in a literal translation.

    Again. Liturgy, service, ritual, is full of explanation of pre-texts. Have you ever participated in a seder?

    Perhaps you want a do-it-yourself seder, but that would be a contradiction in terms. So is a read-it-on-your-own-and-you-will-get-it Bible.

  30. Posted May 14, 2011 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    John wrote:

    So yes, I mistrust a translation of Paul which makes him clear and easy to understand.

    I agree, John. But that isn’t what I was saying. I was referring to linguistic understanding vs. conceptual understanding. I don’t know how else to differentiate the two except to use those words and give examples, both of which I have done.

    We should not make Bible translations more difficult *linguistically* than they were in the original texts. Nor should should not them clearer conceptually than they were in the original texts. Using non-native English creates linguistic barriers to understanding which were not in the original texts. I’m fine with you or your church using older English words if that is your preference and the preference of your congregation. But think of how much more your congregation would benefit if they could have the same LINGUISTIC access to the text in translation that the audiences of the biblical authors did. I am NOT referring to a dumbed down easy-reader English translation as you suggested in your closing paragraphs, but I don’t know how to help you understand that I’m not doing so. Obviously, what I’ve been trying to say on this same point for as long as we’ve exchanged our views on this blog is still not communicating accurately. If you have any ideas for how I can better explain what I mean, please let me know.

    Again, there is a difference between understanding an idea and understanding the words used to talk about that idea. Here’s another example: I don’t fully understand black holes. But I can understand the language used to refer to them. Understanding that language does not mean that whoever wrote about black holes dumbed down the concepts for me. No, I still need more help to understand the concepts. But since I do understand the linguistic forms used to describe black holes, I’ve got more understanding than someone who reads an explanation of black holes that is not written in native speaker English.

    Peter correctly wrote that Paul wrote things which are hard to understand. But Paul did not use any words which Peter did not already understand. Nor did Paul use syntax which Peter was not already familiar with. Instead, Paul wrote about concepts which are difficult for anyone to understand, including Peter, and, perhaps, even Paul himself.

    I doubt that some of the prophets understand everything which they were writing down. Yet they wrote it down and we can study what they wrote. The problem was not a linguistic one. The problem is that we sometimes don’t know what they were referring to.

    I don’t know what the green horses refer to in the book of Revelation. But I clearly understand what green horses are. I’m happy to read commentaries or listen to preachers tell what they think the green horses refer to. The same goes for the number 666. I have no problem understanding that number as it was written in Greek or in an English translation. But I have no idea who or what 666 refers to. And I would not want to use a Bible translation which translates 666 in a way that limits my understanding of 666 to just one single theory. (As you know as well as I do, many “bad guys” throughout the centuries have had the number 666 refer to them, by some numerology or similar method. Yet there is no agreement at all that any of those hypotheses are correct.)

    Remember the example I gave of us not knowing, perhaps, what a sin that causes death is (I sure don’t know what it is). But if we translate the Greek preposition–as “unto” which is almost never used by most speakers of English today–rather than translating its meaning in context of “leading to” or “causing”, we obscure the original concept linguisticaally. Readers don’t have much of a change to understand something even linguhistically, let alone conceptually, if we don’t use native English in English Bible versions.

    It’s too late at night (we are on Eastern Time right now visiting our daughter and her family) to deal with the rest of your comments, but, as always, I appreciate your careful thinking, seriously interacting with BBB blog posts. I’m not convinced we are very far apart in our translation philosophy if I could just somehow make it clear enough what I am referring to.

    I am NOT talking about dumbing down any concepts in the Bible. So please don’t bring up that issue. I agree with you: We must never dumb down concepts in the Bible. But using native speaker language as accurate translations of biblical text wordings is not dumbing down. If we use the language of a target audience in a translation then it is impossible to dumb down a traslation, UNLESS we take the dubious view that people of some civilations or culture are not able to understand biblical concepts since there is no word-to-word mapping in translation. I know you already know that there aren’t word-to-word mappings in translation because you are fluent in English and Italian, and I’m guessing also German. And your knowledge of Biblical Hebrew is probably approaching a high degree of fluency. Even among these 3 or 4 languages you will often encounter wordings which simply cannot be expressed accurately in translation while retaining word classes.

    And that’s the point of this blog post: Is the insistence that we retain word classes in translation a valid translation principle? In science, a hypothesis is disproved by a single counter-example. Then the hypothesis must be reworded so that it fits the data better or else abandoned for a more adequate hypothesis. Translation follows scientific theories. Yes, it is also an art. And, yes, there is a range of acceptability for translations, including room for literary preferences. But my post proves, I believe, that the translation principle, as worded to me, is not valid. If it’s not valid, I see no reason to even mention it as a default strategy. Why not use a default strategy, such as closest natural translation equivalence, which creates translations which communicate with greater accuracy, clarity, and emotive impact (all other things being equal) for the majority of English speakers.

    Oh, yes, to answer your question, I have participated in several Seder services. It is a beautiful service, with beautiful liturgy. I’ve got no problem with liturgy or liturgical language. I do have a problem with translations which claim to be for people living today, but are not written in the English spoken by people today. The Bible can be accurately translated into any stage of the English language.

  31. Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the conversation, Wayne.

    I will finish with a famous quote:

    The original is unfaithful to the translation.
    Jorge Luis Borges

  32. Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    John said

    I think Paul expected a lot from his first readers. As another NT writer put it, his writing is difficult. For us two thousand years later, difficult is an understatement. Not only are Paul’s original thoughts, paradoxical as they often are, hard to follow, so are his allusions to scripture. He pretty much expected his readers to know the Bible inside and out. That’s different than today, when the average person who might be field-tested, churchgoer or non-churchgoer, cannot put a randomized list of biblical worthies like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah in sequence.

    Furthermore, I have argued at length that the proper context for making sense out of the Bible is a community of faith that reads it as the Bible – the ultimate rule of faith and practice.

    I don’t believe any of the texts just referred to were meant to be understood by isolated individuals reading on their own. For example, Jesus taught his prayer to a group of people who had years and then a lifetime to figure out what the prayer meant. The preferred method of Jesus was to teach in parables. Parables raise questions. They are open, by definition, to interpretation. So if you build interpretation into your translation of a parable, you subvert the genre.

    The Reformation did not mess with the wording of the Bible and other faith standards, in the specific cases mentioned above, or in others except insofar as there was a commitment to ad fontes.

    I think I feel what you’re saying. The community of reception is very important. And the Bible describes situations when outsiders struggled to understand what the Bible was saying. As does history afterwards.

    But you know what? I don’t care. The NT authors’ quiet tolerance of the Septuagint’s translation philosophy is not an endorsement of it. The authors’ quiet tolerance of religious dialects is not an endorsement of religious dialects.

    What was good enough for the KJV should not be good enough for us. What was good enough for the LLX should not be good enough for us. Theology is not just about bringing us back to the knowledge and understanding of the Apostles – there is still much to be discovered, even more than they understood about God. And translations are not just about bringing us back to the first century Christians’ standards for receiving the word of God. I believe we can improve upon those standards! We can lower the barriers further. We must!

    Sometimes we won’t be able to make a translation that communicate except through a reception community, but sometimes we will be able to. And when we can, we should. And when we can’t, we should do all we can to help our readers get up to speed as quickly as they can.

  33. Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    John quoted Jorge Luis Borges:

    “The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

    Traduttore, traditore!

  34. Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Dannii,

    I feel the force of what you say, too:

    [T]here is still much to be discovered, even more than they [the Apostles] understood about God.

    End quote. Fine, but I don’t want any of your discoveries in a translation of the Bible. I don’t think that is too much to ask. Write up your discovering in your own name.

  35. Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Peter Kirk
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink | Edit
    Wayne, surely there are other reasons people reject NRSV. One is some very questionable textual decisions especially in the OT. Another is that the language, although less unnatural than RSV and ESV, sometimes sounds very stilted, because it mostly follows the form of the original language far too closely for the taste of many of us. And that of course brings us back to the topic of this post and discussion.

  36. Posted May 14, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your post, Wayne. I was tempted to say “Amen” to the screen at a few points :-)

    I’ve been trying to think if there is any possible reason why we should keep word classes in translation. I’ve come up with a couple of related thoughts:

    1. For the sake of intertextual allusions (leading to sound systematic theology) I can see the validity in some cases in wanting to translate identical original language words with the same root (when the sense is the same). But even if the word classes are different (for example, you might vary in different contexts between “belief” and “to believe”) then the intertexual allusions will still be apparent.

    2. I can see the benefit of occasionally keeping whole phrases identical when they are written identically in the original language, in different contexts (again for the sake of intertextual accuracy).

    But I don’t see why it should be a necessity to keep word classes “the same”. I don’t see any real semantic, pragmatic, intertextual etc reason to (and I see plenty of reasons not to).

    I put “the same” in quotes, because I don’t think the word classes *are* the same, not exactly: Adjectives in one language work differently to adjectives in another; Verb tenses rarely completely overlap with tenses in other languages (look at the aorist in Greek, compared to English); some languages use nouns/adjectives/adverbs in different ways to others. The classes aren’t exactly the same to begin with, so I don’t see why they should keep them the same.

    By the way, if you haven’t already said, what was the translation of the verse which you suggested a change to, and what was the change you suggested?

  37. Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Donna asked:

    By the way, if you haven’t already said, what was the translation of the verse which you suggested a change to, and what was the change you suggested?

    I don’t remember what verse it was, Donna. Sorry. And I am away from home on a trip now and do not have my email messages to let me know what it was.

  38. Posted May 14, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    John, that was an analogy – I don’t think doctrine, whether old or new, should be expressed in a translation.

    New discoveries that we make about the Biblical languages should of course influence our translations. As should discoveries about the target language. And as was my point, even discoveries about the nature of language itself.


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