Headline news: Accuracy Battles Readability—Surreality Wins

Joel Hoffman, over at “God didn’t say that,” cites David Roach in the Baptist Press, “most American Bible readers … value accuracy over readability.” Reading between the lines of Joel’s posting I take it he’s a bit bothered by the statement. Joel, you’re not alone. He asks, “What do you think.” Since my response involves more than just a quick comment, I thought I’d post here instead of comment there.

Well, what do I think? I think the “accuracy versus readability” statement is like the question, “do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Or perhaps, “have you beaten your wife lately?” The survey question is incredibly confusing. Do you prefer accuracy or readability? “Ummmm….yes, with salad, and can I have some adrenal gland support on the side?”. The surreal should encourage the reader to scratch their head at this point. I think part of the reason for the existence of BBB is to help people think their way through such confusing statements as the one offered by Baptist Press.

And, frankly, the issue has gotten serious. I think the pitting of one against the other—accuracy against readability—in many cases, has reached the point where if a translation is readable, it’s assumed to not be accurate. Which, very sadly, leads to the hopelessness of some: “if I understand it, it must be wrong (inaccurate).” [Which is why all Surreal paintings make me think, “Ahhhhh...fish! I get it.” But, I digress.] I have seen the face of hopelessness happily melt into a smile when the confusion disappears. One lady, quite literally, ran up the steps to dust off her NIV. She had been convinced that “more accurate” translations were better for her even though the readability was so low.

When I read the survey result, I too, wondered, probably out loud, “what is the real reason for why people think that?” I think the confusion stems from the depths of world-view. A world-view is that which one looks through and not what one looks at. Unfortunately, how one understands how language works is not one of the topics discussed when exploring the interworkings of world-view. It should be. Language is filled with metaphor (not metaphors). Our language forms the transparent fabric through which we look at our world. This doesn’t limit what we can talk about (that’s what one looks at); but, it does determine how we can talk about what we talk about (that’s the through).

When it comes to Bible translation, people define ‘accuracy‘ in a particular way, irrespective of whether the real world of language actually works that way. So, the “accuracy versus readability” debate is a constituent of a world-view. In the “popular press” it hasn’t yet risen to the level of a truth-propositional discussion. And it needs to. I think Joel bumps up against this when he says, “Maybe the issue is part of the broader disagreement about the roles of religion, of science, and how to balance the two.

And I think that brings us to one of the larger questions—“How does one measure accuracy and readability separately?” If I have a quantity of gas (as opposed to liquid or solid) I can measure its temperature, volume and pressure. I can take each measurement separately, even though each of these characteristics influences the other. How do I do that with ‘accuracy‘ and ‘readability‘? People assume the two “sides” exist along a single line. ‘Accuracy‘ exists on the one end; ‘readability‘ exists at the other. If ‘accuracy‘ goes up, then ‘readability‘ goes down. That’s the assumption. But, we know for a fact that one can have both ‘accuracy‘ and ‘readability‘ at the same time. And, the simultaneity is not the result of compromise (an idealistic meeting in the middle). One can optimize both. All popular translations strive to meet this goal. And, ironically relative to the survey, many succeed in many cases. So, we know we must deal with this by using two dimensions. ‘Accuracy‘ and ‘readability‘ are separable. The survey question, and more importantly, the definition of ‘accuracy‘, assumes a single dimension. This is a basic flaw within the survey.

I believe another basic underlying assumption, a thing people look through, is that ‘accuracy‘ somehow means “closer to the Greek” (or Hebrew or what have you). But, even that is ambiguous—what does “closer” mean? Popularly, it means that one can match the translated word to a Strong’s number which can then be used as an index into the original language lexis and therefore the word’s meaning. I mention “Strong’s number” to emphasize the assumption of something discrete, just like an integer. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about something neatly packaged into a discrete box. But, that’s the assumption. The assumption is wrong; but, the discreteness forms part of the metaphor through which we look at “accuracy versus readability.” And therefore, we get confused when staring at reality (or when it stares back).

The discreteness assumption is so strongly and pervasively held that the system of hermeneutics assumes it—it’s systematized into how we study the Bible. How many hermeneutics books do you know train people in such things as Information Structuring (see Lambrecht’s work on this), Discourse Grammar (see Runge), the boundary connections at discourse transition points (see Longenecker), and Pragmatics (Mona Baker is helpful here and I think even Sperber and Wilson, though Ken Bailey is quite helpful here, too, but only in a popular and practical way)? Because ‘accuracy‘ is defined as “close to the Greek”, the so-called better translations adopt the wrong definition of accuracy and therefore hermeneutics books must foster an activity of close analysis of discrete details. That is, they have to work with a specific class of translations. The “other” class is ruled out as sub-par. In Pike’s terms, we never get to talk about ‘wave‘ (dynamic) or ‘field‘ (system). It’s all discrete ‘particle‘ (element). The assumption supports the system; the system supports the assumption. We need to adopt a definition of ‘accuracy‘ which reflects the systemic nature of a communication activity (such as a text). It must reflect the contextual nature of communication. And by ‘context‘ I mean more than just the discrete words around the discrete word. Obviously, Pragmatics applies here as well as much else.

Additionally, I think there’s an assumption that a syntactic element in one language when morphosyntactically reproduced in another language accurately reflects the same function as it performed in the original text. That’s quite demonstrably not true. A few quick examples are: the Greek participle works differently from the English one, conjunctions work differently (take καί as one quick example), Greek tense (if it should even be called that) works differently, word order works differently, and so on. In other words, the signaling mechanisms (ie. the lexico-syntactic constituents of a text) used by different languages signal different meanings in the different languages. [I apologize for the Greekiness; I suspect Hebrew is much more illustrative of the issue—I'd be interested in some examples/explanations]. The point being that the assumption of “closeness to the Greek implies accuracy” is very obviously wrong.[1] A person saying ‘yes’ on the survey must be willing to obtain significant original language, linguistic skills since they have to buy into this underlying assumption. I suggest the survey respondents didn’t know this.

I wondered what would have happened if some questions were asked where a more literal translation (and therefore more accurate according to the definition) was pitted against a more readable one where the readable translation was more exegetically accurate. Blind, but now I see is one such example. Which way would the survey takers have gone?

It would have been much more helpful if the survey had sought to expose these underlying assumptions. In other words, I wonder what would happen if respondents were chosen from those who do not read their Bibles but would like to. The problem with this is people tend to not respond openly to surveys that make them feel stupid (which, I would think, means that surveys which make you feel smart also exhibit skew).

I found it disheartening that only half those surveyed thought a higher level of education should not be required in order to understand the Bible. Only half!? I wondered if this answer was quite substantively skewed since only those who read their Bibles regularly qualified to take the survey in the first place. That is, “If I’m educated, I can handle the extra cognitive load of such an understanding of ‘accuracy‘.”

In my opinion, if one is going to pit accuracy against readability, then one must—absolutely one must—inform the audience that their interpretive skills must rise to clear the bar placed by the assumptions underlying the definition of accuracy. Otherwise you run the grave risk of deceiving the audience into thinking they can obtain exegetical accuracy by applying English lexico-syntactic parsing expertise to the text.

Also, if one uses this definition of accuracy, then, in my opinion, the translators must inform their audience for each specific text where they have chosen readability over accuracy. For example, the many cases where participles are rendered as finite verbs in clauses or new sentences. I pick this example because it is often done even though it contradicts the underlying assumptions of the accuracy definition. In other words, the “as literal as possible, as free as necessary” concept breaks down with the use of this definition of accuracy unless one explicitly declares (ie. footnotes) what is accurate (literal) and what is readable (free). How else will the reader know unless they assume that where it’s readable, it’s inaccurate—awkward to say the least.

It is much better to define ‘accuracy‘ as exegetical accuracy. Then, a translator can render an exegetically determined result into the natural forms of English (thus readability). That way, the reader can use their mother tongue language skills to understand the text and thereby bear fruit (the ultimate assessment of quality). And original language scholars and original language exegetes can debate the quality of the exegesis. Each user can function with their own skill set since ‘accuracy‘ and ‘readability‘ can be optimized simultaneously. Additionally, the higher level of readability ensures that original language experts have a highly seamless view into the exegetical understanding of the translators—the exegesis is readable. Ironically, it seems to me this means a readable translation requires fewer footnotes than a more literal one[2]. Also, unlike what is popularly offered as an accusation of too much power given to the translators, the readability of a translation actually promotes translator accountability. They made it readable—how right are they? This, quite positively, puts the reader in the position of going to the original and using original language, linguistic skills, if they happen to have them. Please note that I’m assuming that exegetical accuracy is determined linguistically, not theologically (not that theology is dismissed).

The survey results are meaningless since those taking the survey were not aware of what all they were saying ‘yes’ to—given the assumed “definition” of accuracy. If the survey would have been explicit regarding the additional, required skills (which come along for the ride with the assumed definition) then I suspect the results would have been much different. Also, the survey does nothing to clarify for people the many linguistic facts feeding into the many translation choices Bible translators must make. Ironically, in many English translations, many of these linguistic facts are intuitively relied on to present both an accurate and readable text to the reader. Unfortunately, these translation “choices” are more because of precedent than linguistic knowledge. And what’s worse, is these choices tend to contradict the assumed definition of accuracy they’re working with.


[1] I’ll point out in this footnote that there is a lot of confusion around how the Greek gender system relates to the English pronoun system. To say it simply, the utterly confused gender wars have horribly damaged the gender translation debate. That is very sad. Historically, any mention of gender in a BBB posting immediately implies a gender discussion. I don’t want that to happen here.

[2] The reason there are not more footnotes in literal translations explaining how the translation reflects the exegesis is because the translation is not intended to reflect an exegesis. It’s meant to reflect the original text. Which, of course, means the reader should apply original language, linguistic skills to the English in front of him or her. Which, in this blogger’s humble opinion, is very badly broken since it conflates two languages, and the reader is not told he or she needs to do this.

29 Comments

  1. Posted October 1, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Mike,
    You may be over thinking the Lifeway survey. Lifeway is a Southern Baptist distributor of Bibles, told by a recent SBC resolution not to sell NIV 2011 bibles because they are gender inaccurate. This week at the largest SBC seminary there was another SBC conference to address gender and the Bible. Accuracy is in the Baptsit mind these days. The Lifeway survey just reflects that. Here is a link to a report on the SBC gender accuracy in bibles conference:

    http://www.sbcbaptistpress.org/BPnews.asp?ID=36241

  2. Posted October 2, 2011 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Mike if you want an example, I’m an accuracy over readability person. What I mean by that is that the bible is: written in an alien language, written by people with alien philosophical ideas, written by people who have an alien literary tradition, designed to address audiences and issues alien to my culture. To achieve a high level of readability a translation must close those gaps. The more some of those gaps are preserved the less readable the translation will be.

    As for the survey the way the question were written was leading. People know and the questions themselves are written in such a way as to encourage the answers the survey takers wanted. The survey had a clear preferred response and the survey takers generally gave it. Rephrase those very questions so that the answer they gave is the dispreferred response and I suspect those numbers would shift drastically. The high sales of the NLT, Message, NIVr prove that pretty clearly and the NIV (which aims for readability over literalness) being the top selling translation proves it much more-so.

    A far better survey would have been to present readers with totally accurate translations. For example something like:
    Psalm 22:16 in Hebrew has no verb like a lion, my hands and my feet. This is traditionally translated with a reference to piercing They have pierced my hands and feet. Do you think this should be translated in the traditionally Christ affirming way, or rather translated literally preserving the Hebrew structure?

    I’d be the numbers would be quite different.

  3. Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    Do you think this should be translated in the traditionally Christ affirming way, or rather translated literally preserving the Hebrew structure?

    Again, following Mike’s point and one of yours in your comment, I don’t think the question is phrased fairly and perhaps that’s your point.

    We should simply ask if people prefer an accurate translation. If an accurate translation happens to line up with the source language in form (“literal”), fine. If it doesn’t, fine also. There is, as Mike and I and others have demonstrated, no relationship between literal translation and accurate translation. These are two different parameters, and readability is yet a third. Acceptability is a fourth. There are many different translation parameters.

    Translation of the Hebrew Bible should be translated on the basis of the meanings of the texts in that Bible. It should not be translated retroactively, based on New Testament interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, or more often, of the LXX translation of the Hebrew Bible. Accurate translation of the Old Testament calls for translators to translate the Hebrew (and Aramaic) just as accurately as translators translate the Greek of the New Testament. Translators should not look to the New Testament for how to translate the Old Testament.

    The inter-textuality of the two testaments can stand on its own, without translators raising it above original text meanings. There is so much complaint about less literal translations taking away the freedom that many believe Bible readers should have to decide what a translation means. But few recognize that Christianizing the Old Testament does the same thing. It limits the Old Testament passages which are interpreted in messianic ways in the New Testament just to that one interpretation. But it can easily be demonstrated that the original meaning of an Old Testament passage is not the same as a New Testament interpretation of that passage. Note the pair of O.T. passages, Ex. 4:22-23 and Hosea 11:1. These passages make it clear that “my son” refers to the Israelites. Yet, the gospel writer Matthew (2:15) cites Hosea 11:1 and calls it a reference to Jesus Christ, the Messiah. I have no problem with allowing each part of the Bible to have its own meaning. We don’t need to go back and adjust these O.T. passages so that they harmonize with Matt. 2:15. Nor do we need to harmonize differences among the gospel writers, as some scribes have done and some Bible translators have, as well.

    If we have to humanly tweak the Bible to agree with our theology, they our faith is not very strong. If we say that we should let the Bible speak for itself and not add our own interpretations, then that applies to all of Bible translation, not just non-messianic passages. We can’t have it both ways, as some try to do. And that’s why they remain Bibles for theologically conservative Christians, rather than scholarly Bibles which require greater wrestling with the text. There’s nothing wrong with having to wrestle with a biblical text. There’s even nothing wrong with saying that we may not know for sure what every passage in the Bible means, and translating in a way that shows such humility.

  4. Posted October 2, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Several millennia and thousand years from now, what if committees of translators rendered the following sentence into Chinese, Finnish, Malayalam, and Swahili? Would the readers – knowing it was merely a translation – care that the sentence was more readable or more accurate to the original? Here is the sentence:

    “Otherwise you run the grave risk of deceiving the audience into thinking they can obtain exegetical accuracy by applying English lexico-syntactic parsing expertise to the text.”

  5. Posted October 2, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Again, following Mike’s point and one of yours in your comment, I don’t think the question is phrased fairly and perhaps that’s your point.

    My point is it that my phrasing of the question would have gotten the opposite response from the majority of the audience the Baptists were targeting. I don’t actually think either phrasing is unfair. I think there are real tradeoffs where you gain in some ways in exchange for losing in others.

    The rest of your post, which was a response to that alternate phrasing actually is a good example of those types of tradeoffs. My position on the matter is that Christians have 3 things they want theologically:

    1) Jesus is the messiah spoken of in the the bible.
    2) The bible is perspicuous and the meaning of passages clear to a reader. While the bible may have deeper meanings, it has surface meanings and the essentials of the message are in that surface.
    3) The old testament of the bible should be an accurate translation of the Hebrew Masoretic Text.

    The problem is a translation can really only achieve (2) at the expensive of the 3rd.

    Drop (1) and you can use a Jewish Old Testament, reading the bible on its own terms and not just as a preface to the New Testament. Which makes it a bible for a different religion and thus immediately the Christian might ask “and why should I read this at all”?

    Drop (2) and you end up with a Jewish or Islamic view of the bible, that it fundamentally cannot be translated nor that it can be well understood by the non expert. Christianity would have to focus more heavily on original languages seeing translations as books about the bible but not the bible itself. Some Christians have dropped (2), and some denominations, like Catholics, lean that way.

    I’d say the traditional Conservative Protestant position is that (1) and (2) are vital while (3) is just important. So everywhere (3) conflicts with (1) and (2) alter the text. I agree with you that (3) is the most important, theology that claims to derive from the bible should not be used to alter the bible. But… I do believe there is a real choice.

  6. Posted October 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    J.K.

    Would the readers – knowing it was merely a translation – care that the sentence was more readable or more accurate to the original?

    It depends, and yes I get the irony. Assume they believe such a sentence was of crucial, vital importance. Lets assume that and that words and in fact concepts like lexico-syntactic parsing don’t exist in the receptor language, or more likely they’ve altered meaning so that the most obvious translation of the phrase, “applying English lexico-syntactic parsing expertise to the text” gives them the wrong impression of your intent.

    Now let me pick an even worse sentence. Assume these people are Americans in some theological sense, and revere the American constitution. However their society has completely altered as you would expect after thousands of years. They have a law system very different from ours, but ours is used to give their’s moral justification.

    People are extremely interested in the debates on the 2nd amendment and want to be able to read and understand the writings of those early legal fathers from the 18th-21st centuries. Yet the arguments hang so crucially on the lexico-syntax parsing of, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Theologically they can’t just say that the whole 2nd Amendment is an alien work of an alien society and the fact that it can’t be parsed in their current language is just one of many pieces of evidence that it can’t be meaningfully understood in a natural way by their current society. Rather they have grant to each comma the vital importance it has in our society, even if they don’t have a comma in the receptor language.

    And that really is the problem for bible translators. A good deal of Christian theology hangs crucially on Greek and Latin lexico-syntax. I don’t think it is unreasonable for that future society to try and do a dual translation: one translation that tries to capture the meaning but turns the arguments of those ancient Americans into unintelligible gibberish; and another that is highly literal allowing the arguments to be translation but that requires study and understanding.

  7. Posted October 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    CD-Host,

    Thanks for getting and elaborating on the ironies. My example sentence, of course, was Mike’s own original sentence. Another irony I was hoping to show is that we use English in our BBB conversations in at least two different ways. Mike is, for example, by his very difficult to understand sentence (i.e., the one I quoted), using English as if it is not subject to translation. English, for him, is a language qua language (in all the abstract senses a would be linguist can muster) and English, for Mike, serves here as a means of would-be form- transcendent communication. He would want us to focus on his “message” and not his “forms.” And yet he is careful, and necessarily playful with his word choice. All our BBB clamor about reading biblical language at the lowest common denominator levels of readability really neglects this ambiguity.

    To try to make this clear, I suggest we look more at how we all translate proverbs and idioms into English. Your last sentence in your preceding comment – proposing dual translation – gets right at this. Here, for example, is an Indonesian proverb with dual English translations:

    Ada udang di balik batu.
    There is a shrimp behind the stone
    There are hidden purposes behind an act

    I suppose the first translation could be most accurate for anyone who could appreciate how shrimp are animals in the cultures of the thousand islands of Indonesia. For this in cultures where shrimp is only prepared food or where there is neither shrimp as a live animal or shrimp as a food, the only reasonable or possible translation (which doesn’t require a footnote or some additional education) is that second translation. Why not, therefore, have the original and both translations in the published better translation text?!

  8. Posted October 2, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    JK —

    Indonesian proverb is a great example. You gave me the translation and a footnote and I still can’t figure out what shrimp and stones have to do hidden purposes. I understand the literal version and the dynamic version fine, I just fail to see a connection. I can speculate that gathering shrimp maybe involves weird or sudden gestures, but its a great example where culture is simply too alien.

    Why not, therefore, have the original and both translations in the published better translation text?!

    Absolutely I agree! If we are going to treat the bible with this level of importance the dual strategy makes the most sense, especially for a study bible. For a devotional bible or read through bible I might just drop the shrimp thing if my readers are unlikely to know it. In that case I want them going fast not thinking about the connection between shrimp and hidden purposes. For a liturgical bible, or bible intended for knowledgeable readers I might drop the hidden purpose comment and just use shrimp, perhaps footnoting.

    The HCSB uses this dual technique a bit. I wish they did more of it. The NET can be quite good with it, and the NISB does this rather well for the NRSV. Less well known, Ann Nyland does a nice job for more knowledgeable readers.

  9. Posted October 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    “There is a shrimp behind the stone
    There are hidden purposes behind an act”

    I would agree that both accuracy and understandability in the receptor language would be met with an equivalent English idiom and a footnote. If the original uses a figure of speech, so should the translated text, with the latter being whatever expression carries the same meaning.

    No one worries about this false dilemma between accuracy and readability as long as no pet doctrine is in danger, such as rendering ‘heart’ or ‘kidney’ as ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’. And in the context of the SBC, it seems obvious that this would not be a major issue at all as long as entrenched traditions are “safe”. People have a habit of turning molehills into mountains (an idiom!) only when the molehill isn’t big enough to cover all the ground they want it to cover.

  10. Posted October 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    If the original uses a figure of speech, so should the translated text, with the latter being whatever expression carries the same meaning.

    Hi Paula. And what if there is no expression that carries the same meaning in the receptor language? What if the concept doesn’t exist?

    For example Paul makes frequent use of ideas from astrology. But since we no longer have a Ptolemaic astronomy there is no way to translate those concepts into 21st century English. To some extent they can be translated into the specialized language of astrology but there is nothing to translate them into common speech.

    For example Paul uses aion frequently in reference to what we today call arcs of the axial precession of the earth. Using terms like “axial precession” is still inaccurate because Paul is using language about the starts rotating around the earth. To be accurate we would want to use astrological language like “precession of the equinoxes”, and to understand those terms you would need to teach people the whole ptolemaic, system.

    Obviously if the receptor language has a way to translate and retain all the meaning the problem is easy. The questions are about what pieces of the meaning to drop.

  11. Posted October 3, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Hi CDHost,

    We use such expressions all the time: sunrise/set, the movement of constellations, etc. We don’t even think about the technical inaccuracies because they don’t matter; we are speaking from our perspective and using figures of speech that convey the meaning we want, e.g. we say “sunrise” rather than “tomorrow when the earth rotates such that our location first sees the rays of the sun”. So one does not need to look for a technically precise modern equivalent. We say what people understand as expressions or poetry. So I guess I see your argument as something of a non-sequitur.

    But we both agree that there is not a lot of consistency when it comes to what things translations decide to be “accurate” about, as I mentioned concerning “protected” doctrines which make otherwise trivial translation choices into major problems. That being the case, then it seems that debating false dilemmas between accuracy and receptor understanding is rather futile and unnecessary. Then we might consider ways in which to convey to the reader that translation choices are not as dry and technical as we’d like. I think we are often bound by the fear that such admissions may undermine many people’s confidence in the Bible.

  12. Posted October 3, 2011 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    We use such expressions all the time: sunrise/set, the movement of constellations, etc

    True, good point. Those survive because they are so heavily used, but the level of knowledge had decreased. Let me give you an example you are probably familiar with from the musical Hair:

    When the moon is in the Seventh House
    And Jupiter aligns with Mars
    Then peace will guide the planets
    And love will steer the stars

    This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
    The age of Aquarius
    Aquarius!
    Aquarius!

    I’d doubt if one American in 100 knows what this means. I doubt one in a 1000 if you gave them a picture of a night sky could tell you what house the moon is in. If one were going to “translate” this English from the musical Hair into commonly understood English there is just no way to do it. What would you do to translate this to common speech.

    You could be precise:
    When the ecliptic orbit of the earth is such that for the Longitudes in North America that the moon rises between 270-39 49/60 and 270+49 13/60 at 16 degrees … . Yes that literally has the same meaning but it is a distortion, and I’m shifting context much too far.

    My point was that Paul assumes all his readers are familiar with the night sky and can read it, because in his culture that sort of basic astrological literacy is universal. That’s just not true anymore. There is no way to translate what he says and retain his meaning. And this is not in poetic passages but in argument.

    Then we might consider ways in which to convey to the reader that translation choices are not as dry and technical as we’d like.

    I actually think the rise of a huge number of various translations is doing that. People are losing confidence that what they are reading is really accurate. Slowly I think the Christian community is moving away from the position that the KJV (or any other English language version) is “the bible”, and rather it is a book about the bible that aims to convey meaning.

    My point has been that accuracy in some areas necessitates inaccuracy in others. There are no modern equivalents for many of the concepts in the bible. The more I try and make the bible “modern” (that is increase readability) the more I sacrifice accuracy.

  13. Posted October 3, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    There are no modern equivalents for many of the concepts in the bible. The more I try and make the bible “modern” (that is increase readability) the more I sacrifice accuracy.

    It sounds to me that this confuses concepts with language used to express those concepts. Translation is possible because any language can be used to express any idea. Many concepts in microbiology are alien to me. I don’t understand them yet. But microbiologists can use English to tell me about those alien concepts. They can even use non-technical language to express the same meaning as they express using technical language (which has its advantages among microbiologists). And the non-technical language can express the concepts just as accurately as the technical language, although it often will require more words, but translators should never be in the business of counting words, anyway.

    It’s the same with the Bible. There are concepts and customs in it which are alien to us. But that does not prevent us from translating references to those concepts and customs to English which allows us to understand them, even though they are outside our current experience.

    If we carry the claim that we cannot translate alien concepts to its ultimate conclusion, then we must say, as some do, that translation itself is not possible, because there is always something alien about the source language, just the words themselves, if nothing else. But translation has been done between languages for millenia, including translation about foreign concepts.

    Translation should never be a process of simplifying concepts (or complicating them, for that matter). Changing the difficulty of understanding a concept is not the purpose of translation. That’s a pedagogical issue. Translation simply allows us to know how the meaning of something said in one language is said in another language. Concepts may take years to understand, but the linguistic forms used to express them are already available in any language.

  14. Posted October 3, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    Technically, the Aquarius example is not of translation but paraphrase, since it’s the same language in different words. ;-)

    But I still don’t agree with the argument that we must go from one extreme to another, e.g. a poem about astrology to highly technical astronomical terms most people are even less familiar with. If we were translating the Aquarius lyrics to another language, we’d look for their commonly-understood expressions for describing the constellations and try to express them in the form of their poetry.

    Also, I think it would help to have specific examples of what words of Paul **cannot** be translated satisfactorily. Granted, we all know of passages that defy all efforts to resolve theologically to everyone’s satisfaction (e.g. “saved through the childbearing”), but expressing the words is not in the same class.

    Of course there are things such as the green/pale horse of Revelation which present multi-faceted problems: The color green symbolized fear in the ancient Greek culture, while in modern English culture fear is symbolized by being pale. Do we say “green” to be “accurate”, or should we convey the idea of fear with “pale”? But if “green”, then should we again stay “accurate” or try and find a natural horse color that might be close enough? Yet since the meanings of the colors are not clear in the context, can we even say that fear is being conveyed here? But again, that kind of problem is a theological one, not a linguistic one, and we can easily render it by its dictionary meaning of “green” and let the reader sort it out from there.

    So I really don’t know if we can say “there are no modern equivalents for many of the concepts in the bible”, but only that we need to be careful to supply as much information as possible for the reader. While footnotes and commentaries present a danger all their own, the absence of them is just as dangerous. We would do better to educate Christians (isn’t that what Sunday School should be doing?) who want to know the Word. This of course leads into a discussion of whether the Bible really is a book anyone can pick up and read, and I have my opinions about that. But for this post, I think there is not as much of an impasse between the two extremes as might be supposed.

  15. Posted October 3, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    Translation is possible because any language can be used to express any idea. Many concepts in microbiology are alien to me. I don’t understand them yet. But microbiologists can use English to tell me about those alien concepts. And the non-technical language can express the concepts just as accurately as the technical language, although it often will require more words, but translators should never be in the business of counting words, anyway.

    Sort of. I think a short expression in a technical language can be expressed in some amount of language but the amount needed can be huge. A few words to tens of thousands of words. “When the moon is in the Seventh House” is a good example. To really understand what that means the receptor needs to learn astrology.

    Understanding a sentence containing a complex ideas is idea can take years. Essentially that is what physics or math education is, getting students to really and genuinely understand a few dozen sentences. There is no way to express those sentences outside of altering to the receptor. Understanding what E=mc^2 means is to understand relativistic mass. You can’t have that sentence explained to your apart from understanding relativistic mass.

    There are concepts and customs in it which are alien to us. But that does not prevent us from translating references to those concepts and customs to English which allows us to understand them, even though they are outside our current experience.

    OK. Lets start with aion (αἰών) above. How do I translate aion the way Paul used it, which involves concepts from Middle Platonism into 21st century American thought, a receptor culture lacking middle platonism and preserve the concepts in his sentences?

    If we carry the claim that we cannot translate alien concepts to its ultimate conclusion, then we must say, as some do, that translation itself is not possible, because there is always something alien about the source language, just the words themselves, if nothing else

    I wouldn’t be quite that all or nothing. It is possible to capture some of the meaning without capturing all of it. And of course the closer the cultures the easier it is to translate. It is easy to translate, to use your example, a french paper on microbiology written in 2009 for an audience of English speaking microbiologists and capture almost all the meaning. Some meaning is lost / altered.

    Remember the original question was accuracy over readability. Mike’s original claim was that there was no tradeoff, more accurate was more readable, “But, we know for a fact that one can have both ‘accuracy‘ and ‘readability‘ at the same time“. And I stand by that disagreement. JK’s Indonesian proverb is a terrific example of where he had to lose lots of accuracy in some dimension to achieve any understandability of the actual meaning.

  16. Posted October 3, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    I think it would help to have specific examples of what words of Paul **cannot** be translated satisfactorily.

    world / age — aion / αἰών
    powers, rulers — archon / ἄρχοντες
    fullness — Pleroma / πλήρωμα
    world, universe and the order thereof — κόσμος / kosmos
    mystery, mysticism, sacrament — mysterion / μυστήριον

    none of those translate well into our English.

    And I agree with your example of green, a perfect example of a shift in culture context where the translator can either translate the color “accurately” or translate the meaning “accurately” but not both.

  17. Posted October 3, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    CD-Host, thanks for your gracious answers and specific examples. I would answer with what you probably already know: for each word in each language, there is often a range of meaning senses. There is often no perfect match of one one word set of meaning senses that that of another language. That’s why there is often some slippage of meaning (connotational, at least, less so, referential) in translation. In that sense, no translation is perfect. The Italian proverb is right: Translation is treason. But translation matches are close enough that for all practical purposes, translation is a worthy enterprise. Far more than just the jist of meaning gets communicated in translation.

    But, yes, you’re quite right about how translation finds it very difficult to deal with some literary or metaphorical expressions, such as the Indonesian proverb that Kurk cited. Kurk’s idea of a dual-line translation is good. It would address the concerns of both camps of those who focus on meaning transfer in translation and those who focus on form transfer.

    As for the list of Greek words you just mentioned, I *believe* (yes, it’s an article of faith among us translators) that it is possible to translate each one accurately to English. But we may not find a single word in English to translate each one. Again, that just demonstrates how words in one language often do not match up exactly with words in another. Their semantic ranges vary. It often takes more than one word in one language to translate a single word in another language. An example comes from Cheyenne, the language for which I have worked on since 1971. English has one word for the meaning ‘drink.’ Cheyenne has two words that mean ‘drink’. One refers to drinking a cold liquid, such as water, milk, or soda pop. The other refers to drinking a heated liquid, such as coffee, tea, or, get this(!), soup. In Cheyenne one doesn’t “eat” soup since it is liquid. As long as you understand the lexicons of Cheyenne and English you can translate just fine from one language to the other.

    It’s past my bedtime now, so I can’t take any more time to study your list of Greek words tonight. But I’m hoping that more attention can be given to it. I know that Rich Rhodes, one of the BBB bloggers, would love to tackle your list.

  18. Posted October 3, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    “world / age — aion / αἰών
    powers, rulers — archon / ἄρχοντες
    fullness — Pleroma / πλήρωμα
    world, universe and the order thereof — κόσμος / kosmos
    mystery, mysticism, sacrament — mysterion / μυστήριον

    none of those translate well into our English.”

    But the question is not what translates “well”, but what translates “at all”. I’ve been objecting to the all-or-nothing argument and that we must use precise, technical equivalents to ancient ones in order to be “accurate”.

    As for the list, you’ve already given English equivalents that certainly do work well. For example. “world/age” is a good rendering of “aion”. But what I had asked for were examples in context; I probably didn’t make that clear. You had said that Paul must have meant something very different from the lexical definition, and I would like to see an example of where the definition you used had to have been meant by Paul in a particular context, such that the meaning of the passage is critically affected by which definition or semantic range one chooses.

    “And I agree with your example of green, a perfect example of a shift in culture context where the translator can either translate the color “accurately” or translate the meaning “accurately” but not both.”

    Again, the question is whether there is truly mutual exclusion between the two. Is it really not accurate to choose “green” and leave it there, since we don’t feel compelled to interpret the other colors either? We don’t know the meaning in that context, and can’t say with absolute confidence that the original readers did either. Could they presume the colors represented what the culture would think, when we are fairly certain that these same people would not grasp John’s description of some of the other creatures (?) such as the locusts? Yet in that example we can still “accurately” use John’s words: locusts, heads of lions, scorpion tails, etc. The words are there, but neither we nor the first century readers could be sure what they represent.

    I think this all boils down to the presumption that accuracy in translation means a wooden, inflexible literalism that would have us forever locking horns on whether a camel really can go through the eye of a needle (look at all those figures of speech!). But I don’t personally think we must always choose either to sacrifice accuracy (whatever that means) of literalism or accuracy of meaning in context. For example, that pesky word “kephale”; I would simply put “head” in quotes so the English reader knowns this is being used metaphorically. In this way we keep the play on words without being forced to sway the reader with our personal translation preference (especially when one of them invents a meaning for kephale that is unlikely to have been in the original semantic range).

    My opinion on what constitutes accuracy in translation is that we can use figures of speech the same way we use individual words; it is no less accurate to substitute “there are hidden purposes behind an act” for “there is a shrimp behind the stone” than to substitute “green” for “χλωρος”. I don’t see why the latter is accurate but the former is not, with the possible exception of needing a similar figure of speech in English rather than the meaning of that figure of speech.

    To convey an idea from one language to another, regardless of its length (a word vs. a sentence or paragraph) and with the same method of expression (genre, figure of speech or literal, etc.), is the very definition of translation. If we were translating a medical textbook we would of course insist on the same degree of precision in the receptor, but we can’t demand that same degree for poetry or even doctrine when the original uses a wide variety of methods of expression.

  19. Mike Sangrey
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Remember the original question was accuracy over readability. Mike’s original claim was that there was no tradeoff, more accurate was more readable, “But, we know for a fact that one can have both ‘accuracy‘ and ‘readability‘ at the same time“.

    A quick clarification:

    I used the word can to mean “is capable of”. The point I was making at this part of the posting was that I disagree that there must be a tradeoff. The metrics form a two dimensional grid, not one.

    However, if one defines ‘accuracy‘ in terms of form, then, yeah. I don’t know whether I would go so far as to say “always.” But, one would nearly always lower the achievement of the one in order to more greatly achieve the other. That’s simply the result of conflating two languages.

  20. Mike Sangrey
    Posted October 3, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    If I were to walk into a hall of Physicists, walk up onto the platform, clear my throat and carefully say, “E=MC^2″, and then walk off the stage, would everyone in the room know what I meant?

    No they wouldn’t.

    The reason, I think, is because a single word (or even a phrase) can not bear the Semantic and Pragmatic load of the entire relativistic system.

    That’s not to negate the sometimes needful requirement to explicate the meaning which was implicit in the source. How to most effectively do that is a simple question with a complex answer.

  21. Posted October 4, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    From “Christian Today” of Australia, there’s the understanding, from afar, that the American survey by Southern Baptists was designed to tease out attitudes towards “gender inclusive” translations:

    See: “Many Christians not keen on gender inclusive Bible translations – study

  22. Dannii
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Some people have commented, and I agree, that it’s okay to have two types of translations: the readable meaning-based one and the form-mimicking one that is a substitute (or possibly a tool) for Biblical language learning. And you could even have both translations in the one book sometimes. And I don’t think anyone would deny that both types have value.

    But I think real debate is over which type is most appropriate as a general purpose Bible, or whether another type again is needed. I believe that the most important type of translation is that for a general purpose Bible: one which will be used in church services and in cell/small/life/study groups, one which you could read to your kids or your grandparents, one which you could read on the bus or while brushing your teeth, and one which you could also use in some scholarly essays, such as on morals or ethics (but probably not in essays dealing with the linguistics or the source text at all).

    What worries me is that some denominations and seminaries etc have decided that they will promote as good general purpose Bibles certain translations, and I cannot in good conscience with my skills and experience as a linguist agree with their choices.

  23. Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Is it really not accurate to choose “green” and leave it there, since we don’t feel compelled to interpret the other colors either?

    I’d say in most situations “yes”. It is inaccurate. It is essentially being overly literal, and the same problem one normally has with literal translation. Translating words does not necessarily convey their meaning. If there is meaning of “green” in Greek that doesn’t exist in English, and it is being used in that sense then yes it is a slam against accuracy. I call that “under translation”.

    The example of under translation that I like to harp on is “third heaven” in 2Cor 12:2. Paul is being Ptolemaic, the word that most closely captures “third heaven” is Venus. The problem is that our mental imagery of Venus and Paul’s differ radically. I have a whole post on this one.

    http://church-discipline.blogspot.com/2009/07/venus-translation-vs-transculturation.html

  24. Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    But I think real debate is over which type is most appropriate as a general purpose Bible,… one which will be used in church services and in cell/small/life/study groups, one which you could read to your kids or your grandparents, one which you could read on the bus or while brushing your teeth, and one which you could also use in some scholarly essays, such as on morals or ethics (but probably not in essays dealing with the linguistics or the source text at all).

    And I’m arguing at least that these functions should be forked. Different translations for different purposes. That you don’t need to break off just linguistics or source text, but many of these other activities.

    If the bible is going to be read to kids or grandparents then the degree of oral understanding matters a great deal. You have to be translate away biblical form much further than you would if you expect the person absorbing the material to be reading.

    A bible designed for church service may (depending on the church) need to be more consistent with English language translation tradition, which leans formal. It certainly needs to be in theological alignment with the church.

    As for the study groups, what are they studying:

    a) Are they doing an exegetical study, deep bible study like a sunday school?
    b) Or are they doing a quick read through of various books?
    c) Or are they doing a life application study?
    d) If it not study at all, but rather a focus on fellowship?

    What worries me is that some denominations and seminaries etc have decided that they will promote as good general purpose Bibles certain translations, and I cannot in good conscience with my skills and experience as a linguist agree with their choices.

    Could you be more specific? And also indicate which ones you do agree with.

  25. Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    “I’d say in most situations “yes”. It is inaccurate. It is essentially being overly literal, and the same problem one normally has with literal translation. Translating words does not necessarily convey their meaning. If there is meaning of “green” in Greek that doesn’t exist in English, and it is being used in that sense then yes it is a slam against accuracy. I call that “under translation”.

    The example of under translation that I like to harp on is “third heaven” in 2Cor 12:2. Paul is being Ptolemaic, the word that most closely captures “third heaven” is Venus. The problem is that our mental imagery of Venus and Paul’s differ radically. I have a whole post on this one.”

    ————-

    But if the other colors are simply translated as literal colors, why aren’t they too “overly literal”? Why is only the green horse singled out for interpretation on the spot by the translators? This is the inconsistency I see in many statements about accuracy. We see it also in the transliteration of words like “baptizo” but not “ekklesia” for example. Why does the translator feel the need to interpret one but not the other, when neither has an advantage in the “overly literal” department? Who knows exactly what the green horse in Revelation must represent? Is that the translator’s concern or the theologian’s? I don’t see how “green” is inaccurate but “baptize” is accurate.

    I also disagree that we know Paul must have meant Venus by “third heaven”. Equally (and I believe, more likely) is that he referred to that which was above the other two: the sky and the stars, i.e. the abode of God. I’d consider your interpretation of Venus to be “overly speculative”. Without knowing either view, the context around “third heaven” certainly tells the reader that Paul was taken up to the spiritual realm, such that the imposition of the translator’s particular view would be steering the reader rather than simply translating. Here again, I’d recommend letting the context do most of the work and supplying footnotes or commentary explaining the various possibilities.

  26. Posted October 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    As a Greek student with few tools beyond a UBS text with its concise dictionary in the back, I never understood why χλωρος was translated as “pale” in Revelation. I had simply assumed that since green is not a color for horses, that Greeks used χλωρος to refer to horses that had a pale coloration to them. Since I have very little exposure to horses, I was unsure of what to make of χλωρος. I still am, honestly.

    But if χλωρος never means “pale”, then I have been misinformed about χλωρος itself. I certainly did not understand that “it means green, but since Greeks used green to refer figuratively to fear, whereas we use pale, it should be translated as ‘pale’ in this context.” What’s more, is the horse itself afraid? Pale is associated with having fear, not causing it. I would expect an apocalyptic army text to speak of unshakeable warhorses, not shaken nags. A pale (with fear) horse might buck its rider. I suppose Death will have to go on foot from now on.

    All of this might have been clearer to me if the English text had said “green horse” and a footnote explained the possible link to fear. I had assumed the horse was off-white, which is a realistic horse color. In fact, “green horse” would have clued me in more quickly that the color (whatever it is) is being used metaphorically, since I’m pretty sure horses don’t come in green usually.

  27. Daniel Buck
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure horses don’t come in green usually.

    Now, THAT’S a horse of a different color.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhbxI5eVnM4 has, beginning at 1:52, an accurate translation of the Aquarius song into Swedish subtitles. Not knowing Swedish fluently, I can’t comment authoritatively on its readability, but it’s clear that someone went to the work to translate the Greek mythological term ‘Aquarius’ into what I assume is a Norse mythological term ‘Vandmanden'(s). At any rate, it translates literally into “Coming Transformation.”

  28. Posted November 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Mike,

    The Bib. Studies scholar in me had a total geek-fest with this post. Something I’ve never forgotten from my hermeneutics, exegesis, and interpretation classes in college, is that all translations are, at some level, an interpretation of the Greek or Hebrew text. Sure, I might be more inclined to use a formal (more literal to the original languages) translation of the biblical text, but functional (what most would call “readable”) translations of the text serve an important purpose ndash; communicating scripture to people at all education levels. All translations require critical thinking, but that is the problem. Frankly, both translation and exegesis practices tell us crucial things about the text and the scholars working with the text. In my experience, the average person is not like me, and they don’t really care about context, genre, language, audience, and other factors of reliable exegesis. The average person wants to be able to understand the biblical text when they read it. The translator has a tough job. Translators have to understand biblical languages, biblical history, biblical culture, ancient practices, original audience, hermeneutic implications, readability, mechanics, reading level, original context, application, and theological implications. Readers, ought to ask questions of their translations because there’s a lot that goes into an “accurate” translation (which readability is a part of).

    Sincerely,

    Tim
    Scholar and Minister

  29. Posted November 10, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Good points, Tim. Thank you for sharing them.


2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Mike Sangrey has a follow-up on BBB with the delightful title, "Headline news: Accuracy Battles Readability — Surreality [...]

  2. [...] thought” translations. But they were only offered two options. Blogger Mike Sangrey, commenting on the survey results, puts it this way: “I think the ‘accuracy versus readability’ statement is like the question, [...]

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