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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.