When summarizing is too hard

Many times on this blog I’ve expressed the distinction between two types of translations:  one which is intended to be analyzed by its user and one that is to be synthesized.  They are roughly equivalent to translations for study and translations for reading, but the similarity is only rough.  The analytic vis-a-vis synthetic distinction is to emphasize the cognitive process by which one uses the translation.  The analytical translation enables the “reader” to tear the text apart, to get at the details, to perform word studies, even to hear the underlying original language.  Those processes are unique to intentional analysis.  The synthetic translation enables the reader to process the text’s meaning, to follow the flow of the author’s thought, to engage in the narrative.  Any analysis which is done in these synthetic processes happens subconsciously and automatically.  With the synthetic, it’s like the analytical engine is hardwired in.

William Tierney and Stefani Relles, in a Washington Post guest blog,  posted four ways to teach students to write.  Of those four ways, one stood out to me as apropos to a Better Bible discussion.

Teach summarizing, not analyzing: Critical thinking in and of itself is not a precursor of good writing. Putting thinking into words, sentences and paragraphs is the endgame, and that crucially involves the ability to summarize material, a more concrete and therefore teachable skill. If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.

I think many English Bible translators have preconditioned the resulting text to support critical thinkers.  For me to suggest we question such a thing probably approaches heresy.  I can hear someone ask, “Come on, Mike, are you saying we shouldn’t teach critical thinking skills?”  No, not at all.  Perhaps it would be better to end that sentence with the phrase, “…resulting text to support analytical processes.”

But, the point I want to focus on is brought out by Tierney and Relles when they say that critical thinking and good writing are not necessarily concomitant.  Might I suggest that our English Bibles show anecdotal evidence to support this claim.  Many of our English translations make it easy to do word studies; and painfully difficult to grasp the meaning of a paragraph.  And since the hurdle of summarizing a paragraph is so high, the analytical, it seems to me, has not only fragmented the text, it has fragmented the body of readers who love that text.  When this whole body is taken as a whole, one is immediately confronted with the unmistakable reality that critical thinking has not resulted in a text that brings us together.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Bible translators should summarize the original text using the destination language.  Summarization is the responsibility of the reader.  But, I can’t help but think that a good text—that is, a well written one—enables a reader to summarize.  And I think the contrapositive also shows this to be true.  That not being able to summarize reflects a text that is not well written.  It’s like there is a distance between a text and a summary.  Good writing presents a shorter distance.  A poorly written text presents a greater distance.  I think that most English Bibles offer too great a distance for the vast majority of readers (and I fear that too much scholarship is buried in the weeds).

The other point gleaned from Tierney and Relles comes from their last sentence, “If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.

Which if these two translations is easier for you to summarize?

And he was certain days with the disciples that were at Damascus.  And straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God.  And all that heard him were amazed, and said, Is not this he that in Jerusalem made havoc of them that called on this name? And he had come hither for this intent. That he might bring them bound before the chief priests.

And

Saul spent a few days getting acquainted with the Damascus disciples, but then went right to work, wasting no time, preaching in the meeting places that this Jesus was the Son of God.  They were caught off guard by this and, not at all sure they could trust him, they kept saying, “Isn’t this the man who wreaked havoc in Jerusalem among the believers?  And didn’t he come here to do the same thing—arrest us and drag us off to jail in Jerusalem for sentencing by the hight priests?”

This is from Acts 9 and is a narrative text. And, generally speaking, a narrative text doesn’t lead directly to theology which changes one’s life (narrative texts can, but some care needs to be taken).  However, let me ask you, if it is easier to summarize the one over the other, then wouldn’t it be more likely for such a summarizable translation to impact your life in real and relevant ways?  Isn’t it easier to “own” it?

If a student is better able to summarize what they have read, then it seems to me they are better equipped to own the text for themselves.  Obviously, there needs to be a profound submission to the authoritative text.  But, isn’t the effort and the process of summarization the very key to appropriating the text for one’s life?  Doesn’t summarization coupled with submission unavoidably lead to a changed life?  If the Bible is what I think the Bible is, then when I appropriate it, making it part of me, it positively impacts me—it does not go back to God empty.

If the Bible translation text battles against summarizing, then has not that translation to that degree failed in its God given charter to teach, rebuke, correct, and train?

What do you think?

35 Comments

  1. Bradley J. Weidemann
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    “Many of our English translations make it easy to do word studies; and painfully difficult to grasp the meaning of a paragraph.”

    That sentence deserves to be carved in stone somewhere prominent.

  2. Posted March 7, 2012 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    Write on!!

  3. Iver Larsen
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    Mike,

    That was an excellent way of presenting it. I remember the comment the General Secretary of a Bible Society once made to me, when he first read a meaning-based version of Galatians in his own language: “I have a master’s degree in theology, but this is the first time I have been able to have the whole of Galatians in my head at once.”

    A professor of Old Testament at a university once said about a meaning-based translation in her own language: “This translation you can read while riding in a train.” She had been the leader of the OT committee of theologians who had worked on a previous lliteral translation.

  4. Posted March 7, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Which of these two translations is easier for you to summarize, Mike?

    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

    and

    First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

  5. Mike Sangrey
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Kurk,

    I’m not sure how I would summarize such short texts in any way that I could compare them.

  6. Mike Sangrey
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    “This translation you can read while riding in a train.”

    I like that.

    Don’t trains have fully equipped, theological libraries? Ones which provide–not summaries–but fully developed, detailed analyses. Hmmmm…no!? Really!!???. Amazing!!! I take back everything I said in the post–We should just equip trains.
    ;-)

    BTW, I’ve often wondered if there would be a market for a book that would provide a special kind of summary of the books of the Bible. I’m particularly thinking of the Pauline writings. I think Psalms would be more difficult and Proverbs impossible. But a summary of Paul would be possible. Though it would be disagreed with, but let me clarify what I mean.

    And I am not thinking of something like Haley’s or Hendriksen’s “Survey of the Bible,” who presents outlines and broad summaries. I’m thinking of a very carefully done summary. One which would summarize each paragraph with a topic sentence, connecting the topic sentences together with the same semantics which connect the paragraphs. Sections would then be summarized by paragraphs which are formed by the topic sentences. A reader who is familiar with the actual text could read the summary and very quickly grasp the entire book. The summary would be dense and, taken only by itself, would not be very convincing (a lot of supporting text would be synthesized away). But, I think it would help many people get their minds around the bigger picture of the various writings.

    The summary would have to flow–it, too, would have to be well written. And yet, it would be easy to tie the sentences back to the original text. The summary would have to be coherent in exactly the same way as the original text is coherent.

    I think the disagreements I alluded to above would not then automatically fuel a battle-kind of debate, but a dance-kind of debate. People would be forced to discuss around the coherent flow of details within the bigger picture. Proof-texted rabbit trails would be impossible.

    But, then again, perhaps I’m just too optimistic.

    Anyway, just a thought.

  7. Posted March 8, 2012 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    You’re right, Mike. So here now are texts about the length of the ones you gave above. I’m also using the same translations you used in the same order you presented them, translations of a narrative text.

    Which of these two translations is easier for you to summarize?

    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

    and

    First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. God spoke: “Light!” And light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. God named the light Day, he named the dark Night. It was evening, it was morning—Day One. God spoke: “Sky! In the middle of the waters; separate water from water!” God made sky. He separated the water under sky from the water above sky. And there it was: he named sky the Heavens; It was evening, it was morning—Day Two.

  8. Bradley J. Weidemann
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    “One which would summarize each paragraph with a topic sentence, connecting the topic sentences together with the same semantics which connect the paragraphs. Sections would then be summarized by paragraphs which are formed by the topic sentences.”

    That pretty much describes Kay Arthur’s Inductive Bible Study method of outlining, as far as I understand and practice it.

  9. Mike Sangrey
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Kurk, I’m already quite familiar with the text, so it’s difficult to step outside of myself, as it were, and see the text with fresh eyes.

    Having given that disclaimer, I find the first more difficult to understand. If I were reading it for the first time I would ask some questions which I would have difficulty answering without help. What is meant by an “earth being void”? What’s a “firmament”? And how is heaven in between the two bodies of water after the firmament thing splits the one body of water in two?

    So, the process of summarizing is easier with the second.

  10. Posted March 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Mike,
    The strange thing is that I would ask the kinds of questions you would ask, but even more so about the second translation.

    Easily enough, I could find in the dictionary that “firmament” is old English for “the sky or heavens.”

    But I’d struggle much more with the second translation:

    What is meant by an “earth being a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness”? What’s it mean when it says God spoke “Sky! In the middle of the waters; separate water from water!”? And how is sky in between the two waters after He separates the water in two? Then when I read aloud, how is it that “he named the dark Night” sounds like something from Batman?

    So, the process of summarizing is not easier with the second translation, at least not to me.

    Would you agree that perhaps some passages of the old American Standard Version might be easier to summarize that the counterpart text of The Message?

    For example, isn’t the ASV’s language “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction” closer to your blog post language: “God given charter to teach, rebuke, correct, and train”?

    And isn’t The Message translation much more difficult to summarize: “showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way”?

  11. Mike Sangrey
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Kurk,

    The point of the post really has nothing to do with ASV vis-a-vis ‘The Message’. I really don’t want to go down the road of pitting one specific translation against another.

    However, I think it would be fair to conclude I’m suggesting, generally speaking, that translations which conflate two languages are more difficult to summarize. And, that the inverse is also generally more often true–that more English-oriented translations are easier to summarize.

    Comparing your examples of questions against my examples illustrates this. My questions address the fact that the semantics either do not make sense or they are non-existent (ie. I would have to look up ‘firmament’, even though I’ve looked it up before). Conflating languages generates these types of disparities.

    For example, can an ‘earth’ be ‘void’? As a noun ‘void’ refers to something that is completely empty. One can refer to empty space as ‘void’. One can use a prepositional object to constrain meaning (eg. “The pond was void of fish.”) But, to say “the earth was void” either makes no sense in English or it is more simply said as “the earth was non-existent.” However, the later possible interpretation contradicts the immediately previous expression, “the earth was formless,” which indicates the earth DID exist. It was simply without form. The wording is quite awkward if one is trying to say, “X didn’t have any form and, in fact, it was non-existent”. Bottom line for me is: How do I get to a summary when such expressions can’t be decoded?

    My other question is very similar. It generates from what I know about heaven. What I understand about heaven doesn’t allow me to think of it as between two bodies of water. I can imagine bodies of water up in the sky (like Gulliver’s Travel’s flying island). It’s odd. It disagrees with what I know about physics, but I can imagine it; therefore I can decode it. But how can heaven be between them? I don’t know what to do with that. ‘Heaven’, the term, doesn’t have a ‘physical place’ attribute which surrounding text can modify. It’s like saying “Gosh, that chartreuse smells funny.” ‘Chartreuse’ has no ‘smell’ attribute.

    This difficulty in understanding is different from the difficulty one might have understanding word pictures. Your second text raises those sorts of questions. Basically, what do these word pictures mean?

    At the risk of beating this to death, the difference can be seen by comparing a nonsense sentence like, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” with “The ideas flared fully formed, riveting my attention so all else became the blackened background of dreamless sleep.” There are similar meanings being used by both those sentences. But the former is nonsense, the later is picturesque. I think poetry is more difficult to summarize for that reason. But, that’s a different topic.

  12. Posted March 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    ‘Chartreuse’ has no ‘smell’ attribute.

    ?? While I don’t remember myself sniffing the French liqueur (from which the colour gets its name), Wikipedia confirms my expectation that it has a distinctive aroma. Indeed I might well think that all Chartreuse smells funny.

  13. Posted March 12, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    The ASV would be much easier to understand and potentially summarise if it were set out with a genre appropriate layout with lots of whitespace rather than in an unstructured text dump.

  14. Stephen
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    “if it were set out with a genre appropriate layout with lots of whitespace rather than in an unstructured text dump.”

    And that’s what Peter has been complaining about Paul’s writings for centuries!!

  15. Posted March 13, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Yes, well Paul is Paul :)

    I was really talking about the slab of the poem of creation in Genesis.

    It’s noticable in our Bible study software, where we should theoretically have enormous amounts of whitespace for wonderful layouts that we encourage a verse by verse low level comparison. I think this feeds the ‘clear at verse level, clear as mud at paragraph level’ thing mentioned above.

    On the other hand, section summaries, like headers, tend to impose their own views on the text.

  16. Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Nice post Mike. I hadn’t really thought about it before in those terms.

    Iver, coincidentally, my wife said the same thing about Galatians after reading it in the NLT for the first time, and she was Valedictorian and majored in Ancient Languages (predominately Ancient Greek) in college. She said she could finally track with it because it used English flow of thought and English logical connections.

    Was anyone else struck by the number of ‘ANDs’ in the KJV Genesis passage compared to the Message version? 21 to 4! Just an observation….

  17. Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    *ASV (sorry, not KJV)

  18. Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    (although the KJV also has 21 ‘ANDs’ in that passage) :)

  19. Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Michael, part of the issue with “and” is its regular use at the beginning of a sentence, in formal equivalence Bible translations. This is highly unnatural in English, at least of the formal written variety. Indeed I was taught that it was a grammatical error to start a sentence with a conjunction.

    But (yes, a grammatical error!) in biblical Hebrew the conjunction we- is required at the start of most sentences. In Koine Greek it is also normal for there to be a conjunction at the start of a sentence, which is most commonly kai or de, best rendered “and”. In very many cases it is much better English simply omit the conjuction, although sometimes an alternative like “then” may work better.

    In English Bible translations, repeated use of “and” at the beginning of a sentence is a clear sign of an over-literal translation method which puts greater priority on preserving details of the original language form than of being clear or even grammatically correct in the target language.

  20. Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Michael and Peter,

    Starting a sentence with “And” in English is only highly unnatural in prose. And it’s a little ironic that formal prescriptive grammar rules should guide us in what’s seemingly natural, isn’t it?

    Maya Angelou, Abraham Lincoln, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, David Malouf, Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson, and Philip Levine are just a few who break the rule and begin their sentences with “And.”

    And notice how Eugene Peterson with his “The Message” translation does too, with his sentence: “And there it was: he named sky the Heavens; It was evening, it was morning—Day Two.” Peterson even uses a comma splice, an ungrammatical form in prose.

    So I guess our question should be: it is better to translate “good grammar” form for clear prose? Or might it be better to break the rules with poetry, as the Bible writers and other poets seem to?

  21. Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Back to Mike’s point of the post:

    He uses a contrast between the ASV and The Message translations to show that, perhaps, sometimes one translation can be easier to summarize than another. I brought in other examples to show that the ASV in some cases and in some places might be easier than The Message to summarize.

    And why does that matter? Well, for a young American writer with what William Tierney and Stefani Relles label a “remedial writing problem” this matters, they say. They teach “these kids [with] writing histories … all too typical of many high-school graduates, especially those who attend low-income schools” that “summarizing, not analyzing” is the best way in. And they add: “”If [remedial] students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.” The whole thrust of what Tierney and Relles are after is that some writers cannot as easily analyze as they might more easily summarize.

    If we are wanting a Bible in English for remedial writers, one that downplays the complexities of poetry, then a simpler English that could be easily summarized but wouldn’t require critical reading or much analysis seems to be what the post is suggesting to me.

  22. Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Kurk, I agree with you. I should have said “formal prose”, as the rules of poetry are different. Occasional sentences beginning with “And” can be clear and very effective in English, prose and poetry. But when four successive sentences begin with “And”, as in the Acts passage in the post above, just because this is in the original Greek, then one has to ask oneself whether this is really clear and effective English.

  23. Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Peter,
    I agree with you too! Your point about the ands in Acts is well taken. And yet, I think Bible translators of Acts might attend more to the complexities of the rhetorical Greek. It’s pretty clear that both in his gospel and in this sequel, Luke is not using simple and always easy to read language. The effects of his word choice are most powerful. A summary of the narrative events is hardly all that needs to be conveyed in English (and a series of English ands, to be sure, isn’t the answer either).

  24. Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Kurk wrote:

    And yet, I think Bible translators of Acts might attend more to the complexities of the rhetorical Greek.

    I totally agree. This is what is missing in most English translations, namely, translating the rhetorical function (meaning) of the complexities of the biblical languages, esp. those complexities which do not align one-to-one with English. Hebrew we- and Greek kai in the N.T. often do not function to conjoin two “things”, but, rather function at a rhetorical (discourse) level of language. It’s time that we integrate insights from biblical scholarship, discourse and rhetorical studies of biblical language texts, and descriptive linguistic studies of how English speakers and writers actually speak and write. Such interdisciplinary work is needed to produce English Bible versions which do justice to the complexities of both the biblical languages and English and properly match the form:meaning composites of the source texts with the corresponding form:meaning composites of the target language. As Pike insisted, it is not enough to match form with form. It must be the composite of form:meaning that is matched to form:meaning.

    Fortunately, there are steps being taken to integrate the needed cross-disciplinary studies at SBL conferences. The next step needed it to integrate those insights into actual English Bible translation.

  25. Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Wayne! Your mention of Kenneth Pike reminds me of Robert Longacre’s good work on discourse, using his own Tagmemics. Longacre and Shin Ja Hwang have a wonderful study, “A Textlinguistic Approach to the Biblical Hebrew Narrative of Jonah.” That essay, of course, is in Bob Bergen’s fabulous Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics Cover picture, in which he compiles essays that came out of a 1993 seminar SIL and UBS seminar. (By the way, I’ve taken courses taught by each of these people).

    The Bergen volume has an article by Ernst R. Wendland, “Genre Criticism and the Psalms.” And I think Bergen may be the Bible translator theorist/ practitioner who does the most with rhetoric qua rhetoric. See his fabulous Prophetic Rhetoric: Case Studies in Text Analysis and Translation, in which he takes very seriously the works of rhetorician George A. Kennedy on New Testament rhetoric and on Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Kennedy is not a linguist nor a Bible scholar, but add some. Likewise, James L. Kinneavy, also just a rhetorician but neither a linguist nor biblicist wrote the fascinating work, Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: An Inquiry, but I’m not sure how many Bible translators today have looked at it. (Pike wrote Rhetoric: Discovery and Change with anthropologist/ linguist Alton Becker and with rhetorician Richard Young; but unfortunately after being acclaimed early on, it’s hardly read at all today. Similarly, not many in Wycliffe/ SIL read much of anything of Pike, whether on rhetoric or on his tagmemics, which you indirectly refer to.)

    I’m bringing up these specific works of rhetorical criticism because for Greek writers and Roman writers after Aristotle and Cicero especially, it was important to use “rhetoric” – certain techniques of language – to convey ideas, to tell stories, to persuade, and to move audiences and readers. I think the Septuagint translators and certainly some of the New Testament writers (John the gospel writer, Paul the speaker and epistle writer, and Luke) were quite adept at using Greek for effect, for rhetorics.

  26. Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    So back to Iver’s professor’s standard: “This translation you can read while riding in a train.” I’d say Luke’s Ethiopian eunuch was having trouble reading his translation while riding in a chariot. It’s a Greek translation of Isaiah, which seems – at least in Acts – to be an exact copy of what we have today in “the Septuagint.” In Greek, there seems to be something going on that Luke is taking advantage of. His readers would have had to be fairly sophisticated with their knowledge of Greek, and of the Hebrew this text has translated, to get it all. There is something rather rhetorical here that the best English translator would want to convey. I don’t think Luke is translating the Hebrew for his Greek readers, do you? But it seems he’s taking advantage – for rhetorical effect – of the fact that the Ethiopian doesn’t understand. Philip miraculously gets a message from an angel, and then he goes to aid the reader of the translation. There are layers of meaning for the Greek reader of Luke’s Acts.

    In a post at another blog, I’ve tried to show how Luke seems to follow Aristotle’s rhetorical theory and practice, both in theory and in practice:

    http://bltnotjustasandwich.com/2012/01/31/what-luke-learned-from-aristotle/

    Classicist Ann Nyland, similarly, has noted (in the commentary included in her NT translation) how Luke seems to be aware of an audience that was accustomed to complex rhetorical Greek. She says:

    “Luke was a non-Jew, writing for an educated non-Jewish audience. Greek was his native language. He was highly educated, and wrote in the ‘high style’ displaying a knowledge of rhetorical forms and literary conventions, as well as a familiarity with the topoi of Graeco-Roman culture, and this is highly significant. Luke knows the Torah, but his stylistic and story-telling ability in Greek shows facility in the use of rhetorical conventions, and this does reveal the nature of his audience.”

    Nyland notes how scholars have compared how Luke opens his stories the way Thucydides does in his “second preface in his History of the Peloponnesian War, f:26ff.” So she stresses, “Luke displays the rhetorical and literary skills of a highly educated person. He has constructed his narrative [of Acts] in a way which entertains the reader, using dramatic episodes to avoid recourse to abstract expression in addressing certain issues, and using variety by employing direct discourse and letters.” One point to be made here is that Luke’s readers were not remedial readers of Greek at all. The Aristotelian forms that Luke uses, his high style of Greek, mark his gospel and the narrative of Acts in ways that are best translated by English that is a form/meaning composite “match,” as you say, Wayne.

    Would remedial Greek readers of the 1st century have been able to easily summarize Luke’s sentences? How best in English, then, to translate or to match what Luke is also doing in the bit from Acts that Mike has quoted (albeit in two English translations)?

  27. Dannii
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    I think I want our modern readers to have exactly the same response to the Bible as our Ethiopian friend: to not waste any time parsing tricky sentences and paragraphs, and get right to the important task of wondering who the messiah is.

  28. Posted March 20, 2012 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    Kurk followed up:

    Would remedial Greek readers of the 1st century have been able to easily summarize Luke’s sentences?

    I don’t know. If Luke intended what he wrote for a more literarally (?!) sophisticated audience, then the answer may be no. Of course, we first need to know what percentage of the population of the Roman Empire was literal at all? Then we need to know their ability to understand Luke’s greater familiarity with Greek rhetoric than other NT writers.

    But let’s not forget that Mike Sangrey wrote his post about translations of the biblical language texts to other languages, in particular, English. But, attempting to move from the translation issue Mike about back to good composition itself, I assume that, if Luke wrote good Greek, and I believe he did, his intended audience would find his writing to be pleasant to read. It would have the properties of good literary Greek that that audience appreciated. If this assumption is correct, then Luke’s intended audience should have been able to summarize the literary sections of Luke’s gospel better than they would have been able to summarize the writings of someone who was not as sophisticated at writing in good literary Greek as Luke was. Again, this is a matter of original composition, not of translation.

    But here is where I see how important are Mike’s comments about the heuristic of easy summarization (there are others) that mark good quality English translation of a good quality original. Most English Bible versions lack the scholarship in good quality English to be able to accurately and adequately reflect the literary qualities of the original biblical texts. Few English scholars ever have much influence upon the text of most English Bible versions. Instead, we give greater priority to having good biblical exegetes on English translation teams. I believe that we do need good exegetes on any translation team. But we just as much need good literary scholars so that the translation is as equivalent as possible to the biblical texts in terms of literary quality, genre and authorial differences, etc.

    Easy summarization of the *linguistic* and rhetorical flow of a translation is one of the signs of a good translation, assuming, of course, that the source text was a good composition. If it was not, then I don’t think that the translation should improve upon its literary quality. I think that the best translations are those which are not only accurate exegetically (and most English Bible versions are) but also accurate in terms of literary quality, equivalent to the literary qualities of the original text.

    There are other heuristics that can demonstrated other signs of a translation being good quality language. One is the Cloze Test in which examiner omits a few words of a translation as it is read to see how readily test subjects can fill in the missing words. Good compositions and good translations of good compositions have coherence and cohesion. Both qualities increase the percentage of omitted words which test subjects can supply for the Cloze test. Now, of course, this is not an exact science and it doesn’t account for how well test subjects will do if an unfamiliar technical word is omitted. But for a high percentage of written or spoken language, the results of Cloze Tests are quite informative.

  29. Posted March 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Most English Bible versions lack the scholarship in good quality English to be able to accurately and adequately reflect the literary qualities of the original biblical texts. Few English scholars ever have much influence upon the text of most English Bible versions. Instead, we give greater priority to having good biblical exegetes on English translation teams. I believe that we do need good exegetes on any translation team. But we just as much need good literary scholars so that the translation is as equivalent as possible to the biblical texts in terms of literary quality, genre and authorial differences, etc.

    Well said, Wayne! On this point you make, it may be helpful to consider different rhetorics, between languages and within them.

    A bit has already been done with difference between language, in terms of rhetorical devices. For example, George A. Kennedy wrote Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction in 1997 to suggest a development across cultures and languages of different people groups toward what we in the West use most for communication now. (You can imagine how critics of the book from non-Western backgrounds found it to be ethnocentric and flawed). The investigation of between-language difference has also come in sociolinguistics and TESOL, in the sub-discipline which has been called “Contrastive Rhetorics.” The earliest study was one by Robert B. Kaplan: “Cultural Thought Patterns in Intercultural Education” (in Language Learning 16, pages 1–20, 1983). Again, there have been critics from outside the Western academy, who rightly note that the etic observations of “thought patterns” can be skewed by the observer’s own framework. There is more than one rhetorical force for any given language group.

    So what’s needed, I think, is more research on various rhetorics within a single language group. Some have already begun to make clear, for example, how the Hebrew of Torah is a literary language and was not the daily spoken language of its initial readers. Bloggers here at your blog have noted the different genres and even the different effects within a single genre by a single writer — in New Testament Greek. Paul, for instance, is so much more personal and wordplayful and more powerfully rhetorical in his little letter to friend and slave owner Philemon than he is in his longer letters to the mixed Jewish-Greek congregation in Rome or even in his shorter letters to protege Timothy. And the Roman empire did not evenly appropriate the literary genres and the rhetorics of the older Greek empire. So the choice about which Greek style one used in this would-be Latin context signaled political allegiances and motivations sometimes. This is why the gospels are so fascinating, as it’s the Romans who would be the villains who crucified Jesus, but the translated spoken Aramaic of his Jewish counterparts into peculiar Greek signals to the gospel readers more of a conspiracy that gets the gospels in trouble for being or at least sounding anti-Semitic. Willis Barnstone, and Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, are ones who’ve most recently and closely looked at these sorts of rhetorics within NT Greek.

    American university English studies scholars have done a tremendous amount of work on looking at rhetorics within the USA, within American, British, and world Englishes. This brings me back to your point: In English, better Bible translations might be “as equivalent as possible to the biblical texts in terms of literary quality, genre and authorial differences, etc.” Except instead of your word “equivalent” I like better your word “match.”

    (There’s a third rhetoric to consider in the “match” between the original Bible text being translated and the English text that would match it. And that rhetoric is the rhetoric of the translator. And here is where I’d love to see more of us looking back at the choices, political and linguistic, that the first bible translators made. I’m talking about the LXX translators in Egypt under the Greeks. And I’m talking about the gospel writers translating spoken Aramaic into written Greek under the Romans. Often bible translating linguists will claim objectivity – “I’m not a sectarian, or a theologian, or a feminist, or a rhetorician of any sort” – when arguing for “clear communication for all.” But even that claim that the Bible is an even and consistently singular message for everyone can be a rhetoric, an argument, that might divide people. My daughter’s college Bible as literature professor, a professing Christian also, in the class syllabus rightly calls the Hebrew Bible a Jewish set of texts, and she humbly apologizes to her Jewish students in her classes for handling and examining the text sometimes in not-Jewish ways. Pike’s etics and emics can be very useful here, I think. Sensitivities to insiders as outsiders is very useful when linguists begin to make claims about how English translation must allow all to be equal insiders.)

  30. Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for those insights, Kurk. Appreciate the specificity, perspicuity, and irenicity. :-)

  31. Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Wayne, above all irenicity! But aren’t you engaging in “ironicity” by using those other two terms (“specificity” and “perspicuity”) for my loquacious blathering? :)

  32. Posted March 21, 2012 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    I didn’t think so, Kurk. It was sincere.

  33. ERNST WENDLAND
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Sorry to come in here at the tail-end, I’ve been away for several weeks. This was an insightful blog (thanks Mike!) and the discussion has been most interesting and informative. There’s one aspect of the issue that seems to be missing though, and that is a consideration of the oral-aural dimension of Bible texts, both in the original and in their varied translations. How legible and readable is a particular translation–aloud, that is? On the other hand, how “hearable”–clear, understandable, summarizable, even memor(iz)able is the version when heard alone, without access to the visible printed text? This factor of “orality” is not often discussed (even in secular “translation studies”), but it is crucial, I think, to the relative quality and ultimate success of any translation of Scripture. Probably this topic requires a separate blog, so over to you…

  34. Mike Sangrey
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Easy summarization of the *linguistic* and rhetorical flow of a translation is one of the signs of a good translation, assuming, of course, that the source text was a good composition. If it was not, then I don’t think that the translation should improve upon its literary quality. I think that the best translations are those which are not only accurate exegetically (and most English Bible versions are) but also accurate in terms of literary quality, equivalent to the literary qualities of the original text.

    I agree with Wayne, here. However, I’d like to bring out a correlate, often thought to be true, which is not necessarily true.

    I’ve often thought that a key differentiator between the different compositions is the intended original audience and not the capabilities of the author. That’s not to say we have a real good grasp on what those intended audiences were. It’s just to say the author seeks to communicate with his/her audience. And it’s to recognize the original intention of the writers (considered as a group) to get the message out to a broad group of people.

    I think one thing the assumption of such a differentiator might mean is that we wrongly tend to characterize poorer or better original Greek composition along a single cline. A cline which is pretty much determined by the combination of, the extant Greek documents we have, and our own somewhat myopic assessment of what quality composition should look like. We basically side with only one of the audiences of the day. And I’m not discounting that our assessment is informed by trained writers of the 1st century. It’s still a single cline, and one which is somewhat class oriented.

    What if the original audiences (I’m particularly thinking of the audiences sans Luke’s and the writer to the Hebrews) expected the structures as we find them in our Greek texts? If the answer to that is ‘yes’, then they would be able to summarize those texts relatively easily, even though they might be made fun of by their more SOPHISticated contemporaries. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself–pun is fun.)

    Perhaps Luke and Hebrews should be written to a well-educated audience. And Mark should be written more as (to cite NT Wright) “a revolutionary tract.”

  35. Posted June 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I love hearing all this talk about being able to summarize the text. I would add that the ability to summarize or ‘retell’ a text is one of the best tests of comprehension. In my line of work (bible translation in Mibu tribe of Papua New Guinea) I find that when a text is comprehensible, one can retell the jist of several semantic paragraphs at a time after hearing it read even just once. The theme and purpose of each, as well as their logical connections and how it all fits into the larger theme and purpose ought to be clear. If it’s not, then something is wrong; What God intended to communicate is not coming through.

    Additionally, my experience is that when people can read a text and it is comprehensible in their own language, they are much more likely to be changed by what God is saying. That God is indeed communicating something about himself is very real.


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