“Poetic” and “Accessible” Language

I am not usually much interested in liturgy, as I don’t see much place for formal liturgy in church (but that is not an issue for discussion here). But I did read Doug Chaplin’s post Accessible and poetic: crafting words for worship, and the principles discussed there seem to me very relevant for Bible translation. Here is a quote:

Some people hear the word “poetic” and think “obscure”, when they should be thinking “vivid”. Others hear the word “accessible” and think “bland”, when they should be thinking “inviting”.

I am all in favor of Bible translations which are poetic, if that means vivid, not obscure. And for me it is important that Bible translations are accessible, in the sense of inviting, but that should not mean that they are bland. Would anyone disagree?

13 Comments

  1. Brenda Boerger
    Posted July 22, 2013 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Hi Peter,

    You may know that I’ve done a poetic translation of the Psalms into English. One of my early readers is an adult woman who had some kind of illness (fever??) which did damage to the language functions. She had to learn to read and write and communicate anew after recovering.

    She told me that my poetic version of the psalms made it easier for her to understand what was being said than the normal NIV type translation.

    I’m hoping this is because it was vivid and inviting.

    FWIW,
    ~Brenda
    PS I’ll be at BT2013 in Dallas and presenting on translating Biblical poetry. If you’ll be here–or others will be–let’s connect.

  2. Posted July 22, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Brenda. I have seen your acrostic psalms but not the rest of your translation, so I can’t really comment. Sadly I won’t be at BT2013 as I am now only a part-timer in this field, spending most of my time running a business in Virginia.

  3. Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    When we look at the OT texts, much of it was poetry (far more than most English speakers recognize), and I believe it is important to communicate that poetic feel as much as possible into English. However, I believe it is also important to recognize that Hebrew poetic style and English poetic style are very different. A good translation should help readers understand Hebrew poetry rather than re-invent the text as English poetry. I also believe that is important to recognize that we do not have a “poetic license” when translating poetic passages of Scripture, a good translation must first remain faithful to the text itself.

    While I believe true accessibility is important, I think a lot has been unnecessarily sacrificed under the banner of accessibility. In the name of accessibility, translators are too often stepping outside their role as translators of the text and are instead seeking to encompass the roles of commentator and teacher as well. This I believe has been a huge mistake.

    I am curious about the acrostic Psalms mentioned in the prior comments. I have often thought that it would be interesting to try and preserve the acrostics found in some of the Psalms (as well as in other passages like Prov. 31) but I have never been able to find a way to do it that doesn’t require taking liberties that cross boundaries of good translation practices.

  4. Posted July 23, 2013 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    Mike, thank you for your interesting comment. I agree with the general idea of what you are suggesting, but it is of course hard to put this into practice.

    I hope Brenda can respond to you concerning acrostics.

  5. Brenda Boerger
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mike,

    [WARNING: This gets rather long.]

    I’ve written quite a bit about this (conference papers and journal articles), including:

    Forthcoming. Making biblical poetry sing in Natqgu and English. In Wendland, Ernst and Dan Fitzgerald, eds. Sing to the Lord a New Song. [We are presenting a suite of papers at BT2013 which will be collected into this volume. No publisher yet.]
    2009 On translating Psalm 136 to song tunes in English and Natqgu. Presented at Modern Language Association meeting, Philadelphia, PA.
    2009 Coloring outside the lines versus mono-chromatic translation. Presented at Bible Translation 2009 conference, Dallas, TX.
    2009 On translating Hebrew poetic devices into Natqgu. Paper presented at Translatable: Creativity and Knowledge Formation, cosponsored by Duke and UNC Chapel Hill.
    2007 On using Welsh poetic forms to translate Hebrew poetry into English. GIAL Academic Forum. Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, Dallas, Texas
    1998 Why Psalms Should be Translated Poetically. SIL and Dallas Theological Seminary’s Translation Lecture Series. Dallas Theological Seminary
    1997 Extending Translation Principles for Poetry and Biblical Acrostics. Notes on Translation 11(2):35-56.

    All of these except the first are available electronically. If you’re interested in reading more, email me and I’ll send you some. I recommend the 1997 article where I propose 10 principles for translating Biblical poetry and show how I applied them to acrostics in English.

    ***

    YOU SAID: I believe it is also important to recognize that Hebrew poetic style and English poetic style are very different. A good translation should help readers understand Hebrew poetry rather than re-invent the text as English poetry.

    BHB: I rather disagree. If we’re translating poetry as poetry, then we should translate into target language poetry. Lessons on what Hebrew poetry is/was like can be reserved for a) classes on Hebrew forms, b) footnotes. I am saying that it is NOT a prerequisite for good translation to mimic the Hebrew in the target language. We translate meaning, not form (per se, but with some caveats; see below.)

    Now at the same time, any time I get a chance to represent a Hebrew word play, poetic device, or interesting turn of phrase I will do so, especially if it does not cause the target language syntax to become so unnatural as to be incomprehensible and actually enhances comprehension.

    And furthermore I also take the stance that some of the meaning is inherent in the form. So we need to find out what form(s) in the target language have the same function and/or “borrow” the form into the target language (and explain it in a footnote). If we abandon poetic forms altogether, then we end up with something that is no longer poetry, but often merely prose formatted in poetic lines.

    ***

    YOU SAID: I also believe that is important to recognize that we do not have a “poetic license” when translating poetic passages of Scripture, a good translation must first remain faithful to the text itself.

    BHB: I think this depends on what you mean by faithfulness. Are we translating words or are we translating meaning? In the 1997 article I argue that we do have poetic license in translating Biblical poetry, as long as the meaning is preserved, whether or not the exact words and forms are used.

    ***

    YOU SAID: While I believe true accessibility is important, I think a lot has been unnecessarily sacrificed under the banner of accessibility. In the name of accessibility, translators are too often stepping outside their role as translators of the text and are instead seeking to encompass the roles of commentator and teacher as well. This I believe has been a huge mistake.

    BHB: It isn’t clear to me WHY you think this is a huge mistake. If the goal is for people to be able to understand and apply the scriptures to their own lives, then some adjustments are generally necessary.

    In our work with Natqgu speakers in the Solomon Islands, we found that the level of Biblical literacy was very low–compared to those elsewhere in the country, even, and in spite of a church presence. In that context, for the scriptures to be comprehensible AND for them to NOT communicate wrong meaning due to cultural expectations, some adjustments had to be made.

    For example, I was once the consultant checking a colleague’s translation. The passage was Acts 9:36-43 about Dorcas. The NIV for the relevant portion reads:

    39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

    In the passage I was checking the vernacular followed the text very closely. I asked the uninitiated native speakers (UNS) who were helping us WHERE the clothes were that the passage spoke about. They said, “The clothing was in the casket with Dorcas, of course.” But my understanding of the passage is that these widows (poor people were referred to earlier in the passage) were WEARING the clothes that they showed Peter, and that they were some of the “poor” referred to previously.

    This is not a major doctrinal point, but for clarity, we might say something like, “…clothing that Dorcas had made FOR THEM while…”

    ***

    YOU SAID: I am curious about the acrostic Psalms mentioned in the prior comments. I have often thought that it would be interesting to try and preserve the acrostics found in some of the Psalms (as well as in other passages like Prov. 31) but I have never been able to find a way to do it that doesn’t require taking liberties that cross boundaries of good translation practices.

    BHB: I guess your last statement gives the motivation I had in trying to identify the principles I was using to translate the acrostics into English (for fun) and then publishing the principles to see if colleagues would identify and address any fallacies in my thinking there. To date, these have not been challenged as illegitimate, though I am sure there are some (many?) who might feel somewhat uncomfortable applying them as I have. In my BT papers I’ve attempted to get input on where the boundaries are. When have I “gone too far,” so to speak. But it seems that those who attend the poetry-focused sessions are those who want to be translating more poetically and are therefore the more supportive of my colleagues.

    Here’s my translation of the acrostic from PROV 31. There’s room for improvement (as always), but for the sake of discussion…

    A GODLY MAN’S WIFE
    Proverbs 31:10-31
    A wisdom acrostic

    10-12 Her Husband
    A good wife is the crown of her husband,
    A treasure, a true find indeed.
    Because he can ultimately trust in her to
    Bring in whatever they’ll need.
    Continuously she is a blessing,
    Consecrated to bring him well-being.

    13-15 Her Home
    Dedicating her hours to working,
    Dealing in flaxes and wool,
    Every day she sails out to market,
    Entering her portals with gunnels packed full.
    First light finds her cooking and baking,
    Filling the house with the smell of good bread;
    Giving tasks for her helpers’ undertaking,
    Granting food when they do what she said.

    16-19 Her Enterprise
    Her hands are always creative,
    Her mind seeks out where to invest.
    If she buys a good field, she plants it,
    Intending it’s fruit be the best.
    Joyfully she juggles her work load,
    Just reveling in her strength and her might.
    Keenly she’s content with her profits;
    Keeps her light burning all night.
    Lady Provider lays hold of the distaff,
    Lightly spinning her wool and her flax,
    Manning also the spindle means
    Multiple spools so she never lacks.

    20-24 Her Relationships
    Now there’s no surpassing her kindness,
    Naturally helping the needy and poor.
    Our lady clothes her household in winter,
    Only rich scarlets walk out of her door;
    Purples, woolens, and linens she sews,
    Providing hers and the household’s clothes.
    Quantities of linens she weaves to sell,
    Quality belts for the merchants in town.
    Respected in the area, her husband’s known well,
    Regularly called when the elders sit down.

    25-29 Her Character
    Strength and dignity are her clothing;
    Smiles and says, “The future holds no fear.”
    Truth and wisdom proceed from her mouth;
    Teachings of kindness are what others hear.
    Unfailingly she watches over her household.
    Unceasing in her efforts all day.

    28-31 Her Example
    Voices of her children will bless her,
    Validating what her husband might say.
    “Wife–-the most wonderful woman in the world,
    Way beyond what others could claim.”
    Exceeding charm is exceedingly deceitful;
    Excessive beauty’s excessively vain.
    Yet the woman who reverences Yahweh,
    Yes, she’s the one on whom praises rain.
    Zeal for her work rewards her with fruit;
    Zestfully all praise her good way.

    Nice talking with you. I’ll be gone the rest of the day, and look forward to more dialogue on my return.

    Blessings,
    ~Brenda

  6. Posted July 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Brenda, thanks for your comment. I regret that currently all comments here are sent for moderation, which may lead to some delay in posting. I suspect your different opinions from Mike’s stem from fundamentally different approaches to how the Bible should be translated, or at least from having very different target audiences in mind.

  7. Brenda Boerger
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Peter, Mike, et al–

    I learn more from people who disagree with me. And you all have been very welcoming in the past, so I felt free to also disagree with Mike. I’m betting we’re not as far apart as it may seem, and I personally find it easier to deal with specific examples, rather than vague generalities. That is why I included the example from when I was consultant checking a colleague’s work and from my own English translations.

    I could, of course, give further examples from Natqgu, for which the acrostic Psalms were also translated acrostically, if somewhat unnaturally. Over and over we gave speakers the option to just say it in a straightforward way or to keep the A,B,C format and they always elected to keep the acrostics.

    Correction is a form of love, so keep correcting me when I err.
    ~Brenda

  8. Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I think that we should first reflect upon the fact that there is an intended meaning given all of the texts of Scripture by their inspired writers, and every Greek word that they have chosen to use is important. Even though most Greek words do have various meanings, there is a way for choosing the correct translation. All of the books, letters and gospels are written in an invariable, teaching, literary form [of the parable] as parableStories. Since we can now know the intended meaning and purpose of every verse within a given text in Greek; we will now be able to choose the most appropriate word in the translation. A brief tutorial on the literary form, with examples, is given at onlyinparables.

  9. Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    Onlyinparables, thank you for your comment. I’m not sure how your point is relevant to this post, but for once I will give you the benefit of the doubt for once. But I would disagree with your point. Even if I could grant that the whole New Testament (you seem to ignore the Old) is written in the literary form of the parable, that would by no means solve all the many exegetical difficulties in understanding the intended meaning of every part of the text.

  10. Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    I Said: While I believe true accessibility is important, I think a lot has been unnecessarily sacrificed under the banner of accessibility. In the name of accessibility, translators are too often stepping outside their role as translators of the text and are instead seeking to encompass the roles of commentator and teacher as well. This I believe has been a huge mistake.

    BHB: It isn’t clear to me WHY you think this is a huge mistake. If the goal is for people to be able to understand and apply the scriptures to their own lives, then some adjustments are generally necessary.

    My Reply: I do understand that some adjustments to the text are required in every translation. That is why I said that I believe true accessibility is important. However, I also believe that those adjustments should be as minimal as possible. It isn’t the role of the translator to resolve every theological question in their translation.

    Here are some examples where I wish translators would be more transparent, starting with the minor and moving to the more significant.

    1) In the book of Esther, the NIV translates the name אחשורוש as Xerxes. While this is a good guess, it is only a guess and a new archeological discovery just might one day prove this to be an error. I wish the NIV did not try to resolve these kinds of issues in the text itself. A footnote would have been more than adequate.

    2) In Ex. 1:5, The text uses a very flowery and unique way to describe descendants. Many translate this as “the descendants of Jacob.” Why should “ויהי כל־נפשׁ יצאי ירך־יעקב” be translated the same as “בני יעקב” or “זרע יעקב”? Is the text really inaccessible when we show the variations used by the author himself? Remember all three forms are used in Exodus, but the others are the more common way of expressing this idea. When we focus only on meaning, we loose some of the beauty of the text.

    3) “Insider” translations that seek alternative titles for “Father,” “Son,” “Lord,” “Heaven,” etc… have created significant problems. This is a good example of crossing the line in the name of “accessibility.”

    I will try to answer your other points when I have a little more time. Thanks for the response and thanks for your reply.

    Mike

  11. Brenda Boerger
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Hello Mike,

    I agree that it is possible to “go too far.” But I’m thinking we probably are somewhat divergent on where “too far” is. Compare the following two translations, where I trust we’ll be on the same page.

    NASB PS 44:1-3

    1 O God, we have heard with our ears,
    Our fathers have told us
    The work that You did in their days,
    In the days of old.
    2 You with Your own hand drove out the nations;
    Then You planted them;
    You afflicted the peoples,
    Then You spread them abroad.
    3 For by their own sword they did not possess the land,
    And their own arm did not save them,
    But Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your presence,
    For You favored them.

    NIV PS 44:1-3

    1 We have heard with our ears, O God;
    our fathers have told us
    what you did in their days,
    in days long ago.
    2 With your hand you drove out the nations
    and planted our fathers;
    you crushed the peoples
    and made our fathers flourish.
    3 It was not by their sword that they won the land,
    nor did their arm bring them victory;
    it was your right hand, your arm,
    and the light of your face, for you loved them.

    Notice in vs 2 that NIV changes they/them to “our fathers” in two places to disambiguate the third person plurals. I find this a more satisfying translation because it is clearer and easier to process and less likely to generate errors through misunderstanding. It is not necessary to be needlessly obscure when the referents for the pronouns are clear.

    Blessings on your day,
    ~Brenda

  12. Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Brenda,

    While I am not opposed to clarifying pronouns in some cases, this is one case where I think there is enough question that I would be inclined to leave the first instance of the pronoun alone and address the issues with a footnote. With the first half of this verse there is at least some ancient support for the NIV interpretation in the LXX but this reading isn’t entirely without difficulty especially when we consider the broad semantic range of ירש and its usage in the rest of the Psalm. That being said, this isn’t overly concerning to me.

    The translation of the second half of this verse in the NIV is very troubling. I don’t know of any ancient witnesses that supports this translation and their translation seems to favor bending the text to fit the poetic parallism that they wish were in this passage without regard to the meaning of the text that is in this passage. How one gets “made our fathers flourish” from ותשלחם is beyond me. Not only do I believe that they should have left the pronoun alone in this case, I also believe that they should have translated this in a way that better reflects its meaning. While I do recognize that the question about the parallelism in this verse is a question on which many translations are divided, I think the NIV goes too far here. I am uncomfortable with other translations that attempt parallelism here but at least they attempt communicate the meaning of ותשלחם. When there is a textual question this big, to make these kinds of changes without so much as even a footnote is disturbing.

  13. Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Mike and Brenda, I think we are getting rather off topic here when we discuss the exegesis of specific passages. I don’t mind a few examples, but this post is about general principles, not about details.


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