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On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

Does the Bible need some improvements, if not in content, at least in presentation? That’s one way to put the question addressed by Rev. Steve Kindle in a guest post on Dr. Bob Cornwall’s blog. I want to make some fairly picky comments on this post. As I do so, I want you to be aware that I generally applaud the goals of this post, even while disagreeing in detail.

My previous experience with prettying-up the Bible involves the violent passages. I previously reviewed Jack Blanco’s book (I have trouble calling it a translation), the Clear Word Bible. Some of his renderings are much more comfortable reading than the original, but I haven’t been able to conceive of a paradigm that would allow me to think of them as accurate. I often think, however, that some of the violent passages of scripture are saved from revision largely because so few people read them. Numbers 31 has the advantage of being in a portion of scripture rarely consulted by Christians. When they do consult it, they are often shocked and wish it would go away.

Besides honesty (or accuracy), there is a problem with smoothing out the past. It conceals the nature of scripture, of the experience with God that comes from different people at different times. Seeing trajectories of change in scripture will change our approach to how we get from the words in the book to ethical action in our world.

Rev. Kindle is primarily addressing gender language. This is a fairly controversial topic in modern Bible translation. Translations have been excluded from certain Christian book stores because of the way the represent gender. As is often the case, however, the issue was much more how one was perceived to represent gender. The same store carried other Bible translations that used gender neutral renderings. These other versions were simply less well-known. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is very involved in these issues from a conservative point of view, and are opposed by the Christians for Biblical Equality. In perusing these sites, one can see that there is a great deal of weight put on these issues in church doctrine and politics.

What is unusual in Rev. Kindle’s presentation is that it comes from a progressive Christian who supports equality. He supports gender neutral language in many endeavors, excluding one:

I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.

There is a valid distinction between those fields of endeavor. There is a great deal of difference between determining the way I will discuss God and the way I will translate. Do I refer to god solely with masculine pronouns? Do I avoid the use of pronouns at all? Those questions involve different issues when I am translating the apostle Paul, for example, as opposed to expressing my own theology. I am not a pastor, a liturgist, or a theologian. My studies were in biblical languages, and I’m a publisher. I’m interested in the words.

And that’s where we tend to get into trouble.

Whats in a Version?Most people, in my experience, view Bible translation as a singular effort, one with a definite, definable goal. I encounter this attitude almost every time I speak or teach or any other time someone manages to connect my face with my book, What’s in a Version?. The question I’m most often asked is: What is the best Bible version? Sometimes there’s a variant: What’s the most accurate Bible version?

But those questions reflect the problem. On the cover of my book I have a one-line answer: The best Bible version is the one you read!

Surely that’s a horrible answer! There have to be bad Bible translations, and I could be reading one of them! And yes, it’s not a complete answer, yet it does make a point. The task of Bible translation is not singular. There is no one “most accurate” Bible translation. There is no single “most readable” translation. In order to answer that common question I have to know who the questioner is. What is the best Bible version for you? I also need to know the activity in view. What is the best Bible version for you to use for devotional reading? What is the best Bible version to use in your study group? What is the best Bible version to use from the pulpit?

The reason is that one cannot transfer the entire meaning of a a source text into any target language. You are going to lose something. The question is what?

Let me take a short digression here. When I discuss loss of meaning I do not mean solely between the text of the source language and the tip of the pen (or the little pixels on the computer screen) of the translator. I mean loss of meaning between what a well-qualified reader of the source language could get from the source text itself, and what a reader of the target language can get from the text in the target language. There is no great value in a text which is accurate in an abstract sense, but is not understood accurately by actual readers. It follows from this that a translation must consider who is to read the text in order to determine how to express thoughts from the source accurately.

Further, understanding comes in different forms. Do I emotionally “get” the story told? Do I comprehend the facts that are narrated? Am I swept away by the literary beauty of the passage? Can I place myself in the shoes of those whose story is told, or who might have first heard the story? All of these things are desirable to various extents at various times, but successfully conveying them is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible to do everything at once. I cannot, for example, convey the rhetorical impact of the Greek of To The Hebrews while also making every point of theology clear to an American audience.

I know readers will object that it is up to teachers and preachers to get the theology right, and they may be correct, but that is a choice in what will be translated. I could then say, “Translation X conveys the theology of Hebrews with great clarity, while translation Y gives one a feel for the literary tour-de-force executed by the author.” The author, however, was intending to convey his (or her, I must concede) theological points in a powerful and compelling exhortation. Where do I compromise?

This is why some have commented on the irenic tone of my book. It’s not that I’m such a peaceable personality, or that I am a great peacemaker, though I would love to be. The reason is that I believe that there are many possible goals for Bible translation and that there are many audiences for which one might translate. Thus there are many possible ways in which one can (and should) translate, so I have less of a tendency to condemn any particular rendering. I do not mean that all translations are equal. I do not mean that there are no wrong translations. I simply mean that there are multiple right translations within various parameters.

I am disturbed when I hear preachers and teachers refer to translations that are supported by significant numbers of scholars as “mistaken” or just as “errors in translation.” This presents the task of translation as too simple. There are many legitimate disagreements which should be referenced as such. Reserve the word “error” for a translation that cannot be justified.

But to get back to the gender issue, Bob, in his introduction brings it up,

Thus, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible will, where the translators deem appropriate, translate a word like adelphoi, the Greek word for brother as “brothers and sisters.”

and Rev. Kindle uses similar phraseology (9th paragraph from the end):

“Member” here is literally, “brother.”

I have been accused of not giving users of the word “literal” the sort of latitude I give with any other word, i.e. recognizing that words have different meanings. The problem with “literal,” especially in circumstances such as these, is that it is extremely susceptible to equivocation. As its use has developed in the language, it is often heard as “accurate” or “faithful” when those who use it intend something more like “simple,” “direct,” or “most common meaning.”

In this case I would disagree with the usage in either case. The Greek word adelphos or its plural adelphoi may have as its referent either a male person (or group of males, as appropriate), or a person of undefined gender, or a group of both men and women. It is probably significant that the masculine form was used in both cases, though it is very easy to take grammatical gender too far in translating a language in which grammatical and natural gender do not match.

Similarly, until recently (change is still in progress) we used “he” to refer to a generic person in English, and “men” and “brethren” to refer to groups of mixed gender. In groups I have been able to survey informally, there seems to be a break right around 40 years of age (adjusted for the passage of time) as to how this usage is understood. Older people will understand “brethren” as including both genders when a group is addressed, while younger ones do not. A pastor illustrated this to me very clearly when he objected to the NRSV because of its gender neutral language. He couldn’t see how “brothers and sisters” was an accurate translation of adelphoi, so he would stick to the more accurate (in his view) RSV. The next Sunday he was reading scripture and he came to a passage in Paul where the apostle was clearly addressing an entire congregation. He stopped, looked up, and said, “And that includes you sisters too!” Clearly he knew some in his congregation would not hear the passage as inclusively as it was intended.

This would apply differently in different passages. For example:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism (James 2:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

The words “brothers and sisters” here translated the Greek adelphoi. I think it unlikely that James intended men in the congregation to eschew favoritism, while the women were allowed to practice it. He addresses the whole congregation. Yet if I read the usage of the English language correctly, a congregation with people largely below the age of forty would hear the passage as excluding women if we used the “literal” translation “brothers.”

On the other hand, we have James 3:1:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

Now here we have a historical decision to make. My belief is that there were many more women teaching in the early church than we have imagined. This is not the place to argue the point. If, on the other hand, one believes that only men were permitted to teach, this would lose historical information as translated by the NIV, as “fellow believers” is here also a translation of the Greek adelphoi. (Another interesting question is whether “fellow believers” or “brothers and sisters” is the more literal rendering of adelphoi. But I will avoid diving into the morass of meanings for the word “literal” that would evoke.)

This is different, however, from the kind of effort made by The Inclusive Bible, which changes many cases in which the original intent of the passage, by which I mean in this case the original referent, is not inclusive. The passage Rev. Kindle quotes from 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, for example, if it is original to the epistle (I believe, with Gordon Fee, that it is not), certainly is not intended as inclusive. That case is very different from either of the cases I referenced in the book of James.

These cases should be handled differently, according to the nature of the audience and the usage in the target language. Right now we are somewhat in transition on inclusive language in English, and that will complicate the work of the translator, and even the liturgist. Something that is heard one way by part of the congregation may be heard in the opposite way by another.

In addition, we need to recognize multiple goals in the use of our ancient texts. We do not translate just to convey data. We also translate for liturgy, for devotion, for prayer, for meditation, and for other goals. The particular way we handle the material at hand must take this different uses into consideration. There are certainly illegitimate translations (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 above from The Inclusive Bible, and many Old Testament passages from The Clear Word, for example) but there are also multiple legitimate goals and multiple audiences to which the translator will hope to convey something of the source text.

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

When I wrote yesterday about the HCSB introduction and its use of the label “optimal equivalence” I fully intended to write another post complaining about that introduction. And I will mention the other issue briefly in this post. But something else was drawn to my attention in the meantime.

Let me lay a foundation. Some years ago I was chatting about a particular Bible passage with a young person who was also a new Christian. We were discussing the best rendering of a particular verse in the Old Testament and when I defended the version we were looking at he said, “Wouldn’t ____ (naming a well-known figure) know best, since he reads Hebrew?” Now I didn’t point out that I read Hebrew as well, which was, perhaps, relevant! But I did point out that the translation we were examining had been made by a committee of several people, each of whom read Hebrew, and then it was reviewed by editorial committees, many of whom read Hebrew. They should get some credit!

This is one thing that concerns me when I hear pastors or teachers say, “This is how this text should be translated …” or “What the Greek text really means is ….” I’ve commented before that you’re generally about to be misinformed when someone says that. But even when an expert makes a comment about just what a translation should be, I have concerns. (Note that I’ve never heard someone say “what the Greek text really means” who was well-qualified in the language. They just don’t talk that way.)

My concern even when the linguistic information to follow is accurate is that this suggests to people that our Bible translations are carelessly put together by people with less language skills than the average pastor. Anyone with a few minutes and a reasonable pastor’s library can correct the work of the Bible translation committee! That’s simply not accurate. It also feeds a concern amongst many Christians that they cannot truly get to the meaning of scripture because so much is lost in translation, and they don’t have the time or talent to acquire facility with the source languages.

People like these come up to me in church hallways all the time. They’ve heard me introduced as knowing Greek and Hebrew, usually in exaggerated terms. “Reads Greek as well as you read English,” is one line that’s been used. I don’t know where they get that. No, most English readers exceed my speed at reading Greek. My main claim to fame is that I have kept my Greek and Hebrew up. I read my devotions in the original languages, so my comprehension is better than average, but I have not kept abreast of all the best linguistic scholarship. Nonetheless, people ask me what’s the best Bible translation. Can they trust the translation they’re using? What wonderful insights can I give them quickly that are missing from their Bible version?

These kinds of questions result, I think, from a profound ignorance about how Bible translations are made, who makes them, and the general quality of the work. I don’t want to diminish the value of knowing biblical languages. I wouldn’t trade that training for anything. But the best use to make of such knowledge is to deepen your own understanding of the scriptures, and then express that deeper understanding in words that people in the pews can understand. You don’t have to tell them with every insight how wonderfully smart you are because you know the languages.

The fact is that we have a very good set of translation options. Most—nearly all, I think—significant errors in interpretation can be avoided simply by carefully studying your text in context from your translation, and then comparing a few other translations to check your work. Properly using the linguistic comments of a few commentaries will help you even more. (May I recommend a book that I publish, “In the Original Text It Says …”?)

My point here is that Bible translators, in general, are a skilled and dedicated group of people who have provided a number of excellent translations for the English-speaking world.

Barring a couple of really troubling efforts, such as Jack Blanco’s Clear Word, any critique I offer relates to details and general approach. I don’t intend to call a translation bad unless I say it outright, for example, The Clear Word is a bad translation, if it can even properly be called a translation. So when I publish a couple of posts criticizing something in the HCSB introduction, I’m not trying to tell you it’s a bad translation. It’s not. It’s quite good. As with most translations, I disagree with some renderings.

Here’s some key points I try to remember in order to avoid the potential pitfalls. How successful am I?

  • Most “errors” reported in a Bible translation are not errors. Yes, I mean that. I have found very few translations for which I cannot find the justification. I may not agree with that justification, but it exists. For example, the following are not errors: Choosing a different textual variant than I prefer, translating a Greek genitive as a different type than I think appropriate, finding the English translation in a different part of the semantic range of a word, choosing a different option for what a clause modifies, using English words that I think are less than well-known by people in the pews. Each of those things can be annoying. I’ll criticize it in the translation. But that simply means that I would make another choice than the translation committee did. In general, there were more of them with higher level degrees. Read my arguments and make your choice. Reserve the word “error” for an error of fact, such as citing that reading incorrectly, proposing a meaning for a word that has no foundation at all, or using an English word that doesn’t fall in the semantic range of the word in the source language. You’ll find that translation committees make very few errors under this latter definition.
  • Say “I disagree” or I would prefer” rather than “this is wrong” or “the right way to translate this is.” It’s not a matter of uncertainty, or not caring about the truth. It’s a matter of giving credit to qualified people who disagree.
  • Don’t preach about translation differences. Preach about the text and the message of the text. You can almost always do this well in English without trotting out your Greek and Hebrew knowledge.
  • Say some good things about Bible translators. I have some concerns about the priority placed on providing more and more English translations as opposed to providing for those who have no translation, or even don’t have the quality we have in English. But these people are doing good work for the Lord and your congregation should know about them and be thankful for them.
  • When the foundation of your difference is theological, make sure people know it. Sometimes our theology influences our translation. It could hardly be otherwise. That overlaps closely with thoroughly studying the context. If I understand Paul’s theology in one way, I am going to be influenced away from a linguistically sustainable translation that has him teaching something else. The theology matters.

But this last point leads me to my other complaint from the HCSB introduction. It’s under the heading “The gender language policy in Bible translation.”

Some people today ignore the Bible’s teachings on distinctive roles of men and women in family and church and have an agenda to eliminate those distinctions in everhy arena of life. These people have begun a program to engineer the removal of a perceived male bias in the English language. The targets of this program have been such traditional linguistic practices as the generic use of “man” or “men,” as well as “he,” “him,” and “his.”

I resemble that remark. Well, not very much. You see, I prefer “people” to “men,” “humankind” to “mankind,” and “brothers and sisters” rather than “brothers” or “brethren.” I’ve found, in surveying folks I teach, that there is a bit of a generation gap on these terms. Younger people tend to hear “men” as referring just to male persons. Older folks understand it generically. So my approach in translation is to translate as I think my audience understands the term.

I was quite amused by a former pastor of mine who complained bitterly about the use of “brothers and sisters” to translate the Greek adelphoi. In the NRSV this is done when the translators thought the referrent was a group including both genders. He preferred the older RSV because of this issue. Yet when he read from the RSV in church and came to “brothers” he’d look up and say, “That means you sisters as well!” He complained about the translation, but he knew about the problem with understanding, and his pastor’s gift kicked in to make sure nobody felt left out.

But having said that, I don’t think I’m ignoring the Bible’s teaching on “distinctive roles of men and women.” I disagree on where lines should be drawn. You may think I’m wrong, but I assure you my motivation is not to avoid the teaching of scripture. I simply read it differently.

Could we not simply say something like, “We believe that gender distinctions should be maintained in the language and have translated according to the Colorado Springs guidelines? (The introduction references these in the next paragraph.)

The issue of gender roles and gender languages is a legitimate topic of debate. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t make this kind of issue, on either side, a matter of questioning one’s commitment to scripture or the quality of one’s work on Bible translation.

In my little charting program (MyBibleVersion.com) I rate translations on such issues. The point is that you can use this information to pick a translation that you are comfortable with. Find the NRSV annoying because of gender language? The ESV handles the issue differently while otherwise following a similar translation philosophy. And so on …

Optimal Equivalence and the HCSB

Optimal Equivalence and the HCSB

It has been some time since I complained about something in a Bible translation, so here goes! In this case it’s not the translation itself, but rather the description of the translation in the introduction.

I used the HCSB in church today, and I noticed something interesting about the way the name of God is used. In most cases, they use LORD for YHWH, but in one case they used Yahweh. According to the introduction, they use Yahweh if there is an emphasis on the name and what the name is. I haven’t looked at how they make this determination, but it would make an interesting study. I’m using the Nook edition, which loses the small caps on LORD, so it comes out as Lord in the edition. The print edition uses the long standing conventions for indicating the name of God.

This was not, however what got on my nerves. Translations handle the name of God in a variety of ways. I just wanted to know how they justified their approach. On the way to finding this explanation I found their description of their translation philosophy. They reject both “dynamic (or functional) equivalence” and “formal equivalence” in favor of “optimal equivalence.”

So what is optimal equivalence? Amongst the various things that seem to characterize it are an acknowledgement that neither formal nor functional equivalence can be followed absolutely, that form cannot completely be separated from meaning, and that the text should be exhaustively analyzed at all levels. Then using “the latest and best language tools and experts, the nearest corresponding semantic and linguistic equivalents are used to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text with as much clarity and readability as possible.”

That, of course, is completely contrary to the intention of other translators who ….

Well, actually, that’s pretty much how translators describe their work. Naming it “optimal equivalence” is just marketing speak. In fact, I think the HCSB has failed in these goals in a number of cases, as do most translations (see my notes on the HCSB). Doubtless were I to put my best effort into accomplishing those goals in a translation, I would fail numerous times. So claiming these ideas as a distinguishing feature of a particular translation is, to put it mildly, a bit misleading. The point is not that the HCSB, contrary to other translations, wants “to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text … as possible.” Rather, they tend to approach that goal in their own particular way, and you can find a statement on that in their introduction as well: “… form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed (for example, nouns to verbs or third person ‘they’ to second person ‘you’) unless comprehension demands it.” That suggests that they lean toward formal equivalence, and indeed, my own analysis, done a couple of years ago, supports my initial impression.

I don’t want to be too negative about this particular translation. I actually find it overall quite readable. It’s a credible and usable translation, though not my favorite. The issue is that it is not some sort of break through in translation theory or practice. Everybody tries to accurately convey what’s in their source text via the target language. The question is just what information is regarded as most important (you’re going to lose something) and how that information can best be conveyed.

And that is where the very legitimate differences in translation philosophies occur.

KJV Only and Pisseth Against the Wall

KJV Only and Pisseth Against the Wall

I found these two videos after reading this post. I post these because they are so humorous in the way they proudly and piously display extreme ignorance.

First, 7 common sense reasons why we should never leave the KJV BIBLE. What is even more humorous about this is that it is listed under the category “education.”

Then the one with preaching about “pisseth against the wall”, who is “Pastor Steven L Anderson, pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, expounds on the King James Bible phrase, “him that pisseth against the wall.” (according to his info on YouTube.)

If you can’t self-fisk these, see my FAQ on Bible Translations for a good start. You can also check out the pamphlet I edited, What About the KJV?.

Oops! Forgot the hat tip: One Thing I Know

From my Blogroll: Better Bibles, Baptists, and Brothers

From my Blogroll: Better Bibles, Baptists, and Brothers

Better Bibles was one of the earliest entries on my blogroll, and one of the blogs I read before I began blogging myself. I look to the authors for lots of challenging material on Bible translation. They often go much deeper than I would. But these posts are not just about explaining who’s on the blogroll. My plan is to interact with a post.

Wayne Leman posted the Baptist is in. In which he discusses the “clarification” provided by the New Living Translation in John 1:6, in which “just plain John” (John in the text), gets the added identifier of “Baptist.” There’s no doubt that this is a reference to the person we call John the Baptist, so just what precisely is the problem with more clearly identifying him?

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. The identification is true, and the identification is true. This isn’t an issue of a difference between the ambiguity in Greek and in English. Whether it’s Greek or English, the same clarity is achieve with name, or the combination of name and title.

Doug at Metacatholic brought up some excellent issues in his post The NLT and the intrusive baptist. The author of John apparently did not see the need for clarity here, and in fact may have had some reasons for expressing things precisely as he did. Now I’d normally comment about now that rhetorical devices that are not noticed by the audience are irrelevant. In other words, if a test audience got no different meaning from a translation that included “baptist” and one that did not, what difference does it make? In this case, however, I think that because there is, in fact, no essential difference between the Greek and English usage, in other words, the inclusion of the title or not has the same impact in both languages, we have a clear choice. In this case we would not be expressing the same thought as was in the Greek using different English wording. Rather, we would justly be accused of modifying the intention of the Greek author.

Let me contrast this to another controversial translation issue where I would make the opposite choice. I happened to encounter this today in 2 Corinthians 13:11, in which Paul’s address of “adelphoi” is translated “brothers and sisters” with the unfortunate footnote, “13:11 Greek Brothers.” Actually “adelphoi” was the proper form of address to an audience of mixed genders in the Greek of Paul’s day. In the dialect of English most dominant where I work, “brothers” would refer to men. The Greek doesn’t say “brothers” it says “adelphoi” and the best English expression available to convey that meaning today is “brothers and sisters.”

I think there would be little controversy if we just happened to have three words, brothers, sisters, and _____, a word used to address an audience of both men and women. I think few would doubt, in that case, that we should use _____ as a translation in this case.

Why I Hate the KJV

Why I Hate the KJV

It’s about time for one of my periodic posts on the King James Version, signaled by comments from a KJV-Only advocate to some earlier posts.

As is usual, the commenter does not interact with anything I say about this issue, but merely affirms the need for a solid foundation, provided in the KJV. In this case, the commenter tells me that the KJV has never been proven wrong. I can hear his question: How can you be so perverse as to fail to give homage to the Bible. To the KJV-Only advocate, Psalm 19:7 does not read “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” but instead reads “The King James Version is perfect, converting the soul.” This particular commenter didn’t ask me why I hate the KJV, but that usually comes somewhere in the discussion.

Well, the answer is that I do not, in fact, hate the KJV. The title is tongue in cheek, though I wouldn’t be surprised to have it used as evidence of my hate. I also do not hate the Douai-Rheims version, the Geneva Bible, Wycliffe’s translation, or the Latin Vulgate. I just don’t recommend that you use any of those as your primary study Bible nor do I recommend you use them for scripture readings. Some exceptions can be allowed for those who are experts in the appropriate language. I consult all of those except Wycliffe on a fairly regular basis.

The KJV is simply one translation of the Bible. It is special because of the time, place, and circumstances of its translation. It is, perhaps, the single most important accomplishment of English Bible translation, though that would be debatable. Its translators worked out some quite good translation principles, and they worked with substantial literary skill. To one who has any feel for the language of that period it is truly a work of beauty. (I must, however, give a nod to the considerable subjective element in beauty. I find it beautiful.)

Having said that, it is also an historical artifact. It is no longer easily understood by modern audiences. Our knowledge of the Biblical languages has advanced. We have many new manuscripts available, and we also have more advanced tools with which to study them. As a choice to use as a study Bible today, or for Bible readings in church, or as a reading Bible, it is not good for the majority of readers. I would make an exception for that small group of people who have actually mastered that language.

The KJV-Only movement is thankfully getting smaller. It has the effect of turning people away from the Bible rather than toward it. It is largely a means of maintaining personal authority for pastors and teachers who have placed their dependence on a particular English version rather than either going to the original languages, or using multiple translations to help get perspective.

Again, I must make clear that I do not refer in the previous paragraph to people who prefer the KJV while respecting other translations, or to pastors who use the KJV in teaching a congregation where that was the preference. I question the wisdom of such a thing, but I do not call it dangerous. What I call dangerous is the teaching that the KJV is the one, true word of God.

I used to write about this frequently, but I don’t any more, fundamentally because I’ve run out of things to say, and I haven’t seen a new or interesting KJV-Only argument to which I can respond in some years. They just repeat the same thing over and over. I’m more interested now in getting people to move to newer versions that are suitable for outreach, such as the CEV, TNIV, or NCV amongst others.

But having gotten some comments I just had to blow off a bit of steam on the topic. I now return you to your regular programming.

Crossway ESV Literary Study Bible

Crossway ESV Literary Study Bible

Regular readers of this blog (that imaginary group every blogger hopes he has!) will know that I am not a fan of the [tag]ESV[/tag]. More precisely, I’m not a fan of the hype that surrounds it in certain circles. It’s not a bad translation in my view–it’s just not very special.

Thus I was not immediately attracted to ESV, The Literary Study Bible despite the very attractive title. I think literary study of the Bible is one of the key elements that is lacking in Bible study by many Christians. Besides the specific benefits of the various literary disciplines, simply relating Biblical material to the metanarrative can improve one’s memory, if nothing else. I’m reminding of a lady who was in a study group I led. After about six months she suddenly got an expression of wonder and surprise in the middle of a session and announced, “I finally see it! It’s all connected!”

Adrian Warnock has printed an extract from this Bible (12 Literary Features of the Bible) with the permission of Crossway, and that one section is enough to spark my interest. I will certainly place this on my list to buy and use, and perhaps review here once I’ve had time to enjoy it a bit myself.

I must note that there are some nuances of the 12 features that I would state a bit differently, but without context, it’s hard for me to tell just how far I differ, so I will save my quibbles until after I have actually read and worked with this Bible. As it stands, I welcome a new tool for students of the Bible in English. Anything that directs people to another perspective from which to study will be helpful.

Translation, Exposition, and Communication

Translation, Exposition, and Communication

Yes! I have found another pretentious title for a relatively simple post!

I’ve been following the discussion around the blogosphere about literary translation, which has involved any number of blogs. I’ve been too busy to write about it. I was about to start last night, and then Doug at Metacatholic said part of what I wanted to say, and I waited until this morning to put it all together a bit more.

In working with secular literature, and even with much religious or spiritual literature, there are many ways in which a work can be transformed to reach a particular audience. One of the methods I’ve been playing around with is simply writing a very short fictional piece that tries to teach the same lesson (example here). The point here is not to produce professional fiction or for the teacher to produce a “better” story, but rather for students to study the story by changing its form. I would ask students to tell a story from their own lives or to create a fictional one to teach the lesson. In studying Bible stories I also use the technique of having students tell the story from someone else’s point of view (see the section toward the end on Ahab’s Viewpoint).

In secular literature we can have a book re-presented as a condensed book, a movie, a play, a children’s edition, illustrated edition, modernized (for an older work), and so forth. In each presentation, there are many choices made in terms of what of the original work will be presented again and what will be left out. Any time one changes the presentation, one loses something, and one may also gain something. The person who alters the form may well instill some additional meaning into the work that was not there before.

But in Bible translation it seems to me that we tend to operate in fear of doing it the wrong way. Now don’t get me wrong here. I have very strong preferences in terms of Bible translation. I’m an advocate of dynamic equivalence, and of using ordinary, natural expressions in the target language. That is what I want most in a translation. If you think about it, and then realize that the most common thing I’m doing with a Bible translation is using it in a teaching context, you will realize that my preference of translation and my purpose tend to line up. One must add that I do not pretend to teach my classes Greek or Hebrew (unless that’s the subject!) and thus I am uninterested in a presentation of the forms of the source language.

Nonetheless, as I talk about translations, I tend very strongly to speak in terms of lines of division. There are formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence, and never shall the twain meet. Now I actually believe there is a continuum (illustrated here), but that continuum easily gets lost in discussion.

Let’s take [tag]The Message[/tag] for example. The key question people ask me, and the one I’m likely to bring up if they don’t, is whether this version is really a translation or not, and whether it is “good to use.” I can then analyze the language, and how close it is to the source, and in general I must admit that The Message doesn’t seem to me to reflect the original very accurately in many cases.

But let’s shift context. Would I say the same thing about [tag]Eugene Peterson[/tag]’s teaching or his exposition in other material that he has written? There’s a bright line there that we may not always acknowledge. If he’s expounding, it’s OK. If he’s translating, well, not so much. What we are generally looking for is a solid line that divides working with the original languages from translation, and then working with a translation from someone’s exposition.

But is such a line realistic? Let’s compare my reading of Hebrew, for example, to that of a Rabbi who has spent his entire life working strictly with the Hebrew text. Alternatively we could compare my reading to someone who has spent his entire life studying comparative ancient near eastern languages, which is closer to my own study. Since I went from that study at the MA level to teaching Bible at the popular level, I have spent a great deal less time in the details. I would expect there to be points that either of those experts would see in the text that I would easily miss. When I read their expositions, I see this in action.

Let me belabor the point a bit before I build on it. I had read Leviticus through in Hebrew several times on my own, and done so in connection with Nahum Sarna’s JPS commentary, for example, but then I picked up Leviticus with Jacob Milgrom’s three volume Anchor Bible set. I claim to study from the original languages, and I do–in a sense. But not like that!

On the other hand I regularly encounter preachers who say that they prepare their sermons from the original languages, and yet can barely work through the material word by word. Now don’t take this as criticism. I congratulate them for using all the tools at their disposal, but their specialty and their calling doesn’t allow them to become experts in everything.

Hopefully that portrayal will do to show three levels of reading of the source texts–the expert in the texts, the person with facility in the language yet who does not professionally research on linguistic issues, and the pastor/teacher who knows some of the language. Anyone with experience could fill in the blanks either direction.

We could similarly work our way through a continuum of levels of study with various English translations, based on how accurately the text conveys the maximum possible content of the source text. Somewhere in there we should fit someone who studies from multiple English versions.

Finally, if we keep looking, we’ll find those persons who really don’t learn directly from the text or a translation at all, but rather learn the Bible in their community through exposition. There is a contempt in conservative Christianity for such people, but there are many who do know their Bibles quite well simply because they are regularly in the church when the scriptures are read and expounded, or they get similar knowledge from reading. This kind of thing makes folks like me nervous, because there are plenty of written materials that I believe distort the meaning.

Now note that the continuum I have presented is based solely on comprehending the intended message of the text. If I were to abandon that particular question, I might ask instead what methods of study and exposition result in the greater absorption of the spirit of the text by the students. That would result in quite a different list.

I could again shift views and try to build a continuum based on what produces a community sense of worship in reading scripture. This is a tremendously neglected area in many protestant churches. The information content is the sole criterion. The notion of the scripture reading as a vehicle for community worship is rarely considered. I can evoke cries of dismay when I suggest that respect for the scriptures might well be enhanced by reading all four lectionary texts on a Sunday. There seems to be a sense that if we don’t talk about it, if there is no sermon that builds directly on all those texts, there is no point in reading them. That comes from the idea that only knowledge is important.

When reading scripture for worship, the literary quality of the text becomes more important, and especially the sound of the text when read aloud. Out of modern versions I like the sound of the [tag]New Jerusalem Bible[/tag] or the [tag]Revised English Bible[/tag] in public reading, but I know a number of people who would still go for the [tag]KJV[/tag] solely for its literary beauty. Now I don’t happen to like the KJV all that well myself, but I believe that literary taste has only a small objective portion and a very large subjective portion (a few notes on this here).

If I were to work solely from my own tastes, I would suggest trying to match the literary quality of the original in translation. If so, [tag]Hebrews[/tag] should be harder to read, even when you know all the vocabulary words, than is [tag]1 John[/tag]. But of course it should not merely be harder to read; that’s just a product of someone not steeped in the language and rhetorical techniques reading a rather sophisticated text. The translation would need to be a literary masterpiece in English. My question would be this: Can you do that without reorganizing the material? In order to present the message of Hebrews as perhaps a masterful short theological essay, would we not need to take liberties with the structure of the book? After all, few English readers even notice the various literary features.

What I’m suggesting here is that none of these issues are binary issues, and that there are very few absolutely right and wrong answers. I use the slogan “the best Bible version is one your read.” My point is that different people will be comfortable reading, and will understand different Bible versions. There will always be a compromise on what is conveyed and what is filtered out by the translation choices. That is simply a feature of translating, transforming, or expounding a message.

One last note for those working on single translations into languages that are likely to have only one. There I can think of no better goal than “clear, accurate, and natural.” It’s very easy to set goals that are out of range of human thinking. In English, where so much effort is expended, we have the luxury of using multiple version and thousands of books of exposition to get the message across. In languages much less privileged–or abused–that doesn’t exist. There I would have to say that having something clear, accurate, and natural would come before anything else.

I sense that understanding in Peter Kirk’s post “Literary Translation” and Obfuscation, which I think brings up a number of points. Look at that post from the perspective of a Bible translator who is not adding yet another English translation to the literature.

Let me note the following from John Hobbins: Is Literary Translation Possible and If a text is literary, its dynamic equivalent in translation must also be literary From the second I take the following:

But that means that dynamic equivalent translations like the Good News Bible and the Contemporary English Version are improperly done. For vast swathes of the Old Testament, the translation they offer is not literary enough.

My point would simply be that I don’t accept the phrase “improperly done.” They are done according to the goals of their translators. The proposed “literary” translation would not accomplish that goal. Let me belabor the point some more. I love reading the [tag]REB[/tag]. It sits open on the reading stand by my computer because I love to consult it. I love to read it aloud. But I cannot use it in teaching, because I end up with too little understanding of the text. What to me is literary beauty obscures the meaning for them.

For my goals in teaching, the REB is “improperly done.” But for my goals in reading and study, it is quite “properly done.”

Culture, Translation, and Literal Meaning

Culture, Translation, and Literal Meaning

I just read two excellent articles on Bible translation, one on a blog, and the other coming to me via e-mail. It seems to be very difficult for people to get an idea of just how language works. The notion that each word has a fixed, eternal, precise meaning just seems to hang on. Learning a foreign language will help, as will reading material from earlier in your own language’s history.

The first article is by fellow Moderate Christian Blogroll member Eddie Sue Arthur [I originally credited this article to Eddie, but it is really by Sue. I apologize deeply for miscrediting it] who asks Can you close the door?. It may seem simple enough, but as Sue will demonstrate, it can be somewhat more complicated than that for Bible translators. Not only do words mean different things at different times and in different places, but they also occur in idiomatic expressions in which the word isn’t unit of meaning at all.

Sue’s article is straightforward and simple, and I recommend it to anyone who is struggling to understand why Bible translation cannot be a more absolute and objective process.

The second article came via the Bible Translation Mailing List which presents an article by Kermit Titrud titled Critique of the English Standard Version and “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out By God” by Wayne Grudem in Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. Wheaton, Il.: Crossway Books, 2005. (You have to say that title on one breath or it doesn’t count!)

Update: This article is now also available on the Better Bibles Blog.

This article examines translations in the [tag]ESV[/tag] and in [tag]dynamic equivalence[/tag] translations that are criticized by Wayne Grudem. The fundamental issue is the same. Languages are very different and finding equivalent expressions requires effort and often will not look very much like the form of the original at all.

I strongly recommend both of these articles, and for non-specialists especially the first.

Personality and Bible Translation Preference

Personality and Bible Translation Preference

My post yesterday, titled must personality, is in response to a two part series by Wayne Leman over at Better Bibles. You can check out part 1 and part 2 there, along with a quite substantial number of comments.

Wayne says that his initial thesis, which he presents even though he feels it was disconfirmed, was this:

Those with whom I disagreed with about Bible translation were so set (whoops, sorry, deeply principled!) in their ways. And those with whom I have had some of the most difficult interactions in the past often have scored with a “T” (Thinking) on the Myers-Briggs profile. So I assumed that those who believed so strongly in the value of literal Bible translations and lack of value of idiomatic Bible versions must also be a Myers-Briggs “T”.

I’m wondering, however, if there isn’t still some point to his hypothesis. I’m one of those Ts, though I generally agree with Wayne on Bible translations. But I have an almost compulsive need to read things in their original languages. Even in such languages as Akkadian which I read only with the most tedious effort, I still like to at least check key points of any translation I’m using. Now my limited ability indicates I should probably give more credence to the translation, but I still go look.

Now perhaps many T personalities don’t have the same experience I have had with discovering translations that are literal but misleading. If they don’t have the time, energy, talent, or whatever else it takes to study the original languages, perhaps they would be driven, unlike me, to go to the translation that feels closest from their point of view. I rarely use the NASB, for example, because I can produce that for a passage in a few minutes, and do so regularly as my “working translation.”

On the other hand, even having produced an essentially literal translation, I am often at a loss for English words that express well the thought that I’m sensing in the text. I can go to the [tag]NRSV[/tag] to check my work, so to speak, but to get effective wordings in English I’m more likely to check the [tag]CEV[/tag], [tag]REB[/tag], [tag]NJB[/tag], or [tag]TNIV[/tag], along with a number of others.

It’s just a thought.

PS: For those in the comment thread over at Better Bibles, I haven’t commented because one is required to have a blogger account, and I can’t even remember my ID. Hopefully I’ll find it at some point. I’ve never had a “blogger” blog, but I did at one point have an account.