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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.

Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

J. K. Gayle links to me in a post regarding the notion of “canon.” There’s a good discussion going in the comments as well. Let me note in passing that the label “personal canon” grates on me a bit. Let me be clear that I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m referring to my reaction to it. I observe that it is often quite descriptive.

In the same post, he refers also to a canon of essays, and to the biblical canon(s), besides my sort of personal canon of Bible translations. I have dabbled in both of those areas myself, though I’m much less qualified (by virtue of reading) to comment on a canon of essays for educational reading than I am on the canon of scripture.

In fact, I have made a bit of a personal journey regarding the biblical (and extra-biblical) canon. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and the SDA church affirms 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as do most protestant organizations. But SDAs, in addition, grant authority to the writings of Ellen G. White.

Many SDAs will likely object to this characterization and make the claim that they base all their beliefs on the Bible, but in my own experience, I encountered many people who placed Ellen White’s writings above the Bible. If there was a dispute about the interpretation of a Bible passage, Ellen White’s interpretation settled it for them. In cases where Ellen White was clearly wrong, they would insist that what Ellen White said was, in fact, what the Bible meant.

In addition, in areas on which the Bible is silent, they would accept Ellen White’s word as final in many areas, just as much as if they had read it in the Bible. So in practice, Ellen White’s writings became part of the canon of scripture.

So why don’t Seventh-day Adventists want to admit just how they use the writings of Ellen White? It’s this matter of canon. People in other organizations who make lists don’t include Ellen White, and if you want to be included by those people, you can’t violate the list. Other groups depart from Christian orthodoxy more than do SDAs, but they also claim to adhere to the lists.

When I returned to a Christian denomination some years after I left Adventism, it was  United Methodist congregation. Now Methodists affirm the same 66 books that SDAs affirm, but in general their theology is much more friendly to the extra-canonical books, and I personally tend to use a canon that includes the apocrypha. For what it’s worth, this is much easier to do if you are not too much of a literalist.

So whether I like the sound of “personal canon” all that much, it applies to me in some ways.

Similarly, while not dealing with essays, I have previously argued (here and here) that lists of great literature may not be as great as their advocates suggest. So I’m on this subjectivity bandwagon in all three of those areas. All of which leads people to trot out phrases like “post-modern morass of subjectivity.” So do I see any standards at all?

Let me go back to Bible translations. I maintain that different translation approaches convey different information from the source to the receptor language, or my help to communicate different things between the author of the source and the reader of the receptor. So there are aspects of the source texts of the Bible I can get from a formal translation such as the NRSV, but at the same time there are things that this misses. There are other things I can get from the CEV or even from The Message.

Enter the term “paraphrase.” Now to translation theorists, “paraphrase” has a rather precise meaning, but in common discussions it has become a pejorative for translations that are considered too loose to even be considered real translations. Thus someone might say: “The Message is not a translation, it’s a paraphrase.” I’ve heard this sentence or its equivalent regarding any of the dynamic or functional equivalence translations, in which case the speaker defines “translation” as something like a formal equivalence translation.

In practice, again, what takes a translation across the line, or puts it beyond the pale, may be quite variable. For example, is converting measures to modern units translation, paraphrase, or commentary? If you think that’s an easy issue, consider the measurements for Ezekiel’s temple (start in Ezekiel 40) and consider how that passage would read with precisely converted measurements. In that case one would substitute conveying an accurate idea of the distances involved for potentially conveying the symbolic meaning of the numbers (if any), or the fact that the numbers are round numbers.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that there is a range of different translation options, and while we might what to define what is and what is not translation, there is a range of activities that may be called translation, and what we’re doing is setting boundaries. There are things we can definitely say are not translation. For example, I am not now translating any text. I’ve seen efforts by Greek students that could not be regarded as translations.

It’s not that just anything is a translation. Rather, there are many different methods that fall into the loose category “translation” and many different needs that might be fulfilled by those various approaches.

I think we have way to great a tendency to make the claim, inadequately supported, that a certain translation is wrong and should be something else. I hear it from the pulpit quite often, and generally my opinion is that the claim is incorrect. Sometimes the translation is disputed, and there is good evidence, and good names, on both sides. In many cases, the preacher is just plain wrong. (If I might say what I have said many times before: If you don’t actually know Greek or Hebrew don’t base your sermon on making claims about how verses should be translated.)

But having used the phrase “just plain wrong” regarding a translation, you now know that I think a translation can be wrong. Frequently, however, the just plain wrong translation is actually an alternative with substantial support.

Being subjective about that which is subjective, such as people’s preferences or how people understand something, is just realistic. Trying to pretend objectivity when the topic is subjective just results in silliness. Or it could result in domination of others, as in the claim that everyone “ought” to use a particular Bible version, be that the KJV, ESV, or any other personal choice.

Literature is even more subjective. I loathe lists of books that I really must read in order to be truly literate or truly educated. In general, I’ve read quite a lot of the names on them, but that doesn’t make me like them any better. The most interesting thing about those lists is the good books that aren’t on them. That’s sort of like the things that aren’t conveyed by the favorite translation of the folks who like to advocate just one style.

Want my subjective advice? Read stuff from different lists. Use different lists. Read Bible books that aren’t in your personal or your church’s canon. Use the literature lists to find more stuff that interests you. And if you’re like me, and can’t stand certain pieces of “great” literature read something else.

It’s fun.


The Best Bible Version is the One You Read

The Best Bible Version is the One You Read

Across the front cover of my book What’s in a Version? I placed the slogan that forms the title of this post. You might think it’s a strange thing to put on the cover of a book. I’ve used it in class as well. I’ve received more criticism for that one line than for anything else in the book.

I’m in the process of revising the book (though it’s still available), but that one line is something that will not change. Yes, it’s a one-liner, and thus subject to a variety of interpretations. No, I don’t believe that anything that might masquerade as a translation actually is a translation. But there are very few things that I would say masquerade as translations, and there are many people who want to prescribe the Bible you should read.

There are some facts regarding reading a piece of ancient literature. First, I didn’t live in the first century, when the New Testament was being written. I’m at least at one remove, because no matter how much I study Greek, I will never truly understand it in the same context and world as Paul did. Second, if you’re reading in translation, you’re not reading the original. This leads to my third point: Something is always lost in translation.

But that means that something is always present in translation as well. The question is just what you’re looking for. For example, I prefer the more formal style of the Revised English Bible. I even like its Anglicisms. I spent much of my teens in a former British colony (Guyana), and I was born in Canada. Those things are comfortable for me and they give me a familiar feel.

Should I therefore recommend that everyone read the REB? Hardly! For others, features that make it work for me may be a hindrance to understanding. Then there’s the question of just what it is that I want to understand, or more importantly that you want to understand.

What seems to escape so many people who prescribe what a translation must and must not do is that it matters not what is there if the reader doesn’t understand. Admonitions to “get a dictionary” are both pointless, and in my opinion, arrogant. This kind of talk suggests to people that if they would just put in enough work, they’d be able to understand–well–what the talker believes they should want to understand. Maybe I’d prefer the clarity of the CEV of Jeremiah 22:29 to a translation that conveys the epizeuxis. It’s possible that I couldn’t care less about an epizeuxis. In point of fact, I care about the epizeuxis largely so that I can convey it’s meaning in another fashion. At the same time, I do not regard my particular aim as normative. If you want to convey the epizeuxis, by all means do so. It’s not better or worse, it just is what it is.

This lack of concern for the readers–though I’m sure it’s advocates think they are advocates for the spiritual and intellectual well-being of their hearers or readers–is what I like to call the problem of the one-ended telephone cord.

So I frequently frustrate inquirers who want me to recommend a Bible version. I always ask what they want to do with it, and to a great extent I want to know who they are before I will even attempt an answer, and then I’m going to leave it quite open-ended–what do you want? what do you read?

Oh, and credit where credit is due. I was finally tipped to the point of writing this by a post from Kurk at Aristotle’s Feminist Subject, which is well worth reading. I’d also like to reference my Bible Translation Selection Tool, which tries to list Bibles in priority order according to preferences expressed by the user. I’ve been told both that this is much too complicated and also that it can’t be personalized enough, but thus far I haven’t had time to fix either problem, nor do I know that I could fix them both at once.


Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

One basis I use for comparing Bible translations is the way in which idioms are handled. It’s difficult to measure this precisely, because you have to consider several things:

  • Is the idiom as used comprehensible to modern readers?
  • Does it mean the same thing to modern as to ancient readers?
  • Is there a reasonable English (or other target language) equivalent?
  • How good is the equivalent that was selected by the translation?

Simply noting that an idiom in one language is translated by an idiom in another is not sufficient. Figures of speech work in essentially the same way and require that one ask the same questions.

In Isaiah 49:2 we have a fairly simple figure of speech. In Hebrew, this very literally reads:

He set my mouth like a sharp sword.

Now I don’t know how natural that sounds in English to others, and I’m already running another poll, but to me “sharp” and “words” do go together in a figure of speech, and using mouth for the words spoken is also pretty standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has trouble understanding “potty mouth.” I have only rarely heard that combination with “sharp,” however. There I think we more commonly use “tongue” with “sharp” than “mouth.”

So I classify the translations of the figure of speech in three categories. First would be those that translate the figure of speech or idiom completely literally. (I’d ignore the idiom if the figure of speech is common also in the target language.) The second group adjusts it somewhat to make it more comprehensible. The third translates the figure into natural, but not necessarily idiomatic language. The fourth group (of which I have no examples in this case) would provide an alternate idiom. The following list is not exhaustive:

Translating the words and not the figure

“He made my mouth like a sharpened blade;” (NJPS)

“He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” (NRSV)

Adjusted slightly

In this case, the adjustment is generally “mouth” replaced with “tongue.”

“He made my tongue a sharp sword” (REB)

Translated into clear language (drop figure of speech)

“He made my words as sharp as a sword.” (TEV) [Note here that one figure (mouth for words) is replaced, while the second (sharp) is retained.]

“He made my words of judgment as sharp as a sword.” (NLT)

“He made my words pierce like a sharp sword” (CEV) [In a sense another figure of speech is added, or perhaps “sharp” is merely enhanced, by the addition of the word “pierce.”]

“He made my words like a sharp sword;” (HCSB) [The HCSB regularly surprises me, sometimes with incredibly obscure translations, and sometimes with exceptionally clear ones.]

This comparison also raises a question with the NLT text. Should the words “of judgment” be added here? Is it perfectly clear that it is words of judgment alone that pierce like a sharp sword? On first reading, I am not happy with the NLT addition there. It makes plain something that is not plain in the text, and may even be incorrect. My mind could be changed, however.

Translations and Denominations

Translations and Denominations

When the RSV was first proposed one of the purposes for it was as an interdenominational translation, one that could be accepted by all Christians. That goal was unreachable as it happened. Today, with controversies over gender language added into the mix, it seems unlikely that we will attain to a “standard” Bible translation that can be accepted across all denominational lines.

Kevin Sam reflects on some of the differences in his post Denominations and Bible Translations. He doesn’t see a solution, but he does see some of the lines. Check it out!

Just What We Needed: The LOLCat Bible

Just What We Needed: The LOLCat Bible


1 In teh land of Uz wuz a man calded Job. Teh man wuz goodz, afraid of teh Ceiling Cat and evilz.2 Teh man hadz seven sunz and tree doters,3 And lots of sheepz and camlez and rinoceruseses and servnts, srsly.4 His sunz tok turns mading cookies, and they all eated them.5 And Job wuz liek “Oh noes! Wut if cookies were sin? Gota prey, just in cased.”

So goes the LOLCat Bible of Job 1:1-4, which the LOLCat Bible site suggests as a good example of how to translate–for the LOLCat Bible, of course!

Perhaps someone needs a life. Then again, perhaps not …

HT: meeyauw.

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.”