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Good and Bad Translation

Good and Bad Translation

Simon Cozens discusses good and bad translations (HT: Kouya) and concludes:

So when it comes to Bible translations, I don’t really care, relatively speaking, about the methodology behind the translation. I don’t necessarily care if it’s literal or dynamic or whatever. The more important question is, is it a good translation or a bad translation? I wonder which the authors would have wanted.

Any time I teach classes in church about Bible translations I include the note that the dynamic/formal debate is not a part of general translation discussion other than when Bible translation is at issue. When translating a sign, as Simon does in his post (I know no Japanese, so no comment on accuracy!), there are pretty clear objectives that define what a good translation is.

And that’s the problem with Bible translation. We don’t have a clear objective. Well, to be more accurate we each have a fairly clear set of objectives, but we don’t agree on them. Some people want something that is clearly understandable in the target language. Others want to transfer idioms and cultural ideas from one time and culture to another. Others are concerned that the specific words are dictated by God, and thus believe that we must come as close as possible to reflecting even the wording of the source text. Yet others are concerned with literary issues and want to have the register of the source text reflected in translation. Hebrews should thus be translated at a higher reading level and with greater rhetorical skill than Mark, for example. (I might argue about literary skill, but those are terms I have heard in this discussion.)

Without objectives, it is impossible to call a translation “good” or “bad.”

Let me illustrate. Supposing I make a translation (or partial translation) of a text to help a new Greek or Hebrew student study. This translation would reflect as closely as possible the wording and syntax of the source text. I sometimes do this to provide a fill-in-the-blanks type of exercise in introducing students to new texts, such as using an LXX text with a New Testament Greek student. (I don’t teach in seminary. I’m always either tutoring a single student or teaching a small class at a church.)

Contrast this with a translation of a text I might provide my grandchildren as I teach. In the latter case I’m going to be translating register, culture, and language. Is either translation a bad translation? Is it good? I think a translation is only good or bad in a particular context of usage.

Nonetheless, Bible translators, and more importantly those who debate about translation, would do well to pay attention to what Simon is saying. Maybe we could learn a bit about our particular context and come to understand one of the major things that differentiates one translation from another … objectives.

Italics in The Voice – The Story of Bathseba

Italics in The Voice – The Story of Bathseba

Last week I mentioned that while I found the italics in The Voice more logical than I usually do in the formal equivalent translations that use the device (e.g. KJV, NKJV, NASB), I still found them annoying in the text. One goal of a dynamic equivalence translation is generally readability, and for me the italics tend to detract from that.

Then there’s logic. Here are some examples from this coming Sunday’s lectionary passage from the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 11:1-15. This is not a complete list, just those that caught my eye. Numbers refer to verses

1. most kings – I think readers could figure out that not every king in the world went to battle; it was the season.

1. Joab out as general in charge of – Again, I think readers could figure this out. Was the addition necessary? Is it necessary to mark it as an addition? It’s pretty clearly implied. But the text also reads very sparsely, “David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel.” So why is “as general” in italics and “in charge of” not? Note also that “his” is interpreted (correctly) as “David’s”.

1. whole army of Israel – again, a well justified addition, but I question whether the reader wouldn’t assume this easily, and whether, if one thinks the addition is justified, italics are necessary. It’s pretty clearly implied.

2. Early one evening – In this case I think the Hebrew, l’eth ha;ereb, implies the “early” part pretty clearly, but saying “in the evening” in English seems to me to imply it as well.

2. bathing on a roof below his – Here there’s clear justification for the italics, as this is definitely beyond simple dynamic equivalence translation. I’m not sure if all bathing would have taken place on a roof, but if that’s what the translators believe to be the case, these italics are justified by their rules.

3.Uriah was one of David’s officers who had gone to war with the rest of David’s troops. – Here we get into a problem with the meaning of dynamic equivalence, which is intended to produce the same effect for the reader. It think letting the reader know where Uriah is weakens the story line. We’re only supposed to be reminded of where Uriah is as the story progresses. Thus my suggestion would be not to add this point. It will become clear later. If added, of course italics are justified by the rules expressed in the preface. (Note that in the course of 2 Samuel, the reader has not been introduced to Uriah at this point, so the storyteller is able to introduce the fact that not only had David committed adultery, but he’d committed it with the wife of one of his soldiers currently at war.)

4-5. David couldn’t get her off his mind, so he sent messengers – What are the translators doing to the storyteller? The story line does not imply that David spent time thinking about it. It presents a “see, query, get” sequence that is very stark and does not portray David in a good light. The material should clearly be in italics, if added, but I don’t see that it contributes to the story.

4-5 after the purifying bath after her period, her husband Uriah could not have been the father. – What is this? Bible exposition for dummies? Who missed this point?

6. his general Joab – We have, presumably, forgotten who Joab is since the first verse.

8. go to his own house to clean up, relax, and visit his wife. – Again, are we to assume he was going to his house to clean up and then ignore his wife? Surely this is implied by the text, but it makes for much poorer storytelling than does the original.

That is enough sampling, I think. I see much less logic in the use of italics in this passage as well as in the way in which the translators choose to expand on the text. It’s possible that italics in the text doesn’t bother other people as much as it does me. I’m more than ordinarily aware of typography issues.

But in this case we add an additional problem. Is the explanatory material making this story easier to read in English or is it just adding stuff? Any storyteller will be aware that adding implied information to a story does not necessarily improve it, and will often destroy it. If that added information was something that modern readers would not be likely to know, it might well be justified, according to the rules stated in the preface to The Voice.

But I would say that modern readers are at least as likely as ancient ones to get the point that if Bathsheba was purifying herself after her period, that counted out conception prior to that event, and thus made David the father.

I don’t want to become hypercritical of The Voice. Many people are reading it and benefitting. I don’t think anything here gives a wrong impression. It just takes a rather well done story and reduces its impact.


Michael Patton on the Best Bible Version

Michael Patton on the Best Bible Version

I’m glad to see this, though I do disagree with a few points.

First, I don’t agree that using a formal equivalence translation means you are closer to the original. You are closer in some ways–reflecting the words and structure of the original language–yet you are often further in other ways, including reflecting the thought.

Second “word for word” is not the best way to describe formal equivalence. I prefer “form for form” but even that misses it just a bit. In formal equivalence translators attempt to approach the words and structure of the source language as much as is possible in the receptor language.

Third, I would not use “sentence for sentence” as a description of dynamic (or functional) equivalence. It’s somewhat difficult to define the term “word” in a way that is transferable between languages. Similarly, sentences may change. Even in formal equivalence, one Greek sentence might be translated by multiple English sentences, for example. I would say “thought for thought” would be closer to the truth.

Nonetheless, I think this is generally a helpful and balanced presentation.


Preserving Literary Quality?

Preserving Literary Quality?

Bryon’s Weblog has a quote from Leland Ryken and some commentary, followed by some rather silly comments by an obvious troll.

What I found interesting here, however, was the idea of preserving the literary qualities of the Bible.  Let me reproduce the quote Bryon used:

“If your essentially literal translation is the RSV, the ESV, or the NKJV—in other words, if your essentially literal translation rides the literary coattails of the matchless KJV—you can trust it to preserve the literary qualities of the Bible that the KJV gave to the English-speaking world for nearly four centuries.” [I did different emphasis than Bryon–HN]

My hope here is that he means that the KJV passed on literary qualities of the Bible to the English speaking word, though I think he would still be wrong.  Since I don’t have the book I can’t check the context, but is it possible he’s praising literary qualities introduced by the KJV?  There was a time when I would have dismissed such an interpretation out of hand, but now I don’t know.

Let me assume the best, however.  Even so, there seems to be a very strong tendency to regard representing something like the literal forms of the source language in words in a new language as somehow reproducing those literary qualities.  But that is not correct.  A similar combination of grammatical forms in one language need not, and in fact likely does not, mean the same thing to a reader.  And if the reader doesn’t read or hear the form in the way it would have been read or heard in the source language, has it been passed on?

Creating some new literary quality that pleases certain academics or people of particular literary tastes is easy.  Actually producing a form that has a similar impact is much harder.  To support the value of literal translation over dynamic or functional, other than as a sort of crib sheet for the source language, requires more than finding badly done dynamic translations of which there are plenty.  It requires demonstrating that the nuances and literary features presented by the literal translation both occur in the source language, and are conveyed to the target audience by the literal translation.

Other than amongst the advocates of these literal versions, I don’t see that happening.  In fact, most of the people who “get” the literary nuances do so not because they were actually conveyed by the translation, but because that person knows enough of the source languages to recognize the construction and thereby reads that literary quality into the English.

Dynamic Range: Breaking Bread and the Eucharist

Dynamic Range: Breaking Bread and the Eucharist

This post is based on Acts 2:42 and 46. In the NLT of Acts 2:42 the phrase breaking of bread, admittedly a bit less than meaningful in modern English, is translated as sharing in the Lord’s supper. The NRSV reads “breaking of bread” but a note in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible suggests “Lord’s Supper,” and the New Oxford Annotated Bible has a note suggesting “Eucharist.” (These are in the study notes, not translator’s notes. The NLT does not have a note.

I’m questioning the validity of this translation for the time in question. We might well ask just what this activity consisted of at the time, and whether “Lord’s Supper” or “Eucharist” will suggest the right idea to modern readers. Personally, “Lord’s Supper” brings up my youth as a Seventh-day Adventist, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper which happened every quarter and was a longer church service than normal. It would be hard to fit that concept in which an activity carried out daily.

Eucharist is even more formalized and I would suggest that what is practiced in modern churches is very different from what would have happened at this time. I’m aware this wasn’t suggested as a translation but rather as a study note, yet even so is not the modern English reader misled?

Most likely this breaking of bread was a common meal by which Christians offered fellowship. It is unlikely that there was much ritual beyond what would be normal at a Jewish meal. The thing that was special about these meals was the offering of fellowship. I’m having a hard time replacing “breaking of bread” with something useful, but I’m thinking of one of these:

  • sharing a common meal
  • eating together as a sign of fellowship
  • commemorating Jesus and their fellowship by eating together

Perhaps, however, the CEV has the best of it, however, with “They also broke bread . . .”

Dynamically Wrong? Exodus 24:12 (NLT)

Dynamically Wrong? Exodus 24:12 (NLT)

Exodus 24:12 in the NLT reads:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain. Stay there while I give you the tablets of stone that I have inscribed with my instructions and commands. Then you will teach the people from them.

The phrase I’m interested in here is “stay there while.” That may seem like an odd fragment, but consider the NRSV: “and wait there.” What’s the difference? I might not have noticed if I hadn’t written a devotional based on the NRSV translation. Now when I first read the NRSV of this verse, I had to go back to the Hebrew and check, because “wait” looked wrong to me. In Hebrew it reads simply “and be there.” So the reason could be any number of things. But after reading the context a bit, I decided the NRSV had the idea right. Moses was to go up into the mountain and wait for the Lord. If that is the case, the NLT is clear and natural, but misses the point just a bit.

If you read further you will see that after Moses goes up into the mountain he does, in fact, have to wait. He does so for six days, and then on the seventh day he is called into the cloud. I think the best connection in the context for the phrase “be there” is to that waiting time, and thus the NRSV is the better translation in this case.

(Before someone misunderstands, the NRSV and NLT are both translations that I commend highly. There will always be points of disagreement in any translation, so this shouldn’t be taken as an “unendorsement” of the NLT. It’s just a single case where I agree with one excellent translation over another.)

Literal Nonsense – the HCSB of 2 Corinthians 8:11-12

Literal Nonsense – the HCSB of 2 Corinthians 8:11-12

I’m doing some studying in 2 Corinthians right now, and I encountered the following translation while reading it through in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB):

11But now finish the task as well, that just as there was eagerness to desire it, so there may also be a completion from what you have. 12For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.

If you get additional context, more than I want to quote here, it will make it just a bit clearer, but it is still somewhat hard to follow. Also, I don’t intend this particularly as a criticism of the HCSB, though obviously I think such a translation in a major Bible version should be fixed. Rather, I think it is a good example of how a very literal (or formal equivalence) translation can be nonsense in the target language.

This HCSB version follows the Greek fairly closely. In fact, it looks a bit like a student Greek exercise, following which I would tell the student, “Now that is a good draft and shows me you have found the words in your lexicon. Now we need to make it into English.”

The English Standard Version (ESV) is only slightly better:

11So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. 12For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.

Now compare those two translations to a dynamic equivalence version, the New Living Translation (NLT):

11Now you should carry this project through to completion just as enthusiastically as you began it. Give whatever you can according to what you have. 12If you are really eager to give, it isn’t important how much you are able to give. God wants you to give what you have, not what you don’t have.

Now certainly the NLT has made some choices is clearing up the confusion. I don’t think the text as it is even suggests the real possibilities for translation. This isn’t preserving ambiguity–it’s nonsense.

Misunderstanding Translations

Misunderstanding Translations

A friend drew my attention to this article on the ESV today, and I’m deeply disappointed in what I found there. I’m going to comment on some key difficulties with that article. But the author also links to this article by John Piper, which doesn’t so much surprise me, as put in context some other things that I’ve seen in his writing.

Let’s look at Piper’s article first. A few days ago, in blogging on Piper’s book The Future of Justification, and specifically on his response to N. T. Wright’s understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:21, I commented on how much Piper’s book seemed to be driven by how certain interpretations would preach. There are a set of doctrines which Piper believes, and he seems to look first for an affirmation of this reformed doctrine that he teaches, and then he’s looking for texts that he can use to preach those messages effectively. It would be easy to overstate that case, because Piper can and does use exegetical arguments for his point of view, and undoubtedly defends certain doctrines because he believes they are Biblical, but there is simply a different flavor in what he writes than there is in N. T. Wright.

But here, when he turns to Bible translation, there are simply numerous points that sound naive to a student of Biblical languages. Since I’m pretty sure Piper is not naive, I am led to believe that he is being drawn to use these arguments due to his strong views on other doctrinal points. Let’s take a look. Piper says:

. . . My biggest concern has to do with preaching. When a paraphrase becomes the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the church, preaching is weakened—robust expository exultation in the pulpit is made more difficult. Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on good English. And when that kind of preaching is undermined, the whole level of Christian thinking in the church goes down, and a Bible-saturated worldview is weakened, and the ability of the people—and even the pastors themselves-to root their thoughts and affections in firm Biblical ground diminishes.

You will note that he makes explicit what I have been observing. Preaching is driving him on these issues. That’s not entirely bad. The man is clearly a very gifted preacher, and he should be concerned.

But look at the next sentence. “When a paraphrase becomes the standard, preaching is weakened.” The specific example of paraphrasing that he has in view is the NIV. This is not the loose paraphrasing of The Living Bible; we’re talking about the quite conservative translation principles of the NIV. So why is it that he believes preaching is weaked? “Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on [sic] good English.” Did I read that right? Paraphrasing replaces the original wording, and whatever other variety of translation, presumably that used by the ESV, preserves the original reading.

Well, I have news for you folks here. I can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. I study from those original languages regularly. Nowhere in them is there found a single word that matches the ESV or any other literal English translation. Why? Because the English translations are in English rather than in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Now somebody is thinking that Piper knows that, so he must mean something else. If you think that, please comment and show me where Piper indicates that he knows that. In fact, in the very sentence I just quoted, he points to the problem of arguments from “the wording of specific Biblical texts.” The only way that you have the “wording of specific Biblical texts” is if you have it in the original languages.

The advocates of literal Bible translation, or formal equivalence which is a more descriptive phrase, play a game of pretend. They try to get English wording that looks as much like Greek (or Hebrew, or Aramaic) wording as it’s possible for English wording to manage, and then they pretend that this is somehow more equivalent to the source language. But that assumes several things, all of which are generally not true.

  1. The meaning is primarily contained independently in the words. This is untrue. Without context, which includes the grammatical form of the words and the syntax in which they are used, one can be dangerously wrong about the meaning of a specific word. Very often the translation unit has to be the phrase or even larger in order to get the original intent.
  2. English words arranged like Greek words will suggest a similar range of meanings to the reader. Again, this is false. In fact, they will almost always suggest a different range of meanings. Context in the target language (English in this case) saves the translator over and over, because an English word that might overlap only slightly with its English counterpart can be clarified through creative use of the context. One word might be translated by a phrase. In other cases a word might be translated by a punctuation mark.
  3. The English reader is best equipped to disambiguate an ambiguous passage, thus the ambiguity should be preserved in the translation. Again, this is horribly naive. It is hard enough conveying a precise meaning for a Greek phrase or sentence in English. It is virtually impossible to convey the same range of possible meanings, with the same weighting in English.

Those are only a few examples.

Piper goes on with several reasons why literal translations should be preserved. He says: “A more literal translation respects the original author’s way of writing.” What? Again, the word “naive” comes to mind, but I have a hard time thinking it of Piper. It seems more logical that his commitment to certain doctrinal positions unduly influences him. But I can tell you that style is again terribly difficult to translate. One can aim for a similar level of formality, but actually reflecting the original style? It is actually much easier to respect the style of the original in paraphrasing. I have often thought that the only way to truly respect the style of the book of Hebrews in a translation, for example, would be to completely rewrite it into a more modern sermon style outline. That would, of course, require massive paraphrasing, and would create numerous other areas in which the translation was less reflective of the original, but it might get the picture of the high quality style of the original. What many critics of dynamic equivalent (or functional equivalence) translations fail to realize is that translation always involves compromise. You will convey some things to your readers, and others you will not.

His point #4 on the ESV, however, is bluntly a howler:

A more literal translation which preserves ambiguities that are really there in the original keeps open the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers.

The only place the ambiguities are fully preserved is in the text in the original language, and it is only preserved for those willing to put in the effort to attain an adequate reading level in the source languages to truly work through those possibilities. No translation, on the other hand, can cut off “the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers” unless those readers are naive enough to assume that a translation should be the source of those new insights.

I particularly like the examples used. One is Romans 1:5, “the obedience of faith” in which presumably the ESV is doing the better job of conveying the “ambiguity” to English readers. Now quickly, all you English readers who don’t know Greek, tell me the range of meanings that are possible for the Greek genitive. How will you know what that “of” means in Greek? Well, most of you will not. Many of you will get it from a fallible preacher like John Piper (or me, in a much smaller number of cases), instead of getting it from a fallible translation committee. The problem I have here is that the fallible translation committee is probably much less likely to be in error on the matter than is any one preacher. (I use the word “fallible” so frequently because of Piper’s reference to the fallibility of translators. I think we should be aware that teachers, preachers, and of course bloggers are also fallible, and thus if the end user of our theology gets the meaning of the text from us, he is working through more layers of fallibility than if he simply used a dynamic equivalence translation in the first place.)

Now to return to the first article I mentioned, I see there most of the arguments for literal translations rehashed. But in this case there are a couple more things that need to be flagged for serious concern.

He recommends this:

A good thing to do is to purchase an Interlinear and examine a dynamic equivalent with the Greek text (or Hebrew if possible). The ESV has a reverse interlinear that is quite helpful for this. This allows you to see not just how the ESV translators did on the translation but allows you to see what the literal translation is from the Greek text. There is also an NIV edition of this of which I own myself and I believe you will be surprised to see how much of the NIV goes off from the Greek text.

This is a very dangerous paragraph. First, an interlinear will not let you know how far someone has departed from the Greek text, but rather it will tell you how far your translation departs from the interlinear representation (itself a translation) of the Greek text. All you are doing in this case is comparing one translation to another unless you actually know the language. An interlinear is just a translation–only less. It is a very bad translation. But it goes a step further than the literal translation in deception. It makes people feel that they truly are looking at the text in the source language, when they are not. (I’ve discussed interlinears before here.)

I’m going to largely skip over the material on “politically correct” translations. Suffice it to say that none of the translators of the major Bible versions are trying to be politically correct. What they are trying to do, and in the case of the TNIV doing quite successfully, is translating the intent of the Bibles language on gender into similar meanings in English. The whole debate about gender accuracy throws the entire “literal Bible” error into sharp relief.

Like both of the others I’ve quote here, however, I do not want to tell you not to use one English version or another, if it works for you. But I think both authors fail in their effort to do so, because they strongly suggest that you favor a literal version. My suggestion would be that you instead choose a Bible that you can read easily, and then also have one or two other major versions to which to compare it. Most people today are not going to learn the original languages. Piper suggests that ambiguity in the text is cut off by dynamic equivalence translation (which he inaccurately calls “paraphrasing”). A better approach would be to look at more than one clear, natural translation where you can see each rendering in context. Many English readers would never imagine all the possibilities; that’s what translators are for.

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.