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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.

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.

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.

English and Greek Ambiguity: 2 Corinthians 5:21

English and Greek Ambiguity: 2 Corinthians 5:21

This relates to my previous post on translating ambiguous passages.

The last clause of this verse reads, formally translated, “so that we might become [the] righteousness of God in him.” I’m interested in the range of meanings that might be heard by a modern English reader for the final phrase, “in him.”

A number of translations, even my beloved REB, translate this simply “in him.” The NLT gets bold and reads “so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” The CEV uses “so that Christ could make us acceptable to God.” Now both of those latter translations do mean something in English, while in common speech, I don’t think “in him” means very much at all.

I must admit that “in him” does mean something to me in church language, and it gives me the picture of being in the body of Christ, the church, as being a part of being reconciled to God. How exegetically sound that is will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that I don’t think I’m directly on target with Paul’s intent here. Other than that, however, “in + any reference to a person” only works rarely, in such statements as “the bullet was in him.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the intended meaning here.

I’m not looking here for the precise meaning of the verse, but rather the range of meanings that might be suggested by that particular phrase in this context. I’m thinking that the Greek will suggest a number of possibilities, such as agency or instrument that the English does not. I note that BDAG offers “before, in the presence of” (1e), instrument (5), agency (6), and marker of cause or reason (9). One could glean more, but I’d be interested in examples in which these latter meanings could apply. (Note that some, such as instrument, do not apply here in Greek either. I’m pointing that one out to show the substantially different semantic range of the Greek “en.”)

Comments, examples, and notes on your particular dialect of the English language would be appreciated.

Raymond Brown on Ambiguities and Literal Translation

Raymond Brown on Ambiguities and Literal Translation

After my comments earlier about Piper and the ESV, I found this comment by Raymond Brown in An Introduction to the New Testament:

For the purpose of careful reading or study, which concerns us here, one must recognize that sometimes the biblical authors did not write clearly, so that the original texts contain certain phrases that are ambiguous or difficult to understand. In some instances translators have to guess at the meaning. They must choose either to render literally and preserve the ambiguity of the original, or to render freely and resolve the ambiguity. . . .

Brown continues by describing such a freer translation as a commentary built into the translated text.

I have enormous respect for Dr. Raymond Brown, but I have to disagree with him here. The best explanation I can think of for his making this comment is that he overestimates the ability of the average reader to discover to range of possible meanings that the translated text might carry. In almost all cases I would regard it as more appropriate for the lay person to use multiple translations, reading of footnotes, and careful attention to the context to resolve ambiguity. The English text does not tend to suggest the same range of possible meanings as does the Greek or Hebrew text, in my experience.

Most questions I’ve gotten on this result from the consistent translation of the Greek genitive with English “of” + some noun. English readers frequently find this ambiguous, and possibly more frequently they find it meaningless.

I’m going to begin collecting ambiguous renderings from formal equivalence translations into English, where the ambiguity of the English text does not match the ambiguity of the source text. I’d be interested in any specific suggestions. I will post results here in a later blog post.

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.