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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.


How Bible Translation Should be Done

How Bible Translation Should be Done

J. K. Gayle has a couple of posts on translating the Psalms that are really quite helpful.  The first one I read, which is actually the second, is The Difficulty of Psalm 90, in which he discusses some thinking and feeling that may be generated by hearing the Psalm and the first one, which I read second, various poet translators turning around Tehillim 90, which provides several translations with different approaches and characteristics.

I personally find some things I like and some I don’t like so much in all of these translations, which is not a criticism of any of them.  I really appreciated the chance to read them all side by side.  And as much as some of this material deserves comment, that’s not my purpose in writing this post.

Probably the most difficult question I’m asked when I am teaching is this:  What is he best Bible version?  I find that terribly difficult, and I annoy people who ask it all the time.  They think it deserves a simple answer.  I should be able to point them to the one best version, and they can just go use that one.

But instead I ask them what they’re going to use it for, how they approach studying the Bible, and something about their own study and background.  What’s the best Bible version?  The simple answer, which I put on the cover of my book, is:  The best Bible version is  he one you read!

I usually get by for that one for a few minutes until some bright person wonders just which Bible version they will actually read, and then we’re back to the starting point.

Now I haven’t always been this way.  When I was in college I could have given you the simple answer, and I would have been satisfied with it.  I would have recommended a mostly literal version.  In those days that probably would have been the NASB.  But then I did some more studying and I became concerned with comprehension.  That made things much harder.  Now in those days there were many less options available, but I was also concerned with how I would translate in my studies.

It seems that over the years I have become so much less knowledgeable on this subject.  At least I can no longer provide a single, definitive answer to the question, and my response seems to get longer every time I try.  When I hear a preacher say, “What the Greek really says is …” I cringe, not just because he’s probably wrong, but because he’s probably missing so much even if he’s right in some sense.

The problem is that translation always loses something, and I suspect always adds something to a text.  Now I’m not going to start claiming that all translations are equal.  There are wrong translations, but there are many partially right translations.

One of my own early problems was checking translations purely on propositional content.  Is a translation of a parable or a poem correct because it contains the same set of propositions?  Is a clear translation of a parable more correct than an obscure one, irrespective of how clear the parable is in the first place?

The problem is that we often translate as a means of conveying information about the Christian religion.  But just as I’ve found over the years that simply knowing the cognitive content of my faith is far from sufficient, so I have come to learn that the cognitive content of a translation may be much less than adequate.  When I left graduate school I was quite well acquainted with Christian doctrines and very well acquainted with the Bible.  I was referred to as “the human concordance.”  I knew what was there.

At the same time I left the seminary with that knowledge I also left the church.  I returned in a church pastored by a man who knew no Greek and Hebrew at all, but who did know Jesus.

I was again reminded of this same issue in a different form when I was discussing with my former student Geoffrey Lentz.  (Geoffrey was my student when he was high school age.  He has since graduated with an MDiv from Duke.)  We were discussing sermons, and I expressed my distress with that particular genre of speech.  (I am occasionally invited to preach, though not by tense clock-watchers!)  I commented that I found it very hard to really cover a subject in 15-20 minutes.  He said to me, “I regard a sermon more as poetry than prose.”

How’s that for student teacher reversal?

I think it’s the same point.  The content of faith and spirituality is not simply cognitive.  There can be a variety of ways to express it.  It can be felt as well as known.  It can be expressed in many ways.  Often our best translations of the propositions of faith can suck the life right out of it.

Or so it seems to me in the growing ignorance of 30 years since I graduated.

Audiences and the KJV

Audiences and the KJV

. . . or any Bible translation, for that matter.

My post on reading from the KJV elicited a response from Iyov, who doesn’t agree with a number of things, some of which I haven’t said. But some of them I have said, so I want to clarify just a bit.

Note that I will make a couple of comments that are direct responses, which will be headed by quotes from his post as linked above. Where I am not directly responding to one of these quotes, I am making general comments, and these comments should not be read as directed at Iyov. I agree with a number of things he says, and would prefer that readers not assume disagreement where it doesn’t exist.

I related my experience with young readers who did not comprehend passages from the KJV, and Iyov responds thus:

Neufeld’s argument is odd. Certainly we expect young people to learn material substantially more difficult than the KJV. I do understand that Shakespeare and Milton remain in the high school curriculum, and those works use language far more complex than the KJV.

I’m afraid I find his counterargument odd. I cannot comment on his hypothetical young people who have supposedly studied more complex English literature in High School, but the actual young people in front of me were not comprehending the KJV. Further, when I asked them to read from the not-so-good NASB they were quickly able to comprehend things that they did not from the KJV. The NIV was even better.

Now I don’t want to make assumptions as to Iyov’s position, but I have had many people argue that I should teach the young people to read and understand the KJV. So in response to those who have made such an argument to me, I must say that I find it ridiculous. I also like the French Louis Segond version. Should I perhaps teach them French before I teach them a Bible class? Whether the educational system should prepare them to read Jacobean English or not (and I would say NOT as a general rule), when I teach Bible class I need to start from a text they can read. If I’m going to teach them anything about a language that is foreign to them, it will be about Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, as appropriate.

Of course there are varying levels of difficulty in the Bible, but that is hardly the point. In general use, a translation should not make the text more obscure than is necessary in order to convey the intent of the writer.

Iyov states further:

The Bible, even to those who have access to Biblical languages, is difficult. The Hebrew of the Bible is often obscure and difficult. Translations that hide this fact from readers (and this category includes the vast majority of all translations) are not accurately reflecting the text.

Again, I find this argument odd. One of the difficulties with the Hebrew text is that we lack cultural context and knowledge of the usage of certain words and constructions. In order to translate at all, one must make decisions on these matters and convey the result. There is no particular value to maintaining obscurity, except by indicating in a footnote that there are alternatives.

I’m not sure what Iyov expects translators to do with these obscure texts. Perhaps they should translate obscure Hebrew words with nonsense syllables in English so that the English reader can experience the frustration of trying to work through a difficult passage. No, that would be a bad idea. On of the tasks of a translator is to work through that sort of difficulty. He is a specialist, presenting a text to non-specialists.

Quoting Iyov again:

Even stranger is the claim the implication that the KJV allows religious leaders to “infuse meaning” through interpretively biased readings in a way that more modern translations do not.

It may be strange, though I think it is actually quite plain, and I have observed it many times. This is not, as Iyov seems to have understood me to say, the fault of translators. In fact, I regard the KJV as the greatest single achievement in English Bible translation. I fault the translators for practically nothing. Most criticisms are based, in my view, on applying a later standard to their pioneering work.

But in many modern congregations, some very near to where I live, the majority of the people do not understand the KJV, and the KJV-Only preachers tell them that the KJV is the sole word of God, superior even to the source texts in Hebrew and Greek. They then use the fact that the congregation is ill-equipped to question them as part of the process of manipulation.

The KJV was once a great translation for use in church. It is not so in present day America. In fact, I have not seen it used in any church where I would say the choice of the KJV was appropriate to the congregation in question. Hypothetically, I believe there could be such congregations. I have simply never encountered them.

One of the things I found after I left seminary, went to work in the secular market for some years (also dealing with language), and then returning to the church was that I am simply not the best judge of what a text means. I started learning Biblical languages in my teen years. I have been fascinated by history, geography, and sociology since I could read. What I read in scripture is heavily influenced by this broad exposure to the backgrounds.

When I first started teaching after returning to the church scene, I tried to teach based on what I assumed people were understanding. I found out very quickly that my assumptions were wrong. So I did something that seems to escape many people, especially scholars–I started asking my audiences what they were hearing or understanding from the scripture texts I used.

What I found was that they were very often not hearing the same thing, especially from formal equivalence versions such as the NASB (which was once a favorite of mine) or even my much favored NRSV. The situation became much worse when they used the KJV.

Many languages scholars assume that ambiguity from the source text that is translated by ambiguous English text is more faithful, giving the audience the option of choosing for themselves. (My uncle, Don F. Neufeld, who started me on both Hebrew and Greek, made this argument to me, and it took me some time to realize it was not so.) But the audience doesn’t hear the same set of options that the scholar does.

A much better approach is for the expert to make a choice, and indicate alternatives in footnotes. Now the audience can comprehend the text with a probable reading, and those who are willing to put in a very small amount of work, much smaller than would be required to learn the source languages or Jacobean English, can get good alternatives.

I recommend to my students now that they use a variety of translations, and read those footnotes. If they want to get closer to the source languages, a standard battle cry of the formal equivalence advocates, they need to learn the source languages. Formal equivalence has its place, in my view, but it does not better reflect the meaning of the text.

The meaning of a text is only properly reflected in translation if that translation is understood by the target audience. There is no such thing as accuracy without understanding. If the target audience for a translation is scholars who have some knowledge of the source language, then perhaps formal equivalence will work as it is claimed. For the vast majority of the people I teach on a regular basis, formal equivalence fails to meet that promise.

Finding an Authoritative Translation

Finding an Authoritative Translation

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm things eventually boil down to “all the animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I think I can apply this to Bible translations as well as to animals, especially when one is looking for an authoritative translation. The fact is that no translation perfectly reflects the source languages. Thus, there is no translation that is the final word on the interpretation of any particular passage. The final appeal must be to the texts in the source languages, and to the best research available there.

This situation is very disappointing to many Bible students who don’t know their Biblical languages, which is the vast majority of Bible students. How can they successfully get finality about a point of Biblical interpretation from a translation? Surely there is a translation that is right all the time, that can simply be trusted. But the answer is no. No translation is ever perfect.

But are some translations “more equal” on this point than others? I would say that there are, and that there are some techniques that English speaking and reading Bible students can use in order to avoid getting caught by a translation issue. These techniques are really fairly simple, and the necessary tools are widely available.

  1. Use multiple translations
    If you compare the translation of a text in more than one version, you will be alerted to translation differences. Start with the assumption that if there is a substantial difference in the way a verse is translated, i.e. that the two translations don’t simply express the same thought in different words, then there may be a significant translation issue underlying those different versions.
  2. Make your choice of versions wisely and purposefully
    Choosing multiple versions to compare when looking for translation issues is differnt than choosing a version for your own reading or study use according to your preferences. You want to find versions that are done by credible scholars, but that differ in their approach sufficiently so that they are likely to disagree on controversial issues. I’ll list some good selections for this purpose below. In particular, be aware of the translation philosophy involved. For example, comparing the rendering of the ESV with that of the CEV may give you the idea that there is a significant translation issue, when the problem is really that one is very literal while the other is dynamically expressive. With some extra attention, you will then often find that they are both trying to convey the same message, just in a different way.
  3. Check concordances with original language references
    Many people put a great deal of weight into these kinds of studies in terms of finding or even creating new definitions, but without facility in the language in question it is doubtful that your work will be all that accurate. Such study can alert you to just where the problems are in a translation. This may not give you the final answer, but at least it may keep you from being embarrassed by finding out that you based your interpretation on a faulty translation, or that you were dogmatic about something that is really very controversial.
  4. Use commentaries
    For this purpose you need an exegetical or critical commentary. You might want to look at some suggestions for materials in my reader’s guide to Bible study tools.

Now let’s expand just a bit on which translations are “more equal than others.” If you want to catch translation problems you need to be more careful than usual in your selection. Let me suggest that your select one or more from each of the following groups. Note that the groups do overlap.

You want to avoid hitching your star to older translations, such as the KJV, ERV, ASV, Young’s Literal and so forth. These translations can be good an helpful in reading and study, but they were made without much modern research and many recent discoveries in manuscripts and language, and thus are not nearly as helpful in identifying true translation issues.

Literal Translations

You can generally avoid the older RSV as most translation issues will be reflected in the newer versions. I don’t list the New King James Version simply because its focus was to reflect the text and language of the KJV, and thus it does not present as much new information as other versions.

Dynamic Translations

Catholic Translations

Protestant Translations

Mainstream/Liberal Translations

Evangelical Translations

Jewish Translations

In this category, the one item to consult is the JPS Tanakh: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. I do not have this rated yet on my list of Bible translations, but it should be consulted especially in cases of interfaith dialogue.

As I noted earlier, there is ultimately no way short of learning the source languages to really be able to handle all translation issues. You will find, however, that the majority of the Bible is not that controversial in its translation. Translation issues deal with a small number of texts, though often these are the most contentious. Using multiple translations wisely will help you avoid errors and embarassment.

See also my book, What’s in a Version? and my Bible Translation Selection Tool.