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Friday, July 8, 2011

How Modern Bible Translations Are Too Readable

Imagine that you are one of the enlightened souls who adores J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as one of the most awe-inspiring creative literary works in the English language (in case you don't already).  Now imagine that you read The Lord of the Rings in a new "translation" that renders all of Tolkien's intentionally archaic-sounding prose and poetry into the idiom of contemporary, suburban, middle-class Americans.  Can you imagine how much it would suck?  I mean, really, it would be amazingly bad.  Tolkien's masterpiece depicts fictitious foreign cultures, and the terms he uses and even the grammar itself evokes a world that is totally different from our own.  His genius is that when you read any of his works it truly feels like you're reading a long-lost manuscript from a strange place and time.

The truth is that the cultures in which the Bible were written are also strange places and times, very different from our own.  But contemporary translations make them sound remarkably like us.  Of course, in their humanness, the characters are indeed remarkably like us.  But the cultures they operate in aren't like ours, and in modern translations the foreignness and weirdness of the biblical landscape are not adequately preserved.

This is my problem with gender neutrality in Bible translations (replacing "he" with "they" or "he or she" or "that person" or something like that).  Now hear me loud and clear: in many, many cases, I'm in favor of gender neutrality.  For example, in most (though not all) cases the Greek word ánthrōpos should be translated "human" or "person" instead of "man," as it has traditionally been rendered.  In fact, in most cases I would bluntly call "man" an inaccurate translation.  And I think that if it's possible to avoid using "he" or "him" in non-gender-specific contexts without snarling the grammar, we should definitely do it.  But some translations make biblical characters and authors sound more enlightened and non-sexist than the average American walking down the street in 2011, which of course is laughable because they absolutely weren't.  And sometimes it does screw up the overtones of the text.  The new Common English Bible translates 2 Tim. 3:16-17, "Every Scripture is inspired by God and is useful . . . so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good."  "Person who belongs to God" replaces the traditional "man of God" here.  The new translation is employed for two reasons: (1) the Greek word "person"/"man" is the aforementioned ánthrōpos, and (2) we want women to know that this Scripture pertains to them too.  But there are two problems.  (1) The Greek phrase employed here is the same as that employed in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the phrase "man of God," which throughout the OT is a technical term referring to a (male) prophet.  Paul is intentionally calling Timothy a "man of God" with all the accumulated meaning of the OT phrase, an association that is lost in the gender-neutral translation.  (2) Notwithstanding our desire for contemporary women to know that this verse applies to them, the fact is that its context is a personal letter to one male, Timothy, and we should translate it according to that context, not contemporary relevance.

More literalistic Bible translations get a lot of situations like this right.  But even those translations sound much too much at home in the 21st century.  And here's where I start wishing for things that are impractical, undesirable, and crazy, but I still think would be totally cool.

How much thought have you given to the names of people and places in the Bible?  They generally fall into two categories: the names you can pronounce because we've adopted them into modern English (e.g., Jerusalem, Peter) and the ones you can't that frustrate you.  My stance is that all of them should frustrate you (see also, Tolkien).  See, our transliterations (a transliteration is using English letters to spell out words from other languages) of biblical names are terrible, generally because they've usually gone through another language or two before they wind up in English.  So you see the letter j in all kinds of Old Testament names like "Elijah" even though Hebrew has no sound like the English "j"; it should be y instead.  It would be so cool if all of our transliterations were redone to better match the languages they came from.

When you read about David, for example, you might as well be reading about your next-door neighbor, because "David" is, frankly, an English name.  But "Dawíd" isn't, and the king of Israel (I mean, Yisra'él) who had that name wasn't your next-door neighbor but a crazy guy who played the harp and took wives and slaughtered Philistines (I mean, P'lishtím) in hand-to-hand combat at the drop of a hat.  But when you read about a guy named "David" in 1 & 2 Samuel (i.e, Sh'mu'él) it doesn't sound exotic—dare I say, like "fantasy"?—enough.  This is important, because when you get too comfortable with the biblical text you thoughtlessly import all sorts of modern Western assumptions into it that you would be automatically more cautious about if you were immediately hit by the foreignness of the setting.

To take this one step further, in the New Testament we shouldn't settle for transliterating Greek transliterations from other languages into English.  If the authors of the NT transliterate a Hebrew name into Greek, and then we transliterate that into English, we're two steps removed from the original word and we fail to notice how odd that Hebrew name would have sounded to the original, Greek-speaking audience.  By contrast, check out this translation of mine of Luke 2:1-4:
Now it happened in those days that a decree went out from Caésar Aúgustus [pronounced KAI-sar OW-goo-stoos] that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.  This was the first census taken while Quirínius as the governor of Syría. And everyone was proceeding to register for the census, each to his own city.  And Yoséf also went up from Galilaía, from the city of Nazarét, to Ioudaía, to the city of Dawíd, which is called Bet-Léhem, because he was of the house and family of Dawíd.
I'm not claiming the translation is perfect, but I'm trying to show the multicultural dynamic present in so much of the New Testament.  We have here names from three languages—Latin (Caésar Aúgustus, Quirínius), Greek (Syría, Galilaía, Ioudaía), and Hebrew (Yoséf, Nazarét, Bet-Léhem, Dawíd)—that depict three cultures jostling in the same space, which is exactly what was going on at that place and time, and which is essential background knowledge for reading the New Testament.  The divergent sounds of the three languages themselves help to bring that across.

But it's not just names that should make reading the Bible harder.  Much of the Bible is poetry, and it should be harder to read too.  In all languages, poetry tends to use stranger words than prose, and it tends to bend sentence syntax in weird ways to accomodate the poetic form or just to be artistic.  One example of this in Hebrew poetry is to have two successive lines that say the same thing in different words but to leave the verb out of the second line.  In English it sounds weird, so even literalistic translations put the implied verb back in the second line to make it sound right.  I say we leave the verb out, even if it does sound strange.  Hebrew poetry ought to sound strange.  It is strange.  It probably sounded strange to the Israelites (I mean, the Yisra'elím) themselves.  Similarly, one of the idiosyncracies of Greek poetry and poetic-sounding prose was to have massively long, run-on sentences that went on forever but might not even be actually complete (subject-predicate) sentences.  We very understandably break those up into short, complete sentences so that they're comprehensible (e.g., in Eph. 1:3-14), but wouldn't it be fun to leave them as crazy, long-winded monstrosities set in poetic verse?  Again, to the original readers/hearers passages like this sounded kind of "out there" too, and additionally this way of setting it reminds us that we're dealing with a foreign culture when we read the Bible.

We should also employ more loanwords from the original languages in translation.  A loanword is a word or phrase from another language that gets used because one's own language doesn't have the right term to describe what one wants to describe.  Through the centuries, English has been especially good at picking up loanwords (in fact, you could argue that the entire language is a hodgepodge of loanwords).  French has been the source of a lot of our loanwords: esprit de corps, fiancé, croissant, coup de grace, tour de force, hors d'oeuvres, etc.  They're not really English words, but now they're a part of our language.  Why don't we use loanwords more often when translating the Bible rather than use an inferior English rendering for a hard-to-translate Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word?  A great example of a potential loanword is the Hebrew hésed.  In the KJV it's translated "mercy," in the NASB "lovingkindness," and in the NIV "love."  It means faithful kindness, covenantal love.  It is the virtue or action of showing compassion and mercy and kindness and helpfulness to the person that you have sworn loyalty and faithfulness to in a solemn covenant.  It's a concept that arises out of cultural norms that are as different from ours as the Hebrew language is different than ours.  So why not just write out hésed in translation, like, "Give thanks to the LORD, because he is good; his hésed is forever" (Ps. 136:1)?  Put a glossary in the back of the Bible to explain what hésed is and be done with it.  Readers will learn the word and then begin to get the fullness of the meaning of it as they encounter it in the Bible over and over again.  For that matter, we should transliterate loanwords from other languages in the text as loanwords in English too.  For example, in Old Testament passages that have the Persian loanword tirshatha, we should use that and then explain it in a note instead of using the English gloss "governor."  More cross-cultural fun.

Finally, and I know this is a biggie and impossible, we should print the name of God in the Old Testament as "Yahweh" instead of our awkward, capitalized "the LORD."  I know why we don't do this—this is a far, far too intimate, careless, and even blasphemous way to handle the name of God from the perspective of Jews, and it would be a major obstacle for us in talking with Jews about our respective religions.  So it's probably a bad idea.  But a guy can dream.  It sure would be nice to read a Bible that, when it speaks of "the name of the LORD," actually gives his name.  It would sound a lot more like the Old Testament too.  Along similar lines, "Jesus Christ" should be "Yéshua Khrístos" (see grouping of names from different cultures above) unless "Christ" is being used as a title, in which case we translate it forthrighly as "the Anointed One"; thus "Christ Jesus" is "the Anointed Yéshua."  This is also a controversial translation policy, but unlike with "Yahweh," we can't claim that it's impossible because of interfaith dialogue or evangelism.

So translation teams and publishers, when you've released a product that is as unreadable as this while also being as readable as what I suggested in my previous post, call me.  Until then, I'll stick with the translations I have.

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