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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How Modern Bible Translations Aren't Readable Enough

In the best film ever made, The Princess Bride (go ahead and quote me on that), Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) notes two of the classic blunders: "The most famous is, 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia,' but only slightly less well known is this: 'Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.' "  To these must surely be added, "Never conclude that there's no room in the marketplace for another English translation of the Bible."

Occasionally I'm asked questions like, "What's the best Bible translation?" or "Is ________ a good Bible translation?"  My answer is usually something like, "That depends.  What do you want it for?" which doesn't help anybody since no one thinks about that before they ask.  My opinion is that just about every translation of the Bible is good enough in the abstract, though depending on what you might use it for—in-depth study, teaching 2nd-grade Sunday School, recitation in a worship service, quotation on a blog, etc.—some are better than others.  I admit that I do have my favorites, but I still maintain that there is validity to every significant translation that you have probably read or heard of.  (That includes the King James Version, by the way, or at least the New King James.  Even though I don't see value in reading a translation into Shakespearean English unless you're a 17th-century Englishman, nevertheless in particular passages I think that those old translators often made some very insightful judgments.)

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their classic book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (3rd ed., 2003—if you haven't read it before, get it now), employ a spectrum diagram to explain Bible translations.  At the one pole is "literal," which is an attempt to render the ancient languages word for word, even maintaining sentence structure if possible.  Taken to the extreme (which none do) this kind of translation is incomprehensible since the grammar of those languages is so different from contemporary American English.  The opposite pole is "paraphrase," which really is not so much a translation as it is someone's complete rewrite of the Bible based on their interpretation and impressions of another translation (usually).  The middle area of the diagram is labeled "dynamic equivalence."  This is an attempt to translate the text not "word for word" but "thought for thought" so that the ideas in the text as they would be received by ancient readers are preserved in modern language for modern readers.  Fee and Stuart located all major English Bible versions (at the time) along this spectrum so that the reader can see where they fall in translation philosophy and in relation to each other.  (Apparently Fee and Mark L. Strauss wrote a book published in 2007 entitled How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth that I'm sure goes into this in more detail and is probably really good.)

The objective of every translator is to get the material into the target language so that the modern reader receives it—both understands it intellectually and feels it emotionally—exactly and as fully as an ancient reader would.  Sometimes this is easier than others.  Sometimes it's impossible.  And different translation teams have different philosophies about how to do this.  But every modern translation I've seen—I mean it: every one, whether the philosophy is more toward the literal or more toward the readable—has the same two problems: (1) it's not readable enough; (2) it's too readable.

Here's what I mean when I say that these translations aren't readable enough.  First of all, I really support the efforts of some of them to employ English as it's commonly spoken and even written today, which features, among other things, a whole lot of contractions.  Our language also features phrases like "a whole lot of" which are excellent translations of some phrases and terms in the original text but haven't shown up in English translations in the past because they sound too colloquial.  I like the fact that things like this are finding their ways into Bible translations now, especially because much of the biblical text includes ancient colloquialisms (especially in dialogue).  But no matter how painstakingly readable and contemporary these new translations try to be, they are still so under the sway of the King James (ironically) and centuries of church usage that some portions of the Bible and its language refuse to be liberated.  Let's take a couple of New Testament passages as examples.

Exhibit A: John 3:16.  Here's how it's rendered in the New Living Translation (1997), one of the more paraphrastic ("readable") translations in the dynamic equivalence school: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."  It sounds almost exactly the same as every other version's translation of this text.  But we have two problems in the first three words (I won't even get into "perish").  First, who in present-day America uses the word "for" as a conjunction?  No one.  But here it sits in this conscientiously "readable" translation.  The Greek word gar underlying "for" either means "because" or introduces some kind of explanation of what precedes (like, "See, . . . "), and it should only be translated in one of these two ways or (as context demands) omitted entirely in modern translations.  Now, perhaps you didn't know that there was text that preceded John 3:16, but there is.  As the NLT says it, "And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life, because [gar] God so loved the world. . . ."  That's how it should go, anyway.

But the second problem in the first three words of John 3:16 is the word "so."  Every American English reader of John 3:16 believes that "so" means "so much," because if we ever used "so" in this part of a sentence (note: we wouldn't) that's what we would mean.  Every student of Greek (not to mention scholar) knows that the word translated "so" here (hoútōs) doesn't mean "so much"; it means "like this" or "in this way" (in this context).  They all know that John 3:16 should read, " . . . because this is how God loved the world.  So he gave his only Son. . . ."  But despite that they all know this is the best way to render it in English, you can't buy a "readable" translation that puts it like this.

Exhibit B: The Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13).  Every translation starts with, "Our Father in heaven" and then some attempt at a contemporary rendering of "hallowed be thy name."  I admit that this is a really tricky one, because the text assumes a concept of holiness that is foreign to most contemporary people (which I've blogged about more than once, for example here).  It's probably impossible to get it exactly right.  But the one thing that every translation can get right if they want to is how to handle the Greek "third-person imperative" in "hallowed be thy name" and "thy kingdom come."  An imperative is a verb that says what someone demands to happen.  In English we have only have the imperative in the second person, that is, when we're directly talking to someone else: "You over there—open that window."  "Open" in that sentence is an imperative; "you" indicates that it's the second person.  In addition to the second person, Greek also has a third-person imperative.  In all kinds of English translations it is consistently rendered "let," like, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16).  In some versions of the Lord's Prayer it shows up as "may," like, "May your name be kept holy" for "hallowed be thy name."  But "let" sounds like I'm allowing you to do something, and "may" sounds like you may do it if you want.  Not strong enough.  Fortunately, English has a word with more force: "must," like, "your name must be sacred" for "hallowed be thy name."  Why doesn't "must," or at least "should," show up in the translation of every third-person imperative in the New Testament?

While we're on the Lord's Prayer, let's talk about the kingdom of God.  Readers of this blog know that I love talking about the kingdom of God.  You may remember that the kingdom of God isn't a place (like heaven for example) but the "kingship" of God, his acknowledged authority to rule as king.  It is more accurate to call it "the reign of God."  I know this because every biblical scholar knows it, and I was taught it repeatedly in college and seminary.  It's the very first thing they all tell you in a class when they bring up the kingdom of God.  And yet these same scholars who all know this and teach it to all their students continue to this day to employ the term "kingdom of God" instead of "reign of God" in every contemporary, readable Bible translation.

So these are just some examples of why contemporary translations that intend to be readable still aren't readable enough.  In the next post I'll tell you what I mean when I say that contemporary translations, including more "literal" ones, are too readable.

1 comment:

  1. Actually the Holman Christian Standard Bible, fairly recently published by the Southern Baptists, translates John 3:16 this way... "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life." I thought that rather remarkable. I don't particularly care for the flow of the translation, but they seem to have done a good job with accuracy.