God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Making the Bible Clearer Than Ever

The CEB blog has an interesting post about reading levels.

In particular, Paul Franklyn claims that “[r]eading measurements are a measure of the writer’s clarity.” The CEB, he claims, aims for a 7th-8th grade reading level not because of their readers’ intelligence, but because the editors of the CEB wanted to create a translation that offers a “smooth, natural, and clear reading experience.” In other words, their goal is not (just) a translation for poor readers, but rather a better translation for all readers.

As with any new translation, two questions present themselves: Is the approach valid, and does the translation succeed in achieving the theoretical goals? If the answer to the first question is “no” — that is, if the goals aren’t desirable in the first place — the second question becomes less interesting.

So the first question for the CEB is this: Do we always want the translation to be simple? My view is that we do not, because I think part of accuracy in translation is conveying the reading level of the original.

I understand that this is exceedingly difficult in practice: How do we determine the level of the original Hebrew and Greek? What counts as the same level in English? If the Hebrew of the OT (or part of it) was aimed at an elite class, do we look to the elite today and similarly write the translation for the elite? Or do we recognize that reading is (probably) more widespread today than it once was, and look to the parallel reading class of today? Is it possible that complex Greek was the norm, and that simple English is (becoming?) the norm? If so, should normal Greek become normal English, or should complex Greek become complex English? And so forth.

But in spite of these obstacles, I think we have a general sense that some parts of the Bible are simple prose, some more complex prose, and some poetry. Some of the text is simple, and some is complex. I think these distinctions — among others — should be preserved, and I think that the goal of a “smooth, natural, and clear” translation makes it harder to capture these variations. In other words, I think parts of the Bible may have been at what we would call a 7th-8th grade reading level, but other parts are more complex. Shouldn’t the translation reflect those differences?

Some translations have (rightly, in my opinion) been criticized for being overly complex, archaic, or even ungrammatical in standard English. But that doesn’t mean that the fix is simply to simplify these translations. Just as an idiomatic translation can be wrong, so too can a simple one.


September 29, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 5 Comments

My Translation is a Guide to Greek Grammar

The question of how much original linguistic structure should be preserved in a translation has come up twice recently — on BBB and on Bill Mounce’s blog.

Bill Mounce notes that most people’s gut-reaction is that, “[a]n accurate translation is … one that reflects the grammar of the Greek and Hebrew.” (Dr. Mounce seems to be saying that although that used to be his position, he is questioning his old approach.)

Similarly, Mike Sangrey notes that, “one type of translation helps the ‘reader’ work with the original forms — accuracy is form oriented.”

More generally, some people seem to want a “translation” that not only tells them what the original means, but also shows them a little about the original languages. (I used “Greek” in the title of this post because of the alliteration. My point applies equally to the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible.)

The reasoning seems to be that “a little bit of knowledge about Greek or Hebrew will help me understand the Bible a little bit better.”

But I don’t think it’s true.

On the contrary, I think a little knowledge of Hebrew or Greek is likely to confuse English speakers, and lead to less understanding.

That’s because learning a foreign language is really difficult. On the other hand, misinterpreting a foreign language by using your own language’s grammar is pretty easy.

So I think we should leave grammar to grammar books and vocabulary to dictionaries. Then translations can skip past the details of how the language works and convey what the language does.

September 24, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , | 1 Comment

Always Pick On The Correct Idiom

A classic bit of self-contradictory writing advice goes back to William Safire in the 1970s: “Always pick on the correct idiom.” In English, “pick on” means to annoy, and the right phrasing here is “pick” (which means “choose”).

What makes his example work is that the meaning of “pick on” doesn’t come from the meanings of “pick” and “on.” More generally, phrases, like words, are not the sum of their parts. (I have more here.)

Thinking otherwise is a widespread error in translation. This gaff usually comes up in the context of word-for-word translations that make no sense. In other words, sometimes the words of the original Hebrew or Greek suggest nonsense in English, and that nonsense becomes the accepted translation.

But sometimes the words of the Hebrew or Greek suggest an idiom in English. In those cases, rather than a nonsensical translation, we find a translation that is idiomatic but wrong. This sort of wrong translation is particularly difficult for lay readers to detect because — unlike the nonsense translations — there is no red flag.

What got me thinking about this is a translation in the CEB — highlighted by Wayne in a recent post — that reads, “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up…” (Hebrews 12:1, Wayne’s emphasis).

The English expression “throw off any extra baggage” is without doubt more idiomatic than, for example, than the ESV: “let us also lay aside every weight.”

In English, “baggage” metaphorically means “emotional background,” and “extra baggage” (or “excess baggage”) means “destructive emotional background.” So the CEB’s English means “let us try to rid ourselves of our destructive emotional background and get rid of sin.” The image is that sin is like destructive emotional background.

Unfortunately, this is not what Hebrews 12:1 means. The image there is not of complicating emotions, but rather more directly of a weight that makes it difficult to proceed quickly. Indeed, the second half of Hebrews 12:1 refers to “the race that is set before us.” By shedding the “weight,” we are are better able to “run the race.”

Furthermore, “sin” itself was seen as a weight, a burden to be borne. (For more, take a look at Anderson’s wonderful book Sin: A History, or start with my review.)

So the imagery in Hebrews 12:1 is of better enduring a race without weights such as sin. By contrast, the imagery in the CEB translation is of discarding destructive emotions.

To look at it another way, it seems to me that Hebrews 12:1 is about a better way of going where we are already headed, while the CEB’s translation is about going in a different direction.

More generally, I think it’s important to note that an idiomatic English phrase that copies the original Hebrew or Greek words is just as likely to be wrong as a non-idiomatic one.

What other examples of this sort of error have you noticed?

September 22, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 3 Comments