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