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.

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September 29, 2010 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. Another measure of clarity is (and this is a new observation for me) what can be referred to as “density.” How much information is conveyed per square word? For example, this is an extremely dense assertion:

    Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    This is an opaque assertion (or couplet of assertions) that is all but meaningless until you leave it in a bowl of water overnight and it swells, like those sponge figures in a capsule that my children enjoy. Un-encapsulated it reads like this:

    “Mr. Sin is a Grinch of an employer, exacting painful labor and giving only death in return; but God is generous, and gives everlasting life as a free gift.”

    My expanded translation is more readily understood, but has a different density.

    ISTM that many translators are, at heart, teachers. They are not content to merely reproduce a passage in another language at the same density level, if they think that their “audience” will be frustrated and disappointed by the accurately translated, but still opaque text.

    So they “unpack” the text and present it in a form that requires no soaking or baking.

    This may or may not be helpful to people, may or may not appeal to people but it should be acknowledged that a translation that *also unpacks the text* has done more than just translated.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | September 29, 2010 | Reply

    • ISTM that many translators are, at heart, teachers. They are not content to merely reproduce a passage in another language at the same density level, if they think that their “audience” will be frustrated and disappointed by the accurately translated, but still opaque text.

      So they “unpack” the text and present it in a form that requires no soaking or baking.

      I agree. I call this the trap of “translating and improving.”

      Comment by Joel H. | October 3, 2010 | Reply

  2. I think that someone who really know their Greek well (well enough to even write in it with confidence) would automatically understand the complexity and register of a Greek passage.

    Register — there’s something I don’t see much discussion of. Languages can vary a lot in grammar and vocabulary according to societal context, and this should be reflected in a translation as well.

    I don’t know about Bible translators, but one thing commercial translators do a lot is have team members with different roles. A translator and a copy writer have different skills, and once a translator has made an accurate translation, a copy writer sometimes has to edit or rewrite the text to improve the quality of the English and the clarity of the text’s meaning. A lot of Bible translations are full of stilted and wooden English, and could use a good re-write.

    Comment by Paul D. | September 29, 2010 | Reply


    • I think that someone who really know their Greek well (well enough to even write in it with confidence) would automatically understand the complexity and register of a Greek passage.

      Yes, but I don’t think that anyone alive knows ancient Greek that well, because register is one of the hardest elements to identify in a foreign language.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 3, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] more attention to the Siddur’s art: literary structures, intertextuality, and poetic devices, complexity, and density, to name a few. Such a translation would, of course, be anything but […]

    Pingback by Fallacy or Ideology? On the ArtScroll Translation of the Siddur | Hirhurim – Musings | October 14, 2010 | Reply


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