Bible translation seems plagued by a few myths that won’t let go. One of them was recently repeated by Dr. Eugene Merrill in the Christian Post when he said that “if you want a more contemporary […] translation, you’re going to have to give up some accuracy.”
I don’t think it’s true.
Dr. Merrill was explaining the infamous “literal (or word-for-word)” versus “dynamic equivalent (or thought-for-thought)” styles of translation, as the article calls them. But even though there are two broadly different kinds of published Bible versions, that doesn’t mean that there are two equally good ways to convey the ancient text, or that the tradeoff is between modern rendition and accuracy.
Rather the most accurate translation is often also a modern rendition. Just to pick one example (which I explain further in my recent Huffington Post piece on the importance of context), the stiff and word-for-word “God spoke unto Moses saying” is neither modern nor accurate. A better translation, with English punctuation doing the job of some of the Hebrew words, is: “God said to Moses, `…'” And that’s both modern and accurate.
It does seem true that a modern translation and a less accurate word-for-word one say different things — sometimes in terms of basic content, and more often in terms of nuance. I think that some people mistake bad translations for the original meaning, and then lament modern translations that don’t match the older, less accurate ones.
For instance, “God spoke unto Moses saying” has a certain odd tone to it. Some people, I fear, worry that my modern alternative doesn’t convey that odd tone. And, of course, they’re right. But then they make an erroneous leap and conclude that my translation strays from the original, when it’s actually the familiar translation that doesn’t do justice to the source.
Dr. Merrill’s example in the article is b’nai yisrael. He explains that the traditional “sons of Israel” could mislead modern readers into thinking that the phase only refers to males. But the more modern “people of Israel,” accord to Dr. Merrill, also falls short because it strays from the literal, masculine meaning of the word b’nai.
But the reasoning here is flawed. If b’nai refers to both men and women — which everyone agrees that it does — then it what sense does it literally refer only to men? It’s only the older translation, “sons of Israel,” that potentially excludes the women.
So this doesn’t strike me as a choice between modernity and accuracy, but, instead, a modern, accurate option and an older, less accurate one.
To consider an English-only example, one possible way to explain “commuter train” is “a train from the suburbs to a main city.” A possible objection could be that that explanation fails to indicate that “commute” literally means “to change,” and, more specifically, “to change one kind of payment into another,” as in, for example, “combining individual fares into one fare.” The original “commuter trains” were trains in the 19th century from the New York City suburbs in which the full fare was commuted to entice riders.
While I find this sort of background fascinating, I don’t think that it’s necessary for understanding what a 21st century commuter train is. In fact, it’s a mistake to think that a commuter train must be one in which the fare is commuted.
Similarly, I don’t think that knowing the grammatical details of the Hebrew b’nai is necessary for understanding the text in which it is used, and, also similarly, a translation that gets bogged down in those details does a disservice to the original.
It seems to me that this kind of false tradeoff is representative of Bible translation more generally.
And more generally yet, I think that this persistent myth, which pits accuracy against modernity, contributes to Bible translations that are neither accurate nor modern.
According to a recent report by Lifeway Research, described by David Roach in the Baptist Press, “most American Bible readers … value accuracy over readability,” which is why they “prefer word-for-word translations of the original Greek and Hebrew over thought-for-thought translations.”There is overwhelming evidence and near universal agreement among linguists that word-for-word translations are less accurate than other approaches.* Equally, translators generally agree that, when the original is readable (as much of the Bible is), accuracy and readability go hand in hand. That is, valuing accuracy is often the same as valuing readability.
So what’s going on?
One question might be, “why do so many Bible readers still make the basic mistake of choosing the wrong translation (word-for-word) to achieve their goal (accuracy)?”
Another question might be, “is there some merit to the word-for-word translations that linguistic approaches are missing?” (I try to answer that question here: “the value of a word for word translation.”)
A third question might be, “is there something about thought-for-thought translations that makes them unsuitable even though they ought to be more accurate?” (I think the answer is yes.)
But I’m starting to wonder about the ongoing Bible-translation debate that pits accuracy against readability, and words against thoughts. Maybe it’s not primarily about language and translation at all. Maybe the issue is part of the broader disagreement about the roles of religion of science and how to balance the two. In other words, sticking to a word-for-word translation may be like opting for a literal biblical account of history and rejecting evolution, at least for some people.
What do you think?
[Updates: Mike Sangrey has a follow-up on BBB with the delightful title, “Headline news: Accuracy Battles Readability — Surreality Wins.” And in a post on the same topic at BLT, J. K. Gayle creates what I think is the right frame of mind with, “Imagine having to chose between accuracy and readability in a translation of Orhan Pamuk or Homer or Virgil.”]
(*) Just for example, my post on “what goes wrong when we translate the words” gives a sense of one problem; my post on “what goes wrong when we translate the grammar” gives another. My recent TEDx video explores the issue in more detail, and my And God Said goes into much more detail.)
The terms “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence” mask the fact that at least two distinct theoretical issues separate most translations:
1. what counts as “the same” in translation; and
2. how much text should be translated at a time.
Even though the two issues are not the same, they are related, and we find the following two general patterns:
By and large, “formal equivalence” translators work on the assumptions that: (1) “The same” means “the same meaning;” and (2) the realm of translation is the word. Accordingly, formal-equivalence translators try to find English words that mean the same thing as the original Hebrew or Greek ones.
“Dynamic equivalence” translators assume that: (1) “The same” means “the same affect;” and (2) the realm of translation is the phrase. So they try to find English phrases that produce the same affect as the original Hebrew or Greek.
For example, the Hebrew word ner meant “oil lamp” when the Bible was written. (We know it didn’t mean wax candle or electric lamp because they hadn’t been invented yet.) The formal equivalent of ner might therefore be “oil lamp,” while the dynamic equivalent might be “candle” or just “lamp.”
Similarly, the Hebrew words tarum karno (Psalm 89:24 and, in reverse order, Psalm 112:9) mean “will be high” and “his horn,” respectively. A word-for-word translation might be “his horn will be exalted” while a phrase-for-phrase translation might be “he will be triumphant.”
I think we would do well to stop using “dynamic equivalence” as the opposite of both “formal equivalence” and “word for word.”
In a comment, Jason Staples suggests:
Good post. I think the basic translation philosophy of attempting to most clearly convey the meaning of a text (which is effectively “dynamic equivalence”) is the whole task of translation. The more translation I’ve done, the more I’ve come to see “literal” as a bit of a problematic concept in itself, since equivalent words don’t always have equivalent meaning across languages and language tends to be figurative anyway.
I agree that conveying the original meaning is one goal (and I agree that word-for-word renderings usually don’t do this), but I don’t think it’s the only goal, because there’s more to a text than what it means.
The point of some texts is purely poetic and they don’t mean anything. (This isn’t to say that they are meaningless.) Some of the poetry of Psalms comes to mind.
A text can raise awareness, or make people think. A text can be funny. A text can be a source of inspiriation. And so forth.
I think a translation that captures the meaning but misses everything else gives people a very shallow understanding of the original text (though a translation that misrepresents the meaning is doing even worse).
Here’s a question: beyond any potential role in conveying the meaning of the original, is there any point to trying to translate each word?