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Translation ex nihilo

Join me in a thought experiment. A team of biblical language experts has been convened to produce a new translation of the Bible into English. However, none of the translators have ever read the Bible before, and they have no knowledge of Judaism nor Christianity. How would their translation differ from the received tradition?

Bundled wordplay

I ran across this enchanting line in Sirach 21:9 in the LXX:

στιππύον συνηγμένον συναγωγὴ ἀνὀμων

The NETS renders this as "a gathering of the lawless is bundled flax." (Followed by "and a flame of fire is their end.") I was struck by the use of the same lexical root συνἀγω for the subject and the adjective of the object, which makes for a great wordplay. To bring that out in English, you would have to do something more like "a gathering of the lawless is gathered flax", which does not quite sound right, unfortunately.

Testing the waters of the NIRV

My wife and I ordered a copy of the New International Reader's Version of the Bible, published by Zondervan. She thought it would be useful for Sunday school to have an easy-to-read Bible which was a full translation, unlike most children's bibles. So far I like how it reads.

I'll share one example from the beginning of Hebrews, which I think is one of the more difficult books of the Bible to read. First, in the NIV:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

And now in the NIRV:

In the past, God spoke to our people through the prophets. He spoke at many times. He spoke in different ways. But in these last days, he has spoken to us through his Son. He is the one whom God appointed to receive all things. God made everything through him.

The first thing that should jump out at you is that the NIV has one sentence, but the NIRV breaks these two verses into six. The sentences are shorter and easier, though splitting them up this results in some repetition (since the verb "he spoke" gets repeated for each adverb).

The vocabulary is simpler, and people and place names are unified (which is something which may give biblical theologians fits). Overall I like it. A real translation which is more accessible to less-experienced readers is a positive in my book. Now let's see who all complains about it.

The Lasting Impact of the KJV

Note: This article of mine has been previously published on another site.

Not long ago a friend of mine was searching for the verse which reads "Avoid every appearance of evil." He had a hard time locating it until he thought to search through the King James Version (it is 1 Thessalonians 5:22). My friend was surprised because he is not a regular reader of the KJV. This is an illustration of the massive influence on English-speaking Christianity which the KJV still retains despite being published nearly 400 years ago. Even if you rarely read the Authorized Version (another name for the KJV), it is likely that you know quite a bit of it because it is embedded in our English-speaking Christian culture. Many of our favorite verse are memorized and recited in the King James version, even if we are unaware of it. Here are some examples: > For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that > whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting > life. (John 3:16 KJV) This is the version of John 3:16 which I memorized as a child. What is interesting to note is that most modern translations have changed "only begotten" to simply "only" or "unique" due to what we've learned about the underlying Greek word. Some people try to use the incorrect translation "only begotten" to demonstrate the Jesus was created at the time of the incarnation (which is contrary to the orthodox view of the trinity). Here is another example: > Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own > understanding; (Proverbs 3:5 NIV) I quoted this verse from the NIV to demonstrate how the KJV affects our modern translations. Here the New International Version is very similar to the King James, using the "\_\_\_\_ not" construction which is quite awkward in modern English. It is interesting to note that the NIV renders each of the other prohibitions in Proverbs 3 as "do not \_\_\_\_" (do not forget, do not be wise in your own eyes, do not despise, etc. - 10 total times in this chapter). So clearly the NIV is breaking its own translation methodology in this case to conform to the style of the KJV (since such a popular verse is likely memorized in our collective consciousness from the KJV). Finally, we have my initial example: > Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22 KJV) Far from being abstract like the previous two examples, the interpretation of this verse has clear, concrete implications. In today's English the KJV sounds like it is forbidding being in any situation which "looks evil." At least that is how many of my fellow Christians interpret it. One problem is that this stands in tension with the behavior of Jesus himself. He looked quite evil (at least according to the Pharisees) by speaking with prostitutes and dining with sinners and tax collectors. The modern translations (which rightly replace "appearance" with "kind") simply forbid doing evil. It is the counterpart to the previous sentence: "Hold on to the good." So here the difference between the KJV and modern translations may actually make a difference in how a Christian lives his or her life. The King James is a victim of the times. It has tremendous intrinsic literary value and historical worth, but it is desperately archaic. Advances in various fields of Biblical studies (textual criticism, lexicography, Greek and Hebrew grammar) have proven the King James inadequate. Also, the evolution of English has made the King James obsolete and perhaps even misleading to the modern English reader (who is probably not aware that the meanings of various words and figures of speech have changed since 1611). English-speaking Christians who take serious interest in Bible study should be aware these issues. The King James Version of the Bible is not bad per se, it is just suboptimal.

Open English Translation

I was recently made aware of the Open English Translation project. It is an endeavor to create a new English translation (actually, multiple translations in various forms) using openly documented formats and copy-friendly licenses. That is just another way of saying that it is right up my alley.

In addition to the translation project, Rob Hunt is seeking to shake up a few aspects of customary Bible publishing practice, including chapters and verses, chapter headings, terminology (e.g. Old and New Testament), and order of books. Rob has also chosen an interesting rubric for textual criticism:

Segments which are not included in the most ancient manuscripts will be removed from the inline text.

Well, this is not exactly up my alley, but that's OK.

I encourage anyone who is so inclined to lend a hand where needed to this project. This is exactly what Bible publishing needs, in my opinion. As I have written before, there are practical and ethical problems with publishing translations under restrictive licenses. The OET project is a concrete step in the right direction.

Translating glosses

Acts 9:36

Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which in translation means Dorcas).

Here we have an example of a funny aspect of translation. Sometimes in the course of translation there are glosses from other languages. In other words, we are translating translations. So here is the question: should we transliterate the gloss as in the example above, or should we translate it into English? The convention for rendering names in translation is to transliterate, even if the name has a clear translatable meaning (in some cases a footnote is added). But this case is a bit different, because the comment by the author makes it clear that the name has some meaning, but English-speakers are not clued in to that meaning, since Dorcas is a meaningless word. So, why not:

Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which in translation means Gazelle).

Would it work?

Verbosity in translation

In the midst of all the recent discussion of varying "translation philosophies," I came across an article by Karen H. Jobes on bilingual quotation (like what they do at the UN). The article itself is very interesting. Toward the end there is a discussion on verbosity in Bible translation. The bottom line is that a certain popular translation is more verbose than another certain popular translation. Jobes insists she is not trying to say anything bad about the first or good about the second, just that word counts are not necessarily a good indicator for the "literalness" of translation. I agree on the latter point. Thomas did an interesting workup to show how verbosity correlates to the spectrum of translations. The bottom line: it doesn't, just as Jobes said. More "dynamic" approaches can lead to more or fewer words, it seems. Perhaps the whole point is moot, because I don't know of anyone who counts isomorphism as a positive characteristic in translations

NIV revision: third time's a charm?

The NIV is getting an update, its first since 1984. This will actually be the third attempted update since then, with the first dying in its early stages in 1997, and the second, the TNIV, dying in a maelstrom of bad press and poor marketing. What ultimately killed both of these efforts was the gender-inclusive language debate, especially in the case of the TNIV.

I am very interested to see how this new translation will come out with respect to gender-inclusivity. The NIV charter requires the translators to update the text as a reflection of developments in English. Once again, I have no empirical data on this, but gender-inclusivity idiom (e.g. the use of "they" as a singular pronoun of generic gender) appears to be dominant in much of the United States, if not the whole English-speaking world. The NIV translators seem to share this opinion, given that they have worked in accord with that assumption twice previously. So the question is: will they attempt again to market a gender-inclusive NIV, or will they shrink away from the controversial topic?

Gender Inclusivity Coda

In the course of the last week, I've had the opportunity to read and learn a fair amount about the concept of gender-inclusive language in Bible translation. Here are a few references:

Ideology and Translation

In [my disagreement about gender-inclusive language with Dr. Craig Carter][], I have found one sure point of agreement between the two of us: ideology should not govern the translation of the Bible. The problem we have encountered is that we cannot agree on what constitutes ideology in translation. Carter has posted some additional thoughts under the title "Inclusive Language and the Doctrine of the Trinity." Here follows a general response to Carter's argument. My primary purpose in this post is not to argue for gender-inclusive idiom per se (I don't as yet have a fully-formed opinion on the matter), but to come to the defense of translators who employ such language and have consequently been portrayed by Carter as compromised by "egalitarian ideology."

Defining the Issue

First of all, a discussion of gender-inclusive idiom in English (e.g. the use of "they" as a generic singular pronoun) must be rightly divided from other issues. Translators are concerned with communication. The reasons for a change in a language's idiom are not material to the practice of translation, whether or not said changes are wholly or partly the result of an ideological movement to which the translator objects. In the context of Carter's posts, this ideological movement is purportedly feminism. I will accept for the sake of argument that feminism is indeed the engine behind the rise of gender-inclusive pronouns in English (though I think it is a claim wanting evidence), but even then I think that the concerns with feminism are irrelevant.

Another area where careful delineation of the issues is in the doctrine of the Trinity (per Carter's post) or any other theological matter. If there is indeed a movement to remove the use of gendered pronouns ("he") and nouns ("father," "son") from describing God, it is a separate issue from gender-inclusive idiom. The former deals with the proper address and nature of God, while the latter deals with how English-speakers indicate a generic individual. Or: the former is a matter of theology and the latter is a matter of conventions. Carter's initial assertion was that translators who use gender-inclusive pronouns are motivated by ideology. I believe that this charge was based on a confusion between gender-inclusive idiom and other issues relating to gender. In other words, gender-inclusive idiom may be required by the task of translating the Bible into modern English and need not be motivated by ideology at all. Indeed, to demand that gender-inclusive language not be used is itself a form of ideology.

Contemporary Idiom and Intelligibility

One of Carter's chief arguments against updating translations to reflect new gender idiom is that the old translations are still intelligible to most readers. That may or may not be true in every case (though it stands to reason the deprecated forms will become less intelligible as they fall out of use). As an example, Carter provides Matthew 16:24

If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

I am inclined to agree that most modern readers could understand that "he" in this context is generic and can refer to women as well as men. I would go so far as to suggest that the average modern English speaker could even make sense of the Episcopal Church's Rite 1:

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.

But the question is: is mere intelligibility the goal of translation? It seems to me that translations ought to target the contemporary and natural speech of those who will be hearing the result. Sure, we could go back to thees and thous (and by so doing relieve much confusion about singular v. plural in the New Testament), but that would not be the sort of translation which would be most natural for modern readers. If Carter wants to fight ideology through translation, he may have to accept a stilted, dated translation.

Diachronic Study and Style

Carter's must unusual argument comes in defense of Milton, Shakespeare, and the like:

The problem is that, once the concession is made that traditional language is exclusive of women (which is never was), then the integrity and credibility of all the texts of Western civilization are placed in question. Since everything prior to 1970 uses "non-inclusive language," everything is open to suspicion of being "patriarchial" and thus non-binding. This applies to the concept of classic texts in literature, law, philosophy and history, as well as all theological texts up to and including Holy Scripture itself.

Thankfully this is not now nor has it ever been the case. We can track the changes in language through diachronic study. In so doing we can know how to interpret literature based on its context. The use of "he" as a generic pronoun is not a marker of patriarchy but of an older idiom for a generic person. Carter himself admitted that modern readers could tell the difference (see above). I find it particularly ironic that he mentions Holy Scripture as a potential victim of this misunderstanding, seeing as this could be easily remedied by updating translations to use the new gender-inclusive idiom! Changes in English today are not going to destroy our appreciation of ancient English literature. It is doing just fine, thanks to diachronic study. Indeed, it has survived many changes in idiom.

We can safely update our translations to use contemporary idiom without undermining our own literary foundations. I should also note a criticism of Carter's that the new idioms do not sound good. Style is of course in the ear and on the tongue of the beholder. We all must from time to time accept that changes in language will make our favorite stylistic flourishes passe while newer, distasteful elements will achieve hegemony. That is, contemporary English style may change without our approval or consent.


Carter's treatment of the topic of gender-inclusivity utilizes arguments from many fronts: sociology, theology, literacy, literary history, and style. However, none of his arguments against the use of gender-inclusive language in Bible translations stand on their own merits. Moreover, Carter's war on inclusive language appears to be motivated by the desire to oppose liberalism and not the desire to produce accurate, modern Bible translations. Bible translators who use gender-inclusive language out of a desire to produce good translations should not be called ideologues for failing to comply with Carter's own ideology.

[my disagreement about gender-inclusive language with Dr. Craig Carter]:

Committee translations

All of the principle translations of the Bible into English are done by translation committees. There are some notable exceptions, of course, including the Message, the Living Bible, Weymouth, Philips, etc. However, these are considered secondary due to their being completed by an individual. Moreover, I have sensed a general sentiment that such translations by individuals are not considered as trustworthy as committee translations because it is thought that personal bias would be allowed to shine through in an individual's work. A committee is also useful for imposing a standard style on a work which is actually composed by many different scholars. I am sure there are more reasons for the committee trend. What I began noticing in college is that committee translations are pretty rare outside of the Bible (I cannot think of one off the top of my head). Instead, translations are typically done by an individual or small team. This is the case for works of antiquity, textbooks, novels, etc. Why is it that committees are so common for biblical translation but so uncommon for everything else? Is the quality of the end product affected by the decision to use a committee or not?

Gender Inclusivity

Craig Carter and I are having a discussion about gender-inclusive language in Bible translations. To summarize: Craig thinks that translators who use gender-inclusive language are doing so for invalid ideological (namely feminist) purposes; I think such translators are doing their best to produce an accurate, contemporary translation into the ever-changing English language. I have absolutely no evidence available to argue that the generic/inclusive masculine in English is falling out of style, so I am not sure how necessary gender-inclusive language is for modern English translations. My anecdotal experience tells me that gender inclusive language is becoming necessary. Craig's anecdotal experience tells him just the opposite. In other words, we have reached an impasse. Does anyone have statistical evidence on this m

Desire of women

A friend pointed me to a recent article in a Wasilla, Alaska newspaper entitled "Will the antichrist be a homosexual?" Ron Hamman writes:

But will the Antichrist be a homosexual? Having seen what the Bible says of sodomy, we have no further to look than the book of Daniel, chapter 11 to find our answer. It says, "Neither shall he [Antichrist] regard... the desire of women...." As I said at the onset, I am not the first to draw attention to this, but the verbiage is clear.

As it turns out, the verbiage is not so clear. Consider this survey of translations of Daniel 11:37:

  • NASB: He will show no regard for the gods of his fathers or for the desire of women, nor will he show regard for any other god;
  • NIV: He will show no regard for the gods of his fathers or for the one desired by women, nor will he regard any god,
  • NLT: He will have no respect for the gods of his ancestors, or for the god loved by women, or for any other god,
  • ESV: He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women. He shall not pay attention to any other god,
  • KJV: Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god:

It seems that "desire of women" is not referring to sexual desire (whom he desires) but to a god (whom the women desire). This also fits the context better, where both the preceding and following thoughts pertain to deity. Perhaps this is a case where a misunderstanding of an english translation leads to interpretive problems. Here is a good example of the value of the synoptic study of different english translations.