February 11, 2007

Degrees of Literalness in Bible Translation

Jeremy Pierce's review of Leland Ryken's book Choosing a Bible, has me thinking about degrees of literalness in Bible translation, and I want to offer a few comments on that subject.

The first thing I want to say about degrees of literalness is that this is a spectrum. It is not a modal; that is, it is emphatically not the case the every Bible translation is either "essentially literal" or "dynamic equivalence" and all the translations within a category are the same. Let me illustrate. Let's pick a verse more or less at random - say Romans 12:1 - and I'll give some translations.

The Literal Extreme (my translation from the Greek): "I call alongside therefore you, brothers, through the mercies of God, to stand beside the bodies of you a sacrifice living, holy, pleasing to God, the logical service of you."

NASB (very literal): "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship."

HCSB (moderate-literal): "Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship."

NIV (moderate-dynamic): "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship."

NLT (very dynamic): "And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice, the kind he will accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask?"

The Message (the dynamic extreme): "So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him."

(Note: some people might object to where I have placed the NIV, but this is all just a matter of where you draw the "center" of your spectrum and, since there is only a partial ordering of Bible translations, without a definite metric, where you draw the center is a rather subjective matter. It may indeed be true that I regard the NIV as "moderate-dynamic" simply because I prefer translations more literal than it for most purposes, so this may just be my bias. The moral is: don't read too much into labels.)

The first thing to notice here is that the translation I have labeled "The Literal Extreme" is not English. Furthermore, if you were trying to decipher it without having a real translation handy and didn't know Greek, you would probably be misled. This is not an accurate rendering of the verse in English because it isn't English (there is, however, one way in which it is more accurate than some of the other translations: the word logikos means "rational" or "reasonable" or perhaps "meaningful," but I'm quite skeptical about the accuracy of the translation "spiritual," so my near-transliteration "logical" may actually be closer to correct than the translations in this respect). If you got much more literal than this, it would be Greek.

On the other end, if you compare the quote from The Message with the more literal translations, you will see what happens on the other end: if you get much more dynamic than The Message, you become a commentary.

So what we see on this spectrum is that the farther to the literal side you get, the less natural your English becomes and, at the extreme, this can cause the text to be virtually incomprehensible. As we move to the dynamic side, the translator's interpretation of the text begins to overtake the text itself, until we have an exposition rather than a translation. On the one hand, it should be noted that even my "Literal Extreme" translation involves some interpretation on the part of the translator: I had to determine which English words to substitute for the Greek words, and this is dependent on my belief about what those Greek words "literally" mean (although I tried to minimize this by using etymological definitions of compound words like parakalo, even though it doesn't actually mean "call alongside" in contexts like this). On the other hand, it is the case that, as you go further to the literal side, more of the task of interpretation is left to the reader and, as you go further to the dynamic side more of the interpretation is done by the translator. These are the extremes of the spectrum because if you go past them you no longer have an English Bible translation: if you get more literal, you no longer have English, and if you get more dynamic you no longer have a Bible.

It is my opinion that the vast majority of the space on this spectrum is good and useful, and I am very glad that there are a wide variety of Bible translations in English to be used by different people for different purposes. However, there is one region of the spectrum that I think is essentially useless, and another that I find problematic. The useless region is the area occupied by my "Literal Extreme" translation, and indeed anything that is much to the literal side of NASB (though I personally use the NASB for study fairly regularly, and I think it is a good and useful translation). The reason this piece of spectrum is useless is that the only way to properly interpret a "translation" of this kind is to reconstruct the original language, which involves knowing the original language.

The problematic piece of spectrum is on the far dynamic side, definitely including The Message and anything to the dynamic side of it (if, indeed, there is anything more dynamic than the Message - perhaps The Cotton Patch Bible?), and probably also including the NLT, at least in its most dynamic places. The problem with this region of spectrum is that it's difficult to determine how one should treat the book in question. Like a Bible? Like a commentary? Like a devotional? A sermon? It's pretty clear that by the time Eugene Peterson (author of The Message) has rendered the word soma, which literally means "body", as "your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life" we are no longer dealing with what Paul actually said in any meaningful sense, but only with what one particular person thinks Paul intended. (Note the implicit assumption, which some people might wish to challenge: I am assuming that there are some cases where we can read something in English and meaningfully assert that it is what Paul said, as opposed to merely an interpretation of what he said.)

This is not to say that The Message is bad. On the contrary, while I haven't used it too extensively, my overall impression of it is very positive. The important thing to remember about The Message is its purpose. Eugene Peterson, explaining what he was doing when he wrote The Message, said,

Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn't read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become 'old hat.'

The introduction to The Message also comments, "This is not a study Bible, but rather 'a reading Bible.'" From the limited exposure I have had, it seems to me that The Message has accomplished its purpose and I think that's great, but, as I said, I'm not sure it's really a Bible, per se.

This brings us to the next point. I've said already that I think almost the entire spectrum is good and useful, and I'm glad that Bible translations exist all along it. What parts of the spectrum are good for what people, and for what purposes? One consideration is that highly literal translations will often use an obsolete or technical term for a word that has no exact equivalent in everyday English in order not to lose the meaning, even though the original is nearly always a very common, easily understandable word. A literal translation will also generally preserve metaphors and idioms, and there are terms like "redeem" (which means something like "to purchase a slave in order to set him or her free") that have fallen out of normal English and/or taken on different meaning because we now lack the cultural context to give the word its original meaning (in this example, we no longer have slaves), and these will tend to be used. What this means is that a child or a person with little background in theology and ancient Roman/near Eastern culture will tend to be better with a more dynamic translation until he or she picks up the requisite background to study with a more literal translation. Also, for devotional reading, it is important to have a translation that "speaks your language" in a very meaningful way. Depending on how far your grammar differs from that of the original languages, it may not be possible to write a very literal translation that speaks to you this way. Certainly no translation can be as consistently literal as the NASB and use normal English phrasings as consistently as The Message at the same time. I personally have used the NKJV (which I would place between NASB and HCSB on the spectrum) for devotional reading, and now use HCSB. I find that both of these, despite being very literal, speak to me meaningfully most of the time, but that the HCSB does this better than NKJV. Note that these are pretty literal translations, and I don't think my dialect is any more more similar to the original languages in its grammar than most other dialects of English, so I do think that it is possible to have a literal translation that speaks naturally. On the other hand, both these translations (the NKJV much more so than the HCSB) have an unfortunate habit of writing in a much higher linguistic register (that is, they use fancier language) than the original of any New Testament book, with the possible exception of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

For a study Bible, anyone with significant background should definitely use something pretty far to the literal end, but if the text becomes confusing, consulting a dynamic translation is often helpful. I use the NASB fairly regularly for studying the Old Testament (I study the New Testament almost entirely in Greek). The reason for this is that, while all translation involves some interpretation, in more literal translations more of the intepretation is left to the reader and you do, in that sense, get closer to the original text. On the other hand, it is very important to know when you have reached the end of your expertise. If you don't read the original languages (and even if you do!) the translators of (nearly?) every Bible translation will be more expert than you at interpretation. For this reason, if you come to an interpretation of a very literal translation (or the original language text) which you cannot find in any more dynamic translation or commentary, you should be suspicious of your conclusion (which is not to say that it is certain you are wrong, but only that it is highly likely).

To this, let me add one more point: I personally place a high value on the consistency of a translation. That is, I think translations that "stay put" on the spectrum (especially if they state their translation principles in an introduction in such a way as to make it clear where on the spectrum they are) are simply better than those that do not. Of course, perfection in this area is impossible, because the degree of similarity between the structure and vocabulary of the original language and the target language is not constant from one construction or word to another, but its an ideal to shoot for. In cases where a translation is forced to go more dynamic than its norm, footnotes are highly appreciated. It is my subjective impression (if someone has developed an objective metric for this, I would be very interested) that the NASB and HCSB do very well in this respect. The NASB introduction says "When it was felt that word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom. In the instances where this has been done, the more literal reading has been indicated in the notes." Note that the NASB departs from "word-for-word literalness" only when such a reading is "unacceptable." Based on my experience with the NASB, I would say that by "unacceptable" they mean something like "is complete nonsense," and they follow this rule pretty consistently. (It should be noted, however, that the first edition of the NASB, which is the one I have, makes, in my opinion, one of the worst translation policy decisions in the history of Bible translation - it renders prayers and divine quotations, and nothing else, in archaic language. This was changed in the NASB Update.) The HCSB introduction says "form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed ... unless comprehension demands it. The primary goal of translation is to convey the sense of the original with as much clarity as the original text and the translation language permit ... When a literal translation meets these criteria, it is used. When clarity and readability demand an idiomatic translation, the reader can still access the form of the original text by means of a footnote ..." Note the lack of the phrase "word-for-word" included in the NASB. The HCSB practices, in general, a less rigorous literalism than the NASB. Also, whereas the NASB departs from its literalism only when the literal reading is "unacceptable," the HCSB is willing to depart whenever "clarity and readability demand" it. The HCSB does, unfortunately, move further to the literal side than its norm in its use of words like "propitiation," but this too is explained in the introduction ("Traditional theological vocabulary ... has been retained in the HCSB, since such terms have no translation equivalent that adequately communicates their exact meaning"). The NKJV has the same problem as the HCSB to a larger degree: it allows a certain amount of inconsistency in its degree of literalness for the sake of tradition. This, however, is a part of the goal of the NKJV and not an error. One of the selling points of the NKJV is that an NKJV user can easily read along with a pastor preaching from the original KJV. This is a useful thing, but it has reduced the overall quality of the NKJV as a translation. I suspect that most of the more dynamic translations (NLT, The Message, and those in between) are fairly consistent, but I don't have enough experience with them to judge.

It is, again, my subjective impression that the NIV is singularly bad on this point, and I therefore neither use nor recommend it for any purpose. (It is, however, rumored that the TNIV, which I have never used, is better about this.) What sort of relationship obtains between an NIV rendering and the original Greek text varies significantly from verse to verse and its footnotes are rarely useful in this respect. This is not to say that the NIV is useless or does not contain the Word of God, but simply that I think all of the other translations mentioned in this post are better than it (though I'm sure there are some translations I haven't mentioned which are worse).

In sum, what I am trying to say is the following:

  • There is a spectrum between literal and dynamic translation, and not simply a modal classification.

  • Nearly all of the space on the spectrum is good for some audience for some purpose.

  • All translations involve some interpretation of the text by the translator, but literal translations put more interpretation in the hands of the reader, while dynamic translations put more in the hands of the translator.

  • More dynamic translations can be very useful when one finds literal ones difficult to understand due to lack of background or the difficulty of a particular verse, or any other reason. They are also able to render the text more naturally, since they have fewer constraints, which may make them useful devotionally.

  • More literal translations are generally the right choice for someone who has significant background and is undertaking a serious study of Scripture (and all Christians should strive to get to this point), but this does not mean that once one is sufficiently educated dynamic translations cease to be useful.

  • Consistency in degree of literalness is a trait to be valued in a translation.

I think that's all.

Posted by Kenny at February 11, 2007 06:06 PM
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