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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

he is relieving himself: issues in translation

In the comments to my last post, Daniel McLain Hixon made the case for the ESV and other formal equivalence translations of the Bible. In general, I prefer formal equivalence too. I use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for most of my Bible study, and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) for checks and balances. Where the two don't agree, it is usually pretty clear which has kept the original and which has rephrased it.

But while I prefer formal equivalent translations for study, I've found that dynamic equivalent translations are better for family Bible reading.

I still have the Good News Bible I got when I was a child, and I've found that its language is good at holding the attention of my 5-year-old son. I've also recently purchased a Contemporary English Version (CEV) to use for those places where the Good News translation seems to go too far astray.

So I can see the benefits of both styles of translation. Essentially, a formal equivalence translation is better for study, because it stays closer to the wording of the original, and a dynamic equivalence translation is easier to read aloud, and easier to understand -- especially for younger listeners.

And yet, it's not really as simple as that. Sometimes, as in idiomatic expressions, the meaning of the original is not conveyed by the words. In such a case, a word-for-word translation will give readers a less accurate understanding of the original.

Let's look at 1 Kings 18:27. Elijah is taunting 450 prophets of Baal who are trying to get their god to light a fire on the altar they have built.

Here's the NRSV:

At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."

And the NASB:

It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened."

That second option, rendered "he has wandered away" in the NRSV or "he is occupied" in the NASB is, I'm told, a euphemism, similar in meaning to the modern English euphemism "he is reliving himself."

The dynamic-equivalent translations don't leave room for doubt. Here's the CEV:

At noon, Elijah began making fun of them. "Pray louder!" he said. "Baal must be a god. Maybe he's day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he's asleep, and you have to wake him up."

The New Living Translation replaces the Hebrew euphemism with an English one:

About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

As does the Good News Translation:

At noon Elijah started making fun of them: "Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone off on a trip! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!"

But which is the better way to translate this phrase? Although I usually prefer a strict word-for-word translation, I think it is better to translate Hebrew or Greek euphemisms into similar euphemisms in English. That gives the reader the best sense of the way the original readers would have understood the passage.

And here's a surprise! Evidently the translators of the ESV have the same opinion. (I'm going to have to take a closer look at this translation.)

Here's how the ESV renders this verse:

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.

It's not always easy to translate idioms. Sometimes there is not an equivalent euphemism. Sometimes we may not know the connotations of the original phrase. But this is one area where, if possible, I think it is preferable to depart from a strict word-for-word translation.

What do you all think?

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

every word of god?

I'm not a Bible scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. In college I considered majoring in religion and philosophy, and took two semesters of New Testament Greek, but that hardly qualifies me to speak with authority about Bible translation and interpretation. Still, I try to be as informed as I possibly can, so I often read blogs of people who actually do something about the Bible.

And so, I've seen a lot of commentary this week responding to a post by one Tim Challies, who apparently is no more a scholar than I am, but who does presume to speak with some authority about Bible translations. Specifically, Challies prefers the English Standard Version translation (ESV) over the New Living Translation (NLT) or the Contemporary English Version (CEV), two translations which Challies describes as "less literal". In Challies' own words:

What I mean to show in these examples is that anything other than an essentially literal translation of the Bible may work to subtly undermine the Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures.

The key to choosing a good translation, according to Challies, is this:

We cannot overestimate the importance of ensuring that what we study is the clearest, best, most accurate translation of God’s Words that we can possibly find.

Challies gives some examples of how the ESV translates a couple verses, and how these other Bibles translate the same verses. Let's see how the "less literal" translations undermine our confidence.

The first example is from Romans 13:4. Here's the ESV:

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

Now the NLT:

But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.

And the CEV:

If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.

For good measure, Challies also includes The Message paraphrase:

But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

The issue, for Challies, is the word "sword".

The translators have seen fit to provide what they feel is the main idea of the passage, that the civil authorities have the right to punish those who do wrong. But this is a verse that has long been used to discuss the Christian view on capital punishment. It is an important verse in this context and in others. But in these three translations there is nothing to discuss, for the “sword” has been removed and punishment, which may be imprisonment, fines or community service, among other things, has been substituted.

This is Challies' first mistake: He doesn't understand the context of this verse. Paul is not writing instructions to the civil authorities on how to handle wrongdoers; he's encouraging the Christians in Rome to do what's right and not get themselves into trouble with the law. If they obey the law, they will have nothing to fear. (History has proven Paul wrong about this; in the year 64, the Emperor Nero had some 7,000 Christians killed as scapegoats after a fire swept through the city, though the Christians had no part in setting the fire. It's likely that Paul himself was one of those who were executed.)

To turn this verse on its head, though, and say that capital punishment is justified, is the same mistake pro-slavery advocates made two centuries ago.

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

That's 1 Peter 2:18, in the New Revised Standard Version. A less literal translation might say "servants" instead of "slaves".

Here's the same verse in the ESV:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.

But I digress.

Clearly, this verse is not saying that it's OK to own slaves, or to treat them harshly if you do -- or even to be unjust to your servants. The instructions in this passage are written to those who are in a position of indentured service. At the time, some Christians were slaves. That should not be taken as a justification of the institution of slavery. Likewise, the word "sword" in Romans 13:4 should not be used as a justification of capital punishment. That's not what the passage is about. To understand a Bible passage, we have to begin by understanding its intended audience.

Surely Challies, the author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, ought to know that much.

Here's Challies' other example, Psalm 32:1. First, he quotes the ESV:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Then The Message:

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.

The NLT:

Oh, what joy for those whose rebellion is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!

And the CEV:

Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away.

Here, Challies' concern is for the word "covered". In the "less literal" translations,

It has been replaced by "wiped clean," "put out of site," or "wipe away." But is "covered" not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book?

In a word, no. The members of the ESV translation committee are listed on its web site, and God's name is not among them. If you like the ESV translation, then by all means use it. But don't try to claim that every word of the ESV is identical to every word of God. That's putting too much confidence in the translation committee.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

god the artist

We talk about artists as creative geniuses, but what do we really mean by that? The best artists are not the ones who exercise absolute, teeth-gritting control over their medium. Rather, the best artists are those who see a work of art beginning to take shape, and are able to exercise just the right amount of control to let the art have its own way. The true artist serves the work of art, and not vice versa. This shows up differently in different artistic media, but the underlying principle is the same. A good painter will use what others would call an accidentally misplaced brush stroke as a source of inspiration. A novelist will exclaim with delight that her characters have run away with the plot. A jazz musician taps into the random quantum fluctuations of his own brain in order to improvise. A game designer will purposefully design games in which polyhedral random number generators are used. Also known as dice.

So why do we hold God to a lower artistic standard? Some folks seem to think that if God used random evolution to create people, he must have been holding his nose while he did it. I don't think so. Einstein himself said that God doesn't roll dice. But he was wrong. And in fact, anyone who has played role-playing games knows that God probably had to roll quite a few dice to come up with a character like Einstein. :-)

It is part of the artistic genius of God that he invented an artistic medium like the universe, a universe in which evolution could happen, a universe in which characters could run away with the plot. I think God delights in how the universe works. He even said as much: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."

- Larry Wall, The Culture of Perl

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