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Bible Translation and Literary Style

One thing second or third year Greek students notice, at least those who manage to start actually reading the Greek New Testament, is that various books have different levels of Greek grammar and vocabulary, and different literary styles. There’s a reason why most early reading exercises from the New Testament are from John or Mark. When I first started to read Luke/Acts I wondered what happened, and the first time I plowed through the first four verses of the book of Hebrews I wondered if I’d actually skipped all those Greek classes and just dreamed I’d been there learning.

I think we can appropriately ask just what a translator needs to convey in terms of literary style, particularly the complexity of the language does a translator need to convey. Surely these elements convey something to somebody, and they are very easy to lose in translation. For example, if Matthew or Mark use a simple and common term for something but Luke uses a rarer or more sophisticated term for the same thing, should the translator reflect this by using a simpler English term for Matthew or Mark, and a more complext term for Luke?

Translators often give different answers, at least based on their practice in their translations. For example, in my blog entry on translation issues in the passage, I examined how various translations dealt with this issue and some reasons why one might try those various options. Recently I gave a preliminary review of a new translation, The Scriptures, and found that they actually translate the full Greek sentence as a single long English sentence. Some good questions to ask their translation team would be: “Does that long English sentence convey the same idea to English readers as the long Greek sentence would to Greek readers?” and “Is the long English sentence similar in comprehension level to the long Greek sentence?”

Let me give my answer first this time, and then try to justify it. I think that almost any variety of translation is acceptable and sometimes useful, provided that translators and readers understand the method and purpose. Bible translators need to be more careful on this point because people often naively expect to get “the Bible” no matter what translation they use, while the fact is that each translation will convey some, but not all of the meaning of the text in the source language. This is why I offer a seminar for churches, especially lay members, about Bible translation.

If you believe that the message of the Bible is worth communicating, then translations to meet the needs of particular audiences are of value. I would especially mention children’s Bibles. The NCV offers easy to read, short sentences and simple vocabulary to children or to those with more limited reading skill. Personally, I find that version hard to read because of those short sentences. But there are people for whom this is the best way to receive the gospel message. My personal preference is the REB, but many people turn up their noses at the loftier language it uses. It communicates to me, but not to those people. And that is the key.

There are those who ask me why I don’t condemn The Message. After all my own charts show that is extremely low on the formal equivalence scale. (Frequently people just assume that I would accept that having a low score in formal equivalence means a translation is inaccurate. But that is not my position at all, as I have stated repeatedly. The assumption that more literal is the equivalent of more accurate is simply false.) They can point out to me how hard it is to find verses, how word studies would be impossible using that version, and how many liberties Peterson has taken with the text. But what they miss is that Peterson has also wonderfully conveyed other portions of the meaning by his method. Like every translation, regardless of translation approach, The Message conveys some of the meaning of the source and fails to convey other elements.

In order to determine how a translation “should” be done, you need to know the audience, and what are the critical elements to be conveyed to that audience. Don’t assume that you can get everything, or that you can get everything that’s important, because you can’t get everything, and what is important varies with the audience and the purpose. This is a question I fight regularly. “What Bible version do you use?” someone will ask. Or alternatively, “What Bible version is best?” They are very impatient when I say that I use many Bible versions in answer to the first, and to the second, that I have to know the audience and purpose before I can give an answer. But those answers are correct.

Advocates of translations that are strongly formal equivalent often use the argument that word studies are much easier to do and that one can better see the relationship between various texts on the same topic when words are translated consistently. But if I may be blunt, these people are talking to a dwindling group of Bible students who actually do that kind of work, and many of those who do use word studies based on English translations do such a lousy job that they are more of a danger than a help. The pressing need is for an acquaintance with the Bible story and the Bible message. If you spend time teaching as I do, I imagine you’ve experienced the fading of Biblical knowledge. Literary references such as to the stories of Daniel and the “law of the Medes and Persians” (for those who miss it, that law can’t be changed), the books of Ruth, Esther, and Jonah, or major episodes in the history of Israel are no longer safe. All we do by limiting the range of meaning we translate to the desires of a small group of people, for example those who wish to dig into concordances and do word studies, is to limit Biblical knowledge to people who do those sorts of things.

Translating literary style could be an excellent goal. But the translator needs to ask a question when translating Luke, for example. Is it more important for me to convey the fact that Luke writes in a more sophisticated style of Greek than Mark does, or should I focus on conveying the story? I would suggest that in most (but not all) cases you’ll want to convey the story.

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