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Christianity Today, October 27, 1997

Confessions of a Bible Translator


In this article, condensed from the November/December 1995 issue of CT's sister publication BOOKS & CULTURE, Daniel Taylor, and English professor at Bethel College in Minnesota, gives us a glimpse into that most daring of undertakings—humans translating God's Word.

As a stylist on a new translation of the Bible financed by Tyndale House Publishers, I worry over the effectiveness of the language into which the text is translated. In general, Bible scholars worry first about accuracy; stylists worry first about effectiveness. Together they labor to create a final product that is both faithful to the original text and compelling to the modern reader—Scylla and Charybdis goals that have brought many a translation to grief.

It is said that people should not see how either their sausage or their laws are made. Perhaps the same could be said of their Bible translations. I am greatly impressed by the scholarship, hard work, good will, and genuine devoutness of my colleagues on this project. I am also keenly aware how human we are. A phrasing that would die an unlamented death at nine in the morning will somehow survive if it comes up instead at four in the afternoon after a long and tiring day. God willing, it meets its just reward at the next level of review, but I have spent too much time noting the infelicities in existing translations to have overwhelming confidence in that.

It must have been late in the day, for instance, when the New Jerusalem Bible translators nodded approval for "when the guests are well wined" (John 2:10), or the NIV had the psalmist declare, "To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High" (Ps. 77:10), or the NRSV translators thought they were using modern English with "they have subverted me with guile" (Ps. 119:78). I hazard these examples only because my own sins are years from public revelation. In fact, my admiration for existing translations has only grown, seeing how daunting is the task.

My stylizing contribution is strikingly low-tech. I typically work with a triple-spaced, typed manuscript with liberal margins. I might pencil in three or four alternatives to a verb, or suggest a change in word order or even a radically different approach to rendering the verse. I draw lines and arrows, ask questions, and make pronouncements. I ponder nuances of meaning, listen to the sound of words echoing off words, feel for their rhythm as they jostle for position. And after doing all that and seeing I still haven't gotten it right, I find myself hoping a colleague across the country is having better luck with the passage than I am.

But what does getting it right mean? This question, and many others, cannot be answered without recourse to translation theory.

All translation is interpretation. At every point, the translator is required to interpret, evaluate, judge, and choose. Every text is thickly layered with unique and sometimes incommensurable features of form (Hebrew parallelism and puns, for instance), content (emotions associated with the liver or kidney), and context (ancient ideas about where gods live and how they are to be appeased), not to mention the very sound of words.

Because no translation can hope to do justice to every feature in the original, choices are made, and each entails a value judgment. This does not mean that translation is merely subjective, but we should guard against the illusion that there is a single right way of treating translation in general or any one passage in particular.

The Holy Grail of contemporary Bible translation is the often elusive combination of accuracy and readability. No translation that aspires to wide use within the church and academia can afford to be labeled inaccurate; no translation that hopes to be read by the laity can be found difficult or dull. So assertions of "That's what it says" must be constantly balanced by "Is that how we would say it in English today?"

Consider, for example, the almost universal practice of contemporary translations in using the word fullness in John 1:16, as does the NRSV: "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace." What does the idea of receiving something from someone's "fullness" convey to the average reader today? Almost nothing, I would argue. And is fullness the only accurate translation of the underlying Greek word? In fact, is it even accurate itself if it hides the meaning of the text rather than revealing it? (This is the only use of the word in John; it is an important concept for Paul.)

The first draft of our translation's rendering of this verse also used fullness. Further discussion raised multiple alternatives: completeness, all-sufficiency, complete sufficiency, divine abundance. Our tentative rendering, subject to change at later stages, is From his abundance we have all received overflowing grace, a reading that we believe is accurate, understandable, and felicitous.

The theories lying behind most Bible translation in the last 35 years arc some form of the dynamic equivalence theory, most closely associated with Eugene Nida. He offers the following guideline: "A translation should be the closest natural equivalent of the message" in the original language.

Unfortunately, all the key words in such definitions—natural, equivalent, message—are slippery and subject to a range of interpretation and application. The same is true for other words often used in translation discussion: free, literal and so on. Among the many possible combinations of terms and phrases, our translation has chosen equivalent message and effect to summarize what we are trying to convey. This approach insists on the inseparability of form and content in all effective communication.

All such theoretical statements sock to clarify the relationship between text and audience. Bible translation, like all writing, is shaped by audience. Two translation efforts committed to the same goals of accuracy and readability, but aimed at different audiences, will create very different translations.

In contemporary Bible translations, ours included, the pressure generally is to seek the widest possible audience and to do whatever is necessary stylistically to reach that audience. Nevertheless, if a translation allows the least literate, least educated least churched, least inquisitive, least motivated reader to become the de facto norm, it not only will fail to do justice to the text but also will alienate many other potential readers.

Related to audience is the question of the appropriate level and kind of language to use. An equivalence theory of translation requires assessment of language usage in the original text as compared to the common speech of the original audience in order to reproduce the same relative usage in a present-day audience. That is, if certain words or passages would have seemed elevated (or mysterious, or ambiguous) to the common reader or listener in the original audience, then we should in theory retain that sense of elevation today. If the language was colloquial, it should be translated into the colloquial language of our own time. A translation that uses only a single level of language (whether entirely plain, entirely colloquial, or entirely formal) is inaccurate if there is a variety of levels in the original language.

And what, after all, is common language? We have decided that for our purposes it will not be street language (badmouth me was removed from an early draft), or heavily vernacular, or slang, or breezy talk-show English. Descriptive words such as fresh, dignified, precise, colorful, and understandable recur in our discussions. In fact, of course, everyone has an idiolect as individual as his or her fingerprint.

My own sense of language is informed by more factors than I can enumerate: where I have lived, how the people around me have talked, what I've read and heard and seen. If I am sometimes in danger of letting novels or television overly influence my sense of what constitutes contemporary language, some of the biblical scholars must guard against their very expertise.

For them, Hebrew or Greek is common language. They have breathed so long the ancient syntax and rhythms that some find clear and natural in English what a typical reader might find opaque and convoluted. They sometimes fail to see the datedness of not only conceptually significant words like fullness in John 1, but also common descriptive words such as the following from other first drafts: cast (throw), cut off (kill), dash (destroy), deliver (rescue), fetters (chains), and so on. The hope is that the sensibilities of many people with a wide variety of experiences and idiolects will produce a widely understandable and yet accurate text.

Theory is useless unless it is incarnated in an effective text. Pale theory must give way to bloody practice. Our translation begins with the question "What is the message, and how would the writer say that today?" Our key exegetical goals are accuracy (in rendering the general message), precision (in capturing subtle nuances), and clarity (in conveying understanding).

Serving the exegetical goals are the stylistic goals of economy (maximum effect from each word), felicity (sense of aptness, beauty, elegance), lucidity (the wedding of economy and felicity to produce illumination), and contemporaneity (use of today's language). In sum, the goal of the translation is to be exegetically faithful and stylistically compelling, understanding that the full message of the text includes the rhetorical strategies used in conveying it.

Greater felicity is achieved in many ways, including using stronger verbs. Ecclesiastes 7:9 first began, Keep firm control of your temper. The revision, Control your temper, makes the verb the defining and energizing part of the sentence and reflects the central idea of the verse—control—as well as eliminates unneeded words.

At each stage in the translation process, individual judgments are weighed against the judgments of others. Overall, there is a strong sense of common purpose and responsibility, coupled with a healthy awareness of the impossibility of fully succeeding. As a group, we genuinely seek the presence and inspiration of the Spirit who was present with the original writers. Being broadly evangelical, we believe we are working not just with a text, but with revealed truth.

To subscribe to Books & Culture: A Christian Review, call 1-800-523-7964.


Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christianity Today magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail cteditor@christianitytoday.com.
October 27, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 12, Page 76





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