Oxford Bible editor Donald Kraus surveys 25 different Bible translations, and discusses general principles of translation, specific illustrations of difficult texts, the range of translation choices available, and the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches.
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CHOOSING A BIBLE
For Worship, Teaching, Study, Preaching, and Prayer
By DONALD KRAUS
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Donald Kraus
All rights reserved.
WHAT IS TRANSLATION?
We all think we know what translation is. Translation is the act of rendering the words, thoughts, images, and ideas expressed in one language into another. Although it may be difficult in practice — hard words, idioms, unclear writing, and other such stumbling blocks may impede progress — and although it requires knowledge of at least two languages, we think the theory must be pretty straightforward. With grammars and dictionaries, we think, it must be possible to translate texts from one language to another and manage to get most of the meaning across. There must be a "best" way to translate any text, and if we can't read the original languages, we just have to find the "best" translation and use that. We may lose some "poetry," but we'll get more than the gist — we'll get what the original author intended us to get.
Such an attitude is harder to maintain once we have learned a foreign language — almost any foreign language. In the process of learning we come to recognize that there are nuances that escape us when we try to render one language into another. Sometimes it is necessary not to translate by the dictionary, but to consider a larger context and represent the author's meaning, not necessarily what the author literally said. In Romans 9.29, for example, Paul quotes Isaiah 1.9, a passage which in the original refers to "survivors" who are spared the destruction of Jerusalem (sadir kim'at, "a few escapees"). Paul, however, uses the Greek word that means "descendants" (sperma, "seed") instead of "survivors," thereby inadvertently changing the sense of the passage. The point is not that, though we are destroyed, our progeny will live on; rather, it is that, though most of us are destroyed, enough will survive to form the basis of a new community. Most translations mistake the meaning here and translate "seed" or "descendants"; the New Revised Standard Version, however, correctly renders this "survivors," thereby clarifying Paul's argument that God has called a small group from the existing Jewish and Gentile communities (9.23–24).
The idea that there is only one right way to translate a text must evaporate when we realize how many translations of the Bible there really are. When we encounter this multiplicity of versions, either we can despair and withdraw into one favorite translation to the exclusion of all others, or we can wander at a loss, picking and choosing from among the great variety of Bibles available but never understanding what each one is trying to accomplish.
In working through a variety of Bible translations, however, we may also come to a better understanding of what translation truly is. In the following pages we will first be looking at a number of issues involved in translation, some general and some specific to translating the Bible. Following that overview, we will be looking at specific examples and illustrations of different translation strategies. We will be examining the reasons for the different approaches, and trying out the uses to which such different renditions can be put. And at the end, although we may still keep to our favorite translation for habitual reading, preaching, and teaching, we may have learned to expand our repertoires with a much wider choice of reading, and we will also be able to recommend different translations to different readers for different uses, depending on their abilities, desires, aims, ages, and education. For example, someone who has taken college or graduate school courses in literature may be perfectly comfortable with the translators' notes in the NET (New English Translation) Bible, which give many alternative nuances for translation choice. But a fourteen-year-old, or someone learning English as a second language, might much prefer the Contemporary English Version, with its simpler vocabulary and minimal apparatus.
This prospect gives us the key to understanding what a translation is. Far from being the static, fixed result of a mechanical process, translation is a dynamic mediation, as much art as science, between the original language text and the language actually used by the audience. Furthermore, with a text like the Bible, originating in a distant time and place, "translation" necessarily involves more than verbal issues: matters of culture, belief, daily life, and so on also have to be taken into account.
LANGUAGES AND AUDIENCES
Any translation works with two languages: the original or "source" language, and the translated or "target" language. Similarly, it also works with two communities: the original audience for the text and the present-day audience. As we move into specific examples we will see how these four factors influence the results of the translation, but in a preliminary way we can say the following:
* A translation that treats the source language as primary takes an approach that is "word-for-word" or "literal." Such a translation of the Bible will try as far as possible to reproduce Greek or Hebrew language patterns in English. (We look at specific examples of this in chapter 6.)
* A translation that treats the target language as primary takes an approach that is "meaning-for-meaning" or "readable." Such a translation of the Bible tries to a greater or lesser extent to re-express in English what the original writer meant — not necessarily what the original writer literally said — in Greek or Hebrew. (Once again, we will look at specific examples in chapter 6.)
We might more easily grasp the difference between these two approaches if we think of a non-native but fluent speaker of English who still conceptualizes in another language and then turns the ideas into English, versus a native English-speaker, fluent in a foreign language, who listens to an explanation in that language and then restates it in standard, idiomatic English. In the one case we have a foreigner speaking English, with perhaps some echoes of the foreign language; in the other, an English-speaker whose ideas came from elsewhere but whose language is her own.
As far as the audiences are concerned — the original, ancient audience for a biblical text and the present-day readers for whom the translation is intended — their influence on the translation process is more subtle, but in some ways more momentous.
* When a translation treats the source language as primary, it often simply accepts those aspects of the text having to do with the original audience and setting. For a contemporary audience, the result will be an experience of the text that is exotic, emphasizing its origins in an ancient culture very different from our own. It is important to recognize that such an experience of the text as exotic and ancient is not the way the original audience experienced it.
* When a translation treats the target language as primary, it may also look at the possible ways the original audience could have experienced the text and come up with approaches that will provide an analogous experience for a contemporary audience. Here we must recognize that such an approach to the text may slide past the need to acknowledge cultural differences between the original and contemporary audiences, and may also create a translation that rapidly loses its relevance as its contemporary references themselves become outdated.
AREAS OF MEANING
In undertaking any translation, it is necessary to deal both with the variety of meanings — the "semantic range" — of any given word we are trying to translate from the source language, and also with the full set of meanings of the word we are using in the target language. These ranges of meaning between words in one language and words in another generally do not overlap exactly. This can be made a little clearer if we consider the relationship between words within one language. To do so, we will look at three different ways of expressing meaning: synonyms, glosses, and definitions.
A synonym is a word that is deemed to be equivalent in meaning to another word. As its name suggests, a "synonym" is "another name for the same thing." But a little thought and experimentation will show that in fact exact synonyms — two words with exactly the same meanings — are rare, perhaps non-existent. For instance, in reading a medical book we might come across the word "febrile." If we were to ask a physician for the meaning of "febrile," we would probably be told, "It means 'feverish.'" Thus, "febrile" and "feverish" are synonyms. But they are not exact synonyms, because we cannot use "febrile" wherever we use "feverish." We can't say of a colleague, "He's working at a febrile pace." The range of meaning of "feverish" is larger than the range of meaning of "febrile."
A gloss is a short definition in context. We could gloss "crawling" as "moving on hands and knees." But in context — as in the sentence, "The sidewalk was crawling with ants" — we would have to gloss it as "covered," and moreover we would probably have to add the information that what the sidewalk is covered with is itself moving. "Moving on hands and knees" is a good gloss for "crawling" only in certain contexts: "The sidewalk was moving on hands and knees with ants" does not make sense.
The definition of a word is ideally its complete range of meaning. To get an idea of the complexity involved in this, we can consider the longest definition in the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: the one for the word "set." The OED was originally called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, and its guiding philosophy was to define each word completely according to actual contextual usage, in all its meanings. This meant first collecting and then arranging significant citations for a given word, and distinguishing between their shades of meaning.
"Set" is both a noun and a verb. For the noun the dictionary ended up with two main divisions, one being words that indicate placement or arrangement. These ranged from a largely archaic sense preserved in the noun "sunset" (the quality or condition of descending) to such matters as the arrangement of plantings. The second main division of the noun covered various meanings of groups in general, whether persons or things: a "social set" or a "set of china," for instance. These two substantive areas of meaning covered 47 different subsidiary meanings.
The range of meanings for "set" as a verb is even more complex. The dictionary arranged the senses under twelve general headings ("to descend," "to place," and various meanings in combination with prepositions — "set off," "set out," "set up," and so forth), leading to 147 subsidiary senses, one of which itself — "set up" — could be distinguished into 44 separate uses. The entire definition, both noun and verb, covered 68 columns.
Clearly, in any translation from English to another language, there could be no single equivalent for such a word. Even if the translator held to a very strict word-for-word approach, it would be necessary to translate such a word as "set" contextually, and therefore to admit in principle that "meaning-for-meaning" translation is a legitimate approach.
These examples should make clear that words can have a great range of meaning, and, therefore, that any translation needs to take into account not just a "core" meaning but a full range. And once we realize this, we will also realize that when translating from one language to another, it is likely to be the case that this wider range of meaning will be one of the things we will be trying to translate — and that it is unlikely that words in different languages will have exactly overlapping ranges of meaning. We will have to choose, in fact, between translating what was said (that is, the literal words that were spoken or written, translated into the target language) and what was meant (the intent behind the words, re-thought and re-expressed).
A very elementary example of this occurs in John 3.8. In this verse a key term appears three times (once as a verb, twice as a noun): the word pneuma (noun) or pneo (verb). Here, in the New American Standard Bible translation, is the verse with the key words highlighted:
The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is every one who is born of the Spirit.
"Wind" and "Spirit" are the same word in Greek, but it is impossible to translate this verse into English without using different words for the occurrences of the same Greek word.
A recent example of the value of meaning-for-meaning translation took place in late 1956. In a meeting with Americans in Moscow, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita S. Khrushchev, made a remark that was reported around the world. Referring to the struggle for political supremacy between the United States and the USSR, he said, "We will bury you." Khrushchev was speaking in Russian, and his words were rendered into English by a translator on the spot. They caused an immediate outcry in America, because many who heard or read them took them as a threat: "We will destroy you." The hearers, in other words, took "bury" to be a synonym for "kill."
But it appears that Khrushchev was not making that kind of a threat. In Russian usage, a strong subsidiary meaning for "bury" was "outlive." A similar meaning occurs in English when we refer to someone who has "buried" a spouse — it is not an accusation of murder. In English, this sense is fairly uncommon and somewhat old-fashioned. Therefore, and also presumably because of the level of hostility between the United States and the USSR, most Americans leapt to the conclusion that Khrushchev was making a lethal threat, whereas he was probably intending to say simply, "We will outlast you." The translator in this case rendered what he said rather than what he meant. Clearly, the approach a translator takes matters.
AVAILABLE BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
Before we look more closely at various approaches to translation, we need to be somewhat familiar with the broad range of Bible translations available to readers today. The following chart lists, in alphabetical order, translations that are generally available, and gives their basic orientation (usually toward a particular religious or denominational perspective), whether they were translated by a committee or an individual, the extent of their canonical contents, and whether they are American or British in style or exist in editions reflecting both American and British usage.
The issue of whether a translation is the result of an individual effort or a committee tends to influence how adventurous it is. Committees build in review and revision procedures for their translation efforts. This helps to guard against too much idiosyncratic translation, but it also tends to flatten the resulting text and neutralize efforts to attain an interesting style. Committees avoid oddity and errors — you are not lost in the depths of Death Valley — but they also avoid daring, if defensible, phrasing — neither do you ascend the heights of Everest. Everything is Kansas when created by committee. (The one major exception is the King James Version.) Translations by individuals, on the other hand, can soar into poetry, or at least into literary prose, but they can also take distinctly minority approaches. For example, J. B. Phillips, as shown below (p. 66) in the translation of the beginning of the Gospel of John, tried to convey what was meant by the Greek word logos, rather than simply translating it "word." As many readers have agreed since, his choice was interesting but not persuasive. Whenever you are using a translation by an individual, you should always check it against an established committee-created version before relying on it in an argument or sermon.
The issue of the varying canonical contents of various Bible translations is addressed in the following chart, giving various approaches to the canon of the Hebrew Bible. (The contents and order of the New Testament are not in dispute among various Christian bodies.) The Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament varies depending on which group is using it. The Jewish Bible has a different order than Christian Bibles do; even when the contents are the same, the Protestant Christian Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible in the arrangement found in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.
As we have seen, the choice of a translation will partly be influenced by one's need for a particular canon — Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Christian, or Jewish. The Jewish canon, as noted, is identical in contents, though not in order, to the Protestant Old Testament. This difference in order is important because all versions of the Christian Old Testament end with the prophetic book of Malachi, seen as foreshadowing John the Baptist with its dire ending:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (4.5–6, NRSV)
Excerpted from CHOOSING A BIBLE by DONALD KRAUS. Copyright © 2006 by Donald Kraus. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1. What Is Translation?.................... 1
2. Source and Target Languages.................... 15
3. Original and Contemporary Audiences.................... 23
4. What Happens When the Bible Quotes Itself?.................... 29
5. Inclusive Language.................... 37
6. Some Specific Examples in Bible Translations.................... 57
7. Choosing a Translation.................... 81
Further Reading.................... 87
A Quick Guide to Bible Translations and Abbreviations.................... 89