A Few Thoughts on the Translation Debate

What follows are mainly some thoughts I’ve had about terminology and also the way certain argument for and against different views are formed.

Often times “Dynamic” translations are viewed as dumbed down. This is often on the basis that their reading level is lower than the more “literal” translations. But could it be that often times (though not always) the reason that the reading level is lower is not because of translators dumbing down the text, but rather that the “Dynamic” translations are simply better and less awkward English. A great example of this is very easily seen in TC’s blind comparison. In that case, the unknown dynamic translation (which is really the TNIV) is easier to read and not dumbed down at all in comparison with the unknown literal translation (the NRSV).

The terms “Literal” and “Dynamic” are thrown around in ways that they shouldn’t be. More often than not, literal really just means awkward (and often times over against accurate), What should literal mean? Well how about the maintaining in the translation of metaphor and imagery, word play, word order (when it does not violate the semantics of the clause, sentence or discourse as a whole – Psalm 1.1 in the KJV tradition), and the linguistic register (kind of like literary ability) of the author? It should also accurately transfer into the target language the rhetorical strategies and discourse structure of the author.

I can tell you right off the bat that with the exception of maintaining metaphor, imagery and word order (often to an incomprehensible extreme) the NASB fails on most of these.

And in fact translations like the TNIV tend to get the most of these done much better though I by no means claim that they are perfect. As far as I know, linguistic register is never translated. It should be though. I want to see John’s very simple Greek shown through in simple English and I want to see Hebrews’ rich and complex Greek shine through the English text as well. I haven’t yet. But I want to. One of the problems is that such translation requires an incredible amount of sensitivity in both Greek and English – and perhaps even a linguistic awareness of English beyond simply native speaker intuition.

So there are some thoughts to chew on. I hope my summer away hasn’t caused my English bible translation readers to disappear…

24 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on the Translation Debate

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  1. Mike, I emphatically agree with every word you have written above, especially regarding linguistic register. This is an important point, and naturally, one almost consistently ignored by people on either side of the Bible translation spectrum.

  2. I want to see John’s very simple Greek shown through in simple English and I want to see Hebrews’ rich and complex Greek shine through the English text as well.

    Mike, translators are aware of these things, but Why haven’t they been able to reproduce them in our English translations?

  3. TC – its not that they aren’t aware of these things. I don’t think register has been a high priority really in any translation. And I think that’s because of the difficulty of the task of translation. Its the kind of thing that probably requires more skill than anything else in the translation task.

  4. Jeff: Good question. I would say that the KJV succeeded as much as a translation by fallen humans can succeed. Indeed, perhaps it such succeeded too much – in that much of its language is what today is considered “literal” when its really awkward and archaic for modern English.

  5. And I think that’s because of the difficulty of the task of translation. Its the kind of thing that probably requires more skill than anything else in the translation task.

    This is it right here. I really don’t know how such can be achieved with a high degree of accuracy and to even make sense to the average reader.

  6. Well, personally, I’ve been impressed with things I’ve seen in both HCSB and in the ISV – though they have their own weaknesses as well, which we’ve all discussed at some point.

  7. Hola Mike, lo que comentas acerca del debate sobre traducción en inlés, ocurre en cierta medida en español, aunque la RV1960 tiene un español elegante. Schökel y Mateos hicieron un buen trabajo, por cierto. Gracias por tu blog (disculpa por escribir en español). 😉

  8. Hi Manuel, Yes that doesn’t surprise me. I think its a debate throughout the world in just about every language that has multiple translations. Sadly though, I don’t think even my reading abilities are good enough to fully appreciate the beauty of the RV1960.

    Don’t worry about writing in Spanish. I need the practice.

    Out of curiosity, are you familiar with the Rio Grande Bible Institute (i.e. Instituto Bíblico Rio Grande)? Its a long shot that you are, but I figured it is worth asking.

  9. Había oído del Instituto Bíblico Rio Grande, pero no estoy muy familiarizado. No conozco más de ellos. Tu pregunta despierta mi curiosidad ¿a qué se debe tu pregunta? 🙂

  10. Its just a question I generally ask people who are some how connected with either the Central or South American church because its typically my only point of contact. Mi abuelo es el antiguo presidente.

  11. Mike – I think you hit it when you said this isn’t a priority. I’m estimating that well below 1% of English speaking Christians would purchase a Bible whose only highest goal was linguistic register. And the only way to do any justice to the register is to make it the highest goal. For that minority market, quite a few can read the original language themselves, like yourself. Others are content with having a translator tell them the register without reading it personally, like myself.

    When you say literal translations should include carrying the linguistic registry, do you mean that pragmatically or only idealistically? While ideally I agree, it doesn’t seem feasible to do that while also accurately expressing the other features that literary translations prioritize.

    Most importantly, I’m curious to hear from you: what thoughts or feelings do you anticipate a good registry translation would convey to you personally that no current translation or commentary can?

  12. Jon, I think that register, particularly when it is high, like the writer of Hebrews or the majority of the Psalms or any of the poetic books on the OT, would be recognized by those who are more educated – and particularly those who have studied English. For example, I don’t know Hebrew, but I can recognize poor English in the Old Testament when I see it in places where I know the original text was more likely than not beautiful. So basically, when I say register, what I mean is that I want a literary translation that is only literary when it should be. In the NT, Luke, Acts, Paul, Hebrews, and 1 Peter should be quite literary and beautiful. Now 2 Peter should definitely not be a literary in its translation. Its Greek is the worst in the NT. And I’ll admit that I’m rather idealist on this topic – particularly because I’m not sure if English needs another translation when so many other languages don’t have even one.

    But my main point was that there are many, many more facets that make a translation literal than simply being “word for word,” which in reality can be quite fool hardy if actually follow consistently. These other aspects of “literalness” are often picked up by the so called “non-literal” dynamic translations.

  13. I agree we really don’t need any new translations – instead we should funnel efforts into translations for those languages that don’t have one.

    I am concerned we may actually have a glut of Bibles in the US…

  14. I wonder if any translations were pushed by publishers looking for a new product to sell instead of a perceived need. I can’t think of any off-hand, but I wonder if it’s a factor. Personally, there are enough translations now that I don’t really see a need for any more in the immediate future. Which reminds me I still need to pick up a copy of the NET or the NET diglot.

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