Standardized testing and Bible translation

Back in March, I observed that in Bible translation, “literalness in English translations is primarily predicated on the maintenance of those glossing traditions, rather than a sense of ‘word-for-word-ness’ in the Greek or Hebrew” (re: Literal translation as tradition, not theory – Koine-Greek). I highlighted the following chart of translation glosses for λύω, which I repeat below:

Today, I would like to expand on this theme in terms of grammar pedagogy. Not only are traditional glosses the established norm in introductory Greek textbooks, as I observed previously with λύω, but the adherence to those glosses makes the life of the Greek instructor easier. Standard glossing makes for easier grading. And again, this has nothing to do, per se, with word order. The pedagogical glossing system is larger than individual words. We teach the glosses for both lexical items and larger syntactic units. For example, it is unlikely that a professor would have their students render εἰς+infinitive as “toward the EVENTIVE noun”. But they are given a gloss and there is usually an expectation. In my Greek class it was, “that” or “so that”. The stability of glossing and translation renderings in assignments and tests creates a consistent bar of comparison. Everyone’s output in a given class more or less adheres.

These standard glosses and renderings are treated as formal/literal. Practically speaking, when students adhere to this glossing tradition the props up formal translation renderings, it becomes easier for those profs to be sure that their students understand the material. This is effectively It’s the introductory Greek class version of “teaching to the test”, something that we know, from research on the US standardized testing industry, does not actually produce the positive learning outcomes that we want for our students. With standardized testing, teachers in the classroom sacrifice time that could be spend on actual learning, shoring up specific challenges, weaknesses or knowledge gaps. Students are taught how to be good test-takers, instead of being equipped as best they could be with the content intended for the course.

For Greek (and Hebrew) students and classes, the patterns and behaviors become cyclic over time: those students become pastors. Those pastors with their ingrained sense of what the Greek or Hebrew “literally says” default to the glossing tradition they learned in class. Then then becomes coupled with naive (in a technical sense) Bible translation prefaces about translation theory, these pastors then teach to their congregations what constitutes “literalness” and “non-literalness”. Then some of the children in those churches grow up and go to Bible college or seminary. The cycle continues and the glossing tradition eventually comes to be definitional for how we as a speech community of English speakers conceive of the category of accuracy of our Bibles.

The standardized test metaphor can be extended more. As an opinion piece in the Washington Post observes:

At the most fundamental level, education policy shaped by standardized test scores is at odds with the deepest of all societal needs — human survival. Inevitable environmental, demographic, technological, institutional, and cognitive system changes require continuous adaptation. Adaptation requires new knowledge. New knowledge is generated by dozens of complex thought processes — hypothesizing, inferring, relating, valuing, imagining, and so on. And of those dozens of complex thought processes, only two — recalling, and applying — can be quantified and measured with sufficient precision to produce a meaningful number.

Schools and school systems that point with pride to their high scores on standardized tests are advertising their willingness to limit students’ thought to a couple of low-level thought processes.

This is the situation where decades of seminary education have led. Methods focusing on memorizing a set of glosses, whether at the level of word or syntax, only engage low-level through processes, too. And students do not learn the languages. Then those same seminaries responded by saying: the problem is the burden/difficulty of learning the languages, rather than the bad methods for teaching them. So schools cut language requirements or switch to a “teaching the tools” approach.

You, the reader, might be a professor or instructor of Greek. I hope you are one of the growing number who are already pushing back against their tradition in your own teaching, perhaps not because of the concept of “literalness” or a dislike of the “tradition” as such, but perhaps simply because you want your students to truly know the language. This might be by working in a more traditional grammar-traditional model, while engaging creative thinking and exploration with how students translation Greek. Some of you have pursued more immersion and communicative methods. Other blend both together. I have conversed with many of you over the years and am encouraged that we’re slowly headed in a better direction. I hope that better direction will bring forth a better future, because it matters not just for knowledge of the biblical languages, but also for the future of how we view our English Bibles and how we translate those Bibles for new generations.