The Socrates

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I realized this morning that the Greek language offers a perfect example of why you shouldn't seek to translate in a way that some people inaccurately call literally. The NASB is highly touted as a literal translation, but what it really does is focus on form rather than meaning. Sometimes it just doesn't read like English, because it keeps so much to the form of the original. Sometimes it translates inaccurately, because it prefers form to meaning (e.g. when translating 'anthropos' as "man" rather than "person" or "human being"). What it doesn't do, though, is translate according to form whenever possible. Its translators acknowledge by their actions, if notby their stated view, that form doesn't trump meaning. They just don't apply that principle consistently. A good example of when they ignore form altogether is with the definite article and proper names. In English we don't use an article when giving someone's name. We'll address someone as George or Sarah. We'll refer to them in the third person as Lisa or Tom. We use words for inanimate objects or titles with articles. We use the definite article when there's only one of the item in question, the indefinite article when there's more than one. When there's an ambiguity (e.g. there's one current President of the United States, but there are many former ones and presumably many future ones), we use the definite or indefinite article to indicate which sense we mean. We might ask for a president whose birthday is in February, or we might ask which month the president's birthday is in. But we don't use these articles with proper names. We'd ask when George W.'s birthday is. We wouldn't ask when the George's birthday is.

The Greek language that the New Testament was written in consistently uses definite articles with proper names. To translate in a way that people often mistakenly call literally, i.e. keeping to form over meaning, we would have to say that the Paul went to Athens in Acts 17, the Simeon prophesied about the Jesus, and (most humorously) the John saw a vision in Revelation. You can see immediately how this simply isn't English, and the last example shows that you even get completely the wrong meaning. In English we do call something the john, but it doesn't have visions or write them down. You could even go back to classical Greek and talk about the Socrates. If the translators who insist on form over meaning are correct, this is how we ought to translate. Yet they don't do it, which means they aren't following their own preferred strategy. They will count meaning as more important than form. They just insist on certain forms as fundamental, as if the form of the original language in that case is somehow sacrosanct rather than the content of the statement.

I understand that there are cases where the form conveys something in the original that you lose when you translate the more fundamental meaning over the form. Those are harder cases. But the view I've been defending on this blog has not been that sense trumps form. It's been that sense and form both convey something, and you try to balance that out to convey the meaning as best as you can. You will lose something. You might have a more extended sentence to try to get everything, but then you're not conveying how short the original statement was. You might ignore the form for the sense, but then you lose what the form conves. You might ignore the sense for the form, but then you lose the sense any original reader would have gotten from reading it. Translation isn't perfect. My point isn't that one of these translation styles is better than any other. It's that you have to make choices to lose something when you translate, and the choices you make don't have to be based on the same overarching principle each time. Even those who act as if that's what they're doing don't do that, as the NASB's treatment of these definite articles shows. They just do it more than others, and I think it makes for a worse translation. I've long thought the NIV to focus too much on the sense for the educated adult who can use resources to study what the NIV thinks they need to put in the translation. The TNIV has actually improved on the NIV in this way, bringing it more toward form and less toward sense (except in the case of inclusive language, which just applies their already-existing sense translation philosophy to gender language that has the inclusive sense in the original language). The NLT is much more sense-translating, but I think it's done in a scholarly way, unlike most sense-favoring translations. It's my recommendation for people learning English, including children. I think the HCSB and ESV follow a much more balanced policy, translating according to sense or according to form when they think it's appropriate. I don't agree with all the instances of when they do what, but I appreciate their insistence on forming a middle ground between the NIV and NASB on this. I think the HCSB is more toward sense and the ESV more toward form, whereas I would probably be somewhere between them in many ways, but these are the kind of translation I like to read.

5 Comments

Thank you for stopping by our site and pointing out the mistake. I appreciate it.

I do like what you are saying in this post. The point I try to get across to people is that translations are not perfect.

Lately I have really been favoring the NLT and how it reads.

So, for a philosophy grad student how has loved the NASB, would the ESV be a good choice in your opinion?

Well, I'm a philosophy grad student who loved the NASB for years until I realized first how unEnglish it sounds and second that its overemphasis on forms over sense loses too much in translation. I've come to appreciate the ESV now as my most-used translation. It's certainly worth a try. If you don't like it, you might also try the HCSB, which I also have really liked so far. I've read the HCSB New Testament and maybe about 100 chapters of the Old Testament. I've read the whole ESV.

I've said a little more with respect to the ESV and NASB in response to your comment here.

Unlike in the English language, the Greek definite article has many, many uses. In English we have one basic use for the definite article. But Greek is not limited in the same way English is with respect to the definite article.

As I'm sure you know, the definite article can be used simply for emphasis. The English equivalent might be to bolden or italicize a word. But the definite article is also used to connect nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs. Indeed, the only way to identify which word an adjective goes with is to parse the definite article.

I say all this only to point out that you can still translate to form without literally translating the definite article. Its purpose is different in Greek than in English.

To translate "the" Paul would be incorrect, especially if you are going for a form translation. In the sentence you provided Paul is the subject and you know that because of the definite article (not word order like in English). You can determine case from the definite article in Greek. The DA is necessary to determine how the sentence fits together.

Greek doesn't have an indefinite article (English uses "a" or "an") but that doens't mean that to inject an indefinite article is a poor or inconsistent translation. There are certain functions of the Grek language that we don't have in English. In those cases translating to form is simply a factor of understanding the use of the DA and translating to English in like manner. And I have found that the NASB does this very consistently.

What you mean by 'form' is not what formal equivalence translators mean by it. They mean that you should translate forms that are masculine as masculine even if the meaning is not masculine. By the same principle, you should translate forms that serve as definite articles as definite articles even if that isn't its meaning.

I know what the Greek definite article does, and it doesn't always correspond to the English definite article. The same is true of gender endings, but those who want masculine endings in Greek translated always as masculine forms in English don't seem to be aware of that. So what I'm saying is that they're not being consistent with principles they use elsewhere, in particular with respect to articles in front of personal names. By the same principles, translating 'adelphoi' as "brothers" (e.g. NASB, ESV), while better than translating it as "friends" (e.g. NLT), is not an ideal translation (though maybe there is none).

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