Bible Translation: July 2005 Archives

John 4 in the ESV

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I was reading through John 4 in the ESV recently, and I realized just how bad (in one sense) its translation of John is. This isn't the first chapter that I've noticed such things, but it's the first time I've seen so many in such a short space. Whoever translated John in the ESV seems to me to be more inclined to use expressions and word ordering that are simply not grammatical, or at the very least incredibly awkward sounding, in English. Consider the following examples:

Mark Heath has a nice breathtaking post about two examples from the ESV translation of II Chronicles 9. I agree with him on both points that the ESV made the wrong translation decision, but I don't want to duplicate his post, so I'll just tell you to read it yourself. One further thing that interested me about his first example is that this is yet another case of translations not lining up in the standard ways. The ESV gives the most so-called literal rendering in this case. The NIV is the least close to the so-called literal rendering. In between are the NASB, CEV, and NLT, which all translate the passage the same way. Then you find two that give the ideal translation, which is in my view a little closer to the so-called literal translation than the NASB, CEV, and NLT and much more than the NIV. Those two translations are the HCSB and the Message. Compare the standard hierarchy of tendencies from more formally equivalent to more functionally equivalent:

Verse 17 is a bit long and there are several issues that I want to discuss, so I'll look at it in three parts. I'm going to throw the KJV into the mix for comparison as well. Here we go:

[Note: edited to change my translation slightly as per Jeremy's suggestion.]

As I start this off, I want to again point out that while I obviously prefer my own translation (otherwise I would have translated it differently), I by no means think that the other translations I'm citing are bad. In the places where I differ, in most cases it is only a very small incremental improvement. At any rate, the point of this whole exercise is not to find the best translation so much as to see how the priorities of the translator affect the final translation.

(In addition to my own translation, I'll also post the currently popular ESV, the somewhat wooden NAS, and the fairly dynamic NLT, as well as a rough interlinear for comparison purposes.)

Translation seems to be a hot topic right now, so I decided to do a series of posts on a translation that I did for class. The passage that I chose for my translation/exegesis paper was John 6:16-21. I'll go through each verse, giving my translation and a couple of others and discuss why I made the calls that I did and the various issues involved in those decisions.

Exegesis != Communication

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Last semester I took my fourth semester of Greek. And this summer I took my first class in preaching. I did better than I expected in both classes, doing as well or better than any of my classmates. This surprised me because 1)I'm not very good at Greek, and 2)Many of my classmates preach on a semi-regular basis while I had never preached before. So why did I do better than my classmates?

Preaching and translation are about communication. Thus, as a preacher or a translator, my job is to communicate a message (that I did not create) to a recipient. That is to say, I have a dual job: to determine what the passage of scripture means, and then to convey that meaning to someone else. The reason why I did better than my classmates is that I spent roughly equal amounts of time on each task.

Most of my classmates spent 90% (or more) on the first task of exegesis. Figuring out how to convey the meaning that they had uncovered was either an afterthought, or it was very rushed as deadlines approached. Our school places a high emphasis on "What does the text say", which is an admirable focus. But that message seems to have been internalized at the expense of other valuable messages. As a result, my classmates spend endless amounts of time in exegesis trying to grok all the levels of meaning in a passage before they will do anything with it. There is a feeling that if you haven't grasped all the layers of meaning, then you haven't gotten it at all, which is paralyzing (not to mention false). Some of my classmates in the preaching class were still trying to figure out the main idea of the passage they were preaching less than half an hour before they were supposed to preach. Obviously, that left little time for the actual preparation of the sermon.

In contrast, I was very disciplined about spending equal amounts of time in both exegesis and conveyance. This required "cutting short" my exegesis (since time was a limiting factor), but I took solace in the fact that while the full meaning of the text may be richer and deeper than I had yet fathomed, it was not fundamentally different that what I had seen. I then took additional solace in the fact that I wouldn't be able to convey even half of the depth that I had penetrated to; thus if I had done more exegesis, then I probably wouldn't have the time/space to convey any of that additional info anyway.

Because I spent much more time determining how to convey the meaning of a passage, I ended up being a better communicator, even if I did a less thorough job in my exegesis.

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