Bible Translation: December 2005 Archives

Bible Searching

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The ESV blog posts some statistics (with nice graphics) of which passages have gotten the most searches and views at their site. Some of it's pretty interesting. What's sad is that Jeremiah 29, a wonderful chapter, gets viewed pretty much only when people read Jer 29:11 out of context.

Does the ESV Have an Agenda?

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My brother responded to my post about Ben Witherington and the ESV via email, saying that the ESV most definitely arose from an agenda, and I thought it might be worth clearing up what I'm saying and what I'm not saying. I was aware of the ESV agenda he refers to. He's right. They had a deliberate agenda in initiating the work that led to the creation of the ESV. That agenda had nothing to do with inclusive language translations, however. I wasn't thinking in that direction, because my focus was on gender translation. The ESV agenda was to make a more conservative-friendly RSV. They wanted a translation much like the RSV but without some of what they viewed as liberalizing tendencies in the RSV. The two most notable of those were the Isaiah 7 "virgin/young woman" issue and the removal of any reference to propitiation, which the ESV was designed to fix. By the time they had a translation, though, it had ended up being much more than a straightforward conservatizing of the RSV with updates in style. As I noted in my previous post, they paid a good deal of attention to recent developments in text criticism, comparative linguistics, and all the usual factors that would influence a new translation to improve upon an older one. It became a new translation in its own right because of the work of some very good scholars who insisted on revising a lot more in the RSV than the original agenda had in mind.

I want to stress that, while I'm admitting that they had an agenda, this agenda was not primarily to do with gender. That's something a few people who were involved later made an issue. This was only after the TNIV issues become hotly debated, and it mostly was about how some people were promoting the ESV, not primarily about how they went about translating it. Most or all of the translation work had already been completed when the TNIV issue exploded, and the ESV people began their efforts to promote the ESV as a non-inclusive language alternative. These efforts had the immediate effect of convincing some people (including a friend of mine) that this was Grudem's own translation, and they dismissed his arguments against the TNIV on the grounds that he was saying it merely to promote his own translation. No, the arguments are to be dismissed because they are bad arguments, not because the ESV is Grudem's translation. He might have had some influence on how it came to take the form it took, but it's not his translation, not all the translators share his views, and the agenda of the ESV committee was not about this issue at all during the actual translation process. At best, that was a promotional agenda taking advantage of the irrational mass hysteria against the TNIV. A number of its translators did favor non-inclusive translation in general when they translated it, but that wasn't the initial reason for the ESV, as Witherington suggests, and that view isn't necessarily as extreme as Grudem's even on that issue. For some it is. For some on that committee it isn't. For a few on that committee, even the moderate opposition to inclusive translation is wrongheaded. So Witherington is claiming that he knows how the ESV originated, but these statements just sound to me as if he doesn't in fact know very much about how it originated. That's why I think he sounds just like those who claim that the TNIV stems from radical feminists who want to impose an ultra-feminist agenda on the Bible in their translation. Both claims are simply false.

Anti-ESV Politicking

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Wayne Leman has an excellent post on why Wayne Grudem's relentless tirades against the TNIV are misguided and morally questionable. I agree that those who criticize the inclusive language translations are ignoring real changes in the English language. I've made this point numerous times in the past, and I won't belabor it. What strikes me as odd is that one of Wayne's co-bloggers Suzanne McCarthy the next day links favorably to a post by Ben Witherington that seems to me to exhibit the same sort of rhetoric as Grudem but against the ESV rather than the TNIV (with no reference whatsoever to anything negative about how Witherington makes his point). Witherington is a top-notch biblical scholar whose work I have really appreciated. I have a few theological and interpretive disagreements with him, but I have benefited from much of his work, and he's usually fairly responsible in fairly representing those who disagree with him. On this issue, however, it's as if no one on the other side could possibly be considered intelligent or reasonable. His responses to comments about this haven't completely disabused me of that perception.

I think it's just as irresponsible to criticize the ESV the way Witherington does as it is to criticize the TNIV the way Grudem does. Suzanne's post does give cases where the different ESV translators don't act consistently. I haven't checked all her examples, but I don't doubt her conclusions. That sort of inconsistency happens in translations by committee. Witherington, though, claims that the ESV has a political agenda in the same uncharitable way that the TNIV detractors claim that the TNIV has a political agenda. I think both claims fail to understand the issues, and I think the misunderstanding is fairly deep. The central issue of debate over how to translate these terms is how to balance out two legitimate concerns. One concern (Witherington's) is that the English language is in the process of changing. In some dialects it gets the semantics completely wrong to use 'man' or 'brothers' when referring to humanity or a group of people of both sexes. In others it's completely standard. In some it's frowned on but understood, and if it's semantically understood but simply viewed as morally wrong then the English language hasn't fully changed. So some dialects are still in the process of changing. These aren't entirely regional dialects either. They're generational somewhat, and educational levels affect them as well.

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.



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