Language: February 2007 Archives

Kenny Pearce has a thoughtful post on the continuum between what some might call more literal and what they would call less literal Bible translations. I wish I had time to comment on it myself, but I thought some readers of this blog might appreciate it.

Mentioning a word does not count as using it. Mentioning it means you are talking about the word itself and not endorsing its usage. You are not using a word simply by mentioning it. This distinction is extremely important in philosophy. When I say that the word 'green' has five letters, I have not used the word 'green'. I have simply mentioned it. The distinction is also important in our moral evaluation of what people do with offensive terms.

Edward Wyatt of the New York Times doesn't care about this distinction. I don't know much about the show Grey's Anatomy or the actor Isaiah Washington. Apparently he's been accused of using the word 'faggot' as a deliberate slur against someone who is gay. If so, then I agree that what he said was immoral. This word is offensive when used to describe a gay person (rather than a cigarette or a piece of split wood, which have an older history of use), and I cannot see any defense of it, even given Christian views about gay sex being wrong. Calling someone a faggot does a lot more than indicate views that the person engages in behavior you disagree with. It certainly doesn't amount to speaking the truth in love, as the apostle Paul commands Christians to do. I do not use the word in any of those contexts myself, even the two unrelated to homosexuality. But notice that I was just willing to mention the word twice.

I don't know what happened back in October, but if Washington publicly denies using the word and in so doing mentions it, it is simply bad reporting to say that Washington "publicly used an anti-gay slur for the second time in roughly three months". It looks as if the second time was not another occurrence of his using the term but rather a mention of his use of it, one that very clearly in context did not amount to endorsing its use but in fact the reverse.

I can understand how some people might disagree on whether it's offensive to mention offensive words. I almost never even mention the n-word. There's too much associated with that word for me to consider it appropriate for someone intimately connected with black people even to mention in most contexts. But clearly it's worse to use it than to mention it, and I wouldn't even consider doing that. Whatever you might think of the wrongness of mentioning this word, it's just insane to think that mentioning it is the same thing as using it. It's a little strange, then, that the second occurrence has provoked a firestorm, when the first wasn't even on my radar back in October.

For some more detailed discussion by linguist Arnold Zwicky, see his Language Log post.

Leland Ryken's Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences is not really a guide to different Bible translations, as a the title might suggest, but a very short polemic against popular Bible translations that fall under the category commonly known as dynamic equivalence translations (e.g. the New Living Translation and to a lesser degree the New International Version) and in favor of what he calls essentially literal translations (e.g. the New American Standard Bible or Ryken's preferred translation, the English Standard Version). Dynamic equivalence translations are less concerned about matching every word with a word in English (or some smaller unit of meaning) and more interested in capturing the sense or basic meaning of each sentence (or some larger unit of meaning).

I'm generally in agreement with Ryken on some of the issues that drive his arguments in this book, but I think he way overstates his case far too often to give this book a good recommendation. Here is where I agree with Ryken. We ought to be more careful in translating the Bible than some of the more dynamic translations often are. When there is an ambiguity in the text that scholars do not tend to agree on, we should seek to preserve the ambiguity in the translation. When translators can avoid working too much interpretation into their text without sacrificing genuine English language grammar and semantics, they should do so.

However, Ryken does not stop at such moderated claims. He argues that it is always wrong to interpret the text when translating, which is impossible. English words are usually not exactly equivalent in meaning to Greek or Hebrew words, and any translation will be inexact. Sometimes inexactness in one way is better than inexactness in another, but Ryken seems to disallow any interpretation at all, which strikes me as ignoring the fact that translators must interpret before figuring out how to translate. How do you know which words to translate in which ways unless you know what they mean in the particular context? That takes interpretation.

Text Laundering

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Mark Liberman at Language Log has come up with a term to describe one of the most idiotic plagiarism techniques I've ever heard of -- text laundering. The usual method is to save time and effort by copying someone else's work and submitting it as your own. But it's so easy to catch people doing that from online materials that some students are masking their trail by substituting words to fool Google, using a thesaurus to find synonyms and so on.

There are at least two problems with this (purely from the perspective of not wanting to get caught). One is that such use of a thesaurus is likely to lead to awkward enough sounding phrases that anyone reading it who is slightly informed will suspect something is up, and creative enough use of Google will easily find the source anyway. At least that's so unless the student is so thoroughgoing to be immune to Google, which would seem to be the point of text laundering. But such Google-proofing would take up so much time that the student might as well have learned enough of the material to begin with to write a competent essay just from class materials. Can you imagine how long it takes to replace every important keyword in a document one is plagiarizing with alternatives from a thesaurus, all of this after having combed Google for sources to begin with and spliced them together into a format that resembles an academic paper enough that they think it will fulfill the assignment? If plagiarizing is supposed to save time, and text laundering is supposed to make the time-saving effort harder to catch, there doesn't seem to be a good way to achieve both goals simultaneously.

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