como misioneros para Verdad

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function… We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
— C. S. Lewis

In order to get what he wants, then, the father must have power to coerce those around him to meet his demands. To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over
and the preposition demands an object.
— Nancy Mairs

… the dominant fact of communication … the life-need of the ego to reach out and comprehend, in the two vital senses of ‘understanding’ and ‘containment,’ another human being.
–George Steiner

What if translators of the Bible are literally “like missionaries for Truth”?

But what if the Bible is like a question for rhetoric? What if it’s like an entire Greek parable for wordplay (like, Matt. 13:3b-9)? Or like precision for creativity? Or “como aqua para chocolate”? Or like “Like Water for Chocolate” for “Como agua para chocolate“? Or even like “wrong” for “stupid“?

What then?

You tell me if I sound stupid, or wrong. I do not want to disparage missionaries or missionary-like Bible translators. I don’t want to hijack their blogposts. They are friends, and generally speaking they are very friendly. It’s what they do with language and what they don’t allow others so easily to do with language that I’d like to talk about openly, nonetheless. I’m hoping my rhetorical questions here (in English, sometimes Spanish) begin to illustrate.

Aren’t similes like structures for translation? So if a translator (or the translator’s expert linguist) knows better what an author writes than the author herself, what then? Linguist Joel Hoffman says of Laura Esquivel and her Tita that she’s really, precisely, literally, merely, and simply “At the Boiling Point” with her title and her quotation “como agua para chocolate.” We’re coming back to Hoffman again because he’s like Wayne Leman, like Rich Rhodes, in his approach. Hoffman doesn’t give any personal regard to any of the translators who’ve come before him (and yet, as I’ve already tried to show, Hoffman himself also resorts — has to resort — to the very same translation he disparages them for). This is like very abstract Truth for Hoffman. And Truth is not so personal, not like a simile for translation. It cannot be like surface structure for deep meaning, not for Hoffman anyway.

Shall we move on, and move forward? Please write here in comments if you’d like to hear of others who have translated Esquivel’s Spanish proverb (long before it was hers so famously) as “like water for chocolate.” I just want to quote the obvious ones Hoffman overlooks in his abstracting like a missionary for Truth. Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen are the translators for Esquivel. The former gives quite a statement of possibilities for translation. He even talks about the sort of translation Hoffman has called for, and what motivates it so profoundly, like missionaries for Truth. For example, Thomas Christensen says this:

The notion of “equivalence” in translation is imprecise and falls upon the translator to determine as a personal judgment. . . . If, [for example], one subscribes to the view of transformational linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker that there is a universal language instinct, of which each particular language is a kind of fractal manifestation, then the translator would pay less attention to surface detail, viewing translation as an alembic reduction of the original to the deep level of universal language, followed by its transmutation into the target language.

What Thomas Christensen says Chomsky and Pinker do is like what Hoffman says he himself does. This kind of reduction is precisely like what Rich Rhodes confesses he himself also does. (Yes, I know. I really do know. Chomsky and Pinker differ and argue about their differences. And now comparing Hoffman and Rhodes and those two more famous linguists and missionaries for Truth, it’s almost too much. Missionary linguists are constantly distancing themselves from Eugene Nida, especially now from Kenneth L. Pike, or from Ernst-August Gutt, when necessary. And they, likewise, are quick to note how it’s the indigenous native language users now who are the real translators of the Bible more and more, so the missionaries wash their hands of being like missionaries for Truth. Please follow here what Thomas Christensen is saying: The notion of “equivalence” in translation is imprecise and falls upon the translator to determine as a personal judgment.) So Hoffman, like Chomsky, like Pinker, says “More generally, translation consists of two parts: decoding the original language (Hebrew, in our case), and finding a translation in a new language (English, for us) that does the same thing as the original.” And Rhodes, like Leman, like Hoffman, says things like, “But I continue to maintain that it’s a mistake to think that there is much word play in the NT. It’s the window dressing not the meat.” Hoffman’s going deep under the surface of Spanish, of Hebrew, of English — like code to be decoded for recoding. Rhodes is thinking, like, equally-reductive precision for meat. Isn’t what they are saying is that languages are like window dressing for Truth?

Now, shall we come back to me? What? Why? Who now? I’m a nobody in Bible translation. I’m just a Missionary Kid, not a true missionary for Truth (like my father was). And to one blogger at Better Bibles Blog, my unwise comments make it “sound like certain types of rhetorical questions are some inalienable human right.” Like I’m denying Wayne Leman’s truth that “Some languages, unlike English, do not have rhetorical questions.” Which is like denying that a rhetorical question for English is precisely like an “emphatic statement” in “some languages, unlike English.” Which is just like a missionary kid for people who like similes in any language. Is that like “como misioneros para Verdad”?


54 responses to “como misioneros para Verdad

  1. Which is like denying that a rhetorical question for English is precisely like an “emphatic statement” in “some languages, unlike English.”

    Who said that? I’d want to deny that too, and can’t see how it flows logically from denying Wayne’s “truth”.

    I have a question for you: if you’re right and Rich is wrong and it turns out it is actually the meat and not the window dressing, how do we turn that into a “better bible”?

    • Dannii,

      You asked “Who said that?” I did, using “like” and “for” very precisely. (What I probably should have emphasized is how I believe “English” and “some languages, unlike English” are what people name, and invent, and discover, and use. Since you bring up logic, I probably also should have repeated what Kenneth Pike used to like to say repeatedly: “person above logic.”)

      As for your other question, do you really want an answer from me, or is it rhetorical?

      • If you said it, then why? Do you believe it?

        And yes I do want an answer.

      • Dannii, Yes, I believe persons are above logic (and above language, especially language as logic).

        Since you do want an answer from me to your question, then let me start by repeating it: “if you’re right and Rich is wrong and it turns out it is actually the meat and not the window dressing, how do we turn that into a ‘better bible’?” You won’t be surprised that I like various approaches of people who treat the Hebrew and the Greek more like the meat of the Bible than its window dressing: those approaches of Robert Alter, Rachel Barenblat, Willis Barnstone, Phyllis A. Bird, Martin Buber, Ruth Behar (if she’d translate the Hebrew of the Bible), Anne Carson (if she’d translate the Greek of the Bible), Naomi P. Franklin, Everett Fox, Pamela Greenberg, Ann Nyland, Kenneth L. Pike, David Rosenberg, and Julia E. Smith. That’s off the top of my head. I might be able to name others as well.

      • I think you’ll have to convince me that their approaches have actually made a “better bible”…

        Once you’ve done that, step two is to form some kind of set of guidelines, as simply referring to authors without specifics is not usually very informative.

      • Dannii,
        Will I really have to convince you of something? I’d much rather you draw your own conclusions.

        As for your second request, I’ll agree to take some time to do this if you’ll agree to some homework. For starters, here are three: Alter believes the Hebrew Bible is literary and even its original readers used Hebrew differently (orally and lexically in a much more robust way) that marks the text as also meaningful as written structured text. Then he also warns translators of the “heresy of explanation.” I’d urge you to google or to or to visit the library if you don’t yet have Alter’s works, to get them and read them for yourself. Rachel Barenblat blogs as The Velveteen Rabbi; she likes using Hebrew word etymologies and wordplay to express Hebrew in her English translations. You might google to find her work online, to see and hear for yourself, if you haven’t already. Willis Barnstone has works on the theory, history, and practice of translation. He was good friends with Jorge Luis Borges, who also has much to say about translation. Barnstone follows Borges in translating, as he translates various works. He doesn’t appreciate the Christian appropriations of Hebrew names by way of Greek transliterations into Englished transliterations. He’s after the poetry of the gospel writers, after the voice of Jesus, whom he calls Joshua, or Yeshua. He’s restored the New Testament by translating with the Hebrew words and wordplay in mind. He thinks Alter is also a good model, and likes the KJV for literary quality. Again, please find Barnstone and read him for yourself. Context, and the original, I think you’d agree is so very helpful.

      • I’m sorry but I don’t have the time now to find and read so many things. I did look up Rachel Barenblat’s blog, and although I have now read her for myself, without an explanation of her process it’s still uninformative.

        But a quick comment about Barnstone: aren’t the Christians just following the Jews who transliterated in their LXX, a text whose method of translation you think we should pay much more attention to? Perhaps not in this case though?

        Are there any “mainstream” “general purpose” translations which follow the approaches of these writers, even to a small extent?

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  3. Your comments hurt, Kurk. They take Rich’s and my comments out of context and exaggerate them. We are not “constantly distancing” ourselves from our predecessors. We simply are scholars who recognize that linguistic and translation science advances as we learn more. We appreciate the work of the past but try to do it even better today. There is something good and helpful about almost everything everyone who has worked on translation has done. There is good in what you say. But it is academically unfair for you to twist what we have actually said and believe to suite your own purposes. It is far better for you to have open exchanges with us and ask us what we believe and practice in our work.

    • Wayne, You know absolutely that I do not intend my comments to hurt you or Rich or anybody! If my comments hurt simply because I’m ostensibly taking them out of context or somehow exaggerating them, then please let me address these two issues you’re alleging here of me. (But if my comments hurt otherwise and for any other reason, then please make that clear). I am actually providing the context of comments by hyperlinking back to the very context where you and Rich make your comments. I’m not hiding the context if I’m not reproducing it. And don’t you think when you quote me (e.g., saying “constantly distancing”) you’ve done something similar by adding a bit more there? Aren’t you so “exaggerating” what I say, “unfairly twisting” it in some academic way? Yes, isn’t this an open exchange with you now – although you’re claiming that I’m distorting it for my “own purposes”? Do your comments hurt me, Wayne? Please now; this is a conversation in public. I am telling you, trying to show you, that I see differences in approaches here. Aren’t we looking at the same contexts, the same statements you and Rich have made? What am I missing? What particularly have I missed? Am I not asking you? I’m also trying to divert our discussion here and not to hijack your blog there. The transfer always loses something. But would you rather me talk with you openly at your blog? Isn’t it ironic that we who talk so much about good communication somehow fail to use it? I don’t yet get that I’m twisting anything you’ve said. But much more importantly, I’m sorry you’re feeling hurt! And certainly do not intend to hurt you!! (BTW, those are exclamation points at the end of the last two string of words, not question marks).

  4. Kurk, after I wrote my remarks I looked for an edit button but so far have not found one. I did not intend to communicate the idea that you deliberately twist what we say, believe, or practice in translation. I want the word “unwittingly” to precede the word “twist”. Then, I misspelled “suit” as “suite”. I know you do not intend to hurt, but it hurts every time you take what I’ve written and unintentionally move it to mean something different or discuss it without checking with us as to whether what you have said is accurate or not.

    I prefer to deal with translation data, with how to translate difficult data. In the process we can discover ways in which we might honestly differ with each other. That is scholarship. But subjective characterizations, however well intentioned, of the work of others is not scholarly. Why don’t we deal with specifics instead of so often characterizing the work of others without even having enough exposure to it to be able to describe it accurately? I’m happy with differences. I learn through discovering differences. I can learn from you if I understand what you are saying. But we can’t learn from each other if we don’t accurately understand what each other is saying. Now, I must move on to my work of the day as a missionary linguist, checking translations which were not done according to any specific model of translation, but, rather, were done native speakers of their own languages with no outsider telling them how them can speak or how they cannot, nor how they should or should not be able to make changes to their languages.

    • Wayne, I know what you mean about looking for the edit button. I make so many sloppy mistakes (even at your blogs) that I neglect until after pressing “submit.” Thank you for saying so much here. I’m extremely relieved to read that you “know” I don’t intend to hurt. I’m also a bit amused that you so one-sidedly say: “… you take what I’ve written and unintentionally move it to mean something different or discuss it without checking with us as to whether what you have said is accurate or not.” First, it’s absolutely fascinating to me how meaning changes, how appositives function, for example. My wife and I visited a friend’s church recently, where they sang a song with a phrase that has just stuck in her brain (much for it’s irony): “beautiful, scandalous night.” Stacked up together, side by side, “beautiful” and “scandalous” change both words, don’t they? Likewise, when Mikhail Epstein coins the word interlation by stacking together the inter- prefix with the back end of the word translation to make something new of both; in fact, his word now performs what he tells us it means and does: “interlation increases, indeed doubles, the benefits of poetry.” Despite Epstein’s distancing himself from translation qua translation, I myself think good translation functions in this way: like an appositive, like a simile, like a parable, like an Epsteinean interlation. It’s akin to what C. S. Lewis gets at in his chapters on “Second Meanings” in his Reflections on the Psalms. We rhetors and writers never only say what we first intend, do we? Second, then, I chuckle because you yourself may have intended to do so but for the life of me I can’t ever remember for all your other kindnesses (and there are many) your having checked with me about the accuracy of what I surely must have intended when I said something you’d repeated before you quoted me.

      Now for your second paragraph, you’re unfairly accusing me of doing something I think I never did. You again characterize me (with little accuracy) as someone who is “characterizing the work of others without even having enough exposure to it to be able to describe it.” Whew. In fairness Wayne, I always point back to the context of your statements when quoting you. If talking about “missionaries” in general, I usually talk about my father in particular. The work in general, when and where have I talked about that so inaccurately? Your accusation seems to me is turning around here.

  5. If nothing else, we are proliferating blogs.

    I wasn’t hurt by these comments. Part of what I see going on is a struggle for who gets to define the grounds of discussion. As I’ve said before, Pike would have loved this, it was his strength to recognize it, but his weakness not to be able — or maybe not to be ruthless enough — to use that insight to its full rhetorical advantage.

    Like Kurk’s reaction to his father’s unshakable conviction that he [Kurk’s father] knew the Truth, I have an equally strong reaction to the feminists’ conviction that logic is somehow inherently evil — and the unwillingness from that side to negotiate the grounds of discussion except in ways that load the deck for the rejection of logic.

    Back to you, Kurk.

    • 🙂 You make me laugh with your proliferating comment, Rich.

      It’s great to hear that what I wrote hasn’t been hurtful to you. Yes, I agree that there’s a struggle, almost a Socratic dialectic. We all might do more listening; I know I must listen better! Listening is something Aristotle left out of the “canon” of “rhetoric,” so observes feminist rhetoric scholar, Krista Ratcliffe.

      I’m out of time to say much more at the moment but will acknowledge how Ratcliffe has also confessed she uses Aristotelian rhetoric and logic. Then there’s Carol Poster, also a feminist rhetorician, who calls for feminists to excise Aristotle and his Rhetoric from the works of rhetoric; it’s bizarre stuff, if you ask me — she’s employing logic, and phallogocentric logic (if you’ll pardon the redundancy), to silence Aristotle. When I have a few seconds, I’ll try to give a reference (and quotation perhaps). Calling someone a “feminist” is like calling someone a “missionary” — it’s broad stroke painting, you know. But you make a good point, Rich. More later (and I see now you’ve got a Truth comment, interesting); thanks.

  6. (Let me throw in one further thought that struck me while I was walking up the hill to my dean’s appointments.)

    Do I believe that there is a Truth. Well, yes and no. Most of what we take to be True is what we agree to be True. There are some objective limits — you ignore the Truth of gravity at your own risk. There are some limits that are virtually objective — red means ‘red’ (and if you play with that, use red to mean something other than ‘red’, everyone knows that you’re doing something out of the ordinary). And then there are the contested “Truths”. In my circles you wouldn’t dare maintain that Creationism is “True”. But there are plenty of churches in which you’d be hung out to dry if you didn’t hold Creationism to be “True”.

    What I’m driving at is that at some level all Truth is negotiated, sometimes involving interaction with the real world, but mostly by (implicit) agreement within some class of relationships. Getting to an agreement about what we can take as being True for us, or at least for the purposes of our discussion is where I’m trying to go.

    It’s an interesting game doing the negotiating, but somewhere down the line, it will be time to get past that negotiating.

  7. Kurk, you have done far more than refer to your father when talking about missionaries. For the topic under discussion here, you have repeated some negative comment about missionary Bible translations, something about them being turned out quickly with lack of appropriate attention to style, etc. That has nothing to do with your father. It is something you and Theo have concluded from blog posts on BBB. In fact, Theo is the one who first made the comment on BBB, I believe, and then you amplified it to be a focus of one of your posts here on your own blog.

    Yes, there are, as in any enterprise, individuals who do not do adequate work, and that is true for missionary linguists as well as in most other disciplines. But a high percentage of missionary linguists spend many years learning obscure languages and serving as resource people to native speakers of those languages who translate the Bible into those languages. These missionary linguists do high quality work. In fact, I would put many of the translations they have been involved above most English versions in terms of quality. It is unfortunate that there are such quick dismissals of the work of missionary linguists without those who make those dismissals knowing a single one of these linguists or having spend even one minute doing careful analysis of the translations they helped produce.

    We are dealing here with real people who have sacrificed many years, much energy, higher paying salaries in their home countries, to do high quality linguistic work in other countries for the sake of a cause they believe strongly in. If we are going to evaluate the quality of their work, it is only fair that we look at their work before making evaluative statements first. Yes?

    • Wow, Wayne. Really? Seems I really have hurt you and for that I am deeply and truly sorry. Am too pressed for time at the moment to reply in a way adequate to all you express here. But I promise as soon as I can to offer you a more complete apology in all the apt senses of that once-Greek word. Are you thinking of Theophrastus’s phrases “classic missionary focus” and “classic Jewish approach”? I think I have that right now, do remember linking to his contexts where he respectively wrote them, and remember fairly clearly his reaction to my bringing them together in the different context of my blog here. But I confess now to not recalling whether I mentioned my Dad in that context. Or is it something somewhere else you found particularly offensive and/or offending? Can you link to it, or refer back to a particular post by title? I think that might help us both then to work through the fact I’m not trying to hurt you. (Rich wrote something today about “feminists” that some might say is unfair or could perhaps take offense at. Hopefully I’ll own my “missionary” comment as boldly as I imagine he owns his “feminist” one. As we dialogue more my hope is we can understand one another better. Until then please give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m not wanting you or any missionary injured in any way whatsoever).

  8. Yes, Kurk, that’s it: “classic missionary focus” and you didn’t refute the remark even though I assume you would have seen enough missionary Bible translation to know it wasn’t true.

    Here’s the actual words which you quoted:

    “Tagmemics with its classic missionary focus of “move into the culture, figure out the key points, and blast out a translation, move on to the next project” is simply the opposite the way that great literature is produced.”

    They are found in your blog post of June 22.

    To paraphrase the quote, “that is simply not the way that missionaries have helped with Bible translation around the world”. Scholars point out that a Bible translation produced in the language of a people group is often a great piece of literature, highly revered by the people.

    My point is that we need to be more careful about the things we say in blog posts. They get repeated (as you repeated what was written in the BBB comment). Others read blog posts and most have little enough experience to evaluate whether they are true or not. We’re left with self-censorship along the lines of Wikipedia (which, fortunately, has additional editing from others who may know something better about a topic).

    I almost despair (I’m serious) about continuing to keep BBB going. Every time I post even the most basic principles about Bible translation, there is reckless pushback from two of you. Others often want to approach the material and work with the exercises. I haven’t yet figured out much of what you have been trying to say, so I can’t tell if it’s on-topic I can’t tell. But it sure *feels* off-topic to me. And either way, the subjective generalizations and other kinds of comments which I was trained (yes, in grad school if we need to play that game) to believe were inappropriate continue. I just don’t know if it’s worth trying to stimulate objective discussion about translation issues. Nearly every post gets highjacked. Why not allow a blogger to decide the topic they will post on. If interested in that topic, comment on it, either supplying data as requested or affirming the blogger’s point, or concisely saying you disagree and stating why.

    The most recent case in point. It is an established fact that there are languages around the world that have no rhetorical questions. But you took that fact and turned it into some push for people being able to determine whether or not they wish to use rhetorical questions. There’s no relationship between how people actually speak and whether or not they have the freedom to speak some other way. My posts are about actualities. I also, like you, am a firm believer in freedom, both personal and corporate. I believe that if people want to have rhetorical questions absolutely nothing prevents them from introducing them to their language and teaching future generations how to use them and what they mean. But the two topics are unrelated. On the BBB we do not discuss language engineering nor language domination. Both are interesting topics. But they are not very pertinent to how to translate the Bible for current speakers of a language.

  9. Wayne, just to set the record straight, I wrote that comment on this blog, not the BBB. In fact, it is the very first comment on the very first post on this blog. And, I’m sorry to say that I stand by that comment — primarily in reference to some approaches to translation.

    Tyndale spent fifteen years translating the Bible (and he only translated a fraction of the Old Testament). The KJV translators, who were only revising Tyndale and his successors, took nine years. The ESV was produced in two years. The NIV2011 is being produced in two years. I simply cannot imagine how great literature can be produced on such a tight schedule. That’s the speed at which Steven King writes.

    Indeed, I find it hard to believe you disagree with me on this point. You regularly quote on BBB various infelicities that you find in contemporary English translations. Is this a mark of great literature?

    Now, I mostly read major languages, so I can’t speak definitively about translations into various languages with small readership. (I’ve read the Bible in only four minority languages: Hebrew [5 million speakers] but that is a special case since the Bible was originally written in Hebrew; Yiddish [1.5 million speakers] but this was obviously derived from German translations and used Hebrew-loan words into Yiddish; Haitian Creole [8 million speakers] but the version I read was obviously modified from a classic French translation; and Esperanto [10,000 speakers] but it was (a) not very good, and (b) Esperanto is an artificial language, so the aesthetics of the language are funny.)

    So, in part, I base my views on translations that appear to have been influenced by the SIL approach in English. They are, put simply, well-meaning but poor. It seems you may agree (since you point out that many missionary translations are “above most English versions in terms of quality.”)

    So I am frustrated — we have a plethora of new translations, most of them mediocre, and they are sold and sponsored by many of the same societies that sponsor missionary translations

    So, I stand with T. S. Eliot (who knew something about literature) when he wrote:

    The age covered by the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I was richer in writers of genius than is our own, and we should not expect a translation made in our time to be a masterpiece of our literature or, as was the Authorized Version of 1611, an exemplar of English prose for successive generations of writers.

    We are, however, entitled to expect from a panel chosen from among the most distinguished scholars of our day at least a work of dignified mediocrity. When we find that we are offered something far below that modest level, something which astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic, we ask in alarm: “What is happening to the English language?”

    You wrote in another post:

    Every time I post even the most basic principles about Bible translation, there is reckless pushback from two of you.

    OK, I didn’t know you felt this way. I was operating under the assumption that your posts were “not tell[ing] someone what they believe; instead, ask[ing] them” — and I didn’t think you were telling me what to believe about translation theory. In fact, I am floored by this comment since I have privately contacted you in the past to see if comments were on topic and you assured me that my comments were welcome and OK.

  10. And, I’m sorry to say that I stand by that comment — primarily in reference to some approaches to translation.

    But, sir, have you ever carefully analyzed any Bible translations done with the help of missionary linguists to be able to support your claim? That’s my concern, is how sometimes people make claims but I don’t see evidence of support for it. I’m accustomed to empirical evidence to support claims.

    So I am frustrated — we have a plethora of new translations, most of them mediocre,

    I disagree with you that most modern translations are mediocre. It’s fine that you like the Elizabethan English in the KJV. But that doesn’t make it a better translation. There are a variety of parameters for judging quality of translation. I’d put several modern English translations up against the KJV in almost all categories. So we disagree on which kinds of translations are better. That’s fine. I have no problem with disagreeing on something that sometimes is subjective. I, however, believe that we can make the evaluation criteria more objective and I have tried to do that on BBB.

    and they are sold and sponsored by many of the same societies that sponsor missionary translations

    No, most are not sold and sponsored by the same societies that sponsor missionary translations. The largest missionary-linguist organization that does Bible translation is SIL (of which I am a member). SIL has never, and likely never will, produced any English translations. The needs are too great for other languages.

    I was operating under the assumption that your posts were “not tell[ing] someone what they believe; instead, ask[ing] them” —

    That blogging guideline addresses a problem we have had with some heated comments where some commenters have stated that a blogger or another commenter believed a certain way about translation when it wasn’t true, and the first commenter never bothered to ask the other what they actually believed. They just make an outright assumption and declared it to be true. As someone who needs empirical evidence, I’m greatly bothered by such comments.

    and I didn’t think you were telling me what to believe about translation theory.

    That’s correct. I welcome disagreement, but I do not welcome others telling me what I believe or how I practice Bible translation when I haven’t even addressed that point yet. Again, we need empirical evidence to make claims, not subjective opinions based on no statements or evidence.

    In fact, I am floored by this comment since I have privately contacted you in the past to see if comments were on topic and you assured me that my comments were welcome and OK.

    And they have been, until your recent comment dissing missionary translation which I saw on BBB, perhaps through a linkback or something to a comment on Kurk’s blog. I can’t understand how you can diss those translations and say they are “blasted” out and then the linguists “move on” to another translation. Most linguists have spent 15-30 years on a single translation, doing high quality work. Most do not move on to another translation. I don’t know how you could make your statement when I’m not sure how many “missionary translations” you have had sufficient research time with to be able to draw such a conclusion. I have spent many hours checking such translations and I have high standards for translation. I don’t pass anything that is inferior. But on the whole, the translations I check are excellent, even better than many current English translations (which are usually done by committees of seminarians who have no training in translation principles nor in maintaining integrity with their own linguistic intuitions about their native language, English).

    My main concern is with subjective statements on blogs (any blogs) made (by anyone) as if they are true, without the usual scholarly hedge of “in my opinion” or something like that to separate subjective opinion from carefully researched study resulting in evidence that adds up to a firm conclusion which most others would agree with also based on the evidence given.

    Readers who have little experience or education to evaluate statements are left in a difficult spot when subjective opinions are stated in the same way that empirically-based data-strong conclusions whose conclusions can be checked by others who examine the same data. It’s the same problem someone has reading Wikipedia articles which have not been written by scholars in a subject and there is no peer review by fellow scholars. Of course Wikipedia has a form of review when others tune up the article, but the quality of scholarship from article to article is not as dependable as is the quality in a scholarship-based encyclopedia such as Britannica.

  11. Now, Theo, it’s true that the copyright on the NIV is held by a society (formerly IBS, now Biblica) that sponsors Bible translation in other countries. But in the case of the NIV, the translation philosophy and exegetical decisions are totally separate from Biblica, the copyright holder, and Zondervan, the publisher. The CBT that translates the NIV is legally totally separate from the copyright holder and publisher. If either tried to interfere in the translation process, the CBT would not permit it. And the NIV has not been translated using missionary linguist organization Bible translation principles. The only English Bible translations that have been translated following so-called missionary Bible translation principles are the TEV/GNB, its successor the CEV, and GW (God’s Word).

  12. Wayne, I am sorry you took umbrage at my remark. In my defense, I will simply say that I did not make it on your blog; neither did I quote it on your blog.

    But I do have reasons I made the remark. Let me give them below:

    But, sir, have you ever carefully analyzed any Bible translations done with the help of missionary linguists to be able to support your claim?

    Well, I answered this question above — I lack the ability to read fluently in minor languages. But I wonder if most American missionaries have ever analyzed any Bible translations done with the help of missionary linguists either. My understanding is that most of the “checking” of Bible translations is done by back-translating the translation into English. If a translation is done into Language X, I understand then at best, one is evaluating a literal translation from Language X to English — and I don’t think that is sufficient to determine the literary quality of the output.

    With some rare exceptions (Joseph Conrad comes to mind), major literature is rarely written by writers in a second language. Now, you may point out here that missionaries usually work with native speakers to produce the translation. Here is my question: how do missionaries determine those native speakers are literary geniuses (on the order of a Tyndale or a Luther) capable of producing great literature?

    Further, your representation of Biblica as the only Bible society sponsoring missionary Bible translations seems simply incorrect. For example, the various members of UBS, including ABS, appear to sponsor missionary Bible translations, according to their respective web pages. Even non-UBS members, such as the Trinitarian Bible Society supports missionary Bible translation.

    I am very confused by your assertion that SIL is a missionary organization, since the SIL states that it is focused on studying foreign languages, with Wycliffe being the actual missionary translation organization. In the crisis that lead to SIL being expelled from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama, as well as being restricted in Colombia and Peru, SIL maintained that it was not a missionary organization. You are affiliated with SIL, and it seems you are confirming that those countries were right to expel SIL, because it was secretly a missionary organization all along (and has not be truthful about its purpose). At best, the situation seems murky.

    What about Wycliffe Bible Translators? Well, Wycliffe describes itself in terms suitable for a factory — on one of its web pages, it brags:

    Today, a translation program is started about every five days, shortening the length of time before the last translation project in the last language is begun to 2038. Only God could make this happen!

    Only God . . . or Henry Ford.

    I simply find it absurd to believe that an organization can launch production of a great piece of literature every five days. To me it looks like a mechanical process. This is not to say that it the task is not complex — just as assembling a 747 airplane is a complex task. We however, don’t make claims of fresh creative genius every time a 747 comes off the assembly floor.

    Now, this is not to say that the missionaries who work with Wycliffe are not devoted, or that Wycliffe does not produce workmanlike translations. However, the burden of proof of showing that a work is a literary masterpiece lies with its advocates.

    But you demand evidence of a universal negative — you demand evidence of my claim that missionary translations are not masterpieces of literature. Here is one piece of evidence: as far as I know, none of Wycliffe’s translations (since it was founded in 1942) have won the Nobel Prize or any major (non-religious) international literary prize. However, at least three distinguished Bible translators have won major (non-religious) literary prizes while working completely outside the missionary translation framework: Isaac Bashevis Singer (who translated portions of the Bible into Yiddish) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, David Rosenberg won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club prize for A Poet’s Bible in 1992, and Robert Alter* won the PEN-USA translation prize for The Five Books of Moses in 1995.

    *JK, Robert Alter’s new translation of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes is coming out in 40 days — I would have thought you might have blogged about this.

  13. Theophrastus, I think you are the only one who cares greatly that these translations be “literary masterpieces” (something you haven’t defined AFAIK and which is entirely subjective too.) Wayne’s approach seems better, in that it asks the people what they think of it: “Scholars point out that a Bible translation produced in the language of a people group is often a great piece of literature, highly revered by the people.”

  14. Dannii: the KJV is considered a widely literary masterpiece even by non-Christians. Similarly, Singer, Alter, and Rosenburg won literary awards from award committees that were primarily non-Jewish.

    So, let me ask you this — can you identify Wycliffe Bible translations that are acclaimed as great pieces of literature by non-Christian, literate members of their respective language communities?

  15. (For example Richard Dawkins, arguably the most prominent atheist of our day, is so awed by the KJV that he has praised it in several of his writings and has even made public his reading of a portion KJV Song of Songs.)

  16. You know, I’d like to quote myself, since Wayne has taken offense at my statement — because people seem to be reading a lot into it that I have not said.

    Here is what I did say:

    Tagmemics has always struck me as wildly insulting for any language with a literary tradition — such as English or Arabic or Chinese or Russian or French — or even a tiny creole language such as Yiddish with its own literary tradition — or even an artificial language such as Esperanto. Tagmemics with its classic missionary focus of “move into the culture, figure out the key points, and blast out a translation, move on to the next project” is simply the opposite the way that great literature is produced.

    I really am having trouble understanding what is wrong with this statement.

    First, my understanding is that even SIL has abandoned tagmemics. If you’d like defend tagmemics, please feel free — JK describes Pike as “one of our favorite linguists and friends”, but he is not one of my favorite linguists.

    Further, I understand tagmemics was designed to support efficient translation into minor languages — and primarily oral cultures. What did I say? “Tagmemics has always struck me as wildly insulting for any language with a literary tradition.” I am clearly distinguishing between linguistic cultures with a written literature (the examples I am giving are English, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, French, Yiddish, and Esperanto) and linguistic cultures with a primarily oral tradition (the kind Pike was interested in.)

    Indeed, I think tagmemics was designed to:

    (1) move into a culture
    (2) figure out the key points
    (3) produce a translation as efficiently as possible
    (4) support an environment where a Bible society could start a new translation every five days

    Am I wrong about any of these points?

    James Joyce was so impressed by Ibsen that he taught himself Norwegian to read the plays in the original. Have any of the translations that Wycliffe has produced been so spectacular that sensitive readers have taught themselves the target language primarily so they could read the translation? (It is not hard to find many examples of people who say that one of a primary reason for learning English was to read the KJV — amazingly, they preferred to learn English rather than Hebrew and Greek.)

  17. Wayne and Theophrastus (and Dannii too),

    I’m so glad I slept well last night. Just as happy to wake to read that you’ve commented more here. May I respond now to some of the good (may I say valid) things each of you’ve gotten at? Won’t you find me (not) addressing each little thing with much directness at all?

    Here goes then. When Pike demonstrated his “monolingual demonstrations,” he’d insist on but a few guidelines, two as I recall. First, the person with whom he’d talk (in that person’s language alone, not his primarily) was to be speaking in a language he’d never encountered before either in speech or in print. And, second, the person had to be friendly.

    I always wondered who could check. And how. It’s not that I ever really doubted Pike’s intentions for the demonstration, that I thought he aimed to act like an illusionist, a magician in a magic show, or like Edmond Rostand’s Christian for Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac — although the whole event, with Pike’s recitation of his own poem at the end, demonstrated enough panache for all.

    Rather, I was regularly curious about the universal presumption of friendliness. Now, looking back, I suspect Pike was more clever than Chomsky in his characterization of universal human behavior. Pike (nominated 16 years consecutively for the Nobel Peace Prize, serving the “presidencies of the Linguistic Society of America (1961) and the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States (1977-78),” and accepting “honorary doctorates from Huntington College (1967), the University of Chicago (1973), Houghton College (1977), I’Université René Descartes (1978), Gordon College (1982), and Georgetown University (1984), honorary professorships from the National University of Trujillo (1987), the National University of Ucayali (1987), and the University of Lima, Peru (1991), memberships in the American Academy of Sciences (1974-) and the National Academy of Sciences (1985-), the Philippine government’s Presidential Medal of Merit (1974), selection as a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1968-69), Georgetown University’s Dean’s Medal (1992), and an honorary doctorate from Albert-Ludwigs University, Freiburg, Germany (1993)”) never ever ever tried to define for anyone he talked with what “friendly” must mean. As long as he was alive at the end of the monolingual demonstration, as long as the two could talk in the other’s language however quickly that might happen, then etic variants of “friendly” were always (in Pike’s psychological reality) also emic.

    When I quote you or Theophrastus, I’m imagining you as friendly. Plural you. I’m not your Christian, and you’re not my Cyrano. No, I didn’t “refute” what Theophrastus said. I’ll even say I’m very glad he said it. More so today. He speaks so much better for himself than I can. Notice that you didn’t refute what he said (when I quoted him once more), saying “the classic Jewish view.” Notice at BBB, you did say some things that could be construed as offensive, to which Theophrastus commented, “My goodness, this is Hebrew poetry — can we at least preserve some poetic forms such as parallelism?” You two, in my mind, are getting at some very significant differences, in general, in approaches to Bible translation. Theophrastus, again in my view, is being very kind only to highlight those differences as, primarily, literary. I would rather insist that they are classic etic and emic differences, but I really really don’t like the jargon, the argot, the heavy abstract terminologies, coined by Pike and by others as this new (now-dead) language once called “Tagmemics.” So let me say this in layman’s terms: evangelical Christian missionaries (both Catholics and Protestants in their various and long histories) have all-too-often approached Bible translation in ways that ignore (or flaunt differences between themselves and) Jews. I’m just amazed how many Christian English-Bible translators freely quote Martin Luther on erasing the Hebrew style from the Bible (by translating into the natural language of the people, in his case German). None has been as friendly or as clear about this general trend, perhaps, than Willis Barnstone. (Naomi Seidman just may be sharper in some ways in how she focuses on the difference between Jewish and Christian translation. Perhaps it’s because she’s working as a woman too, as a feminist even.)

    (Now, I’d go even further to suggest that today’s Christian readers of the English bibles available presently have been as willing to let it silence women or to disparage gays as Christian readers of the bibles up to the late 1800s were to allow people of European descent to own peoples of African descent, or to colonize or brutalize indigenous peoples of lands far from Europe. How can anyone, really, blame Bible translators for the travesties? I am not. I think the general, Aristotelean and Platonic approaches, ones that Pike so resisted, are very deeply ingrained and very dicey, nonetheless. The approach has very little to do with anything like the monolingual demonstration. It has much to do with propagating a message without listening to what others are saying, or, importantly, to how they are saying it. There is generally some not very “friendly” aspects to the approach in which the message seems so much more important than the people who “must” and “should” receive it. And I acknowledge my own, particular, and particularly personal experience with my own father here, with other missionaries who have been my fathers too.)

    I like Robert Alter for many of the same reasons I appreciate Kenneth L. Pike. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the honor of studying under the former, of watching him at work (real joyous hard work that seems so effortless), or of going into his home and eating a meal with him and his family and friends. Nonetheless, I have my disagreements with both, see hypocrisies in each, and long to see how they can achieve the really good things they set out to do.

    (Have you blogged on “Alter’s new translation of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes … coming out in 40 days”? Thank you for mentioning that here! Could Alter work on a committee and still do the wonders he does? Isn’t there a place for collaborative work in translation? If you’ll pardon the term “ecumenical,” what’s wrong with that, with bridging differences through literature, or at least with understanding them? What’s the fastest an artist can work, or a group of scholars, to produce something of high quality, despite their production goals? Or is it the production goal that really is the worrisome thing? I’m asking you if there’s more to the problem here with respect to your “classic missionary focus” vs. your “classic Jewish view” — and am I being unfriendly or unfair in bringing these two up side by side?)

    Thanks for taking time to read Rachel Barenblat. I’m not going to have time to explain to you how I read her work. At other blogs (“Aristotle’s Feminist Subject” and “The WombMan’s Bible”), I think I’ve already commented on her approach(es) some, if you like.

    You make “a quick comment about Barnstone:” asking (rhetorically?)
    ” aren’t the Christians just following the Jews who transliterated in their LXX, a text whose method of translation you think we should pay much more attention to? Perhaps not in this case though?” I’d suggest you listen to what Barnstone, Seidman, and Sylvie Honigman say about this. Then rethink what you think in that light.

    You also ask:
    Are there any “mainstream” “general purpose” translations which follow the approaches of these writers, even to a small extent? I don’t know; don’t know of one. I would say that I think a Christian translation team that has included a Jewish scholar (especially a Jew) or feminist scholar (also a woman) or a scholar of minority raced peoples (especially a person of color) or a gender-studies scholar (even someone openly gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered) might take a more open approach. I’m now going to confess something I really like about the friendly Kenneth Pike, scholar: he’d insist that the scholarship of a person (a person’s approach in scholarship) is part and parcel of that person. The “emic” and “etic” thing, as abstract as such terms are, really were (in his mind, I think) very important because they acknowledged people and where they come from, where they’re going, who they are.

  18. Further, your representation of Biblica as the only Bible society sponsoring missionary Bible translations seems simply incorrect. For example, the various members of UBS, including ABS, appear to sponsor missionary Bible translations, according to their respective web pages. Even non-UBS members, such as the Trinitarian Bible Society supports missionary Bible translation.

    All true, Theo, and it does not conflict with what I stated: “most [English Bible translations] are not sold and sponsored by the same societies that sponsor missionary translations.” Later I presented the example of the NIV. But by giving that one example by no means was I saying or implying that Biblica is the only sponsoring Bible society that also sponsors an English translation. I’m well aware of the two ABS translations, TEV and CEV. I stand by my statement. Here are other recent English translations and none of them are sponsored by a Bible society that sponsors Bible translation for Bibleless peoples: NRSV, NET, ESV, REB, NASB, NLT, HCSB, NAB, NJB, CEB, ISV. There are more.

    It’s not an important point. The more major point I’m trying to make is that we need to do enough research to have good empirical evidence to back up our claims. Otherwise, we need to couch our claims with phrases such as “in my opinion” or “in the opinion of a number of scholars who I admire”.

  19. Theo, I mis-wrote when I referred to SIL as a missionary organization. SIL is a NGO that focuses on language development. We have missionary hearts, but do not proselytize. We let the Bible do that, if people choose to believe its message. As members of Wycliffe we are missionaries. We are also members of a separate organization, SIL. The two organizations are legally separate and have different goals and functions. They also operate in different areas of the world from each other. It’s complicated, I know. A number of other NGO’s have a two-organizational structure, one of a religious nature that sponsors their work. The other that fully follows the laws of whatever country they work in, is non-sectarian and does not prosyletize. SIL continues to work in the countries where it had to leave under the footprint it had in countries you have listed. Much of the opposition was led by Marxist professors who did not want Christians from other countries working in their country. The influence of Marxists in politics and education has seemed to wane in recent years since the fall of the Soviet Union and increased capitalism and consumerism even in more socialist countries.

  20. Theo, the 5 day new project starts for SIL is a new development. It is part of SIL’s recent Vision 2025 where the goal is to have a translation program beginning in every language group by 2025. 5 day start intervals has by no means been the normal history of SIL. And there is no connection to tagmemics. Few SIL members practice tagmemics anymore. As it was taught in its elementary forms at the SIL training schools (unlike how Pike envisioned it), it was not an adequate model for describing well language patterns higher than the sentence level, although discourse grammarians who studied under Pike, such as Robert Longacre, made significant advances in study of language patterns higher than the sentence level. But must of Longacre’s work did not look like tagmemics. It was more a-theoretical, which is a an approach to language study that I am comfortable with. Theoretical models can limit us in describing the richness of languages. Chomsky’s models have not allowed us to do much with language phenomena other than syntax. But a huge amount of language has to do with semantics, the lexicon, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, gender linguistics, etc.

  21. Sigh. Blogposts are for being hijacked.

    There are reasons I was interested in blogging on Joel Hoffman’s Bible translation approach (here and here, so far). For one thing, some bloggers I read have commented on his work: Wayne Leman introduces his blog and remarks about his biological/theological and academic families. Theophrastus introduces his book offering preliminary thoughts on it. And Rachel Barenblat reviews a lecture he gave.

    What’s particularly interesting to me is how Hoffman, a linguist (as Leman points out), seems to identify with the Christian Bible translating approach(es). His blog’s blogroll includes only these four: BBB, Catholic Priest Doug Chaplin’s blog, Christian Wycliffe Bible translator Peter Kirk’s blog, and his blog called “Joel M. Hoffman, PhD.”

    Lecturing to a congregation of Christians, Reformed Jews, and pagans too (as Barenblat points out), Hoffman praises the Catholic NAB and the mostly-Christian ecumenical NRSV. (The NRSV translation committee “is a continuing body, comprising about thirty members, both [26] men and [4] women… affiliated with various Protestant denominations[:] … several Roman Catholic members, an Eastern Orthodox member, and a Jewish member who serves in the Old Testament section… several members from Canada and from England.”) Hoffman also contrasts the Christian approach with the Jewish approach to Bible translation; Barenblat notes:

    “The Christian translations, he said, tend to be freer to adopt modern scholarship than do the Jewish translations. In Judaism there’s a tradition of working from precedent; Rashi (who lived a thousand years ago) gets veto power over someone coming later. For this reason, he said, it’s difficult for Jewish translations to incorporate modern scholarship in the way that Christian translations can do.”

    At his blog, I’ve noticed that Hoffman has claimed that notable Jewish Bible translators, such as Robert Alter and Everett Fox, make “mistakes” (that presumably Christian Bible translators avoid). Barenblat heard similar things in his lecture, and notes this in her blogging:

    “My own editorial note: this is, I suspect, the place where Dr. Hoffman is the complete opposite of someone like Everett Fox, whose translation of the Torah plays a lot with word-roots and etymology. About which I may have more to say once I’ve read Hoffman’s book, so stay tuned.”

    Now, I have read Hoffman’s book, but I’m not wanting to declare that his approach is “the complete opposite” of Fox’s. I’m also not wanting to say that there’s a classic Christian / classic Jewish binary when it comes to translating the bible, a set of two and only two boxes into which Hoffman must fit. Rather, I was blogging to try to talk about his approach, by which he does distance himself from translators such as Alter and Fox and by which he does seem to affiliate himself with linguists such as Leman, Kirk, Pinker, and Chomsky. The linguists I’ve mentioned, rather than being so classically Christian in their focus, seem to me to be classically something else more, and more profoundly. Chomsky and Pinker, especially, (I don’t know so much about Kirk except that he blogs with Leman and Rich Rhodes at BBB) are platonist and aristotelian in their approaches. To use Rhodes’s metaphor, they tend to see language (on the surface) as “window dressing” and the ideal meaning in communication (under that surface) as real “meat.” That’s why Hoffman insists that como agua para chocolate is mere window dressing; and once that stuff is decoded, then you find as the meat real potential “anger” which bubbles back up into English as at the boiling point.

  22. Oh my, here we go again. There is no such thing as a Christian Bible translation approach. There are translation philosophies and approaches. Those which are grounded in descriptive, rather than prescriptive, linguistics, and careful study of languages typically produce the most accurate, good quality translation. They are most pleasant for native speakers of languages to read because they sound like how native speakers speak (and write, if they have a literary style yet). And they are owned by native speakers when they produce them themselves.

    There is not a Jewish approach to translation, nor a Hindu approach, etc.

    Where would you place Mona Baker if you are trying to categorize a Christian approach to translation? She has written a translation textbook, In Other Words, which I recommend to you. It has nothing to do with Christianity. Prof. Baker is, as far as I know, a Muslim (she is anti-Israeli). Here’s a link for her:

    Here are links to some of what she has written:

    I suspect we would discover that the linguistically-based translation approach espoused by Prof. Baker is the same promoted by Dr. Hoffman, and very similar to the meaning-based approach of SIL’s Dr. Millie Larson:

    There are a variety of approaches to *interpreting* (hermeneutics) the text, once it has been translated. I would think that most scholarly approaches to translation would allow for any hermeneutic. The KJV was translated in a scholarly way and its text is used by various faith groups using various hermeneutics.

  23. Thanks for your note. After reading it about Joel’s praise for the NAB, I have to wonder if he has read the entire “Old Testament” of the NAB — much of which is currently directly taken from the old Confraternity Bible and simply a revision of the Douay-Rheims-Challoner. The stylistic changes as a result of mixing the Confraternity with (for example) the new translation of Genesis are jarring to any reader, and this is a commonly mentioned criticism of the NAB. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is planning to release a (reportedly completely rewritten) NAB OT soon (it is reportedly winding its way through various levels of ecclesiastical approval.) At the same time, the USCCB has recently managed to get into a big fight with the Catholic Biblical Association over the royalties associated with the NAB.

    There is no denying that Joel is a smart guy, and his father is one of the most prominent Reform rabbis in the US (Lawrence Hoffman is a prolific author and editor, has produced some work for popular consumption [such as the My People’s Prayerbook Series, to which Joel has also contributed], and is also somewhat unique in collaborating with several prominent Orthodox scholars — notable because the difference between scholarship of Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews is far greater than most sectarian differences within Christianity.)

    Joel also obviously has great sympathy for mainline Christian scholarship — I think to a certain degree, Joel is trying to position himself in the tradition of Harry Orlinsky (who was a close friend of Eugene Nida and was involved in at least three major translation efforts: RSV, NRSV, and NJPS.)


    I’m not sure I would characterize the distinction you are making as a Jewish-Christian distinction, though. I would rather characterize it as dichotomy between the individual literary translator vs. the translation committee. There are Jewish translators (such as Orlinsky) who appear to prefer to work in a committee format; and there are Christian translators (such as Tyndale, Reynolds Price, Richmond Lattimore, and Ronald Knox) who translate individually, with great respect towards the literary qualities of the Hebrew and Greek (and in Knox’s case, Latin) Bibles.

    • Thank you, Theophrastus, for reminding us of Harry Orlinsky’s preferences for working on committees to produce relatively less-literary Bible translations. As Adele Berlin recalls, “For Orlinsky, the effectiveness of any Bible translation was linked to its easy intelligibility by contemporary readers, who can be readily put off by antiquated or obscure words or stilted or foreign-looking syntax” (page 2014 of the co-edited The Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation in the essay, “The Bible in Jewish Life and Thought”). Tyndale, Reynolds Price, and Richmond Lattimore deserve to be mentioned more, and read more; so thanks again. Yes, how literary their individual efforts are. (I don’t know Ronald Knox, or Latin, well; so I appreciate you’re including him in this literary list as well).

      As I said to Wayne, I’m not buying the binary myself. I am interested in how others talk, however, as if there’s some precise and distinct and non-overlapping Christian / Jewish divide.

      Barenblat heard Hoffman say,

      “The Christian translations… tend to be freer to adopt modern scholarship than do the Jewish translations.”

      Berlin writes (more) of Orlinsky this way:

      “He had been selected in the 1940s as the first Jewish member of the Revised Standard Version translation committee; in fact, he was the first Jew to serve on any committee to prepare a mainstream (that is, Christian) Bible translation. His experience in this regard led to his subsequent selection as the only Jewish editor for the New Revised Standard Version. By the late 1950s, when he began to lobby for a new Jewish translation [new compared to the old JPS but Jewish in contrast to Christian?], Orlinsky was well known and respected among a wide range of rabbis and Jewish scholars.

      Moreover, Orlinsky had a clear vision of what a Jewish translation [the new Jewish translation] should look and sound like, a vision that marked a definite departure from the King James-type language characteristic of earlier Jewish versions.”

      The label “Jewish” is, I think, an overdetermined one. But so is “Christian.” I work at an institution that has the word “Christian” as its middle name, which also here means more a historical association with the Disciples of Christ denomination of protestantism. When the Divinity school here had honored the United Church of Christ’s Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his contributions, and when the principals of the school had invited him to campus when candidate Barack Obama was trying to distance himself from the pastor, then the Chancellor of this university quickly said, in effect, We are affiliated with the Christian church but for safety’s sake any event with said pastor will not be on the university campus. Labels. And pure labels of logic. The stuff of the academy. The stuff of Aristotle.

  24. I should also add Robert Mounce’s name to my list of outstanding individual translators — his recent interlinear translation of the New Testament (published in three different editions as the Zondervan Greek and English Interlinear New Testament) was a literary tour-de-force: it managed to be comprehensible English while almost perfectly retaining Greek word order.

    And I also want to praise one recent committee translation — the 2007 New English Translation of the Septuagint is a wonderfully useful tool (although, I must say, it was not really a committee translation — each section was individually translated by an individual translator.)

  25. Kurk, thanks for the link to Jewish Bible translation. I think it is reasonable for Jews to translate the Bible so that it aligns with their beliefs. This is actually unremarkable, since the Bible was first revealed to them and they were the first to translate it, such as the LXX. As I have blogged many times, I disagree with Christians who christologize the Hebrew Bible (the Christians’ Old Testament) so that the Hebrew passages will agree more with New Testament quotations and interpretations of O.T. passages.

    As to whether or not translation of the Hebrew Bible would allow for all possible rabbinical interpretations, I would doubt it. But a good translation should allow for major Jewish interpretations. Since many rabbis use the original Hebrew and form their varying interpretations on that, I don’t see anything wrong with having translations of that Hebrew allowing for a similar range of interpretations.

    I personally make a distinction between translation and subsequent interpretation. Some interpretation (exegesis) is required during the translation process, for instance, to know what the rich word hesed means. But most interpretation, I suggest, should take place after translation. I personally believe that a translation of the Bible should be as doctrinally and ideologically neutral as possible. I am glad to see that the NIV translation committee has moved in that same direction. While the NIV was noted for its evangelical slant, especially in the Old Testament, the TNIV and, I assume, the revised NIV which will soon be published, have less of that doctrinal slant.

  26. While the NIV was noted for its evangelical slant, especially in the Old Testament, the TNIV and, I assume, the revised NIV which will soon be published, have less of that doctrinal slant.

    Wayne, do you have some inside information on this? Here is my (external impression) of this:

    A number of Biblical scholars realized that the NIV was dated and flawed in several aspects of methodology, and prepared a modern version — the TNIV. However, they were so ineffective at communicating the advantages of the TNIV that even their main publisher, Zondervan, refused to support the TNIV translation. In the meanwhile, a number of ultra-conservatives used the resulting furor to push hard on several other translations — in particular the ESV and the HCSB — which captured a significant share of the Evangelical Bible market.

    The criticisms of the TNIV were not only gender-related, but also related to grammatical issues and to the “softening” of “Old Testament Christology.”

    Realizing that the TNIV was a giant rottenegg, CBT, Biblica, and Zondervan back-tracked and promised to push out the NIV2011 translation (in just two years!) And it seems likely that the NIV2011 will represent a step backward from the TNIV on all the points of criticism it received — especially given the highly vocal negative reaction to the TNIV.

    Meanwhile, CBT, Biblica, and Zondervan dilly-dallied so much on the TNIV that they managed to alienate virtually all of the TNIV’s supporters (talk about “suffering servants!”)

    So, I am surprised to see you suggest that the NIV2011 will “have less of that doctrinal slant.” In fact, I suspect that the NIV2011 will have much more of a doctrinal slant than the TNIV, and will — as the “NIV” title implies — represent a return to the original NIV principles.

    While I mainly criticize translations on literary principles, I must also tell you that when I look among contemporary major translations, I see a retreat among translators from scholarship to doctrine. This is especially easy to see in the ESV, which we can compare directly to the RSV, and see where scholarship has been forced to take a back seat to doctrinal views.

    If you actually look at Rashi, you’ll see that most of his commentary is grammatical, not midrashic. Thus translations which aim to reproduce the literary effects of Hebrew gain a great deal by following Rashi and other medieval commentators, because of their great concern over the exact understanding of the Hebrew grammar.

    In contrast, a typical contemporary Bible translation committee has equal sized membership on the OT and NT committees; despite the Hebrew Bible’s being three times the size of the NT, despite our much larger corpus of Greek literature than Classical Hebrew literature, despite the considerable literary sophistication of Classical Hebrew over Koine. It is clear that achieving the best possible literary translation of the Hebrew is rarely a priority for these committees.

  27. Theo,

    Re: NIV2011 I don’t have any recent news. As you may know, Robert Mounce, joined the team several months ago to help with the NIV2011. I got the vibes from some on the translation team that they were not planning to make very many changes. They would address all the gender-inclusive verses that had been revised from the NIV, but I *think* they will only make changes to those that raised the most ruckus, such as Hebrews 2:17. But I don’t remember if I was directly told this and I don’t think it is firm enough info to repeat elsewhere. I’m hoping it won’t be too long before we get to see the results of the revision work. I know that the committee itself has no stomach for returning the translation to be much the same as the NIV. I am pretty certain that Zondervan will fully support the revisions this time. I also think that the news “cycle” among those who opposed the TNIV so much has moved on. They have the ESV now and it has gotten a large piece of the evangelical market share for Bibles.

  28. Kurk, I ask again wanting to hear your answer, and not the answers of the many wonderful authors you refer to: if you’re right and Rich is wrong and it turns out the wordplay is actually the meat and not the window dressing, how do we turn that into a “better bible”?

    Theophrastus, you asked if I could “identify Wycliffe Bible translations that are acclaimed as great pieces of literature by non-Christian, literate members of their respective language communities”, but the vast majority of missionary translations are for languages without literature communities.

    And to set the standard at a Nobel prize in literature?! I don’t think you understand Wycliffe’s purpose, nor indeed of most of those who translate the Bible into modern English.

  29. the vast majority of missionary translations are for languages without literature communities

    So why are you bugging me about this? Wayne raised the entire discussion because I said “Tagmemics has always struck me as wildly insulting for any language with a literary tradition” and that apparently bugged him. It sounds like you are agreeing with me.

    I might also add that making the first written work in a language be a foreign work (a translation from foreign languages of a foreign religion with foreign translators backed by foreign money managing the process) is a form of cultural imperialism that I am not comfortable with. I would much rather see the native beliefs, poems, legends, and traditions committed to writing before a bunch of outsiders start imposing their literature into a culture. Is there a nascent Homer in Papau New Guinea? I guess we’ll never know, because any native literary culture that might have developed has been mowed over by missionaries — and hard on their heels all the riches of the West: “Gilligan’s Island”, McDonalds, Santa Claus, and of course, love of the almighty dollar (and a few riches from the China too: like knock-off brand-name clothing).

    • Oh dear. You take a day out to do the work they actually pay you for and you miss a month’s worth of important conversation. I’ll make two comments in separate replies.

      Let me clarify one point about tagmemics.

      Tagmemics is a linguistic theory — although most linguists would say (have said) that it does rise to the level of a “real” theory. What it is not is a system for translation, Biblical or otherwise. Since Pike, who developed the theory, did so in the context of the felt need for a practical linguistic theory that Bible translators working in the field could use, the potential confusion to an outsider is understandable.

      On a narrow reading, tagmemics is dead. Pike, himself, certainly believed that at the end of his life and it was a great pain to him.

      The big issue was that, in contrast to his ivory tower colleagues and intellectual opponents (Chomsky among them), he thought that you cannot in principle separate your theory of language from the users and uses of language. Every other theoretician at the time thought that such a separation was not only possible, but necessary. Pike’s articulation of tagmemic theory lacked the mathematical precision that was the price of entry to the social world of linguistic theory in the 1950’s, and he never figured out how to get there.

      Fast forward to now and the views are very different. Much of the field of linguistics still believes in a platonic universalism that can be understood piecemeal. But some key ideas of Pike’s are now gaining significant ground, and an intellectual historian would probably have to trace the current movements to Pike’s thinking. One of Pike’s students was Chuck Fillmore, a near genius, whose thinking about language is responsible for such basic things as understanding of how recursion in language works. (If there were a Nobel Prize in linguistics, he’d have been given one years ago.) Fillmore’s thinking over the last thirty years or so has been to include more and more of context and use and user into his understanding of language. His theory has the mathematical rigor that Pike lacked, but Chuck was lucky in that some of the key mathematical concepts were developed in computer science (unification, inheritence). The theory that Fillmore developed (along with Paul Kay) is called Construction Grammar, and he himself admits that it bears many uncanny resemblances to Tagmemics. (I go further, and say that CG is machine washable Tagmemics, but I haven’t been able to get the last remaining tagmemicists — like Ivan Lowe — to agree.) For the record, Chuck and the big proponents of Construction Grammar, Paul Kay, Adele Goldberg, Laura Michaelis, etc., etc. are all atheists (most, in fact, are non-practicing Jews — about as far as one can get from proselytizing Christians).

      And Fillmore’s colleague, George Lakoff, who was still in that platonic universalist camp, when I took syntax from him in the early 70’s, is now, after years as a colleague of Fillmore’s, one of the strongest proponents of embodiment, the idea that our language is shaped by not only the world we live in and the brain we have, but by the very nature of our bodies.

      Hope that helps.

    • And now onto literary traditions in minority languages.

      There is a field of study, mostly done by anthropological linguists, called ethnopoetics. A good summary can be found here. When these traditions have died it is not due to the effect of Bible translation, it is due to the death of the language in question or the pressures of language and culture contact that will lead to the eventual death of the language. In many, but certainly not all, cases this started with missionization, but in the absence of other cultural pressures, missionization is ineffective in undoing indigenous language art — check out the still active Mayan literary traditions (which is where some of the early ethnopoetics got some of the first recognition) — in spite of 450 years of contact, including nearly 100 years of modern Bible translation history. The great Mayan (Christian) preachers, like the ones you can hear on the radio, use Mayan couplet forms. Just because they use things they got from the outside world, doesn’t mean they don’t nativize them. (BTW, I’ve seen the same thing from Plains Cree folks, and Micmacs.)

      You should also know that much of what counts as literature in minority languages is utterly unrecognizable to outsiders. I’ve studied and taught Algonquian literature for 30 years, and the amount of work I have to do to get someone from a western literary tradition to appreciate the art in Algonquian literature is enormous. There are amazingly few touchstones.

      Ignoring for the moment whether you believe in it or not, much of our literature has a sensible Freudian analysis. Not so with Algonquian literature. If Freud is based on the mind of a 19 year old male, then the way to think about Algonquian literature is that much of it is based on the mind of a 13 year old male — sex is around by scatology is dominant as is lame-brained action. Much of the content would be distinctively low-brow by our standards. (Often we forget how much of Shakespeare was, in its time, quite low-brow.)

      Our literature depends crucially on description. Description is all but absent from Algonquian literature. You have to have a deep understanding of how Algonquian words are formed to recognize literary usage. That’s all invisible to any but the most highly indoctrinated outsider.

      There is no such thing as poetry or at least none that we would recognize as poetry apart from song lyrics, and even then the poems are, by Western standards, mind-numbingly repetitious. (We have a lot preserved by Frances Densmore.

      What’s been lost in the modern Ojibwe song tradition is due to contact with English song traditions which have entirely supplanted the traditional songs (outside of the pow wow songs that have no words, only vocables, and the medicine ceremony songs, about which I have no firsthand knowledge) and now they have songs (with both borrowed and original melodies) that have country music-like lyrics.

      Ekwaakaag e-bibaa-izhaayaan,
      Miskowaabooyaan ogii-maajiidoon.
      Niinimoshenh ningii-wiijiiwaa,
      Apikweshimowenh ogii-maajiidoon.

      Oo heya, heya owe owe
      Heya, heya owe owaa
      Heya, heya owe owe
      Heya, heya owe owaa

      When I wandered out to the edge of the forest,
      He took my nice red blanket.
      I was with my lover.
      He took my dang pillow.

      Oo heya …

      That’s the whole song. Of course it’s repeated several times. (The tune is derived from Turkey in the Straw.)

      Does that help assuage your mind?

  30. As you may know, Robert Mounce, joined the team several months ago to help with the NIV2011

    Really? I know Bill Mounce joined the team; I did not know that Robert Mounce also joined the team.

  31. I wasn’t talking about tagmemics but your insistence that Bible translations be literary masterpieces. Or have I misunderstood you and you think that only those translations that use tagmemics need to aspire that high?

    How many missionaries who’ve worked in PNG do you know? SIL is a great publisher of secular works and I doubt the Bible is the first written or published work in any of the languages they work in. And to say they are imposing their literature and mowing down their culture is offensive. Frequently, and possibly this is the majority of cases now, missionaries are asked to come to help them translate the Bible. If there’s any imposition it’s from themselves.

  32. Danii — My view is that I want the best translations available, and the best translations possible. What is my criteria for evaluating translations? They should give as much insight as possible into the original. The originals were (in my opinion) literary masterpieces, and so I think the best translations are literary masterpieces.

    Let’s take a translation like the Common English Bible (which I just received in the mail this week). Now it is well-meaning and all, but it has some terribly awkward sentences, has wild inconsistencies, and even omits a number of phrases apparently arbitrarily. All-in-all, a sloppy presentation.

    Now, is my life made richer by this translation? No, I don’t think it is. In fact, I doubt this translation has much to teach me at all; and other translations have much more to teach me. Given that there are literally dozens of other translations in print (including some fine ones), and this translation doesn’t seem to bring any value to the table, I think it is simply a waste of human resources to produce it.

    Let me give another example. As we all know, one of the massively hyped translations of our decade is the ESV. It is hard to avoid Crossway’s advertisements pretty much everywhere, as well as the enthusiastic reception (particularly from certain types of Calvinists). Now, as it turns out, I’ve read the RSV, which I consider a perfectly fine translation. When I look at the ESV, I think on the balance it is (a) basically similar to the RSV; and (b) where it differs, it tends to be worse than the RSV. It seems to me that an awful lot of people have spent an awful lot of time promoting a translation that is a step backwards from the RSV (and the KJV). What a shame!

    Now, in contrast, I do think that there are translations out there from which I (and other people) can really learn a lot. Now we live in a free society, and people are free to publish any translation that they wish, but I’m also free to say which translations I think are particularly good or useful.

    You are an Australian, right? Well, I would rather read Peter Carey than watch Paul Hogan. I think SBS is better than Network Ten. I would rather listen to Tim Flannery than Pauline Hanson.

    And that’s me. I’d rather watch King Lear than The Biggest Loser. Now, there is no doubt that The Biggest Loser, McDonald’s hamburgers, Playboy magazine, and the NLT translation each have very devoted fans. But I still maintain that they are basically trash. I would rather see the ascent of mankind than the race to the least common denominator.

    • I’d like to address the question of the Bible as literature.

      Basically, I don’t believe it.

      Or more accurately I think the Bible contains sections that are highly literary and sections that are utterly prosaic. To wash out that difference by insisting that the whole thing is high literature is a mistake. It is one of my consistent issues that all our translations are monotonic, whereas the original documents where all over the place, from the magnificent poetry of the psalms and tight literary prose of Genesis, through the less than literary instruction book of Leviticus, and much of the Old Testament is just history. It’s hard to see it as high prose. (But I’d be willing to take someone’s word for it whose Hebrew is better than mine — not a very high bar — if there were things about those histories that make them truly literary.)

      And I’ll say the same thing about the NT. Luke is a good writer putting together a well-written history in Luke and Acts. Matthew and Mark are both competent writers, but John writes like an L2 speaker. (And no one even dares translate him that way.) Paul’s letters read like an educated man’s letters with literary passages, quotes that reflect Biblish Greek, and chatty sections.

      But whether it’s the slangy Message or semi-opaque Elizatbethan prose of the KJV or anything in between, it’s all stylistically the same. One voice. (BTW, the translations of Homer suffer the same way. You don’t hear the different voices.)

      So my position is that the Bible isn’t literature, it just is what it is, some poetry, some ordinary history, some really well written history, some instructions, some lists, some personal letters of internally varying literary merit. If your translation doesn’t reflect that transparently, then it’s not an accurate translation. In short, if your translation doesn’t let you hear the author’s voice — whatever that voice sounds like, it isn’t a good translation.

      One of the things you hear simultaneous translators say is that it’s hard to avoid making the speakers sound better than they actually do — something Bible translators have yet to learn.

      • It is certainly true that the Hebrew has a very different tone and register than the Greek New Testament (which itself has a fair variety).

        You are also correct that one of the KJV failings is its tendency to speak in a small number of voices, and this is also common with many contemporary translations.

        At the same time, when we talk about the division of voices in the Pentateuch, we enter into dangerous ground, since we quickly become wrapped into those who believe in JEPD or other “higher criticism” which is a theological flashpoint. (I for one, do not agree with the advocates of higher criticism, either on philological grounds or theological grounds.) Nonetheless, I believe those who do support JEPD or its variants can distinguish the voices in some modern English translations — here, Alter is especially good, for example. Most modern translations present Biblical poetry in scansion, another distinguishing feature.

        Is this enough? Probably not. But it is not correct to say the best literary translations speak with only one voice.

        This is one reason I am so keen to see Alter’s newest translation next month — his new translation of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. These three books each have very distinct Hebrew styles, and I am curious how Alter deals with that in his translation.

      • Oh, I know well that I tread on theologically dangerous ground. But I really don’t care.

        I think that the properly order is that theology is derivative from Scripture. So if you feed your theology back into how you read Scripture then you’ve fallen into circularity. And if you translate based on your theology that’s even more dangerous.

        I simply accept that Scripture is authoritative, and, in particular, I think that the Scripture says what God wants it to say. I don’t ascribe to the literalist take on infallibility.

        The reason that a certain class of Christian theologians want to hold to the tenet of literal infallibility resides in the assumption of our society that if you can show that something is true, then everyone is obligated to believe it. (It’s an inside out way of saying they’ve got the truth and everyone else is wrong.) I think that’s a dead end street. (Kurk, are you listening?)

        Since you have to have faith, I’d rather place my faith directly in the authority of Scripture and not be tricked into believing in the authority of Scripture because I have been talked into a faith in an abstract doctrine like infallibility.

        Then on the Jewish side where one has to argue from authority, it’s dangerous to suggest that Moses didn’t write the whole of the Pentatuch. But then that’s not my tradition.

        I think God is perfectly capable of speaking for Himself, if we would just get out of His way. Figure out, to the best of our abilities — no holds barred, no pre-conditions, no pre-conceptions — what the text sounded like (meant) to its original audience, and let the chips fall where they may. God will do with it what He wants.

      • Well, the Pentateuch clearly states its own origin. To get to the JEPD readings one must denigrate the literal understanding of Scripture and instead “re-redact” it, undoing a hypothesized redaction. In other words, one must pick and choose the meanings one prefers in Scripture. I don’t think that is a very good method for literature in general, and I don’t see how one who takes a high view of Scripture can tolerate it.

      • Theo,
        You say:

        In other words, one must pick and choose the meanings one prefers in Scripture. I don’t think that is a very good method for literature in general, and I don’t see how one who takes a high view of Scripture can tolerate it.

        Picking and choosing among meanings is hardly what I’m suggesting. There is a lot of independent evidence about what the words and constructions of Scripture mean, particularly for the NT. Bringing that knowledge to bear is very, very different from “choosing the meanings one prefers.” In the NT the evidence comes from the thousands of Roman papyri, and from the early translations by bilinguals, like Jerome.

        Prof. Nyland’s translation of the NT, The Source, benefits significantly from the former, but she lacks the ear for the author’s voice. So she, too, renders a monotonic document. And she’s spent so much effort drilling into Koine that she tries to make the English say everything she’s figured out about the Greek — a big no no for the effective translator.

        Translation is triage, as Ortega y Gasset has pointed out when he talked about the exhuberance and deficiency of translation — and, in fact, of all discourse. Exhuberant in that it says some things the original doesn’t, and deficient in that it doesn’t say everything the original does. The translator’s job is to minimize both the exhuberance and the deficiency. And I will guarantee that there is no magic bullet.

        The OT is trickier. The LXX translations help, but the evidence is overall a lot thinner than for the NT. I will admit that there is more room there for readings that can’t be argued for all the way down.

        So what I’m advocating — and what I’m basing my evaluations of how Scripture (in particular the NT) reads — is the result of a re-evaluation of the meaning (and context) of the words and constructions of the text itself. I will admit to being on shakier ground in my opinions about the OT, which are mostly based on observations of people whose expertise I trust.

        You should know that I’m a linguist, and I can tell you there’s a lot we know about reading “remote” texts that we didn’t know even as recently as 20 or 30 years ago. Not to mention that there is way more known about Roman era Koine usage since the 1970’s.

        Kurk takes me to task for trusting this kind of objectivity too much, but I argue that the sheer volume of Koine materials means that we can go a long way towards mimicking what L1 speakers knew.

        Also I don’t believe that just because there is literary unevenness doesn’t mean that there is more than one author. Paul’s letters run the gamut, even within a single letter, and there’s good reason to believe that they were all written by one person.

      • Of course, you are certainly correct that the Tyndale/Geneva/KJV translations have in many places been rendered obsolete by better philological scholarship — and I would even argue that this is more true in the Hebrew than it is the Greek. In this way, a modern moderately formal translation (such as the NRSV, NIV, NJPS, etc.) is likely to be better. However, as many scholars have pointed out (such as Gerald Hammond, Frank Kermode, Robert Alter, etc.) most modern translations tend to ignore features of language other than meaning, such as rhythm, euphony, and word play. Reading translations such as these seems to me to be similar to reading about the Bible rather than actually reading the Bible.

        Thus, for example, I have no problem arguing that Gospel of Mark is a literary masterpiece in Greek — a highlight in the Koine literature. But when I read the NRSV English Mark, I have a dissonant experience: the English is dull, uninspired, and odd.

        I read quite a bit of early modern English literature, and I feel that I can read it almost as naturally as I can contemporary English. The KJV, as you must know, is especially strong in rhythm and euphony and elegance, so in that way it comes closer to capturing the original Hebrew.

        I find that the current crop of literary translators (Alter, Barnstone, Fox) are making a serious attempt to capture both the semantics and the expressive form of the text — something that we’ve come to expect quite naturally in translations of other important texts (Homer and Dante). My hope is that these translations will not be a dead end, but rather will inspire further translators to attempt to more closely capture aspects of the original text beyond “meaning.” I would love to go into the bookstore and see a range of Bible translations that are informed by style as the range of translations of Homer and Dante are.

        Now all of this is not to say that translations such as the NRSV are not useful — in fact, I use the NRSV (and sometimes the NJPS) and both modern and medieval commentaries all the time to help me when I encounter original language texts that I trip over. However, I can say this: I never read the NRSV for pleasure, and I often read the KJV (and Tyndale, Alter, and Barnstone) for pleasure.

        Finally, it is not clear to me that we are actually disagreeing.

  33. Thanks, Theophrastus, I think I understand your position much more clearly now.

    We’re all entitled to our own opinions, and I personally think the RSV and ESV and both closer to being “trash” than the NLT.

    But as I think and write at BBB my goal is to work towards improving all translations. This includes Bibles for the very large section of society who likes The Biggest Loser and Stephen King. It includes those who are recreationally illiterate. It includes those who the last book they read was Harry Potter. Such a Bible won’t win awards, but I think it is still a worthy thing to produce. But it also includes those who love the classics, who love reading when it’s hard and makes them think, who learn languages in order to read what hasn’t been translated into English (or hasn’t been translated well.) My suspicion is though that the Bibles aimed at that sort of audience are on the whole already better than those aimed at the LCD.

  34. Pingback: Some Further Thoughts on Language: in which i use language | Mind Your Language

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