the Lord…a strong refuge

The Castle of BelogradchikThe LORD is good,a strong refuge when trouble comes.
He is close to those who trust in him.
But he will sweep away his enemies
in an overwhelming flood.
He will pursue his foes
into the darkness of the night.

Nahum 1.7-8, NLT

 

photo credit: Creative Commons |Klearchos Kapoutsis via Compfight

on approaches to bible translation

Prayer A Powerful Weapon

Last week, I posted a survey on languages and bible preference, which is still open by the way.  (If you haven’t spent the 30 seconds necessary to complete its four questions, I would greatly appreciate it.)  Soon after, I came across these thoughts on bible translation in the preface to a commentary on Romans by Fr. Lawrence Farley, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America serving at St. Herman’s Church in Surrey, British Columbia.  After briefly describing the two principle approaches to translation–formal and dynamic equivalence–he writes:

The English translator is faced, it would seem, with a choice: either he can make the translation something of a rough paraphrase of the original and render it into flowing sonorous English  or he can attempt to make a fairly literal, word-for-word translation from the original with the resultant English being stilted, wooden, and clumsy.

These two basic and different approaches to translation correspond to two basic and different activities in the Church. The Church needs a translation of the Scriptures for use in worship.  This should be in good, grammatical, and flowing English, as elegant as possible and suited to its function in the majestic function of the Liturgy.  The Church also needs a translation of the Scriptures for private study and for group Bible study.  Here the elegance of its English is of lesser concern.  What is of greater concern here is the bring out of all the nuances found in the original.  Thus this approach will tend to sacrifice elegance for literality and, wherever possible, seek a work-for-work correspondence with the Greek.  Also, because the student will want to see how the biblical authors use a particular word (especially St. Paul, who has many works included in the canon), a consistence of translation will be sought and the same Greek word will be translated, whenever possible, by the same English word or its cognate.

So, what do you think about Fr. Farley’s observations concerning the place of different translations in the life of the Church?  Do you agree that we would do well to utilize a more flowing, dynamic translation for public reading and liturgy as part of worship while resorting to a more literal translation for study?  It seems the desire of many (most?) of us is to find that one bible translation that is perfect (or at least suitable) for both worship and study.  In the ever-changing landscape of English bible translation, this quest is as elusive as it is ultimately frustrating.

What do you think of Fr. Farley’s advice?

photo credit: Creative Commons | abcdz2000

Book Review: The Voice New Testament

When I first heard about the Voice New Testament, I was excited and intrigued.  The idea of a rendition of Scripture written primarily to be heard excites me, because until very recently in history, Scripture was not read like a textbook but heard by the people of God during times of corporate worship.  At the same time, I was intrigued because the translation team included many individuals who were clearly qualified with respect to their academic credentials but who are not well-known as Bible translators.  Neither of these points is inherently good or bad–they just formed my initial reaction to hearing about the project.

After reading a great portion of the Voice New Testament, I concluded that there are two reasons I cannot recommend this translation / paraphrase (?) for study or general use.  First, the text contains many insertions within the biblical text of notes attempting to clarify the text’s meaning.  These are essentially footnotes embedded in the main body of the text.  Though italicized to indicate that they are not part of the text, their placement within the flow of the text could be misleading to readers, unintentionally elevating these comments to the same level as inspired Scripture.  The second reason I have against recommending the Voice is that, while billed as a dynamic translation, it really reads more like the Message, which I would consider to be a paraphrase versus a true dynamic translation (like the New Living Translation).  The translation team took lots of liberties with the text–ones I think go well beyond what is either needed or desirable to satisfy their charter of highlighting “the beauty of God’s communication to His people” to ensure “the voice of God is heard as clearly as when He first revealed His truth.”

In sum, while I admire the goals of the Voice, it is not a translation I can recommend.  If, in the future, a revision was made to address these concerns (and those raised by others), I would gladly revisit this edition, but until then I will not refer to it often in my devotions, preaching, or teaching.

You can find out more about The Voice on the publisher’s website (here) or on Amazon.com (here).

My Personal Psalter Project

The Psalms have always been central to the worship, liturgies, prayers, devotions, and songs of countless Christians across the centuries.  In the Psalter one can find cries of joy and pain, brokenness and rage, helplessness and confidence.  In other words, the voices in the Psalms are real, very real, and in their heart-felt transparency lies a great deal of their popularity and importance.  They teach us how to pray, how to grieve, how to rejoice–i.e., how to live as believers in the real world with its ups and down.

Here’s how Luther more eloquently summed up the great value of the Psalms in the believer’s life:

Every Christian who would abound in prayer and piety ought, in all reason, to make the Psalter his manual; and, moreover, it were well if every Christian so used it and were so expert in it as to have it word for word by heart, and could have it even in his heart as often as he chanced to be called to speak or act, that he might be able to draw forth or employ some sentence out of it, by way of a proverb. For indeed the truth is, that everything that a pious heart can desire to ask in prayer, it here finds Psalms and words to match, so aptly and sweetly, that no man—no, nor all the men in the world—shall be able to devise forms of words so good and devout. (from Luther’s 1545 Preface to the Psalter)

I love to read from the Psalms each day, but still I long to be more familiar with them than I am.  With this in mind, I began my Personal Psalter Project earlier this week.  I purchased a Moleskine notebook and have begun copying, by hand, one Psalm per day until I have copied all 150.  I am copying them from the New Living Translation, which is my favorite translation, but am taking advantage of the luxury of a single-column setup to take advantage of my own formatting, using different levels of indention to really make the parallelism stand out (similar to what is done in the excellent Psalter layout in God’s Word translation).  In addition, the extra space gives me room to make notes about Hebrew/LXX vocabulary, alternate translations, or personal thoughts.

I will post additional thoughts, as well as some pictures, as this project continues.

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Review of God’s Word Translation–the New Testament (Part 3)

In this third post in my multi-part review of God’s Word Translation (GW), I will take a look at the New Testament as translated in GW.  If you are not familiar with GW, please read my first post on the history and philosophy behind GW and my second post on the Old Testament in GW.

Overall Readability

As mentioned in my review of the Old Testament, GW has achieved excellent readability–balancing contemporary English style without breaking significantly from traditional English translations.  What I said about the Old Testament holds true for the New in that I would place the ‘feel’ of GW (anecdotally) somewhere between the NIV and NLT.  One thing I have noticed by spending time with this translation over the past couple of months is the consistent use of simple word choice and sentence construction.  These facets are discussed in the “Guide to God’s Word Translation” booklet I received from Baker, and after reading large portions of this translation I appreciate what the translators were trying to accomplish.  Additionally, some of the English and Evangelical colloquialisms found in other contemporary translations are absent from this translation.   Far from creating a ‘dumbed down’ translation with respect to vocabulary and grammar, GW would lend itself very well to use in teaching the English language or in an ESL church context.  I hope GW will be able to find a warm reception and be put to good use in this area.

The Gospels

The narrative and dialogue of the Gospels reads exactly how one would expect these genres to read.  The flow is very good, interrupted only by section/pericope breaks common to most translations.  The style in the dialogue sections reflects contemporary English, for example, in its use of contractions and lack of repeating ‘verily’/’truly’ phrases (which are very good Greek but very poor English).  As in the Old Testament, poetic sections (primarily quotes from the OT) are formatted with multiple levels of indentation to show the Hebraic use of parallelism, effectively pointing out to English readers a poetic device we are largely unaccustomed to using.  As a format note, all the of the editions of GW I have seen are black-letter editions.  I do not think any red-letter editions exist, which for many of us is a stylistic bonus.

The Epistles

The language and grammar of the Epistles also makes for a very readable translation, even in the very lengthy sentences of Paul and difficult Greek used by Peter.  As is customary in many English translations, very long Greek sentences are made into more manageable English sentences.  As I’ve seen throughout GW, the translation team has done a very good job overall crafting an accurate and readable English translation.

Non-Traditional Wording

In my review of the Old Testament, I pointed out three areas, both good and bad, where GW broke with long-standing tradition in the realm of English bible translation.  There are more examples of non-traditional vocabulary choices in the New Testament, several of which are worthy of note, either positively or negatively.  First, let’s look at some of what I consider to be good changes:

  • Instead of ‘repent,’ GW consistently uses some variation of ‘change the way you/they think and act.’  While this is a verbose translation of ‘metanoeo,’ it accurately defines the Greek word in terms familiar to contemporary English speakers.
  • Instead of ‘verily, verily’ or ‘truly, truly’ throughout the Gospels, GW uses ‘I can guarantee this truth.’  In sections where Jesus says ‘amen, amen’ repeatedly it can sound a bit mechanical, but it’s an improvement over either of the traditional renderings.
  • In keeping with other contemporary English translations, GW translates the standalone use of ‘christos’ as ‘Messiah’ rather than ‘Christ.’  ‘Iesous Christos’ is still translated traditionally as ‘Jesus Christ.’  Even though Messiah and Christ are synonyms, I prefer to have ‘christos’ translated as Messiah to clearly link OT promise with NT fulfillment.

There are also a few choices made by the translators that I don’t like:

  • GW tends to translate ‘trespass’ (‘opheilema’) and ‘sin’ (‘hamartia’) as ‘failure,’ which itself I think is a failure.  In the typical usage of those with whom I interact, ‘failure’ connotes an unintentional shortcoming of my best efforts rather than intentional defiance or rebellion.  While ‘failure’ can denote ‘trespass’ or ‘sin,’ I don’t find it used this way.
  • Similarly to the NIV and NLT, GW translates ‘sarx’ as ‘sinful nature’ rather than ‘flesh.’  Lots of ink has been spilled evaluating this choice, and I won’t add to it other than to say I really don’t like it.
  • Instead of ‘grace,’ GW consistently uses ‘kindness,’ which only partly misses the mark.  God’s grace to us isn’t just kindness but his ‘undeserved kindness’ toward sinful humanity.  Simply using ‘kindness’ weakens the impact of God’s grace (‘charis’).
  • The most problematic vocabulary choice made by GW, in my opinion, is the use of ‘God’s approval’ instead of ‘justify’ (dikaioo).  Justification is more than just God’s approval, which itself connotes God’s positive reaction to some work on humanity’s part.  Justification is our acquittal from sin, God’s pardon of us (in Christ) in spite of ourselves.  Considering this translation was done by a team that maintains that a proper understanding of justification is key to salvation, this choice is a real disappointment to me.

Overall

The New Testament is well done overall.  As with the Old Testament, the narrative is clear, the dialogue contemporary, and the poetry well-presented.  I love the single-column, black-letter text, both of which create an enjoyable reading experience.  Also similar to the OT, some of the non-traditional wording choices are helpful but some, especially the translation chosen for ‘grace’ and ‘justify’ are poorly done.  In fact, this last item is probably the one thing that keeps me from recommending God’s Word without caveat.  Hopefully, the folks at Baker will take note of these items and revise the text, which would make this a truly solid, wonderful translation…not that it’s far from that mark today.

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Review of God’s Word Translation–the Old Testament (Part 2)

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In this second post in a multi-part review of God’s Word Translation (GW), we will take a look at the Old Testament as translated in GW.  If you are not familiar with GW, please read my first post on the history and philosophy behind GW.

Text Formatting

As far as I know, the text layout in all editions of GW is identical: single-column, black lettering with textual footnotes.  I have not seen an edition that includes cross-references, and the God’s Word Study Bible is the only edition I find in the catalog that includes them.  With respect to readability, this layout is fantastic. The single-column layout allows narrative text to read like a book instead of a technical manual and allows poetry to be formatted in such a way as to clearly bring out the parallelism so important and prominent in Hebrew poetry.  The only thing I find distracting are the section titles, but these appear in just about every edition of every translation, so this is nothing specific to GW.  Because of the choices made in the text layout, GW gets high marks for formatting and readability.

Overall Readability

In my opinion, GW has achieved very good readability without sacrificing readability or breaking markedly from traditional English bible translations.  While there are certainly places in every translation where one could suggest stylistic revisions for one reason or another, overall GW is a comfortable read falling somewhere in my totally unscientific scale of readability between the NIV and the NLT.  In other words, someone familiar with the NIV or translations leaning more toward ‘formal equivalence’ may find that GW sounds more ‘familiar’ than the NLT.  This isn’t necessarily good or bad, merely my attempt to place GW in the context of versions many readers are more familiar with.  If you are curious to read several passages from GW side-by-side with other versions, check out Joel’s series of reviews on his blog.  Since he has provided so many examples, I do not intend to provide more.

Narrative

The narrative in GW reads as one would hope narrative would–smoothly.  While I haven’t read through all of the OT in GW, I have enjoyed what I have read.  Consistent with its goal of readability without oversimplification, the narrative portions sometimes shorten sentence length over what is found in the original languages, though translators have aimed not to shorten sentences for the sake of shortening them if such edits compromise or blur their meaning.  The narrative also tries to avoid piling up clauses or prepositional phrases, both of which create more difficult reading.

Poetry

One of the most important literary devices in Hebrew poetry is parallelism (see this great Wikipedia article on Biblical Poetry for a primer on the subject).  Especially over against rhyme, meter, rhythm or other devices that are not readily apparent in any translation from Hebrew to English, understanding parallelism helps provide significant insight into understanding the significance of the Psalms, songs, and some prophetic sections in the Old Testament.  The poetic sections of GW are one place, in my opinion, where the editors have really made good use of the additional real-estate allowed by having a single-column format.  The wider, single-column layout allowed editors to use multiple levels of indentation to group together multiple parallel phrases nested within a section of poetry.  While this indentation is not original to the Hebrew, it definitely allows English speakers whose poetry uses parallelism less than rhyme to easily (and visually) see its structure and better understand its meaning.  I have seen no other single-column layout that so effectively utilizes indentation to organize and present poetry.  This is one area where GW really shines!

Non-Traditional Wording

In its attempt to remove easily misunderstood technical language (see my first review), GW breaks with translation tradition in some places.  This is more apparent in the New Testament, as we’ll see, but there are several important areas where non-traditional wording is used in the Old Testament.  One significant departure from traditional English translations is the use of ‘instruction’ as the translation for the Hebrew ‘torah’.  While ‘instruction’ is almost the universal lexical definition of ‘torah,’ most English translations routinely translate it as ‘law,’ and even non-technical commentaries are quick to point out this important difference.  Making this change was an excellent choice.

Another traditional phrase appearing in the Old Testament is “Lord of Hosts” (‘Yahweh Sabaoth’).  Here ‘hosts’ is a reference to angelic beings, i.e. the hosts of heaven.  It is an archaic phrase that few Christians are truly familiar with and even fewer, if any, non-Christians would implicitly understand.  GW has chosen to translate this phrase “Lord of Armies,” which I think is unfortunate, as there is no explanation that these armies of the armies of heaven and not the armies of men or earthly politics.  There is room for significant misunderstanding here, in my opinion, and translating this “Lord of Heaven’s Armies,” as the NLT has done, is a much better choice.

A final non-traditional translation choice was made in Deuteronomy 6.4.  This verse, commonly known as the ‘shema,’ is an important part of daily prayer for the Jews.  Traditionally this verse is translated as, “Hear, O Israel:  The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (ESV), which serves to emphasizes the unity of God.  In the context of a polytheistic culture and God’s constant warnings against worshiping other Gods, Dt 6.4 is better understood as Israel’s ‘pledge of allegiance’ to Yahweh.  As such, GW (similarly to the NLT) translates this verse, “Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God.  The LORD is the only God.”  Again, in my opinion, this was an excellent choice by the translators.

Overall

Overall, the Old Testament of GW is very well done.  The narrative is crystal clear and the poetic sections are wonderfully presented.  While not all aspects of non-traditional word choices are necessarily more helpful than traditional English renderings, in two areas at least, I find the changes refreshing and, quite honestly, more accurate.

Stay tuned for our look next time at the New Testament!

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Review of God’s Word Translation–History and Philosophy (Part 1)

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The folks at Baker Books were kind enough to send me a couple editions of God’s Word Translation (GW) to read and review.  This translation has been around for over fifteen years, but until getting picked up by Baker in 2008 hasn’t gotten much exposure or widespread publicity.  Because of that, my intent is to look at this translation across several posts to try and give it a thorough review for those who may not know much about it or even have heard of it at all.  My reviews will take a different approach than Joel Watts’, who is also in the process of writing several reviews of GW on his blog.  If you’re interested in seeing how GW compares to other translations (in parallel), be sure and check out his fine series.

History

Technically, the translation known now as GW had its beginning in 1982, when God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society formed to update a translation known as An American Translation, which was translated by a small group of conservative Lutheran scholars.  Over time, this work took on a new direction and ended up being a completely new bible translation–still translated primarily by this core group of Lutherans but utilizing reviewers from a variety of Christian backgrounds, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and others.  After several revisions and continual work, God’s Word was introduced to the marketplace in 1995.  Since then, the text has remained unchanged and publishing has passed from World Bible Publishers to Green Key Books (2003) and finally to Baker Books (2008).  [More information and history can be found here]

Translation Philosophy

(Note: The quotes from the following two sections come from the pamphlet “A Guide to God’s Word Translation”)

The translation philosophy espoused by GW is called Closest Natural Equivalence (CNE).  In an area where most of the debate goes back and forth between literal v. dynamic equivalence, form v. functional equivalence, or word-for-word v. thought-for-thought translation, CNE seeks to satisfy three related goals:

  1. Provide readers with a meaning in the target language (here, English) that is equivalent to that of the source language
  2. Express that meaning naturally, in a way that a native English speaker would read or write
  3. Express the meaning with a style that preserves many of the characteristics of the source text

hebrew-detailAs a point of comparison with other major bible translations, while not calling their translation philosophies CNE, both the New Living Translation (NLT) and Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) use similar approaches.  Why this approach?  Quite simply, there are concerns with either of the predominant two paradigms that make some sort of mediating position not only necessary but desirable.  Regarding the former, literal translation philosophy:

Form-equivalent translations adjust the grammar and syntax of the source language text only enough to produce a reasonable recognizable and understandable English translation.  Form-equivalent translation results in an English text that is a combination of English words, some English syntax, and some Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek syntax.

In other words, as my one of my Old Testament professors used to say about the NASB and the ESV, “Great Hebrew, terrible English.”

There are also pitfalls with taking a solely dynamic approach to translation:

While function equivalence theory of translation has the proper focus [of accurately conveying meaning in the target language], in practice it has produced English translations that have lost some of the source texts’ meaning.

In sum, the goal of CNE as advocated by GW, NLT, and HCSB is to maintain the delicate balance between a rigidly-literal rendering of the text that fails to communicate clearly in English and a highly-dynamic rendering that omits characteristics of the source language that are important to the meaning of a given passage.

Technical Theological Language

One important question translation committees have to wrestle with and answer is how they will approach translating words associated with theological concepts.  Typically, English translations use the traditional renderings that have been used for centuries, some going back so far as to be borrowed from Jerome’s Latin translation of the bible (the Vulgate):

While these words continue to be used by theologians and even by many Christians, the meanings that speakers assign to them in everyday use do not match the meanings of the Hebrew or Greek words they are intended to translate. The words have become jargon–words with specialized meanings often poorly understood by nonspecialists.

As Ed Stetzer pointed out on Twitter recently, “If you can learn to order at Starbucks, then you can learn theological language at church.” I completely agree, and while I would suggest that retaining words like covenant, justify, propitiation, righteous, and others in our theological teaching, preaching, and discussions is a good thing, it is difficult for me to suggest that retaining these terms in a bible translation is helpful considering how differently these terms are used in contemporary language (if they are used at all!).

The GW translators did not make this decision arbitrarily but based upon research in local congregations:

 

To determine how English speakers understand a few key theological terms, God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society undertook a survey of churchgoing lay people.  Of five theological terms tested, no term was understood correctly by a majority of the respondents.  That is, a majority of the respondents did not give a definition that matched the primary meaning of the underlying Greek word…The survey results for covenant (40 percent gave acceptable answers) were better than for the other words included in the bible society’s survey.  For instance, only 10 percent of the respondents gave a correct meaning for the Greek word dikaioo when asked to define justify.

greek

In theory, I am totally at ease with the decision to use words more easily and correctly understood by contemporary English speakers.  I will examine and evaluate some of the specific usages in GW in future reviews on the OT and NT, because I find some weaknesses in the words chosen in some places.

So we’re off and running on our look at God’s Word Translation!  Over the course of the next few reviews, I will begin to take a look at the details of this translation, including formatting, word choice, translation style, etc.  Hopefully this is enough to whet your appetite to come back and read more about this relatively unknown translation.

Wesley on Biblical Languages

Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretense? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David’s Psalms, or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?

— John Wesley, “An Address to the Clergy,” in Works X:491.

(HT:  Gary Manning)

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