Lingustics and translation

I’ve been reading Dave Black’s Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek and I am nearly ready for a full review.  There is one chapter on the history of language and in particular the history of Greek.  The following is a quotes I want to share and then add a thought to it, if I may:

But we need not think that Greek was or is the most perfect expression of human thought in the world.  Both English and Greek are rich languages, but their richness lies in different areas.  Whereas Greek has an abundance of verb endings, English prefers to use analytical expressions.  Greek and English are simply languages at different stages of development, English having moved from complexity of form to simplicity.  We therefore need not rhapsodize about the wealth of Greek forms (“The development of tense has reached its highest in Greek, and presents its greatest wealth of meaning” [Dana and Mantey, 177]).  Judged in the only way a language can be judged – as a means of communicationneither Greek nor English nor any other language will be found wanting (pg. 156). 

There is another quote Black gives in his discussion of Classical Greek where he says,

the proclivity of many modern grammars to treat Attic Greek as ‘the most cultivated and refined form of the Greek language‘ (Goodwin, A Greek Grammar, p.4), and divergences from it in other dialects as abnormalities, is linguistically indefensible.  Classical Attic is merely a dialectal variation of the one Greek language and is in no sense to be regarded as the standard form of Greek, any more than we are to make Koine Greek the norm (151). 

Attic was only influential because of the importance of Athens in both politics and literature thus its influence, nothing more nothing less. 

These are really great pointsReally great, and so sensible

If I understand Dave Black’s point, there is nothing pearticularly special about any one language over another with one execption: language is a means of communication!  Period.  English isn’t better than another language and a particular dialect of English is not better than another, nor a particular translation of the English Bible better or more refined than another (contrary to popular opinion). 

Some tend to treat NT Greek like it is some special holy language when really it is just that, language.  There is a reason God used it to communicate the gospel message but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is more or less special than any other language.  It’s just that it was the lingua franca of the day and the best means to spread the gospel message as far and wide as possible – not unlike how English is the business language of much of the world today.  But English isn’t necessarily more special than any other language it just happens to be most widely spoken. 

More to the point I wanted to make, however, is that this book and in particular this chapter, desperately needs to be read by many English Bible Translators, and especially those advocates of a particular translation philosophy and especially more so, those advocates of a particularly specific English translation (or two).  I won’t mention them but I will instead let the reader of this post make a good guess.   Of one translation in particular, its users claim the translation “preserves literary beauty.”   Doesn’t that sound an aweful lot like the claims made about attic Greek in the quotes above?  It’s elevating one form of language over another and, in my opinion, that’s not right.

English is English, and Bible translations are Bible translations.  Period.  Each have their purpose and are suited to such.  I would be so bold as to suggest that to elevate one translation philosophy or translation over another as being perfect or more cultured and refined is to go too far. 

‘nough said about that.   what say you?

16 responses to “Lingustics and translation

  1. But if we apply Black’s words to translations then the logical result is that a given translation is superior to another translation to the extent that it communicates Scriptures message more clearly.

    While all languages by necessity are “designed” for communication, the ability of a translation to communicate is by definition dependent upon the translation’s interest (or lack of interest) in meaning based translation rather than form base translation. And for that reason, I would say the NLT is a superior translation to, say, the NASB.

  2. The NLT is NOT superior to the KJV! Mike, please recant, recant! 😉

    I do think we underplay the need for some form of paraphrasing of text in order to better communicate the meaning (as say the (T)NIV does). However, the NRSV would have to be for me the most solid of the translations even if it is rather ‘wooden’ at times. It could be argued though that is what preaching/teaching is for.

    I am not surprised the ESv has an air of superiority to it. I believe a lot of reformed pastors are promoting it and they can at times appear/be somewhat elitist in their opinions.

  3. Brian: I’m going to guess that you’re talking about ‘formal equivalence’ and the ESV. How close am I? Moisés Silva said some similar things in his review of Chrys Caragounis’ book The Development of Greek and the New Testament. He spoke of Caragounis’ (a native Greek speaker) romanticized view of Greek.

    Mark: Surely you’ve misunderstood our young friend Mr. Aubrey. He would never be audacious enough to claim that the NLT was superior to the KJV. His claim was that it was superior to the NASB which is a simple statement of fact. Of course he knows that the KJV is God’s inspired word perfectly preserved in the English language!

  4. Nick – yes. you understand why right?

    Mike – I would have to agree

    Mark – I like the NRSV too – too bad it has such a bad reputation, it’s improving though, and I do think it could use an update.

  5. Great post, Brian. I agree with you.

    I would only take issue with “Greek and English are simply languages at different stages of development, English having moved from complexity of form to simplicity”, because this seems to suggest that English is at a more advanced stage than Greek, instead of just following a different development path which is more accurate.

  6. Nick: I was saying they are both bad translations! As bad as each other! As for the NASB I haven’t really read it. Have you ever met someone who actually beleives the KJV to be God’s only translation? I have and it was fun to watch! 😉

    Brian: What do you mean the NRSV has a bad name? It is the translation all of my professors recommended. In fact, when I went for a TNIV as my ordination Bible a few eyebrows were raised!

  7. Mark – unless you’ve living under a rock all these years, we all know the NRSV is the Liberal’s Bible (mainly because of the conservative’s uncomforatbility with how it chose to translate Gen 1:2 (wind of God) and Isa 7:14 (young woman) and ocurances of gender neutral usage in the NT. Not sure why but it has not had nearly the same rap as the TNIV for much of the same things. I prefer the NRS over the ESV.

    also for clarity – its not that the ESV is a bad translation in and of itself (it really a lot more like the NIV than they want to admit) its all the marketing and false calims about its supposed preservation of “literary beauty.”

    The KJVO folks might fall in the same camp – but the ESV is nothing compared to the KJV if we focus on the literary aspects – however, from the standpoint of linguistics – claims of the KJV being far and away the single best English translation, or it being “for all intents purposes The word of God in English” and so on, is as Dave Black says, “linguistically indefensible.”

  8. Excellent points to mull over. I would make the same point as Peter Kirk did. Otherwise, great thoughts.

  9. I also dig the NRSV. I actually wish that it had merely updated the gender difficulties in the RSV which had WAY too short a shelf life, and, as George Wood and I have agreed, there should be a re-translation freeze for 50 years. Is english really changing that fast, or do we need to just read deeper and slower?

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  12. Mark:

    You wrote, It could be argued though that is what preaching/teaching is for.

    True, one could argue that way, but I wouldn’t. When the Greek fathers preached from the New Testament the text was never difficult to understand because it was too literal, but because the content was challenging. And its fine to translate difficult to understand Greek into difficult to understand English, but when the Greek is clear (and the vast majority of it is), Pastors shouldn’t have to spend their time trying to explain the meaning in clear English.

  13. Mike, I am not referring to “dulling it down” I am talking about the need for Pastors to be interpreters of the text. That is to say, they paraphrase what Paul or Matthew are saying broadly rather than specifically.

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