Friday, February 27, 2009
  What should a Bible Translation look like?
Page from La Traduction Oecumenique de la Bible
First was David's mild-mannered complaint about the "Section Headings" that translators, or their publishers, add on to the Bible text, sometimes misinterpreting the meaning; then my response and Henry Neufeld's post basically agreed, but perhaps expressed more stronhgly revulsion for section headings as possibly misleading additions to the text of Scripture (some of the comments to David's post were in the same tone). For a more thorough and balanced account of this iniquitously arrogant practice see David's second post Dissection Headings and especially the comments there.

Then Wayne asked about translation gaps meaning places where a straightforward (rather than lengthily explanatory) translation leaves a naive reader lost to much of the meaning. He gives as example Romans 11:16:

Here is how the passage reads in the TEV (Good News Translation) which our children grew up on:

If the first piece of bread is given to God, then the whole loaf is his also; and if the roots of a tree are offered to God, the branches are his also.

The TEV is one of the most idiomatic translations ever produced in English. Its English is natural. Yet someone without background knowledge of Jewish religious customs would not understand Rom. 11:16 in the TEV or any other translation, for that matter. And we really can’t make an encyclopedia out of our translations, filling in all such large translation gaps.

In the comments there I suggested that this was where a good (simple) set of cross references that points to possible allusions to other passages of the canon, or references to practices etc. was an essential part of a good Bible translation.

So... all this got me wondering, what should be included in a good simple Bible translation for beginners, and what is unwarranted tinkering with the sacred words of Scripture?

Here is my first attempt to think through the question:

Organising the Text
Section headings were added so as to break up the text, make the Bible seem more like other books, and make it easier for users to find things - though as David points out headings in the header at the top of the page would achieve this.

Paragraphing (rather than the older practice of printing each verse as a separate paragraph) was also begun to make the Bible "look like" other books none of which (except poetry which is broken into lines) are printed as a series of consecutive "verses".

What makes paragraphs acceptable and headings anathema?

Firstly, almost all "normal" books in our culture have the prose printed in paragraphs, but section headings are optional. Second, although bad paragraphing misleads a reader, it misleads them much less than a badly placed or worded section heading. (That's why I am glad to see the layout of many modern Bibles indicate when the old [but not "biblical"] chapter breaks fall in the "wrong" place.) So, paragraphs do more good and less harm. Indeed they are part of the translation process for printed books in our culture are not merely worded in English, they have paragraphs for prose and lines for poetry. Thus in translating ancient Hebrew or Greek into modern English this adaptation of form is legitimate.

Chapters and verses are a similar case. They too are added to the Bible and NOT part of the text. Yet, they are very convenient, how else - if we wanted to check the cotext - would we know which precise part of Romans Wayne meant (above) unless we knew the whole book nearly by heart? But, since they are additions added to the text, make the indications small and as unobtrusive as is convenient.

Notes are potentially very useful and informative. Textual and translational issues can be signalled by the translators, so that a reader can understand that a choice has been made, and perhaps even the sorts of reasoning that prompted the choice.

Cross References can suggest passages with similar wording, or that treat a similar topic or theme, or which might serve as background to the passage to which they are appended. These are extremely useful, and even (see above) can be considered part of the translation process, if the readership is deemed to include users who are new to the biblical world. Such references can become dangerous, especially when they are combined with words that suggest their meaning (rather than simply the Bible references). So, that is a practice to be avoided ;)

Explanatory information is added by the publisher (since this sort of note is often not composed by the translation team - though perhaps they should be, see my comment on Wayne's post) may add notes explaining customs, historical details or other information that helps a reader understand the what text might have been intended to mean. This sort of note is potentially more "dangerous" as they might be used (and often are in "Study Bibles") to push a particular line of interpretation, but they are very useful especially for beginning readers.

What would you add? Where do you think I have gone wrong? The aim is a translation that:
  • is faithful to the biblical text
  • is useful to a contemporary English-speaking (or other modern language) reader
  • avoids unnecessary additions and interpretations of the text.
Note that you might like to consider (as I have done above) a beginner in reading the Bible as well as a biblically literate reader.

It is probably no accident that the Bible I describe above is very like the French La Traduction Oecumenique de la Bible except that my copy has the iniquitous headings added :( but its cross reference apparatus is brilliant, and every Bible publisher should try to licence it and copy it as soon as possible ;)

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