Wednesday, September 30, 2009
  Bootleg Bibles
In the Western world we have the spiritual equivalent of the obscene EU wine lakes and sugar beet mountains, a surplus of Bibles. Any flavour (gender neutral or gender differentiated, common language or literary, Madam?) any colour (Burgundy moroccan leather, or trendy teen picture edition, Sir?) you like. It really does not matter, for only one Christian in ten actually reads the damned [swear word reluctantly intended] things!

In the majority world to match their common difficulty in finding adequate and healthy food supplies, or paying for medical care, there are Bible shortages. In Mobuto's Zaïre in the 1980s a cluster of poverty, mis-management and greed ensured that where there were not enough Bibles, basically anywhere far from Kinshasa, though there were handy sellers of bootleg Bibles. If you could pay the markup, you could be the proud owner of a personal copy. It only cost a couple of week's salary...
Photo by
You'd think that in this Century of the Fruitbat [editor's note: private joke shared only with the other reader of Terry Pratchett ;)] te Internetz would have cured at least this problem. Bible text can be transmitted to any computer screen at virtually no cost (where there is no Internet memory sticks and even old fashioned CDs can serve as vector for the viral Word). In fact with all those phones, soon the Word can reach even the barely literate as audio Bibles freely spread their divine contagion.

Apparently though if the Lusophone Bible Societies have their way instead of healthy "authorised" editions all these viral Bibles in Portuguese will be bootleg Bibles. Illegal copyright infringing pirate editions!

David has to behave himself ;) but you don't hear me laughing (see the comments here) that's tears you hear falling, for the sad, sad story of human sin and pride that holds "Bible Societies" back from actually setting the Word free :(

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Thursday, August 27, 2009
  Style sensitive translation
Nuyorcian Poets Cafe by Salim Virji
PoetJohn, the Hebrew Poet, has a really stimulating post (but then you'll say his posts usually are) A Style-Sensitive Translation of Luke 1:1-4. In it he agrues that: the style and register of the opening of Luke is "the high falutin’ prose in which the best history is traditionally written. In English, think Edward Gibbon or Thomas Macaulay."and offers a good first draft of what a rendering of these verses in such style would sound like.

This is a drum several of us have banged before, most Bible versions obscure the style and register differences among biblical authors and passages. So a passage from Mark and one from Luke will sound more alike than the same passage from REV and CEV or even REV and NRSV. Thus the style and register preferred by the translation team takes precedence over that of the composers! This is plain barmy, nuts, and a great shame as it hides the human fingerprints that readers of Greek and the Semitic languages find all over Scripture.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay from Wikipedia

J. K. Gayle and Doug Chaplin both post fine comments on John's post, suggesting how the following passages should sound. Is this a project that a team of bibliobloggers could collaborate on? Maybe, in view of the start already made Luke would be a good book to begin with? The contributors could all be authors on a site at is a successor to CommentPress, a WordPress derivative that allows commenting at "paragraph" level on posts. Thus if the text of the proposed translation were posted with each verse as a separate "paragraph" others could comment at that level, and the translators could easily then produced a revised version in the light of suggestions.

Declaration of interest: I am exploring with another project in view. I will describe that in another post soon.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009
  Gentle (though firm) wisdom on Bible copyright issues
Peter Kirk has put up two fine well thought out and researched posts on the issue of copyrighting Scripture:
In the first he deals primarily with the issues around Zhubert's Re:Greek. In the process providing much (though speculative) light on the murky world of commercial Bible publication. The second homes in on copyright applied to the Bible and translations of the Bible.

These are both fine works. I suggest you all read them, and I suggest they both get listed in the next Biblical Studies Carnival.

After all the discussion of copyright and of the practicalities of funding Bible Sosiety work has settled there are practical issues left open.
  • What is the legal status of MorphGNT?
    • If it is street legal then other projects can use it.
    • If not, then "we" need an open source project to produce a good legal morph analysed Greet text
  • Can something be done to produce an equivalent for the Hebrew Bible? (Here as Peter points out there are no legal complications with eclectic texts MorphMT could be simply based on The Westminster Leningrad Codex (see its licence document).

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Friday, March 27, 2009
  Bible societies and dens of theives
I've been meaning to comment thoughtfully and at length on Zhubert and the MorphGNT issue, but selling a house while teaching (laughably but accurately called a "full time job" = it takes up all the time available) has stalled a longer post.

Then David wrote Closing open Bibles saying:
I’m all in favor of open source, but I tend to side with GBS on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if an agreement is worked out regarding the MorphGNT.
I suspect that all we need to do is wait. Bible Societies in general are slow moving beasts with good reason. Don’t mistake cumbersomeness with inefficiency. They are big and think very long term.
This gets my goat, I started writing a "comment" but it was getting long and heated ;)

I am usually very sympathetic to the right of people to be paid a reasonable wage for their work. I can understand that corporations need to "recover their costs".

But Bible Societies, at least the ones I know anything about, get given money by pew sitters like me "to make the Bible available". That money pays the wages of those who do the work (where they were not already paid by their academic institution and did the careful editing work as part of that job).

If GBS (or any other Bibe Society) restricts people making the text freely available, simply to protect the economic viability of their print editions - which are expensive to produce luxury items - then they are betraying the generations of Christians who have coughed up their hard earned cash "to make the Bible available"!

Now, this is an oversimplification, but it seems to me that to take money from someone under false pretences is (more or less) theft. To accept donations to make the Bible available and then restrict its availability to protect the market for an expensive luxury item is therefore theft.

I need some convincing that the German Bible Society is the useful, if somewhat slow elephant David describes, and not rather a den of thieves! For now, I am picturing Jesus, cords at the ready, bursting into their hallowed halls...

PS: I see the guy David referred to has a fine full post on the subject Copyrighting the Holy Spirit's words, then living off the profit... do read it! They also have a declaration of full disclosure, so I'll add one: As far as I know I have never received any payment or benefit from either a Bible Society or their commercial competitors, I did for some years get soft drinks at wholesale prices by sharing my buying with the General Secretary of the Bible Society in Zaire (now again Congo DR).

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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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Friday, February 20, 2009
  Adding to Scripture
David Kerr has a good post "Those nefarious section titles in your Bible" in which he discusses the section headings that one finds in most printed Bibles today.

Headings are added to the Bible by translators, they are then printed in such a way that they look and feel like part of the biblical text. They are not and never have been part of the Bible text. (Except the mysterious and often incomprehensible headings to Psalms, those these same Bible publishers often put in small print - they are merely part of the Bible text and not therefore as "important" as the clever ideas of the inspired translation team. Warning: the previous sentence may contain irony and sarcasm.)

Section headings are therefore systematic and institutionalised lies, that are presented as Scripture. (Chapter and verse divisions are too, but they are at least a convenient way of identifying the passage one is talking about.) This practice is a travesty and institutions like Bible Societies ought to have more respect for Scripture than to amend it in this way.

Please note as David's examples suggest these "titles" are not neutral, they often direct us as readers to understand the text in a particular way. While those directions may often be good, they are never scriptural.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007
  BBB and the Cheyenne Bible
Wayne Leman (the founder of the interesting and active multi-author Better Bibles Blog) posted on the dedication of both print and audio versions of the Cheyenne translation he has been working on (as I remember it, he was working on it years ago, when I first got to "know" him through comments on the early drafts of Amos). A major translation project like this involves so much work, skill, compromise and commitment from so many people that the dedication day must have been a real celebration! (There was even TV and Press coverage.)

So, please pray that this translation will be well used!

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Open Bible Translation ::

Writing the post below that mentions Lingamish reminded me that for three weeks I've been meaning to mention his post Open Development Models and Bible Translation the end of the semester (and academic year, with just marking and exams still left!) is such a busy time...

It's a really stimulating discussion starter, based on Raymond’s "evolving book" The Cathedral and the Bazaar. This is in turn based on the ideas in his famous eponymous FirstMonday essay. [For another take on how the ideas of this essay might impact the church see my Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as Recapitulation from issue 37:2 of Colloquium.]

Lingamish begins to think about how these ideas of open development might apply to Bible translation.

As a translator Lingamish translates Raymond into the translation world. So Raymond's:
2. Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).
becomes Lingamish's:
2. Modify the Scripture already in use.
If there is an existing church, they are probably using some translation of the Bible. If it is a neighboring language can it be adapted? If it is an antiquated translation can it be revised?
The post is well worth a thought, as a "webby" person I can imagine a translation project that
  1. Takes an existing "old" translation, and puts it online.
  2. Begins to suggest modifications and adaptations - with linked "footnotes" explaining the reasoning (at two levels, technical for trained translators and educated pastors etc. that take the original languages as starting point, and less technical that explain this in "lay" terms) these "notes" would operate like blog posts and have a comments feature.
  3. User feedback would modify and polish the translation. This Temporary English Version (or whatever you called it, and obviously since the English translation market is over supplied NOT TempEV*).
  4. Eventually one might be happy enough with the version to produce a print edition.
People are sure to point out that this process will only work where there is Internet. They will then invoke the great digital divide, as an excuse for not trying such an approach. However, I am told that today in Kenya there is an Internet connection of sorts in many schools. Which means in many communities, since non-Westerners are usually less precious about private property, and more willing to share!

[According to SANGOnet:
Of the approximately 816 million people in Africa in 2001, it is estimated that only:
  • 1 in 4 have a radio (205m)


  • 1 in 160 use the Internet (5m)

That would mean that 5,100,000 people have Internet, but they also note that:
In Africa, each computer with an Internet or email connection usually supports a range of three to five users.
Such an approach is not intended to dismiss the digital divide, or to minimise efforts to reduce it, on the contrary, if the Internet is used for useful (to the average villager or their school teacher or pastor) purposes then that in itself will help bridge the divide!

Vive la traduction libre! Say I.

* This name is used for the literal rendering I used for the Amos commentary, it was suggested by my son precisely because I was always changing the rendering in the light of user comments! I will be happy to discuss licensing the name Temporary X Version to any interested millionaires ;-) or impoverished Bible translators who want to make their work available in such a way! [return]

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Lost in Translation ::

For those of us who quite like literal translations (at least at times) Richard Rhodes has a nice post "What's the joke?" on the Better Bibles Blog about translating this cartoon:

Don't worry, he explains the German too!


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