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Verbal Plenary and Translation

December 22, 2011

A competent and conscientious translator seeks to convey all and only the meaning of the original text.

Continuing a discussion of Bible translation started in a previous post, I now want to consider the special case of the Canonical text, inspired Scripture. I do this upholding the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration, and ask the question, what approach to translation follows most logically from this doctrine.

I have two answers: a wrong one and a right one.

First, the wrong one, by which I mean it is poorly reasoned. Simply put, if you take the Bible literally you want a literal translation. Two problems here: first, “taking the Bible literally” is a very, very, very, very loose paraphrase for believing in verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy. And I think I left out a very.

Literal is a tricky word. One usage it frequently has (but shouldn’t) essentially amounts to “seriously.” A correct usage would be something like this: A says to B, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” B doesn’t “take it literally,” that is he understands A to be employing an idiom. Should he look outside he expects to see puddles not poodles.

Now say A is dad and B is teenager. A says, “Be home by ten.” B understands perfectly well that A has in mind that B be inside the house at or before 2200 hours. But B figures he can stretch a point and make it 10:59. Still starts with “ten,” you know. His rationalization: he doesn’t take dad “literally.”

The equivalent in Bible interpretation is reading a text, say one of the gospel accounts of Jesus walking on the water. You figure, yeah, the writer probably thought it really happened, but I know its impossible. So I pay attention to all the teaching bit, but spit out the water-walking bit. I say I don’t take it “literally.” I mean that I don’t take it seriously.

So with this misuse of the word literal, those who purport to (1) extract from the text the meaning that the author put in, and (2) believe it, are sometimes said to take the Bible literally.

Now we also use the word literal in terms of translation. Only it means something entirely different. It refers to retension of SL form–often at the cost of meaning. For example if I say in French: “J’ai mal au coeur,” a literal translation would mean something like “I have evil in heart.” Or slightly less literally maybe “My heart hurts.” But it doesn’t mean either of those things. What it means is “I’m nauseated.” In this case a literal translation doesn’t prove to be very much help. The “idiomatic” (i.e. in real English) translation proves to be the one that accurately conveys the original meaning.

Okay, now back to the related doctrines of verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy. The former is a formulation made necessary by some rather blockheaded notions (IMHO) of inspiration. According to 2 Tim. 3:16 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (ESV). The subject is scripture, that is that which is written. Whatever “inspired” means it is asserted of the writings–but not the words of the writings?

Taking such an idea to be nonsense, “verbal, plenary” understands that when the verse talks about the Scriptures it means (1) in their entirety–plenary, and specifically (2) every word. Buy it, don’t buy it. But that’s what it means, and that’s what I’m talking about.

Now language is said to be a form-meaning composite. What I mean is that it is a system of using things that are perceptible and transferrable (form, signs, sounds, marks) to convey that which is not immediately perceptible nor tranferrable (thoughts, ideas, meaning). So in order to communicate meaning we employ form, words, for example. This tells us why supposed “non-verbal” inspiration is wide the mark.

Show me your meaning without your words and I’ll show you my meaning by my words.

But saying the very “words” are inspired is really just shorthand for saying the form of the text is inspired. Words are the most obvious and readily accessible unit of “form.” But it the words are inspired, then also inspired are (1) parts of the words and (2) aggregates of words. By parts of words I mean morphemes, which is the smallest unit of language that conveys meaning. Now at this level, the meaning is quite rudimentary. For example, the word dogs containts two morphemes: dog (referring to Canis lupus familiaris) and the suffix -s (indicating plural number).

Aggregates include phrases: “in the house,” consisting of three words; clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and discourse units above paragraph level. All of of these, how they are structured, the order they occur in, what elements they are composed of–all of this is part of form. Thus all of this is included in what is inspired. But saying morphemo-verbo-clauso-sententio-paragrapho-etcetero inspiration would prove a mite unwieldy. So we say verbal plenary.

What then do we say in regard to an approach to translation. We hear verbage bandied about, such as “word-for-word” which is intended as favorable compared to “thought-for-thought.” Surely “verbal” inspiration aligns with “word-for-word,” right? Here we are a level above the “literal” argument, but I suggest it essentially amounts to the same thing. Then there are terms such as “idiomatic” and “dynamic equivalence,” which are ways of saying other-than-word-for-word. I don’t find these are the most helpful of terms. First, I think they are generally poorly understood, and second, some hold them to represent a lower level of fidelity, to represent the original only approximately.

Let’s consider various ways in which a source language (SL) text may be transformed for receptor language (RL) readers.

1. Transliterate. Here the only form we are altering is the alphabet, replacing SL units with the nearest RL equivalent. For example text (a) becomes text (b). This is a little help, but not much.

a. Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως

b. Tou de Iesou gennethentos en Bethleem tes Ioudaias en hemerais Herodou tou basileos

2. Interlinear gloss. Or “translation,” replacing each SL word with the nearest equivalent word in the RL. It’s English but it’s not English. Word-for-word, but retaining SL word order.

a. Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως…

b. of-the and of-Jesus being-born in Bethlehem of-the Judea en days of-Herod the king…

3. Minimal “translation.” By this I mean as “literal” as possible but allowing enough word order change and such that it starts to sound as if it might be English.

a. Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως

b. And Jesus being born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King

4. Going a bit further, we step away from the extremely literal into what we may perhaps call “essentially literal,” though we are already quite a few transformations away from true formal equivalence.

a. Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως

b. After Jesus was born in Bethlehem Judea in the days of King Herod

This is the first example that even begins to sound like natural English. But how was this done? By to a very large extent moving away from word-for-word rendering. Where is the word the means “after” in the original? There is not one. What about definite articles? We’ve dropped three from the Greek and added one that was not there.

Still we manage to have relatively understandable English. But let’s take a more complicated structure:

a. πάντες γὰρ ἥμαρτον καὶ ὑστεροῦνται τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ, δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ

b. pantes gar hemarton kai husterountai tes doxes tou theou dikaioumenoi dorean te autou chariti dia tes apolutroseos tes en Christo Iesou

c. all for sinned and lack of-the glory of-god being-justified giftly in-the of-him grace through the ransom-paying the in Christ Jesus

d. For all sinned and lack of God’s glory, being justified freely in His grace through the redemption in Jesus Christ

e. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Version e is the ESV rendering, and it presents as acceptable English. Yet, at least the way I have illustrated the process, we have followed a fairly mechanical process through successive transformations, until we have something stylistically unobjectionable in terms of English grammar.

And yet I question how readily accessible it is to an average English speaker without significant help. Words such as glory, justified, grace, and redemption are well outside common English usage. “Christ Jesus” (who says that?) would seem to be the spacial location of redemption. Is that what is primarily meant? Who is justified? Everyone who sins? Isn’t that what it says?

The thing is, we can easily arrive at a rendering such as this by successive transformations (not saying that the ESV translators actually did this) without every having to ask “what does the text mean?” In other words, without interpreting it first. Indeed, some people you hear take it as a point of pride that their translation is not pre-interpreted.

But if we go back to the opening line of this post: A competent and conscientious translator seeks to convey all and only the meaning of the original text.

I repeat a question that I asked in my earlier post: If you don’t know what the original text means, how can you know that the translation means the same thing?

And how can you know what the text means apart from a thorough interpretive process? You can’t. You cannot insert meaning into a text (a translation) without consciously knowing what the meaning is that you are encoding. You can pretend to produce a meaningful text by just enough succesive transformations, as above, to produce a grammatically and stylistically correct string of words. But is it communicating?

Another way of asking the qustion is whether one can understand the meaning by the English (i.e. RL) text in itself, or are you in some way asking the reader to derive the meaning from the Greek (SL), given a sufficient number of helps? I submit to the degree that the rendering is not readily discernible from the English, you have not so much translated as produced something less than a translation.

Proceeding this way is a little like driving by carefully following a map, but not bothering to look at the road.

Now let’s go back again to verbal plenary. This means all those words are important. We want to have all those words in our text, don’t we? Okay but not just the words, all the other forms: word order, phrases, idioms and such. But why are they all important? Because language is a form-meaning composite. Every form correlates with a meaning.

And if verbal plenary inspiration tells us every word, every form is inspired, it is all the more true that every bit of meaning is inspired. And what transfers in true translation is meaning. Form is left behind.

This is because every form in the SL is an element in a system, the linguistic code that is the source language. Sometimes people say that kusing, for example, “word” in the translation meanst they have kept the SL word logos. But word is not logos. It’s a different word because it is an element in a different system, a different language.

Steve Martin used to have a joke in his stand-up routine: “It’s like the French have a different word for everything!” Ha ha. But it almost sounds to people as if I am similarly joking when I say a translation has none of the original words in it (even proper nouns and transliterated terms). They were all in a foreign language.

If a translator is committed to conveying all and only the meaning of the original text, there is no alternative but to proceed with a meaning-based technique. SL–>interpret–>encode–>RL.

Attempting to match SL structure would play a very insignificant role in this process, at best. The result, if done well, will unquestionably fall into the category that people call an “idiomatic translation.” This is, in fact, a tautology; a true translation will be idiomatic–i.e. it will speak good RL, without an “accent.”

An intermediate stage rendering, such as I have depicted an “essentially literal” translation to be, is surely a useful thing, and I do personally use the ESV. But then I read the SLs. It is hard for me genuinely to grasp just how difficult it is for others to understand.

But I suggest that the translation which will best honor the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy will unquestionably be an “idiomatic one.”

Which one? Ha! That’s another question. Do we even yet have one that lives up to the ideal I have presented? Remember, a version can be non-literal, idiomatic and still not be faithful to the meaning of the original (this is the problem with the Message). There are many other practical considerations in Bible translation, but in my opinion if what I have stated in this post is not well understood, then the translation has already started off on the wrong path.

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