Saturday, April 02, 2005

More on Modern English...

In my earlier post, on the elegance of Modern English (or lack thereof), I was attempting to highlight the potential absurdity of making a translation (e.g., of the Bible) fit the common vernacular - the lowest common denominator - for the misguided purpose, albeit noble, of making it easier to understand. In doing so I related examples of how I thought that street language - that which happens to be in vogue - has begun to make its way into conversations heard in the "serious" world of business. That such a phenomenon is occurring, I conclude, is merely symptomatic of how we have tended towards "dumbing" ourselves down. Now this is an inherently complex topic with many distinct aspects, several of which those leaving comments have touched upon. Let me clarify, though, what I was stating by first explaining what I was not stating. I was not claiming that common vernacular has no place in literature or society in general. I was not claiming that we should all be speaking the King's English. I was not claiming that language does not evolve. I was not claiming that we should necessarily eliminate the use of valid words (e.g., "awesome"). I was claiming, perhaps in too stealthy a manner, that the genre and form of an ancient text should be considered when translating that text into English. In doing so, we must understand that the genre and form of the text were chosen by the author. The author had at least one reason, and quite possibly, many reasons for choosing the genre and form of the text. For example: The form of ancient poetry, very dissimilar to our modern forms, adds significance to the intentions of the author and the meaning of the poem. The choice of specific words used in the original language may have been made to emphasize additional meanings or to drive home an intended point (e.g., by the use of puns). The cadence of the words used may have been used to enhance the ability to memorize the text (especially in cultures where the majority of the populace was illiterate). The process of translating the text of one language into that of another is a tedious process, to be sure, yet the literary principles mentioned above should be a part of that process. The text, and the author's intentions, should drive how we determine what form our translation takes. The "end user" applications, which we may desire for the text, should not be driving the end product. Was the intent of the author to have the text easy to understand or to be in common, street language? It certainly may have been, as Tom has commented on by leaving excerpts from Catcher in the Rye. But do you see where the extra step has been made if one assumes that a translation, such as that of the Bible, should necessarily be easy to understand and / or published in street vernacular? Doing so, when the text does not justify it, and when the author did not intend it, robs the original of its intended impact.* Consider the following:
How well God must like you- you don't hang out at Sin Saloon, you don't slink along Dead-End Road, you don't go to Smart-Mouth College. - Psalm 1:1 (The Message)
When speaking to children, such a translation would probably be easier for them to understand (note: despite the fact that The Message is a paraphrase, and not a translation, the point of my post remains valid). But The Message was not written for children (necessarily). It is supposed to be for adults. Are we, as a culture, so deeply entrenched in the common vernacular of modern English that we are unable to understand Psalm 1:1 translated as such?:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scournful. - (KJV)
Or, perhaps,
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. - (NRSV) Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. - (NIV)
While one who reads the easier version may think they've understood the meaning, have they not missed the "walk, stand, sit" progression apparent in the more complex versions? Or consider, on a secular level, my paraphrase of an original English text:
Dude, the river is, like, mega-awesome. Y'know what I'm sayin'? When I check out the shore I'm all - like - yeah Dude!, let's give it up for this place. It's so tight.
The paraphrase is of a letter written by Meriwether Lewis, in 1804, pertaining to his upcoming voyage with William Clark to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. He wrote (spelling from the original),
This immence river so far as we have yet ascended, waters one of the farest portions of the globe, nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country,
Doesn't a version in common vernacular due a disservice to the original text? Were I introducing the text to a group of people either incapable of, or unwilling to, understand the more complex version, then perhaps I would be justified in using a simpler, easier to understand, version. However, I believe that such a version is not a valid translation of the original, but merely a simplified paraphrase, which is better suited for either the education of children (or adults), not yet capable of grasping complex issues, or as a commentary on the original text. *As a sidenote, I am well aware of the difficulties involved when one attempts to translate a text, such as the Bible, for various cultures around the world. I understand that such translations must cater to the idiosyncrasies of these various cultures. I'm reminded of hearing one Bible translator, a missionary to the south Pacific, tell how he had to translate "the Lamb of God" as "the Pig of God" in order for it to be understood by a certain culture he encountered. One would hope, though, that if such a culture becomes more educated in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they would come to a point where our expecting them to understand "the Lamb of God" would be justified. However, I do not consider sub-culture groups in the West to be equivalent to various cultures throughout the world. In other words, the Goth, or the Surfers, or the Hip-hop group, or whatever Western cliques we may have are merely groups within the overall Western culture of 21st century America. As such I have somewhat of a deaf ear to concerns that we need to make our Bible translations easier to understand (for such sub-culture groups). Although someone may use the phrase, "I'm so not planning that," they should still have the capability to understand more complex sentences. That such an understanding requires time and effort may be a better indicator of what is truly occurring here.

9 comments:

Tom said...

Great post, Rusty. Got me thinking about a number of issues. Let me ask what I hope isn't an insulting or a terrifically dumb question. I'm naive in many heartfelt Christian matters because I'm an agnostic.

In your opinion would a bad translation or bad simplification block a spiritual encounter with God for a Christian?

For example, my understanding of evangelical Christianity is that a path to rebirth through Jesus Christ might in part be accomplished through a sincere reading of the Gospel. Okay but suppose the reader is using a "street language" Bible that might not convey subtleties, like your excellent example of "sit, stand, and walk" metaphor in Scripture.

In your opinion could that rebirth or even a daily connection with Jesus Christ be blocked or distorted for a Christian with text that's inappropriately translated?

LotharBot said...

Great post. I think, among other things, it highlights the usefulness of things like the NET Bible, which has a full set of translator's notes included. When a poetic form can't be preserved, it can still be mentioned in the notes so that the reader can understand what was intended by the text.

Paraphrases have their place, but it should always be made clear to those using them that they're meant as a sort of "beginner's Bible" and that they should be ready to use other versions after they've become familiar with the basic concepts.

For Tom: bad translation or bad simplification (or even outright corruption of scripture or doctrine, as the Mormons do) might not necessarily block a spiritual encounter, but it's likely to make interpreting that spiritual encounter more difficult. It also may make responding appropriately to that encounter more difficult. (Sometimes, it might not make any difference at all.)

Now, I think God often honors sincere attempts to respond even if they're misguided, but I still think people would be better off if they were better informed.

Paul said...

It's an interesting argument, Rusty. I agree the King James translation is a very elegant version of the bible. But isn't all of this something of a contradiction, given that the King James and any other English bibles are translations. If you really want to know what the original meant, shouldn't you be reading the original, making the quality of a particular translation a secondary issue?

Bonnie said...

Thanks, Rusty, now I understand where you were coming from :-)

I appreciate very much what you are saying.

Are there not elements of narcissism and rebellion inherent in the subcultures you refer to? To be respected within them, you must be “cool,” or whatever, and adopt the requisite cult-like trappings. Which means that to garner members' respect on their level, one must “stoop,” i.e., indulge their narcissism and rebellion.

To be truly reached, though, they must be sought at a deeper level – the level at which lie the things that drew them into the subculture to begin with. Which may or may not “work,” depending on individuals’ hardness of heart.

The "dumbing down" aspect and lack of taking time & effort to learn that you mention are also probably due in part to two things: our "entertainment" society, and the fact that modern life in general is so cluttered and fast-paced. The two tend to feed each other.

I've noticed the same phenomenon in the way our culture views and responds to music. Even for a trained musician like myself, a quality piece of music may not (and usually does not) reveal its riches upon first or even first few listenings. But the time it takes to absorb and study a piece is well worth it, and is necessary for full appreciation.

Rusty said...

Thanks for the comments. I'll post a response this weekend.

Tom said...

I know enough Derrida, deconstruction, and poetry crit to get my face slapped by his widow, I suppose. Or laughed at by his students. If there's a lit major here who can help me or beat me down, please do. But I'll fumble into it. When you said:

"I was claiming...that the genre and form of an ancient text should be considered when translating that text into English. In doing so, we must understand that the genre and form of the text were chosen by the author. The author had at least one reason, and quite possibly, many reasons for choosing the genre and form of the text."

Yes, I think Derrida would hammer it even more:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scournful."

For example I think he'd say, rightly, that words play off each other, e.g., that "blessed" has a relationship to "man," "counsel" plays off "ungodly."

Also, I think he'd say you excellently captured a first level of poetry with "walketh, sitteth, and standeth."

But take a another good poem, say, "The little horse must think it queer, to stop without a farmhouse near...The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."

A junior high school English teacher might say it's likely that Frost isn't chatting idly about the New England forests and how tired he's getting driving his sleigh and horse around.

He's talking about BIG issues of life and death. He's playing off subtle ideas from our culture in words like "woods," "lovely," "dark and deep," "sleep," "miles," etc. And ooooh....ahhhhh..."Whose woods these are, I think I know..." seems a pretty clear reference to the Big Guy Upstairs, not Farmer John Smith in the local village. You think that translates easy? What if you translated it 2500 years from now?

So how can a Christian be sure that he or she is getting at a deeper level of the original text if our own contemporary poetry is puzzling?

What is the Christian missing, since he or she has no idea what original sense the words played off each other in the sentence? And like Derrida might say, not all interpretations are equal, but what's the best one for bunches of cultures in 2005?

I kinda like being an agnostic when I think about your points, Rusty.

LotharBot said...

"What is the Christian missing, since he or she has no idea what original sense the words played off each other in the sentence?"

Well, if he or she is using the NET Bible, he or she actually does have a pretty good idea as to the interplay between the words, as long as the translators noticed it. While I'd prefer to just know the original languages, there are plenty of tools out there for those who don't (commentaries, for example, tend to point out interesting word interactions that tend to be missed in translation.)

"not all interpretations are equal, but what's the best one for bunches of cultures in 2005?"

That's a discussion that's a bit longer than can be dealt with in your average blog post. My wife wrote a massive post on basic principles of interpretation (in the middle of a longer discussion with a friend of many years) and it doesn't even come close to covering the topic of how to interpret (she's working on writing a book about that), let alone what interpretations you should actually come to through study (that's a lifetime project.) The point of linking you to that is mostly just to demonstrate: this is something that's been thought about, and there's a lot of information out there on the philosophy of interpretation, certainty of knowledge, and so forth. I can't give you a good idea of it in a single blog post, simply because that much information can't be communicated in so few words, but I can at least make you aware that the information is out there.

Wayne Leman said...

Rusty said: "I'm reminded of hearing one Bible translator, a missionary to the south Pacific, tell how he had to translate "the Lamb of God" as "the Pig of God" in order for it to be understood by a certain culture he encountered."

Rusty, I, too, have heard this reported many times. But I have also heard that this never actually happened, that this story is an urban legend. It would be interesting to track down the facts to determine if it really happened or not. Do you happen to have know your source for this information, so that we might be able to find out if the story is true or if it is an urband legend?

BTW, I am a keen student of the English language and very interested in English Bible versions. I have been studying them for many years, especially the quality of English used in them. I have a new blog dedicated to improving the English in Bible versions. I think anyone can get to it by clicking on the link for my name on this post.

Rusty said...

Hi Wayne,

That's very interesting.

I remember hearing the "Pig of God" story from a missionary who, as I recall, was claiming that the event happened to him. He has since moved and his base of operations is in Texas, but there are times when our paths cross.

If I see him again I'll make it a point to inquire further into the incident.