Several months ago, Dr. Clark emailed me, saying: “We are still interested in your reflections on media culture,” in reply to an earlier thread I composed about Israel’s Shema and God’s use of language—not image—to promote true knowledge of him. This brief essay also addresses one aspect of the religious use of language, particularly in Bible translation.
Three aspects of linguistic capability are: useful vocabulary stock, sentence length, and use of subordinate clauses. Literate adults are more capable in all three areas than are young children. Young children are more likely to create compound sentences, connected with “and” than they are to produce complex sentences connected by various conjunctions or adverbs. My thesis is this: many English translations today are, effectively, children’s Bibles or youth Bibles that use infantile/childish sentences, though they do not honestly say so.1
Example one:2 Eph 1:15–23 is a single sentence (a prayer) in Greek, with 19 verbs. English translations have this many:
The Message 8
NIV Readers Version 22
Example two: Eph 5:18–24 is a single sentence (an imperative) in Greek, with 10 verbs. English translations have this many:
The Message 9
NIV Readers Version 14
Greek, of course, is capable of very complex sentences; it is highly “hypotactic,” as some linguists put it. Subordinating some clauses to the main clause is one of the particular linguistic virtues of Greek. English translators do not always find it easy to translate a single Greek sentence with a single English sentence (see example two above, though one could easily have rendered this in one or two English sentences). On other occasions, with a little effort, a single sentence in Greek can indeed be successfully translated into comprehensible English (see example one above, KJV and RSV).
The matter is not inconsequential. Did Paul pray for one thing (example one), a single thing that he qualified in a number of ways; or did he pray for five things, eight things, or twenty-two things? Did he command one thing (example two) that he qualified in a number of ways, or did he command three things, four things, seven, nine, or fourteen things? Did he command the Ephesians to be “filled with the Spirit,” and also to sing, make melody, be thankful, be submissive, etc.; or did he command them to be filled with the Spirit, and then give some examples, suggestions, or descriptions of what it means to be filled with the Spirit (interpreters call such qualifying participles “epexegetic,” because they explain what the previous imperative means)?3
I still employ the standard Roman Numeral outline format in my public lectures. I do so because, for me, it permits me to make clear what I regard as matters of coordinate/equal importance, and matters of subordinate importance. Each level of indentation is subordinated to other matters, by way of clarification, explanation, example, or evidence.4 This distinction between what is of equal importance or subordinate importance is one of the most basic and important aspects of human reasoning.
In everyday life, the distinction between equal importance and subordinate is commonplace. George asks his mother if she will take him and his friend Chuck to the skateboard park. She replies: “Yes, I will take you and Chuck to the park, if you first clean your room; be sure to put all the dirty clothes in the hamper and hang the towels on the towel rack.” When Mother goes to inspect the bedroom, the dirty clothes are in the hamper and the towels are hung. However, magazines are strewn about the floor, a half-eaten banana is on the bed (which is unmade), and four (unpaired) pairs of shoes lie indiscriminately about the room. Guess what? There is a park delay. The fundamental imperative was to clean the room; and even though Mother had specified some of the particular examples of what constitutes a clean room, George knows perfectly well that her list of examples was merely that—a list of examples—and that the fundamental duty was to clean the room, of which dirty clothes and towels were only aspects of that greater reality. George is unsurprised that the room does not pass inspection, because he knows perfectly well that “clean the room” means “clean the room,” and whatever particulars are mentioned for special attention does not vitiate the general imperative. The ability to discern the difference between primary importance and secondary importance is a routine part of ordinary life; to treat everything that is said as though it were of equal importance would constitute a kind of linguistic autism; we just would not be able to understand one another.
Translators, therefore, should be very wary of concealing or blurring the distinctions made between the primary and the secondary, between matters that are of equal importance or subordinate importance, and should ordinarily only break up biblical sentences when there is no way to retain their syntactic integrity in English. The “trend,” as it were, in recent translations, is consistently in the direction of briefer and briefer sound-bite sentences, as the translators follow the decline in English literacy that has attended the visual (photograph and television) world of the twentieth century and the digital (frequently distracted) world of the twenty-first. ESV, NIV, NRSV, and many other translations end Ephesians 5:21 with a period and begin a new sentence (and even a new paragraph!) at verse 22: “Wives, be subject to/submit…,” though there is no verb at all—participle or indicative mood—in the verse, it merely says, “wives to your husbands, as to the Lord,” qualifying the earlier participle “submitting to one another” from verse 21. Such translators unwittingly contribute to the demise of language competence by concealing the true capacity of our language to employ subordinate clauses nearly as elegantly as Greek does.
This tendency to employ less adult language in Bible translations will be defended by some as intended to be evangelistic, to reach—as the NIV preface said—“young and old, educated and the uneducated,” and I do not doubt or deny the intention, nor do I regard such intention as improper in itself. I do regard the practice as unnecessary and cynical. The very Pauline letter that we have been considering, a letter with his most rich, most complex syntax, is the only one in which he addressed directly the children in the congregation (“Children, obey your parents” Eph 6:1)5. Paul did not have less concern for children than we do, nor less concern for their well-being nor the well-being of adults with limited linguistic competence. Paul knew that few people have the privilege of studying language formally; we learn it by hearing others employ it, and our own competence in understanding and employing our language grows by exposure to those whose command of English is superior to our own.6 Paul expressly addressed children, therefore, in the very letter in which he employed his most complex Greek syntax; and did so because he rightly knew that the only way they would develop adult linguistic ability was to be exposed to it.
The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism had a similarly charitable view of young people. B. B. Warfield put it this way:
“The Shorter Catechism is, perhaps, not very easy to learn. And very certainly it will not teach itself. Its framers were less careful to make it easy than to make it good. As one of them, Lazarus Seaman, explained, they sought to set down in it not the knowledge the child has, but the knowledge the child ought to have.”7
We need not, and perhaps dare not, regard ourselves as more charitable towards young people than Paul or the Westminster Assembly.8
Commercial forces have sometimes promoted their translations as making the Bible “easy” (or “easier”) to understand, which is perhaps a reference to their less-mature syntax, and a reduced vocabulary stock. The Bible will never be easy to understand. Sixty-six books written over a millennium and a half constitute a single narrative of creation-fall-redemption, and some things in them were “hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16) by the very generations present when they were written. Other passages were regarded as being mysterious (Eph 5:32), and still others (Jesus’s parables) ordinarily required explanation even for the closest disciples. The Bible commends Rahab the harlot for prevaricating (while apparently overlooking her chosen profession! Heb 11:31); and approvingly records that the prophet Elisha cursed small boys who taunted him, doing so “in the name of the Lord;” and that “two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.” (2 Kings 2:24). We cannot make such a Bible easy to understand; we can only make it appear to be easier to understand, by “translating” it in such a way that its rich complexity is removed. We might make Rembrandt “easier” by digitally removing all the blues from his paintings, but then he would no longer be Rembrandt.
The past half-century has witnessed a fairly substantial amount of Bible translating, especially compared to the previous three centuries. The same time period has also witnessed some very candid, public discussion of translation principles, notably in the introductions of the NIV and ESV, for example. There has been less candid discussion, in my judgment, about the linguistic competence of the target audience, a target that is not only continually moving, but continually moving backwards in its language ability. People discuss—sometimes with more heat than light—“literal” translations, and “dynamic” translation theory, but I hear little discussion of whether the public is better served by translations that enhance and ennoble our language. In my cynical moments (i.e. when I am awake), I have projected myself a half century into the future, when I imagine opening a then-new translation of the Bible that reads, in its entirety, “See God save! Save, God, save!”
1. To its credit, NIV did come close to admitting this: “During the process, it (the NIV translation) was also tested for clarity and idiom by various kinds of people—young and old, educated and uneducated, ministers and laymen.” (Preface, original NIV NT, ©1973). The honesty of the NIV is commendable; the unbiblical nature of their endeavor is obvious, however, because “young and old” people do not employ language in the same manner. We all would have known this even if the apostle had not said so: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). Perhaps this is the place, however, to indicate that the 2011 revision of the NIV is so superior to its earlier editions (though not necessarily in its use of subordinate clauses) that I recommend owners of the earlier versions to replace it with the new one.
2. The two passages I have chosen are, to the best of my ability to discern, representative of the tendencies of the translations I selected as illustrating the point. KJV ordinarily represents the Greek syntax closely; RSV and ESV run a very close second; NIV and HCB move further from the original syntax (yet inconsistently so, as the two selections indicate).
3. I do not insist that the participles be understood epexegetically, if convincing reasons are proffered for understanding them differently. My point is that, at a minimum, the translation itself should not take the epexegetic option “off the table,” as it were. English readers are not given the option of taking the matter as I take it, because the English translations have removed the interpretive possibility.
4. In my last several years of teaching at the college level, when students asked how to prepare for their final examinations, I reminded them that my lecture outlines (available on the network) were in standard Roman Numeral Outline format, with the major points on the left margin, and less-important points indented from the major points. Several students had an “Aha!” moment, because they had not known this before, probably due to the unfortunately widespread over-use of PowerPoint™ in American education.
5. Indeed, the syntax is so unusually complex, compared to Paul’s other letters, that many more-liberal scholars routinely denied Pauline authorship on this ground. Such scholars overlooked, however, the nature of amanuenses in scribal cultures, but they were right to observe how complex Ephesians was/is.
6. I myself read the essays of people such as Joseph Epstein and (the late) Roger Scruton in the feeble hope that some of their competence may rub off on me, as well as their wisdom.
7. “Is the Shorter Catechism Worth While?” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 1, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), p. 381, emphasis mine.
8. Nor need we fear that the Elizabethan English of the King James Version—whose textual basis I carry no brief for—is unintelligible to the youth in the church. Over a decade ago, the local High School put up notices about auditioning for Shakespear’s Hamlet (in its original Elizabethan English) that would be performed later in the term. Over one-half of the juniors and seniors auditioned for the play. Perhaps this might be the place to say, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button
- When Bible Translations Disappoint
- Luther’s Open Letter On Translating The Bible
- A Chronological Comparison Of Some English Translations Of Genesis 3:16b
- A Chronological Comparison Of English Translations Of Philippians 2:5 With The ESV
- Must We “Translate” the Gospel?
- Wollebius On Bible Translation
- An Emergent “Translation” of the NT? Yikes!
- Three Reformed Orthodox Writers on Translating Scripture
- There Is A Right Way And A Wrong Way To Do Biblical Word Studies
- Review: Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew