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« Is Literary Translation Possible? | Main | A Literary Translation of Psalm 51 »


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Wayne Leman

John, I fully agree with the idea that a DE translation should have the same level of literary quality as that of its source text. However, after reading this post and the next one which includes your translation of Ps. 51, I am left with a more basic question: What is "literary English"? How do we know if we have produced something in literary English or something which is simply unnatural English?

It seems to me that the answer to these questions should be found in good quality English literature. Just as we discover the grammar of spoken English through carefully listening to it and analyzing it, so we discover the grammar of literary English.

What do you think?


That sounds fair enough. At some point, it might even make sense to delimit a corpus of good quality English literature and use it as a kind of touchstone.

Of course, poetry in a any language is famous for pushing the envelope when it comes to the use of the lexicon, grammar, and syntax, so it's not always easy to decide what is good and what is not.

But the attempt is worth making.

Kevin P. Edgecomb

Wayne, that's just one of those things like beauty: you know it when you see it. I don't see it enough in Bible translations!

To delve into English literature, you're going to have to rely on older considerations of what constitutes the literary canon rather than those of modern literature, so-called, most of the works included in which blend solipsism and colloquialism into a uniquely forgettable purée of crap.

If I were teaching translators, I'd require them to be intimately familiar with the old classics of English literature, as well as know the ancient languages as well as possible. There are two languages involved in each translation, after all. Both should be deftly handled by the translator. Lately I've been seeing mostly fumbling.

Charles Halton

John, I agree with your thesis. Keep up the great writing!


One of the distinctions of the Good News Bible, at least for the Christian scriptures is that latinizations are not employed. This gives the impression that the translation is at a much lower stylistic level. But isn't that just our expectation. There is no such equivalent in Greek.

What is particularly interesting is the debate about the new translation of Freud. I am short on time but this paper presents some of the issues.

Here the enormous intrusion that latinizations pose in the text is brought into focus. So I think the Good News Bible has something to teach us here.

That does not mean that overall I support the GNB as a better stylistic level. However, we must learn the lessons that it has to teach us and incorporate those into our thinking.

The whole matter is simply much more complex than DE and LE.



Two translators of Hebrew I respect very much, David Curzon and Robert Alter, also avoid Latinate word stock wherever possible. With permission of the author, elsewhere on this site "I reproduce David Curzon's essay on translating the Psalms, his translations of Psalms 8, 13, 15, 19, 49, 114, 126, 131, 133, and 134, and a presentation and comment on his translation of the Testament of Jacob (Genesis 49:2-27) and Psalm 13." [The quote is provided for googling purposes.] Curzon lays out his theory of translation carefully in the essays reproduced.

But Alter and Curzon's translations are literary in a sense GNB is not.

By the way, I owe a huge personal debt to the "Good News for Modern Man" New Testament. As a young Christian, I read the NT cover to cover and parts of it many times in that translation. It formed me deeply.



that essay you link to is marvelous. I had forgotten how forceful Freud's German prose is. Right up there with that of Luther and Barth.


John, I fully agree with you, and in a day or so, I hope to add a number of concrete examples that illustrate your point. I would like to echo a line from Alter's Art of Biblical Narrative -- on the barbarism of being reduced to the oxymoron of "The Bible as Literature." As Alter points out, no one would ever teach a course or write a book called "Dante as Literature" -- the Dante's status in the literary canon is secure -- although the Divine Comedy is far more religious than most of the text in the Hebrew Bible is. We should start by viewing the Bible as a literary document.

I turn again to the Talmudic dictum "the Torah speaks in the language of man" (Berachos 31b) -- a saying famous quoted by Ibn Ezra in justifying his analysis of the text.


I don't want to argue that the GNB is literary - far from it. I just want to make sure that this feature, that of resisting latinizations be made explicit. I often see people who chose a latinate term because they imagine it to be more literary. But reading German is a good antidote.

Of course, Alter is very aware of this, but not every reader of Alter is. I thought that the essay on Freud has many good points and provides a less loaded atmosphere for discussion.

Peter Kirk

John, there is an enormous hole in the logic of your argument. You argue in effect: A translation should be in the same style as the original. ... Therefore a translation of the Bible should be in a literary style. The missing part of the argument, the point which you don't bother to state but seem to simply assume, is that the original is in a literary style.

And at this point I beg to differ ... No, I won't be so polite, I will keep up my reputation in your sidebar of giving "A fearless take on issues": this point is simply untrue!

At least it is demonstrably untrue of the New Testament, or at least the great majority of it, which is in the style of personal letters and occasional works of the time and not of contemporary literature.

As for the Hebrew Bible, we have virtually nothing else surviving in the Hebrew of the time with which we can compare the style of the original. I suspect that it is simply an anachronism to suggest that there was a "literary style" of Hebrew distinct from a more popular style, a distinction which makes sense only in certain cultural settings within reasonably literate societies. On this basis I would argue that the Hebrew Bible was not written in a literary style.

The implication, if we agree that a translation should be in the same style as the original, is that Bible translations should NOT be in a literary style.

This further implies that the translations which are "improperly done" are not GNT and CEV but Alter and others like him.



thanks for your comments. I imagine others hold views similar to yours.

Your point about the New Testament being written in low-brow Greek is largely correct, or at least was the standard opinion until recently. You might, however, wish to take a look at the work of Hans Dieter Betz, who argues that Paul's letters are literary works which make use of structures of argumentation and rhetorical devices that set them apart from non-literary occasional papyrus letters. An NT writer like Luke, furthermore, uses Septuagintalisms for effect; a dynamic equivalent in English would want to mimic that in some way.

As far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned, you are taking an odd position. The Arad and Lachish inscriptions in particular provide us with comparative material that is non-literary and occasional in style. The differences in register with the contents of the Hebrew Bible are palpable.

The work of Frank Polak is worth taking a look at (see my diachronic and synchronic study of Hebrew bibliography). He identifies not one but several sociolinguistic registers in the prose of the Hebrew Bible. None of them are non-literary or low-brow.

As for the poetry of the Hebrew Bible (about one-third of its contents), are you suggesting that we translate it as sixth grade level prose? Presumably not. Presumably you understand the poetry of the Bible as literature. If it is, its dynamic equivalent in English needs to be as well.

Kevin P. Edgecomb

Peter and John, the Macedonian dialect of Greek which worked its way through ancient socities to the point that it was called Koine, Common, Greek is simply that: common in that it is a dialect by a number of regions, not common in the sense of low-brow. Since we don't have any recordings of daily conversations, and since we have learned of epistolography that there is much form and tradition involved in the writing of any ancient letter, it is not possible to say that the NT letters are examples of daily speech, equivalent to a chat with a friend in the agora. The long letters are particularly fine examples of ancient writing employing much standard rhetorical framing, which is not a low-brow thing at all. And while we see that most of Paul's letters were intended to be read aloud, that's the way everything was read anciently, whether to oneself or to a group. Silent reading was rare and considered odd and somewhat frightening. But this kind of reading is not equivalent to daily speech, any more than the form of these blog comments are.

For the Old Testament, there is scarcely a paragraph that is not quite obviously literary. This we learn in seeing parallels in both content and form in other literatures, particularly the Ugaritic. The parallelisms and other evident tricks of the trade are most very unlikely to have been natural to ordinary speech among the masses.

The works in the Bible should be translated accordingly, as literary works, because that's what they are. The more literary texts (the poesy and Atticizing texts) should be translated accordingly, if we're going to represent those texts dynamically. If this is too close to formal equivalence for comfort, then that's a different issue.

To cheapen a great work by translating it into colloquial chatterspeak is a cultural sin. It would also be a good thing for translators to be better writers in English. Lately, English translations of the Bible seem to have been competing for the prize of Most Blasé, with second place winning Entirely Forgettable. The Book of Psalms in particular in the King James Version is still a classic because of the concern given to rhythm and elevated language. It's entirely possible to put the work into doing the same today, as John continually writes on this site.

I'd suggest that Bible translators take the time to read widely and deeply in English literature, for the purpose of internalizing the ability to recognize good English: not just acceptable, but particularly fine. We can say a thing in many different ways. To say it better is the goal of a fine writer. And if one is working with what one believes is the actual, real Word of God, then it is that much more important to present that Word in language of a level of quality appropriate to that belief, similar to the finest gold, jewels, skill and art commonly used in showing respect and giving praise to God.

Peter Kirk

(John:) As for the poetry of the Hebrew Bible ..., are you suggesting that we translate it as sixth grade level prose? Presumably not. Presumably you understand the poetry of the Bible as literature. If it is, its dynamic equivalent in English needs to be as well.

Not sixth grade level prose. Sixth graders can understand poetry. I was writing poetry when I was younger than that! The poetry of the Bible can be translated into English poetry understandable by sixth graders.

Of course this needs to be done by excellent writers of English. It is sad that translators of English Bibles seem to be chosen more for their eminence in theology than for their good English style.

Kevin, I did not say that the NT letters were in the style of daily speech. I compared their style with that of ordinary everyday letters. Of course both have their formally structured parts, but I was thinking more of the less formal parts. Perhaps your analogy to the style of blog comments is a good one: these comments are not exactly colloquial, and sometimes they may have some formal structure, but they are hardly "literary works" unless you define that to mean anything written down.

(Kevin:) To cheapen a great work by translating it into colloquial chatterspeak is a cultural sin.

To obfuscate the Word of God by turning it into an incomprehensible work of high literature is a sin against God. And I know which eternal judgment seat I am going to appear before. See also this new post of mine.

Kevin P. Edgecomb

Peter the equation of literary with incomprehensible is wrong, and that's where your objection is seated. There's alot of modern crap that's skating in under the label of literature, but that's just marketing and junk scholarship. The situation is really bad. But older classics, particularly the older canon, are fine models for English translation style when their qualities are internalized. Expansive vocabularies, variety in syntax, and skillful sentence construction needn't be hackish or incomprehensible.

Accurate representation in translation of the literary quality of the Bible is a good think. It's possible to do it well, but it'd take more effort on the part of translators. They should be willing to do that, if they truly hold this book in such regard.


thanks for the inspiring post here ;)


I want to know comparing literary text and non literary text details. could anybody tell me?
thank you very much

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