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J. K. Gayle

Faithful translation is about taking risks, not avoiding them. . .

A faithful translation of [the Bible] will be taxing on a contemporary reader in ways it was not for its original readers.

Very well said!

Let's do notice all your meanings here: 1) the original author and original audiences are people who are insiders; 2) the outsider translator takes a risk with her or his outsider readers (to be now together as insiders); and 3) the original author and audience will always be outsiders to the translator and later readers, and vice versa. (4] this emic / etic problem is what makes the "simultaneity" of Jobes method only "half-right."

But if that makes any sense at all, would you say that the "half" that Jobes gets right is the subjectivity issue for author/audience // translator/reader?

Wayne Leman

A faithful translation of it will be taxing on a contemporary reader in ways it was not for its original readers.

What is a translation faithful to if it does not communicate with the same degree of ease (or difficulty) as the original text did to its readers.

It is a classic case of “no pain, no gain.

Why does there need to be linguistic pain in reading a translation? We can still communicate the cultural details by using natural language equivalents of a target language.

I suggest that you're confusing linguistic unnaturalness with cultural difference. But this is comparing apples and oranges. The same cultural concepts can be conveyed in any language using natural language syntax and lexicon of that target language.

J. K. Gayle

Why does there need to be linguistic pain in reading a translation? We can still communicate the cultural details by using natural language equivalents of a target language.

Wayne, Of course you don't mean "Why does there need to be." But there "can be." Imagine holding up a computer flash drive during a monolingual demonstration in which you're the one eliciting responses and your respondent has never even seen a PC. Or imagine a speech at the UN in which the president of the United States says, "We don't allow Uncle Toms in our nation any more." Oh, the footnotes needed for anesthesia.

There are varieties of pain within a language (and across them in translation too). George Steiner has studied these and made them less painful for us.

(sorry to digress and hijack the discussion, John. But that Steiner post was in your honor).

Wayne Leman

John, I always want to make clear that I agree with you that we should not flatten the literary terrain of the Bible during translation. I think that is your main concern in this discussion. One of main concern sis that so many Bible translations use ungrammatical (yes, I am using this term deliberately since it is true) and unnatural English syntax. The ESV is the worst offender of this among the recent translations. I am not now talking about translation of Hebrew idioms, but of overall grammaticality and appropriateness of English wordings. This applies to mundane, "ordinary" clauses which have no figurative language. Literal translation of biblical idioms is a subcategory but I don't want to give the idea that I believe that all biblical idioms should be translated so that their figurative beauty is lost. I happen to love metaphor and idioms. I have all my life. I collect them in various languages.

But we always need to ask: For whom are we translating? If we are translating for an audience which is biblically literate and can understand what "sons of the prophets" or other Hebraisms or Hellenisms mean, then, fine, we can translate figurative language more literally. If we are translating for a more general audience, we may have to do some adjusting so that the original figurative meanings are understood figuratively. We always have the option to include footnotes explaining the original literal wording. And there is no need to dumb down the text for a 4th grade reading level in the process. English Bible versions can be written for higher reading grade levels and preserve more of the literary beauty of the biblical texts. I fully agree with you.

But we need to take each figure, each phrase, on a case-by-case basis, and be careful about making too general dismissive comments about particular English versions. The NLT, which you have criticised, for instance, preserves many Hebraisms. I am making a list of them these days.

Wayne Leman

Kurk wrote:

Wayne, Of course you don't mean "Why does there need to be."

But I did mean what I wrote, Kurk. John blogged, "No pain, no gain." I don't understand why there needs to be pain in reading a translation. There can be pain in understanding a new or difficult concept, but that pain quite likely existed for the original hearers as well as for those who use a translation.

The New Testament mentions "sin unto death". This unnatural English phrase attempts to encode a concept which was surely just as difficult for Greek readers as it is for us today. But we don't need to add to the difficulty by using unnatural English syntax such as "sin unto death." We can translate using a natural English equivalent such as "sin which leads to death." The conceptual difficulty still remains.

My point is that we should not erect linguistic hurdles in translation which did not exist in the original texts. We should leave conceptual hurdles in the text, just as they were there for the original readers.

J. K. Gayle

My point is that we should not erect linguistic hurdles in translation which did not exist in the original texts. We should leave conceptual hurdles in the text, just as they were there for the original readers.

Yes, I do see what you mean, Wayne. And I couldn't agree more with your good point. Still there has to be some care with the assumption that "original readers" are all going to read the same way and have the same hurdles or pain (which we know isn't true, which Steiner gets us thinking about). And the distances of time and culture, if not language, make translation (not the simultaneous kind) fraught with more possibilities for reader difficulties (of the various kinds). Thanks for the clarifications!


Kurk and Wayne,

thanks for commenting here. It would be fun to get Karen Jobes and Anthony Pym in on the discussion, would it not?

Wayne was hoping I would explain what I mean by "pain" in my last sentence. Here is an easy example. The geographical references in the book of Jonah - Jaffa, Tarshish, and Nineveh - were self-evident to the original readers. The references will have the same effect on the contemporary reader only after considerable study. I'm not just referring only to knowing that Jaffa was Israel's gateway port to the wider Mediterranean world, that Tarshish was (probably) at the opposite end of the Mediterranean, in Spain, and that Nineveh, on the contrary, was inland to the east. One has to know that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which terrorized the Middle East for centuries, and had destroyed many cities and slaughtered many innocents in Israel and Judah.

These gaps cannot be bridged by DE translation. The pain of many hours of study is the only remedy.


"Clinton... Obama..."

Have you gone mad? Who's REB? Tony Blair?

The original readers of the texts in question were treated to ... Why should readers of the texts in translation settle for anything less?

This assumes that we actually know what all those bells and whistles were. In most cases we are left with an ambiguous text without much context. This happens to me all the time working with the Nyungwe translators. They want to know what it means and sometimes I just don't know. So we just try to work within a translation tradition.



I need to footnote the allusions to Clinton and Obama for people like you who are blissfully ignorant of the current US newscycle. The allusions are based on polling data which show that Clinton's base of support is primarily among people who are blue-collar and with no more than a high school education, whereas Obama's support, outside the African-American community, is among the affluent and highly educated. The terms used in the media to mark the contrast are 'downscale' = Clinton and 'upscale' = Obama.

But you're wrong about Blair. Now that he's Catholic, I assume he hears the Gospel in the translation of NJB (here it might just as well be NAB), but then, what I do I know about what translation British RCs use.

As for the bells and whistles, we know a fair bit, and we continue to learn more through the study of ancient literature and culture and new archeological finds. But we do not know as much as would like, and we do well to fall back on tradition where necessary.



I want to concur with what you say about NLT. Much more than GNB or CEV, NLT strives to translate metaphor for metaphor, figure of speech for figure of speech. I appreciate this.

I concur with you about ESV's drawbacks. Crossway should have bought the rights to REB, too. It would have been a more excellent point of departure. Better yet, Corssway might have thought through the issues carefully and begun afresh with a high caliber translation team.


Thanks for this John, I enjoyed your post. I'd add something to the discussion, but Wayne beat me to everything I thought and then added quite a bit more on top of that!

Here's an attempt though:

The other tendency translations are subject to is that of producing a text which is flatter, less ambiguous, and less complex than the source text.

I think that a DE translation has more potential is avoiding both these pitfalls IF it works hard to maintain both the literary-ness and non-literary-ness of the original as you have been calling for on a regular basis.

When its all said and done, we still need multiple translations simply be cause we're stuck in our human skin. There never will be a "perfect translation."


I agree with you, Mike, about the potential, still mostly unrealized, of DE translation technique. Always good to hear from you.

Rich Rhodes

If you don't mind me chiming in a few days late. There is one point that I have been trying to make for some time that you missed here:

But an “essentially literal” translation, which presumably does none of [harmonizing discrepancies contained in the original, smoothing out grammatical and syntactical rough edges, standardizing message and style in accordance with safe, orthodox, and/or PC templates, and reducing intrinsic complexity and ambiguity], is even more risk-averse. In order to avoid making the wrong interpretative choice, it makes no interpretative choice at all. It merely transliterates the conceptual labels, figures of speech, and syntax of the original into another language.

Every translation is an interpretation. Period. Not to interpret is to interpret. There is no neutral ground. (I argued that in a post last year here.)

I also have some philosophical trouble with your final statement (echoing Wayne's first comment):

The Bible, I’ve noticed, is a resolutely non-superficial text. A faithful translation of it will be taxing on a contemporary reader in ways it was not for its original readers. It is a classic case of “no pain, no gain.”

While I certainly agree that the Bible is a resolutely non-supreficial text, I can't buy the need for pain to show us that we are crossing cultural boundaries.

God is in Hebrew/Palestinian culture but He is not of it. If I insist that you have to become a Roman era Palestinian mentally to understand what God is saying to you in His Word, then haven't I committed the error of the Judeizers? I think it's great to know something (a lot even) about the context of the text, but to make it a virtual precondition of reading Scripture is deeply problematic to me.


Thanks, Rich, for commenting here. You make the point about translation being interpretation very eloquently. When I say translation is about taking risks, I'm saying much the same thing.

As for the pain that it is involved in crossing cultural boundaries, I remain convinced it's unavoidable. To be sure, one person's pain is another person's joy. I'm happy to learn about cubits and drachmas and denarii, not mention how Jaffa, Tarshish, and Nineveh relate to one another geographically. Reading the names of peoples in Acts 2 is fun for me, but a bear to others. Mapping them gives an idea of the extent of the Jewish diaspora; desirable knowledge to me, TMI for others.

Does it matter that most people don't catch the cultural valence of an Ethiopian eunuch? I think it does matter. As painful as it is for many to acquire the necessary background knowledge, the more one is able to make sense out of cultural referents of this kind, the better. That being the case, it's possible to preserve in translation many other culture-specific traits without qualitatively upping the amount of background knowledge required to relate to the text with something approaching the same facility as did its first readers.

But of course, we live in an age when most people don't know where Iraq and Afghanistan are located, and there's that famous video with someone asking, "Hungry? That's a country? I know about Turkey, but Hungry?"

I'm not ready to dumb down a translation of the Bible to this level, even if it is the level of the average American.

Finally, your point about preconditions for understanding scripture. There I agree with you entirely. In that sense, the Bible is like a good Disney flick. Bambi, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Fantasia, can be understood at all different levels, and still understood. By a little kid, by an adult, and by a more acculturated adult. The latter only will get the full Monty of cultural allusions. On the other hand, the little kid may catch something intuitively that the adults miss. The Bible, I submit, is like that.


Hi John,
I came across your post on Saturday and have written a detailed reply to Jobes which you can read at the above link. Overall, I agree with you that she's half right. I don't think we can gain much by counting noses. As you can see from my chart verbosity does not go hand in hand with translation methodology.



that is an amazing chart you worked up! Your point is well-illustrated.


I thought it was interesting (ironic?) that in a post arguing about the necessity of ancient cultural context in order to fully understand a text, John had to insert this comment so that some of his readers could understand his text:

I need to footnote the allusions to Clinton and Obama for people like you who are blissfully ignorant of the current US newscycle.

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.