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By Daniel Taylor

Confessions of a Bible Translator

Sometimes it is polite and oblique: "What, ah, do you hope to do differently?" Other times it is blunt, even accusatory: "Why in the world do we need another translation of the Bible?" The consensus seems to be that America needs another Bible translation like it needs more law schools. At times I feel like joining a 12-step support group: "Hello. My name is Dan, and I am a recovering Bible translator." And yet the same people who ask the question--one I initially asked myself--are often very curious about how a Bible translation comes about. Allow me to play Beatrice (or is it Virgil?) on a brief tour of one translation now in progress.

I fill the role of stylist on a new translation of the Bible financed by Tyndale House Publishers of Wheaton, Illinois. The primary role of the stylist in a translation is to worry over the effectiveness of the language into which the text is translated. In general, Bible scholars worry first about accuracy; stylists worry first about effectiveness. Together they labor to create a final product that is both faithful to the original text and compelling to the modern reader--Scylla and Charybdis goals that have brought many a translation to grief.

The final outcome of a Bible translation is greatly influenced by the organizational structures created to produce it. Flow charts change the end product of the processes they purport merely to describe. Some projects are very hierarchical. Scholars work on portions of a translation at the fundamental levels and pass that work up to a higher level, never to see what becomes of their work until, years later, they get their free copy of the translation in the mail.

Others, like ours, are more democratic. Six major translators are responsible for various sections of the Bible--the Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles. Each translator has three advisers for each book within that section. These advisers are chosen for their expertise in that particular book and aid the major translator in creating an initial translation of it. That version is sent to the stylist, who goes over it, making suggestions for changes--a process that may take several months. The translator and the stylist then meet in person, usually for three to six days, to go over every word of the translation and agree tentatively on a new draft. That draft is then sent to each of the original advisers of the translator, as well as to the publishing company's editor.

Subsequently, a meeting takes place bringing together the three advisers, the main translator, the stylist, and sometimes the publisher's editor, producing yet another draft. (One must sometimes have a great tolerance for daylong meetings to do God's work.) After various further steps, still another version of the translation of that book comes to the Bible translation committee for further changes and final approval. That committee consists of the six major translators, the stylist, and representatives from the sponsoring publishing company.

It is said that people should not see how either their sausage or their laws are made. Perhaps the same could be said of their Bible translations. There is, sad to say, no angelic music heard in the background at most of these meetings. I am greatly impressed by the scholarship, hard work, goodwill, and genuine devoutness of my colleagues on this project. I am also keenly aware how human we are. A phrasing that would die an unlamented death at nine in the morning will somehow survive if it comes up instead at four in the afternoon after a long and tiring day. God willing, it meets its just reward at the next level of review, but I have spent too much time noting the infelicities in existing translations to have overwhelming confidence in that.

It must have been late in the day, for instance, when the New Jerusalem Bible translators nodded approval for "when the guests are well wined" (John 2:10), or the NIV had the psalmist declare, "To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High" (Ps. 77:10), or the NRSV translators thought they were using modern English with "they have subverted me with guile" (Ps. 119:78). Like Guido da Montefeltro (see the epigraph to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"), I hazard these examples only because my own sins are years from public revelation. In fact, my admiration for existing translations has only grown, seeing as I do now how daunting is the task.

It is impossible, in fact, not to feel the accomplishment of existing translations even as one tries to make them somewhat obsolete. They are both friends and competitors, pioneers who have paved the way and impediments to a fresh expression of the timeless message. Harold Bloom argues that all poets feel the need of slaying the masters who have taught them, and some of this "anxiety of influence" is at work beneath the surface in each new translation.

My personal experience has been simultaneously profound and mundane. A sense of great privilege and responsibility alternates regularly with one of inadequacy and tedium (try building the tabernacle in Exodus--curtain by curtain, ring by ring, measurement by measurement--twice). The feeling that this is the most important thing I will ever do alternates regularly with the question, "Why I am doing this?"

My stylizing contribution is strikingly low-tech. For the first time since grade school, I am back to using a pencil. A computer is not helpful initially because I need to suggest multiple alternatives at any one point, while still retaining the original version. Nothing is deleted until agreement is reached at a later stage. (And speed is definitely not a factor.)

I typically work with a triple-spaced, typed manuscript with liberal margins. I might pencil in three or four alternatives, stacked on top of each other above a noun or verb. Or I might suggest a change in word order, or even a radically different approach to rendering the verse. I draw lines and arrows, cross out without obscuring, ask questions and make pronouncements in the margins, and sometimes doodle. (Doodling keeps the analytic mind busy while the more creative parts work on an improvement for one translation's description of the parting of the Red Sea--dare any version accurately call it the Sea of Reeds?--"the deep waters congealed / in the heart of the sea.")

The single most common thing I do, however, is eliminate unnecessary words. In one example among hundreds, I suggested changing an early version of Exodus 2:2, She noticed immediately that there was something special about the child, so she hid him for three months (18 words), to Sensing that he was special, she hid him for three months (11 words). As a class, Bible scholars love words like a mother loves her children. Even the homely ones are precious, and parted from with reluctance. (I would just as soon not know what Bible scholars say about stylists.)

As the stylist, I do what T. S. Eliot accused Tennyson of doing in his poetry--I ruminate. I chew over each word and phrase of the Bible, and, as my mother instructed, I chew slowly. This usually is not for me, as many assume, a devotional experience. The pace is too slow and the units of text too small to feel very often the devotional impact of the Scripture at hand. Neither is it an academic experience. I learn a great amount--both from the text and from the scholars I work with--but it is disjointed and anecdotal knowledge.

Primarily, my work is a daily encounter with language. I ponder connotations and nuances of meaning, listen to the sound of words echoing off words, feel for their rhythm as they jostle for position. And after doing all that and seeing I still haven't gotten it right, I find myself hoping a colleague across the country is having better luck with the passage than I am.

But what does getting it right mean? How does one know a good translation when one sees or hears it? These questions, and many more, cannot be answered without recourse to translation theory. And the test of every theory is the text produced when that theory is worked out in practice.

All translation is interpretation, as George Steiner and others have pointed out. At every point, the translator is required to interpret, evaluate, judge, and choose. Every text is thickly layered with unique and sometimes incommensurable features of form (Hebrew parallelism and puns, for instance), content (emotions associated with the liver or kidney), and context (ancient ideas about where gods live and how they are to be appeased), not to mention the very sound of words. Because no translation can hope to do justice to every feature in the original, choices are made. Every choice entails a value judgment. This does not mean that translation is merely subjective, but we should guard against the illusion that there is a single right way of treating translation in general or any one passage in particular.

The Holy Grail of contemporary Bible translation is the often elusive combination of accuracy and readability. No translation that aspires to wide use within the church and academia can afford to be labeled inaccurate (or, heaven forbid, a paraphrase); no translation that hopes to be read by the laity can be found difficult or dull. These twin concerns set the agenda for the great majority of our project's discussions, both theoretical and practical. Assertions of "That's what it says" are constantly balanced by "Is that how we would say it in English today?"

Consider, for example, the almost universal practice of contemporary translations in using the word fullness in John 1:16, as does the NRSV: "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace." What does the idea of receiving something from someone's "fullness" convey to the average reader today? Almost nothing, I would argue. And is fullness the only accurate translation of the underlying Greek word? In fact, is it even accurate itself if it hides the meaning of the text rather than revealing it? (This is the only use of the word in John; it is an important concept for Paul.)

The first draft of our translation's rendering of this verse also used fullness. Further discussion raised multiple alternatives: completeness, all-sufficiency, complete sufficiency, divine abundance. Our tentative rendering, subject to change at later stages, is From his abundance we have all received overflowing grace, a reading that we believe is accurate, understandable, and felicitous.

The theories lying behind most Bible translation in the last 35 years are some form of the dynamic equivalence theory, most closely associated with Eugene Nida. He offers the following guideline: "A translation should be the closest natural equivalent of the message" in the original language. Unfortunately, all the key words in such definitions--natural, equivalent, message--are slippery and subject to a range of interpretation and application. The same is true for other words often used in translation discussion: free, literal, and so on. Among the many possible combinations of terms and phrases, our translation has chosen equivalent message and effect to summarize what we are trying to convey. This approach insists on the inseparability of form and content in all effective communication.

All such theoretical statements seek to clarify the relationship between text and audience. Bible translation, like all writing, is shaped by audience. Two translation efforts committed to the same goals of accuracy and readability, but aimed at different audiences, will create very different translations. In contemporary Bible translations, ours included, the pressure generally is to seek the widest possible audience and to do whatever is necessary stylistically to reach that audience. Nevertheless, if a translation allows the least literate, least educated, least churched, least inquisitive, least motivated reader to become the de facto norm, it will not only fail to do justice to the text but will alienate many other potential readers.

Related to audience is the question of the appropriate level and kind of language to use. An equivalence theory of translation requires assessment of language usage in the original text as compared to the common speech of the original audience in order to reproduce the same relative usage in a present-day audience. That is, if certain words or passages would have seemed elevated (or mysterious, or ambiguous) to the common reader or listener in the original audience, then we should in theory retain that sense of elevation today. If the language of the original text was colloquial, it should be translated into the colloquial language of our own time. A translation that uses only a single level of language (whether entirely plain, entirely colloquial, or entirely formal) is inaccurate if there is a variety of levels in the language in the original.

And what, after all, is common language? We have decided that for our purposes it will not be street language (badmouth me was removed from an early draft), or heavily vernacular, or slang, or breezy talk-show English. Descriptive words such as fresh, dignified, precise, colorful, and understandable recur in our discussions. In fact, of course, everyone has an idiolect as individual as his or her fingerprint.

My own sense of language is informed by more factors than I can enumerate: where I have lived, how the people around me have talked, what I've read and heard and seen. I spent 16 of my early years in California, interrupted by a crucial five years in Texas. Another four years in Georgia give me nearly ten years surrounded by the varying speech patterns of the South, to go with the 16 in the West. And for the last 20 years, I have lived in the upper Midwest, learning, with Garrison Keillor's help, to speak Minnesotan.

Equally important, perhaps, though who can precisely weigh these influences, I have been a long-time reader--of newspapers, magazines, journals, cereal boxes, and, of course, many books. The likelihood that my career as a literature and writing professor has rendered my sense of language overly literary is diminished by the kind of literature I have typically read and taught: the self-consciously pared-down language of Hemingway, the early Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. At any rate, a stylist who prefers Williams's "A Red Wheelbarrow" to Tennyson's In Memoriam will have a different sense of language and a different influence on a translation than one who prefers the opposite. And then there is the linguistic influence of watching countless reruns of The Honeymooners and Cheers, and of having lived for the better part of a decade with teenagers in the house.

If I am sometimes in danger of letting novels or television overly influence my sense of what constitutes contemporary language, some of the biblical scholars must guard against their very expertise in the original languages. For them, Hebrew or Greek is common language. They have breathed so long the ancient syntax and rhythms that some find clear and natural in English what a typical reader might find opaque and convoluted. Steeped in biblical diction and that of traditional translations, they sometimes fail to see the datedness of not only conceptually significant words like fullness in John 1, but also common descriptive words such as the following from first drafts of other books: cast (throw), charge (command), cut off (kill), dash (destroy), deliver (rescue), fetters (chains), and so on. The hope is that the sensibilities of many people with a wide variety of experiences and idiolects will produce a widely understandable and yet accurate text.

And if cast and dash are potential problems, what are we to say about those most explosive little words: him and man? Inclusive language may be to our generation of Bible translations what virgin versus young woman was to an earlier generation. The consensus in our translation is that unobtrusively inclusive language has now become the norm in public discourse. It is simply how the English language functions in public usage in America at the end of the century. With our guideline of equivalent message and effect, it is clear that in the great majority of cases the original writer is addressing all humanity and therefore would use inclusive language if speaking or writing in English today. To use language that now is widely taken as referring only to men simply would not be an accurate translation. Traditional use of gender in references to God is being retained.

These are just a few of many theoretical questions that any Bible translation must address. But theory is useless unless it is incarnated in an effective text. Pale theory must give way to bloody practice. Our translation begins with the question, "What is the message, and how would the writer say that today?" Our key exegetical goals are accuracy (in rendering the general message), precision (in capturing subtle nuances), and clarity (in conveying understanding). Serving the exegetical goals are the stylistic goals of economy (maximum effect from each word), felicity (sense of aptness, beauty, elegance), lucidity (the wedding of economy and felicity to produce illumination), and contemporaneity (use of today's language). In sum, the goal of the translation is to be exegetically faithful and stylistically compelling, understanding that the full message of the text includes the rhetorical strategies used in conveying it.

Economy, for instance, does not necessarily mean brevity, but it does call for each word to carry its weight. Less is more unless the advantage of more is apparent. Ecclesiastes 2:8b, for instance, was first rendered as follows: I surrounded myself with singers--both men and women. And then there were my many beautiful concubines. The proposed revision reads, I surrounded myself with singers--both men and women--and with many beautiful concubines. Combining sentences enhances economy and improves the rhythm, at the same time eliminating the weak "to be" verb.

Greater felicity is achieved in any number of ways, including using stronger verbs. Ecclesiastes 7:9 first began, Keep firm control of your temper. The revision, Control your temper, makes the verb the defining and energizing part of the sentence and reflects the central idea of the verse--control--as well as eliminating unneeded words.

Felicity is also enhanced by effective repetition. The nicely economical Generations come and go, but the earth remains forever the same (Eccles. 1:4), was thought stronger as Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains the same forever. Repeating the word generations was judged effective, in both sense and rhythm, in conveying the endlessness and evanescence of human generations. Repetition in this case underscored the message of futility that the opening of Ecclesiastes explores (and the same forever is more contemporary word order than forever the same).

Repetition can create a sense of rhythm and balance that reinforces meaning. In the first draft of our translation, Mark 3:23b asks, How is it possible for Satan to cast himself out? The question was revised to How can Satan cast out Satan? The revision is more economical, more balanced rhetorically, and therefore more powerful and easier to remember.

At least that's what I think. Fortunately, what I think is not conclusive. At each stage, individual judgments are weighed against the judgments of others. Overall, there is a strong sense of common purpose and responsibility, coupled with a healthy awareness of the impossibility of fully succeeding. As a group, we genuinely seek the presence and inspiration of the Spirit who was present with the original writers. Being broadly evangelical, we believe we are working not just with a text, but with revealed truth (truth being a word we use without irony or embarrassment).

Another sign of our evangelicalness, perhaps, is the Bible translation committee's discomfort with close votes. Especially when the issue is the fundamental meaning or implication of a passage, close votes usually result in another round of discussion, a speech (often impassioned) from the translator responsible for that book, rebuttal speeches, and another vote. Whether the Spirit prevails or people just get worn out, even close votes usually become more of a consensus upon revoting.

Whether there eventually will be a similar consensus about the value of our translation, I do not know. But after more than three years of immersion in the process, I now have an answer to the question of why we need another translation of the Bible. My answer is twofold and schizophrenic. First, we don't. The church will not falter for lack of another translation at this time. Second, we need a new translation for the same reason we needed the translation you now like best. The English language changes, our understanding of Greek and Hebrew and the nuances of the text change, our knowledge of biblical cultures grows, and every generation feels the need to do some important things for itself. C. S. Lewis said we need new translations for the same reason that a teenage boy occasionally needs a new suit: the old one simply doesn't fit as well as it used to.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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