Friday, January 13, 2017

Knox on Translation

© O. Swain
"I don't say that it is easy to bring out the general sense of a Biblical passage.  Sometimes, for example, in the Prophets, you have to give up, and admit that these passages may been intelligible to the people they were written for, but certainly not to us.  But in St. Paul's epistles, for example, or in the Book of Job, it is quite clear that there is a thread of argument running all through, though it is very far indeed from lying on the surface.  To present your material so that this thread of argument becomes apparent is no easy matter; but you have got to do it, if the Bible is to be read as a book, and not merely studied as a lesson."  -On Englishing the Bible 45

13 comments:

TS said...

Perhaps of interest to you/your readers, I noticed in this blog post the author mentions how the NRSV does not translate Ps 69:1 as silence praising God - ironically, of all the translations I looked up (probably eight), only "The Message" translated it that way! Ironic since "The Message" always gets the rap of being a mere paraphrase.

Timothy said...

You are reading Carl McColman too I see!

CarlHernz said...

The reason for the lack of the word "silence" in most modern translations (including the NJPS Tanakh) is that there is no consensus on what the word Hebrew word DUMIYYAH, rendered as "silence" by some, means in this instance.

As Knox points out, one cannot always ascertain what an ancient writer meant by an immediate reading of the text in the original Hebrew. To prove his point, some Jewish traditions see this as part of psalm 65 as the superscription, for the word DUMIYYAH literally means "a moment of waiting" or a "repose." In such an instance such a "respose" is understood as waiting in silence, but not silence per se.

But why begin any psalm (which are chanted or sung prayers) with the instruction to "wait in silence"? Some scholars believe this is instruction that means to pause between the lamenting psalms which come before, lest one suddenly change the liturgy to one of praise with Psalm 65 (if these are being prayed together in public worship, for which they are deisnged). In such a case, the word is to be ignored, not uttered.

Yet others understand the expression as claiming that "silent praise" is due to God in certain circumstances. This is definitely not impossible, as silence can definitely be an efficacious means of contemplation that ends up in silence praise of God. Mary's Magnificat talks about the soul and spirit praising God, a "silent" praise no doubt.

But which is the correct way to render it? There is no consensus. It could even be a play-on-words which Hebrew writing is filled with in which it is purposefully meant to be read either way.

Knox was not fond of a literal transmission in renderings. He was quite alone in his genius. To be honest, if you were a professional translator working for the United Nations, you would lose your job (and likely never work in the same field again) if, as a translator, you rendered languages literally, word-for-word, as most formal equivalence translations do. No professional translator translates foreign languages into English (and vice versa) in such a fashion. You would cause chaos by the misunderstanding such an approach would produce.

Alas, we translate the Sacred Scriptures this way much too often. No wonder the field of religious opinion is so chaotic! Until (or if ever) we find unquestionable empirical evidence confirming a way to render this verse, neither the NRSV or The Message are incorrect. Whether it is silent or aloud, praise is definitely due the Lord.

JDH said...

As always, I appreciate your comments, Carl. It is troubling to me whenever anyone dismisses a translation's treatment of a passage as flat-out incorrect. Surely, there is SOME reason the translators treated it a certain way. And I've always found that, by digging into that, I learn more about the underlying original. Simply saying, "the Hebrew means..." and "the anemic NRSV omits..." will almost never capture the truth of the matter. So thank you for shedding some light on what's really going on!

Biblical Catholic said...

" To be honest, if you were a professional translator working for the United Nations, you would lose your job (and likely never work in the same field again) if, as a translator, you rendered languages literally, word-for-word, as most formal equivalence translations do."

But you would also lose your job, and probably much more quickly if you were to translate as loosely as some Bibles, such as The Message, do. If a translation is too loose, then one is basically substituting the source's meaning for your own. And in the world of international diplomacy, that could be a huge problem as well.

CarlHernz said...

Actually, Biblical Catholic, having been a translator for the deaf in my 20s, I can answer assuredly "no, you wouldn't lose your job."

While "The Message" is a paraphrase that even leans toward an interpretation at times, even that is an important skill necessary at when culture separates speaker (in this case "signer") from the one you are translating to. In rendering American Sign Language (ASL) for a hearing person, you often have to paraphrase and even interpret. ASL has no plurals, no states of being (are, is, be), no articles, and has a syntax that must describe things in real-time order (no past tense). The sentence WORK FINISH GO TO MOVIES SHRUG has to be translated as "Would you like to the movies with me after work?"

This also happens in Spanish-to-English translation. Though I speak Ladino (which is somewhat similar), the expression for "How old are you?" in English sounds the same when translated word-for-word into either Spanish or Ladino. It comes across as "how ancient/decrepit are you?" You actually have to paraphrase it into Spanish/Ladino idiom: "¿Cuántos años tienes?" The Ladino/Spanish phrase means: "What's the count of the years in your possession?"

Of course, you are correct that it isn't right to claim that "The Message" is a translation of Scripture, but it never states it is. Eugene Peterson recommends that people use The Message alongside their Bible translations.

In the end, I always recommend that people learn the original Biblical languages themselves. Being a Hebrew Catholic I can testify that we of Jewish stock teach our children Biblical Hebrew. Children who cannot yet read can often pray the Shema even though they speak English. By the time I was an adult I had both Hebrew and Greek under my belt, and if a child can do it, anyone can. This way people don't have to rely on Bible translations or argue about them. In my humble opinion, if a person feels they have enough knowledge to criticize Bible translations then they surely have what it takes to learn the original languages and thus leave the world of translations behind.

For those of us who cannot, the work of persons like Knox and even Peterson should be valued not for where the fail but where they achieve the goal of helping those who rely on a translation of the Word of God for their spiritual edification. In the realm of actual translation, Knox surely excels.

jem said...

Googling around for more commentary on the Knox translation, I found an old post from American Conservative: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2012/11/20/why-cant-catholics-speak-english/

I don't agree with everything the author says there, but he brought up something interesting... a 'You Knox', where the thees and thous were replaced: http://www.cormacburke.or.ke/book/knox_bible

It looks like it was taken down about three year ago. Presumably due to copyright issues? Anyone know anything about this? What are your thoughts?

Jason Prewara said...

Your belief that anyone can learn Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek are both highly optimistic and highly unrealistic.

The majority of American Catholics are totally biblically illiterate, and getting them to even pick up and read a Bible in English is an accomplishment.

Expecting anyone but scholars, religious and clergy to learn even a little Hebrew or Greek is entirely unreasonable.

CarlHernz said...

My comment was: "If a person feels they have enough knowledge to criticize Bible translations (as in give a critique or debate the value of one rendering over another) then they surely have what it takes to learn the original languages."

Such a student of Scripture who regularly makes such critiques is already doing research into the original languages, so I said if they have that talent then they obviously have what it takes to learn the languages.

As for Catholics in general, yes, I say, they can learn Biblical languages. At the Mass we often incorporate Latin and Greek. The KYRIE said at the beginning of the Mass is in Koine Greek. A large number of Catholics who may not be regular Bible readers have the Mass memorized not merely in English, but for the form used in Solemnities which often includes Latin and some Greek.

I am a Hebrew Catholic, a Roman Catholic of Jewish stock. Catholics of Jewish ancestry often speak the language of their country, plus another like Yiddish or Ladino, and then Biblical Hebrew. We often know a bit of Aramaic and some, like me, Greek because of the Septuagint being in that language. Hebrew Catholics and Jews in general teach their infants Biblical Hebrew (which is not the same as Modern Hebrew), and some of us don't learn it until later in life. Because Hebrew Catholics are Roman Catholics and almost none of us are scholars, it isn't true that the Bible languages are inaccessible to Catholics.

And the people who read this blog may not be scholars, but I bet you most know these original Bible-language words: SHALOM, ADONAI, ELOHIM, ANTHROPOS, KYRIOS, MESSHIACH, PARTHENOS, BIBLOS, KRISTOS, and even more.

So there you have it. Catholics who aren't scholars often know at least a little Greek or Hebrew, whether it be from the Mass or from learning it as part of their culture or merely from learning it themselves in study. The languages are not as hard as many believe. Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar who was behind the Jewish Annotated New Testament, also suggests it would be best for more Christians to learn and read Scripture in their original tongue. Jewish children can do it (and again, Biblical Hebrew is not modern Hebrew), so I am sure any adult can.

I also added that not all of us may have the gift of multiple languages, and thus we have no reason to distrust the fine work of translators like Knox or others. But we don't have to be a world that relies on translations of the Word of God if we have that type of mind that likes to dig under the surface of what we read in Scripture. You, yes you personally, just might find you can learn a lot more than you give yourself credit for!

owen swain said...

And not only that but hey, very nice drawing of the Msgr.

Anonymous said...


Splendid ideas, Mr. Hernz! Thank you!

Seraphim the Anglican+

Biblical Catholic said...

"Actually, Biblical Catholic, having been a translator for the deaf in my 20s, I can answer assuredly "no, you wouldn't lose your job."

If completely removing what your source says entirely and replacing it with whatever you want it to say, doesn't result in your being fired as a translator. then we see now why the UN is completely dysfunctional.

The purpose of translation is to preserve, as much as possible, not merely the meaning, but the actual words, of the source material. When the meaning of the original is ambiguous, then the translation should be similarly ambiguous. If you take a statement which, in the original, is ambiguous, and proceed to adopt your own personal interpretation, then it is not an accurate translation.

And that is ultimately the problem with the dynamic equivalent school of translation. The dynamic equivalent translation says that nothing should ever be ambiguous, if there is an ambiguity in the source, then the job of the translator is to determine the meaning of the statement in a definitive way and translate that.

The problem with saying that the job of a translator is to translate the meaning is that this requires the translator to first decide what the meaning is in the first place. Which means that the dynamic equivalent translator is often going to be forced to translate his own interpretation, rather than the text itself.

The language of international diplomacy is filled with intentional ambiguity. The reasons for the ambiguity are many. Maybe the government that the diplomat represents hasn't made up its mind on a particular issue and wants to have the freedom to make up its mind later. Or maybe it is being ambiguous because the government is attempting to bluff, or maybe it is being ambiguous because it doesn't want its intentions to be known. Whatever the reason, it is the job of the translator to attempt to preserve the ambiguity of the original statement. It is not the job of the translator to decide on one particular meaning and translate that.

If the translator is trying to preserve the ambiguity of an intentionally ambiguous statement, then he is engaging in a literal translation.

Everyone wants to make it seem like the task of translation is a strict bipolar affair, that one can either be literal OR dynamic. That's not true at all. Either one is slavishly literal down to the point of preserving the exact word order of the original, or else one is free to just make up whatever one wants.

That isn't how it goes at all. Even the most devoted and committed literal translator admits that one sometimes has to resort to a paraphrase because a literal translation is impossible, and even the most dynamic translator in the world admits that he has an obligation to attempt to preserve the original wording as much as possible. It is not a question of 'one or the other' it is a matter of trying to do BOTH in the best way you can.

The rule should be 'as literal as possible, as free as necessary', it is not one or the other.








CarlHernz said...

Biblical Catholic,

Though I have worked as a professional translator even for the Catholic Church, not to mention for an interconfessional Bible translation, and at one time spoke about 10 languages fluently, even with my experience I cannot say that my views are the final word in the process of rendering one language into another. Nor do I claim that for all my experience I am in a position to contradict anything you've written.

I will say this, however. The expression "as literal as possible, as free as necessary" was the motto created and adopted by the translators of the NRSV. It is not a rule of translation or some type of translation axiom. In fact, when the NRSV was first released, this motto of theirs was used commercially, practically as a slogan for the original editions. I still have my copy of the first edition, and this motto is highlighted on the back cover.

This NRSV motto signified that the translators were going to break with the formal equivalence of the King James Edition (which the American and Revised Standards were revisions of) in that the NRSV would only adhere to the formal equivalence format of the KJV and Revised Standard tradition unless the English idiom demanded a more dynamic or freer rendition. Thus their creating the motto "literal as possible, free as necessary" to describe their philosophical change in revising the English standard.