As a pastor in a Chinese Church in Sydney, Australia, I often read things people have written and hear them speak less than perfect English. Sometimes, when it happens on public posters, advertisements and signs, I offer to proof read it. Most of the time the mistakes and omissions aren’t important enough to worry about.
Some of the mistakes are a source of mixed embarrassment and amusement for the children of the Chinese immigrants who were born in Australia. They refer to the mistakes as Chinglish or Engrish. Chinglish, or Engrish, usually results when the translation from Chinese is rendered too literally without regard to English grammar. Some of the translations are funny (just as my wrong use of Mandarin tones must cause many cringe-worthy moments among native speakers). The internet has thousands of examples. However, even though the translation might be funny, the general idea is still communicated. Well, mostly anyway.
All this makes me wonder, are modern Bible translations helpful to modern readers? Generally speaking there are 3 types of translations as noted below. NB: These aren’t technical explanations, just my summary of the basic differences.
- Essentially literal – word for word translations that don’t try (mostly) to “translate” idioms or poetic figures of speech. e.g. King James Version (KJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), New King James Version (NKJV), English Standard Version (ESV)
- Dynamic equivalence – thought for thought translations that try to convey the idea using phrases and concepts familiar to the reader. They do not include word for word renderings in many instances, particularly when translating idioms. e.g. New International Version 1984 (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), New English Translation (NET) New International Version 2011 (NIV11)
- Optimal equivalence – a new idea that tries to find a middle ground between the first 2. e.g. Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
A Chinglish Bible?
Many people feel that an Essentially Literal Bible translation is a lot like Chinglish or Engrish. The word for word renderings, in some instances, reads less smoothly than a Dynamic or Optimal Equivalence version. Is that a good reason, to abandon essentially literal translations? After all, we don’t want people making fun of the Bible the same way they do of all those Chinglish and Engrish signs. Do we?
The problem with that reasoning is that the Bible is not a public notice. It uses poetry, figures of speech and historical and cultural references to communicate its message. If you start playing around with those expressions and try to translate the concepts as well as the words you might lose the idea being conveyed.
James Hamilton, Associate Professor of Biblical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently noted in his blog:
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler teaches that we must come to terms with the author we’re reading. What this means is that we want to understand how the author uses his words.
He uses some examples from The Gospel of John and how terms “glory” and “truth” are treated by different translations to illustrate the importance of having access to a literal translation, especially if the reader doesn’t have a working knowledge of original Biblical languages.
One of the things I try to emphasize when I teach, is that the first task of a bible student is to determine what does the text say? Not, what does it mean? Oh, sure, meaning, interpretation, application, identifying cultural and historical parallels and drawing conclusions about how it might be relevant today are important, but not at the cost of what the original author has actually said. When you do that, you risk missing some of the significance and beauty of what was written. Hamilton illustrates this point well.
A stock expression in the Psalms is an idiom that, rendered literally, would be something like “to tread the bow” or “to walk the bow” (e.g., Ps 7:12; 11:2; etc.). Even the most literal translations render this along the lines of “bend the bow.” But stop and think about the expression “tread the bow.” What does that mean? Doesn’t it give a visual image? Can you see the warrior placing one end of the bow on the ground, holding the other end in his hand, and stepping on the bow in the middle to string the bow? Can you see the warrior tread the bow?
Now what does poetry do? Doesn’t poetry enable us to see the world as it really is by describing it to us in fresh ways? The removal of the visual image of the warrior treading the bow removes color and life from David’s poetry.
For the Bible reader interested in what God has said in his Word, and is concerned with understanding what, if anything, God requires of his creatures, having access to a contemporary essentially literal translation is vital. As for me, I use and recommend the English Standard Version. What translation do you use?