Sunday, September 11, 2022

How to Translate the Bible Into English

   Americans don't read very well. Bible translator Dr. Douglas Moo explains, 

First, our translation choices must reckon with our audience’s ability to understand English. I tell you nothing you don’t already know when I say that fewer and fewer American adults can read effectively. A 2013 study concluded that 35 percent of adults in the US can’t read at all or read below a fifth grade level. Even college-educated and fully acculturated adults, who spend their time on Facebook and Candy Crush rather than reading books, have difficulty handling English at any level of complexity...[A]nd if, as surveys reveal, the average American is reading at a seventh to eighth grade level, translations cannot necessarily be faulted for trying to hit that target.
Ouch.


Boyce W. Blackwelder
The writings of the late Reverend Doctor Boyce Watson Blackwelder (February 3, 1913—August 22, 1976) introduced the Church of God (Anderson) to New Testament Greek.  He received his Th.D. while under the supervision of the 20th century Greek grammarian giant, J. R. Mantey, of the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Blackwelder taught at Anderson University School of Theology and was one of our most well-known scholars in the Church of God.  His specialty was New Testament Greek and he published exegetical translations of the four gospels and Paul's letters.  He titled them, simply, The Four Gospels: An Exegetical Translation and Letters from Paul.  Blackwelder also wrote the immensely popular Light from the Greek New Testament.

Dr. Blackwelder believed that accurate translation didn't require a strict word-for-word method of translating but, rather, to express the thoughts/idioms of the Greek (donor language) in an accurate English expression (receptor language). 

As he explains in Gospels:
This is an exegetical translation—not a paraphrase.  The aim of biblical exegetics is to make as clear as possible the means of the scriptural text...[t]hus an interpreter tries to discover what each statement meant to the original writer and render it accurately into the language at hand. 
It is impossible in every instance, to translate the same Greek word by the same English word.  Translation is more than a mere word-for-word rendering of one language into another language.  Transferring the idiom characteristic of the Greek into the corresponding idiom characteristic of contemporary English becomes a challenging task. (pg. 8)
Consider a traditional rendering in a portion of The Lord's Prayer:

Our Father which art in heaven, 
Hallowed be thy name.   (Mat 6.9b)

Contrast it with Blackwelder's rendering:

Our Father who art in heaven,
May Thy name be held in reverence.  (Mat 6.9b)


To seek that God's name be hallowed is to seek that his name be held in reverence.  Which rendering is 
clearer for a 21st century audience?  I believe it's Blackwelder's.  All one has to do is read Blackwelder's translations of the gospels and letters of Paul to see the latitude the Church of God scholar allowed himself in expressing the New Testament language in crisp contemporary English of his day.  (For those who might think Blackwelder didn't stick to the text closely enough, the same charge could be leveled against the Septuagint [LXX], the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced by Jewish scholars shortly before the birth of Christ.  This was the common Bible of the early church and, in fact, heavily quoted by the New Testament writers, themselves. If it was good enough for them then such translational philosophy can be good enough for us.)

The New Testament Greek employed by the biblical writers was Hellenistic koinē (i.e. "common") Greek.  That is to say, it wasn't the literary Attic Greek of earlier writers.  And, in fact, vernacular [spoken] biblical Greek is simpler than a literary [written] 
koinē of the era.  As Blackwelder explains in Light:
Another category of material of the Graeco-Roman world which is an important source of light for New Testament studies is the literary Koine.  There are two types of Koine, the literary Koine which is represented by extrabiblical literature, by most of the inscriptions, and by a few papyri; and the vernacular Koine which is represented by most of the papyri and ostraca, by a few inscriptions, and by nearly all biblical Greek. 
It is not difficult to understand why there were two basic varieties within the Koine.  Though no literary speech develops independently from the vernacular, yet spoken language is never identical with the literary style.  The old Attic of Athens had a vernacular and a literary style that differed from each other, and such a distinction characterized the Koine from its beginning. 
"There was formal literary effort of considerable extent during the Koine period."  The forms of the literary Koine more nearly approached the classical nature of the Attic than do those of the New Testament.  The Koine literati sought elegance of expression while trying to avoid pedantry.  The literary Koine occupies an intermediate position between the vernacular Koine and the older classical form of the language.  (pgs. 24-25)
The Bible's Greek was written in the easy-to-understand everyday Greek that people spoke in day to day life.  Why did the koinē emerge from the formal Attic Greek vernacular dialect?  It had to do with war.  Blackwelder helps us understand in Light:
In the latter part of the fourth century B.C., the forces of Alexander the Great conquered the Medo-Persian Empire, bringing the language of the victors into the ascendancy throughout the then-known world.  "Remaining as armies of occupation, and settling amongst the conquered peoples, they popularized the language, simplifying its grammatical and syntactical structure." (pgs. 18-19)
The New Testament is beautiful but doesn't try to sound artificial.  But neither was it sloppy speech.  In Light:
Although the new Testament writers were not Atticists, neither were they "mere purveyors of slang and vulgarisms."  [A. T.] Robertson reminds us that Paul was a man of culture as well as a man of the people, and says, "The New Testament uses the language of the people, but with a dignity, restraint and pathos far beyond the trivial nonentities in much of the papyri remains."  "The New Testament is mainly in the vernacular Koine, but it is the vernacular of men of great ability" and reflects definite literary elements especially in the writings of Luke, the letters of Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews.  But above all, the New Testament is the language of spirit and life.  (pg. 25)
Bible translations have to change with the times. Why change?  Blackwelder put it well in Light:
There is a need, from time to time, for new translations of the Scriptures because all languages change and every generation needs a clear, accurate rendition of the Book of books.  Certain English words do not mean what they did a few hundred years ago; hence the proper ones must be substituted in order to express in contemporary thought the meaning of the original text."  (pgs. 16-17)
Some words don't need hundreds of years but merely years, perhaps a decade or two.  

Notice carefully Blackwelder's words, "every generation needs a clear, accurate rendition of the Book of books."  Every generation.  The daunting task of translating the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek of the Bible into clear English is never-ending.  We must not ask ourselves merely, "What version do I prefer?" but, also, "What speaks accurately and clearly to this generation?"

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