Friday, September 1, 2017

Translation Style

One of the biggest questions that Bible translators must ask themselves is, “What translation style should we use?” There are two main styles in use today: formal equivalence (also known as word-for-word) and dynamic equivalence (also known as thought-for-thought). We will look at the differences of these two approaches using Matthew 5:3.

Although many state that they prefer a word-for-word translation of the Bible, there is virtually no Bible in any language that follows a strict word-for-word translation. To illustrate why that is the case, I have made a strict word-for-word translation of the Greek text of Matthew 5:3 below.

Blessed the poor the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom the heavens.

In the strict word-for-word translation above, the word ‘the’ appears four times. In Greek, the word ‘the’ has a different form in each of the four occurrences. But because English only has one form of the word ‘the’, the nuances of each form of the Greek are hidden. As is the case with strict word-for-word translations, the result is not grammatically acceptable, nor is it understandable to the average reader. Such translations appear only in specialized reference works called interlinears.

Formal Equivalence
Translations in the formal equivalence style seek to follow the actual words and structure of the source text as closely as possible while keeping in mind the rules of English grammar and style. In English, most of the formal equivalent translations flow out of the Tyndale-King James tradition. Three of the best known formal equivalent translations in English today are the English Standard Version (ESV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and New King James Version (NKJV). Not surprisingly, all three produce the exact same translation of Matthew 5:3.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

When compared to the strict word-for-word translation, you can see that the changes are quite minor, basically making the translation conform to rules of English grammar and style and giving the nuance of each occurrence of the word ‘the’. The only other changes are the addition of the word ‘are’ and the adjustment of ‘heavens’ to ‘heaven’ because in English we don’t refer to ‘heaven’ in the plural.

Dynamic Equivalence
Translations in the dynamic equivalence style seek to recreate the meaning of the source text for modern readers by using moden ways of speaking. In other words, such translations look at the underlying meaning of the source text and then ask the question, "How would we say that today?" There are a wide variety of dynamic equivalent translations for Matthew 5:3.

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. (NLT)

Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (CEB)

God blesses those people who depend only on him. They belong to the kingdom of heaven! (CEV)

Great blessings belong to those who know they are spiritually in need. God’s kingdom belongs to them. (ERV)

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (MESSAGE)

A quick survey of the dynamic equivalent translations above reveals the concerns of the translators. It is evident that the translators do not think that the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is easily understandable to modern readers. In fact, of the five translations, only one makes reference to ‘spirit’ (ERV) and only one makes reference to ‘poor’ (NLT). Two of the translations make it clear that God is the one doing the blessing, and two of the translations change ‘kingdom of heaven’ in an attempt to make it more understandable. One translation considers the word ‘happy’ to be more understandable to the modern reader than the word ‘blessed’.

Advantages and Disadvantages
The advantage of formal equivalent translations is that the reader has a very good understanding of what the source text actually says. The disadvantage is that it usually takes more work to come to an understanding of what that text actually means. The advantage of dynamic equivalent translations, is that the text is more easily understandable. The disadvantage is that the reader often has little idea of what the source text actually says, and he or she is more limited by the interpretive decisions made by the translators. As a rule, formal equivalent translations vary little from one another, while dynamic equivalent translations vary greatly from one another. When a language already has a formal equivalent translation that gives access to what the source text actually says, dynamic equivalent translations can help the reader to consider possible interpretations or to hear the text in a fresh way. However, I would be concerned if there was only one English translation of the Bible and it was done in the dynamic equivalent style, because I would have no way of knowing what the source text actually said (apart from learning Greek and Hebrew).

How This Affects Enga
These issues of translation style are relevant for Enga as well. The current translation of Matthew 5:3 in Enga is written below (in an English back-translation).

God blesses the people who are poor in spirit and want him to help them. Those blessed ones will be in his kingdom.

As the Enga translation now stands, we have added the phrase ‘and want him to help them’ to clarify what is meant by the term ‘poor in spirit’. We have also changed ‘kingdom of heaven’ to ‘his kingdom’. In addition, instead of saying ‘the kingdom is theirs’, we say that they ‘will be in his kingdom’. Finally, we have made it clear that God is the one doing the blessing. (Adding ‘people’ and ‘those blessed ones’ is not so much an addition to the text as it is a requirement of Enga style.) Thus, the Enga translation as it now stands is clearly in the camp of dynamic equivalence.

However, as time goes on, and I reflect more and more on decisions like this that we made early on in the translation process, I am inclined to move more towards the camp of formal equivalence. For example, I am going to recommend to the team that we drop the explanatory phrase that says ‘and want him to help them’. Additionally, because the Kingdom of God/Heaven is a present reality now and not just a future hope, I am going to recommend that we change ‘will be in his kingdom’ to ‘his kingdom is theirs’. In addition, I will explore whether it is feasible to say ‘the kingdom of heaven’ instead of ‘his kingdom’. It may be that it is acceptable to be more literal in this case, but it may be that this is an issue similar to the issue in English in which ‘heavens’ needs to be changed to ‘heaven’. In Enga it may not be possible to talk about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ without making it sound like the kingdom is physically located in heaven. (This is an important distinction since we know from the proclamation of Jesus that the kingdom is at hand and that it is in our midst.) So I hope that we can adjust the Enga to read as follows:

God blesses the people who are poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven is theirs.

You will notice that I am not recommending removing the fact that God is the one doing the blessing. That is because the rules of Enga grammar usually require the one doing an action to be identified. You can’t just say that people are blessed. You have to say who is blessing them. Similarly, you will notice that I am not advocating for the addition of the word ‘For’ at the start of the second sentence. That is because such an addition would be extremely awkward in the Enga language. What is listed above is probably the closest that Enga can get to the source text while still following basic rules of Enga grammar and style.

Why Shift Toward Formal Equivalence?
There are three reasons why I am inclined to shift toward formal equivalence in Enga: (1) Many Enga pastors also speak English and they will compare our translation to formal equivalent translations like the ESV. If our translation is significantly different, they might consider it inaccurate and reject it; (2) Many Enga pastors have completed Bible school and have basic training in biblical interpretation. As a result, they are more equipped to wrestle with a more literal translation; and (3) Enga does not already have a formal equivalent translation that people can use to find out, more or less, what the source text actually says. While it is impossible for Enga to achieve the level of formal equivalence of translations like the NASB, ESV, and NKJV, it seems wise to move more in that direction.

While shifting our style will require us to revisit our translations of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the majority of verses are fairly straightforward and do not contain the difficulties of Matthew 5:3. However, this is the reality of the translation process. A translation is never really done, but it must constantly be revised and updated. Even a translation such as the ESV has been revised three times since its initial publication in 2001. And don’t forget that the ESV itself was a revision of the Revised Standard Version (1971), which was a revision of the American Standard Version (1901), which was a revision of the English Revised Version (1885), which was a revision of the King James Version (1611), which was a revision of the Bishop’s Bible (1568), which was a revision of the Great Bible (1539). And although the Great Bible was the first authorized translation of the Bible in English, it drew heavily from both the Matthew Bible (1537) and William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, which was not yet completed when he was burned at the stake in 1536. (Incidentally, in that long line of revisions over 490 years, Matthew 5:3 has remained unchanged apart from minor modifications to spelling and punctuation!)

All that to say, Bible translation requires constant revision. Please keep us in your prayers so that we can be as faithful as possible to the original source text, while communicating clearly in the Enga language. It is not an easy task.

William Tyndale translating the Bible into English