The Wartburg Project

December 21st, 2016

29. What were the greatest difficulties encountered in producing the EHV?

It goes without saying that producing a Bible translation is a tremendous undertaking. What are the greatest difficulties you encountered in producing the EHV?

The first one obviously is the sheer volume of the project. A typical English translation of the Bible fills more than 1500 pages of text. The original text was written in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). The books were written over a period of 1500 years with all the changes of alphabet, grammar, spelling, and style which that implies. The only solution to this problem is allowing enough time and exercising enough patience to keep working through the mountain of text.

Sometimes the original language of the text, especially in the Old Testament, is extremely difficult. Sometimes the difficulty is due, at least in part, to the subject matter, for example, in the difficult task of translating the description of Solomon’s Temple. Knowledge of ancient temples and of ancient and contemporary building techniques can help resolve some of the translation difficulties, but, at times, the translation remains uncertain. The same situation exists in the translation of the names of musical instruments and other musical terms. The growing amount of information about ancient music can help the translator, but here too there is a big cultural gap that must be bridged.

In some cases, the difficulty is due to the peculiar dialect of the language. The book of Job is written in a dialect that is not standard Judean Hebrew. There are many rare words and difficult passages. One blessing that helps the translator is that most of the book of Job is written in poetic parallelism, in which alternate lines echo each other. Something which is obscure in one line may be expressed more clearly in the corresponding line. In especially difficult cases, translators have to do the best they can, relying on the meaning of the parallel line as their best resource. Job provides a good illustration of the principle that a translator cannot allow a quest for “the perfect” to stand in the way of achieving “the possible.” When commentaries are laden with a half dozen or more options for a given expression in Job (some of which are very different from each other) since the EHV is a Bible intended for general use, it seems wisest for the translator to choose one meaning that fits the context well (and perhaps one other to be used in a footnote) and not to bog down the text and confuse the reader with too many options.

The texts of the Bible were written in a culture (or more accurately in cultures) very far removed from our cultures. This applies not only to material things but to the whole structure of society. Geographical, archaeological, and historical resources can help bridge the gap, especially in regard to material goods and historical events. Ancient documents, such as ancient law codes, can also provide some insights into law, family life, and the structures of society in biblical times, but in this situation there is no substitute for a careful study of the whole biblical text to gain a better understanding of issues such as the relationships of men and women, parents and children, slaves and masters, and so on.

Sometimes this difficulty involves different value systems and different values, but sometimes it simply involves very different ways of expressing the same basic values. The Song of Songs has many expressions of ideal feminine beauty. The lady is like a horse; her hair is like a flock of goats; her nose is like a tower. Many of these pictures do not resonate with contemporary urban Americans, but a translator’s job is not to re-write or update the Bible but to transmit it. Translators should not gut the ancient culture by eliminating its pictures and making its poetry prosaic. In many cases (maybe even in most cases) translators should keep the ancient pictures and leave it to modern readers and teachers to search out the right meaning, sometimes with the help of footnotes. Just as careful listening and thoughtful consideration of what people are saying is essential when we are trying to communicate with someone from a contemporary culture that is very different from our own, this is doubly true when we are trying to communicate with people from a distant time and place.

Sometimes the problem is that it is difficult to find one good translation for a verse (see the comments on Job above), but sometimes the problem is the opposite—there are a half dozen good translations for a given passage. Strange as it seems, this situation can be more time-consuming for translators and editors than the first situation. When translators are struggling to come up with even one really solid translation, all they can do is write it down and move on (at least for the time being). When there are many credible options, it is easy for translators to get bogged down in debating options and going round in circles. This is true, for example, when there are four reviewers for a given passage and each reviewer prefers a different option for the translation (a situation not as uncommon as you might think). Carefully considering which option will communicate most clearly is a valuable exercise and should not be cut short, but once again a quest for “perfection” cannot stand in the way of the “possible.” Even when there is no clear-cut basis for choosing one option over the other, a choice finally has to be made, and only one person will get his or her first choice. The rest have to say, “Well, I can live with that choice, even though mine was clearly better.” Such is the nature of a collaborative translation.

Sometimes difficulties arise due to different structures and practices of the two languages. The interplay of nouns and pronouns is probably the area in which translators most often must depart from a word-for-word rendering of the original text. English often requires a noun where Hebrew might use a pronoun and vice versa. English style does not permit use of a pronoun unless there is a clear antecedent in the near vicinity. In cases in which a Hebrew pronoun does not follow its antecedent closely enough to fit English style, translators often have to replace the pronoun with the appropriate noun to make it clear who is being referred to (for example, “Moses” rather than “he”). English style normally does not permit use of a pronoun before a noun has been mentioned as its antecedent. Hebrew does. On the other hand repeating the same noun over and over again, which is not uncommon in Hebrew, sounds strange in English. So for readability and to avoid a perception of grammatical and stylistic errors, pronoun usage in the EHV normally follows English usage. But if the biblical author is using pronouns to build suspense by withholding the identity of the referent, a translator should keep the suspense.

Sometimes the standard of politeness is different in the two cultures. Me and you is perfectly fine in Hebrew, but you and me is more polite in English. To avoid the impression of grammatical error, the EHV usually follows the proper English order, unless it seems that there is some special significance to the Hebrew order.

English quotation marks indicate a change of speakers in conversations. Because quotation marks are not part of the Hebrew text, they present a special problem for translators. Inserting quotation marks is always an act of interpretation. Sometimes this is quite easy because there are words like “Moses said” introducing the quotation or a word that signals a quotation such as the Hebrew lemor, which means saying. At other times, there are changes of speakers that are not marked in the Hebrew text. At still other times, it is uncertain whether there is a change of speakers.

In nested quotations, in which quotations lie within other quotations, the American English practice is to alternate sets of “ and ‘. Trying to follow this practice in translating the biblical text would lead to many cases that would look like this: “quote”’” or even an occasional “quote”’”’”. This is confusing and seldom useful. To minimize this the EHV treats long speeches, prophecies, etc., as documents in their own right. They are set off by special indentation and they do not begin and end with quotation marks. This greatly reduces instances of.”’”

Another problem is the sentence: “This is what the Lord says.” Many translations treat this as an introduction to a quotation and add another set of quotation marks at each occurrence. But this phrase usually does not function as the introduction of new speech or speaker. It is intended to be an assertion of the authority of the words that follow. It may, in fact, occur several times within one quotation. For this reason, EHV does not treat every “This is what the Lord says” as a signal which triggers another set of quotation marks. The EHV’s practice to reduce swarms of quotation marks will strike readers as different at first, but they will grow to appreciate the absence of the annoying swarms.

A somewhat similar issue is that Hebrew does not have the same structure and differentiation of direct and indirect questions that English does, so sometimes Hebrew direct questions have to be converted to English indirect questions.

Sometimes the simplest things can become time-consuming, for example, commas. It is very common that one reviewer is taking out commas that another reviewer put in and vice versa. In a translation like the EHV, which will be used frequently in public reading, the most important function of commas is to help the reader place pauses in the spots which help the listener grasp the flow of the sentence. This function is more important than conforming mechanically to abstract rules about punctuation. The purpose of punctuation is to help writers convey meaning. It is not the purpose of writers to serve rules of punctuation.

This is true also of other punctuation such as the question mark. These two sentences have the same form but not the same meaning: “What do you know?” and “What do you know!” (Actually, in conversation the second one is often pronounced, “Whadda ya know!” but it can’t be written that way.) Only the writer’s choice of punctuation directs the reader to the right inflection of the sentence. What inflection does the question mark suggest in this sentence: “Really?”

Sometimes the issues are matters of taste not principle, and there can be no disputing matters of taste. To use the theological term, these issues fall into the realm of adiaphora. But people sometimes have strong feelings about adiaphora. One illustration of this problem is the difference between formal textbook grammar and informal conversational grammar. If Jesus says, “Who are you looking for?” many readers will say “Jesus would not use bad grammar.” If Jesus says, “For whom are you looking?” or better yet, “Whom seekest thou?” another set of readers will say, “Nobody talks like that.”

A similar emotional issue arises in dealing with the strongly sexual language in some Bible passages. The Bible in most cases uses euphemistic terms for sexual matters, but some passages are very blunt. English readers are often unaware of these jarring statements because English translations often hide them behind euphemistic alterations of the language. But do translators have authority to censor the Holy Spirit? These two issues are dealt with in our online course and the article, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” in our library section, so specific examples will not be discussed here.

Sometimes grammatical conventions change so abruptly that the translator is caught in a whirlpool. For hundreds of years it was not the custom to capitalize pronouns that refer to God. During the 20th century this became common place, and many people think that this was always the practice. More recently, when there was a return to the practice of non-capitalization of such pronouns, this was interpreted by some people as diminishing God’s honor, but, in fact, it was simply a return to the traditional practice, which agrees with the practice of the original Hebrew and Greek texts. For further discussion of this issue read EHV FAQ #3.

Another emotional issue involves the text to be translated. Because some recent translations that are perceived to be liberal by some readers have shorter texts than the King James Version does, the whole topic of textual criticism is suspect for many Bible readers. But properly practiced, with presuppositions of faith, textual criticism strengthens our confidence in the text transmitted to us. The EHV follows a fuller text than most recent translations, except for those that follow the King James text almost exactly, but since some Bible readers have doubts about any textual criticism, careful explanation is necessary. EHV FAQ #10 discusses this, and other articles on the topic are forthcoming. The textbook Old Testament Textual Criticism by John Brug discusses this topic at great length, with an emphasis on Luther’s role as a pioneer of textual criticism.

Sometimes a situation is such a mess that no reasonable, consistent solution is anywhere in sight. An example of such a mess is the spelling of place names and personal names in the Bible. A tug-of-war is going on between preserving the traditional spellings, which are largely based on the Greek and Latin spellings rather than on the Hebrew text, and the desire to bring the English spelling closer to the Hebrew. All the systems in use, including ours, are riddled with inconsistencies. To compound the problem there is a lot of inconsistency of spelling within the original biblical text itself. This huge mess will receive its own article, but there is a preview in FAQ #17.

These are a few examples of the many ways in which translators find themselves between a rock and a hard place, knowing that no matter which option they choose some readers will think it is wrong. But these dilemmas do not discourage them because they know that there is one solution to all these dilemmas: a combination of study, patience, and cooperation. One of the great blessings of a project like the EHV (maybe as great or greater than the end product) is that it prompts Bible readers and translators to a more careful study of the original text and to a more careful study of the principles and practices of Bible translation. An even greater comfort to translators is expressed by a key principle set forth in Lutheran theology: “The essence of Scripture is not the shape of the letters or the sound of the words but the divinely intended meaning.” If a translation conveys that meaning, it is delivering the Word of God, regardless of what the letters look like or how the words are pronounced, whether the language is a bit stuffy or archaic or a bit too casual for the tastes of some. The external forms change (indeed they must if they are to keep communicating), but the meaning, the essence of the Word of God, must remain forever.

This article is just a sample of key issues, for many more examples see our 40 pages of rubrics and guidelines which can be downloaded from our Wartburg Project website.