Friday, April 19, 2013

Thoughts on Bible Translation Prompted by Remarks of Dr. William Mounce

Mounce seems to think that gunai (“woman,” in the vocative case) is essentially untranslatable because in his view, “it misconveys so badly.” Now let’s stop and think about this. Someone is reading the Bible, preferably in one of the translations that Mounce dismisses for translating gunai as simply “Woman.” In his view, the problem with that is that it leaves the reader “to figure out what it really means.” No doubt the direct address, “Woman” might be viewed as rude in today’s context. But first, the reader should stop to think. Is Jesus being rude to a woman he has just healed? Not likely. So the alert reader should recognize that Jesus is not being rude, and in the first century this direct address was not considered rude.
But suppose the reader thinks that Jesus might be being rude to this woman, as he seems to have been with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). Then he might look at a concordance to see how many times Jesus uses this address in the gospels. After all, the reader is concerned about Jesus’ possible rudeness here. So the reader discovers, with a little research, that Jesus uses this direct address seven times in the gospels: once in Matthew 15:28; once in Luke 13:12 (the passage Mounce is dealing with); and five times in John (2:4, 4:21, 8:10, 19:26; 20:15). In two of those cases, Jesus is addressing his mother, which again indicates that it is unlikely that he is being rude. In one case (John 20:15) Jesus is clearly addressing Mary Magdalene tenderly after the resurrection.

So with a little research and a little reflection, the thoughtful reader concludes that however rude “Woman” might appear to us at first glance, it is not, in fact, a rude form of address. Rather it appears to be a formal (rather than casual) form of address.

How is the translator to address this in a translation? This is another point at which Mounce and I differ. He seems to think that a translation ought to be explanatory, as he applauds the NLT for translating “dear woman.” He then discusses a number of other possible translations, none of which seem to him to work. My sense is that there are other ways of addressing this difficulty than with an explanatory translation. First (and perhaps easiest), the Bible editors could put in a marginal note explaining that “Woman” was not rude in Jesus’ day. At the next level would be the study Bible, which could also add an explanatory note. Then there are commentaries, most of which, especially those geared to the lay reader, will address the point. Finally, there is the responsibility of the preacher, who in preaching from one of these passages ought to clarify the point for his listeners.

To insist that the translation is responsible to clarify this point (and many others) seems to me to fail to recognize two things. First, at what point does the explanatory translation stop explaining? There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of verses that might be unclear or misunderstood by someone. How many of these should the translator explain? Is the translator supposed to try to prevent readers from taking the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view on John 1:1? There are two explanatory translations that I know of: The Amplified Bible, and Wuest’s Expanded Translation of the New Testament. They are both awful. They are unreadable in any normal sense of that word. The result would be the same if Mounce followed his reasoning to its conclusion: a translation/commentary that doesn’t work as either one.

The second point that Mounce misses here is what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls the “due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1:7). What that means is that there are means by which people can learn the meaning of the Bible any time it appears to them to be unclear, confusing, or just plain rude. Marginal notes, concordances, commentaries, and preachers faithfully expounding the Word all fall under that “due use.”
So translate it “Woman.” Let the reader puzzle it out for himself, or consult a commentary, or ask his pastor. But don’t turn a Bible translation into a travesty.

“Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.” A. E. Housman


Sergius Martin-George said...

So translate it “Woman.” Let the reader puzzle it out for himself, or consult a commentary, or ask his pastor. But don’t turn a Bible translation into a travesty.

Exclude the middle much?

Benjamin Shaw said...

Granted, it excludes the middle, but it summarizes what Mounce had already done. he had suggested a number of other possibilities, all of which he found lacking. Thus, for him, the word is untranslatable. My post suggests that there are options for people who find the translation offensive. I prefer for a translation to be a window to the original, so if the original uses the vocative, the translations should as well, all within the bounds of what can be accomplished in English grammar. Does that help?

Elnwood said...

Regarding your way to address the difficulty, they seem unsatisfactory. Marginal footnotes have two problems: 1) footnotes are very rarely read, and 2) if you footnoted every possible misunderstanding, your margin would be several times as long as the Biblical text. As you wrote yourself, "there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of verses that might be unclear or misunderstood by someone."

You also ask, "At what point does the explanatory translation stop explaining?" The converse response is, "At what point do you allow a literal translation to become so obscure and even misleading that you need to explain?"

For example, do you keep the KJV's "For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ"? Do you translate a waw consecutive as "and" every time (as Robert Alter does), and let the reader use the "due ordinary means" to understand the nuances of Hebrew discourse?

Every Bible translation does explanatory translation, from the KJV to the ESV, and necessarily so. For evidence of this, see Dave Brunn's "One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Equal?"

Benjamin Shaw said...

In response to Elnwood, I would side with Alter. The Bible is not written in third-grade Hebrew and Greek. It requires the reader to put some time and some thought in reading to understand it.If you took a look at my following post "When the Bible Offends," I propose some additional steps for the reader to take My guess from your comment, however, is that you will find them also unsatisfactory.