Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Analogy for Bible Translations: Golf

I'm not an avid follower of golf, but it appears to me that there is a parallel between Bible translation philosophy and golf. Let me illustrate ...

A few years ago, long before the scandal, the two main rivals in golf were considered to be Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Tiger and Phil would battle it out and a golf tournament, and Tiger would typically win. There were "Tiger" fans and "Phil" fans. I was listening to a golf commentator on my car radio one day explaining that many golf fans were tired of Phil "laying up" and not "going for it." See, when faced with a difficult shot, Tiger would way the options and possibilities and, many times, go for it. He might try to clear the lake to make the green at a difficult angle, rather than just try to get close to the green and then chip on. Phil's pattern was to avoid chances and lay up. Since Tiger was usually successful when he went for the green, he would win.

Bible translations have a tendency to either "go for it" or "lay up." Essentially literal translations tend to stay ambiguous and not "go for the green" like others. So the Young's Literal Translation hardly ever "goes for it". The New American Standard Bible and the King James Version also have a strong tendency to "lay up." The benefit is that they are less likely to explicitly mislead their readers ... they won't end up in the "translational sand traps" as often. Translations that are essentially functional equivalent in philosophy typically "go for it." They attempt to import much more interpretation into the text than more formal translations. The New Living Translation seems to relish the opportunity to go for the green on most shots.

Translations that are in the middle, the NET Bible and NIV for example, try to weigh how likely their interpretations are before making them explicit in a translation. Listening to Moo at the LU Symposium, for example, he said that every commentary he owned on Colossians agreed with the NIV's rendering. The NIV committee was so confident in their interpretation that they saw no reason to "lay up" when all major scholars agree. The problem comes when the NIV, NLT, etc., tries for the green but lands in the sand trap. Teachers can get weary of disagreeing with the translation they teach from. So having a translation that leaves the interpretive options more open can be easier to teach from because you don't have to "correct" them.

I like watching a golfer who goes for the green. When he hits it right, it's a thing of beauty. I love reading translations that "go for the green," even if it means that at times they land in the "translational sand trap." However, when I teach, I prefer using a translation that I don't have to disagree with so often. I prefer teaching from something that might tend to "lay up" as it actually makes my job easier rather than more difficult. I might have to explain more things, but that's easier than trying to explain to a group of students why the translation I'm using is "wrong".

So, what kind of translation do you like to teach from? Tiger or Phil?

Example of someone "going for it".


John Notestein said...

My favorite for study is the HCSB. It's literal but uses modern language and English grammar. For general reading or sharing with seekers and non believers, I like the NIV since it reads like most English speakers talk.

Donna said...

Thanks for this analogy, I think that's really helpful. I've heard this view before from other preachers (not with the golf idea included though). Many of them also say that they prefer the more literal renderings to teach from. My hesitation about that though, as a pew sitter, is that, if you prefer reading NLT type translations on your own, mightn't your congregations also prefer hearing them in church on Sundays too? I assume that they are often less theologically educated and are less likely to have the resources to extract meaning from some passages in a literal version.

I would encourage you, instead of going for the easier option (of preaching from a literal version), preach from the version that goes for the green, and instead of saying that it's "wrong" you can explain that it is either one way of looking at passage, or that it does explain one dimension of the meaning well, but let me tell you about other dimensions of meaning which come in the Greek text. People are often more OK with broad meaning and ambiguity than preachers realise.

The danger with literal translations which have "layed up" is that the stroke is not even noticed by the crowd (that is, the readers). And so no meaning was really communicated at all. In my view, as a translator myself, that is a translation fail.