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Let’s Be Clear: Clarity in Bible Translation

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By E. Ray Clendenen

President Obama is famous for repeating some variation of the phrase, “Let me be clear.” There has been some discussion of what he means by this. Some suggest it marks a “sound bite” or a “take-away” for reporters. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “The Argument Culture,” sees the phrase as potentially working on three levels: “I’m pointing to the point I want you to listen to, I’m pointing to the interpretation that I want you to have, and maybe there’s something there on the meta level, where I’m saying something about me as a person, that I’m being clear,” she says. Others suggest that the subtext is “I’m running an open, honest government.” He is asserting and defending that he values transparency (see Andy Coller, “Dissecting President Obama’s Favorite Phrase,” Politico 2010).

But what do Bible translations mean when they claim the virtue of “clarity”? For example, the preface to the ESV states, “The ESV has been carefully weighed against the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, to ensure the fullest accuracy and clarity and to avoid under-translating or overlooking any nuance of the original text.” The meaning of “clarity” here in connection with weighing the original languages is perhaps expounded in the next paragraph that states, “Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.” I would propose, then, that the ESV’s use of “clarity” is somewhat like what I have called “faithfulness” (see my last blog, “Faithfulness in Bible Translation”).

In translation work, it is common to find an editorial comment that a word or phrase has been “supplied for clarity.” This is also found in edited editions of letters. It means that in the opinion of the translator or editor the meaning of the original text without the addition (i.e., a literal rendering) would be ambiguous, misleading, or obscure to the intended audience. “Clarity” in this case means lucidity, the quality of being easy to understand or unambiguous. For example, in Genesis 8:13 the ESV translates literally: “In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth.” The English reader is left wondering what year 601 is in reference to. For the sake of clarity, the HCSB adds a note at that point: “= of Noah’s life.” The NET, on the other hand, translates “In Noah’s six hundred and first year” (see also NIV, NLT), and a note reads, “the word ‘Noah’s’ has been supplied in the translation for clarity.”

A lack of clarity in this sense may also result from translating an idiom literally, even though English readers will not likely understand it. For example, in the ESV Numbers 31:6 says that Moses sent Phineas to war “with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.” Timothy Ashley’s commentary on Numbers proposes that the “vessels” referred to were the anointed furnishings of the tabernacle, probably including the ark. The idea that all this plus the trumpets could be “in his hand” is ludicrous. The phrase “in his hand” was an idiom meaning they were “in his care” or were his responsibility. So the HCSB translates, “in whose care were the holy objects and signal trumpets” (similarly the NET, NIV, NLT, etc.).

Another example is Psalm 1:1, which in the ESV praises the man who “walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” Although perhaps preserving the beauty of the King James, without an explanation this would be rough going for a modern Bible reader. I have never heard anyone say they were walking in the counsel of someone; to stand in someone’s way is understood today very differently from what the psalmist intended; and to sit in someone’s seat is equally misleading. Therefore, in the interest of clarity, most modern translations unpack these idioms rather than just reproducing them, as in the HCSB: “who does not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path of sinners or join a group of mockers.”

While striving to be faithful to all the meaning in the original text, a Bible translation must also strive for clarity in its language. Otherwise, we produce translations that fail to communicate, forcing readers to depend on a scholarly clergy who holds the “keys of interpretation.” The apostle Paul had rather “speak five words [in the church with] understanding, in order to teach others also, than 10,000 words in another language” (1 Cor 14:8-9). I believe he would urge us to let our translations sound the trumpets of alarm or encouragement from Scripture clearly. We should apply Yahweh’s instruction to the prophet Habakkuk, who was to “write down this vision, clearly inscrib[ing] it on tablets so one may easily read it” (Hab 2:2).


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