Photo: Alan Hood
Beyond Words

Let's Be Clear About This

If a lack of clarity leads to misunderstanding, then accuracy has also been compromised.

Danny Foster

“I saw the man in the park with the binoculars.” There's something wrong with that sentence. Can you spot it?

Accuracy, clarity, naturalness and acceptability are the essential qualities of a good Bible translation. In my previous column, I wrote about accuracy. In this issue I want to focus on the importance of clarity.

You probably noticed that the opening sentence above is unclear. It is well-formed grammatically, but we don't know if the author or the man in the park had the binoculars.

Because I told you there was something wrong with the sentence, the problem is not too difficult to see. But what if you came across that same sentence in a novel? Assuming it wasn’t clear from the context, I suspect you would have assigned the binoculars to one of the two characters and read on with your own interpretation. If you compared your interpretation to those of other readers, though, you may have discovered each person interpreted it differently.

Striving for clarity in a translation is about making sure that it is not ambiguous—that the possibility for unintended or multiple meanings to come through is either completely eliminated or at least minimized as much as possible. This is not as easy as it might seem.

First, it takes years to learn how to write with the kind of succinctness needed to eliminate ambiguity. I still struggle with this as a PhD student and will often write something that in my mind is completely clear in my own head. However, when my supervisor reads it, she points out how others might interpret it differently. This is why it’s crucial that Bible translators are able to get other “eyes” to check their work.

Secondly, when translating between two languages, the grammatical structures of those languages often differ in just how specific you have to be. Take, for example, what seems like a simple pronoun: us. In Greek (and in English) the same word can have both an inclusive and an exclusive meaning, but in some languages these different meanings have a unique pronoun. Take a look at 2 Corinthians 5:18: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (NIV).

"If a lack of clarity leads to misunderstanding, then accuracy has also been compromised."

The first “us” is probably inclusive; in other words, it refers to all who accept the gift of salvation. The second “us,” however, is probably exclusive because, in the context of this letter to the Corinthians, it only refers to Paul and his ministry companions. So, translators of languages that differentiate between an inclusive and exclusive “us” would need to think about each use of the word in this verse. They would then need to choose the right pronoun to keep the message clear in their translation.

Third, clarity can be a real challenge when the Bible itself is not clear! That may sound heretical, but keep in mind that the biblical text we have is thousands of years old and embedded in a bygone culture. Things that might have been clear then have lost their clarity today. Take a look at Luke 23:43: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise” (NIV, with an edit by me).

In quoting this verse, I’ve intentionally removed the comma that follows “Truly I tell you.” If you place a comma before or after the word “today,” you get two very different meanings. Biblical scholars have argued for centuries over this, trying to decide when the repentant criminal would have gone to paradise. And to make matters worse, the best Bible source texts we have never used commas!

Clarity and accuracy are very interdependent. If a lack of clarity leads to misunderstanding, then accuracy has also been compromised. Translation is a craft—more of an art than a science—and a good translation is a work of good craftsmanship! ***

Danny Foster is president of the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL), a partner of Wycliffe Canada that trains personnel to serve in language work, including Bible translation. CanIL operates at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Ont.

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