March 11, 2013
. . . I must register one strong protest against one particular translation. When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretive glosses. This contrasted so strongly with the then popular New English Bible, and promised such an advance over the then rather dated Revised Standard Version, that I recommended it to students and members of the congregation I was serving. Dissolusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul’s letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one. . . . I do not know what version of Scripture they use at Dr Piper’s church. But I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about (Wright, Justification, 51-52).
If I had to guess what Bible they use at Dr. Piper’s church–as Wright phrased it–I would say ESV, although I really have no idea. I get the impression that the ESV is quite trendy right now in many circles, not the least of which include Baptist and Calvinistic. And, I recently had a discussion (actually, it was more of a monologue) in which a quite educated theology student praised the various qualities of the ESV, making claims about this translation that are very similar to the above claims about the NIV. “The ESV translates the Bible literally, word for word. And, the translators attempt to render a word the same way each time, so that the English reader knows exactly what is going on in the Greek. What’s more, this translation was done by those from the reformed camp!”
Wright’s claim, that one can never understand Paul’s words if one relies on the NIV, is quite bold. I think it is an overstatement. But, there is also truth behind his words. Translations can make high claims, as they are prone to do, but in the end they remain translations. This point may be lost to many people who only speak one language, and therefore don’t have an appreciation for the differences of language, or perhaps cannot understand why a literal translation is not always the best.
For example, my wife and I were talking last night about the common German phrase, “Wie geht es Ihnen?” A literal translation would be “How goes it to you?” But that makes no sense, the better translation would be the less literal one: “How are you?” or “How are things going?” But then, of course, you need to figure out how to translate “Ihnen,” which is used when speaking formally, often to a superior. So then, you might need to translate the phrase something like, “How are you, Sir?”
Personally, when I read my favorite authors, I prefer to read them in their own language, rather than in translation. So, for example, I recently read Harry Potter in German. Since I didn’t really care about capturing Rowland’s tone and style, I gladly used the books as a chance to improve my German. When I read C. S. Lewis (my favorite author), I cannot imagine wanting to read him in German. Lewis is such an artist with words, so eloquent, with such a style all of his own. To read him in another language, one would lose the feel. Much of the thought would be Lewis, but to really appreciate Lewis, he must be read in English. I think this is true about the great authors in general, they must be read in their original language.
And this brings me back to my point about Bible translation. If one really wants to capture the feel of the authors (in the Gospels, for example, if one wants to sense the casual, vivid style of Mark versus the more lofty style of Luke), one must read the original. Or, if the Bible is really a treasured book, God’s word, then to really appreciate it for all its worth, one must read the original. There is simply no comparison. I think of the often quoted phrase: “reading the Bible in translation is like kissing the bride through the veil.”
Improving my German is a personal, daily goal of mine. Having now spent the past 5 months in Munich, I thought I would share some observations about the language learning process with you. In particular, let me explain why I think that it is harder for a native English speaker to learn German, than, say, a native speaker of Portugese, or most other languages for that matter.
One of the primary reasons it is harder is because you can be “Englished.” Being “Englished,” a term coined by some American friends here in Munich, means simply this: you are trying your best to communicate to the locals in German, and they switch to English. This can happen for numerous reasons and in various situations. Often being “Englished” implies “Sorry, your German is just not cutting it right now.” But other times one is “Englished” because the locals are eager to improve their ability to speak English. Quite often one is “Englished” when the German’s English is better than your German.
Now it’s time for a personal confession: I find myself drawn to Germans who are slow to “English” me. Why? Because the only way I can improve in German is by speaking it. I have a handful of German friends who never “English” me; instead we carry on conversations, and when it is needed, they offer corrections or suggestions. Their patience is always greatly appreciated, and at the same time humbling. How nice to know that the moment I stumble upon a word or make a mistake, they are not going to flip into English.
But for this very reason, it can be harder for an English speaker to learn another language. Here’s why. As an English speaker, you happen to speak the global language. You can travel just about anywhere and expect to find locals who can communicate quite easily with you in English. Why take the time, then, to learn their language? Think about it, who gets “Portugesed”? Who gets “Russianed” or “Chinesed”? I sometimes envy my friends here in Munich who speak these other languages, since they are forced to speak German the entire day. Sink or swim. But the fact that you are a native English speaker and are trying to learn a new language puts you in a disadvantageous position: people will want to practice their English with you; people can speak English better than you can their language; people will make exceptions for you to speak English where they would not have made exceptions for other nationalities. For example, as an English speaker, I could choose to speak in University seminars and colloquiums in English, and it would be perfectly acceptable. This, however, is not possible for other international students.
Being “Englished” can be quite discouraging. I choose to see it, however, as personal challenge to continue to improve my language skills, and to recognize just how much room for improvement I have. Ultimately, recognize that if you want to avoid being “Englished,” you must speak excellent German. The only way to avoid this “Englishment” is to ensure that your German is always better than the other person’s English. But of course, as one learning the language, you are not at this point yet, so the vicious cycle continues.
In conclusion, allow me to share a few insights on how to avoid being “Englished”:
- Arriving in the country with a basic grasp of the language is extremely beneficial. It allows you to immediately begin practicing and using the language, rather than wasting valuable months learning the rudimentaries of the language–something you could’ve done before your arrival. Furthermore, if you arrive not speaking the language, you will likely be categorized as a non-speaker. Then, even after you have learned the language, people still have in their minds that you are a novice.
- Never make the same mistake twice. This seems like it would be common-sense, but it is often ignored. What I mean here is this: when you can’t think of a word in a conversation, make sure you nail it when you get home. Practice it. When you make a grammatical mistake, go home and practice and review that section. When you encounter a new word in your reading, look it up, write it down, and then try to incorporate it in your next conversation.
- As an English speaker, don’t cut corners. Master the grammar, speak the local language in every situation. Then, if you do get “Englished,” at least it wasn’t your own doing.
- One of the first things you should practice is the pronunciation of a language. This is important, because if you try to speak German but immediately sound like an American, you have really shot yourself in the foot. People will either assume, “Oh an American, he probably speaks a total of 3 phrases in my language,” or they will perhaps use your presence as a chance to better their English.
November 21, 2012
My friend and fellow blogger Jacob recently wrote a post about setting higher standards for the biblical languages. Jacob discusses a growing trend where biblical languages are taught as if they were living languages. Jacob asks,
is the solution learning to hear, speak, and compose Greek? Is it our goal to revive a dead language. I understand that being able to think in a language is instrumental in understanding it. But the language is dead. There are no remaining speakers of koine Greek. The conversation has stopped. Anything that modern day “speakers” of koine compose will, by definition, be artificial.
The first question that comes to my mind is this: “Do those who advocate such a learning model have fluency in any living languages, besides their mother tongues?” Such a point seems highly important to me, for if the Greek teacher speaks only his mother tongue (e.g., English), but has never acquired fluency in another living language (e.g., German), then how will he effectively teach his students Koine Greek in such a manner? He will, in a sense, be attempting to take them somewhere he has never gone–fluency. He runs the risk of artificiality at two points, for he attempts, in a sense, to revive a dead language, and secondly,to teach fluency, although he himself is not fluent in another language, and therefore does not truly know the intricate complexities behind the concept.
An interesting study regarding the biblical languages would be to examine how they were taught and learned throughout church history. It would be very interesting then to compare how the current American model differs from the pedagogical methods of previous generations. Although not strictly a biblical language, Latin might serve as an example. As is often stated, Latin was the gentleman’s language for many centuries. It was expected that an educated person could not only read Latin, but could correspond in it. Latin thus served as a unifying language for scholars, allowing people from various cultures to share a common language. And such correspondence in Latin is often witnessed, even in not so distant history, as when C.S. Lewis communicated with an Italian priest in Latin (cf. The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis).
I doubt that students were ever encouraged to learn Latin as if it were a modern language. Nevertheless, the level of proficiency in general was very high, so high that educated people often composed letters in Latin.
When it comes to Koine Greek, I think a better solution may be found. For those who really want to experience fluency in Koine Greek, I would suggest learning modern day Greek. Then one could take field trips to Greece and apply one’s knowledge–and truly test one’s level of fluency–while at the same time helping the Greek economy.
Fluency, I think, is a key component that is missing in the teaching of biblical languages. Most (American) students who learn the biblical languages can only speak their mother tongue (English). They have probably had four years of high school Spanish, which they studied because they had to, and have all but forgotten it. Personally, I’m finding that the process of learning to speak and communicate in German has greatly improved my Greek (I am currently living in Munich, Germany). Learning to speak this language has pointed out rough edges and sloppy areas in my biblical languages; it has created a greater precision in my approach to Greek. I wonder how the process of learning biblical languages would be different if students could draw from fluency in a second language.
Ultimately, I think Jacob hits the nail on the head in his post. Where is the solution for better acquisition of the biblical languages to be found? Teaching Koine Greek as if it were a modern language? I don’t think so; as I mentioned, Spanish is taught as if it is a modern language, and is also neglected. Instead, overcoming the biblical languages barrier has a lot to do with laziness. Once this is overcome, the student is well on his way to mastering biblical Greek.
January 28, 2012
Today I finished George Bailey’s Germans: Biography of an Obsession. There were so many excellent points, in fact I scribbled and underlined on nearly every page. I also found Bailey fascinating, especially his interest in languages. Bailey’s first exposure to the German language came at the age of 12 when he began spending summers in the wilderness of Washington state with his lumberjack German uncle. Then at the age of 16 Bailey began working in a kitchen on a midwestern train, where he was surrounded by Germans and Poles and Czechs and Russians. Bailey then got a scholarship to Columbia College in New York city. He chose to study Classics with a focus on Greek. During his studies, Bailey was drawn to the kitchen of a nearby Hebrew seminary, where again he was exposed to numerous languages, including Hebrew. Bailey exchanged lessons in German for lessons in Hebrew with one of the students. Then, during WWII Bailey served as an army translator, communicating primarily in German and Russian. After the war, Bailey chose to study at Magdalen College, Oxford, under the famous C. S. Lewis. Bailey recounts several stories of his encounter with Lewis, including the time when Lewis was forced to confess to Bailey that he could not read a German quote.
Here were some of my favorite takeaways from Bailey’s book:
“What attracted me to German from the first was its distinctness and clarity. It was hard, clear, and sharp. . . . It seemed to me the manliest of languages. There were those wonderful reinforced consonants: “Stumpf” instead of stump, “Schwert” instead of sword (where only the first and last consonants are pronounced)” (Germans, 16).
“The study of languages is an intellectual pursuit. But the pursuit does not make the intellectual; the intellectual makes the pursuit. In fact, in a curious way knowledge of a foreign language tends to inhibit one from reading widely. While the linguist is able to read the original text he often can do so only with the greatest difficulty. The ability coupled with the difficulty acts as a double deterrent: it rules out reading the work in translation and discourages struggling with the original text (Germans, 22; I had to chuckle when I read this, for I’ve often thought that I could have done a lot more reading if I hadn’t spent so many long hours trying to learn some new language).
“The chief significance of being at a university is the access to books” (Germans, 152).
January 6, 2012
It seems one can hardly mention the topic of language-learning without quickly encountering Rosetta Stone. In fact, I’ve recently met a couple of people who are trying to learn a new language and also bought Rosetta Stone, as if it were the magical key or the logical step along one’s way to learning a language. As one who is learning German and who has used Rosetta Stone, allow me to explain what I feel are some pros and cons of the program.
First, let me start with the cons:
- Rosetta Stone lists no grammatical rules or explanations. Many people see this as a benefit of the program, thinking, “oh good, I don’t have to memorize any tedious rules or endings to verbs.” I think this is actually a huge disadvantage: one is forced to have to figure out the endings by trial and error. And in the end, your still having to learn the rules, you’re simply stumbling about in the dark as you try to figure out the patterns on your own, rather than knowing the rules up front and then being able to practice them.
- Rosetta Stone is all about repetition on set topics and themes. Basically, there is very little creative thinking where you are having to devise your own sentences. Instead, you simply repeat the sentences you are given. This is very unrealistic compared to what one encounters in “live” conversation. The big disadvantage here is that Rosetta Stone can give one a false sense of confidence as one repeats the sentences and vocabulary words, but leaving one lacking in real conversational experience. Once one has completed all the levels of Rosetta Stone, one should realize that he is still a language beginner. Pick up a German newspaper or listen to the evening news and one will feel overwhelmed by the mass of unrecognizable vocabulary.
Now, let me list some of the pros of Rosetta Stone:
- Rosetta Stone helps you become familiar with everyday topics and vocabulary.
- Rosetta Stone is an excellent tool for reviewing one’s grammar. For example, I worked through Rosetta Stone after working through several German grammars. I found this extremely beneficial: the rules and principles from the grammars were solidified in my practice on Rosetta Stone. Instead of figuring out the rules on my own, Rosetta Stone offered lots of review of what I had already learned.
- Rosetta Stone offers lots of practice for hearing the language. I found this very helpful since most of my previous learning had been from books. Rosetta Stone allows one to hear native speakers, and this helps one learn how to better pronounce the language.
So, before you purchase a pricey language software such as Rosetta Stone, know what you’re getting. And let me encourage you to use Rosetta Stone, not as one’s first exposure to a language, but as a tool for reviewing and practicing a newly learned language. This, I think, is Rosetta Stone’s greatest benefit.
June 7, 2011
1. Language is about the ear, not the eye
I recently heard a story about a prisoner. During his 20 year jail-sentence, he devoted himself to mastering the French language. And he did splendidly. He mastered an incredibly large number of French words, somewhere between 25,000 to 35,000. This is a lot, they say Shakespeare had about this number of words in his vocabulary; the average language speaker only uses between 3,000-5,000 words. So, this prisoner developed a large vocabulary. He was able to read all sorts of books in the French language. At the end of his 20 years, he was released and flew immediately to France. He was devastated when as soon as he got to France, however, because he could not understand a single word that he heard. All of his book learning did not transfer into street-usage. Just because your eye knows a language does not mean your ear and tongue know it as well
2. Langauge is a lifelong commitment
Many students learn languages simply to pass a class. Language is something to be learned in order to pass tests. Once the language course is finally finished, students breath a huge sigh of relief, feeling that their most difficult work is finished. The truth, however, is that the work has only begun because unless the student regularly uses the language, it will quickly be forgotten. The language must be used regularly for the rest of one’s life if it is to be remembered. Therefore, the most lengthy part of any language is not the first few years of study and memorization and repetition, but the many years of steady, determined review and practice. This should cause every student who is about to begin learning a new language to think long and hard, for he is about to do something that, in order to do well, he must do for the rest of his life. Learning this new language will be a labor that lasts the rest of his life. Unless he plans on devoting himself to it, he may as well not even begin the course, because all that time spent on memorizing vocab and learning grammar will be forgotten in a few months; it will be wasted, like an orange left in some dark closet that quickly grows fuzzy green mold. Just as quick as that, the student will not even remember how to pronounce the language. In short, one could compare language learning to a marriage: the real effort is not in the man’s wooing of the woman before marriage, but in his lifelong pursuit of that woman after marriage. Any man can get married, few can stay married. The same is true for language.
3. Language is a wild ride
Language learning is a wild stallion. It will rear up and dare you to come closer, it will intimidate you with its beastly exceptions, it will embarrass you as it throws you out of the saddle, it will gladly leave you in the mud along with the many others who refused to get back on and ride. Know, however, that language-learning is a wild but tameable stallion.
4. The secret to language learning
Many think there is a gift for learning languages. If there is such a thing as a “gift for learning languages,” it comes wrapped in motivation and tied with the bow of will-power. I think this expression applies to language-learning: “One who wants to do something is able to do more than ten who must.”
March 4, 2011
“We opened our books at Iliad, Book 1. Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so. . . . He then translated, with a few, very few explanations, about a hundred lines. I had never seen a classical author taken in such large gulps before. When he had finished he handed me over Crusius’ Lexicon and, having told me to go through again as much as I could of what he had done, left the room. It seems an odd way of teaching, but it worked. At first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed, but every day I could travel further. . . . He appeared at this stage to value speed more than absolute accuracy. The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 79).
One of the things I like most about this quote is the way Lewis describes diving into the original texts. Isn’t it amazing that his tutor thrust him into the Iliad on their very first lesson? It seems that a good goal for those who teach languages is to get students into the text as quickly and frequently as possible.
February 8, 2011
In writing an introduction to an article on the language of the NT, I thought about beginning it like this:
If a broad, lazy river were followed progressively upstream one would soon discover that several smaller rivers joined it. The river would quickly narrow as it meandered through open fields and pastures. It would make some surprising twists and rapid plunges over waterfalls as it neared the foot-hills. At the end of the journey one would eventually discover that the river originated as a cool brook high up in the mountains. One can make a similar journey in tracing the development of the languages of the world. For example, if one were to follow the river of the English language upstream one would soon wander through the Old English countryside. Not long afterwards, the river would be joined by the French and Spanish streams, and eventually the journey would lead to the bubbling brook of the Latin language.
I decided to cut out the whole paragraph. Why? For one thing, I don’t want to risk being cheesy. Also, the article is supposed to be as succinct as possible, and I’m afraid such an introduction is a-succinct.
February 2, 2011
“Concepts are not carried in vocabulary, but in sentences, paragraphs, and discourses, not to speak of smiles, frowns, and/or looks” (Smalley, The Place of Linguistics, 106).
February 2, 2011
William Smalley writes that in translation what counts is creative writing, that is, “gifted, lucid, effective, satisfying writing. . . . Few translations of the Bible show it, but some do, and they are the only ones I would consider really great translations. . . . It is the most difficult of all good qualities of a translation to capture, but without it there is no really good translation. Only by means of it are the full resources of a language being used as a vehicle to carry the Biblical message. Only through it can the spirit and mood of the Scriptures be captured. . . . Most translations, even when done by people into their own langauges, are not polished, literary pieces of work. Literal renderings and semitisms still show their wooden heads. Faithful translation is still equated with dull style” (W. Smalley, The Place of Linguistics, 108-9).