Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Translation Theory: American Standard Version (1901)

By far the best, most brutally literal (or minimalistic) standard translation is the American Standard Version (1901). It's great to use when your looking for the exactitudes of the Greek and Hebrew language, although it is awkward, and sounds like the Iranian Ambassador trying to give a soundbite in English.

But today, in looking at Matt 14:24 dealing with the boat being swamped by the waves of the sea, I found a place where ASV really, totally fails to keep up with its translation philosophy of minimalism, and ends up translating rather dynamically.

The problem is that Matthew incorporates a Greek technical term denoting distance. Our standard of measuring distance is the mile or kilometer. The Greeks used the term stadia. Matthew writes that they were many stadia from the land. NIV/TNIV says the equivalent, except without using stadia: " but the boat was already a considerable distance from land." This works fine, and is a good example of sticking with the Greek text as much as possible without hurting the English language.

Normally ASV will stick to the Greek even to the point of offending the English language, but in the case of Matt 14:24, ASV gives a strikingly dynamic (!) translation: "But the boat was now in the midst of the sea." In this case, ASV would make you assume that the Greek would have the word θαλασσα (sea) in this verse, and that the fuller expression "midst of the sea" could be found if you used a Greek interlinear. While you normally can assume things about the Greek behind the ASV without bad things happening to you, in this case, your assumption would get you into trouble.

I hate to say it, but my favorite brutal English translation, ASV, dropped the ball. Yes, it does give a good dynamic equivalent translation; but we don't use ASV for its dynamic equivalence!

In contrast, a good example of ASV's usefulness as a brutally minimal translation is found in Exod 1:13-14 which reads, "And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigor: and they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field, all their service, wherein they made them serve with rigor."

Here, ASV shows the five-fold recurrence of the word serve/service as it correctly reflects the Hebrew. No modern translation (not even ESV) would dare to give such a brutal translation, precisely because any elementary school teacher would simply tell the student to find some other word, rather than boringly repeat the same word five times in the course of two sentences.

But Hebrew narrative is different. It loves this sort of repitition and uses it to convey theology. In this case, the emphasis is that Israel was exemplifying life under the curse of working by the sweat of the brow (Gen 3). By emphasizing this point, the narrator is setting the stage for God to restore the Sabbath Age of Rest (Gen 2:1-3) and to bring Israel into the land of Rest.

No English translation of this passage, other than ASV, calls attention to this motif. If you cannot read Hebrew, the only way to access this narrative technique is through the brutal minimalism of ASV.

The digital ASV is easily accessible everywhere (e.g.,;&version=8;), although its print form is hard to find. If you find one tucked away in a dusty corner of a church somewhere, take it and put it to good use.

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