The Error of Colloquialism

I love Eugene Peterson, I really do. His theological writing and Biblical paraphrase are not to be taken lightly nor unthoughtfully. So here’s some thoughts about modern langauge translations and paraphases of the Bible—they miss the point. I know, I know, the point of them is to put the Bible into the language of the people, just like Luther did, just like the KJV did when it was first published. It’s quite true that most people don’t speak King James’ English any more, except those brought up on that translation and Shakespeare’s plays. Yet even in these cases, there’s a disconnect in situational dialect–in prayer the KJV-phile employs “Bible English”; in the office he never does.

‘So’, Eugene Peterson and others thought, ‘let’s put the Bible in the language of the office, the language of the coffee-shop, even the language of the alley-bound cigarette break. Then people will read it! Then people will relate to it!’ You know, I think it worked. After all, why shouldn’t it work? If anyone has paid any attention to 20th and 21st century popular literature, one will see that those who read in our culture respond better to and buy more books written in the colloquilisms in which they speak. To the Baby Boomer customer who yawned at Dickens, Tennyson, Dostoevsky, and even Fitzgerald, the mid-20th century offered Kerouac, Salinger, or Heller. To the 20 and 30 something children of Boomers who think that the Beat generation was mostly unsanitary and that Jazz is a boring anachronism, bookstores like Borders now offers Weisberger chick-lit with its latte-swilling pop-profanity, or the postmodern, testosterone-laden satire of Copeland or Palahniuk. And to a new generation of the X-er’s waxing adolescents who aren’t allowed to read profane books (nor would they really enjoy them) there is the fantasy-lite of Rowling, who teeters between the neutered romance of a Disney Channel comedy and a hackneyed neo-classicism.

My treatment of literary ‘generational’ changes from Dostoevsky to Kerouac to Weisberger may seem to some unfair, and I fully acknowledge that The Devil Wears Prada is not the best literature to be released in the last few years, but all of these books, I think, have occupied the same place in literature in their respective time periods, namely that of popular fiction. Kerouac doesn’t hold a candle to Dickens and Dostoevsky, neither does Palahniuk match the earlier brilliance of Kerouac. That popular literature is less polished, less thoughtful, and much more transitory today than in previous generations is almost itself an anachromism to say (which doesn’t, by the way, make it less true). Yet beyond the usual criticisms of today’s popular literature, I’d like to add that the english used in contemporary literature is more elementary and unstudied than in previous genrations. Take, for example, the opening line of last year’s best seller The Devil Wears Prada:

“The light hadn’t even officially turned green at the intersection of 17th and Broadway before an army of overconfident yellow cabs roared past the tiny deathtrap I was trying to navigate around the city streets.”

So begins the most loved of the new millenium’s stories about juicy social intrigues and the humor and horror of the upper class.

Now let’s back up. A little less than 200 years ago, another up and coming female author, a Weisberger of sorts in the early 19th century, published a novel that her generation was to love for its juicy social intrigues and satirical treatment of upper class snobbery. The novel was Pride and Prejudice, the author Jane Austen. Here’s how Austen begins her novel:

“It is a truth universally acknolwedged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Let’s compare the two openings. First of all, Weisberger is writing in first person, Austen in third. This might seem inconsequential, yet it may show that in Austen’s time, an objective, removed narrator was seen as more trustworthy and desirable than the more subjective voice of a main character. Second, I’m not sure Weisberger’s opening makes sense. I had to read the final clause 5x over before I could begin to see what she was describing concerning the traffic. This, however, may just be a problem with me. Third, and, I think, most importantly, the intention of the two openings is different. Weisberger seems concerned with setting up a tone of voice. The phrase “hadn’t even officially turned…” is evocative of a sort of contemporarily feminine, 20-something ‘overspeak,’ where longer adjectives (seriously, literally, definitely, officially) are used as seemingly articulate (albeit unnecessary) flourishes of language. It seems that the content here is much less important that the way it is said. If one were to strip the sentence of flourishes, it would say something like “The stoplight had not turned green, yet the cabs drove through it past me as I tried too tried to drive successfully.” Yes, I know, I couldn’t help putting that adverb at the end, though I don’t think I’m committing ‘overspeak.’ Here, I think, Weisberger gambles. She bets that her audience either identifies with the type of language (exaggerated pop-cynicism and faux intellectualism) she writes in, or at least would see a character who speaks such language as

I said above that Austen’s opening was different than Weisbergers in intention. Whereas Weisberger’s intention is to describe an image in a tone revealing the age, attitude, and social status of her main character, Austen’s opening borders on a sort of “moral of the story” feel. It is written in straighforward, albeit articulate, english. The reader with soon find that the sentence sets the stage for a story that explores the truth-value of the opening claim. Is the truth universally acknowledged? By the behavior and speech of the characters, it may be debatable. Note that Austen’s use of the adverb is different than Weisbergers’. Whereas Weisberger uses her adverb to add exaggerational tone to her sentence, Austen uses her adverb as an important modifier which both intensifies and casts suspicion on the truth value of her statement. To say that a truth is acknowledged is neither as risky nor exciting as to say that a truth is universally acknowledged. It seems that Weisberger is not interested in universal truths nor universal acknowledgement, though it is a truth universally acknowledged by contemporary authors that universal truth is in want of any strong supporters.

Perhaps the poor use of adverbs and the sacrifice of meaning for tone is an isolated incident with Weisberger. Well, then lets leave the popular, chick-lit demographic, and look take a look at the male authors of today and yesteryear. I know that it’s popluar to make fun of The Da Vinci Code, and I don’t want to make fun of it, I want to look at its use of language. Here is the opening of Dan Brown’s bestseller:

“Robert Langdon awoke slowly. A telephone was ringing in the distance–a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Rennaisance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed, and a colossal, mahogany four-poster bed.”

Now let’s rewind a century to 1908, to another novel about detectives, academics, and supernatural mysteries. G.K. Chesterton opens his famous The Man Who Was Thursday like so:

“The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its skyline was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne, apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical. It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art.”

First, note the length of the sentences. I have quoted the first four by each author, and not until the fourth does Brown match the length of any of Chesterton’s. Now long lines are not the mark of a good author (any comparison of Melville and Hemingway might persuade some of just the opposite), but here it seems indicative of Brown’s inability to use adjectives well. How many adjectives are in Brown’s opening? If we stretch, we find 7: tinny, unfamiliar, bedside, plush, hand-frescoed, collosal and mahogany. How many adjectives are in Chesterton’s opening? There are 8, including: red, ragged, bright, fantastic, wild, speculative, artistic, and definable. Are Chesterton’s words better than Brown’s? I could say alot about this, but I’ll limit myself to this observation. Brown’s first two adjectival phrases are these: “tinny, unfamiliar ring”, and “plush, Renaissance bedroom”. The first is, admittedly, a bit novel. Tinny is a fun word to say, and pairing it with unfamiliar gives a variety to the types of adjectives in the phrase. The phrase itself, though not alliterative in any way, is mildly melodic in its sound. However, the second phase is dismal. It sounds ripped from a brochure for a 4-star hotel. Generic and plebian, it sounds like what a junior high student would write if asked to describe a nice bedroom from War and Peace.

Now lets look at Chesterton’s first two adjectival phrases: “as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset,” and “built of a bright brick throughout”. The first is downright beautiful in its sound and image. The superb consonance of “red and ragged” is matched only by its trochaic meteric structure. “Built of a bright brick throughout” takes the alliteration to a new level, finally releasing us from a string of ‘b’ sounds with ‘throughout’ which hooks back around and creates a subtle consonance with the ‘t’ ending of the first two words in the phrase. Chesterton is a master of the casual alliteration, creating accidental-feeling streams of sound (like the luscious “sunset side of London”) which ring in the ear and the remain in the mind. The closest Brown comes is the assonance of the three ‘i’ sounds in ‘tinny, unfamiliar ring’. Both books are popular thrillers written by men; one author dances with the english language and creates new semblances of sentence, the other flounders and throws out others’ phrases.

You may be asking yourself whether I’ve strayed too far from the point. But what is the point? The point has been that there is a reduction and simplification of language over the last two centuries in popular fiction. If I’m not mistaken, this trend is roughly proportional to the trend in the common English speaker’s vocabulary and usage. Which is responsible for which is an interesting and probably quite complex discussion. Chesterton seems to be able to greatly influence his reader’s vocabulary and usage, though it may be argued that this is only true for the 21st century audience. Perhaps all turn of the century Englishmen described Western London as the “sunset side,” and thought of all ruddy skies as “red and ragged.” Though the basic vocabulary of such a reader was perhaps greater than a contemporary reader’s, it would be befitting to note that Chesterton’s opening lines do not contain any words that would give the 21st century audience much trouble. The words ‘sunset’ and ‘side’ are not unknown to us, but the pairing of them is fresh and unfamiliar, just as the ring of Robert Langdon’s telephone is, ironically, not. It is this freshness that our language lacks, and which most often divides lasting wordsmiths from flash-in-the-pan fakes. It is my suspicion that The Man Who Was Thursday was just as surprising and mysterious in its diction and subject in 1908 as it is today. In fact, the seeming novelty of a spy novel with a “secret-code” mcguffen set in the world of Renaissance art is probably the only true virtue of Mr. Brown’s bestseller. Yet it is a seeming virtue. One look into Umberto Eco’s (or any of Sayers’ or Chesterton’s for that matter) novels will desensitize us to the magic of Da Vinci’s fictional, unbroken code.

And now we are ready to transition back to the subject of Biblical translation today. What language is like in novels and what language is like in common usage both influence each other, and both are taken into account when the ‘plain-English’ translator is preparing a Biblical text. Yet any 21st century teenager can tell you that when an adult (especially a bookish one) tries to mimic street slang, the result is most often comically way off the desired mark and sometimes a little sad. So it goes with some Biblical translations. Consider the NIV Revolution Bible: The Bible For Teen Guys. The inside flap of the Bible reads like this:

“In case you didn’t know, you’re in a war. Your enemy is dead serious. He wants you to think the battle raging around you is not big deal. It is a big deal. You relationships, your world—it’s all a big deal, and it takes a big, God-filled heart to make a difference. It’s time to stand up and fight for what is right. Time to be a revolutionary—living your faith on the edge, challenging thins that need to be challenged, discovering new possibilities, and helping others to discover them as well. Fill you hands with revolution. It’ll open your eyes, strengthen your courage, and guide you like a compass toward a life worth living. But this is a Bible! Yeah—a Bible like none other you’ve ever read, for today’s teenage guy going toe-to-toe with a hard-hitting world. A world God knows all about.”

This is an interesting introduction to a Bible desperately trying to be relevant. Beyond the subject matter and character qualities (battles, enemies, strength and courage) that this assumes will appeal to teenage guys, it is interesting that the author of these introductory comments assume that short, often fragmented sentences are more appealing to guys that longer, more complex sentences, or even complete sentences. This seems to be a case of audience dialect dictating author’s usage. But what this propagates is the assumption that we should talk about the bible using the language we already know and use—that religious discussion uses only the terms we’re already familiar with. Yet this seems to dampen the ability for religious discussion (notice we haven’t yet looked at the actual text of the Bible yet, just language about the Bible) to teach us anything new. Any schoolchild knows that the introduction of new vocabulary is an indication that new concepts and systems are on their educational way. No new vocabulary often means nothing to be learned (this is not always true; as we will discuss next, new combinations of well known words can be revelations as novel and effective as whole new words). This introduction, though it has the merit of perhaps making a young man interested in the Bible teaching him things, works against these future learning opportunities by its very linguistic construction.

But we must get to the actual scriptural text. Let’s look at two texts in four different translations. First, I want to look at Romans 8:37-39, the verbally intense conclusion to over 8 chapters of St. Paul’s complex Christological argumentation. Here’s the text in the King James version:

“Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Now, here’s that same text in the English Standard Version a new, 21st century translation that proclaims to hold the literal translation of the Greek text intact while offering a smoothness of reading at the same time:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

A cursory comparison of these two passages, translated nearly 4 centuries apart, show a considerable shift in vocabulary and wording. ‘Nay’ is now ‘No’, ‘persuaded’ is swapped out for ‘sure,’ ‘principalities’ is now the simpler ‘rulers,’ and, curiously, ‘creatures,’ which looks strangely placed in the KJV, is retranslated ‘anything…in creation,’ this shows, perhaps, how the meaning of the word ‘creature’ was once construed more broadly than it is today. Now it could be argued (and many have) that any change from the KJV language other than is absolutely necessary for understanding (such as changes from ‘thou should’st’ to ‘you should’) is an unrighteous corruption. Yet such changes as the ‘creatures’ change seem appropriate, given the actual change in the scope of the word’s meaning in the intervening time (this assumes that words actually can change meaning; for the sake of time, I’ll assume that such a phenomenon is possible). The appropriateness of such changes as ‘principalities’ to ‘rulers’ is more debatable. From a purely linguistic standpoint, the latter word is simpler and differently derived than the former. Also, the meaning has changed some, if one assumes the ‘ruler’ no longer carries the connotation of ‘ontologically higher being’. Yet it might be injudicious of us to assume that shorter and less Latinate words are less preferable to others. Short words, such as ‘red and ragged,’ can carry punches and connotations that longer worded phrases, such as ‘crimson and corroded,’ may not. It is not, I think, unfair to say, however, that the language of the ESV is less sophisticated than the KJV, though even sophisticated English may not always be called better English. After all, it is one of the goals of all true literature to use language in the best ways possible. There is a way to use ‘cerulean’ well, and it should not eclipse the proper use of ‘blue’.

But now we must look at the two other translations of scripture, one of which is a full blown paraphrase of scripture, Peterson’s popular Message:

“None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”

Finally we have the New Life Version, a ‘contemporary English’ version, but less obviously paraphrased:

“But we have power over all these things through Jesus who loves us so much. For I know that nothing can keep us from the love of God. Death cannot! Life cannot! Angels cannot! Leaders cannot! Any other power cannot! Hard things now or in the future cannot! The world above or the world below cannot! Any other living thing cannot keep us away from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It is easy to see that this English is much more in line with today’s colloquialisms. From the use of words like “fazes” to the excessive use of exclamation points reminiscent of IM-speak, these translations overstep the simpler language of the ESV to the point of appearing a different dialect. The message goes as far as to change the whole meanings of phrases. Look at the last phrase in the KJV, ESV, and NLV. They read “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” and “the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus” respectively. All speak, with varying degrees of specificity of God’s love belonging to in Christ. Yet the Message does something interesting. It reads “God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.” This is interesting not only in that ‘Lord’ has been changed to ‘Master’, but also in that the specific image of an embrace is used when none appears in any other translations. Now, given that this is a paraphrase, Peterson is allowed more leeway than a NASB translator would have, yet it is interesting that he has chosen this phrase as one that needs more specificity. The linguistic choice on Peterson’s part seems indicative of a contemporary poetics that favors concrete images over abstract relationships. “The love of God is ours in Christ” is harder to ‘see’ than “Our master has embraced us.”

Yet perhaps this poetics has eclipsed a greater one. After all, another large change that both Peterson and the NLV make is in the last clause of the first verse. The KJV and ESV both read “through him that/who loved us.” The Message reads “Jesus who loves us,” and the NLV “Jesus Who loves us so much”. Though the ‘so’ of the NLV is highly superfluous, there is a deeper difference here, namely the changing of ‘who’ to ‘Jesus.’ This difference may seem small, but it reveals another difference in poetics. From Homer to Dante, a common trope is the use of a vague noun or pronoun modified by a specific adjectival phrase to hint at, or give a different viewpoint of a person or thing more specifically named elsewhere. In The Iliad book 18, Homer chooses, having referred to Hephaestus many times earlier, refers to him in a new way when he says: “Now/ When the famous crippled Smith had finished off/ That grand array of armor…” Homer could have just said the god’s name instead of ‘famous crippled Smith”, but the strange mix of ambiguity and specificity gives us not only a new description of, but even a new, fresh vision of the character. Dante uses such tropes often. So often does he use them, in fact, that it is still unclear to this reader which star of all the multitudes he refers to when he writes phrases like ‘the star by which sailors guide their East-bound ships’. Such tropes force the reader to ask “who?” or “what?” of people and objects they thought that they already knew. To question what we have seen is to more deeply see it, and our language about it.

In fact, this concept–that linguistic defamiliarization is a powerful tool in helping an audience to see more clearly–is not in any way unique to epic poets of yeasteryear (though often they are our best tutors). Walter Brueggemann, when discussing the use of reduced, untilitarian language in preaching, says this:

” The issues facing the church and its preachers may be put this way: Is there another way to speak? Is there anoither voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced? In the sermon–and in the life of the church nmore genrally I propose–we are to practice another way of comminication that makes another shaping of life possible; unembarrased about another rationality, not anxious about accomodating the reason of this age… Reduced speech leads to reduced lives. Sunday morning is the practice of a counter life through counter speech. The church on Sunday morning, or whenever it engages in its odd speech, may be the last place left in our society for imaginitive speech that permits poeple to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life. ”

It goes without saying that the earlier Bible for teen guys takes an opposite approach to Brueggemann’s. It is so anxious about accomodating at least the language of the age that it makes itself only relevant to the literarity nieve, linguistically unobservant teen of the last 5 years. In 5 years it will seem antiquated and laughable. I think the same could be said for much of the Message’s language. Already there are at least 2 versions of the message, one for the older generation, one for the hep teens. Jargon changes often; must scripture and our language about scripture change and continually mutate with it? Perhaps one could say that though this is true of the KJV’s diction as well, but I don’t think it is as much. The KJV’s wording has lasted for the greater part of 400 years without substantial changes in translation after translation, even by translators that are seemingly displeased with the KJV’s style and philosophy. it is hard to argue against the observation that the English language was more rich, vibrant and full in the several centries previous to our own than in our own. And it is this richness, this vibrant reality, this fullness that Biblical language must reclaim if it is to be the countercultural, life changing fource that Bruegemann says it should be. The Bible above all else should be respected as the Word of God by translating and quoting it in the best words that our language has for it. Much has been written about the unique literary style of Christ’s preaching. To reduce Christ’s words to their lowest synonyms is, it seems, nigh unto blasphemy. This does not mean that all words and phrases must be as complex as possible, but it does mean that the wordsmiths of the church (Bible translators, commentators, and preachers foremost) should give the Bible and the Christian religion the best our language has to offer. And, if Brueggemann is on to something, the further from the colloquial, maybe the better.

Yet we also have the strange job of shying away from not just culturally worn phrases, but also Christian-ly worn phrases. Some of the language unique to the Church has grown stale, and we need newness from this as well. But this should drive us to innovation and resource in English, not slouching toward slang. What we need is poetry in the church, which might just mean refocusing our eyes to see the poetry already around us. When William Stafford, the rural grandfather of mid-20th century American poetry, was asked how poetry could be introduced into worship services he answered:

“This one is easy. Church services are poetry from beginning to end; they just are poetry. A strange thing to me is that someone can come out of a church service and ask about whether poetry is flourishing today. They have been inside singing, praying, repeating cadenced uplifting words. They are helplessly enthralled by poetry without knowing it–that is, many of them do not know it. Religion is serious poetry–which is not to say religion cannot be lighthearted. But at its highest it turns important; and important involvement with language, use of language for significant human experiences, merges inevitably into poetry.”

If we are to care about relevance, let us care about being relevant to ‘significant human experience’, not to the langauge of the unexamined life. In Bruegemann’s words, “The Bible is our firm guarantee that in a world of technological naivete and ideological reductionism, prophetic construals of another world are still possible, still worth doing, still longingly recieved by those who live at the edge of despair, resignation, and conformity.”  Language is an attribute that we share with our creator.  Sure, it is splintered; sure, it is sometimes untranslatable, but God’s word is not.  Let us not translate it poorly, or, which is more often, with incorrect intentions. God’s Word is to be universally understandable, but not because it is universally bland.  There are things in it that no man understands, and to translate so as to make it all understandable, with nothing to wrestle with, nothing to wonder at, nothing to shock us into life, is to do disservice to the Word which we hold dear.


One thought on “The Error of Colloquialism

  1. Thanks Tim! Finally a guest post… and a very “Tim” post at that. Now if only Michael will finish one of his drafts…

    Though I was at first put off by the Chesterton/ Brown/ Austen/ Weisberger comparison, the themes of tradition, words, and meaning were intriguing. So do you think The Message threatens this “church poetry”? What do you think threatens the poetry in the worship services that Stafford defended?

    It seems to me that when we talk of “relevance” we mean (or should mean): “is this truth, and is it important in this demographic’s lives?” But when we talk about the mysterious Word of God, we should be more worried about clearly speaking truth since the importance of it should be presumed, no?

    Are you asking how we should interpret the meaning of the Bible?

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