A network of highly cohesive details reveals the truth.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Opening Movement...

...of the grand opus number one.

Sounds spectacular, huh?

Well, I think there is something going on that's pretty big--a movement to open up the Biblical text so that one and all can engage the text. And have the text engage them. I think the bazaar has discovered the text, or might it be the other way around? (see this wiki article, the book, or Eric Raymond's own page about the Cathedral and the Bazaar. These articles are about software engineering, but the cathedral and bazaar model still applies. I also think John Forbes Nash's view of equilibrium in a competing system provides some impetus to the whole "Opening up the Text" movement. As little as we like to admit it, different denominations and churches compete--sadly, large churches swallowing up little ones. And yet, we all are focused, or like to think we're focused, on a common vision.

There's a buzz about "Opening up". For example, in no particular order:

"What we need is the time to devote to open-source scholarly productivity ... and the financial support that will motivate scholars to offer their research and written instruction outside the current print-publishing-prestige-profit complex."
Yup, true enough. I've been involved in Open Source since way before it was called such (I suppose around 1990), and the prestige of Open Source is directly correlated to the service one supplies to the community. Anyway...

Back in March I sent an email to Zack Hubert which I think was more than he wanted to think about at the time. It said the following (somewhat edited for content here):

I run across people, dedicated people who yearn to have a closer walk with God, who admit to me, "I don't understand the Bible." These people are not dumb and I feel their pain. The point I'm making is we absolutely must find a way to get the original meaning, accurately exegeted, with a high degree of public exposure and peer-review (this feeds the accuracy), into a language that people can just read. What I might call koine English--not street language, but not academic either. It simply needs to be in the vernacular. Are we there today? No. But, if I may say so, I'm a firm believer that the process is outlined in the Bible. The problem is clearly defined in 1 Cor. 14:6-12.

I've come to the conclusion that there are two different uses of a Bible Translation (BT). Think of these, if you are at all knowledgeable of computer science, in use-case terms. In other words, if we ask the question, "How does a serious Bible student use the Bible?" we get two answers (two, rather high level, cases). One is analytic. The other is synthetic.

The first is where the details of the text-- lexical, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic--are all analyzed. This is a use-case used by the analytical and detail oriented person. And let me emphasize: it's valuable. However, it appears to me that our current educational establishments cater to this sort of person when teaching exegesis and hermeneutics and therefore the BTs are skewed toward this use-case. They don't allow, other than maybe just touching it, the benefits linguistics brings to the table. Especially the results of some cognitive linguistics, but more so the results of discourse or text linguistics. And that brings me to the other use-case.

The way language works in communication is very highly synthetic. In other words, the vast details of how a specific text works interrelate in highly cohesive ways and thereby form a coherent meaning in one's mind. What this ends up meaning is that there must be this other use-case.

This second use-case involves at least the following details:

  • Markup of a text into paragraphs and rationale for the location of these breaks.
  • A synopsis (thesis statement or precis) of each paragraph
  • Translation into a destination language. This translation is more synthetic than the typical literal translation. We need both, but the more typical literal translation directly supports the analytical use-case. This synthetic translation is somewhat more paragraph oriented. In other words, a person reading the translation of the paragraph should come to an approximation of the synopsis (mentioned immediately above) of that paragraph as determined by a paragraph level exegesis. If they don't, then there is either something wrong with the translation, or something wrong with the synopsis, or both.
  • Community involvement in the translation process (See next)
  • Full exposure of why a translation choice was made. In other words, the rationale of the choice is fully exposed to peer review where the peers exist along at least one of three dimensions: clarity, naturalness, and accuracy. In other words, we need people, all of which are viewed as peers, along each of these dimensions. And I think it is very important to understand that "the ploughboy" exists along at least one of these dimensions. One significant advantage of this full exposure is that it would end up teaching people the interpretive context. Many wrong interpretations are easily dismissed when one learns that the original hearers could not have understood the passage that way.
  • We need to the ability to keep several versions of the translation artifacts (objects that support the translation) around. Open Sourcing the data would foster people to develop their own artifacts, but a central repository would foster the community communication that is so very badly needed in order to come closer to the intent of the original author. How is that, you ask? Notice that Romans 12:1-2 has to do with getting our individual minds straightened out so we can know the will of God. OK, that's good. But note what immediately proceeds from that statement. Paul immediately launches into how the body has to work, each utilizing their own gift(s) to the benefit of the others in the body. We really do need each other. There's a coherence in the achievement of scholarship.
Furthermore, the two use-cases are mutually supportive. The "stuff" that supports the analytic case also supports the synthetic case. and, the "stuff" that supports the synthetic case, in turn, supports the analytic case. This is based on the two simple facts that the whole of a text is more than the sum of its parts and, two, that the context shapes the interpretation of the individual details. Again, a very high degree of coherence.

Sorry for the long post; but, I've been thinking about this for going on 5 years now.


Blogger Tim said...

Yes, (as an intuitive synthesiser who too often jumps to conclusions and then has to defend them ex post facto) this makes good sense to me!

Thanks for a really stimulating post...

4:39 AM  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Mike. I am always fascinated by this idea of Open Source translation. It is a process I might be interested in getting involved in. However, I doubt if I will join the "The New Testament in Plain English" project. For it seems to me that their philosophy, especially these ground rules laid down by their editor:

# Deal with one verse at a time
# Do not move on to another verse until the discussion has reached a natural conclusion.

ensure that their translation is bound to ignore your "network of highly cohesive details", and for that reason will be highly unsatisfactory. The same rules also ensure that progress will be extremely slow! Well, for them the process is more important than the product.

I can offer some advice as a former coordinator of a Bible translation project. If an open source project is actually to produce a reasonable product in a reasonable time, it seems to me that individual translators need to draft entire books, or large parts of books, according to agreed guidelines, and use these drafts as the basis for open disucssion and improvement. There also needs to be careful quality control, as there is with serious open source software. It is not acceptable that anyone can make any change, but every proposed change needs to be tested and approved before it is checked into the trunk of the translation.

By the way, don't confuse me with Peter Kirby, a different person.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Thanks Tim and Peter (and I won't confuse you, Peter, with Peter Kirby <smile>)

I agree that the verse-focal...ummmmm...focus of "The New Testament in Plain English" isn't going to work. As you've heard me say before, "except for the poetical sections of the Bible, and there are many, the verse structure is a form impressed on the text from outside the text." And since form triggers meaning (see Relevance Theory), the verse structure triggers meaning the original authors did not intend. So, I agree; the "walk down the verse-path to translation" will not result in an accurate translation. At least not in my opinion.

I appreciate your advice about many people each drafting a book at a time and agree with it. However, we ain't never done this before. So, I think what would need to happen first is to learn to walk with a few interested people working on one book. The main difference between the verse-oriented approach and my approach, I think, is mine is more top down with feedback loops flowing from the lower levels up to the higher levels. These feedback loops would systemically control quality. For example, a high level structure of the book could be discussed first with maybe several alternative proposed and on the docket. Each structure element would have a precis. These structure elements and precis would be arrived at through the translations we currently have. In other words, there is an assumption of cohesion and coherence that will ultimately direct the bottom up translation of the text.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I actually think the verse by verse method would work.

However, I am coming from a technical point of view (as that is my field) and I have never been on a translation committee.

What I do not see working is clearing up one verse before moving to the next.

I suppose I am thinking of the process in terms of being similar to say wiki and/or CVS. The translation can be worked on as a whole and evolve to a more understandable/accurate rendering.


4:59 PM  
Blogger exegete77 said...

Mike, sounds like a good approach. Given the top-down methodology suggests that this must begin with a fairly small book (Ephesians and 1 John come to mind), in which the overview can be kept in mind rather easily. Once the pattern and progress can be sorted out, then the method could be applied to more substantial books. This would allow time for kinks in the system to be examined before valuable time is expended (and perhaps lost) doing it one particular way.

5:45 PM  
Blogger exegete77 said...

As I further reflect on your article, Mike, I wonder if there isn't a third use of a Bible translation, namely, the liturgical/worship use. This is enough different from the other two that it cries out for its own category. That is, the Bible does not become only a "study book", but especially is a "worship book", and for me that implies a "liturgical book". My suspicion is that we have as many people who are exposed to the Bible (translation) within the congregations in a lifetime than are used for evangelism purposes. That may be my own bias, but when you begin to consider the major Christian denominations worldwide: RCC, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopalian, and to a lesser extent Methodist and Presbyterian, they are basically liturgical churches and comprise the majority of church attenders.

Thus, a translation necessarily should reflect a sound understanding of liturgics and translation. It seems obvious (to me) that an open Bible translation project requires the assistance of those who are conversant with translation AND liturgics. Unfortunately there are not many who are well-qualified in both arenas. But it would be fitting to include a liturgical specialist who could offer insight into the effect a specific translation would have in a liturgical environment.

just some ramblings from an old(er) codger...

9:43 PM  

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