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Nobody talks like that! (Ps 102:12)

You know you have been talking too much about translation when your spouse throws your own words back in your face. Robin was reading Ps 102:12 the other day. “But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations” (NIV).

“Renown,” she laughed, “what’s a renown?” And then she quoted my common response: “That’s not English; nobody talks like that.”

Now Robin knows precisely what “renown” means. “The condition of being known or talked about by many people; fame.” But would we use a word like that? Probably not; “fame” would be the normal way of saying it.

But this brings up the interesting issue of active vs passive vocabulary.

The average adult has an active vocabulary of 20,000–35,000 (https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/05/vocabulary-size; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocabulary). These are the words that you use on a regular basis. As far as different approaches to translation are concerned, a natural language translation like the NLT will tend to limit itself to active vocabulary; it uses 15,990 different forms (counting plurals). After all, the purpose of a natural language translation is to say things as naturally as possible. Eugene Nida says that the purpose of a translation is to transport “the message of the original text … into the receptor language [such] that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors” (Nida, Eugene A., and Charles R. Taber. (1969). The Theory and Practice of Translation, With Special Reference to Bible Translating, p. 200. Leiden: Brill).

However, other approaches to translation are more comfortable using passive vocabulary, words that the average person understands but would not use in normal speech. Our passive vocabulary is much larger than active, and “renown” would belong here. Translations like the ESV and the NIV are comfortable using these words. The ESV uses 54,071 different forms, the NIV 72,474. Interestingly, the CSB uses 16,172 different forms.

So should we use “renown” or “fame”? I personally like “renown.” It feels more majestic, and that is important as the majority of its occurrences in the NIV are in reference to God’s renown. And I don't think that a translation should not require te user to have a dictionary; after all, much of the biblical text is written for adults.

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