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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.

Comments

I much prefer the word "renown" to "fame," because even though they might be considered synonymous, the word "fame" has a connotation, at least to me, that places it within the fleeting fashion of the world. This is similar to choosing "joy" over "happiness" in that happiness stems from "hap," which depends upon good luck. Just as joy remains (at least in spiritual application) in spite of good or bad circumstances of life, so does renown exceed earthly fame to include all eternal worship of both earth and heaven. I would think that renown would be as inappropriately applied to a rock star as fame would be rightly ascribed to a king. Our King is renowned in His Kingdom! Thanks for an inspiring post, Brother!

Between OT and NT, any idea roughly how many forms are used in the original languages? Or perhaps it might be better to ask how many forms are used in Koine between the LXX and NT?

Dear Bill, Really interested in the statistics for the different Bible translations - NIV is strikingly higher than others to my surprise. Where is that data available? Thanks! David Shaw Oak Hill College, London.

I just did the analysis using Accordance.

I agree. Renown sounds poetic, so it's fitting in the psalm. However, if we were able to tell that the Hebrew and/or Greek we're rendering were very simple, common language, I think that would be a solid reason to try to use those kinds of English wwords in translation instead.

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