Saturday, July 05, 2008

Bible Translations- Readability

I remember back in the time I was documenting why I was leaving King James Onlyism I ran across the readability scores issue. Readability tests attempt to calculate from the syllables and words and sentences exactly what grade level is necessary to comprehend the test.
One KJVO advocate made the point, using the Flesch-Kincaid method, that many KJVO passages are ranked as easy to read or easier than modern versions. Of course, this depends on which passages you choose; also, you can have one and two syllable words that are difficult to understand, but will cause the test to rank the writing at a lower grade.
I did my own tests, using an online readability analysis site, and used the SMOG score. SMOG is reported to be 98.5% accurate when the results are compared with students from the actual grades in question.
My first passage was Galatians 3:6-29. Here is a sample (vv.15-18) in the KJV:

"Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise."

The SMOG grade level for the KJV on vv.6-29 is 10.44, or 10th grade. Consider the same sample in the NKJV:

"Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,”who is Christ. And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise."

That is much more readable, and the SMOG score is 9.99- lower than the KJV, which is lower than the NRSV(10.94), or NIV(11.37). Still, it's pretty much 10th grade.

Everyone knows Psalm 23- "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..." On this iconic passage the NRSV is the easiest to read scoring 8.48, or 8th grade. The rest in order are NIV (8.86), NKJV (8.92), and the most difficult of four, the KJV at 9.32, or 9th grade.

Lastly, I chose Hosea chapter 2. When I read through the Bible, Hosea was an extremely difficult book to get through- although I could understand the words, for some reason it felt like I was really bogging down. I bought a New Century Version to help me through that book. So what are our results here?
Well, nothing earth shattering. With the exception of the NKJV at 8.86, or upper 8th grade, they all hit ninth grade reading levels: NIV- 9.35, NRSV-9.48, KJV-9.87.

The final averages:
NKJV: 9.26
NRSV: 9.63
NIV: 9.86
KJV: 9.88

All of these versions are hovering around 9th grade, which sounds right. The NKJV seemed to have a penchant for staying down in 8th grade, though. What about the high scores in the first passage? If you read that passage, the content and logical argument preclude easy comprehension. I even tested the kid-friendly NIrV on this passage, which scored 7.49- almost 8th grade! All of the versions bumped up a few grades on this difficult section- so the Hosea and Psalm passages to me are more representative of the versions in general. You only simplify the wording so much before you start saying something different altogether. Galatians 3 is an example of intrinsic difficulty.

You may wonder why I chose the versions I did. I chose them because they are mainstream versions that are designed to be literal, more or less. I did test the NIrV, the CEV, and the NLT on all these passages in the search for a Bible that might be more suited to children. Only the NIrV averaged out to an elementary grade level- 6.53.

The question is, with serious Bible translations that emphasize accuracy coming in at 9th grade, do you really want to hand your child an NIrV and tell them it's the Bible? What are you going to do when they get to 5th or 6th grade- try and replace their NIrV with a NKJV? Maybe let them believe their NIrV is just as accurate as an NASB or KJV? Neither option is ideal.

If you knock a few grades off for good education and assume that your child will more or less comprehend a serious translation by 6th or 7th grade, what do you do before then? (Remember, I am not discussing reading, but COMPREHENSION.)

My solution: put a serious translation in their hand from the time they can read well but realize that they are going to be getting most of their spiritual instruction from you and their other teachers, both in word and example. This is the point that is missed in kid-friendly versions. Really now, is your 4th grader going to crack open his or her Bible everyday unless they are made to? If they did, would they comprehend it? Is your 4th grader even conscious of his eternal standing before Christ? I think until junior high or so a child's spiritual instruction/Christian walk is melded with that of his parents out of immaturity and necessesity. This is where the "train up your child in the way he should go" comes in. Not in the implementation of rules and expectations but in the walking together with your child with the Lord until they can sustain a walk of their own.

By the time they have a serious walk of their own they will be in a position to comprehend a serious translation for themselves. If you can't comprehend Scripture you can't walk on your own.

As an adult I can study from the KJV and get a lot of it. Mostly, it is because the KJV is the version I was brought up on and most familiar with- by changing my study version I put myself at a disadvantage. However, the KJV is not quite as readable, not only in ways detected by SMOG or Flesch Kincaid grade scales, but also in matters of English style and usage. While I may prefer to do serious study out of a KJV, I do much of my casual reading online with the NRSV. My casual reading Bible used to be the ESV. I am considering doing more casual reading from the NKJV -and the benefit is that the new wording often opens up Scriptures in a way I never noticed before. Then I'll head back to my KJV and see it was there all along, and study it further.

3 comments:

DT said...

Thanks for posting this. It's incredible that I was just confronted with this issue and was looking for differing perspectives, and here you are (I link to you on my blog) talking about it. I wonder, though, if you know anything in particular about the Kincaid system, and how someone like Waite can claim that it verifies the KJV being the easiest overall to read.

And one more thing, why did you switch from the ESV?

Thanks, and God bless!

David T. said...

Hey there... always nice to see a comment! I had never heard of your blog before, but I read some of it today and I enjoyed it. I will add you to my links section.
One good page I have found is at http://wiki.christophchamp.com/index.php/Style_and_Diction . Readability tests measure syllables and lengths of sentences and so forth. Waite has to ignore many considerations in order to make his simplistic pronouncement.
The style of the ESV text just didn't seem as smooth as the NRSV, to me. The HCSB is another version that has great credentials but the style just seems chunky to me.

Readmore said...

I've done a little research on this and was thinking about blogging on it, but ultimately decided that anyone who seriously considers the KJV to be more understandable than some of the modern versions has an obvious axe to grind, and probably won't be reading my blog anyway.

Some of the things I found were that the Flesch-Kincaid system doesn't take into account some very important things such as syntax, archaic words, and words whose meaning have changed. It only takes into account 1) number of affixes per word, 2) amount of personal references per test area, and 3) (I can't remember what #3 was! :P). It's, at best, a misleading way of comparing readability of Bible versions.