Some Principles of “Common-Language” Translation

by William L. Wonderly

The Bible Translator 21/3 (July 1970), pp. 126-37.

William L. Wonderly is UBS Regional Translations Coordinator for the Americas based in Mexico.

A number of readers of The Bible Translator are already acquainted with the writer’s book Bible Translations for Popular Use; 1 the present article is an attempt to summarize, in a non-technical way, some of the main principles outlined in it. For further details, both of theoretical basis and of concrete biblical examples, the reader is referred to the book itself.

We are here considering chiefly the matter of Bible translation into the so-called literary languages—languages that are spoken by relatively large numbers of people, which represent a complex and socially stratified society, and which have a literary tradition such that the well-educated or “cultured” person is expected to have a command of the language superior to that possessed by the uneducated person. In such languages, Bible translations have traditionally been made without much attention to the differing levels of language represented by this social stratification and have thus been, in effect, translations designed for the educated reader. Even in non-literary languages, where the factors of social stratification are absent or less marked, translators have frequently exploited the potential resources of the language at a level that tends to be above the reach of the average reader.

It is, of course, far easier to produce a translation in which no restrictions are made and in which the translator can draw upon the whole potential of the receptor language without regard to the level of preparation of his readers. For one thing, the translator himself is apt to be an educated person whose use of the language is superior to that of his intended readers; and unless he is both perceptive and willing to sacrifice some of his erudition in the interest of communicating the gospel, his line of least resistance is to produce a translation on a higher level of language than is familiar to his readers.

In order to explore some of the factors that must be taken into consideration in translating for readers of limited or non-specialized biblical background, we may think in terms of certain dimensions of language difference—that is, of factors that make the speech of certain groups different from that of other groups within the same major language. Leaving aside the matter of geographical differences, we may here consider the dimensions of (1) socio-educational level, (2) situational variety, (3) time, (4) in-group speech (including religious language), and (5) translationism or interference from other languages.

1. Socio-Educational Level: The “Vertical” Dimension

In a complex society, groups of different social level employ different dialects or varieties of language, even when the language is the “same”, as in the case of English, Japanese, Arabic, and so on. Since language proficiency has in itself been made a prime factor in education in these societies, these differences are correlated to a great extent (but by no means exclusively) with degree of education and reader experience; hence we use the term socio-educational level.

There is thus a gradation from upper or educated speech to lower or uneducated speech. At the upper level, the language contains erudite vocabulary and elaborate literary forms beyond the reach of the uneducated reader, while at the lower level it contains forms that are considered substandard or vulgar; but the important thing is that there is a common core or overlap in which are to be found the really essential features, of both vocabulary and grammar, of both upper and lower levels.

This overlap is diagramed in Figure 1, in which the whole bar represents the entire language in all of its levels; the upper levels (educated language) are represented by sections A and B, and the lower levels (uneducated language) by sections B and C. Section B, the area of overlap, is common to both levels. This central section represents the level of language that is used by educated persons and is also either used or understood by uneducated ones. Section A represents the resources of the language used only by the educated; section C, those that are used by the uneducated but not accepted by the educated. It is important to note that the dialect of any given person or group corresponds to a vertical segment of considerable extension on the bar, and not to a single point, and that in fact any given dialect or level of speech represents a substantial part of the whole bar. That is, people at any level use a large part of the total resources of their language. Note also that a wavy line is used to separate A and B, indicating that this boundary is quite flexible and depends on the degree of education of the speaker; whereas the boundary between B and C is relatively fixed due to standards of “correctness”.

figure 1

It is the area B of overlap that makes effective communication possible across socio-educational dialect boundaries, and that makes these dialect levels all part of the same language. And it is this area of overlap that is the key to preparing Bible translations (and other materials) in what we shall call common language, by which we mean a level of language that is accessible to the lower group and at the same time acceptable to the upper group.

These twin criteria of accessibility at the lower level and acceptability at the higher level are especially important. If the materials are not accessible or within the reach of the reader, then reading will not be a fully rewarding experience, and the reader may become discouraged or lose interest; if, on the other hand, they are not on a level acceptable to the upper group, the lower group will not accept them either, as the standards of this group are based largely on the norms set by the more educated people.

2. Situational Variety: The Dimension of Functional Variation

The second dimension is that of situational variety. People behave, dress, and speak differently in different social situations, ranging from formal on the one hand to casual and intimate on the other. We shall not here attempt to define the specific differences, except to point out that the speech of a more formal occasion, with its more carefully worked out sentences and use of rather higher level vocabulary, differs widely from that appropriate in a casual situation among friends, with its greater proportion of slang, purposely incomplete sentences, and so on. People at any given socio-educational level thus have different situational varieties in their speech; the less formal varieties are no less “correct” than the more formal ones—in fact, to use a formal variety in a casual or intimate situation would be entirely inappropriate, and just as “incorrect” as to wear a tuxedo 2 on the golf course.

The dimension of situational variety is shown in Figure 2 as a left-to-right dimension, and by the use of the two dimensions now presented we may roughly classify any Bible translation or other piece of literature in contemporary language. In preparing a Bible translation that is accessible to inexperienced readers, we need not only to keep from going too high in level, but to avoid a style that is too formal. In other words, we shall keep downward and toward the left on our diagram, but without either going so low as to be unacceptable or so far toward informality as to be considered inappropriate for the subject matter.

figure 2

On Figure 2 we have attempted to classify in terms of these dimensions, although highly impressionistically, the language used in the New English Bible (NEB), the J. B. Phillips version (JBP), and Today’s English Version (TEV).

3. Time: The Chronological Dimension

The Bible translations shown on Figure 2 are all in contemporary or present-day language. Since many of our translations date from earlier periods, they cannot be adequately classified in terms of the two dimensions presented above. The dimension of time must be added, since they are in an archaic or semi-archaic form of the language, depending upon when they were first produced. Even more recent versions, especially if they are direct revisions of earlier ones, frequently contain archaisms of one degree or another.

In Figure 3 we show the time dimension from front to back on the three­dimensional figure, with the King James Version (KJV) of 1611 as an example of an archaic version. The Revised Standard Version (RSV), not shown on the diagram, would lie somewhere between the front and back and be classified as semi-archaic.

figure 3

4. In-Group Speech: Religious Language

Certain lexical and grammatical features are peculiar to restricted groups of speakers within a given language. Examples are slang, jargon, technical language (including theological language), and so on. Religious language is actually another case of language that is restricted to one group or another, and it is often possible to tell what religious in-group (e.g. Protestant or Catholic, conservative or liberal, etc.) one belongs to by the vocabulary and style he uses.

Much of the religious language of Christians is derived from the traditional versions of the Bible, with extensions to liturgical use, prayer, and speaking about religious matters. It therefore contains archaic features not used by people outside the group, and any effort to produce a Bible translation for the “uninitiated” should avoid such specialized forms. Bible translations for general use should not only be in language that is entirely contemporary but should avoid in-group restrictions.

5. Translationism: Interference from Other Languages

Our traditional versions of the Bible, and the in-group religious language that is in turn influenced by them, are not only archaic (using language forms that are no longer in current use); they also use language forms that never were in current use. This is due to the interference from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin features of vocabulary, grammar and style that has come about in the process of translating. We sometimes refer to this as translationism. It is most noticeable in the carrying over of Hebrew and Greek idioms into a language where they do not fit (blessing I will bless, die the death, son of perdition), but is more subtle (and perhaps a greater impediment to communication) in matters of style. For example, the style of the Pauline Epistles, with their heavy use of verb-derived nouns and of intricately related subordinate clauses, is carried over into many of our traditional Bible translations to produce a style which is really foreign to the genius of the receptor language. Of course, readers who have had considerable education or religious instruction can, with a certain effort, figure out a large proportion of the meaning that was intended; but this is far from the kind of translation which communicates to the reader what the original text communicated to its readers.

It may thus be said that the present-day speaker or reader who has mastered the style of language used in a traditional Scripture version has usually learned an in-group variety of his language that no one speaks or uses outside of religious situations. He has managed to learn it as a result of diligent church attendance or Bible reading, often enough because be has been reared in a religious environment. When persons not familiar with the religious variety of their language are confronted with such a traditional Bible translation, they must somehow adjust to this new language form before the content of its message can become really meaningful to them. Many people of course reject the special language form—and with it the message—rather than make the adjustment.

6. Reader Capacity and Overloading

Readers differ in the levels at which they can effectively utilize written materials. If we draw a graph in which the horizontal axis represents the flow of reading matter and the vertical axis the degree of difficulty of the materials (or technically, their communication load), we may use a horizontal line at a given height to represent the horizon of difficulty (or “threshold of frustration”) which a reader or class of readers may tolerate. In Figure 4, line A represents the horizon of difficulty of an educated middle class speaker, line B that of an inexperienced reader from a lower social dialect. The solid wavy line represents a piece of reading matter that is adequate for the educated middle class reader; it has peaks and troughs of difficulty, but fluctuates around the horizon of reader A in such a way as to be now challenging, now relaxing, now just on his level. The dotted wavy line represents a different piece of reading matter, designed for the inexperienced reader. Note that if the more difficult material is given to reader B, it will be above his horizon so much of the time that he cannot use it effectively and will become discouraged; conversely, if the easier material is given to A, it will be beneath his horizon so much of the time that he will soon lose interest. At each reader’s level, the reading matter must fluctuate in difficulty somewhere around the reader’s horizon, but should occasionally rise above it in order to challenge him. Without such challenge, even if the general level is satisfactory, the reader may lose interest; and with too many peaks above the horizon he may become discouraged.

figure 4

If a Bible translation is to be accessible to the reader on the lower level, it should therefore be kept generally within his horizon of difficulty, but with occasional peaks to challenge him; however, the use of difficult words and expressions should be reserved primarily for (1) items in which the semantic content is such that no simple expression can be found and (2) places where the content is so easy that a higher level expression can be used for rhetorical effect without blocking communication. In the first instance it is frequently necessary to use the principle known in information theory as redundancy, whereby the unknown or difficult expression is made less difficult through building more familiar expressions into the context in a way that will either directly explain the difficult part or else help the reader to be able more nearly to guess what it means.

By this means one can avoid overloading the communication channel. That is, it is possible to increase the communication load (i.e. the difficulty) semantically (i.e. in terms of content) when tbe subject matter so requires, or to increase it in terms of lexical or grammatical structure for certain rhetorical purposes; but if one increases both factors simultaneously, overloading results, with consequent blocking or impeding of communication.

7. Producer Language and Consumer Language

Another factor to be considered is the difference between producer language and consumer language. Everybody can consume (i.e. hear or read) over a wider range on the vertical scale than he is able or willing to produce (i.e. speak or write). The producer language of a given reader is more familiar and comprehensible to him than his consumer language, and as a general practice one should seek to keep a Bible translation within the producer level in preparing reading materials. However, one should also utilize the resources of the reader’s consumer level from time to time, both to challenge him and to develop his reading ability. Frequently, therefore, it is best to operate within the producer level as a general norm but to have the resources of the consumer level as a reserve which may be tapped when the subject matter is such as to require it.

The degree to which a writer will keep within the producer level will also depend upon the purpose of the reading material itself. Since the primary purpose of a Bible translation is to communicate basic information, the surest way to accomplish this is to keep as nearly as possible within the producer language; on the other hand, when one is dealing with literature whose main purpose is to give the reader added experience and to raise his level of reading ability and use of the language, he will naturally introduce words and expressions that will serve this purpose, while still keeping within the bounds of tolerance of the horizon of difficulty of the intended readers.

8. Techniques to Maintain a Common Level: Vocabulary

Various specific techniques may be mentioned for producing materials that are at once accessible and acceptable. In terms of vocabulary, when there is a choice between synonyms of a higher and lower level (e.g. purchase: buy: grant: give), one may choose the lower one so long as it is within the limits of acceptability and translational fidelity. In the case of terms which have no one-word equivalent on the popular level, descriptive phrases may be used (e.g. blaspheme: talk against God; divination: guessing the future). Frequently it is necessary to use qualifiers or other contextual definition alongside certain words that would otherwise be difficult or ambiguous (e.g. law is ambiguous in biblical usage, but Today’s English Version frequently translates it unambiguously as Law of Moses).

It should be pointed out here that the use of vocabulary lists based on word-frequency is of quite limited value in preparing literature at this level. These lists are of some use in preparing materials on a more elementary level, to train the beginning reader to recognize words that he will encounter frequently; but they do not necessarily reflect the ease with which a given word will be recognized in a particular context. This is due to various factors. (1) Frequency lists are usually based on written rather than spoken materials, and hence do not directly reflect people’s overall acquaintance with words. (2) High frequency of words is usually due to the frequency with which people have to use them, not necessarily to their actual knowledge of such words (bread is more frequent than onion, but both are well known). (3) Many words occur with a high frequency precisely because they are highly ambiguous and can be used in so many senses, including senses unfamiliar to the reader. For example, a list would fail to tell us that mad, though frequent enough, is seldom used popularly in its literary sense of “crazy”. High frequency words often have meanings in upper-level speech that are not the same as the meanings attached to them by readers at lower levels. (4) Perhaps the most serious difficulty with word lists is that they are based upon gross or overall frequency and not upon the frequency with which a word appears in a specific context. What makes for readability is not so much the use of words that are well known per se, as the use of words that are normal for their specific contexts. A vast multitude is a more readable expression than a vast woman; even though woman is no doubt a more frequent word, it is less likely to appear (and is therefore stranger) in this particular context.

To achieve optimum readability or accessibility for the inexperienced reader, the writer should therefore use words in their natural or expected combinations, rather than using (purposely or otherwise) unusual lexical combinations. Such unusual combinations, if employed by skilful writers, may be quite effective ways of heightening interest when it comes to experienced readers, but they should be used sparingly in materials for inexperienced ones.

This same principle applies to figurative language, which is in fact a special case of the use of unusual combinations. Studies of reader ability have shown that good readers have little difficulty with figures of speech, but that poor readers have great difficulty. It is therefore important to keep figurative language to a minimum and to limit it primarily to figures that are in common use or that fit within the normal patterns of figurative speech in the receptor language.

9. Techniques: Grammatical Structure

In the area of grammar, there are certain types of constructions that are less frequent at the lower socio-educational levels than at the higher ones. In English these include, among others, the so-called past perfect tense, the passive voice, and the use of non-restrictive clauses introduced by who or which. Although not entirely inaccessible in terms of consumer language, such constructions should be used sparingly, with an attempt to keep their overall frequency from differing too widely from the overall frequency with which they appear in the producer language of the intended readers.

Another basic factor, and one which employs insights derived from recent developments in transformational linguistics, is the use of grammatical constructions that to a greater or lesser degree approximate kernel sentences. 3 By kernel sentences we mean, rather non-technically, those basic constructions from which derived constructions can be formed by grammatical transformation. In English, the active transitive verb construction John hit Bill is, for example, one kernel form; from it the passive construction Bill was hit by John may be derived. Although writing exclusively in kernel sentences would result in a choppy and childish style, the judicious employment of a high proportion of kernel or near-kernel constructions makes for a high degree of accessibility for the new reader. This is seen in several ways.

For one thing, the use of near-kernel constructions results in events being expressed as verbs rather than nouns (e.g. accept instead of acceptance), and abstract qualities as adjectives or adverbs rather than nouns (e.g. good instead of goodness); certain psychological studies have indicated that this not only provides a closer correspondence between linguistic forms and the real world but may also be much closer to the way people actually think. The use of verbs instead of verb-derived nouns also forces the writer to specify the participants (subject and object), thereby adding concreteness and increasing readability. Contrast, for example, forgiveness of sins with God forgives us our sins. Or, with adjective instead of noun, contrast happiness was everywhere with everybody was happy. Specifying the participants not only adds concreteness, but may often be used to heighten interest by making the style more personal, yet still within the limits of what is implicit in the source language text.

Still another factor is the use of straightforward constructions. The inexperienced reader tends to read slowly and laboriously, from left to right, without being able to scan back and forth as the experienced reader does; hence he must hold in his memory the first part of a sentence until he gets far enough along in it for it to hang together and make sense. If he has to read sentences that are “front-heavy”, he is subjected to a greater memory burden than if he is given materials that can be “unraveled” in strictly left-to-right order, making sense at each step. Sentences with long subordinate constructions at the beginning, for example, are front-heavy. Note the following: In order to secure from the man who had arrived the day before the information he needed, John came early. Here the main clause is John came early; but the reader must wade through a long and complex subordinate expression before he has any idea of this. The sentence may be rewritten more straightforwardly as: John came early in order to secure the information he needed from the man who had arrived the day before.

As a general rule, when we have a complex expression made up of two parts, with one part noticeably longer than the other, and if the language structure permits the parts to occur in either order, a more straightforward and readable form will result from putting the shorter part first. This is especially important if the longer part is a subordinate construction which depends upon the shorter part to complete its sense.

Furthermore, one should avoid heavy embedding of constructions, whether front-heavy or not. In embedding, a subordinate construction appears within another construction in such a way as to interrupt the latter, and sometimes this type of embedding consists of several layers. Consider the following sentence: The man who spoke to the girls who had arrived after the show featuring the actor who had come from France was over was a very good conversationalist. Here we have a number of layers, one within another. The entire expression who spoke … was over is a subordinate clause modifying man; but embedded within it is another subordinate clause who had arrived … was over, modifying girls. Still further, within this embedded clause there is another subordinate expression featuring … France, modifying show; and within this is the subordinate clause who had come from France, modifying actor. This would obviously be a very difficult sentence for an inexperienced reader to unravel. In the first place, it attempts to pack entirely too much information into one sentence; and in the second place, it does so in a way that creates a heavy memory burden for the reader who has to retain all these structural layers and keep them in their proper relationships until he finally arrives at the main predicate expression, was a very good conversationalist. For proper readability, the material would need to be presented in smaller “doses”, each capable of being assimilated before the next one is given.

Most of the foregoing techniques for increasing readability through attention to grammatical factors may be summarized by saying that the translator or writer should, within the grammatical constructions that are familiar to his readers, use simple and straightforward phrase structure and present the relationships between words and phrases in a way that will be clear and unambiguous at each step. At the same time, however, he should avoid a childish style such as would result from too short and choppy sentences, and should seek to make his style conform to the normal discourse structure found in writing designed for adult readers.

10. The Translation Process

In the above sections we have assumed that the translator knows the meaningful content of the source language and that his problem is one of how to express this content in the receptor language. But in reality the translation process begins with the decoding or analysis of the source language text, whose content obviously can be transferred to the receptor language only after it is adequately decoded and understood by the translator.

This, therefore, involves us in a three-step process: (1) analysis or decomposition of the source language text, to determine its basic semantic components and the relationships between them in terms of kernel sentences of the source language; (2) transfer to equivalent components and relationships in terms of kernel sentences in the receptor language; and (3) restructuring or recomposition in the receptor language in terms of the normal grammatical and discourse structure of this language. Details of this approach will not be discussed here, inasmuch as they are available elsewhere to readers of The Bible Translator. 4

This three-step process, although perhaps never carried out in full and explicit detail in the actual procedures of translation, provides us with a concept leading to dynamic equivalence (i.e. equivalence in terms of the decoding process on the part of the receptors) instead of static equivalence (i.e. equivalence in terms of formal correspondence between items in the source and receptor languages). It also provides a recourse for the translator in his approach to syntactically difficult passages in which events appear in the source text as nouns (repentance, justification), abstract qualities as nouns (greatness, riches), etc.; or in which the semantic relationships do not parallel the relationships of surface structure in the source text (Father of glory, riches of his grace).

Furthermore—and of special importance in considering “common­language” translations—the concept of a three-step process permits us to decide what level of complexity we shall choose for our final restructuring in the third step. We can reconstruct on any of the levels shown in Figure 1 that we choose to, within those levels that are generally acceptable, thereby producing a translation which is accessible to readers of whatever level we are intending to reach. A reconstruction within the level represented by section B of Figure 1 is that which gives us a “common-language” translation, intended to reach a wide spectrum of readers, including those with limited education. Reconstructions on a higher level, drawing from both sections A and B, lead to translations of a more literary nature, intended chiefly for readers with greater educational preparation.

The following reconstructions of Ephesians 1 : 7 in English 5 will illustrate three different levels:

(1) Quasi-kernel level (too low for general acceptability): “We sinned. But Christ died; therefore God sets us free and he forgives us. This is because God shows great grace toward us.”

(2) “Common-language” level (Today’s English Version): “For by the death of Christ we are set free, and our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God … ”

(3) Literary level (The New English Bible): “For in Christ our release is secured and our sins are forgiven through the shedding of his blood. Therein lies the richness of God’s free grace … ”


1. William L. Wonderly, Bible Translations for Popular Use. United Bible Societies, Helps for Translators, Vol. 7 (1968), x, 216 pp.

2. dinner jacket.

3. For further development of this aspect, see Bible Translations for Popular Use, chapters 6 and 14, and especially Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation, chapters 3, 6 and 7.

4. See references in footnote 3.

5. For a more explicit presentation of the three-step procedure for this passage, see Bible Translations for Popular Use, pp. 52-55.