Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Theologs cannot judge good translation.

Literalism as a way of distorting the message was the common solution to fear of distortion at various points in this chapter, common among people from different theological positions. Variations on the following comment, for example, are frequently to be heard as people discuss the translation of the Bible:

"I would rather have a literal translation, even if the meaning is not so clear, than that the translator should give us what he thinks the original writer might have said. Otherwise the book is no longer a trustworthy version of the best text available, but a version interspersed with the translator's concealed emendations and comments."

This statement reveals part of the dilemma of those who would translate in ways which are accessible, but do not know how to judge distortion, or how to control it. They believe that translation can be done without
interpretation, which is nonsense, because interpretation is required for understanding the text, and understanding is the first requirement of translation. Every translation, even the most literal, consists of what the translator 'thinks the original writer might have said'. It is impossible to translate otherwise.

A serious discussion of the problem of literalism cannot take place, however, in reference to translating the biblical languages into English alone because the long historical and cultural relationship blurs the problem, and because students of the Bible in English are so used to literalism in biblical translation that they often cannot hear what it sounds like to the uninitiated.

Often literal translation gives a wrong meaning. [...several examples of literal translation being wrong translation...] A literal translation is not a finished translation, but leaves the reader to guess at 'what the original writer might have said'. [...another quite funny example...]

People who try to avoid making a Literal translation, however, do not necessarily know how to do so, often do not know how to judge equivalence, and so may also end up with a misleading translation. Thus either literal translation or a mistaken nonliteral translation may result from lack of a theory of tranlation which deals adequately with the all-important dismensions of accessibility and distortion.

-William A. Smalley, Translation as Mission (1991), 102-104.


Mike W said...

hmm, someone has to be the devil's advocate, so, here goes...
How much should a translation seek to obscure on certain terms, to create questions, difficulty, a suspended understanding that requires further reading or re-reading. Does a text have to be utterly transparent for a first read? Consider, for example, the prologue to John. Do you think that its meaning would be easy for its first readers? What about hebraisms in the New Testament greek, or aramaic references in the OT? Should the middle bit of daniel be put in the language of the oppressor? What about the english versions conspicuous lack of the word 'exodus' at the transfiguration? Wouldn't it have been better to put the difficult word, raising questions that lead to deeper understanding, than the bland 'departure' which is pretty meaningless? Given the massive amount of work on intertextuality that has happened recently, how does Mr Dynamic Equivalence hope to carry any of that resonance? Isn't it partly a hyper-protestant hangup that says the scriptures must be completely understandable without a teaching office in the church?

Matt Bales said...

Mike, these are great questions. They are the questions a responsible bible translator needs to ask. Actually there are lots and lots of these questions, and many people have worked hard to ask the questions so bible translators are not ignorant of their own agendas.

Unfortunately the tone of your "devil's advocate" comment kind of prooves Smalleys point that English speakers have a long and theological tradition of literal translations and cannot hear what their bible's sound like to the uninitiated.

A little point of clarification, "Mr Dynamic Equivalence" is Eugene A. Nida.

I'm not sure how possible it is to translate the massive Greek OT - Greek NT intertextuality while having a clear, accessible translation. Rather, the "hyper-protestant hangup" is to have the translation DO EVERYTHING rather than teaching. Meaning equivalence needs a teacher to help show the links and patterns and intertextuality.

Literal translations try to pack too much in and as Smalley said, "leaves the reader to guess at 'what the original writer might have said'." That is, they provide neither good access to the Greek OR accessibility to the other language.

Matt Bales said...

BTW your Luke 9:31 exodus comment is precicely the point. The word means 'departure' as it did in Exodus 19:1.

The English word exodus refers to a large group of people and is brought into english by transliterating the name of the book of Exodus, which maybe we should rename the book of Departure. Would give more meaning to a many many English speakers.

Rather, the role of teacher is there to point out the link, an interesting and poiniant one, but not essential to working out the link between Jesus' death and Moses departure.

Mike, why are you so concerned about having non-English in your English translation. Why not just teach all Australians Greek and Hebrew in primary school so they understand intertextuality from infancy? :-) or was the verse more about being wise for salvation?