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Glossed in Translation

October 7, 2006

Translation of the Bible is near and dear to my heart. In English we have “an embarrassment of riches” in the range of available translations. (In the case of some translations we could just say “embarrassment“). There is also a wide variety of viewpoints on what makes a good translation, and several terms are bantered about. I find a certain level of confusion or misinformation in this discussion. So I thought I’d offer my point of view with a few definitions:

Translation is the rendering of a message originally composed in one language by means of a second language. These are typically termed source language and target language. The ideal is that the translation means exactly what the original means. Perfection being elusive to mere mortals, we are obliged to accept greater or lesser approximations of this ideal. A second ideal is that the translation would not “speak with an accent,” that it, that it would be a true example of a composition in the target language. So features that are only attributable to the structure of the source language, if not absent, should be minimal.

Paraphrase is the re-expression of a message by different words in the same language. This term has mistakenly come to be used for a certain type of translation. When a message is translated the words are all different because it is in a different language. So calling one work a “translation” and another a “paraphrase” is an absurdity. The Living Bible stated on the cover that it was a paraphrase. This was true since Kenneth Taylor produced it from the American Standard Version, and not from source language originals. By contrast The New Living Translation, while keeping much of the same style as TLB, is truly a translation since it was produced by a committee starting from the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

Literal is a word that has a range of meaning as well as a load of emotional connections. One basic use is “non-figurative.” There is not a metaphor or a parable or exaggeration being used. We are to take the words in a straightforward sense.

When people sometimes say they take the Bible literally, this is not the meaning they have in mind. So when they read that “Our God is a rock,” they do not think the Bible is teaching that God is literally a boulder. “Literal” is shorthand for inerrant or infallible, and stands in contrast to other approaches to the Bible. Another person might read for example the creation account in Genesis 1, understand the author to be stating exactly what he believed was true, and still say “I don’t take it literally.” He means that even if the author meant it to be taken in a straightforward manner, we cannot accept this kind of account “in this day and age.” However we can use the account as a myth and glean some truth about life, the universe and everything. Taking the Bible “literally” then does not mean failing to recognize figures of speech, but that when the text asserts something as true, we accept that teaching.

Of course we also use the term literal in terms of translation. This means a particular approach to producing a translation where the structure and forms of the source language are largely retained, and to a degree not only the meaning of the original, but also the particularity of wording and grammar are discernible in the text. This of course exists in a range of possibilities, and to the extent that it is true, the translation more or less “speaks with an accent.” However, the foreignness, may be deemed an acceptable trade-off for certain advantages. Exegesis of any work, scriptural or otherwise, is properly done from the original text. Structure-based translations of this sort provide some access to the original languages to those who have no knowledge of those languages, and this is useful and desirable for study, teaching and preaching, where connection is frequently made to the specifics of the Hebrew or Greek wording. The cost of the “accent” may be loss in terms of clarity of expression and ease of decoding the intended meaning. These drawbacks are harder to see for people with more extensive Biblical training, particularly with knowledge of the languages. Also translating with primary concern for reflecting the source structure will almost certainly result in loss of meaning at some level. The vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the original make sense within the system of the original language, and need to be interpreted from this standpoint. Sometimes structures are similar enough to the target language to avoid confusion, or allowances can be made intuitively for their foreignness. However, the danger is increased for the reader to receive no meaning or wrong meaning.

Meaning is the information that the author is transmitting to another person or persons by means of his spoken or written texts. Thought is not directly accessible to others (barring some idea of telepathy), and so language is used to create a container through which an individuals ideas can be conveyed to other individuals. This is accomplished by means of signs, in which something available to the senses, sounds in the air or marks on paper, is associated by convention with certain shared concepts. So the author puts together a message encoded according to the conventions of the language, and the reader/hearer decodes and has access to the thoughts of the author (to an acceptable degree). What the author puts into the text (even unconsciously??) is the meaning. The most basic kind of meaning is known as referential meaning, that is certain people, things, actions, and so forth are identified and put together in various combinations to made assertions and comments about them. When you know who or what I am talking about and what I am saying about them, you have understood my referential meaning. There is also emotive meaning, which in addition to indicating particular entities under discussion, also encodes attitudes or feelings toward those entities. For example “my father,” “Dad,” and “the old man” all may share the same referential meaning, but differ significantly in emotive meaning. Situational meaning encodes aspects of the interrelationship of the parties involved. In French whether I am addressing another with tu or vous depends on the relative social roles we have. Also the register of the language used differs whether I am addressing a joint session of congress or jawing with my buddies over a latte at Starbucks. Reflected meaning is the impact of one referential sense of a sign by a different sense of that sign. In English I may use grace in theological sense of “unmerited favor,” but also have awareness of the idea of “elegance and beauty,” for which the word is often used. These and other types of non-referential meaning are very difficult to convey in a structure-based translation.

Interpretation means to derive meaning from a message, to decode the ideas that the author encoded when he composed the spoken or written text. Today the term interpretation is also sometimes used for someone’s particular “spin” on a text. In this case the so-called interpreter is contributing meaning of his own to the message. Or else interpretation is conflated with commentary on the meaning of the text, which is again the addition of new material not contained in the original message. As I am using it here, and as it is generally used in translation theory, interpretation is merely the reciprocal action to composition of the message. It is done constantly as we receive messages from others. The interpretation may be right or wrong depending on how accurately we reconstruct the ideas intended by the author. It may be easy or difficult depending on the geographical, chronological, linguistic, or cultural difference between author and reader/hearer. This may depend on how much of the necessary information for decoding is either explicit or implicit.

Therefore, when we say that the ideal of a translation is to convey exactly the same meaning as the source text, obviously this requires interpretation of the source text. True translation involved completely decoding the original text and deriving its total meaning and re-encoding that meaning into the target language. It is possible then, if the approach to translation is primarily source based, merely to substitute equivalent forms from one language to anther without actually unpacking meaning. This is something less than real translation, little more than a string of glosses (convenient, easy “handles” or “translations” of single words, as in an interlinear text).

Passing through interpretation as I have described above is clearly a less structure-centered approach and is prone to yielding a style of translation that is less transparent in regard to the structure of the source text, perhaps described as a “freer” or “idiomatic” translation. However, to bypass interpretation of the source text (and testing readers’ interpretations of the translated text) is something like driving while looking at the map but ignoring the road.

Fidelity or faithfulness of the translation is simply the degree to which the translation matches the original in terms of meaning, without either addition or subtraction of meaning. As I have previously indicated, structure-focused translations may tend to miss part of the intended meaning of the original, particularly in terms of emotive or situational meaning. In addition a good deal of information in the original setting is left implicit when it is clearly shared between interlocutors. This implied information is, however, part of the meaning of the message, and my need to rise to an explicit level withing the translation. This would not constitute an addition, since the meaning was present in the original message though at the implicit level. A translation then that covers the meaning to a more or less ideal extent will tend to be “freer” (less structurally transparent). It is theoretically possible to secondarily reflect as much of the structure of the original as possible, but this is more work, and is more or less possible to the degree the the languages share structural similarities. Greek is very closely related to English in the overall scheme of things, whereas Hebrew is much more distant. So reflecting Hebrew structure while maintaining fidelity will be more of a chore in Old Testament translation than for the New Testament.

We have said that a translation that is primarily meaning-based will tend toward “freer” structure with higher fidelity. The converse is not true: a freer translation style is no guarantee of fidelity. I have made this point in my comments on The Message. My criticism is not that it is “free” but that it lacks fidelity in that it variously adds or subtracts meaning to an unacceptable extent. By contrast The New Living Translation is also “free” in its style, but is far more faithful. The New International Version has, I think, achieved a level of popularity in that it strives for a balance in the the spectrum. Personally, I appreciate and have now begun to use the English Standard Version, in that it reads to me remarkably like the NIV in style and balance, but I like some of its renderings better, in places where the NIV has irritated me a bit.

Idiomatic translation is a term frequently used for the less structure-based side of the spectrum. The term relates to the idea I expressed earlier when I said an ideal translation should speak without an accent, that it should read as if it were truly a composition in the source language. The “idiom” is the natural way of speaking of an native language speaker, not to be confused with “idioms,” which are expressions with a meaning greater than the sum of the parts, or a figure of speech. An idiomatic translation is not one that uses lots of idioms (a la The Message), but one that sounds like a natural composition in the target language.

Dynamic equivalence is a term that comes out of the work of Eugene Nida and the American Bible society. It is often used in contrast to formal equivalence to indicate two ends of the spectrum or translation styles. The term dynamic refers to the factors involved in receptor response to the translation, and so the theory reflects the focus on the response of the reader of the translation, that the message is understood with the same ease, clarity, and impact as the original as well as the same meaning. This is another way of saying idiomatic translation, but with more explicit reference to communication theory. For my part, what Nida includes in dynamics, I think is part of the meaning, and so I tend to use terms such as “meaning-based translation” rather than dynamic equivalence or idiomatic.

Meaning-based translation is a term more allied with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (and Wycliffe Bible Translators) and reflect in the title of the book by Mildred Larson, Meaning Based Translation. This approach tends toward much the same side of the spectrum as dynamic equivalence and idiomatic translation, but the focus of the term is on the process and the fidelity of the result. The process has two steps, interpretation or decoding from the source language and re-encoding into a receptor language with attention given to covering all the meaning within the system of the receptor language. Equivalence of structure is much less of a priority, and likely will not be very much present in the resultant translation. It should be noted that the work of SIL as well as the Bible Societies is generally with languages completely unrelated and vastly different from the source languages, in which formal-equivalence approaches is not really even an option.

Some resources for further reading:

John Beekman and John Callow, Translating the Word of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974.

Mildred L. Larson, Meaning-based Translation: A Guide to Cross-language equivalence. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.

Eugene A. Nida, Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964.

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