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A Few Thoughts on Translation Philosophy

December 21, 2011

Earth-shattering insight number one:

Translations are made for people who don’t know the language.

Okay, sit a moment and let that sink in. When you are ready, move on to earth-shattering insight number two:

Translations are made by people who do know the language.

These twin epiphanies helped elucidate some personal puzzles of mine.

I prefer the ESV. It seems similar to the NIV, but with a few nuts and bolts tightened here or there. At the same time, I don’t think it is the kind of translation I would produce, based on my formal training in Bible Translation. Kind of cognitive dissonance.

Second, listening to a recent symposium on English Bible translations (here), I had to give Douglas Moo high marks over Wayne Grudem in terms of translation philosophy, though I am generally quite the Grudem fan. (Moo too), and though Grudem was backing the ESV (which I like) contra Moo for the NIV (i.e. the 2011 edition, which I don’t care for.)

What gives?

This leads me to two additional observations:

People who know the original language find good translations irritating.

People who don’t know the original language find poor translations irritating.

The rest of this post I will endeavor to explain what I mean by these enigmatic pronouncements.

Let me start by saying that while there are myriad practical considerations involved in any translation, and in particular Bible translation, the place to start is with proper translation philosophy. Don’t like the word philosophy? Translation theory, then. An adequate philosophy/theory of translation leads you to an ideal that no one in the world can achieve. This should be well understood. And yet it is vital that you are aiming in the right direction, so that when the translation falls short, as it will, it is in spite of good theory and not because of it.

First bit of theory:

The overlap between the original and the translation is the meaning.

That is, only the meaning, and all the meaning. Now that’s a can of worms. What do I mean by meaning? First, I’m not talking about significance. That’s a reader/interpreter factor. Meaning is that which the author encoded into the text by virtue of every place he/she made a decision to employ this form and not that form. It is that semantic complex which the author wished to convey to others and therefore put in, intending for the same to be taken back out again at a later date.

The ideal translation means only and all that the original composition means. Now complicating this is the fact that the author conveyed some of his/her information implicitly–i.e. without any visible form to represent it directly. This too needs to be accounted for in the translation, explicitly or implicitly. This too is part of the meaning. However, that which is no part of the author’s meaning should not be present in the translation.

Confused enough yet?

So then, the first phase of any translation is determining what the original means. The word for this process is interpretation. You’ll hear people say they don’t want a translation that interprets for them. Sometimes this really means one that contains extraneous information (which is forbidden, as I state above). Sometimes this is reaction to implicit information being made explicit, which is often appropriate, and even necessary. But otherwise, it is often a misguided statement, since true translation cannot happen unless thorough interpretation has occured first.

If you don’t know what the original means, how can you know that the translation means the same thing?

This is the main problem with more form-based translation. There are two things that are not really translation that are often called translation. First, in learning a language, Greek or Hebrew, for example, one often does “translations,” by which is meant a running stream of English (for example) words representing the string of source language (SL) words. This is at best a rudimentary draft of a translation, used as a convenient way of referencing the SL text. It would almost never be the best way to convey the same meaning in the receptor language (RL) as that intended by the author in the original composition. But that is not its purpose. It functions as an aid to the language learner, and a diagnostic tool for the language teacher.

A second thing that is not a translation is that which is found in a lexicon following a SL entry. Take logos in Greek for example. “Word” is not a translation, but a gloss. It is a more or less rough equivalent in the RL for a SL unit of vocabulary. That is, in a certain number of contexts. To state that logos means “word” is misleading, even worse that logos=”word.” What is true is that in some usages logos in Greek refers to the same entity that word does in English. Reference is part of meaning, or rather one type of meaning.

But meaning doesn’t happen in dictionaries–only in texts. That is meaning is an aspect of communication, and only occurs in an actual communication situation, i.e. an utterance, or text. The word as it exists within the system of a language only has potential meaning, several potential meanings.

Anyway, for people who have studied languages formally, for example Greek and Hebrew in a seminary or university setting, it might be tempting to think of either of the two above situations as translation. And since this is generally who is called upon to produce a Bible translation, some people seem to tend to this representation of SL forms as the proper way to translate. This is all the more so–possibly–for those who hold to verbal, plenary inspiration. What I mean is, this seems to them the most appropriate way to translate. I also hold to verbal, plenary inspiration, and yet I think that doctrine implies a very different approach to translation. (But that will be for a future post).

Such a person, however, can read the original text–that is, in the source language. And it is very true that this is the only place to do exegesis of any text–in the original language. Therefore, such a person is accessing the SL, the original text, even when reading the text “in translation.” In fact, very “word-for-word” translations, such as the NASB would almost allow a knowledgeable person to recreate the ST. The RT is a stand-in for the form of the source text, rather than a representation of the meaning of the source text.

Accordingly, one who understands the SL has very little difficulty with this kind of translation, since what they are really doing is covertly accessing the SL.

One who “doesn’t know the language” is frequently less comfortable, since while the vocabulary is ostensibly RL (e.g. English) the text is still heavily foreign. It retains an “accent.” Like an emaciated cow the underlying bones are still very evident. It is a foreign text still, stilted, difficult to follow. It is difficult to extract meaning from it because despite superficial vocabulary swaps, the text still employs a great deal of the system of the SL. And remember, this reader does not know the SL.

An ideal translation has no “accent.”

What I mean by accent here is holdover from the source language. The translation ought to read–feel–like an original composition in the RL. This is another way of saying that the reader has the ability to extract the meaning from it, because all the form is appropriate RL form. This is all the reader knows, since he/she doesn’t understand the SL.

This kind of translation will invariably fall into what is frequently called “idiomatic translation” or “dynamic equivalent” translation. These are inadequate terms, and it isn’t a matter of preferring one style or the other, as we often hear. In practical terms there is simply almost zero chance of even approaching the goal of all the meaning of the original via the “formal equivalence” method. Languages are just too different.

One “gets away with it” a bit in related language. So this truth is somewhat obscured in Greek to English translation, because the two languages are relatively closely related, European cousins. Hebrew is a different matter altogether. Pretence of word-for-word-ness goes out the window, or as the ESV’s marketing tagline puts it “essentially literal” when it comes to Hebrew to English translation.

This is where practicality comes in. Where a well-formed translation, a meaning-based translation has occurred, some features are lost. One such feature is concordance. That is the occurrence of the same SL word in different passages. This is a vital part of exegesis in the SL, but may all but disappear in the translation. In fact any place where the original text makes reference to the form of the language itself, this will be necessarily obscured. Examples include rhymes, puns, points made by distinctions in synonyms, reference to the alphabet (such as alpha and omega) or to a word as a vocabulary unit. Also thematicity may be affected. For example Rev. 3:1-6 uses a repetation of onoma “name” in various senses. This is undoubably deliberate, but may not be visible in translation, since the reference may be different in each case.

This is part of what we may say is “lost” in the translation, even if the meaning is generally there. Something “cool” is visible to the reader of the SL that is not visible to others. This is part of what gives rise to the quip: “traductor traditor,” that is “tranlator traitor.”

So every one who can read the SL will inevitably sense the inadequacy of a good translation to retain the genius of expression exhibited by the original author, and thus be irritated by a good (i.e. non-accented translation). But he/she may well feel at home with a stilted, wooden translation.

On the other hand, any one who does not know the SL will derive more meaning more easily from a well-crafted translation that truly “speaks” his/her language, than a halfway measure such as a limping, stuttering, stilted form-for-form approach.

The question is: for whom is the translation made, the translator or the non-speaker reader?

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