Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Bible in translation

There's an ongoing debate on the right philosophy of Bible translation. In principle, this is a big deal. Here's one side of the debate from Leland Ryken:

The goal of Bible translation is to take readers as close as possible to the actual words that the biblical authors wrote.  The translation process that this viewpoint produces is called verbal equivalence, which means that every word in the original Hebrew or Greek text is rendered by an equivalent or corresponding English word or phrase.  The goal of Bible translation is: be transparent to the original text—to see as clearly as possible what the biblical authors actually wrote.

Dynamic equivalent translators feel no obligation to find an English equivalent for every word in the original Hebrew and Greek texts; if the text says “he anoints my head with oil,” a dynamic equivalent translation might read “he treats me as an honored guest.”  Paraphrases often bear little resemblance to what the biblical authors wrote (for example, the statement in Psalm 19 that God’s law is “sweeter than honey” becomes “you’ll like it better than strawberries in spring” (The Message).

Essentially literal translators assume that a biblical author meant what he said, so if they give an English equivalent of the words of the original author, they have also stated the author’s meaning.  Dynamic equivalent translators operate on the premise that meaning exists independent of the words of the original author. 

They are well documented in both the practice of dynamic equivalent translators and in their statements of philosophy.  Here are the liberties that dynamic equivalent translators regularly take:

(1) replace what the original authors wrote with something else (e.g., where the text says “establish the work of our hands,” dynamic equivalent translations substitute “let all go well for us”);

(2) change figurative statements into direct statements (again a substitution);

(3) add interpretive commentary to what the biblical authors wrote, so readers do not know what was in the original and what was added;

(4) make the style of the English Bible contemporary and colloquial;

(5) reduce the vocabulary level of the original text;

(6) bring masculine gender references into line with modern feminist preferences.  In all these ways, dynamic equivalent translations give the public a substitute Bible.  I would also assert that the original authors of the Bible had the resources to state their content the way dynamic equivalent translators state it, but instead, they stated it as we find in the original texts of the Bible.  Dynamic equivalent translators take a condescending view of the authors of the Bible, treating them like inept writers who couldn’t state things accurately and therefore need correction.

Dynamic equivalent translations regularly make preemptive interpretive strikes, thereby removing the reader’s ability to know what the original authors wrote and what the interpretive options are.  Additionally, the more literary a text is, the more likely it is to embody multiple meanings in a given detail in the text.  Dynamic equivalent translators regularly reduce the multiple meanings to one by the way they translate a passage.  Dynamic equivalent translations are one-dimensional in places where the original is multi-dimensional. 

Sometimes this commentary takes the form of a substitution (for example, “my feet had nearly slipped” is translated as “my faith was almost gone”).

I will just add in passing that dynamic equivalent translators have a uniformly low view of poetry and figurative language.

1. This is one of those debates where I don't think one side is clearly right while the other side is clearly wrong. 

2. I'm sympathetic to much of what Ryken says and I agree with much of what he says. Among other things this debate not only raises questions about the responsibility of authors but the responsibility of readers. On the one hand, authors should make an effort to be understandable. Of course, they have no direct control over readers. Some readers are just poor readers. Moreover, the best an author can aim for is to be understandable to his target audience. He has no control over what will be comprehensible to a future audience. 

Which brings me to the other point: readers have responsibilities as well. You can't reasonably expect or demand that Bible translators update the Bible to make it transparently comprehensible to a modern reader. It's wrong for translators to sacrifice historical precision to drag the Bible into modernity. When reading a text from a different time, place, and culture than your own, it's incumbent on the reader to make the necessary adjustments. Insofar as feasible, the reader should inform himself about the world in which that text was given. That's why we have annotated editions of Dante and Shakespeare. Since they can't travel into our world, so we must travel into theirs. Take a statement like the Pharisees make “their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long” (Matthew 23:5, NIV). If you don't know what that means, it's up to you to do a bit of research.

3. I'd add that this is what explanatory footnotes are for. It isn't necessary for a translator to define obscure references by how he renders the text. Rather, he can and often ought to leave the text obscure and clarify the obscurity in a footnote. 

4. Even in the case of idioms, traditional English translations infused the English language with many biblical idioms. It's quite possible to learn a new idiom. 

5. That said, there are problems with Ryken's position. Take his complaint about making the style colloquial. Well, that depends. In general, the spoken word is more colloquial than the written word, and much of Scripture is transcribed speech. The spoken word committed to writing. So the style of a Bible translation should vary. Speech ought be rendered more colloquially while originally literary statements should be more…literary. Ryken's complaint seems to suffer from an element of snobbery in that regard.

6. Consider a test-case of Ryken's translation philosophy: Ezk 16 & 23. Here the prophet resorts to obscenity for shock value. Fidelity to the original requires the translator to render the text into vulgar sexual slang. But to my knowledge, no standard version of the Bible has the nerve to use R-rated vocabulary for Ezk 16 & 23.. Does Ryken actually believe in a transparent, word-for-word rendering for those passages? That's an extreme example, but extreme examples are a way of testing whether a position is a matter of principle. If there are exceptions, then that weakens the principle.

7. In addition, I wonder if Ryken's strictures don't suffer from a provincial, ethnocentric bias by using European languages as the frame of reference. Translating from one European language (Greek) into another European language (e.g. English, French, German, Italian). Is process of translating the Greek NT into English the same or similar to translating the Greek NT into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean–or is there a fundamental difference when we go from European language systems to Asian language systems? Is a word-for-word translation feasible in a language that uses pictograms, ideograms, and logograms, or is the relation more complex? 

8. Another problem with Ryken's strictures is that language is often idiomatic. By that I mean, a common feature of communication is that we frequently say less that we mean. We speak in shorthand. The listener/reader is supposed to fill in what was taken for granted or tacitly implied. Consider two sentences:

• There are some batteries in the drawer. 

• That's some cheerleader! 

i) In the first example, what it says and what it means map onto each other.

ii) In the second example, by contrast, the wording is a poor guide to what it means. It means something like "that's a sexy cheerleader!, but a reader couldn't get that from the wording alone. "Sexy" is not a synonym for "some". 

The meaning depends, in part on the intention of the speaker, as well as the intonation–when he prolongs the word "some". That feature of spoken word, the aural connotation, is lost in transcription. 

In addition, understanding the speaker's intention depends on understanding male psychology. Say two teenage boys attend a high school football game. One pokes the other in the ribs, pointing to a cheerleader, and exclaims: "That's some cheerleader!" What he means isn't contained in the bare wording of the exclamation. 

A word-for-word translation of the exclamation wouldn't really be a translation, because if fails to convey the sense of the exclamation. The real job of a translator isn't to translate words but to convey the sense of a passage. And in the case of poetry, not just the sense of a passage, but the emotional and aesthetic qualities as well. 

9. A larger problem with Ryken's position is that he oversimplifies the task as well as the challenges facing a translator. To take a comparison, consider Dryden's candid discussion of the struggles he faced attempting to render the Aeneid into English:

Virgil therefore being so very sparing of his words, and leaving so much to be imagined by the reader, can never be translated as he ought, in any modern  tongue. To make him copious, is to alter his character; and to translate him line for line is impossible, because the Latin is naturally a more succinct language…than the English, which by reason of its monosyllables, is far the most compendious…Besides all this, an author has the choice of his own thoughts and words, which a translator has not; he is confined by the sense of the inventor to those expressions which are the nearest to it: so that Virgil, studying brevity, and having the command of his own language, could bring those words into a narrow compass, which a translator cannot render without circumlocutions. 

He studies brevity more than any other poet; but he had the advantage of a language wherein much may be comprehended in a little space. We, and all the modern tongues, have more articles and pronouns, besides signs of tenses and cases. [The Romans] comprehended in one word what we are constrained to express in two; which is one reason why we cannot write so concisely as they have done. This inconvenience is common to all modern tongues; and this alone constrains us to employ more words than the ancients needed. On the whole matter, I thought fit to steer betwixt the two extremes of paraphrase and literal translation…I have endeavored to make Virgil speak such English as he would himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present age…He who invests is master of his thoughts and words: he can turn and vary them as he pleases…but the wretched translator has no such privilege; for, being tied to the thoughts, he must make what music he can in the expression. 

i) One point Dryden makes is that it takes fewer words to express the same idea in a highly inflected language than it does in a less consistently inflected language like English, with its many helping verbs (to take one example). Hence, it will take more English words and to match the Greek original. So the word-for-word principle breaks down. Now perhaps the word-for-word principle is just a slogan rather than a translation guide or fixed rule, but if Ryken makes tacit allowance for these qualifications, he never says so. 

ii) Another point Dryden makes is that language isn't just propositional. Take poetry, and a lot of the Bible is poetic. Poetry isn't just about or even primarily about transmitting information. Although that's a component of poetry, poetry is also about conveying the mood of the poet, and evoking the same mood in the reader or listener. Poetry stresses the performative function of language.  

In addition, poetry is often as much about sound as sense. Combining words to produce a euphonious effect. So it's not just a question of the translator choosing synonyms with the same meaning as the original vocabulary, but words that sound good together. The combined tonal value of a string of words. 

iii) Apropos (ii), this also means that a translator must sometimes choose between sacrificing accuracy or beauty. He may not have the same range of words to choose from as the original. Or, to produce a comparable effect, he may have to use additional words to give the line a certain lilt. 

10. I'd add that the choice between translations based on formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence is a false dichotomy. Especially for English-speaking Christians, with a wealth of versions, you can use and alternate between examples of each. 

11. Of course, Dryden takes liberties with Virgil which would be intolerable for a Bible translator–since the Bible is our religious authority. But translations never replace the original. It's not like translators render the original into the receptor language, then destroy the original text. We're not dependent on translations to that degree. Many people lean a foreign language. If you can learn French or Spanish or German, you can learn Greek or Hebrew. 

1 comment:

  1. --But translations never replace the original. It's not like translators render the original into the receptor language, then destroy the original text. We're not dependent on translations to that degree.--

    And here I was just a couple hours ago, scratching my head at why the ESV translates the unusual occurrence of 'Adonai YHWH' as 'Lord GOD' (Jeremiah 1:6 & Ezekiel 34:2) instead of maintaining consistency with 'Lord LORD'. Note the English capitalization is reversed from the more usual 'YHWH Elohim' which becomes 'LORD God'.

    Original context wise, I suspect that Adonai is used in the OT at various points where a distinction is hinted at - that the deity being referred to is not 'The Father' - Jeremiah 1 which is about the Word of YHWH and embodient language; Psalm 110:1&5; Isaiah 6:1 which John 21:41 says is about Jesus; Ezekiel 34 which is about the shepherd being YHWH, but also David, but also one.