Translation Theory Traddutore, traditore! Rodney J. Decker, Th.D., copyright 1998, all rights reserved. Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania Note: This document was created using Arial (headings) and Palatino (text) fonts.
Terminology • Donor language, the language from which a translation is made (= the text being translated) • Receptor language, the language into which a translation is made • Gloss, a useful translation equivalent (often of the unmarked meaning of the word) (see BAGD)
Terminology • Meaning • The sense of a word that can be expressed in a definition (see LSD) • Some words can be defined apart from a referent, though they may have a referent in a particular context • E.g., twelve” can be defined as a number indicating a specific quantity, but there is no referent unless it is used in a context that mentions, e.g., “the Twelve” = the disciples)
Terminology • Referent • to what (or whom) the word points (some words are only referential, e.g., “Paul,” and cannot be defined)
Differences between languages • Vocabulary • Semantic domains, words in various languages have varying ranges of meaning, the specific semantic domain of one word (e.g., filevw, which includes love, like, kiss) does not exactly overlap with the semantic domain of its closest equivalent in another language (e.g., “love,” which does not normally include the more general term “like” and never means “kiss”).
Vocabulary • Quantity of words, languages have different size vocabularies, which points out quite clearly that there can be no word-for-word translation, else how could we translate koine Greek (vocab. of about 5,500 words) into Hebrew (which has only about 4,000)?
Differences • Morphology/inflection, languages have different systems of inflection which impinge on translation as to how word function is indicated, etc. • Syntax, varies widely from language to language; a strict formal equivalence, maintaining the same word order, results in nonsense:
Differences • Verbal system, Hebrew and Greek do not grammaticalize temporal reference (English does). • Culture-related terms: weights, measures, dates, currency, calendars, time; how do you translate when the “scales” of each language are so very different?
Differences • Style • How does one translate when good style in one language is considered poor style in another? • E.g., an abundance of passive voice and particles = good Greek style, but poor English style
Context and Semantics • Illegitimate totality transfer: the fallacy of reading all a word’s semantic domain into every individual usage of the word to find “more meaning.” cf. Amplified Bible; sermons that build multiple points from different meanings. • Importance of context (“Context is king.”)The most important factor in determining the meaning of a word is the context.
Word-for-word “translations” • KJV, 1611 preface • “Another thing we wish to advise you about, gentle reader, is that we have not bound ourselves to any uniformity of phrasing or to any identity of words. Perhaps some, noticing that some scholars have been as exact as possible that way, would wish that we did the same. Most assuredly we were extremely careful. We made it a matter of conscience as was our responsibility. When the word meant the same thing in both places, we did not vary from the sense from what we had translated before. For there are some words that do not have the same meaning everywhere.
Word-for-word “translations” • “However, it would mince the matter to express the same notion by the same particular word…. Such would smack more of fastidiousness than wisdom and would evoke more ridicule from the atheist than profit for the devout reader. Has the Kingdom of God become words or syllables? Then why should we be in bondage to them when we may be free? Or use one word precisely when another word would be no less appropriate? … Add to this the fact that squeamishness in words has always been counted the next step to trifling. The same is true about fastidiousness in names.
Word-for-word “translations” • “Further, we cannot follow a better pattern for style than God Himself. If He used different words in Holy Writ, and indifferently, for the same thing in nature, then we, if we are not superstitious, may take the same liberty in our English translations from Hebrew and Greek. (“The Translator’s to the Reader, §16.) • RV, 1885, Lightfoot’s dictum: “the same English words to represent the same Greek words … as far as possible in the same order” (NET preface, 7). • Social contexts (sociolinguistics; Carson, ILD, 65-67)
Translation Models • “It is impossible not to lose something when you translate an extended text from one language to another” (Carson, ILD, 58). • Usually something not in the donor text is added as well! (e.g., separate forms for “we inclusive/exclusive” in some languages; differing temporal reference systems, etc.)
Translation Models • “There is always some loss in the communication process, for sources and receptors never have identical linguistic and cultural backgrounds…. The translator’s task, however, is to keep such loss at a minimum” (de Waard & Nida, FOLA, 42)
Translation Models • Unhelpful categories • “Literal” (because most who use this term assume that it equals “more accurate, superior, faithful, exact”; besides, just what does “literal” mean?) • “Word-for-word” and “phrase-for-phrase” and “thought-for-thought” (cf. Carson, ILD, 70)
Translation Models • Interpretive (all translation is interpretive, even formal equivalent ones) • “Every reading of a text by a finite being is an interpretation of it…. translation is never a mechanical task…. Translators must understand the donor text, or think they do, before rendering it into the receptor text” (Carson, ILD, 72).
Theoretical models • Formal equivalent: a translation that seeks to translate from one language to another using the same grammatical and syntactical forms as the donor language whenever possible. • “Consistent execution of formal equivalence is impossible, and if one opts for the axiom ‘as formal as possible,’ one frequently ends up with a translation that actually distorts much of the meaning in the donor text” (Carson, ILD, 70).
Theoretical models • Functional equivalent: a translation that seeks to represent adequately and accurately in good receptor-language grammar, style, and idiom that which the words and constructions in the donor language conveyed to the original recipients. • “The closest natural equivalent in the receptor language, both in meaning and style” (NET preface, 7 n.4)
Theoretical models • Dynamic equivalence: “The quality of a translation in which the message of the original text has been so transported into the receptor language that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors” (Eugene Nida, The Theory and Practice of Translation, 202). • It seeks to make the same impact without regard to the form of the original language.
Theoretical models • Paraphrase: A simplified summary of the meaning found in the donor language. “A paraphrase tells the reader what the passage means, whereas a literal translation tells what the passage says” (Metzger, 148). • Practical continuum • More formal • More functional • “No translation is exclusively formal; none entirely avoids formal features” (Carson, ILD, 69).
Teachout • “The science of translation is both one of the easiest and one of the most difficult of tasks. It is easy in the sense that any beginning student of language can develop confidence quickly in making wooden translations—rendering the original in hard-to-understand one-to-one correspondences. It is most difficult in the sense that much expertise is needed in both the source language (the original text) and the target language (the translation) if a person is to arrive at a good translation.
Teachout • “The task is made more difficult because one (ideally) has to interpret accurately and fully and yet not read in foreign ideas that are not innate to the text” • “Early in his ministry, the writer believed that a strict, word-for-word rendering was always best. However, as his knowledge of Hebrew syntax improved, it became more and more evident that this method can, if uniformly used, actually be a hindrance to an understanding of the true sense of the original.
Teachout • “For a passage to be properly translated, it must represent adequately in good English grammar that which the Hebrew words and construction conveyed to the original recipients. To do less actually accomplishes the opposite of the translator’s intention; that is, by trying to render a text in a ‘literal’ word-for-word manner, the translator (in actuality) keeps the reader from properly understanding the complete message of the Hebrew original.
Teachout • “Therefore the translator with this methodology unintentionally robs the English reader of truth, insofar as he does not adequately convey all of the intended ideas in the text.” • Robert P. Teachout, Th.D., “Notes on Translation,” unpublished, Detroit Baptist Seminary, [ca. 1979].
Cultural issues in translation • “White as snow” in Irian Jyra = “make dirty” (black people sitting around a fire and get white ash on them = dirty!) • “Stand at the door and knock” in some cultures implies a thief! (Only a thief knocks to see if anyone is home before robbing the house; a friend will shout, not knock.)
Cultural issues • “Nurse a baby” in Australia = hold a baby (not: breastfeed) • “Heart” in its biblical sense is equivalent to “gall bladder” in some Philippine tribes and “liver” in many African contexts. • “Son of man” in Kouykon Indian dialect of Alaska and Canada = “son of any man” = “bastard, illegitimate son”—not an appropriate translation as a title for Jesus Christ!
Cultural issues • Snake meat vs. eel (In Other Words, June 84) • “God of the Dead” (In Other Words, Ap. 89) • Taboo language (In Other Words, Ap. 89)
Inclusive Language • We should not automatically assume that any “agenda” that seems to come through in a translation must be a translator’s bias. • It may well be a reflection of the Bible’s agenda—which is often different from various politically-correct agendas in contemporary Western culture. • Our task is to accurately represent the original whether we like what it says or not.
Inclusive Language • Must distinguish between: • “Gender neutral” translation and • “Inclusive language” • Gender neutral attempts to eliminate any reference to gender, whether of God or people (e.g., “God our heavenly parent”). • Inclusive language seeks to use terms that are as inclusive in the receptor language as in the donor language.
Inclusive Language • Legitimacy of individual choices depends on the extent to which the languages overlap. • To what extent has English changed in the last 50 years? • Has what began as a political agenda become more generally “mainstream”? • It doesn’t matter if you like the changes, but it does matter what contemporary language means.
Inclusive Language • We do not have a commission to reform language or to impose grammatical preferences on our audience. • We do have a commission to communicate accurately and clearly the truth of the gospel.
Inclusive Language • Would you approve of missionaries going to the Philippines and insisting on changing the Tagalog language to suit their preferences when preaching the gospel? • Or would you expect that person to communicate in fluent Tagalog? • Is it helpful to offend people in your proclamation of the gospel? (Other than by the offense of the gospel itself?)
Inclusive Language • I used to resist such changes vigorously, but that was when these changes were found only in the radical feminist literature. • In many parts of the country these changes have now gone “mainstream.” • As a result, I have had to rethink my prior opposition and gradually begin to use more inclusive language.
Inclusive Language • I would suggest that the approach taken by Carson’s Inclusive Language Debate and by the NET Bible are the best solution at the present time. • I resist “gender neutral” translation, since that violates the original text, but where the original is not gender specific, then I think that we should use equivalent language in our translation—and in our preaching.
Inclusive Language • The contemporary “flap” re. the NIV’s revisions was blown out of proportion by a “watchdog” group who allowed their agenda to blind them to genuine cultural issues. • Their reaction is understandable since they have taken as their social mission the opposition of any and all forms of the feminist agenda.
Inclusive Language • But the feminists won this cultural battle long ago. • Contemporary English language usage has changed—for better or worse. • Our job is now (as always) is to communicate in the language of the people.
Misc. issues • Purpose of a given translation: • Judge on the basis of their stated purpose. There is no one translation that is best for all purposes. Note the contrasting purposes of: GNB, NIV, NKJV.
Use of italics • Traditionally italics have been used to indicate supplied words, but contemporary use is to indicate emphasis. • How do you decide what words are essential and what words are optional? (A very difficult decision at times!) • Note that the NIV has chosen to use half brackets to mark questionable additions: e.g., “the glory of the one and only ›SonÍ” (Jn. 1:14). • The KJV, by contrast, has “the glory of the only begotten of the Father,” leaving the reader to figure out who the only begotten is. Since the context is very clear that the reference is to the Son, other translations have supplied it for clarity. • Note the the NET Bible always appends a f.n. when it explicitly supplies the referent.
Use of italics • Some portray the KJV as the model in its use of italics to indicate words supplied, but its more generous use of italics (by contrast with the NIV’s more restrained use of half brackets) is sometimes overdone; e.g., 1 Cor. 14:2 supplies unknown—an illegitimate addition that is not implied in the context.
Basic Resources • John Beekman and John Callow. Translating the Word of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974. • D. A. Carson. The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998. • Jan de Waard and Eugene Nida. From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation. Nashville: Nelson, 1986. • Jack Lewis. The English Bible: From KJV to NIV. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981. • Louw, Johannes P., ed. Meaningful Translation: Its Implications for the Reader. New York: United Bible Societies, 1991. • Bruce Metzger, “Theories of the Translation Process.” BibSac 150 (1993):140–50. • Mark Strauss. Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1998. • Robert J. Williams, “The Science of Translating the Greek New Testament into English.” Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1968.