Tuesday, September 09, 2008

On translation and limits

I guess after even a little short experience in translating from a strange tongue into a strange culture (about 2 years), I should try to give my words of advice on what constitutes communication in a translated text.

There is a quite comprehensive article here which I have 'breezed' through. I have this problem about reading - from that fellow Francis Bacon - some books are worth it - you remember the passage.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.*
In tasting this article, I came across a few claims that caught my attention for a moment.
Those who insist that literal translations are superior probably do the greatest damage to people incapable of going behind the translated text to discover the meaning of the original manuscripts.
This phrase begs two questions: Who is incapable of going behind the translated text? Who is capable of discovering the meaning of the original manuscripts?

Well, I looked further and reread the first paragraph in green. Maybe this is where I part company with the writer - who no doubt has more experience in translation and pastoral care than I do.
The argument in these articles is that a common claim that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations is incorrect and can be harmful to the body of Christ.
I could harm the body of Christ with a literal translation? - come, come. Does the ark of the covenant need my support lest it fall off its wagon?

There is no meaningful translation possible that ignores word usage. Words take their meaning by position in relation to other words. Translation without form is chaos. Will it harm the body? No? Perhaps like a corn soup it will give some roughage - but buttered, salted, and peppered on the cob it is not.
insistence on using those versions exclusively or primarily serves to keep people from engaging God’s word with the clarity offered by meaning-based versions.
Really? - does one assume that the written text is the word and that engagement with text is the primary issue, and that meaning-based versions offer clarity? In this strange culture, I do not make any of these assumptions. I assume that God's Word is seeking to engage us - and is not confined to text and that meaning cannot be substituted for form without being bland or clearly one-sided. One translator's meaning is to another misunderstanding, worse - it is confining.

There is even more than theology in any translation - there is politics, keeping the masses in order and bums in the pews.

Spare me the pabulum. Set me a riddle. Illustrate a thought form that makes me puzzle and stops me from maintaining my comfortable umptions. Leave in the ambiguous antecedents. Tell me you do not understand. Do not imply you know the original.

Am I incapable? then leave me to God's devices. God's Original will not allow me to fail. Don't make me more incapable by telling me what I should understand in a particular text. God's Work will allow me a sufficient meaning.

Those who are sure of their meaning are more likely to harm themselves and others than not.

[Addendum: the section in the subject article on translating "the cat in the hat" illustrates the point. Discovering a rhyming word couplet in the target language would be the 'literal' translation bringing the reader in contact with the spirit of Dr. Seuss. Our problem is that we would scarcely see such play in the ancient Biblical texts given our propensity to 'appropriate' piety.

*Update Francis Bacon 1561-1626, On Studies, in W. Peacock, Selected English Essays, 1903 reprinted 1954.]


mike said...

Bob, I struggle to follow your criticism. I agree with every thing you wrote, but do not understand how it stand against the sentences you quoted...

Bob MacDonald said...

I hope I am not in too much trouble here. I don't usually engage in polemics. I am quite biased in favour of literal translations whenever it is possible to retain word play, word order, or equivalent humour in the target language.

I have also taken the phrase "these articles" to be referring to the articles on translation on the site in question.

Given that, I am taking offense (mildly) at several implications in the article: that the meaning should be clarified for those who are not capable of going behind the translated text.

To take two examples: Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. 'before the Lord' is a marvelous archaism - before his face, in his presence, etc are invoked. For this to be 'explained' - means that the reader will not get the resonances with other passages. Assuming that the reader is going to grow in the Lord, I think it essential that such resonances not be disturbed.

Similarly, the phrase 'stands in the way of sinners' - remove 'stands in the way' and the resonances with being 'in the way' i.e. in the way of the Lord lose their power. Explain one and you have to explain them all. That's fine if you can come up with an equal music to the Hebraism.

Or take 'Adam knew his wife' - people should know what this means and where it is appropriate to read it in other contexts. To say Adam had relations with (NASB) had sex with (NOB), or made love to (GWT), or had connection with (BEB) his wife, is forlorn to say the least.

Most importantly it completely misses the knowledge of God and the human expressed in Genesis 3:5,7,22 and again and again in the following verses and books. Readers should know that a word can have more than one connotation and that meaning is known in the larger pattern. So יָדַע is 'know' and it is used many times in many places and you have to think it out in order to understand. That sort of thinking eventually makes people capable.

Note: NOB is No One's Bible.

mike said...

I wouldn't consider it trouble. I'm not one for polemics myself. I follow you and actually agree with you for the most part. I would suggest though that while "literal" is the typical term for what you're describing, it isn't necessarily a helpful one. As you said it, "before the Lord" is a marvelous archaism - that's not literal that's archaism. I get frustrated at time with the assigning of traditional translation English forms with the term literal. The thing is, the article your criticized gives the same impression.

What is literal is what you described in the beginning of your comment and I agree. I want both though. I want word play and contemporary language in my translation.

I hope I'm making sense?

By the way, I noticed that you're on Victoria, that's got to be beautiful. My wife and I just moved to Surrey from Chicago two weeks ago.

Bob MacDonald said...

To Surrey from Chicago - bravo - another local blogger in this subject area... If you get over to the island - feel free to get in touch. I am usually at St Barnabas church - high Anglican liturgy.

Now about literal - Nimrod 'before the Lord' is quite literal. לִפְנֵי יְהוָה - literally l-pnei is in the face of and is often translated as 'before'. It could also be 'in the presence of'. Blue letter bible lists these counts for KJV: before 1137, face 390, presence 76. My Hebrew Latin concordance gives these meanings: facies, superficies, vultus, aspectus, conspectus, persona, pars anterior, frons, acies (ferri), antea, olim, coram, ante (de loco et tempore), antequam. (I hardly ever use this - it was a gift from my first Hebrew teacher!)

Mark Naylor said...

Thanks for reading and critiquing my article. I appreciate the interaction. However, I would like to correct a couple of misreadings of the articles (not that these are your fault, it is likely my lack of clarity). First, I was not criticizing literal translations, rather I was upset with those who teach their congregations that literal translations are more the word of God than meaning- based translations. If you re-read the quote, you will see that I am referring to the "claim of superiority." This claim from the pulpit damages the body of Christ by directing those in need of clarity away from such versions that are better able to reveal God's truth to them.
Secondly, the point of meaning-based translations is not to unravel the mysteries of the message that are part of the original author's purpose. Rather it is to present the original text in a form that is understandable to the modern day reader within the language and cultural context with which they are familiar. Your critique assumes that meaning-based translations are seeking to be commentaries beyond the meaning of the text. The reality is that literal translations often obscure the text beyond that which the original readers would have understood. Meaning based translations seek to restore that understanding.
The one criticism of meaning based translations which is quite valid is the inability to carry over certain nuances of humor, poetic impact, etc. However, I would argue that no translation is completely successful in this, and when literal translations try to find one English equivalent for a particular Greek or Hebrew term, such as, say, "sarx", for the purpose of indicating connection with other passages, they do injustice to the meaning of the passages.
My recommendation is that people should study with a variety of translations.
I also found it interesting that we are neighbors. I also live on the island near Victoria and have just returned from another month of Bible translation in Pakistan.
All the best

Bob MacDonald said...

Mark - thanks for the note - I translate purely for the joy of it. I grew up with the King James version which frequently uses creative synonyms and thereby obscures the form of the poetry - I love the KJV and its history, but it is severely misleading at times. A very good example is Psalm 51. This is a sequence of three cells each of which has God's righteousness at the centre of several concentric circles. The meaning is focused by the recurring words. (See this diagram)

As a two-year-old, I cannot claim any 'superiority' and I would be happy for feedback - but I know I have put out too much volume too quickly. Such is the nature of the passion to see. I am happy for meaning to sink in - but I am suspicious of the control sometimes implied in 'understanding' - for we are not 'in control' in that sense but must be open to hearing things again for the first time, to borrow a phrase.

Tomorrow after the 7:00 Mass at St Barnabas, there is a short recital which my daughter is giving on that very small organ - if you are close enough and free, perhaps we might meet.

At the St Barnabas Sunday School I have been teaching 5 minutes of Hebrew a week - the children are intrigued... and one of them is now reading psalms in Hebrew.