Domesticating vs. foreignizing Bible translation
Some believe that a translation of the Bible should sound as "foreign" as possible. As far as I can tell, retaining the foreignness of a translation is equivalent to "transparency" in Bible translation, a translation principle promoted by Dr. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, as well as Dr. Raymond Van Leeuwen of Eastern University. Others seem to believe that it is better to make a Bible translation as if the Bible were written directly to us today.
Is the Bible a foreign book? Yes, it is: The Bible is a collection of books which were written by authors who wrote in languages which are no longer spoken today-- although Modern Hebrew is related to Biblical Hebrew and Modern Greek is obviously related to the Hellenistic (Koine) Greek of the New Testament as well as other ancient Greek dialects. The biblical authors lived thousands of years ago, in cultures different from those of many cultures today. The cultures from which they wrote were strongly patriarchal. There was slavery. Marriage sometimes included polygamy and concubines. In general, women were not formally educated.
Should Bible translators "transculturate" any of the content of the biblical source texts so that it sounds more "modern." One of the most extreme examples of Bible translation transculturation was the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament, "translated" by Clarence Jordan during the 1960s, the time of the major Civil Rights conflicts, in the U.S. Dr. Jordan changed the placenames in the Bible to placenames in the southern U.S. where he lived. He changed historical and cultural aspects of the Bible to be like those in the South during the Civil Rights struggles. In his transculturation, Jesus was born in Gainesville, George. Jordan has Paul addressing his letters to believers in southern cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, and Selma. Jordan produced his transculturation so that others could get a feel for what it was like to be a part of the Civil Rights struggle in the South. He wanted people to think of that struggle in biblical terms and so he brought the Bible into that different time and culture in actual translation.
The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version, published by Oxford University Press transculturates the primary biblical masculine imagery of God as Father in the Lord's Prayer to "Our Father-Mother in heaven." It makes other cultural changes to the biblical source text, also, to make the translation more acceptable to various groups within modern society.
Is it legitimate to alter any of the historical or cultural facts of the biblical source text when doing true Bible translation? I say "no;" this is what I was taught in my Bible translation training classes and workshops and I still believe it. The Bible was not originally written for peoples and cultures of today, even though many people informally speak about the Bible as if it had been. The books of the Bible were written for people who lived a long time ago, who faced specific cultural problems different from those which most English speakers face today, such as how a slave owner should treat his slaves, or whether or not an observant believer should eat meat which has previously been offered as a sacrifice to idols. But, of course, by application, we today have much to learn from how the biblical writers addressed the issues of their day.
Does this mean we should put the application of scriptural principles in a Bible translation itself? No, I don't think so. I think we should allow the historical and cultural context of the original biblical source text to say just what they said, to refer to issues of slavery, meat offered to idols, levitical dietary practices, etc.
Does that mean that a Bible translation should sound foreign? To the extent that it accurately reflects the context in which the source text were written, yes. And to the extant that it accurately retains the various original literary genres in which the biblical books were written, I believe the answer is, again, yes.
Does this, however, mean that we should also import as much of the syntax and lexical rules of the biblical source languages as possible into English or any other target language? Here I think the answer should be "no." I find no compelling reason why any English translation should not be written in good quality grammatical literary English, which follows the rules of standard dialects of English, including semantic rules which state what words can combine ("collocate") with each other. The English language can clearly reflect the poetic and gospel epistolary genres of the biblical source texts, and do so in proper, grammatical English.
In my opinion, it is not necessary for the language of the Bible to sound foreign, to have constructions which are not indigenous to English, to have wordings which sound strange and may have no meaning at all to English speakers, in an attempt to retain a "foreign" sound in the language of the translation. Many of us have read technical manuals for electronic appliances which were obviously not written by native speakers of English. For the most part, we can figure out what the instructions mean, but they are harder to understand than if those manuals had been written by native speakers of English who can write well.
Using good quality English does not mean changing any meanings of what is said in the Bible. It is possible to translate using good quality, natural language while retaining a very high level of translation accuracy. In fact, I would maintain that if we do not use quality English in a translation, we actually reduce accuracy in a translation, since using poor quality English reduces the ability of those who use a translation to understand the original meaning.
The RSV, NRSV, NASB, and ESV state that "the Most High uttered his voice" (Psalm 18:13). But that wording is not proper English. No one native English speaker "utters" their voice. The English verb "utter" only collocates with a few other words, and such sanctioned combinations are part of English grammar, in particular, the semantic (lexical) component of English grammar. For instance it is a proper English collocation to speak of "uttering an epithet." We can "utter the last word." But we do not, in English, "utter a voice." The verb "utter" and the noun "voice" do not collocate in English. The Hebrew words underlying these English translations could collocate together in Hebrew grammar.
Is it necessary to use the foreign-sounding phrase "uttered his voice" to make Bible translation be "transparent" to the original linguistic or cultural context? I don't think so. I may be wrong, and I would be glad to be shown how using such a non-English wording enhances the integrity of the translation. There is loss of accuracy, in my opinion, if instead of translating Psalm 18:13 as the ESV did, with its English which breaks a lexical rule of English, one translates as "the Sovereign One shouted" (NET). The two different wordings have the same intended meaning. But the NET uses gramamtical English here, while the four other versions do not.
Hundreds of other similar examples could be given where the language used in an English version is not English. It has English words, but they do not relate to each other properly according to the rules of English grammar, which includes the rules of semantics (the lexicon).
To try to clarify, I am not talking about matters of literary style here. I love the great literature of the Bible and its variety of genres, which should be preserved in translation, as much as possible. What I am concerned about are not unique wordings that come from the pens of creative writers. Rather, I am concerned that so many wordings in English Bible versions do not follow the rules of English grammar. Rampant breaking of English word order, syntax, or lexical rules is not required to make a translation be as transparent to the source texts as possible.
Let us not make understanding the Bible any more difficult that it already is by adding to it an unnecessary linguistic burden of not having its translation follow the rules of the language into which it is translated. The Bible remains a "foreign" book because it talks about foreign things. But it doesn't have to sound like a foreign book as it tells us about those foreign things. And, with the help of Bible teachers, we who read the Bible today in our own languages can apply the teachings of the Bible to ourselves within our own time and cultures.
What do you think?
Category: Bible translation