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Friday, April 15, 2005

Translating figurative language in the Bible

After reading some of my comments on this blog, someone might ask me, "Are you suggesting that we remove all the metaphors and idioms of the original biblical languages?"

And I would answer:

No, not at all. I am only suggesting that we translate original biblical figurative language to good quality English, that is English which is fully grammatical. And I would also suggest that this good quality English should accurately communicate the meaning of the original figurative language to any particular audience we intend to use our translation. If a user of a translation must consult some source outside of a translation to understand the meaning of translation wordings of biblical figurative language, then I contend that the original figurative language has not been fully translated to English. By definition, a translation allows a user to get the same meaning from what the translation "says" as the original hearers got from what the original biblical languages "said."

Field testing can determine if the original figurative meanings of biblical metaphors and idioms have been accurately communicated to different target audiences when they are literally ("transparently") translated. If field testing demonstrates that individuals do not understand the original figurative meanings from literal translations, then translators are faced with the choice of revising the translation until the original meaning is accurately communicated, or using some other means to help these individuals know what the figurative meanings are. Helpful options can be footnotes, marginal notes, Bible study aids, or marking the problem wordings with some symbol which will alert the reader to ask a Bible teacher what the actual meaning is. In my own opinion, for "ordinary" Bible translation (not for specialist audiences such as Bible scholars), the historical thrust of vernacular translation calls for translating in such a way that "ordinary" individuals (including faithful members of a church or synagogue) can understand what the original biblical writings said and meant just through a translation itself. I do not believe that this is dumbing down translation. For sure, it is not transculturating, since no details of the biblical historical and cultural contexts are changed in the translation other than the words being in a different language, which is what translation is, by definition.



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