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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Translation accuracy

Accuracy is, in my opinion, the most important parameter for an adequate Bible translation. A number of other parameters are highly important, such as clarity, readability, naturalness, acceptability, register, nuances, style, but each of these must always be secondary to accuracy. If a translation wows you with its clarity or its rhetoric flourishes, but is not accurate, it is not worth using, since we cannot trust what it says.

Although I far prefer to deal with specific details of Bible translations, rather than making broad generalizations, I'm going to go against my own preferences just a bit in this post.

From my own extensive study of English versions over many years, it seems to me that accuracy in the more idiomatic (a.k.a. dynamic equivalent, thought-for-thought) translations is typically an issue at the level of exegesis and interpretation. I really enjoy reading idiomatic translations. I like reading something written the way I speak and write. But I have to be careful, at times, to remind myself that in some passages an idiomatic translation reflects an interpretation chosen by its translator or translation team. Hopefully, there will be a footnote stating other possible interpretations but such footnoting is not always done. When the Living Bible introduced the Greek Logos in John 1:1 as Christ himself, the translator/paraphraser was getting ahead of himself, inserting his own evangelical conviction (which I happen to share) that the Logos was Jesus Christ. But putting that information at the beginning of John short-circuited the deliberate buildup that the author used in the prologue to John to introduce us to the Logos (Word).

On the other end of the literal-idiomatic spectrum, the more literal (a.k.a. formal equivalent, word-for-word, essentially literal) translations often have a different accuracy issue. It has to do with inaccuracies which are introduced, typically unknowingly, into a translation when English forms are used which do not communicate the meaning intended by the translators. This kind of inaccuracy is often more difficult to understand and accept as being genuine inaccuracy that calls for revision to greater accuracy.

I'll just briefly mention one inaccuracy that appears in many (most?) of the more literal translations and that has to do with the English word "and" connecting two elements which were synonymous in the biblical source texts, synonymous at least in the sense of Hebrew parallel poetry. I hope to blog on this issue more in the future, but let me discuss one or two example here:

Psalm 119:105 traditionally is rendered as:
"Your word is a lamp for my feet,
and a light for my path."
English "and" requires that the two conjoined elements be non-coreferential, that is, that they not refer to the same thing. (If this sounds new to you, test some "and" phrases and you will soon notice that the two elements must refer to different things.) But in Hebraic parallelism this requirement on the conjunction does not hold. In fact, in poetic doublets (couplets) the Hebrew conjunction precisely does join synonymous (rhetorically synonymous, if not totally synonymous). There are hundreds of such examples in the Hebrew Bible and quite a few which have been carried over into the Greek of the New Testament. We see, therefore, that the English and Hebrew conjunctions have different meaning in contexts where there are conjoined synonyms. English "and" conjoins and tells us that the conjoined elements are different in reference. The Hebrew conjunction waw in poetic parallelism tells us that the two elements are synonymous (or essentially so, for purposes of poetry). In poetic couplets Hebrew waw can be accurately translated to English as 'that is' or 'namely' or comma (yes, a comma can have meaning!).

Psalm 119:105 is not telling us that the Word of God is two different kinds of light, something which is communicated by the English word "and" in the translation. Rather, the poetic parallelism of this verse tells us, essentially, the "same thing" in both couplets. In both lines the Word of God is symbolized by the metaphor of a light which helps us see where we are going.

Is use of "and" in Ps. 119:105 inaccurate? Yes, it is, since it communicates the wrong meaning in English. It does not communicate the meaning that the two couplets are basically saying the same thing, in the beautiful way that Hebrew poetry works.

Can Ps. 119:105 be translated in a way that retains the beautiful form of the Hebrew poetry and is also accurate in English? Absolutely. Each of the following do that:
1. Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light for my path. (use of comma, indicating an English appositive construction which is the "formal equivalent" of the Hebrew poetic parallelism form)

2. Your word is a lamp for my feet,
that is, a light for my path.
We will blog further about this and similar topics in the future. Stay tuned!

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At Sun Jun 05, 09:28:00 PM, Blogger Paul W said...

Wayne, I checked the NJB translaltion of Ps. 119:05 and noticed that it translates the parallelism of this verse in the manner you suggested: "Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path."

Actually, off the top of my head, I think the NJB is one modern translation that starts to address the issue you raise of translating the conjunction waw in Hebrew poetic parallelism. But I've only read through this translation very casually and I don't know whether it consistently does this with the conjunction waw in the context of Hebrew parallelism.

At Mon Jun 06, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Can I add that the other suggestion wrecks the formal equivalence goal, it does not feel like poetry of any sort... I think only a comma will do here! Like in "Eats, shoots and leaves" where one hopes only no comma will do ;) "Eats shoots and leaves" is so much more non-violent!

At Mon Jun 06, 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Good point, Tim. Thanks. And I didn't even mention the conflation solution used by the CEV and perhaps a couple of other versions, since I figured that approach would be tossed out on poetic grounds as well.

My basic point is that there are solutions to translation problems which allow us to have our cake (accuracy) and eat it (enjoy it in good quality English), also.

At Sun Jan 15, 06:39:00 PM, Blogger M.E.A. said...

Matthew 7:6 in the NLT is very inaccurate. "... Don't throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you."

This rendering simply shows wrong understanding of the metaphor. There is an animal known as a razorback hog. I have heard the story from an Indian, a Hindu, who was probably not even aware of this bible verse. He told me that when you chase these kind of wild pigs, they have a special defense. When you get close up on them, they stop very suddendly. They turn back to you, tilting down their head to make a little ramp, and they stiffen the spines on their back so they are sharp as a razor! If you slide over these they slice you neatly open! Hence they do exactly what the King Jame's bible says, "they will turn and rend you." Furthermore, this action is a defense the pig makes against an attacker! The pig is not the attacker, but the defender. Finally I take issue with the faulty construction "... throw your pearls to pigs..." This sounds like they are reaching out to catch them! But if you cast your pearls BEFORE swine, then its logical they might trample them ! The NLT is inapt here at best.

I am reading through the NLT, and I am enjoying it, but I pity someone who has never read a better translation.


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