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Monday, July 11, 2005

Are you riding the goat?

If I say to you "Are you riding the goat?" you will likely wonder what in the world I am asking. Rightly so. The question "Are you riding the goat?" is an accurate word-for-word translation of an idiom in the Cheyenne language which I have been studying for many years. But translating idioms accurately word-for-word seldom translates their idiomatic meaning accurately. Idioms are unique to each language. Languages share very few idioms. Professional translators recognize that you cannot translate idioms accurately at the word level. Instead, you must translate idioms as a whole. Translating the parts of an idiom is not accurate translation. Translating the meaning of the whole, the entire idiom, is accurate translation.

This translation principle is understood and practiced by some English Bible translators, but not by others. The recently published book, The Word of God in English, seems to argue for translating idioms and other figures of speech in the Bible at the word level. I have great respect for this book's author, Dr. Leland Ryken, who was also the literary stylist for the ESV. Dr. Ryken has spent much of his long academic career teaching his students at Wheaton College the beauty of the literary composition of the Bible, including its idioms. He teaches courses on the literature of the Bible. He has written textbook quality books on the literary aspects of the Bible, including
How to Read the Bible as Literature
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, by Leland Ryken, et al.
Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible
The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, co-authored with Tremper Longman III
I have had email exchanges with Dr. Ryken and I appreciate him and his dedication to "transparent translation." But he is mistaken if he really believes that idioms and other figures of speech can be translated at the word level and accurately communicate their original meaning. Appropriate places to appreciate the word-level translation of the beautiful figures of speech in the Bible are Bible footnotes, books, such as those written by Dr. Ryken and others, on the literary imagery of the Bible, or classes on the literature of the Bible such as those that Dr. Ryken teaches.

In future posts I will point out problems with specific word-level translations to English of biblical idioms and other figures of speech.

So, have you figured out if you are riding the goat? If you have not, you are confirming the point that word-level translation of idioms does not accurately communicate the original meaning of idioms. To know if you are riding the goat, you need to know what the entire idiom means. Try to figure out the meaning of the idiom from the meaning of its parts. Try really hard. Why not put your guesses in the comments section of this post. I can post again, telling you how close your guesses are to the real meaning of the question:
Are you riding the goat?
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6 Comments:

At Mon Jul 11, 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Gummby said...

Wayne, I really appreciate many of your comments, but I have to say I'm not sure you're correctly characterizing what Ryken has to say. In my reading of him, I never see him asserting that you must translate every idiom at the word level. Rather, he seems to be saying that, where possible, it is better to translate words rather than thoughts, and gives some good and convincing reasons for doing just that.

 
At Tue Jul 12, 06:25:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Matt, thank you so much for stating how you understand Ryken on translation of idioms. I want to be completely fair with what he has said, so this helps. Also, I have emailed him my comments and asked him to correct anything I stated incorrectly.

 
At Tue Jul 12, 06:44:00 AM, Anonymous CJ Costello said...

Wayne, I have no idea what "Are you riding the goat?" could mean. Here is one from Mexico: literal translation from Spanish - "All the fat ones fall on me." It is suppose to have the sense of "Everyone is annoying me."

Concerning translation theory, I have always assumed that Bible translators kept up with the latest research in this area. Is this not true?

Also it seems most, if not all, translators have advanced degrees in Greek, Hebrew, OT, NT and the like, but not in linguistics or cognitive science. Do you think translation teams should be seeking out people trained in these areas just as they have English stylists or do the current translators provide sufficient expertise in translation theory?

 
At Tue Jul 12, 07:23:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

CJ, your Spanish example is another good one that shows that translating the idiom literally word-by-word does not give us the meaning of the idiom.

You asked: "Concerning translation theory, I have always assumed that Bible translators kept up with the latest research in this area. Is this not true?"

I don't think very many Bible scholars who work on English translations have the time to keep up with linguistics and translation theory. I think that
most of them have never taken a course in translation theory or read a textbook on it, although I know that some have. It would be interesting to poll English Bible translation team members to find out how many of them have formal or informal training in translation theory (and, I would add, English scholarship, as well).

You also asked:"Also it seems most, if not all, translators have advanced degrees in Greek, Hebrew, OT, NT and the like, but not in linguistics or cognitive science. Do you think translation teams should be seeking out people trained in these areas just as they have English stylists or do the current translators provide sufficient expertise in translation theory?"

Yes, absolutely, there needs to be translation scholars on each team. Translation into any language is a big, difficult job. It takes team members with a variety of educational backgrounds and skills. Translation theory, if used wisely, can significantly improve the accuracy and literary quality of English translations, just as much as it does translations into any other language. BTW, translation theory takes into account the needs of different target audience. English is a language that have several diverse translation audiences, partly because we have such a long church history in English, as well as a long tradition of having the Bible in the English language. Some English audiences already are quite familiar with the Bible. They can use a different kind of Bible from those who are not so familiar with the Bible. My own experience, however, has been that even for someone who is quite familiar with the content and traditional phrasings of English Bible versions, something very special happens when they read a translation which is written in their own heart languge, the variety of English which they normally speak and write. That is when the Word of God in English becomes even more power (yes, and even more communicatively accurate) to us, including to those who are biblical specialists, pastors, longtime Bible teachers, etc.

 
At Wed Jul 13, 10:39:00 AM, Blogger Chip and Colleen said...

Could it mean "doing things the hard way"?

 
At Wed Jul 13, 01:21:00 PM, Anonymous Greg Williams said...

Ok, I cheated & did a search on Yahoo. At first I just put in "riding the goat" & thought it was related to some Masonic ritual, but then I added Cheyenne & found a site listing several of their idioms. I'm interested in learning how this was derived since I never would have guessed it. Is there some quirk in Cheyenne divorce law where the wife always gets the horse?

 

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