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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Newmark on word for word translation

A Bible translation issue which I would like to comment on here has come up on the b-hebrew list (which has public Internet archives, so I am free to quote here). Rolf Furuli, the Norwegian author of "The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation: With a special look at the New World Translation of Jehovah's Witnesses", is well known on that list for his unusual and controversial view of the Hebrew verb system as well as for his contention that the word is the basic unit of translation. In recent postings he supported this contention by quoting from "A Textbook of Translation" by the well known linguist Peter Newmark. Here are the quotations, as reported by Furuli:
"Many translators say you shall never translate words, you translate sentences or ideas or messages. I think they are fooling themselves. The SL (source language) texts consist of words, that is all that is there, on the page." (p.2)
"The present excessive emphasis in linguistics on discourse analysis is resulting in the corresponding idea in translation theory that the only unit of translation is the text, and that almost any deviation from literal translation can be justified in any place by appealing to the text as an overriding authority. The prevailing orthodoxy is leading to the rejection of literal translation as a legitimate translation procedure." (p.68)
After this second quotation Furuli continues:
Newmark then translates a French text of 75 words into English, where the text has 68 words, and writes: "I do not think the French translation could be improved on, although one or two variants in the 'taste' area are always available. But about 90% of the three sentences are literally translated - which perhaps is exceptional, but not so surprising in this type of text. My thesis, however, is that literal translation is correct and must not be avoided, if it secures referential and pragmatic equivalence of the original."
I would like to make a couple of points here.

Firstly, it is clearly logically false to infer that because a text consists of words it has to be translated word by word. By the same logic, because a text consists of sentences it has to be translated sentence by sentence, and because a text consists of letters it has to be translated letter by letter. So, this observation of Newmark's cannot be taken as supporting Furuli's position.

Secondly, I must reject Newmark's contention in the last sentence quoted above. I reject it on the basis that a literal translation, even if it is correct, should be avoided if it is not also clear and natural. At the very least it is wrong to say that any unclear or unnatural translation "must not be avoided", which seems to be a suggestion that clarity and naturalness in translation are invalid as criteria and must not be taken into account in translation. Of course it may well be that Newmark qualifies this position elsewhere. But I hope that he and everyone else would agree with me that clarity and naturalness, as well as referential and pragmatic accuracy, are requirements for good translation. And in return I can accept that a literal translation is good, even preferable, in so far as it is clear and natural as well as referentially and pragmatically accurate.

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