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Friday, August 12, 2005

Translating confused language: some Hebrew examples

Dave Barnhart of Vulgar Homiletics has commented on our post Flesch-Kincaid and Jabberwocky and points us to a provocative article titled "Confused Language as a Deliberate Literary Device in Biblical Hebrew Narrative." Without commenting on the specifics of that article (a very interesting one, BTW), I would like to answer Dave by reiterating what I have said in previous posts: Our translations of the biblical source texts should not be clearer than those texts were intended to be by their original authors. Nor should they be more obscure than they were intended to be. We need to try to reflect intended ambiguity, sarcasm, irony, poetry, understatement, ecstasy, and all the other wonderful rhetorical devices we humans use when we are communicating.

Believe it or not, most of our communication is seldom just giving information to someone else. Typically, there is something else going on with our speech or writing. Jesus, the rabbi, was a master at it. He would often answer a question with a question (typical of Semitic discourse, which is still used today in the Middle East), or respond with a commonly known proverb. He intentionally referred to himself as the Son of Man, which is quite the enigmatic term.

On the question of whether a translation is more or less clear that the source text, unfortunately, it is more often the case that a translation is less clear. And that is so because translators often do not take into consider all the "other stuff" that is going on in a communication situation besides conveying information. This is the thrust of Mike Sangrey's recent post, "Translating the Wholes." Secondly, it is often assumed by English translators that matching up words and syntax of the source language with the target language will adequately communicate what the source text "said." I'm never sure what is meant by "said" in this context, but I do know that such lexical and syntactic matching does not, absolutely does not, as a whole, accurately and clearly let us know what the original authors meant by what they wrote. Translating through "matching" is simplistic. It does not adequately honor all the wonderful things going on rhetorically in the source text. And it never adequately honors the wonderful linguistic tools and forms which are naturally available in the target language. It leaves Bible users with a text which is halfway between the biblical languages and their own language, a kind of linguistic never-never-land where the translation sounds like it was written by non-fluent speakers of the language, and does not accurately reflect what the original authors communicated.

There is far more than just matching up words, which is often impossible, anyway, since each language has its own unique lexicon, so words often do not match up one-to-one from one language to another. And we often cannot match up syntax from one language to another. Even more so than with the lexicon, languages differ greatly in their syntactic forms. We simply cannot translate every Greek dative en with the cognate English preposition "in" and hope to communicate the original meaning accurately. We cannot translate original idioms word-for-word and expect Bible users to understand what was intended in the original texts.

So, Dave, I'm on the same page with you. If the original text is meant to be sarcastic, then a translation of it must sound sarcastic. If the original author was being humorous, that should be clear in translation. If the original text was intentionally confusing (and that is not always easy to determine, but the article you cited makes a good case for this), then we should not emend the confusion during translation, to make the translation clearer than the original was. If the original text was clear to its hearers, we must not make a translation to English sound like some form of English which no one speaks or writes and whose meaning is not clear. If the original text had literary beauty then so should a translation of it. But that beauty will not be there unless we first start with linguistic forms which sound like they are part of the target language, such as English. Beautiful English must sound like English! It's good to be stretched literarywise, but the stretching still must take place within the boundaries of the English language, including English which undergoes poetic license. There simply is no excuse for translating clear Biblical Hebrew or Greek to muddled English.

Categories: Bible translation, Hebrew, authorial intent


At Tue Aug 16, 01:17:00 PM, Anonymous dave said...

Thanks, Wayne! I appreciate your reply.

In the article I referenced, I especiially enjoyed the idea of reading the confused speech of the young girls to Saul as an excited fountain of words. I think these artistic flourishes help people remember that they are reading about human beings. I can imagine reading that line as one long run-on sentence.

Some of the other examples I found less convincing, such as the Ishamaelite/Midianite confusion being an intentional narrative perspective from the bottom of the well. But overall I like the idea that authors of any time period take a bit of license in order to imply other actions or states of mind.


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