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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Translating the Wholes

Texts have holes. Lots of them. In "Introduction to Discourse Studies," Jan Renkema gives a list of five potential answers to the question: "Where's my box of chocolates?" They are:
  1. Where are the snows of yesteryear?
  2. I was feeling hungry.
  3. I've got a train to catch.
  4. Where's your diet sheet?
  5. The children were in your room this morning.
At first glance none of them answer the question. The question requires a geographic answer, doesn't it? Or does it? Statement 2 clearly tells the questioner where the chocolates are now and they're rather inaccessible, but where did that location information come from? Answer 4 is a very long way of saying, "no" to the implied question, "Can I have some of my chocolates?" But, that question wasn't asked. Or was it? Would a simple, "no" have worked? No, it wouldn't have. If we assume, and we can if we accept answer 4 as an appropriate answer, that the questioner was really asking for some chocolates, then where did that understanding of the question come from? It came from the answer. But, then why doesn't a simple "no" work? I'm fascinated by the fact that all five answers work when understood in a relevant context. But why?

Good texts have holes; but good communication doesn't. Normal communication generally works quite well with the holes; depending, of course, on how big the holes are. Holes that are too big result in misunderstandings illustrated quite well by my wife and I. However, if we didn't have holes, texts would be extremely long. In fact, I strongly doubt whether communication would even be possible without the holes. Legal documents come closest to closing the holes. But even then, if the holes were absolutely closed, the court system would be unneeded since the communication within a contract could not be circumvented. It would be perfectly unambiguous. Sadly, both parties generally know what the contract means. It's just that one party doesn't want it to mean that. So they rest their case on the holes. A lawyer friend of mine says his job is secure. Funny how that works.

The holes in a text prove that the complex, interwoven structure of a text is designed to trigger meaning already within the reader's mind and to build new meaning from that raw material. The whole meaning isn't in the text itself. The holes exist so that the communication of the wholes can happen. It's the communication of the whole, and the wholes that make up the whole, that is intended by the text. Sometime I'll share how one exegetes a text to grasp the wholes, but for now, let's stick to translation.

If meaning exists in the reader's mind, then a translator must carefully consider the things that were in the mind of a member of the original audience. Things like:
  • The stuff that makes up the common, everyday activity of the people. This is more commonly called culture. The sarcasm in Nathanael's reply to Jesus becomes obvious when one realizes that Jesus' statement about the fig tree in John 1:48 referenced a quite common, and obvious, practice among moderately serious Jews. Nathanael is a cynic; and he is won for Christ by the signs he sees.
  • How various words can be used together to form a cohesive word picture. Second Cor. 3:7-16 uses a number of words dealing with illumination, 'glory' being the main one.
  • How texts are structured to cause different parts of the text to cohere with each other. Luke 15 presents three parables, though Luke refers to them as "one parable." The first two set the interpretive stage for the last. Unfortunately we miss how important the older son is to the story and his need to repent. There wasn't just "sinners" in the audience, you know. Also, the Bible's extensive use of chiasm presents other clear examples of how structure implicitly connects thoughts.
  • Why authors choose specific words from a semantic domain. This isn't expressed in the text, but it's in the mind of both author and reader. Why Paul used the various words for 'form' in Phil. 2:6-11 has generated a lot of discussion among Bible exegetes.
  • The logical and rhetorical connections between one paragraph and the next. James is a very clear example of a text that doesn't appear to flow until one grasps the single topic with which he deals. Then the entire book speaks to one, quite precise, theme: How the mature, rich or poor believers are humbly to respond to the debilitating, oppressive activity of others.
It is the original audience's familiarity with this information that enabled them to transform a text, which will contain holes, into a whole communication. The holes were filled in automatically, often with no thought at all, so that a holistic meaning formed. So, in order for us to clearly, accurately, and naturally translate the original text, we have to take into consideration the information that resides in these holes.

Or, to state it positively: We have to translate the wholes.

But the resulting Biblical text will have holes in it. Won't it? Yes! That's what a text is. So, that ends up meaning that not everything is made explicit. It only means that the modern reader must arrive at the same meaning. In other words, the goal of high quality translation is to exactly mimic the original text in such a way that the translated text triggers meaning already in the modern reader's mind and builds the originally intended meaning from that new, raw material. The modern translator has a different set of raw material to work with; however, he or she must arrive at the same intended result. If he or she doesn't do that, then the resulting translation isn't accurate.

Ironically, accurate translation requires a leeway in the text that corresponds to the differences between the source and receptor languages so that the intended meaning is precisely achieved and identical. The many faceted, and very highly interwoven signs in the original must be changed from source to receptor so that what is signified by those signs remains the same.

The key is to focus on the wholes. We have to translate the wholes.

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