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Monday, September 12, 2005

Interpretation and translation compared

I see a direct parallel between the processes of interpreting the Bible and translating it. Of course, we cannot translate until we first understand the original meaning, so translation is, to that degree, dependent on interpretation. But I am referring to a parallelism between the two processes which is sometimes missed in the animated (and often not adequately informed) discussions concerning Bible translation and styles of translating, such as literal versus idiomatic, formal equivalence, paraphrases, etc.

I am a detail person. I really enjoy working with the details of Scripture to do good Bible translation. But sometimes I like to summarize details so that I can see the big picture, the forest, clearly, even though there are many trees, details, which must eventually be referred to.

In summary, Biblical interpretation consists of three steps:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What does it mean to me?

Step 1 can involve textual criticism (choice of which original language texts to regard as most reliable). Step 2 is interpretation, often called exegesis, and is the step where there is sometimes disagreement among Bible scholars as to what a particular verse of the Bible most likely means. Step 3 is application. Bible study should never be an end in itself. Otherwise we become Bible sponges, never releasing the lifegiving water of life to others (and sometimes not even to ourselves).

Bible translation consists of three parallel steps:

  1. What does the source text say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How do we best express that meaning in the target language?

There is often a big difference between 1 and 2, as people speak language in ordinary ways. For instance, if I say to our son, "It's sure hot in here," I may simply be complaining about the room's temperature. But knowing me, I'm more likely asking our son to open up a window to let in some cooler air. This is an instance where my actual words, that is, what I literally say, has one meaning, but what I mean by what I say has a different, although pragmatically related, meaning. This happens to be an example of what linguists call indirect speech. In many languages indirect speech would not work exactly the same as it would for me here with my English words. In those languages, if I am going to translate the meaning of what I have said accurately, I would need to find some way in that language of (rather strongly) hinting to the listener that I want him to open a window. This example clearly illustrates that literal meaning is often not the same as actual meaning. In translation we always want to translate actual meaning. Sometimes, but not always, it can be the same as literal meaning.

By "best" in step 3 we refer to saying something in the target language which is accurate to the original meaning, and stated in such a way that it sounds clear and natural. A translation should not sound like a translation. Too many versions of the Bible sound like "church language", that is, they sound a little foreign. They talk a dialect of English or another language which is different from the dialect of that language spoken in everyday life. This recalls the period of time when the religious hierarchy felt that the common person was not capable of correctly understanding the Bible if he heard it in his own native language. So the Bible remained in a foreign language, typically Greek or Latin, understandable only to the clergy who had studied the classical languages in school. But Martin Luther, John Wycliff, and others had the vision that the common person could and should hear the Bible in their own language. That vision continues today as the Bible is translated into hundreds of Bibleless languages around the world. But that vision needs to be periodically refreshed within the larger national languages, such as English, as well, so that the ordinary speaker of the language can hear God's Word clearly in their own language, the way they ordinarly speak, their own dialect, not a dialect of slang or vulgarity, but ordinary everyday language, as found in our newspapers, Reader's Digest, letters, and e-mail. God's written revelation is special, true. But it has always been intended to speak to all people, not simply to a special few who have been trained to understand it. God's word is not always easy to understand. Some of its concepts are difficult for our minds (and spirits) to comprehend. But its words should always be as accessible to our understanding, even if the concepts framed by those words are not so easily accessible. We should not require pastors, seminary professors, or Bible teachers to tell us what Bible words mean. That job should be taken care of by accurate, natural, and clear translations. Every word in the Bible should be part of the average person's everyday speaking and understanding vocabulary. We will often need the assistance of those who have special Bible training to help us understand the implications of the words and the ideas behind the words, but the words themselves and the ways they connect to each other (grammatically and semantically) should be part of our everyday language.

Let us thank God for his written word. Let us especially thank him if it is already in your own language. And let us encourage the work of those who translate his word into Bibleless languages and the work of those who translate new versions into clear everyday language which can be understood by each new generation of speakers.

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3 Comments:

At Mon Sep 12, 08:06:00 AM, Anonymous Funky Dung said...

I'm glad someone else realizes that translation implies and is dependent upon interpretation. I get rather annoyed when some folks rant about literal translation as though translation is trivially simple and if anyone who could translate more than one way, let him be anathema.

IIRC, Adrian Warnock wrote a post a while back asking his readers if doctrine influences translation. Might you be willing to expand more on steps 1 and 2 in answer to that question?

 
At Mon Sep 12, 05:06:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Wayne, for your clear and interesting comments. Well, mostly clear. But when you wrote:

the words themselves and the ways they connect to each other (grammatically and semantically) should be part of our everyday language.

you seemed to have missed something: that the large scale structure of the text should also be part of our everyday language.

And you were guilty in your own posting (as I have sometimes been) of violating this rule. For you wrote a single paragraph that was (on my display) nearly two screenfuls long. Paragraphs this long are not part of our everyday language - although they are acceptable in certain kinds of technical literature. And so we should seek to avoid them, not only in our blog postings but also in our Bible translations.

The discipline of breaking texts into small paragraphs also helps us as writers and translators: as writers, by forcing us to be concise and to separate out separate points; and as translators of an originally unparagraphed text, by forcing us to understand the larger scale structure of the text we are translating. Which brings me back to your original main point, that we need to interpret a text before translating it.

 
At Tue Sep 13, 02:33:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mea

culpa,

Peter!

:-)

 

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