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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Blessing God

Recently on a private email discussion list there has been an active thread on the topic of translating biblical references to "blessing God." One of the posts in that thread impressed me and I asked permission of its author, my friend and fellow Bible translator, David Frank, to post it here. He gave his permission. Here it is:
from David Frank:

I have been trying to follow the discussion on "blessing God." It has been interesting. My initial reaction is to side with those who say we must translate according to meaning in context according to forms that are natural in the receptor language, and that would lead us away from trying to translate Hebrew BRK or some form of the Greek εuλογεω consistently as "bless" in English.

I am glad to see now that all parties acknowledge that there is not just one kind of valid translation. That is important. One translation that says "we bless God" and another that says "we praise God" for the same thing in the source text can both be valid.

Now I might have missed something in all the discussion that has been flying by, but I wanted to emphasize that it is crucial, when discussing translation variables, to also keep in mind audience and purpose. It is a mistake to debate translation options without bringing audience and purpose into the discussion. One person promoting one translation strategy might have a particular audience and purpose in mind but does not make that clear in his argument. Another person with a different strategy in mind probably has a different audience and purpose in mind but doesn't make that explicit either. When there is disagreement, probably each party is assuming that the audience and purpose they have in mind is the most appropriate. We must not only acknowledge that there are different valid types of translation, but also that one translation strategy might be best for one audience and purpose while a different strategy might be best for a different audience and purpose.

M--- M---, it is good that you have challenged our assumptions. In answer to your question, why can't we stretch the limits of the receptor language somewhat in order to try to more completely convey the categories and world view reflected in the source text, my answer is that there is no reason why we can't. It is even a good thing to do in some circumstances. Despite some of the things that have been said in the recent discussion, I would say that nothing is "impossible" in linguistic expression. Okay, maybe sometimes comprehension is highly unlikely if you say things certain ways. The translation may even be rejected by the intended audience. But that doesn't mean that it is impossible to say it that way. The fact that sometimes people (such as translators) do say it that way is reason enough to know that it is not impossible to do so.

I--, when you use the word "impossible" to describe certain collocations such as "we bless God" or the equivalent in Danish, German or Dutch, I think there must be some important implicit information that you are not stating. Impossible to say it that way and... what? Impossible to say it that way and still conform to traditional patterns of language usage? Maybe so, but still it is not impossible to express oneself that way, strictly speaking. Poets do that sort of thing all the time. Impossible to say it that way and be immediately understood? Maybe so, and if we all agree that the goal of a translation is that it should must be immediately understood, without cross-references or reflection or footnotes or consultation with anyone else, then I think it is helpful to state that what you mean is that it is "impossible" to say it that way and still achieve the desired results you have in mind. (I am not really saying that I really would agree that we might expect to be able to produce a translation that can be immediately understood, without cross-references, or reflection, or footnotes, or consultant with anyone else. That probably would be impossible, no matter how you tried to go about it. It wouldn't even be desirable, as far as I am concerned. I'm just saying, if you want to say it is impossible to have a highly concordant translation, you should also state what else you are trying to accomplish at the same time, thus making the combination of factors impossible.)

Some of the resulting expressions in a translation may sound unnatural, but as we know, naturalness is only one of several factors to balance in translation. Not everything we are going to say in a translation will sound natural, if we are going to challenge people's world views and try to bring them into closer conformity with God's perspective. Naturalness is only one of several values to keep in mind in translation, and the different values sometimes are in competition with each other, and I don't think we want to say that naturalness always trumps everything else. It is a judgment call in every translation, how to balance all the factors for a particular audience.

Now in the two translation projects I have been involved in, we did not strive for an especially high degree of concordance at the expense of naturalness and comprehension. We did not use the same word to translate εuλογεω when God was the object that we used where a person was the object. When God was the object, we used something like "thank" or "worship." Even after the recent thought-provoking discussion, I would not go back and change the translation into these two languages, where the target audience is not highly sophisticated and there is no literary tradition and no other vernacular scripture translations available. In James 3:9, for example, we followed the suggestion of the Translator's Handbook, which says,
"Blessing God is something all Jews understood. Whenever the name of God was mentioned, they had to respond by saying 'Blessed be he!' Every day in the synagogue devout Jews had to repeat the so-called Standing Prayer, in which each thanksgiving closes with the words 'Blessed art thou....' And the continuing use of this formula by early Christians is seen in the thanksgiving prayer 'Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' (Eph 1.3; 1 Peter 1.3, TEV). To bless in this context is 'to worship,' 'to praise,' and 'to give thanks' rather than 'to bestow goodness and favor.' The latter is done by God to human beings."
However, currently, for another very different (English-speaking) audience, which is much more highly educated and already has a wealth of different Bible translations at their disposal, I am also making a translation of the Book of Hebrews, for study purposes, with footnotes, to be accompanied by verbal explanation and discussion. Well, I'm not calling it a translation, but rather (somewhat facetiously) a "literal-literary rendering of the original Greek text." It is a translation, but not the type we normally do. It is even more literal and concordant than any other English translation I am aware of. One type of translation is appropriate for one audience purpose, and another type of translation is appropriate for another audience and purpose.

When M--- M--- dreams of a highly concordant type of translation, I presume the intended audience would be someone like himself, who is educated in Biblical studies in a way that 99.99% of the population is not. Why not such a translation? There is no reason why not. It could be fully legitimate, for the intended audience. On the other hand, most of us in this discussion, when we talk about translation strategies, have in mind language groups as the target of translation who do not have a literary tradition, are not highly educated, do not have multiple scripture translations at their disposal, and are not strong in Biblical knowledge. That is an important kind of audience, but not the only possible audience to translate for.

It is important to note that a translation can be rejected by the target audience. I have in mind what M--- M--- said, that surely the audience will recognize that this is God's word and that they must make every effort to make sense of it, even if it doesn't sound clear at first, and natural to them. First of all, the audience may not be interested in the scriptures. Or secondly, they may be interested in God's word but may easily conclude that it is above our understanding, so they may not make the processing effort to try to understand it. Or thirdly, people may accept that God's word is important and meant to be understood, but they may reject this particular translation as being a legitimate expression of it. Those sorts of things constrain how we do translation, as we want the product to be accepted and embraced and understood. It is a judgment call.

Sorry for the long posting. These are some of the things I am currently processing in my mind.
Thank you, David, for wrestling with these important translation issues. They are just as important for translation of the English Bible as they are for translation into any other language. Many readers of English Bibles do not know what it means to "bless God." Somehow we have to face that fact and address it in the translation itself, a footnote, or through extrabiblical teaching.

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At Thu Oct 06, 09:51:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

Why not go back to the etymology of eulogeo in translation? It seems pretty straightforward to me that eulogeo nearly always means "to speak well of." However, our culture struggles with the idea of speaking well prescriptively rather than descriptively. That is, for instance, when God "blesses" someone, who "speaks well" of that person, and, by speaking makes it so. Likewise when one person "blesses" another in the sense of pronouncing a blessing, he prays that God will cause these good things to happen to the recipient of the blessing. But in some cases, as when we "bless" God, our words are not, in this sense, effective. They are purely descriptive. God is already "blessed." Perhaps it makes sense to translate the word "bless" when the context makes the pronouncement efficacious, and "praise," or even "say good things about" in a more informal translation, when the context makes it purely descriptive. Perhaps something like this could also be used to help distinguish in translation eulogia from makaries, the other word usually translated "blessing" in the NT, which has a different meaning.

I realize that wasn't the point of this post. I very much appreciate and agree with the actual point, but just wanted to give my two cents on "blessed" here since the mailing list is somewhat too high volume for me to handle.


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