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Friday, November 11, 2005

Translating an ancient text

The Bible is an ancient text. It was written millenia ago over a great span of time. It was written within cultural contexts that existed millenia ago. It was written in ancient languages which are dead, no longer spoken or written by any of their native speakers. Yet, there is great value--eternal value as many of us believe--for people of any time or culture to be able to read, hear, or follow deaf signing of, the Bible.

Some people believe that when an ancient text is translated, we should do so in a way that makes it sound ancient. This typically means that if there are older words or syntactic forms in the target (translation) language, these should be used to produce reader responses that can include any or all of the following:
  1. The translation sounds classical to me.
  2. The translation sounds sacred to me.
  3. The translation stirs up feelings of mystery within me.
  4. I cannot understand all of the ancient language.
  5. The translation feels distant from me.
  6. The events of the translation happened long, long ago.
Others, however, believe that a translation should accurately preserve all references to events, people, places, and other cultural aspects which were from long ago, but do so in the current language of those for whom the translation is made. By current language we mean that language which is widely known by speakers of the target language and which would be considered to be of good literary quality, as, presumably, the original biblical texts were considered, on the whole, by their readers (or hearers). This idea that an ancient text can, and should, be translated in current language, should never lead to translation that allows any translation user to feel that the events described in the ancient text occurred recently. That would not be accurate translation.

I happen to believe in the second approach to translating an ancient text, believing that there is no need to use outdated words or syntactic forms of English, for instance, in order to accurately preserve all the ancient references within the Bible. In fact, I would contend, as I often do in my blog posts, that using current English allows English readers to more accurately understand the ancient text of the Bible. Accuracy in communication is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of making a good translation of the Bible. Such accuracy leads to better Bibles.

That's what I think. What do you think?

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7 Comments:

At Fri Nov 11, 08:34:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

I agree with you! With one small exception: I think of the Bible not as an ancient text, but as a collection of ancient texts, written, as you say, over a great span of time, by different authors.

My ideal translation would somehow incorporate that fact. I'm not quite sure how, though. :)

 
At Fri Nov 11, 09:11:00 AM, Blogger D. P. said...

I also agree.

Here are some what ifs for the kind of thing talmida is talking about: What about quotations of the Old Testament in the New, or what about the canticles in Luke 1-2 that seem to be mimicking Septuagintal Greek? When an older text is embedded in a newer one, or when a writer is apparently attempting to mimic the language of an older text, is it justified to translate in such a way that the stylistic differences between the earlier text and the later text come through?

 
At Fri Nov 11, 10:39:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Talmida commented:

I agree with you! With one small exception: I think of the Bible not as an ancient text, but as a collection of ancient texts, written, as you say, over a great span of time, by different authors.

And I agree with you, Talmida. Isn't agreement fun?!! :-)

 
At Fri Nov 11, 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

d.p. asked:

When an older text is embedded in a newer one, or when a writer is apparently attempting to mimic the language of an older text, is it justified to translate in such a way that the stylistic differences between the earlier text and the later text come through?

Yes, absolutely. Ideally, translation should always reflect the stylistic differences between different biblical authors and between different texts, including the differences between Old Testament passages and New Testament quotations of them. Of course, in my opinion, all such stylistic differences need to be worded only within the linguistic structures available to current speakers of a language.

 
At Fri Nov 11, 04:36:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne wrote: Ideally, translation should always reflect the stylistic differences between different biblical authors and between different texts, including the differences between Old Testament passages and New Testament quotations of them.

Wayne, while at first glance I agreed with this, I am concerned at a possible implication of it. If it is acceptable for an OT quote in the NT to be in some kind of old-fashioned or high level language, this would seem to imply that the whole OT passage from which it is taken should also be translated in such a way. And I would have severe reservations about the whole OT being translated in such a way. I realise that your principle all such stylistic differences need to be worded only within the linguistic structures available to current speakers of a language correctly limits the change in style. Nevertheless, I would expect translations of the OT to be in a style which best reflects the OT texts at the time that they were written, not in a style which presents them as somehow old-fashioned just because they were indeed a bit old-fashioned when the NT was written.

 
At Sat Nov 12, 07:34:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter commented:

Nevertheless, I would expect translations of the OT to be in a style which best reflects the OT texts at the time that they were written, not in a style which presents them as somehow old-fashioned just because they were indeed a bit old-fashioned when the NT was written.

I agree, Peter. When I wrote my post I was assuming that translation style should reflect the style of writing at the time the original text was written, not with reference to some later time, such as when the NT quotes an OT passage.

 
At Thu Nov 17, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger D. P. said...

Wayne: When I raised my hypothetical, I was also thinking purely in terms of the use of the OT within the NT. I would not want the OT as such to read "old fashioned," but I think it is worth discussing how to handle OT texts embedded in the NT--or NT texts that seem to be intentionally mimicking the style of the Greek OT.

 

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