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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

How to translate

Books have been written on how to translate, and well they should be. Debate occurs over how to translate and well it should. Sometimes I find it helpful--at least for myself--to condense large amounts of information, such as what can be said about translation, to just a few key concepts.

Following are the four steps which I think are necessary for adequate translation, including translation of the Bible to any language. There is room within these steps for different kinds of translation, but there is not room for any kinds of translation which use linguistic forms which are not part of the target language.

Translation steps:
  1. What did the original author say?
  2. What did he or she intend to communicate by what they said?
  3. How do fluent speakers of the target language communicate #2?
  4. Check with a variety of fluent speakers to find out if the translation (#3) agrees with #2.
If any of you have seen a similar statement of translation steps from me in the past, there is one important difference with today's wording: #2 now refers to what an original author intended to communicate. Previously I would have expressed this as: "What was meant by what was said?" It now seems to me that my previous wording too narrowly limits communication just to the original words that were said or written. But as we have all experienced, much of what we communicate is unspoken or not explicitly written. We expect our readers or hearers to understand more from what we say or write than just the meaning of our words connected to each other according to the syntax of our language.

The total communication package includes the meaning of what is explicitly said or written as well as the meanings intended by what is not said. It includes everything which speakers or authors hope that their hearers or listeners will understand from listening to or reading what was said including what they can reasonably be expected to infer from what was said.

I might say only two words to my wife: "The news." But there can be a number of different things which I intend to communicate by these two words. I will almost always intend only one thing in any specific situation. By saying "The news" I could be communicating to my wife:
  1. It's time for me to turn on the news on television.
  2. I hope it's OK with you that I turn on the news.
  3. Turn on the news (please).
  4. Something very newsworthy has just occurred.
  5. I learned what I just said to you from some news medium.
  6. The information we've been waiting to arrive is about to be given to us; I see a police car has just entered our driveway. A policeman is getting out along with a police chaplain. Both are walking toward our door.
It is not necessary for every word of any of these five (or other) intended communications to be translated into a target language. But it is necessary that a translation supply enough clues so that users of the translation can be reasonably expected to understand what original authors intend to communicate by what they say or write.

Can you think of any ways that the wordings of my four steps for translation should be modified to better summarize the translation process?

Can you think of passages in Bible versions whose words do not adequately communicate in translation what the biblical author intended to communicate?

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At Wed Dec 21, 09:05:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

#2 worries me. I'm not saying it's wrong, but it is a step that must be handled with great care. There have been a lot of heresies spread in the name of what authors "intended" to communicate. I realize that translating without interpreting is neigh impossible, which is part of why I asked you via email about the role of Tradition in translation. I think a lot of people who like the ESV and other "literal" translations are afraid that dynamic equivalence translations are polluted with doctrinal biases (or at least ones they don't like).

At Wed Dec 21, 11:59:00 AM, Blogger Rey said...

Especially since #2 basically relies on having an understanding of the intended message already while simultaneously saying that the message has to be translated. It's a bit convoluted and I know this is how a lot of translators work (what is it saying, what is it trying to say)but I think that one can argue for taking it at a total value of 1) what did the original author say 2) what did he say in totality 3) how does what the author say here connect to what the author says previously 4) what then is the authors intent based upon all that. 5)How do fluent speakers of the target language communicate #4 6) How does the author's communication of #4 vary from #5, 7) Rinse and Repeat.

Actually I don't fully know what the solution would be but I think making intent a driver is potentially hazardous.

At Wed Dec 21, 01:14:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

For those people who know me (or think they know me), it might surprise them, but I tend to think that Funky Dung's (interesting name!) and Rey's concerns are quite right. However, how I would solve it is to reword Wayne's #1 to something like: How did the original author say what they said? Using the word What means to me something very, very close to what #2 says. I think the emphasis should be on the how and not on what (though I suspect what I'm saying is what Wayne means).
The idea that I'm trying to get at is that the first step involves extensive observations of the grammar and lexis that sits on the printed page. It is this detailed work that safe guards the potential danger of #2. The detailed work must also involve how the physical evidence (the words and grammar) coheres and holds together with each other and the overall context. These kinds of observations are rarely considered in literal translations and yet they are the very things the original audience used to disambiguate the original text.
It seems to me that the typical arguments (as mentioned by Funky Dung and Rey) against doing #2 seek to de-doctrinalize the original text or seek a translation that allows, or even promotes, multi-doctrinal interpretations. In other words, Funky Dung mentioned, "dynamic equivalence translations are polluted with doctrinal biases." The fact is that the original is permeated with doctrinal biases--the correct ones, of course, but they're still there. The whole point of #2 is to capture those doctrinal biases. Ironically, if we actually did that perfectly, no one would agree with it! The difficult part is making sure #1 is done so well that #3 is emminently supportable by the evidence for #2.
In any case, I really don't see how one can gain any level of accuracy without doing #2.

At Wed Dec 21, 07:56:00 PM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I didn't mean to imply that the orginals were free of bias. I meant only that I find biases introduced by translators distasteful.

At Thu Dec 22, 03:08:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Funky asked about the role of tradition in translation, in the context of the need for care about avoiding bias in exegesis, i.e. Wayne's step #2. The problem as I see it is that tradition very often carries bias with it - although of course we don't recognise this if it is our own tradition! For example, one tradition is that Mary the mother of Jesus remained perpetually a virgin, therefore Jesus' so-called brothers could only have been his step-brothers or cousins. A translation according to tradition might use "cousins" or "step-brothers" in place of "brothers". But there is no basis for this tradition anywhere in the biblical text; indeed Matthew 1:25 seems to imply that Mary did not remain a virgin after Jesus' birth. Therefore, in this case to translate according to tradition is to introduce a doctrinal bias into the translation.

Now it is easy for me to see this example, but not so easy to see the bias in my own understandings. I have recently been accused in long discussions on the Bible Translation list of importing a Trinitarian "bias" into the Bible in preferring to translate John 1:1c as "the Word was God". I think I was able to defend myself adequately from this accusation, but such matters are by no means trivial!

At Thu Dec 22, 06:35:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

"The problem as I see it is that tradition very often carries bias with it - although of course we don't recognise this if it is our own tradition!"

I certainly recognize it. If this site teaches me nothing else, it'll be precision in linguistic expression! ;)

Obviously I have no qualms with the biases of Sacred Tradition. I'm even OK with purely academic translations of Scripture that do not rely on ST resolve ambiguities, but sincerely seek to simply translate the language as well as possible. I do, however, have problems with dissidents within and critics without the Church who wish to overturn aspects of historical Christianity by translating in ways that suit their agendas.

At Fri Dec 23, 09:35:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Funky, you wrote:

I do, however, have problems with dissidents within and critics without the Church who wish to overturn aspects of historical Christianity by translating in ways that suit their agendas.

I agree with you! The trouble is, just as one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, so one person's dissident is another's prophet. The priestly hierarchy in Jerusalem in Jeremiah's time and again in Jesus' time rejected Jeremiah and Jesus as dissidents. The priestly hierarchies in Constantinople and Rome have in the name of historical Christianity rejected as dissidents all kinds of reformers, as well as all kinds of heretics. Now I don't want to stir up sectarian bad feeling here. You are welcome to follow the teachings approved in Rome. But please remember that this is only one strand within historical Christianity, one which is perceived by outsiders as having its own biases. There are not many points on which its particular doctrines impinge on Bible translation, but the point about Jesus' brothers is one of them.


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