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Friday, March 10, 2006

Interpretation versus Translation: Debatable Exegesis

In this posting I am responding to I want to respond to some of Michael "son of Abraham" Marlowe's points in a comment on the posting Interpretation versus Translation -- Competition or Teamwork?:

If people disagree with many of your interpretations, you can hardly blame them for rejecting the translation that incorporates them, can you?

Look at any exegetical commentary and you will see the extent of the disagreement among scholars in verse after verse. Whose interpretation will get control of the version? It's a real problem.

Yes, Michael, you have a point here. There is a real problem here.

There are some passages in the Bible where the exegesis is really debatable. What can be done in these circumstances? Here are some alternatives:
  1. The translators can choose one of the two or more interpretive options. This is perhaps theoretically undesirable, and I would accept that it is truly undesirable where there is a real theological point at issue - which is rather rare. However, in practice all translations do this, if only in their choice of word-for-word gloss in a highly literal translation. The debate over "propitiation" or "expiation" illustrates how this has happened even in entirely literal translation; at this point, even at a theological crux, ESV is "interpretive" in rendering "propitiation" rather than "expiation".
  2. The translators can choose one of the interpretive options to put in the text, and put the alternative(s) in a footnote. I consider this the correct thing to do in the rather few places where there are theologically significant exegetical alternatives.
  3. The translators can try to leave in the translation an intentional ambiguity between the various possibilities, attempting to reflect the ambiguity of our understanding of the original - although usually there is no intentional ambiguity in the original, only a failure to understand it now. This is the approach which the translators of FE (formal equivalence) versions usually try to take. But it is not always possible; for example, there is no way to be ambiguous between "propitiation" and "expiation", except perhaps with a long paraphrase. And even if some kind of ambiguity is possible in the translation, this is usually at the cost of using target language phrasing which is generally unclear and confusing to readers, and which may allow not just the two or three interpretations which scholars consider possible but also other interpretations which are exegetically impossible in the original language text.
However, it seems to me that in the great majority of places in which some translations are criticised as "interpretive" there is no real exegetical debate, rather it is clear to every well-equipped exegete that a particular interpretation is the correct one. In such cases, the only benefit of making a translation ambiguous is to allow Bible students to understand the text in ways which according to all scholars is not correct. In such places, the original Greek or Hebrew was clear but the translation is unclear. In other words, such translations serve only to allow theological and other errors to develop and propagate. Michael, would you consider this to be a good attribute of a translation?

8 Comments:

At Fri Mar 10, 07:39:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter asked: Michael, would you consider this to be a good attribute of a translation?

Well, this is a rhetorical question. But the real question to be considered is whether you are right in saying that "in the great majority of places in which some translations are criticised as 'interpretive' there is no real exegetical debate." I don't think that's true. I think English versions are often exegetically tendentious, and the problem increases in the interpretive DE versions. That is why so many people in ministry prefer literal versions. When they do careful exposition of the text, they want to use a version that will permit the interpretation they wish to present, and they keep finding that the interpretive versions foreclose the options and "get it wrong" in some way. This is a very common complaint among ministers, and translators should not ignore it.

 
At Fri Mar 10, 09:34:00 PM, Blogger Christopher Heard said...

"However, it seems to me that in the great majority of places in which some translations are criticised as 'interpretive' there is no real exegetical debate, rather it is clear to every well-equipped exegete that a particular interpretation is the correct one."

Peter, could you give some examples? At first blush, the statement quoted seems to me like a sweeping overstatement, perhaps even a bit of "denial," but examples, not generalizations, would better help to assess "both" sides of this debate.

 
At Sat Mar 11, 07:15:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

An idealized perfect translation would have in all places precisely the same shades of ambiguity as the original. This is, of course, impossible because of linguistic differences, but I think it is something to strive for. When the translators believe that their English rendering is more, less, or differently ambiguous as compared to the original, they would ideally provide a footnote or something to clarify. This is what the people who want to separate translation from interpretation really want, I think. Of course, this doesn't eliminate ALL interpretation from translation - that could never be done. The translator must still decide what the leigitimate readings are; that is, just how ambiguous the text is.

 
At Sat Mar 11, 01:29:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kenny, I have to disagree with you even on the ideal, except in cases where the ambiguity is (or is commonly considered to be) deliberate on the original author's part. For the translator is expected to reflect the author's intention for a text. If the author intended a text to be clear and to the point, and the translation is ambiguous and so unclear, that is a bad translation - even if we don't actually know now what the intended point was. Better to make one possible point clearly and unambiguously in the text, and the alternatives in a footnote.

Michael and Christopher questioned my "in the great majority of places". Fair enough. This was intended as a general impression, not backed up by data. I would like to verify it. But can someone give me a link to a suitable list of "places in which some translations are criticised as 'interpretive'"? I want a full published list, not just a few examples from one of you selected for their theological controversiality. And at this time I want to steer away from the well known criticisms of TNIV. If I get such a list, I can look through it to see how many of the issues are really theologically significant. I will of course not include any concerning verses commonly used as proof texts by pastors in ways which do not in fact tie up with the meaning of the passage in context. I suspect that many pastors' complaints are when they find that favourite proof texts like "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18 KJV) have been changed for exegetically impeccable reasons.

 
At Mon Mar 13, 12:36:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

Peter, what you suggest is that translators should improve upon the original text, and I disagree with this, in principle, in all cases, but I disagree particularly strongly in the case of the Bible, for reasons which I hope are obvious. Philosophers of language commonly recognize the possibility that what a text says and what its author intended it to say may not always be the same. That is, the possibility of saying something other than what we mean is very real. The translator is working with the text, not the author. The translator doesn't know the author's intent independently of the text. If the author does a poor job communicating what he intends to communicate, it is not the translator's job to correct his faults, especially in the case of Scripture.

 
At Mon Mar 13, 05:31:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

No, Kenny, I do not suggest "that translators should improve upon the original text", and for the same obvious reasons that you mention. I accept that there are cases where the biblical authors were deliberately unclear or ambiguous, and maybe others where they did "a poor job communicating what [they intended] to communicate. In such places I would not advocate choosing to make the translation more clear - although in practice there may be no sensible alternative as there is no way of even approximately reproducing the ambiguity or unclarity in the target language. But my main point relates to places where (in the admittedly uncertain opinion of most exegetes) the author was attempting to be clear and was clearly understood by their original audience, but for one reason or another that once clear meaning is unclear or ambiguous to modern exegetes. In such cases, since the original text was clear within its original context, it is not improving on the original to offer a translation which is clear in its context.

 
At Mon Mar 13, 07:35:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

Thank you for the clarification. I think we are saying the same thing.

 
At Mon Mar 13, 09:47:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kenny, thanks for the clarification.

I had another thought about your "If the author does a poor job communicating what he intends to communicate, it is not the translator's job to correct his faults, especially in the case of Scripture." Well, some might doubt whether there are such cases in Scripture, at least in the original manuscripts, but that is another issue.

Let's consider an example. Suppose that in writing my last comment I had got confused with my negatives and had ended up "... it is not improving on the original to offer a translation which is not clear in its context." Someone translating that into another language (in the unlikely event that what I wrote was considered worthy of being translated) might recognise that I had made an error here and actually said the opposite of what I had actually intended. Should the translator nevertheless translate my error so that the translated text is nonsense - and perhaps, because of the different language structure, more transparently nonsense than the original? I think not. I don't think that is what most translators would so; rather, they would correct the obvious error.

In fact this has also happened with Scripture. I have seen cases where copyists and translators of ancient versions seem to have corrected obvious errors even of this missing negative type. There are also cases where they corrected what they thought were obvious errors, but in fact, at least according to many modern interpreters, they had misunderstood the original argument and so their correction is inappropriate. Well, that reminds us of the danger of making these kinds of corrections to Scripture. But I don't think making them is entirely ruled out. Fortunately there are very few if any such cases which have any doctrinal significance.

 

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