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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Neither Hand nor Foot

When you want to say in German that something makes no sense at all then you can say it has neither hand nor foot. I guess this is an old familiar example of why we don't want a truly literal translation.

Helmut Richter has a webpage on Bible translation here with many insights from German.

    Someone writes:

    When a decision is made to stray form a "word for word" translation to a "thought for thought" translation, no notation is made for the reader to know that a particular verse is not an exact translation but more of a paraphrase.

    Though there may be very little doctrinal difference I feel that the reader should be aware of any significant paraphrasing of God's word.


    I do not understand the asymmetry in this argument: if a verse translated "thought for thought", dropping the exact rendering of the words, is to be marked as such, then a verse translated "word for word", dropping the exact rendering of the thoughts, should be marked as such, too. As I pointed out in a recent article which I will not repeat here, there is no reason to consider one of the two approaches more "exact" than the other.

    Also, the word "paraphrase" is misleading. A paraphrase differs from the original in that it has a new wording of the same ideas. Insofar, each translation could be called a paraphrase because each renders the ideas in other words, namely those of the target language. There are, of course, translations that definitely take considerably more freedom to represent thoughts than implied by the two languages. The NIV is not one of them.

    I hope I could make discernible that a translation has hand and foot only if it does not stick to the single word but, before all, also has the context in its eye without which the single word is sound and smoke.

    Got the last paragraph? It is an "exact" translation from German:

    "Ich hoffe, ich konnte deutlich machen, dass eine Übersetzung nur dann Hand und Fuß hat, wenn sie nicht am einzelnen Wort klebt, sondern vor allem auch den Zusammenhang im Auge hat, ohne den das einzelne Wort Schall und Rauch ist."

    ---------

    As I said before, it is a dubious linguistic approach to expect exactitude of translation from literal rendering. In my opinion, it is a far more dubious theological approach to expect exactitude of understanding from literal interpretation. The meaning of the text, as intended by God, is not conveyed by nit-picking on the text. Rather, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.

    He who prays for the guidance of the Holy Spirit has a much better chance to understand the text than he who uses the best translation based on the best manuscripts, whatever the criteria. I do not mean to discourage anyone to strive for a good text, but, please, let us get the priorities right.

    If, however, your stance is that every single word matters, then you are definitely obliged to learn the original languages. (Being able to recognise words in an interlinear or in Strong's concordance is not what I mean with knowledge of a language.)

There are lots of pithy quotes on Helmut's page.

9 Comments:

At Thu Apr 20, 05:36:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Your posts are so helpful!

I have a few "If it ain't King James it ain't Bible" folks in my church and am trying to gently help them to understand other translations.

Thank you, to, for the post answering my question about the best translation.

 
At Tue Apr 25, 05:00:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Tue Apr 25, 05:03:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Tue Apr 25, 08:35:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

This is a very interesting post - and you have said some very good things.

But I wanted to just point out some thoughts I had in regards to what you have said.

In the article you posted, it said, "A paraphrase differs from the original in that it has a new wording of the same ideas."
To me, this has been said in order to downplay the differences between what most people would call a "literal translation" and a "paraphrase".

This is what I want to address - because I feel there is a huge difference between the two in their extreme forms - and possibly a difference that makes one "a correct rendering of what the original author said" and the other "a personal commentary on what the original author meant by what he said".

A definition that comes closer to what I think of as a paraphrase is this: "A work that restates or summarizes an author’s ideas in one’s own words."

Or

"A restatement of a thought, passage, or text that significantly alters both the words and the grammatical structure of the original."

But we all have our own ideas about what that word means :)

Now, that being said, in the example translation of that German sentence, the translator stuck very close to the original. It came out not making sense (though someone who speaks English and German, most likely would very easily understand the translation).

But - the question is how far should you go in making the text to follow your own words, when the author has already chosen certain words to express his or her own thoughts (yes, there are many times when words do not match exactly in different languages, but I want disregarding that fact by using English to English as the example, and I believe it carries through to translation from one language to another – though it is not a perfect example – I want to use it in order to address what I feel is one of the dangers of “paraphrasing”).

The question I have is this:
When does a translated work cease to be the original author's expressed words (and thoughts in the author’s choice of those words) and become the translator's own ideas and own words that speak about what the original author wrote? And this is not about different words in different languages – because, as is demonstrated in the example translation from German – there are ways to stick close (so close in this case that it doesn't make much sense) and there are ways to go far in any language (far enough to make up your own ideas out of thin air, though I do not think translators do this on purpose, it is possible) – and the extremes are very apparent.

In the translation of the German sentence given as an example, the translator did not really input his own thoughts about what the sentence means (he did some, but it was very minimal).

So the translation would hold up quite well if it was translated back into German - because it followed, in English, what the German writer wrote, pretty much word for word (I don't know German, but I am assuming this fact, based on what the author is trying to prove by using that translation).

But how far the person translating chooses to deviate from the original is a choice that he or she must make - regardless of language differences - there is a choice (even if a translator says there is not).

I think this choice can be illustrated in using the English language (being that I do not know German).

Here is a quote:

"I think that the worst thing that has occurred during our lifetime is not that bad people are doing terrible things but that good people have not done anything to stop the evil things are going on around them." - Martin Luther King

Now you might say - did Martin Luther King really say that?

Well, yes and no.

The reason I am using this quote is because I recently translated it into Khmer (Cambodian) and when I did, those who were working with me said, "What does it mean?". To explain it them, I said something in Khmer like the English quote above - and then they said - "Ahh! yes, now I understand. Why didn't Mr. King just say that? What he said is so complex! I might understand what he said if I read it a couple of times (this is referring to what “he” said in the “literal” Khmer translation), but what you said was a lot easier!"

The "real" quote is this: "It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social change is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the silence of the so-called good people."

In the first quote I might be totally wrong in my "paraphrase" or "commentary" on what Mr. King said – and if Mr. King was with me right now, he might say, “No! That’s not what I meant! I chose my words very carefully – why did you change them!” Sure, the reader can easily understand it, but is it a correct understanding, or my own confused idea? Are they the words of Mr. King?

So how do you choose to translate it? And when does it cease to be the words of Martin Luther King and my own personal idea about what Mr. King said? Is all translation just an opinion? Or are there “good” translations that an author would be happy with, and feel like his work was not tampered with?

If Martin Luther King learned Khmer, how would he translate it? Would he “paraphrase” or would he choose words in the target language that were close to the words he had originally chosen in English in order to convey his meaning?

It is a difficult question - and in some ways, I feel it dangerous for translators to feel "freedom of personal expression" in translating, especially in translating the Bible, using their own regurgitation of what they believe the original source really wanted to say. To me it's like saying, “God said this, but what He really wanted to say was this...”

But I would reply – If God wanted to say that, He would have.

I don't want you to think I am for a letter for letter translation (I know it doesn't work that way) – but I am just weary of talk that condemns “literal” translations as things of the past that have little, if any, relevance in our lives. As though “literal” translations don't really exist and that every translation is on the same level of faithfulness to the originals (it has not been said outright, but it is the impression that I get from most of your posts, and in fact, from most of the posts on this blog).

I enjoy reading everyone's posts on this blog – I also enjoy interacting with these issues.

I hope you are having a good day.

Because He lives,
Nathan

 
At Wed Apr 26, 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Surely the more relevant point is not “God said this, but what He really wanted to say was this...” but “God said this in Greek/Hebrew, but if he had been speaking English/... He would have expressed it like this...”

(Sorry to be slow commenting, I have limited Internet access while away on a trip.)

 
At Wed Apr 26, 05:09:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I agree with you Peter - but sometimes I guess I feel that translation goes too far because they are not just "expressing" it in English, but are "explaining" it in English (like my example of the quote). That is why I made that statement.

-Nathan

 
At Wed Apr 26, 10:09:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Nathan,

I am just weary of talk that condemns “literal” translations as things of the past that have little, if any, relevance in our lives. As though “literal” translations don't really exist and that every translation is on the same level of faithfulness to the originals (it has not been said outright, but it is the impression that I get from most of your posts, and in fact, from most of the posts on this blog).

Sorry I missed your comment here earlier but I will post again in a few days with a response to some of your very thoughtful questions.

 
At Wed Apr 26, 10:28:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan said:

As though “literal” translations don't really exist and that every translation is on the same level of faithfulness to the originals (it has not been said outright, but it is the impression that I get from most of your posts, and in fact, from most of the posts on this blog).

Well, Nathan, if that's the idea you have gotten from the posts on this blog, then we bloggers have failed miserably to communicate what we really believe. Accuracy is the highest priority in translation. We say that over and over. And we are sincere in insisting on that. There is not the same level of faithfulness to the original biblical texts among different English versions. In fact, there is not the same level of faithfulness for each translated verse in the same English version. Faithfulness to the original is a matter of exegetical accuracy combined with careful sensitivity to the natural linguistic forms of the target language, so that those using the translation get the same message from the language forms of the translation that the original audiences got from the original biblical texts. I like to refer to this as communicative accuracy. It is one thing for the meaning to be clear and accurate in the minds of translators. It is quite another thing for that meaning to be communicated accurately through their translations.

Does this help clarify that the BBB bloggers do not view all Bible translations as of equal faithfulness to the original biblical texts?

 
At Thu Apr 27, 12:11:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I'm afraid most of what I said will be boiled down to what both of you quoted...but I guess that is ok, I will look to your response.

And yes, thank you Wayne - I think I do understand what you and the rest of those who blog here desire (your post even helped that) - My problem was not that no one desired an accurate translation for the English Bible (or any language for that matter) because I know that all of you do desire that (that is the reason this blog exists!).

But I guess in some ways, I do feel that most ideas here are against traditional "literal" translations of the Bible. That isn't totally bad - it just concerns me.

If something has been done a certain way for a long time and considered to have been done well by many - when someone condemns it, I tend to be weary.

But, all of that was more of a side note - and not totally the subject of this post or my reply...because it is a really broad topic - and maybe better talked about within each case.

But I will say in the past few months I have learned many new things and appreciate the task of Bible translators much more than I used to (thanks to all of you) - and I also know that I am very young and know very little.

Most of the time I say things too quickly and without thought.

May God be the center of all our thoughts - and may His precious Word be made evident to be in our hearts by the outflow of our lives.

Because He lives,
Nathan

 

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