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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Proverbs and Phrases of Biblical Origins

While looking for something else I happened on this delightful essay written by a scientific and industrial translator on the difficulties of translating idioms, in particular those of Biblical origin. The whole essay is here. Mr. Maslennikov writes,
    I believe that the obligation of every translator is to find an equivalent of the phrase (provided the use of the phrase contextually agrees with its biblical meaning) that is normally used in the target language. That is why a simple word-for-word translation sometimes doesn't help and can be absolutely incomprehensible to the target audience.

    This is especially true for Russian proverbs, which come from the old Slavic translations of the Greek version of the Bible. Russian proverbs and often-used phrases from the Bible contain some old Slavic words, which are not understandable to modern Russian people, except in the context of the full proverb and may be absolutely unknown to non-Russian translators.

    For example, the Russian equivalent of the phrase like a lamb (in the biblical meaning of the context) is аки агнец, where both words are rarely used in modern Russian; they can be found together in contemporary Russian literature but only in this phrase and often have a humorous connotation. The English phrase "to keep smth. as the apple of his eye" (Deuteronomy 32.10.) will be translated in Russian as "беречь как зеницу ока" or literally "to keep as the pupil of his eye". The word "Greek" in the phrase "Here there cannot be Greek and Jew" (Colossians 3.11.) becomes in the Russian equivalent not in the modern word "грек" (Greek) but in the old Slavic "эллин" (Hellene), which is hardly used in the Russian language today.

    The same situation can be observed when comparing the English biblical proverbs and phrases with German ones. For example, such phrases as "in the fullness of one's heart"(Luke 6.45.) in English and "aus dem guten Schatz seines Herzens" in German or "Do not judge by appearances" (John 7.24.) and "Richtet nicht nach dem, was vor Augen ist" are not word-for-word translations.

    In all these cases I emphasize only the difficulty in translating proverbs and constant phrases of biblical origin from English into the target language, without touching on the matter of translation of the Scriptures into different languages. This is a topic in itself, which has been discussed for the past two thousand years.
His article on Picturesque German is here.


At Mon Apr 03, 05:34:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Interesting, Suzanne.

Whatever we English speakers may think of some of our modern Bible translations, we should think ourselves lucky that none of them are as hard to understand as the only widely available translation into Russian, the 19th century Russian Synodal Version which tends to use vocabulary already old when it was translated. This is the version from which this Maslennikov quotes (actually misquotes: Colossians 3:11 has Еллин Yellin, not Эллин Ellin).

I once asked two people who had a graduate level education in Russian medium, although not actually mother tongue Russian speakers, to explain to me the meaning of the first half of Psalm 150:4, Хвалите Его с тимпаном и ликами Khvalite yego s timpanom i likami. Neither of them could correctly explain to me ликами likami; they suggested "with faces", based on an old Russian word, found in the Synodal Bible, лик lik "face". They completely failed to understand the meaning "with dancing", based on лики liki which is perhaps the name of an old Slavonic dance - as explained in the glossary printed with recent editions of the Synodal Bible. As most OT references to dancing are similarly obscure in translation, it is no surprise that some Russian churches teach that the Bible nowhere permits dancing in worship.

Are there similar problems with obscurities in English translations leading to general misunderstandings like this one? Probably, but I can't think of examples immediately.

At Mon Apr 03, 02:57:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

A very interesting piece; thanks for pointing it out.

There are a few obvious problems with the arrangement of some of the "proverbs" on the English side. Surely one would expect to see, as a "familiar quotation," "the Letter killeth," (or kills; with about 7000 combined "hits" on-line) and not "the written code kills" (with about a 170 hits)! In fact, I would have liked to see KJV citations, some of which would be closer to the German, at least.

Again, "Ab ovo," although understandable as a birth-image, derives from the Roman poet Horace; in fact, it derives twice over! Once from a commendation of Homer for *not* starting the "Iliad" with the birth of Helen "from the egg" (she was begotten by Zeus in the form of a swan, remember!), and again from the phrase "ab ovo usque ad mala," which is basis of the "from eggs to apples" meal described in the entry.

It always seems to have had the status of a literary allusion or at least a classical "tag" in English. Although itself perhaps not quite proverbial, "ever since Adam [and Eve]" is still seems to be readily-understandable in modern English (most of the hits I found were for book and article titles).

I also have to wonder if Genesis 5:11 is the most obvious source for either the German or the Russian references to Adam, with or without Eve! (And did the Roman apples somehow suggest an association with Genesis 3?)


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