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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Learning to Speak (and Translate) Human

Blogger and Bible translator Eddie Arthur blogged a few days ago on Learning to Speak Human. Eddie began:
Bible Translation is essentially about communicating the Gospel; finding ways to re-express the eternal truths of the Scriptures in a new languages. However, communicating the Gospel is not merely a task for the specialist, it is something that every Christian is called to be involved in.
I hope that you have been reading the series of posts by BBB contributor Rich Rhodes. Rich is emphasizing that good Bible translation requires understanding the differences among semantically related words in the original biblical language texts. Then Rich will end his series by emphasizing that those original meaning distinctions need to be expressed in natural English, as spoken and written naturally by humans.

And that brings us back to Eddie's post. Does the main Bible that you use sound like it was written in English that is actually spoken or written by humans? If not, why not? And does it matter? Did Jesus speak the language of humans when he was born and grew old enough to speak? Or did he speak in a special "religious dialect" so what he said might sound more "sacred"? Does "sacred language" communicate God's messages to humans any better than ordinary, good quality human languages (including English) do?

20 Comments:

At Fri Jun 30, 01:54:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Fri Jun 30, 02:45:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, are you suggesting that poetry and legal texts are not written by humans? I know that poets sometimes seem a race apart, but I didn't actually think they were divine or angelic! As for legal texts, maybe some of their authors are demonic, but then some of my best friends are lawyers! ;-)

Yes, there is a variety of language in the Bible, in the original, and it is right to translate that variety. But that was not Wayne's point or Eddie's. Their point is that none of this language, at least as far as we have any evidence, was special divine or even sacred language. Yes, there are prayers in the Psalms, but there is no reason to think that this was not how ordinary Israelites spoke when the prayed, so this is human language. The implication is that our translations ought to use the ordinary language which people use when the pray, write poetry or legal texts, or whatever - and not use special "biblical" words, obsolete expressions or foreign syntax.

 
At Fri Jun 30, 02:50:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Fri Jun 30, 02:57:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I don't think a plain language translation is necessarily faithful to the text.

I agree, Anon. Removing the bumps in the original is not being faithful to the original. I'm only suggesting that a translation be in a human language. Human languages are flexible enough to allow for poetic creativity and missing linguistic pieces, etc. But translations should not be so different from human languages that no one, not even the most daring poets, would ever write or speak as we sometimes read things in many English Bible versions. They are simply out of touch with the real human languge, English.

 
At Fri Jun 30, 04:00:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I don't think a plain language translation is necessarily faithful to the text.

I also agree. I agree on the same basis as Wayne agrees.

But I would take this a step further. No translation is necessarily faithful to the text. In fact no translation can ever be faithful to the text. The Italian proverb for this is Traditore traduttore, a translator is a traitor. For no translator will ever be perfectly able to put into the target language every last nuance of the original - and certainly not also copy its formal structures like acrostics! If you really believe that the target audience must be presented with a 100% faithful rendering of the original, then the only thing that you can do is present them with the original language text - and tell them to learn the original language.

Alternatively, you can accept that your translation will always be imperfect and a compromise, and decide with your target audience what features they don't mind losing in a translation. Many translations sacrifice clarity and naturalness for faithfulness to formal features, and some target audiences like this kind of translation - they are already well catered for in English. But the majority of readers are not concerned about formal features, but want translations which convey the basic meaning of the text in language which they can clearly understand. While some translations are intended for such audiences, all of them have their weak points. The posting on which this is a comment was about this kind of translation, and how to do it well.

 
At Fri Jun 30, 05:57:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

A while ago I read this translation of Haimon confronting his father Creon in Antigone by E. Wyckoff,

Whoever thinks that he alone is wise
Ηis eloquence, his mind, above the rest,
Come the unfolding, shows his emptiness.
A man, though wise, should never be ashamed
Of learning more, and must unbend his mind


Then I tried to put it into modern English like this,

"You think you are right all the time,
That you are more articulate and more intelligent than everyone else,
But in fact you are pretty shallow,
If you were really smart you would be willing to learn more,
And not care so much about holding a tight rein all the time.”


Which one sounds more like Haimon talking to his father? I really felt for Haimon more when I wrote the free translation.

OTOH we used to try to translate Latin poems and maintain the use of aliiteration present in the original. A game, really!

 
At Fri Jun 30, 08:29:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Fri Jun 30, 10:20:00 PM, Blogger SingingOwl said...

I use the NLT in church and sermons and for devotional reading, precisely because it sounds "human." But I use the KJV or NKJV for dramatic readings and at Christmas--for the same kind of reason that Suzanne notes. It just does not work for me to read that the shepherds found the baby lying in a feed box.

 
At Fri Jun 30, 10:55:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Anon,

I knew you would say that! And I am a great fan of Shakespeare. But I have also taught it and have some idea of what it takes to get students to understand it in its original form, without 'Coles notes'. In fact, I cannot imagine any high school teacher teaching Shakespeare without notes(effectively a translation) for the students!

 
At Fri Jun 30, 10:56:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Anon,

I knew you would say that! And I am a great fan of Shakespeare. But I have also taught it and have some idea of what it takes to get students to understand it in its original form, without 'Coles notes'. In fact, I cannot imagine any high school teacher teaching Shakespeare without notes(effectively a translation) for the students!

 
At Sat Jul 01, 10:52:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Sat Jul 01, 11:41:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I think the key point is that high school students all over the English speaking world (and a fair number who speak English as a second language) read and understand Shakespeare.

I'm not so sure that they do understand Shakespeare. I am quite highly educated and have read Shakepeare but I do not understand much of his language. I need a glossary and similar helps to help me understand it.

I think the same is true for the KJV Bible, but it's not just high school students but many current native speakers of English who do not understand it.

 
At Sat Jul 01, 11:46:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anonymous, unfortunately your key point is false. High school students do not understand Shakespeare, or at least they only do so with the help of what Suzanne, who is a teacher, calls "notes(effectively a translation)".

Performances of Shakespeare are popular, I suspect, among a small group of literati who do more or less understand it, or at least won't admit that they don't, and among people who think that they ought to attend because it is good for them. Plus of course literature students who need to know the plays well for their studies.

And by the way I don't have a complete Shakespeare on my bookshelf. If I needed the text I would find it on the Internet. But I would need notes to understand it completely, although I would probably get the main points.

 
At Sat Jul 01, 03:11:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Sat Jul 01, 04:47:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Anon,

I have to say that when I marked the exams, I cried. No they really didn't get it. That is one of the things that inspired me to work on Antigone!

The truth is that high school students read the summary in the notes, memorize a few quotes, go and see the play, and that's about it!

However, I would say that Shakespeare performances are viewed by more than the literati here. We have a very nice beach venue each summer, but you go for the costumes and the music and the innuendo, somehow they do that rather well.

Personally I am committed to writing the simple sentence and making it as vivid as possible.

My sister wrote her autobiography, she really was a Greek scholar, (not me) and I wrote this story about an incident in her book. She phoned me today to express her appreciation and give me permission to link it (I quoted an excerpt recently.)

Sometimes simple language expresses meaning more vividly than a higher style.

My sister writes using a higher style of language but she now feels that I have expressed her own story in a way that she has not.

I think that if you are familiar with and competent with ideas, then you can free yourself up to write very simple prose which does not interpose your own education and background in between yourself as the author, and the reader.

Language should be about communication not barriers. I really do try to practise what I preach.

 
At Sat Jul 01, 08:17:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Sun Jul 02, 06:56:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

but translations such as the three I mentioned show it is possible to achieve straitforward prose while still maintaining (relative) fidelity not only to the words of scripture but also to its style.

I hve to agree that reading Alter has been an enlightening experience for me. It might be worth looking more closely at what he and the others are doing in their translations.

I had been thinking about posting about Alter sometime, but I am not sure when.

 
At Sun Jul 02, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, I appreciate your comments about Leviticus and Numbers. These books have indeed been neglected by many Christians. And they may well have been served badly by Christian translators. But I don't see cause and effect here - except perhaps in the opposite direction, for the translators are among the Christian translators who have previously neglected them and consider it less important to translate them well. But surely the reason why Christians have neglected these books is not that they have been poorly translated but because their subject matter, especially the parts about sacrifices etc, is perceived to be of little relevance to Christian life today. Indeed, in a direct sense this is a correct perception, for these laws on sacrifice are not intended for Christians to obey literally today (as I wrote on my own blog concerning tithing). Now I am sure that these laws do have a real significance for Christians today, but it is one which is obscure to most of us, because we have not received teaching on this. So, when we read about sacrifices, it seems to us to be of largely historical interest.

 
At Sun Jul 02, 07:32:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Mon Jul 03, 02:22:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Oh I entirely agree, Anonymous. There is plenty in these books which is interesting and important. But persuading the average Christian of this will always be an uphill battle, how ever well translated they are.

As for a rebuilt temple, I am sceptical that this will ever happen in a literal way, but certainly Christians will never be expected to offer sacrifices there, as we already have one truly effective Sacrifice who has been offered once for all for us, Jesus Christ.

 

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