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Monday, July 31, 2006

facing another translation issue

A few minutes ago I walked over to my wife and placed my face right up against hers. (We both enjoyed that!) I then asked her what I had done. She told me I had put my cheek next to hers and she was right. I added, "I could also say, 'I set my face against you.'" My wife is very biblically literate and immediately recognized that what I had said was funny. Let's see why.

In Lev. 26:17 the Hebrew text is literally translated as:
I will set my face against you
Rashi, the famous Jewish commentator, noted that the Hebrew for setting one's face against someone is an idiom. The specific kind of idiom used in the Hebrew text is a synecdoche, where a part of something represents its whole. In this case, the face, part of a person, represents the entire person.

Several English versions have chosen to translate the Hebrew idiom literally to English, including KJV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, ESV, REB, NET, NIV, and TNIV.

Other English versions translate the meaning of the original idiom as a whole, rather than the individual words of the idiom, including:
I will turn against you (TEV, NLT, HCSB)
I will turn from you (CEV)
I will be against you (NCV)
I will condemn you (GW)
Interestingly, in this case, the HCSB, often a fairly literal translation, renders the meaning of the Hebrew idiom, as a whole, rather than the meaning of its individual words.

In your opinion, which of the two sets of translations listed above more accurately and clearly communicates the meaning of the Hebrew idiom to the widest number of English speakers?
  1. those which translate the idiom literally
  2. those which translate the overall meaning of the idiom

12 Comments:

At Mon Jul 31, 03:55:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I don't know Hebrew - but from what I've read - it seems like "I will be against you (NCV)" sounds the best to me and comes across as English with the meaning of the Hebrew.

 
At Mon Jul 31, 04:21:00 PM, Blogger believer333 said...

yes, sungkhum, translating the meaning as a whole yet staying as close to the original words seems the best idea to me too. And the NCV did the best of that.

So, Wayne, how many Hebrew idioms do you know of that have been mished mashed into English losing their original intent? I would love to have a book in hand that listed every one of them.

 
At Mon Jul 31, 04:36:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

So, Wayne, how many Hebrew idioms do you know of that have been mished mashed into English losing their original intent? I would love to have a book in hand that listed every one of them.

Oh, I don't know the number, but I love biblical idioms and have been collecting them.

You can click here to my collections.

 
At Tue Aug 01, 04:39:00 AM, Blogger Peter M. Head said...

Hang on a minute! You've set up the question to get the answer you wanted.
Which is the most accurate translation of the Hebrew? The one which preserves the foreigness of the idiom.
Which translation allows the reader to connect this expression with e.g. Num 6.25; Ps 13.1; 27.8 etc.?
Which translation connects with NT expressions about God's face = Jesus (Mark 1.2; Luke 1.76; 2 Cor 4.6)?

Interesting to note that 1 Peter 3.12 simply takes over the Hebrew idiom into Greek.

Also I'm wondering whether this idiom really is synecdoche; rather than the face representing the whole person it could be that the face represents/communicates the attitude of the person. (Can't put a linguistic label on this right now).

 
At Tue Aug 01, 05:59:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter remonstrated:

Hang on a minute! You've set up the question to get the answer you wanted.

No, if someone believes that a literal translation of an idiom more accurately commmunicates the meaning of the idiom, they are free to answer that way.

Which is the most accurate translation of the Hebrew? The one which preserves the foreigness of the idiom.

I disagree. The purpose of translation is to allow a speaker of one language to understand what was said in another language. Translating idioms literally blocks that from happening (without extrabiblical assistance, from a Bible teacher or footnotes).

IMO, a better place to preserve the foreignness of idioms is in footnotes which give literal translations of them. But the purpose of a translation itself is to allow those who do not read the source language to understand it in their own language. If this is not so, then, ultimately, we need to question why we translate at all. Would it not be better and more accurate to teach people the biblical languages rather than translating into foreignized English? A translation which translates figurative meanings will still reflect the foreign nature of the ancient biblical texts through all the propositions of those texts which refer to the foreign cultural elements of those ancient times.

Which translation allows the reader to connect this expression with e.g. Num 6.25; Ps 13.1; 27.8 etc.?

Intertexuality can be maintained with idiomatic translation of biblical idioms, as long as there is consistency. And we always have those technical footnotes to allow us to see the intertextual connections.

Which translation connects with NT expressions about God's face = Jesus (Mark 1.2; Luke 1.76; 2 Cor 4.6)?

I suggest that there is no connection between the Hebrew idiom for setting one's face against someone and the physical viewing of the face of someone, including the holy glow upon their face.

In all of this we must be careful that we do not read too much theological significance into figures of speech in the Bible, without paying attention to the meanings of those words (and idiomatic units, as a whole) in their original contexts.

I appreciate your words of caution and the opportunity to interact with them. Please keep commenting since you raise typical objections to translating the meaning of figurative language in the Bible rather than literal meanings of the figures. Extensive field testing demonstrates that literal translation of figurative language does not communicate figurative meanings from one language to another. Anyone who has seriously studied a foreign language to be able to speak it idiomatically soon discovers this fact.

As you know, there is a spirited debate taking place among people who care deeply about the Bible as to whether literal translation of biblical figures is better than translation of their figurative meanings. I guess we should always ask, "Better for whom?" and "For whom are we translating?"

I'm up for the debate. :-)

The big question for me is always: Which kind of translation most accurately *communicates* the original meaning to our translation audience.

 
At Tue Aug 01, 09:04:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Wayne said, The purpose of translation is to allow a speaker of one language to understand what was said in another language.

I know that you are up for debate, but, unfortunately, I agree with you on this!

I am reminded of the way that C. H. Dodd described "traditional" or "old" translations. I will reproduce it here for those who are interested.

The older translators, on the whole, considered that fidelity to the original demanded that they should reproduce, as far as possible, characteristic features of the language in which it was written, such as the syntactical order of words, the structure and division of sentences, and even such irregularities of grammar as were indeed natural enough to authors writing in the easy idiom of popular Hellenistic Greek, but less natural when turned into English. The present translators (note: of the New English Bible) were enjoined to replace Greek constructions and idioms by those of contemporary English.

This meant a different theory and practice of translation, and one which laid a heavier burden on the translators. Fidelity in translation was not to mean keeping the general framework of the original intact while replacing Greek words by English words more or less equivalent. A word, indeed, in one language is seldom the exact equivalent of a word in a different language. Each word is the centre of a whole cluster of meanings and associations, and in different languages these clusters overlap but do not often coincide. The place of a word in the clause or sentence, or even in a larger unit of thought, will determine what aspect of its total meaning is in the foreground. The translator can hardly hope to convey in another language every shade of meaning that attaches to the word in the original, but if he is free to exploit a wide range of English words covering a similar area of meaning and association he may hope to carry over the meaning of the sentence as a wholoe. Thus we have not felt obliged (as did the Revisers of 1881) to make an effort to render the same Greek word everywhere by the same English word. We have in this respect returned to the wholesome practice of King James's men, who (as they expressely state in their preface) recognized no such obligation.

We have conceived our task to be that of understanding the original as precisely as we could (using all available aids), and then saying again in our own native idiom what we believed the author to be saying in his. We have found that in practice this frequently compelled us to make decisions where the older mthod of translation allowed a comfortable ambiguity. In such places we have been aware that we take a risk, but we have thought it our duty to take the risk rather than remain on the fence.

In doung our work, we have constantly striven to follow our instructions and render the Greek, as we understood it, into the English of the present day, that is, into the natural vocabulary, constructions, and rhythms of contemporary speech. We have sought to avoid archaism, jargon, and all that is either stilted or slipshod.

It should be said that our intention has been to offer a translation in the strict sense, and not a paraphrase, and we have not wished to encroach on the field of the commentator. But if the best commentary is a good translation, it is also true that every intelligent translation is in a sense a paraphrase. The line between translation and paraphrase is a fine one. But we have had recourse to deliberate paraphrase with great caution, and our aim of making the meaning as clear as it could be made. Taken as a whole, our version claims to be a translation, free, it may be, rather than literal, but a faithful translation nevertheless, so far as we could compass it.


A powerful case, in my opinion.

 
At Tue Aug 01, 09:09:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Also I'm wondering whether this idiom really is synecdoche; rather than the face representing the whole person it could be that the face represents/communicates the attitude of the person. (Can't put a linguistic label on this right now).

Metonymy?? - "the substitution of one term for another having an associative relationship with it."

 
At Tue Aug 01, 03:34:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Tue Aug 01, 03:54:00 PM, Blogger Peter M. Head said...

Just a couple of points:

1. Peter said: "Hang on a minute! You've set up the question to get the answer you wanted."

Wayne answered: "No, if someone believes that a literal translation of an idiom more accurately commmunicates the meaning of the idiom, they are free to answer that way."

Exactly my point. The question needs to be set up in a more open manner. I might think that the main purpose of translation is to translate the idiom, not the meaning of the idiom.

2. You are inconsistent re footnotes. You see the supposed need for footnotes to a literal translation as somehow a problem, but then freely appeal to them for explanations of intertextual matters.

3. Wayne claimed: "Intertexuality can be maintained with idiomatic translation of biblical idioms, as long as there is consistency." I don't see how, since all references to God's face will disappear.

4. Wayne said: "Extensive field testing demonstrates that literal translation of figurative language does not communicate figurative meanings from one language to another." Can you point me to these studies?

5. Can "I am the sweet potato of life" ever be an adequate translation of John 6?

 
At Tue Aug 01, 04:11:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It is certainly the case here that the phrase is an idiom. But is the idiom that difficult to understand? Are not Biblical translators from opposing schools in a "face-off"? Will the defeated party "lose face." Will the winning party "face down" his opponent?

I don't know if the Hebrew idiom is difficult for non-biblicized people to understand or not. It's an empirical question and I would be happy to have it field tested to determine the answer.

As for "face off," "lose face", "face down," etc., these are English idioms, not Hebrew idioms. English idioms are perfectly valid in English translation, at least if they do not create an undesired sense of colloquialism which is not in the biblical text.

Translation professionals have noted for decades that idioms do not translate from one language to another. That is my point in this post. There is nothing wrong with having idioms in a translation. I happen to love idioms. But idioms in a translation need to be already extant in the receptor language, so that the speakers of that language understand their meaning.

 
At Tue Aug 01, 05:05:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter responded:

Just a couple of points:

1. .... Exactly my point. The question needs to be set up in a more open manner. I might think that the main purpose of translation is to translate the idiom, not the meaning of the idiom.


Then I would need to ask you if you believe that the purpose of translation is to enable someone to understand the meaning of a text in a language they do not understand.

I would need to point out that the experience of translators around the world and field testing of translations have shown that literal translation of idioms almost never accurately communicates the meaning of the original idiom.

Here's a quick test for you. Try to tell me the meaning of these idioms, literally translated from Cheyenne, the language I have been researching the past 30 years:

1. "I put on my mocassins with the morning star."

2. "The turtle is shrouded."

3. "I'm going to swallow a rock."

2. You are inconsistent re footnotes. You see the supposed need for footnotes to a literal translation as somehow a problem, but then freely appeal to them for explanations of intertextual matters.

I'm sorry, but I don't follow that. I never suggested that footnotes to a literal translation were a problem. In fact, I suggested them as a solution for those who want to have the cake (meaning) and eat it too (see the literal forms of the original texts).

3. Wayne claimed: "Intertexuality can be maintained with idiomatic translation of biblical idioms, as long as there is consistency." I don't see how, since all references to God's face will disappear.

No, they won't. Please re-read my comment. I explicitly stated that non-figurative references to God's face should be retained in a translation.

4. Wayne said: "Extensive field testing demonstrates that literal translation of figurative language does not communicate figurative meanings from one language to another." Can you point me to these studies?

Sure, I myself have conducted a fair amount of such studies. You can access some of them at:

http://www.geocities.com/bible_translation/survey.htm

Other linguists have conducted similar studies. I don't have references at hand, but you can google for them. Many who are professional translators regularly point out how literal translation of idioms doesn't communicate the meaning of the idioms. Some of the funniest humor on the Internet comes from literal translation of idioms. See, for instance:

http://www.geocities.com/Paris/8728/idioms.html

http://www.geocities.com/translation_information/rotten.htm

http://www.tagide.com/pt-idioms.html

5. Can "I am the sweet potato of life" ever be an adequate translation of John 6?

If a language has no word for bread, something has to be done, but there are a variety of solutions which have been used around the world. One solution has been to borrow a loan word from a national language. For instance, in Mexico if there is no word for "bread" in one of the indigenous languages, the Spanish word for "bread," pan can be borrowed.

Idioms are wonderful features of languages. They are unique to the languages they are used in. Their meaning almost never can be transferred from one language to another by word-for-word translation. I would encourage you to name any idioms you know in another language which have been literally translated to English with their original meaning understood.

Because idioms are phrase or clause units, the meaning of that entire language unit needs to be translated. That is accurate translation, bringing the meaning of the source form (the idiom form) to another language through translation. Translating form is important, but we must be sure we are translating the appropriate formal unit. Sometimes the appropriate level of form for translation is the phrase or clause, or a unit of rhetoric.

 
At Wed Aug 02, 03:12:00 AM, Blogger Peter M. Head said...

Wayne, thanks for the response(s). I obviously wasn't too clear. If the term "face" is not reproduced in an idiomatic translation of the various idioms in which God's face is used (to express displeasure, blessing, presence etc.) then of course any connection between them (intertextually signalled by the term "face") will be lost unless additional information, biblical teaching or footnotes are used to supplement the idiomatic translation.

It seems like you might prefer an idiomatic translation with notes signalling literal translation. I might prefer the opposite. Why is one better than the other?

 

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