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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Form is critical for translation

One of my first exposures to linguistics was to a linguistic theory developed by Kenneth L. Pike, linguistic statesman for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International), the field organization that partners with Wycliffe Bible Translators. His theory was called tagmemics. It is seldom talked about today. But it had some important concepts. One of them was the view that language units are form:meaning composites, that is, language forms are critically important. Each language form has some meaning which contributes to the meaning of an entire text (episode, verse, chapter, etc.).

Some people have misunderstood dynamic equivalence (DE) or translation theories which have succeeded it such as functional equivalence or meaning-based translation. They have mistakenly gotten the idea that those who practice DE or similar idiomatic translation theories do not pay attention to the forms of the original biblical texts. Nothing is further from the truth. DE and functional equivalence and meaning-based translators believe, like Dr. Pike, that form is critically important. It is through language forms that meaning is communicated. Forms are not meaning themselves. They are the vehicle which expresses meaning. Dr. Pike was right, form and meaning cannot be separated. They are a composite.

Hebrew poetic parallelism is a beautiful language form, where one line repeats a functionally ("essentially") synonymous meaning to that of a preceding line, or where one line presents the opposite meaning of a preceding line. This poetic couplet repetition of synonymous or antonymous ideas is very important and must be paid careful attention to for any adequate translation.

The question for translators should always be: What is the equivalent form in the target language that communicates the same message as the form:meaning composite of the source language? Sometimes the translationally equivalent forms are quite closely related between a source and target language. Semitic languages would typically use poetic parallelism as a form to amplify upon a preceding idea by repeating it. English does not have poetic parallelism as a common poetic form, so some adjustments are needed when the parallel form is retained to ensure that translation users understand that same, not different, concepts are being emphasized.

In a sense, although this will sound strange to some, those who follow some translation that places a high priority on meaning, are actually practicing formal equivalence, IF we understand that neither form nor meaning can exist without the other. They are inseparably wed within any individual language. Another way of saying this is that those who pay attention to the language forms of a source language to ensure that they accurately communicate the meaning of those forms in a target language are finding formal equivalents between languages that have the same meaning. As any of you who have studied other languages probably have learned, languages often do not match up forms for forms between languages. But you often can find an equivalent form which communicates the same meaning as the original form.

The goals of careful translators who produce idiomatic translations are, I suggest, the same as those who practice what has traditionally been called formal equivalence or literal translation. Each approach tries to translate the forms of one language in as accurate way as possible from one language to another.

If we view individual languages as having form:meaning composites, we may find more common ground among the various translation approaches than we realize. I believe that common ground is there and I hope we can work harder at finding it. Many people who need to hear the good news of forgiveness and redemption in the Bible benefit from any translation approach which ensures that the meanings of the biblical language forms are accurately and clearly expressed in the natural language forms which already exist in the target language.


At Mon Jul 17, 12:09:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Mon Jul 17, 03:49:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I wonder if the difference between DE and FE translation supporters is that the latter refuse to recognise form:meaning composites which are not part of the Tyndale-KJV tradition. It seems to me that this kind of thinking is revealed by for example the list of alleged inaccuracies in TNIV, which seem to identify inaccuracies with places where the translation has been "changed". Yes, this list does explicit say that "changed" relates to the 1984 NIV, and at least one of the changes (Matthew 5:9) is in fact back to the KJV reading. But the implication of the repeated use of "changes", almost as a synonym for "inaccuracies", seems to be that any departure from the Tyndale-KJV tradition is an inaccuracy, or at least that it has to be fully justified in a way which is not required of renderings which follow that tradition.


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