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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Translating quotes

While my wife and I were working with the Gola people of Liberia in the ‘70’s, we attended a Bible translation course led by Dr. Lee Ballard, a consultant with the United Bible Societies. About that time, he wrote an article entitled Telling It Like It Was Said (published in Notes on Translation by Wycliffe Bible Translators). In the article, he discusses why translators often translate direct quotes in Greek as indirect quotes, and sometimes the opposite. He also discusses the problems associated with quotes within a quote, such as in John 19:21:

Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’, but ‘He said, “I am the King of the Jews.” ’ ” (New King James Version)
Such a three-level quote is difficult to follow. Note the three quotation marks at the end of the verse. Other translations such as God’s Word reduce the three-level quote to two levels by making the last quote indirect (He said that he is the king of the Jews). Note that only two quotation marks are needed at the end of the verse.

The chief priests of the Jewish people told Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews!’ Instead, write, ‘He said that he is the king of the Jews.’ ”
Other translations such as the New International Version modify the three-level quote a different way so that only one quotation mark is needed at the end of the verse.

The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
In the The Better Life Bible, I also translate direct quotes in Greek frequently as indirect quotes so the meaning is conveyed clearly and naturally for my target audience.

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19 Comments:

At Thu Aug 03, 10:13:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

There was an interesting thought brought up in a book, "The Bible in English" that I would like to bring up.

If the Bible had been written in English 600 years ago, do you think people would feel as much freedom to change things around as they felt needed? If the original was in English and had three levels of quotes, would people feel so free to change it?

I would argue that any change in the text would be viewed as a corruption of the text.

Does translation really give us the right? How much license do we really have?

Why do people in high school college still study the original Shakespeare and not an updated modernized version? Because it just isn't the same, is it. The modernized version is a corrupt text - it is not what Shakespeare wrote.

I think in translation too much freedom is felt because we loose sight of translation and move on to be a co-author - a freedom that would not be there, if the source text was English.

How many translations would be viewed as corrupt texts if compared with the same level of care given to the preservation of literature in our own English tongue?

 
At Thu Aug 03, 10:14:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

correction on the book, it was "The Word of God in English"

 
At Thu Aug 03, 10:22:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Sungkhum, the reason that modern editors do not feel free to edit the words of Shakespeare is not because these words are clear to all, because of the special reverence given to Shakespeare. Other English language works of his time and later, when republished in modern editions, are routinely modernised to avoid archaic spellings and words. Indeed even Shakespeare has been significantly modernised at least in spelling since the original editions.

 
At Thu Aug 03, 10:25:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Sungkhum, I'm not sure your analogy applies, and I'll tell you why. Apply your analogy back to the Greek New Testament. Was there any effort around 700 AD to modernize the Greek to bring it up to par with the Greek of the day? Not that I know of and copyists errors don't count because these are rarely done on purpose.

The issue addressed in Dan's blog entry has to do with translating the Bible from the original language to another. That's never an exact science and certain decisions have to be made.

I've never heard of translators boasting that "feel...freedom to change things around as they felt needed." Every translator I've ever known or heard of took his or her task very seriously and desired to communicate the Bible's message as accurately as possible into the receptor language.

 
At Thu Aug 03, 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Peter, you said, "the reason that modern editors do not feel free to edit the words of Shakespeare is not because these words are clear to all, because of the special reverence given to Shakespeare."

So what does that mean in translation work? Updating spelling I don't think would be viewed as a corrupting the text - being that the same word is used.

But why are people so concerned about keeping Shakespeare word for word - and yet with the Bible don't really seem to care - in fact put that aside and say, "Well, if Jesus lived now days, what would He say?"

Do people dare to say, "Well, if Shakespeare lived now days, how would he say it?"

No, because Shakespeare is not from our time - he said it the way he said it and if it is said another way, it ceases to be Shakespeare.

So what of translation?

I think if a person has experience translating they can draw parallels here - even though we are talking about English to English - the same principles apply for Greek to English or any other translation. There is a choice in translation - and it seems great freedom is taken in many translations - saying what "would have been said".

R. Mansfield, you said, "Every translator I've ever known or heard of took his or her task very seriously and desired to communicate the Bible's message as accurately as possible into the receptor language."

I agree.

But I'm not talking about intention. You can have the best intentions in the world and that won't help you produce a faithful translation.

No one modified the Greek - and yet we modify it in our translation. You think me strange because of course one language must be "modified" into another if it is to be understood in another language - but do you not see the principle that is in all of this?

Let me illustrate using extremes:

1 Corinthians 15:19
ει εν τη ζωη ταυτη ηλπικοτες εσμεν εν χριστω ηλπικοτες εσμεν μονον ελεεινοτεροι παντων ανθρωπων εσμεν

If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we're a pretty sorry lot.

If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.



Tell me something isn't wrong here. What did Paul say? What was his choice of words - why did he put those words in the order he did (yes grammar - it is important!). Good authors choose their words for a reason - that's why they are good authors! They are able to use words in a way that normal people cannot. Tell me one of these would not be considered a corrupt text if only English existed.

So should a translator be an author? Or should he translate what someone else said?

Just some thoughts :)

 
At Thu Aug 03, 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

The question is when does "change" of form produce more faithful transmission of sense. In the case being discussed I suspect that avoiding tripple quote marks does help readers (and even more HEARERS!) understand what is said.

However, in the narrative in Amos 7:10-17 there are also multiple layers of quotation, which I suspect are part of the meaning. The section of the book is about God's message and messengers. To avoid giving the hearer the feel of quotes within quotes there might risk this message being missed.

Likewise in Amos 3 towards the end of the chapter there are a whole croud of messenger formulae, which interrupt the flow of the language. This is ugly and intrusive, but it may be an ugly intrusion that translators ought to retain!

 
At Thu Aug 03, 12:16:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Sungkhum said, How much license do we really have?

This is a question that most translators must face, "head on" so to speak. I believe that it would be fair to say that it really comes down to a per translator basis, thoroughly dependant on their idealized view of translating. Your position is tenable, despite others attempts at weakening the position.

However, I can (almost) guarantee that translations that keep an intense, shall we even say "concordant", view on the very order of words, etc., will not be dissappearing any time soon.

The beautiful thing about modern English, and therefore knowing and being English, is that we have a large wealth of translations to choose from. If, ideologically, you prefer a translation that keeps the "very words" in high regard, you have a wealth of translations to choose from. On the other hand, those who prefer a functional translation also have a large selection to choose from. Those who enjoy "Olde" Elizabethan/Jacobean English have still existant choices, and so on and so forth.

We should feel most fortunate to know English!

Peter Kirk said, Every translator I've ever known or heard of took his or her task very seriously and desired to communicate the Bible's message as accurately as possible into the receptor language.

I'm sure they all have, this is my sentiment as well (from the limited amount of interaction I have had with "real" translators). However, we must acknowledge that not all translators are equally "yoked", and a sincere conscience does not necessitate integrity. The New World Translation comes to mind.

Peter Kirk also said, I've never heard of translators boasting that "feel...freedom to change things around as they felt needed."

Me either. Although I can see where Sungkhum's reasoning comes from. I assume (which is always dangerous) that the actual reverence for (or lack thereof) for the word order, syntax, rhythm, etc., of the Source language in regards to the Target language may often times "come down" to a matter of theology or doctrine. Adherents to different schools of "Inspiration" naturally feel different and widely varying obligations to the source text. Some stress form over content, others stress content of the actual form, etc. Like I said, frequently this comes down to an issue of theology.

The one summary that I can come up with is that thank God/Yahweh/Jah (who rideth upon the clouds)/Christos/Messiah/LORD/Lord/Whatever other titles you can think of/, that I know English and have the freedom to choose not only my preferred translations of the bible, but my theology and doctrine as well.

Rick said, This is ugly and intrusive, but it may be an ugly intrusion that translators ought to retain!

This is a fair conclusion in my opinion. It would be sooo hard to choose in all of these situations. No wonder translators feel overwhelmed sometimes!!!

 
At Thu Aug 03, 01:13:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Actually, Rick, if you compare the Byzantine text of the NT with the UBS text, you will find some significant if minor changes which are obviously deliberate updating rather than copyists' errors. For example, certain spellings have been changed consistently; but then as Sungkhum wrote "Updating spelling I don't think would be viewed as a corrupting the text - being that the same word is used.". And there is also significant harmonisation of parallel passages which is probably not entirely accidental.

Sungkhum went on to write:

1 Corinthians 15:19
ει εν τη ζωη ταυτη ηλπικοτες εσμεν εν χριστω ηλπικοτες εσμεν μονον ελεεινοτεροι παντων ανθρωπων εσμεν

If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we're a pretty sorry lot.

If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

Tell me something isn't wrong here. What did Paul say? What was his choice of words - why did he put those words in the order he did (yes grammar - it is important!). Good authors choose their words for a reason - that's why they are good authors! They are able to use words in a way that normal people cannot. Tell me one of these would not be considered a corrupt text if only English existed.


Paul said "ει εν τη ζωη ταυτη εν χριστω ηλπικοτες εσμεν μονον ελεεινοτεροι παντων ανθρωπων εσμεν", or something of the sort (not in fact what Sungkhum wrote unless he is appealing to a textual variant not in NA27). There is no good reason to consider one of the translations more corrupt than the other - provided that both are exegetically justified, which I am not entirely sure of in this particular case. Yes, a translator should translate what the original author said, but the original author's words and syntax cannot be preserved in another language, and so it is in general impossible to translate in the way which Sungkhum seems to advocate. It is perhaps marginally possible to do so from Greek to English, because these languages are related if only distantly and because English readers have become used to semi-Greek syntax and vocabulary from centuries of poor attempts at literal translation. But in the general case of translating from any one language to any other, literal translation is literally impossible, for the simple reason that there is no guarantee of any syntactic or semantic matching between the two languages.

Matthew, the quotes you attribute to me are actually from Rick Mansfield. I agree with them in general. I accept your caveat about versions like NWT, but I assume that its translators were trying to render what they genuinely but wrongly understood to be the meaning of the text, rather than deliberately deceiving anyone.

 
At Thu Aug 03, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Peter you said, "the original author's words and syntax cannot be preserved in another language"

This is true to a certain degree. But let me give you an example of what I am talking about.

I will use an example from the only other language I know, Khmer.

I will write the Khmer in English, since no one has the script installed on their computer.

So to begin, I have a Khmer sentence:
tngi nih khnum ban tow psah daumbye tin durain moy

A as close as possible word for word translation:
day this I (past tense modifier) go market to buy durian one

Now, that is not yet English.

Here's what I would call a "literal" translation:
Today I went to the market to buy a durian.

Now, as translator let's say I decide some of the words used in Khmer aren't needed or aren't understood by my target audience (like the word durian, though it is English, not many people in my target audience knows what that is).

So I translate:
I went to the market and bought an apple.

Basically the same - but I missed some "words". But the sentence is much shorter, therefore easier to read for my "target" audience (maybe children or something).

You might think this strange (changing durian to apple), but it is done in Bible translation - in bother versions the Khmer Bible, some fruits, trees, animals and other things from Israel are exchanged for Cambodian fruits and animals etc.

This is what I mean by literal translation or non-literal translation. If the author said it, say it. If the author did not say it, don't say it.

There are complications obviously (like the past tense modifier in Khmer, which English does not have, we conjugate). But the principle I believe still can be followed and I believe a literal translation is possible - just as much as a paraphrase is possible.

 
At Thu Aug 03, 02:10:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Ah, and the quotes attributed to me weren't mine either.

Peter, I agree regarding the Byzantine manuscripts. But I also confess I tend to not take them seriously, so I didn't think about them at the time.

I tend not to think of the NWT seriously either.

Guess I'd better start to get serious!

 
At Thu Aug 03, 02:55:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Sungkhum, I agree with you that it would be wrong to omit "today" in a Bible translation. And while I would not entirely rule out replacements like "apple" for "durian", they need to be made with great care. I would consider it OK to substitute a generic term like "fruit" if "durian" were unknown (perhaps with a transliteration in a footnote), but not to substitute a different fruit like "apple", except perhaps in a metaphor where the exact referent is unimportant to the story. But this is the tip of a large iceberg - for which I would let the Khmer substitute something like "floating island".

The problem is, what are the limits of literal translation? Is a change from "this day" to "today" permitted? Suppose that English didn't have a construction like "to buy"; would the change to "and bought" permitted, or would a longer circumlocution like "with the purpose that I might buy" be required?

I can assure you that there are Greek sentences in the New Testament which just cannot be translated literally even into English. I came across one recently, but unfortunately I have forgotten where. If I remember I will post about it.

 
At Thu Aug 03, 03:44:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Peter you said, "The problem is, what are the limits of literal translation?"

I believe if a translation is done literally there is no limit for the understanding of the target language. That is the nature of good translation - that the correct words are chosen in the correct order.

While I don't agree with you on the apple/durian replacement (because I don't believe that is faithful translation even if in metaphor) I do agree that there are sentences that in translation that are not as straight forward as the example I gave. But I do believe all translation can be done "literally" without ignoring the authors original choice of words.

Why did the author choose the word durian? I don't know - but the author knew. So when I change it to apple, what am I doing? I have replaced the author - I have put my own ideas into a document - that is normally called a corrupt text in regards to literature - or if we are talking Bibles, commentary. But I don't believe translators should be authors or commentators. Rather they should translate what an author said and that alone. No less, no more.

 
At Thu Aug 03, 03:45:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Here's a good example, Peter-- 1 Pet 1:13, Διὸ ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν

I can only think of one modern translation that tries to literally render this verse, and that's the NKJV: "Therefore gird up the loins of your mind..."

The readers of this blog might understand the phrase, but I challenge anyone to find 10 average church members who understand what that verse means.

 
At Thu Aug 03, 03:45:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Peter - I think it would be fun to see some of the Greek that cannot be "literally" translated. I'm sure that I will learn from what you have to say about it and from the examples that you give.

Thanks for your time on here - I love talking about all this :)

 
At Thu Aug 03, 04:59:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Blogs are one of the worst places to quote someone from. I have just decided that. Despite judicious and scholarly attention (:D :D), it still happens.

;D

 
At Sat Aug 05, 04:27:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Rick, thanks for the example of 1 Peter 1:13. There is certainly a translation problem here, but not the kind I had in mind.

Sungkhum, you wrote "That is the nature of good translation - that the correct words are chosen in the correct order." I'm sorry to say this, but that is incredibly naive. No translation of the Bible into English preserves the word order of the original. It is in fact impossible to do this without completely corrupting the meaning. For example, the third clause in John 1:1 translated in the original language order comes out as "God was the Word", which is not at all what the Greek actually means. There is potentially an even worse misunderstanding in John 1:18, literally "God no-one saw ever". The Greek word endings make it clear that "God" is the object, not the subject, but in English we have to use word order to clarify this. But you really need to learn a little bit of Greek to understand this - although I am sure that even in Khmer word order is not precisely as in English.

 
At Sun Aug 06, 10:38:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Hi Peter,

You said, "No translation of the Bible into English preserves the word order of the original."

Yes, sorry - I was being unclear. What you have said is true in most cases. What I meant when I said, "that the correct words are chosen in the correct order." was exactly what you are pointing out. That when translated - the words need to be in the order that the target language's grammar necessitates. But that nonetheless, words are important, as well as the order of the original - because how else would you know the order they should be in when translated into the target language?

Sorry for the confusion :) And yes, I am naive and do not know much that is of value to you. I'm more trying to learn from you.

R. Mansfield - as far as the "gird up your loins" - I honestly feel that part of the original is lost when a translation says, "prepare your mind for action". I totally agree that in English no one without being under a teacher would understand what the directly translated phrase means - but there still is something to say for the "literal" translation of the phrase. Prepare your mind for action is what the phrase means, but the mind picture is lost. Sometimes that must occur - it is translation.


-Nathan

 
At Sun Aug 06, 02:00:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Nathan, thanks for the clarification. You are not really naive, that is now clear, and are making some good points, but it would help you to learn at least a little Koine Greek. For example, you wrote: "words are important, as well as the order of the original - because how else would you know the order they should be in when translated into the target language?" Actually, in Greek word order is not very significant because you can usually tell from the case endings which is the subject and which is the object, but in English this distinction has to be made with word order.

 
At Mon Aug 07, 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Yes, I am looking forward to going to classes for Greek next year (I believe that is how it will work out). This year I start Hebrew, only two more weeks till school starts!

 

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