What's the joke?
For example, being on sabbatical here in Austria I take the bus to the university every day, about a half an hour ride from my apartment. At every bus stop they have free newspapers, OK and Heute, which have sudokus. OK, I’ll fess up. I’m a sudoku addict. I grab a copy of each and see how much I can get done on the lurching and bumpy ride to campus. I also skim through the papers, which are pretty much worth what they cost, and I read the cartoons. Cartoons are great fodder for the translation theorist. Heute carries Perscheid, Germany's answer to Gary Larson. Monday last, they ran this cartoon:
Since most of you don’t speak German, you’d like to know what the joke is. Well, let’s apply the kinds of principles that most Bible translations use. If we translate word by word, we get an understandable English sentence. (We wouldn’t want to change the meaning by changing the structure.)
“Oh my God! I can see no oil!”Not a joke.
Well, you say, the object of a German sentence attracts the negative, so the negative should be associated with the verb in English.
“Oh my God! I can’t see any oil!”Still not a joke.
By now all the German speakers reading this blog are squirming. But, but, but …
You see the German word sehen can also be used in contexts where English requires us to say look at rather than see, so a better translation would be:
“Oh my God! I can’t look at oil!”Close, but no cigar.
If you really want to know what Perscheid meant, you have to know that this wording is the way squeamish German speakers talk about blood, so to have a translation that passes muster you need to say about oil what squeamish English speakers say about blood.
“Oh my God! I can’t stand the sight of oil!”Now you have a joke.
And in case you haven’t realized it, translating Ich kann kein Öl sehen. with I can’t stand the sight of oil. demonstrates exactly what is meant by dynamic equivalence. Here the fact that it is a joke is what keeps us honest. If we get the translation right, we have a joke. If we don’t, it’s not a joke.
Our long use of translations that only approximate the meaning of the Greek (or Hebrew) has dulled our senses. It’s only in live cross-linguistic situations that we are confronted with the fact that language is regularly used with a precision we fail to appreciate from the inside. And it’s that precision that gets washed away in most Bible translations by our preference for literalness. Ironically, that preference all but guarantees that we will get it wrong.
Not a joke.