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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Translation equivalence-1

Translation theorists have often debated whether and how a wording in a translation is "equivalent" to the wording in the source language to which it corresponds. Venessa Leonardi has summarized some of the main theories of translation equivalence in her article Equivalence in Translation: Between Myth and Reality.

In this post I'd like to come at the issue of equivalence in translation from the viewpoint of "levels" of language. Language is complex. Like anything which is complex, it resists being neatly categorized. But there are a variety of models from which we can view language. Each of them throws some light on our understanding of language. Here I will use the model of "levels" of language.

Each language discourse or text is made up of formal and semantic units which are made up of smaller units which are made up of even smaller units until we arrive at the smallest units of language. Linguists call the smallest units of meaning "morphemes." In English the word "jumped" consists of two morphemes, "jump" plus "-ed" which means past tense. Many English words have more than one morpheme. Some have only one morpheme, such as the word "tree."

The biblical texts are composed of language units which, ultimately, have morphemes as their smallest meaning units.

So one level at which we can ask if there is equivalence between a translation and its source text would be the morphemic level. We might ask if a translation has language units that account for each morpheme of the source text. Although I have never seen one, it would be possible to produce interlinear translations of biblical texts at the morpheme level. I myself have published a number of texts in the Cheyenne language which have morpheme-level glosses. Of course, to be understandable in English, we also include in such publications translations at a higher level of language than just the morpheme level. Morpheme-by-morpheme translation would not be very understandable to speakers of a target language.

Morphemes are grouped into words, the next level of language. Instead of evaluating translation equivalence at the morpheme level, we can evaluate it at the word level. We can ask if every word of the source text is accounted for in the translation.

Words group into phrases, the next higher level of language. Phrases are grouped into clauses. Clauses group into sentences. Sentences group into paragraphs. Paragraphs group into complete texts (discourses). It is possible to check for translation equivalence at each of these levels.

This is an overly simplified view of a levels model of language. It is a structural view of language, one which looks at language forms.

But language does not consist simply of forms. Each form has some meaning. The study of the semantics of biblical language texts is very important. No one could translate even a single word of biblical language texts if they knew nothing about the meanings of language units in those texts. Lexicographers have provided us with the information we need to know the meanings of language units in any language. Of course, here we are focused on the lexicography of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Hellenistic (Koine) Greek. There are lexicons published for each of these languages.

Meaning itself is complex. Language units, whether at the smallest level, morpheme, or higher levels, often have meaning that cannot be fully captured with a simple gloss. We can gloss Greek pistis as 'faith' but this one English word does not include all of the meaning of that one Greek word. Language units not only include meanings which we can capture with simple glosses, but they also typically have other kinds of meaning, including connotations, nuances, register, relationships to other lexical units, etc.

Much of the debate over gender-inclusive language in English Bibles has revolved around the issue of nuances. In their major book on gender-inclusive language, Dr. Grudem and Dr. Poythress, insist that grammatically masculine forms in the Greek of the New Testament retain masculine nuance even when they refer to generic entities, such as a group of people composed of both males and females. (Not everyone agrees with that claim, by the way.)

We all intuitively sense that "kick the bucket" is not an adequate translation for a source language word meaning 'die' in most language contexts. The English idiom "kick the bucket" has colloquial, rather crude, connotations which are not part of the meaning of most words referring to dying. Connotations must be taken into consideration as part of meaning when evaluating translation equivalence.

There is an aspect of semantics which I call rhetorical meaning that is often critically important. If you are doing something I disapprove of and I say to you in an agitated voice, "What are you doing?" it is quite likely that I'm not really asking what you are doing. Instead, my rhetorical meaning is something like "Stop that right now!"

If you are standing near the window and I am not, and I say to you, "It's sure getting hot in here," it is likely that I'm not simply conveying to you information about the temperature in the room. Instead, my statement has a rhetorical meaning something like "Please open the window!" The person to whom I am speaking must be able to infer this meaning from what I have said for my meaning to be accurately communicated. So inferences and implicatures are important aspects of the meaning of utterances. The Bible is full of wordings which cannot be understood accurately unless we know the implications intended by those speaking or writing in the biblical text. Language utterances are like the metaphorical iceberg, where we only hear the tip of the iceberg. There is far more to communication below the surface. Everything below the surface (implicit meaning) is, ultimately, part of the meaning of source language texts and must be considered as part of translation equivalence.

In another post we'll consider translation equivalence in some Bible translation examples.



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