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Friday, October 12, 2007

Literary Bible translation

Be sure not to miss these important recent posts by John Hobbins on literary Bible translation:
John responds to a recent comment by Rich Rhodes of Better Bibles Blog to a post by Doug Chaplin at Metacatholic.

I wish to add to the discussion by Rich, John, and Doug by stating that there is no inherent conflict between Dynamic Equivalence translation and literary translation. In fact, DE translation is actually better equipped to display the qualities of literary translation than is more literal translation. The reason it is is that DE translation uses the grammatical and lexical structures of a translation target language (in this case, English) far more than does literal translation. (UPDATE: Literary language is natural language. It has characteristics which distinguish it from spoken language, but both use natural language forms.) We discover the grammar of literary English by analyzing good quality English literature, just as we discover the grammar of spoken English by analyzing spoken English utterances. The grammar of literary English should be used in any literary English translation of a text in another language.

DE translation is not, as some suppose, a "simplification" of literary biblical texts. It is, instead, an accurate translation of those texts. Accurate DE translation should be expressed in the same kind (register, genre) of language as that of each part of the source text. The best DE translation should not only reflect low level (e.g. words, phrases, clauses) meanings but also higher level (such as idioms, paragraph, episode, rhetorical) meanings. And to be most accurate, it should express these meanings using the forms of the target language which are equivalent in genre (poetic, proverbial, narrative, hortatory, conversational, literary, etc.) to the genre of the biblical texts.

10 Comments:

At Fri Oct 12, 07:42:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Wayne, I think you've missed the key point of John's argument (which I agree with) -- Dynamic Equivalent translations necessarily hide literary features of the original.

I could give thousands of examples, but let me just give one here based on a study that I did this afternoon.

Consider 2 Samuel 24:12 -- King David has just conducted a census of the people, violating the commandment of Exodus 30:12. Gad comes to David and offers him a "choice" of punishments: famine (which David just had in chapter 21), war (David knows this one very well), or plague:

So Gad came to David, and told him, and said to him: "Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? or shall there be three days plague in your land? now advise you, consider what word I shall return to He that sent me.

The point, of course, is that David has no choice -- this is merely a test (along the lines of a similar test of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:3-13). And if you read it in Hebrew, it is obvious. Mah ashiv sholchi davar "What word shall I return to He that sent me" is a play on dever "plague". In effect, Gad is saying to David: "say the word."

Only in very literal translations, such as those of Alter or Fox, does this word-play become obvious. And it has theological implications (some choices that God gives us are false choices -- they are really tests.)

Now the strongest counter-argument you can give to this example is to say: Iyov, you are talking about a level of analysis that is not representable in English and that is why scholars go back to original language texts. This counter-argument has merit, but the sort of careful literary analysis that John is speaking of is the desiderata for translation.

Now, to be sure, a Dynamic Equivalent translation that reflected equivalence of "low level", "higher level", and "genre" arguments would be remarkable. However, I have yet to see such a translation -- I only have seen Dynamic Equivalent translations that attempt to be equivalent on a "high level" and then only to a single interpretation of the text. In that sense, I believe that Dynamic Equivalent translations represent a considerable simplification of the original Hebrew of the Bible.

 
At Fri Oct 12, 08:10:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Iyov, neither literal translations nor DE translations can retain word plays, which only work in the language in which they originate. Both kinds of translations can footnote original word plays. Some DE and some literal translators have experimented with options for preserving the beauty of Hebrew word plays. There have been some articles about this in issues of the journal The Bible Translator. Sorry, but I don't have biblio. references at hand.

Both literal and DE translations can retain some aspect of original genre forms, such as Hebrew alliteration beginning the lines of the poetry in Psalm 119.

 
At Fri Oct 12, 08:26:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

the sort of careful literary analysis that John is speaking of is the desiderata for translation.

the sort of careful literary analysis that John is speaking of is [one important] desiderata for translation.

 
At Sat Oct 13, 11:54:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I have commented on John's post showing that there is a gaping hole in his argument which destroys his conclusion that Bible translations should be literary.

Suzanne, I share you dislike of Latinate words, but surely it is "one important desideratum"?

 
At Sat Oct 13, 09:12:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yes, it is desideratum and I came to that conclusion shortly after I posted the comment.

 
At Sat Oct 13, 10:45:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, it is desideratum and I came to that conclusion shortly after I posted the comment.

It might even be something that is desired!

:-)

 
At Sun Oct 14, 12:16:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

Iyov, neither literal translations nor DE translations can retain word plays, which only work in the language in which they originate.

To the contrary -- both Alter's and Fox's translation manage to capture much of the wordplay of the Hebrew. And of course, in those places where it cannot be captured, it certainly can noted.

 
At Mon Oct 15, 08:04:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Iyov responded:

To the contrary -- both Alter's and Fox's translation manage to capture much of the wordplay of the Hebrew. And of course, in those places where it cannot be captured, it certainly can noted.

Yes, Alter and Fox do. My original statement was probably an overstatement. But the principle behind my statement was correct: It is very difficult to preserve word plays in translation. Often footnotes are place where we have to explain them.

There is simply nothing like reading the Bible in the original language for seeing the beauty of alliteration and other word plays.

 
At Mon Oct 15, 08:46:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

(Iyov:) both Alter's and Fox's translation manage to capture much of the wordplay of the Hebrew.

I suspect that they succeeded in doing this only by being either inaccurate or unclear in their translations of the major referential content of the Hebrew text. I guess we will be exploring these issues elsewhere.

I agree that word plays should be noted in footnotes.

 
At Mon Oct 15, 06:09:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

I suspect that they succeeded in doing this only by being either inaccurate or unclear in their translations of the major referential content of the Hebrew text.

You might as well have said, in the days before the Wright brothers, that flight is only possible if one uses a lighter-than-air vehicle. I suspect you will be deeply impressed at what these translators accomplished -- I am unaware of any theoretical limit on a best possible translation.

Should you have a chance to review these translations, I eagerly await your informed opinion.

 

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