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Thursday, October 18, 2007

more on literary translation

In line with Rich's preceding post and other recent posts on BBB on literary translation, including links to other blog posts on literary translation, note recent posts by Lingamish on literary translation:
Oh, what did you think of the opening sentence of this post? Does its length and repetition qualify it to be "literary translation"? I w0uld claim it does not. I would say that it is awkward English, not good quality literary English.

Let's not confuse awkward or obsolescent or esoteric English with literary English. "Foreignizing" a Bible translation (that is, translating it is such a way that readers feel they are reading a translation of an ancient document, not a current composition) does not create a literary translation. We do not create literary English by increasing the number of Latinate words used as we write. We do not create literary English by including outdated words such as "thee" and "thou". We do not create a literary Bible translation by using theological words such as "sanctification," "justification," "redemption," or "propitiation." We do not create a literary translation by translating literally. The words "literal" and "literary" have related etymologies but they refer to quite different things.

It seems to me that a literary translation is a document which sounds like it was originally by a native speaker of a language in the written (as opposed to oral/spoken) style of that language. A number of studies have investigated the different properties of written vs. spoken English. See the following which discuss such differences:
A good literary English Bible translation should have the qualities of a good piece of English literature, composed in English by a native speaker of English who has a good command of the English language. It should follow the grammar of written English, as opposed to spoken (oral) English. And it should sound no more awkward than a highly respected novel or other piece of good literature.

What are some of the characteristics of literary English?

Who are some contemporary (within the past fifty years) authors who write in good literary English?

Which, if any, English Bible versions read as if they could have been written by such authors?

10 Comments:

At Thu Oct 18, 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

I want to make a distinction between literary translation and good literary English (and then again good litearture). In my view a literary translation will seek, within the parameters of the target language, to produce the sylistic qualities and register that best correspond to those of the source text. If the source text is not an example of "good literary" e.g Greek, then it is wrong to produce a translation in good literary English. It is not, in my view a literary translation, if it misrepresents the style of the original. (I've recently argued this in relation to a snippet of Mark's gospel.)
In contrast, by good literary English I mean something about the quality of the writing, not simply in grammar and the wide range of lexical choices, but where the writer may be judged to have acheived their intended effect in language that is recognised as elegant, grammatical and appropriately economical, whether in communicating meaning or affect.
Good literature may choose to use non-literary English: an example, which if translatied into another language in that language's literary style would destroy it, might well be Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

 
At Thu Oct 18, 04:10:00 PM, Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

Excuse the typos in that previous comment: it's late here!

 
At Thu Oct 18, 04:50:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Doug wrote:

I want to make a distinction between literary translation and good literary English (and then again good litearture). In my view a literary translation will seek, within the parameters of the target language, to produce the sylistic qualities and register that best correspond to those of the source text.

It's a fair distinction to make, and thank you for mentioning it, Doug.

If the source text is not an example of "good literary" e.g Greek, then it is wrong to produce a translation in good literary English.

I agree. But there isn't a lot of bad Hebrew or Greek in the canon. Some, yes, but not lots, so I would not want to see nearly as much poor literary English as we have in English Bibles today. Their literary poverty is not related to literary poverty in the biblical texts.

It is not, in my view a literary translation, if it misrepresents the style of the original. (I've recently argued this in relation to a snippet of Mark's gospel.)

Yes, Mark's gospel and the Revelation of John both have some rough Greek, and should have some rough English translating the rough Greek passages.

 
At Thu Oct 18, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Doug wrote:

Excuse the typos in that previous comment: it's late here!

You're excused, Doug. Now what excuse can I use? I usually do not blog when it is late.

 
At Thu Oct 18, 09:00:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Typo: s/b Psalm 68.

The more I think about this the more unsure I am about what I'm really hoping for. Yes, you're right to avoid latinate words. Yes, it's true that a literary translation would be good literature. But there is something to be said for "foreignizing" the translation to the extent that it suggests to the reader the foreignness of the original writer's world and thinking.

 
At Thu Oct 18, 10:30:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Lingamish wrote:

Typo: s/b Psalm 68.

Thanks. Fixed. But wouldn't you like to do Ps. 68 also?! :-)

(snip)

But there is something to be said for "foreignizing" the translation to the extent that it suggests to the reader the foreignness of the original writer's world and thinking.

Absolutely, but shouldn't that be done by accurately translating all references to the original writer's world and thinking, rather than by using abnormal English. Abnormal English doesn't help us understand the cultural context of the biblical writers, does it?

Yesterday I read a blog post claiming that we should literally translation Hebrew "know" for intercourse. The reason given is that "know" would better communicate to readers the Hebrew mindset about how intimate the knowledge of someone is during intercourse. Well, is that *really* what was being communicated by Hebrew "know"? We really don't know (not to pun!). Isn't it more accurate to translate what we know to be the referential meaning of the Hebrew "know" and leave it to theologians or other interpreters to raise possibilities about what various idioms and lexical choices might have signified? It is *foreignizing* the text to translate Hebrew "know" by English "know" but it is not accurate foreignizing, not accurate translation, since for today's readers, English "know" does not refer to intercourse. Yes, there are dictionary entries for that meaning sense. But if we poll English speakers for the various meanings of "know", an extremely low number would ever come up with any connection to intercourse.

It seems to me that the best way to foreignize a Bible translation is to accurately translate all cultural, geographical, philosophical, theological, etc. references. We must not be in the business of transculturating the biblical text during translation. We can't change Jerusalem to Chicago. We can't change circumcision to tatoos. We can't change head coverings for women in 1 Cor. to wedding rings. We can't change meat offered to idols to lottery tickets placed in the church offering plate.

On the other hand, it's not really foreignizing the text to use obsolete or awkward English, in an attempt to make a translation sound ancient. The text will have all the ancient references it needs if we translate in standard, current, literary English, but make sure that we do not change any original cultural references. Using standard literary English is not, as Dr. Ryken and some others seem to claim, bringing the text to the reader in a way that is not faithful to the foreign character of the text. The very act of translation brings the text to the reader. The kind of domesticizing that should be avoided is not linguistic, but, rather cultural.

Well, sorry if it sounds like I'm preaching to you, Lingamish. I'm really preaching my usual sermon and hoping that as many people as possible will listen. There is too much confusion about what retaining the foreign sense of the text involves.

 
At Fri Oct 19, 03:59:00 AM, Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

Absolutely, but shouldn't that be done by accurately translating all references to the original writer's world and thinking, rather than by using abnormal English.
A particular question here is things like money or distance. Would you translate these as, e.g. denarii and stadia (obviously with footnotes), or put them into equivalents?
I don't have answer to this, I'm just identifying it as particular issue for respecting the foreignness of the text, while seeking good English clarity.

 
At Fri Oct 19, 07:56:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Doug responded:

A particular question here is things like money or distance. Would you translate these as, e.g. denarii and stadia (obviously with footnotes), or put them into equivalents?

Thanks, Doug. Good examples. I suspected that there was probably something I had overlooked.

At this point, I would consider leaving measures terms in their transliterated forms as an appropriate means of retaining the foreign nature of the text. I want to emphasize, again, that I am positive about foreignizing the text, since we are dealing with an ancient text from other cultures. I just don't want it to be done with bad quality English.

 
At Fri Oct 19, 09:43:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

(Doug:) If the source text is not an example of "good literary" e.g Greek, then it is wrong to produce a translation in good literary English.

(Wayne:) I agree. But there isn't a lot of bad Hebrew or Greek in the canon. Some, yes, but not lots, so I would not want to see nearly as much poor literary English as we have in English Bibles today. Their literary poverty is not related to literary poverty in the biblical texts.

I think there is a misunderstanding here which is in fact the fallacy of the excluded middle. Doug asks about text which is not "good literary" in the original language. Wayne about language which is "bad" or "poor". Well, I agree that there is little bad language, or even poor language, in the original of the Bible. But that does not imply that the rest is "good literary". For there is a middle category, the normal grammatically acceptable language which people use in careful speech and informal writing, much like this comment I hope. As I understand it most of the Bible is written in this kind of language, grammatically correct but not in a formal literary style (although I accept that we cannot be sure of the stylistic status of prose parts of the Hebrew Bible). And that, in my opinion, is what should be reflected in translation.

 
At Fri Oct 19, 09:49:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

On money, distance etc, my own feeling would be that this should depend on the target audience of the translation. If we are talking about a literary translation for a sophisticated audience, I would agree that original units should be used, with modern equivalents in footnotes. But the alternative of putting modern equivalents in the text, preferably with the original footnoted, is also a valid translation choice, which is more likely to be appropriate in a version intended for less educated people and/or children.

 

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