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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Do we think in words?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I’m teaching discourse analysis this semester. Well, the semester is almost over and we haven’t gotten as far along as I had wanted. But the students this round are very good. (Yes, I know that Berkeley attracts some of the best and brightest, but even in that crowd these kids stand out.) They’re pushing me to analyze the sample texts in more detail than I had when I last taught the course some years back.

On Thursday a particularly interesting example came up that has pinpoint relevance to the dynamic equivalence debate.

One of the more deceptively misleading arguments against dynamic equivalence is articulated by Leland Ryken, an apologist for the ESV, in his book The Word of God in English (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002)
“Not only does a translation that reproduces the very words of the original text have logic on its side (translation of ideas rather than words being an illogical notion); it is also the only type of translation that respects and obeys other important principles regarding the Bible.” (pg. 217) [emphasis mine RAR]
I want to look at the assertion that it is “illogical” to translate ideas rather than words.

Such a position is based on the fallacy that people think in words. The confusion is understandable. Most of us make the mistake of considering our inner dialogue to be thinking. There is a long tradition of doing so. For example, 17th century French grammarians believed in the superiority of the French language because, in their minds, it mirrored logical thought:
The basic expository word-order of French, above all, was held to favour clarity, and was commonly identified with the logical processes of thought. Le Laboureur in Les Avantages de la langue françoise (1669), and Fr. Charpentier in L’Excellence de la langue françoise (1683) both praise the logical order which they discerned in French. (A History of the French Language, P. Rickard 1989 Routledge, pg. 104)
But in my discourse class we came across a slam bang example that shows just how much thinking goes on beneath the level of the inner dialogue. Unfortunately it requires your reading a longish text to sufficiently frame the example. On the plus side, the text is hilarious.
Blading Barbie Sparks Up Hell On Wheels
by Dave Barry

As executive director of the Bureau of Consumer Alarm, I am always on the alert for news stories that involve two key elements:
1. Fire
2. Barbie
So I was very interested when alert reader Michael Robinson sent me a column titled “Ask Jack Sunn” from the Dec. 13, 1993, issue of the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger. Here’s an excerpt from a consumer’s letter to this column, which I am not making up:
“Last year, my two daughters received presents of two Rollerblade Barbie dolls by Mattel. On March 8, my 8-year-old daughter was playing beauty shop with her 4-year-old brother. After spraying him with hair spray, the children began to play with the boot to Rollerblade Barbie. My little girl innocently ran the skate across her brother’s bottom, which immediately ignited his clothes.”
The letter adds that “There are no warnings concerning fire on these toys ... I feel the need to warn potential buyers of their danger.”

In his response, Jack Sunn says, cryptically, that “Mattel does not manufacture Rollerblade Barbie any more.” He does not address the critical question that the consumer’s letter raised in my mind, as I’m sure it did yours, namely: Huh?

I realized that the only way to answer this question was to conduct a scientific experiment. As you may recall, last year, in response to a news item concerning a kitchen fire in Ohio, I did an experiment proving that if you put a Kellogg’s strawberry Pop-Tart in a toaster and hold the toaster lever down for five minutes and 50 seconds, the Pop-Tart will turn into a snack-pastry blowtorch, shooting flames up to 30 inches high. Also your toaster will be ruined.

The problem was that I did not have a Rollerblade Barbie. My son happens to be a boy, and we never went through the Barbie phase. We went through the Masters of the Universe phase. For two years our household was the scene of a fierce, unceasing battle between armies of good and evil action figures. They were everywhere. You’d open up the salad crisper, and there would be He-Man and Skeletor, striking each other with carrots. So at the end of a recent column, I printed a note appealing for a Rollerblade Barbie. I got two immediately; one from Renee Simmons of Clinton, Iowa, and one from Randy Langhenry of Gainesville, Ga., who said it belonged to his 6-year-old daughter, Greta. (“It would help me if you could get Barbie back to north Georgia before Greta notices she’s gone,” Randy wrote.)

Rollerblade Barbie is basically a standard Barbie, which is to say, she represents the feminine beauty ideal, if your concept of a beautiful female is one who is six feet, nine inches tall and weighs 52 pounds (37 of which are in the bust area) and has a rigidly perky smile and eyeballs the size of beer coasters and a one-molecule nose and enough hair to clog the Lincoln Tunnel.

But what makes this Barbie special is that she’s wearing two little yellow Rollerblade booties, each of which has a wheel similar to the kind found in cigarette lighters, so that when you roll Barbie along, her booties shoot out sparks. This seems like an alarming thing for Rollerblades to do, but Barbie, staring perkily ahead, does not seem to notice.

To ensure high standards of scientific accuracy, I conducted the experiment in my driveway. Aside from Rollerblade Barbie, my materials consisted of several brands of hair spray and — this was a painful sacrifice a set of my veteran underwear (estimated year of purchase: 1968). I spread the underwear on the driveway, then sprayed it with hair spray, then made Rollerblade Barbie skate across it, sparking her booties. I found that if you use the right brand of hair spray — I got excellent results with Rave — Rollerblade Barbie does indeed cause the underwear to burst dramatically into flame.

(While I was doing this, a neighbor walked up, and I just want to say that if you think it’s easy to explain why you’re squatting in your driveway, in front of a set of burning underwear, surrounded by hair spray bottles, holding a Barbie doll in your hand, then you are mistaken.)

At this point, the only remaining scientific question — I’m sure this has occurred to you — was: Could Rollerblade Barbie set fire to a Kellogg’s strawberry Pop-Tart? The answer turns out to be yes, but you have to be in the act of hair-spraying the Pop-Tart when Barbie Rollerblades over it, so you get a blowtorch effect that could very easily set fire to Barbie’s hair, not to mention your own personal self. Plus you get tart filling in the booties. So we can see why Mattel ceased manufacturing Rollerblade Barbie. I imagine that whichever toy designer dreamed up this exciting concept has been transferred to Mattel’s coveted Bosnia plant. But what should be done about all the Rollerblade Barbies that are already in circulation? I believe that the only solution is for all concerned consumers to demand that our congress-humans pass a federal law requiring that all underwear, snack pastries and other household objects carry a prominent label stating:
But that is not enough. We also need to appropriate millions of dollars for a massive federal effort to undo the damage that has been done so far. I’m talking about scraping this crud off my driveway.

Also, the taxpayers owe Greta a new Barbie.
(Copied from Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, Sunday, July 17, 1994)
When you’ve stopped laughing, we can go over the difficult transition point in the middle of the text.

What? You didn’t notice that there was a big leap in the middle of this piece? How very interesting.

The leap comes between the sentences
I realized that the only way to answer this question was to conduct a scientific experiment.
The problem was that I did not have a Rollerblade Barbie.
(We can ignore the two intervening parenthetical sentences about the Pop-Tart toaster experiment, because it is just that, parenthetical.) The question is: how do you know that it makes sense to talk about having a Rollerblade Barbie?

Does it still seem so natural as not to need an explanation?

Let me put another way: what do you have to know about science to make sense of this transition?

The answer is that you have to have a pretty good idea of how to design experiments. You know what the experiment would be expected to prove—and it’s not that 8-year-olds like to torture their baby brothers. Besides that you know which things mentioned in the original news story to extract as crucial to show that sparks are enough to ignite hairspray-soaked clothing. You don't need the kids; you just need hairspray, clothing, and Roller-blade Barbie. Furthermore, you expect that everyone has hairspray and clothes lying around the house, but Roller-blade Barbie is the scarce commodity, so it makes sense to talk about not having Roller-blade Barbie.

Now may I point out to you that you did all those mental gymnastics subconsciously, wordlessly, and instantly.

The point is that doing all that calculation doesn’t simply follow from the meaning of the word experiment. Words like experiment bring along large and complex agglomerations of associated concepts. Linguists call these associated concepts FRAMES. When we communicate, we use words to refer to frames, often in ways that seem quite tangential, and then we get to refer to parts of the frame, at no mental cost, just as in the Barbie example.

Now when it comes to translation, the really good translators think in frames. They recognize the equivalence, or near equivalence in the frames, or the absence in one language of the frame and then use the normal linguistic tools of the target language to refer to the corresponding frames or the relevant part of the frame.

Let me go back to an example that I used over a year ago.

In the Greco-Roman world the frame that goes with the piece of furniture we would call a chair includes power, wealth, and authority. In Matt. 23:2, the chair is mentioned as a way to convey the notion of Moses authority. It’s not about the furniture.

Matt. 23:2 "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (NIV)

To communicate the same idea in English where there is no corresponding frame associated with chairs the passage has to rendered something more like:

Matt. 23:2 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees bear the authority of Moses. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (NIV modified)

If you fail to make the adjustment, it makes no sense to the English ear. The Koine speaker did the mental calculation from chair (καθέδρα) to authority (ἐξοθσία) as quickly, subconsciously, and wordlessly as you did in the Barbie text. To translate this reference to authority with the use of a Greek frame is utterly misleading to English speakers. It doesn’t matter that you can teach them to understand it. The fact that the connection between the wording and the concept is not instant and subconscious shows that the transparently literal translation is wrong.

I’m sorry, Professor Ryken. Not only is it logical to translate at the level of ideas, it’s necessary.


At Sat Dec 01, 01:47:00 AM, Blogger Garrett Ho said...

Then again, if we translate according to formal equivalence at the word level then we just have to understand the frame of mind of the author. We should encourage and train our people to understand (at least at a basic level) the idioms and figures of speech that the Hebrew and Greek writers employed.

For my children, surely a children's Bible will be used. But for spiritually mature adults at my church I will encourage a formal equivalent translation.

I think I must misunderstand your example too, because if you were to translate the sentences that you pointed out from the article into another language, I assume you would still translate it literally at the word level. To say that we perform mental gymnastics subconsciously is to make an observation with no necessary implications to your argument. Shall we cease from irony and instead write out thoughtful explanations?

At Sat Dec 01, 04:14:00 AM, Blogger Sam Norton said...

Great - and hilarious - post. Now, this may be a tangent, but it seems that there is a strong correspondence between what you describe here as 'frames' and what Wittgenstein means by 'depth grammar'. That is, to understand language, we need not only to understand the surface grammar (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc) but we need to understand what the words actually accomplish in the context of the lived existence of the speaker (writer). (The 'sitz-im-leben' perhaps).

I mention this because one of Wittgenstein's great antagonisms was towards the reductionist approach in the realm of language and philosophy generally. Ryken seems to have that philosophy in the background of his thought.

At Sat Dec 01, 07:59:00 AM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Thanks, Rich (I like the name!), for the comments and hilarious article.

However, there still seems to be a problem on both sides of this discussion related to frames. What happens when the frame in the original language text (say Greek NT) interacts with the frame of the MT and/or LXX? How then can the frame used in English handle the entire frame of both original language texts? Is this not a problem for what you are claiming?

I think in particular of the text in Hebrews 2:6-7 referencing Psalm 8:4-5? Several dynamic equivalence translations render this with the plural ("what are humans...?". But is this not changing the frame of Hebrews 2 and then also Psalm 8? Is this pluralization then a faithful translation? At this point I would say not. Despite what many think about GW as a translation, at least here the translators struggle with all three frames and come to what I consider a better solution (not entirely perfect): "what is a mortal that you remember him or the Son of Man that you take care of him?"

Nevertheless, your comments further highlight the need to examine what is translation and how the process of translating takes place, and ultimately how to improve upon it. I don't think it is an either/or proposition as you and Leland present it, however.

Rich Shields

At Sat Dec 01, 09:13:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

But is this not changing the frame of Hebrews 2 and then also Psalm 8?

Yes, Rich S, it is changing the frame back from what it has illegitimately become in some translations back to what it should be.

The GW translation you quote, with "Son of Man" in capitals, is simply wrong and totally unjustifiable in a quotation from the psalm, it is forcing the frame of the New Testament on to the psalm and totally ignoring the original frame in which "son of man" means "human being".

I accept that in Hebrews 2:9 the author moves on to Jesus in a way which shows how she or he takes the psalm as partly fulfilled in him - but only partly, because in verse 10 we see how the glory is for many sons and daughters, not just for Jesus. But the point of this passage, as well as of the psalm, is utterly destroyed by translators who take verse 6 as a direct reference to Jesus.

At Sat Dec 01, 03:56:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Thanks, Rich, for a great post. For the fun of it, I decided to take you to the cleaners just the same, in a reply on my blog.

At Mon Dec 03, 07:23:00 AM, Blogger Peter M. Head said...

Excellent post. I laughed out loud at the parenthetical remark about explaining this activity to the walking-by-neighbour.


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