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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Translation quality

Those of you who have been following my posts know that, as a polyglot myself, a one-time interpreter, and professional linguist of over three decades experience (i.e., someone who knows a little something about the matter), I continue to insist that there is a uniform measure of translation quality, regardless of whether the translation is functional (for personal, business, or governmental purposes), literary, or Scriptural. The same principles distinguish good translation from bad translation.

So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write on something I ran across while doing research for a longer piece I had hoped to post today. It’s a reference to a document which sets international translation standards. I didn’t know that such a thing existed, although I probably should have guessed. The European Union, which certainly needs it, has an official agreement, a copy of which can be downloaded here. Those standards contain some truly telling points that are well worth thinking about in the context of Bible translation.

Most of the document is about the business standards around the process — not germane to our concerns. The section of the document most relevant for us is the one which addresses the translation itself found in §§5.4.1.-5.4.2. I have supplied them as an appendix. One subpart is of particular interest.
The translator shall transfer the meaning in the source language into the target language in order to produce a text that is in accordance with the rules of the linguistic system of the target language ... [emphasis mine]
Notice that this is a statement of dynamic equivalence.

There is no reference to the wording of the original. There is no reference to the structure of the original. These key points of formal equivalence, whether you try to spin doctor them under a euphemism like “essentially transparent” or not, are not considerations at all.

From my point of view this statement of an international standard for evaluating a translation puts the burden of proof on anyone who wants to argue for formal equivalence. DE is the standard for the European Union where there are sizeable numbers of bilinguals around to judge and, possibly more importantly, where there’s money (in no small amounts) on the line.

For the life of me, I don’t know why these kinds of facts don’t seem to bother those who maintain that there is value in formal equivalence. I can only assume that this is because those who champion FE are monolingual and linguistically naive — or have a translation related agenda. (Now before all you literary types get your knickers in a knot, I take what El Shaddai Edwards has recently proposed to call literary equivalence to be quite a different matter from FE.)

And just so things are really clear, in the fourth appendix (interestingly called an Annex) the EU agreement outlines as errors almost all the features (after referential inaccuracy) that DE translators object to in FE translations.

Point 8 in Annex D (Style guide)
— common errors to be avoided (e.g., false friends, cognates, language interference, register mismatches, etc.)

5.4. Translation

5.4.1. Translation process

The translator shall transfer the meaning in the source language into the target language in order to produce a text that is in accordance with the rules of the linguistic system of the target language and that meets the instructions received in the project assignment.

Throughout this process, the translator shall pay attention to the following:

a) Terminology: compliance with specific domain and client terminology, or any other terminology, or any other terminology provided, as well as terminology consistency throughout the whole translation.

b) Grammar: syntax, spelling, punctuation, orthography, diacritical marks.

c) Lexis: lexical cohesion and phraseology.

d) Style: compliance with the proprietary or client style guider, including register and langauge variants.

e) Locale: local conventions and regional standards.

f) Formatting(see Annex D).

g) Target group and purpose of the translation.

5.4.2. Checking

On completion of the original translation, the translator shall check his/her own work. This process shall include checking that the meaning has been conveyed, that there are no omissions or errors and that the defined service specifications have been met. The translator shall make any necessary amendments.


At Sun Dec 23, 02:54:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Interesting post, Rich, and a good reminder to us Bible bubble heads that translation principles exist outside the world of scripture.

I do wonder if the mindset of FE is heavily colored by the view of the Bible as "the Word of God". That idiomatic phrase has become so ingrained that it's very easy to focus our attention on the syntax of physical words as defining the Message, rather than the semantic meaning defining the Message.

And, yes, I would differentiate between FE as we commonly know it and LE. As you noted elsewhere, LE really may just be DE "done right" - but it may also be FE "done right", where form would be driven from the semantic meaning, not just syntactic concordance of the words of the text.

At Sun Dec 23, 04:59:00 PM, Blogger Trierr said...

Okay, two quick notes. One, it seems that the use of FE for bibilical translation is rooted in a particular doctrine of inspiration, hence it also has different "needs" in the translation process.

Secondly, your post made me think of the Christmas carol, "Silent Night." So, is this an "LE" translation from the original German? It really is FE but captures the meaning so well. Is this what is meant by "FE done right?"

At Sun Dec 23, 11:31:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...


The issue of inerrancy and translation is raised and dealt with in an interesting way in this post by ElShaddai Edwards. Note my comment.

Also, the translation of Stille Nacht isn’t without it’s problems, starting with the title which is more accurately Peaceful Night, or, in order to scan, Quiet Night. You can find a brief discussion of this point in the comments on a post of mine from Christmas last year. It’s most definitely not an FE! Here's a non-poetic, as-much-as-I-could-stand FE of the first verse which shows that the translator has taken GREAT liberties:

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
Quiet night! Holy night!

Alles schläft; einsam wacht
All sleep; Only the

Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
trusted, most holy couple watches solitarily.

Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,
Precious boy in curly hair,

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
sleep in heavenly peace!

If you want to know what it really means, here's a DE:

Quiet night! Holy night!
Everything is asleep except for the trusted, most holy couple, keeping their lonely watch.
Sleep a heavenly sleep, precious curly-haired boy!
Sleep a heavenly sleep!


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