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Thursday, March 13, 2008

What do we want from our translation?

This semester I’m co-teaching a seminar (actually a practicum) on lexicography for endangered languages. Twenty some odd years ago I published an extensive dictionary of the Ottawa and Eastern dialects of Ojibwe (a.k.a. Chippewa). It’s what got me my job here at Berkeley.

In this seminar we talk a lot about what dictionaries are supposed to look like. To a large extent that depends on a combination of the purpose of the dictionary and the audience expected to use it.

And also it depends on the preferences and prejudices of the author.

The other professor co-teaching this practicum is a classicist and historical linguist by training. He got involved in work with California native languages after he came to the Berkeley department. But he still retains his historical and classicist leanings, often chaffing at the low level of scholarship in the field of linguistics. (Sad, but true, and Chomsky only made an already bad situation worse.) When the discussion a few weeks ago turned to how you list glosses in a dictionary, he articulated his preference for having the more literal glosses first, ones that make it easy to see the word parts of the original, even in those cases where native speakers only notice those meanings when prodded.

So for the Yurok(1) word kwegeru'r (< kweruhl ‘snout, long nose’) he prefers:
kwegeru'r n ‘any long-nosed entity; esp. pig, hog’
where I would suggest:
kwegeru'r n ‘pig, hog; or more generally any long-nosed entity’
To a certain extent this is a matter of taste. Both entries carry the same information. But my experience with average dictionary users is that there is a difference, and it’s quite an important one.

Linguists have the patience to work all the way through an entry, however it is structured, to find what they want. But if you don’t put the most relevant information right up at the front of the entry, you’ll lose the ordinary user. The obsolete, but still widely used, Thayer Greek Lexicon provides a good example.
περι-πατέω, -ῶ ; impf. 2 pers. sing. περιπάτεις, 3 pers. περιπάτει, plur. περιπάτουν, fut. περιπατήσω, 1 aor. περι-επάτησα; plupf. 3 pers. sing. περιεπεπατήκει (Acts xiv. 8 Rec.elz), and without the augm. (cf. W. § 12,9 ; [B. 33 (29)]) περιπεπατήκει (ibid. Grsb.) ; Sept, for הַַַָָָלַך; to walk; [walk about A. V. 1. Pet. v. 8]; a. prop. (as in Arstph., Xen., Plat, Isocr., Joseph., Ael., al.): absol., Mt. ix. &; xi. 5; xv. 31; Mk. ii. 9 [Tdf. ὕαγε]; v. 42; viii. 24 xvi. 12; Lk. v. 23; vii. 22; xxiv. 17; Jn. i. 36 v. 8 sq. 11 sq.; xi. 9 sq. ; Acts iii. 6, 8 sq. 12; xiv. 8, 10; 1 Pet. v. 8 ; Rev. ix. 20 ; i. q. to make one’s way, make progress, in fig. disc. equiv. to to make a due use of opportunities, Jn. xii. 35. with additions : περιπ. γυμνός, Rev. xvi. 15; ἐπάνω (τινός), Lk. xi. 44 ; διά w. gen. of the thing,
and so on.
I think there’s an important lesson here for the translation debate. Bible readers can be looked at like dictionary users. Some are very sophisticated and will tolerate a lot to find out what the text means. But that’s not the ordinary Bible reader. How much are we to treat ordinary Bible users like specialists? The literal translations (which, by the way, aren’t nearly as literal as we like to think) might have a place as study Bibles for the serious Bible student, just like dictionaries structured for linguists. But what about the ordinary Bible reader?

Romans 10:17 says
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (ESV)
So the witness of Scripture is that the primary thing we need from our Bible is to hear God in it.

Notice that it does not say
Faith comes from studying ...
Study Bibles are fine but we need a Bible that doesn’t stand in the way of our hearing.

There is a prominent member of our church who recites Scripture from memory. I’m not talking about a verse or two. He can recite entire passages, even whole books, from memory. On occasion he is called upon to do so as the Scripture reading.

The effect is astounding.

Even though he’s not a particularly good actor, his presentation of Scripture reaches places in your spirit that does just what Rom. 10:17 says. You hear it and you believe it. Your faith is built up. The added dimension of putting together a whole passage with natural speech rhythms and intonation overcomes unnatural wordings in the text. And that’s great for such performances, but why can’t we have a Bible that duplicates that experience when we do our daily reading? one that sounds so natural that it touches our spirit directly?

(1) Yurok is spoken by about 70 people along the westernmost stretch of the Klamath River in Northern California. More information about the tribe is available here.


At Thu Mar 13, 12:27:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

interesting post - as a lexicon browser, I appreciate how hard it is to get to the end of a complex list of locations and abbreviations!

One point: you cite ... 'hearing through the word of Christ.' and then you explain ... 'So the witness of Scripture is that the primary thing we need from our Bible is to hear God in it.'

Does 'the word of Christ' necessarily imply a written word or an oral performance of a written word? I don't think so. These will encourage the hearing but they do not determine it. And while the Bible is the canonical witness and pointer, we need to hear in our lives not 'in it'.

How do I hear in my life? - certainly memorization and performance are important and therefore the shape of the translation is vital, but the memorization takes effect as hearing when the Lord himself brings his word to the ears of our memory and we respond in the obedience of faith (hearing and doing are one in this case).

At Thu Mar 13, 01:40:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

What do you debaters on lexicography think about how our technologies are changing things, especially for the non-specialist "ordinary" readers?

I'm thinking of these tools:

1) online dictionaries and concordances, as per Tom Cobb's Chris Greaves's, and Marlise Horst's article in which they show that consulting a dictionary for an adult learner of French isn't what it used to be.

2) works similarly for the adult learners of English we work with. The context guesses with the computer as to what the reader might be looking for (whether a dictionary entry or some other data). And the readers can hear the word pronounced, can see it acted out in an ASL video, can find the stuff of thesauri, or can find the word translated. Just in seconds.

3. Similarly, for the impatient-instant and visual learners, there's the Visual Thesaurus or the search engine

4. Corpus linguistics and linguists working in the subfield of language study are keen on frequency patterning by common language users (or even by specialists, such as academics).

Will dictionaries as we know them be obsolete soon enough? Will they go the way of the encyclopedia set and the encyclopedia sales person? (Will we ever be able to get rid of telephone books and telephone numbers --yellow pages vs. white pages vs. business pages, all with different arrangements-- that so clutter my house and create landfill or recycling problems?) I sure hope so!

Hooray to you and your colleagues for work with the Ojibwe peoples!!

At Thu Mar 13, 01:57:00 PM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

Thanks, Rich, for an enlightening post. It's curious though, that since we are not much of an oral culture, we must study a text in order to reproduce it orally in a fluent manner.

At Thu Mar 13, 02:21:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Bob said:

"Does 'the word of Christ' necessarily imply a written word or an oral performance of a written word? I don't think so."

I think you hit the nail on the head, Bob. This is probably a metaphorical hearing, a deeper reaction, as in the empathetic use:

"I hear you."

But it is worth noting that even those of us who are deeply enmeshed in written words still tend to react more deeply to those words when we hear them out loud.

I posted a few months ago about a very familiar passage that had a strange wording in the NRSV. Having read it in that translation many times, I passed over it as unremarkable until I had to read it aloud. When I heard what I was reading, I noticed that something wasn't right. Physical hearing was key.

So I think there is something important in the first level communication in words and especially in physically hearing those words as well.

At Thu Mar 13, 02:33:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

We lexicographers think A LOT about what web-based technologies can do for us. (Have you seen Wayne's Cheyenne dictionary?)

Yesterday in the seminar we were half-jokingly saying that it is probably possible to put together an exhaustive dictionary that has a single, giant, linked entry such that when you click on any word you see in the part of the entry on display, it shows another piece of the entry in a way that makes it look like the word you clicked on is the new headword. This has all sorts of possibilities for dealing with MWU's (multi-word units) which are the one piece that dictionaries have historically been the worst at reflecting.

However, this discussion is a bit away from Bible translation. I was just using the difference in dictionaries and dictionary users to highlight an aspect of the FE - DE debate.

At Thu Mar 13, 02:48:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne's Cheyenne-English dictionary is cool.

More to the point of Bible translation and aspects of the FE - DE debate, then. Isn't instant access to Greek and Hebrew texts, and to a plethora of corresponding translations, and to digital audio Bibles, and to movies with the Bible as the script just revolutionizing how we ordinary people "read" it? I listen to the Bible Experience on my daily commute and "get" it in entirely new ways. But I do find myself resisting certain actors' readings as less natural than I imagine the text. My problem is I'm way too aware of language and am distracted by it even. If Jesus didn't speak British English (sorry Peter Kirk et al) in the Gospel of John, then I might hear him better there on the film too.

Is my question about your thoughts on these (multi)media transpositions too far afield from your points on the FE - DE debate?

At Thu Mar 13, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger tc said...

As I noted on my blog, there are three things I look for in a translation: Readability, Cultural Revelance, and Consistency.

At Thu Mar 13, 03:04:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

I have for years wondered about what Biblical languages sounded like. There was scholarship in the 1950's and 60's which helped sort out Classical Latin and Greek (through Koine) (Kind of an echo of the Neo-grammarian revolution 100 years later.) The missing piece has been things like speech rhythm and intonation. We tend to be fooled by the fact that the Latin and Greek traditions are handed down to us by Oxford dons working in the shadow of Edwardian tradition. We tend to think of it as fairly emotionless and staid. Some years ago Geoff Nunberg commented on this on Fresh Air in connection with the release of an album of Elvis songs sung in Latin. (I looked but the piece isn't available on the web anymore.)

For me the wake up call was when I was watching the movie Mediterraneo years ago. I realized that all those Romans had been Italians after all and that they probably ran around yelling at one another and interrupting. I got a flash of what Cicero must have sounded like delivering his speeches in Catalinam. (Think Tony Soprano.)

Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia?

How long will you abuse our patience, Cataline? How long will that madness of yours mock us? Just when will your unbridled audacity end?

I'll bet the farm that Greek was like that too. And Aramaic, which must have sounded a whole lot more like Arabic than modern Chaldean. Ditto Tiberian Hebrew vs. Modern Israeli Hebrew. (Shame on you, Mr. Gibson, for your watered down performance of language and the absence of Greek when you had a real opportunity to portray a realistic Levantine culture. So what if it would sound to us like Arabs yelling all the time. I'm sure you could have found plenty of actors who can pronounce pharyngeals.)

At Thu Mar 13, 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kurk, you don't mean to say Jesus wasn't a perfect gentleman who spoke British English with a BBC accent? Did my junior school teachers deceive me on that?

Rich, which of the characters in the Passion of the Christ do you think would actually have spoken Greek in the context? I accept that the ordinary soldiers might have been Greek rather than Latin speaking, but we really don't know. The Jews surely would not have spoken Greek among themselves. Would Pilate have spoken Greek with the Jewish leaders? Maybe, but again we are guessing. So I don't think we can really fault Gibson on this one. But you may have a point on the lack of pharyngeals.

At Thu Mar 13, 05:49:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

On the contrary, there is a lot of evidence that the language of contact throughout the eastern empire was Greek and that even ordinary speakers of other languages (like Matthew, Mark, Peter, John, and Jesus) spoke Greek, at least functionally. I've argued elsewhere (in my work on language spread) that Jesus' interrogation by Pilate was in Greek.

It's all but certain that the Jewish authorities spoke Greek with the Roman officials. The only Latin spoken was between Italians and there may well have been Gallic speakers in the legion who would have spoken Gallic with one another, Latin with Italians, and Greek with the locals. (The legion in Palestine at the time was the 6th Ferrata, originally a Gallish legion when formed in 58 BC, but by the time it is stationed in Palestine, it had been reformed, so it's unclear if it contained Gallic or Latin speakers. Read a summary of it's history here.)


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