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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Is this faithful translation?

Proverbs 27:6 in several versions is worded as:
Faithful are the wounds of a friend
I suggest that the word "faithful" is not faithful translation because it is not faithful to the grammar of English. In English an animate, volitional being, such as a person or a horse, can be "faithful," but a wound cannot be. (UPDATE: The word "faithful" in this context means 'trusted'. We can trust friends when they tell us something that hurts us. A translation that is faithful is one that is accurate, true to the original, trustworthy. We can trust it.) Some English versions do translate this clause into grammatical English, including these:
Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts (NRSV)
The blows a friend gives are well meant (REB)
Translation requires that we be faithful both to source languages as well as target languages. Too many English Bible translations do not sufficiently follow the rules of English which have developed over many centuries by speakers and writers of English. As such, these translations are not faithful translations, at least not to the language they are being translated into. Good quality vibrant literary English can also be grammatical English used in English Bible versions.

Oh, that there be more Bible translation committees where the scholarship for quality English is as high as that for quality understanding of the biblical languages! Oh, that more Bible translation committees might receive training in Bible translation principles before beginning to translate the Bible into English. We require this of people translating into the so-called minority languages of the world. Surely speakers of the majority languages of the world are just as worthy of having their Bible translators trained in how to translate.

And that's what this blog is about, helping people understand how we can have better Bibles.

25 Comments:

At Fri Apr 25, 06:01:00 AM, Blogger Daniel Olson said...

It is an interesting point you are making, but who made the rule that "an inanimate entity cannot be" faithful? In that very sentence, you contradict the rule by using the word "faithful" to describe a translation, which is "an inanimate entity". If a translation can be faithful, why can't wounds be?

Does it really sound like better, "more grammatical", English to say, "Wounds can be trusted" than "Wounds are faithful"? In the translation "Faithful are the wounds of a friend", the wounds are an extension of the friend.

"Wounds are well meant" follows your rule better, but to me it is more sterile and waters down the meaning. I consider it a more boring, humdrum translation.

While I like your point about being concerned with having a faithful translation, I don't see how it works with this verse.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 07:51:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Daniel responded:

In that very sentence, you contradict the rule by using the word "faithful" to describe a translation, which is "an inanimate entity".

I wrote the post just before getting in bed for the night. When I was in bed I realized that I should have dealt with the exact issue you just raised. I'll deal with it now here and also add a bit to the post because it is so important.

The word "faithful" in this context means 'trusted'. We can trust friends when they tell us something that hurts us. A translation that is faithful is one that is accurate, true to the original, trustworthy. We can trust it.

If a translation can be faithful, why can't wounds be?

Excellent question. It has do with whether or not there is some standard of comparison to which the "faithful" entity is compared. A translation is faithful if it compares accurately to an original text. A person is faithful if they follow what is expected of them or what they say they are going to do. That is d standard for measuring faithfulness in people. But there is no standard for measuring wounds. We can imagine a scenario in medical school where students are placing wounds in cadavers, trying to copy the instructor's wound as closely as possible. A student's wound that is a very close in appearance to that of their instructor could be considered "faithful."

 
At Fri Apr 25, 08:15:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Daniel,
How clever to note how Wayne's sentence is not faithful to his "inanimate entity" rule. How about that spectacular geyser in in Yellowstone National Park, "Old Faithful"? "Are friends' wounds not inanimate?" is another question.

Wayne,
Does the geyser have a standard? Are there unfaithful young geysers to compare it to? But you're trying to stay in English, good English. I wonder if all your arguments couldn't also apply to the Hebrew. In other words, isn't the Proverbs writer / oral teacher trying to bend meanings? To be metaphorical? To be poetic?


I think an equally interesting question with Proverbs is not so much whether a single word accords with a particular (if rather strained) rule of English grammar in translation, but this:

"How does English even bother with the grammatical parallelism of the Hebrew?"

So how do the selected translations do?

"but profuse are the kisses of an enemy" -- is the NRSV retort

"but an enemy multiplies kisses" -- the (T)NIV trusts can be the come back

"but the kisses of an enemy are perfidious" -- is the well-meant antistrophe of REB

Robert Alter (in his translation of and commentary on the Psalms) says that "The predominant form of the line in biblical poetry is dyadic--that is, consisting of two parallel members or versets." And he invokes Benjamin "Hrushovski [who] calls the system 'semantic-syntactic-accentual parallelism.' That is to say, between the two halves of the line there may be some equivalence of meaning ('semantic')." And Alter has noted himself that "It is a constant challenge to turn ancient Hebrew poetry into English verse that is reasonably faithful to the original and yet readable as poetry."

NOT showing the parallels (the contrasts and the comparisons) is also bad English, I think. Why can't the English be verse, readable poetry?

(NB Poetry, in English, can violate lots of grammar rules! And still be good verse, good readable poetry. Sometimes poetry will even be bad, not instructive even, if it tries too hard to conform to rigid grammar of prose, and to be too propositional. The heart needs English as much as the head, maybe more.)

 
At Fri Apr 25, 09:08:00 AM, Blogger Dave said...

@ JK,

I think the standard the for the geyser is time.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk, Old Faithful is faithful because it could be trusted to spew on time. However, in recent years, it's not been so faithful. But the name still sticks.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 09:21:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk, the exceptions prove the rule. Poetic license proves the rules of English grammar. Remember, we don't make up the rules. We discover them. It's people who decide, as a social thing (language in relationship to a unified structure of a a theory of human behavior!), what patterns to follow in language.

If there were no such patterns in languages which people follow, we would not be able to communicate with each other.

Each time you bring up the exceptions, you're dealing with a straw man with regards to the point under consideration. Exceptions are important in their own right. But they are exceptions to *something*. That something are standards that people follow, *not* that are made up by English teachers or linguists or anyone else.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 09:53:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Dave & Wayne,
Yes, the standard for a faithful geyser is time, which makes Old a little redundant, exceptionally poetic. (So I was playing with the prosaic opposite for effect: young and unfaithful, as with some animate volitional beings).

Wayne,
My point is that proverbs are poetic. The Hebrew shows it; why can't the English? (And for the OT, poetry is the rule; same was true for the ancient Greeks until Plato). So you want the English to be faithful to the Hebrew (which is poetry); then you want that English to be faithful to prose standards. I am not bringing up the exception; you are.

So let me just assume with you for a moment that English prose must reign supreme, when it tries faithfully to translate ancient Hebrew poetry. I am still not convinced that your pattern is anything more than a set of your own exceptions to how most people use "faithful." Google shows on the world wide web these "inanimate unvolitional" things as "faithful":

citizenship, response, admonition, soles, reform, voice, teaching, digital reproduction, investment, ministry, narrative, telling, representation, promise.

Are these really just exceptions to the rule that an animate, volitional being, such as a person or a horse, can be "faithful"?

But you have side stepped the question about translating the whole of Proverbs 27:6. The second half is as important as the first. And the whole is more than the sum of its two parts. And the parts are reciprocal, mirroring, dialogging, paraphrasing, contrasting, catching the reader-listener both coming and going, turning. English can do that, can't it? Doesn't it? Don't we (without some appeal to the fixed observable nature of the pattern of the rule)? Isn't the context of the whole proverb the standard for which English versions are faithful?

 
At Fri Apr 25, 10:01:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

I'm new to this website. I'm an English speaker, but of native English English (does that make sense?).

An issue I have with translations, is that some hebraicism translated literally into English, is much more expressive than a more anglicised rendering, even though it doesn't sound like normal conversational English. This is less true of NT Greek, but is one of the reasons why some AV (KJV) phrases have become idiomatic. Other hebraicisms just sound ridiculous.

I'm not sure about 'faithful wounds', but on balance I don't think it is quite picturesque or clear enough to make the grade.

But to me, some translations which are excellent as translations, as English, sound wooden. And very often, a translation that is good for one Testament is bad for the other. In that respect, the RSV is a lot better than the NRSV. It and the NET Bible sometimes seem to have been glossed by a team with cloth ears.

Of modern translations, I find the REB is particularly good for the OT, and the GNB is particularly good on the epistles. Yes, I know its fairly dynamic, but I feel it is conveying the flavour of the meaning quite well. On the other hand, the Message is so far over on the dynamic dial that however readbale, I'm never sure how reliable it is.

Dru

 
At Fri Apr 25, 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk wrote:

My point is that proverbs are poetic. The Hebrew shows it; why can't the English?

The English can, Kurk. My post says nothing about that. My post is about one particular issue of lexical translation equivalence.

When the Hebrew is poetic, the English should be also. I have been saying this for years, including on this blog. We're on the same page, just a different post! :-)

 
At Fri Apr 25, 12:37:00 PM, Blogger Daniel Olson said...

Wayne said:

A translation that is faithful is one that is accurate, true to the original, trustworthy. We can trust it.

I think this is missing part of what is going on in the language when we say "faithful translation". The word faithful is a very personal word. It evokes (at least for me) the idea of loyalty in an intimate relationship. It works in the phrase "a faithful translation", however, only as an extension of the primary sense of the word. It is being used metaphorically and, I think, is stronger and more colorful than saying "accurate" or "true to the original" because of the primary sense.

Similarly, but less obviously, wounds can be faithful. It is because we don't normally think of wounds as being faithful or perfidious that it is interesting to describe them that way. Language that we love to read and listen to gets us to see the world in a new way. It wakes us up. We realize wounds are very personal. They don't just happen. They come about for personal reasons: our stupidity, an enemy's malice, a friend's carelessness, a friend's love. They continue to teach us after the event that caused the wound is over. I have a scar on my thumb that screams at me, whenever I pick up a chain saw, to be careful. I reply, "Thank you for the reminder."

Wayne said:

But there is no standard for measuring wounds.

I'm not sure faithfulness is something we can measure easily. How many units of faithfulness did Penelope have for being faithful during Odysseus' twenty year absence? How about Odysseus during those twenty years? I'm sure Penelope should get more units that Odysseus. If we have to measure, I guess the standard for measuring the faithfulness of wounds is the reason the wounds were caused.

I am ok with having "Faithful are the wounds of a friend" be translated differently, but I don't prefer a translation that waters down the imagery of loyalty and trustworthiness in a personal relationship with some weak phrase like "well meant".

 
At Fri Apr 25, 12:37:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

My post says nothing about that.

It's your subsequent comments below the post where you say these things.

Now I see your update (with its added point but the deleted TNIV/NIV example). Hmmm. Wayne, I actually like to be on the same page with you when possible.

Isn't your argument with prose syntax, not with animation or volition or "wound standards"? Isn't the issue that geyser-like "old faithful" English poetry syntax, which you sense somehow is no longer "faithful" because it doesn't conform to the prose sounds of contemporary English?

How do you like "Faithful are the friends who tell us something that hurts us"? OR "Faithful are the translations that are accurate and true to the original"? Do either of these sentences in my questions here "sufficiently follow the rules of English which have developed over many centuries by speakers and writers of English"?

On that "one particular issue of lexical translation equivalence," namely whether "the wounds of a friend" can be "faithful," which is better English when you consider Proverbs 27:6?

TNIV/NIV:
"Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses"

With that, the first verb is passive voice just to front "wounds"; and yet the second verb is active so that "kisses" can be the contrastive end. But the middle is slaughtered by English norms. "Trusted" is buried.

ESV, to follow the Hebrew syntax we presume has this English, which doesn't make up for "faithful wounds" at all; rather "profuse kisses" must surely to you be just as objectionable:

"Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy."

But the KJV/NKJV does play poetically a bit more, a lot better; there's English parallelism at the level of suffixes on the fronted and ending nouns; in the prepositional phrases; and with the chasimic syntax and its clear contrastive conjunction antistrophe. Whether that was poetic in the 1600s is not my problem; it sounds soundly poetic now.

"Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful."

But are these the only choices?

How about

"Faithful wounding is from your friend;
entreatful kissing is from your enemy."

Do my comments wound or kiss? Does that stick as a proverb? I'll ask you tomorrow.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 12:46:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

The word faithful is a very personal word. It evokes (at least for me)...

wounds can be faithful... that it is interesting to describe them that way... to read and listen... to see the world in a new way.
It wakes us up. We realize wounds are very personal.


That's what Daniel says. I was going to go for a late afternoon cup of coffee but don't have to now.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 01:02:00 PM, Blogger Daniel Olson said...

Kurk,

I hope it was the language and not all the faithful wounds flying around that stimulated you. :)

I liked your attempt a translation, especially the attention you paid to looking beyond the word level to the structure of the passage.
Much more constructive than my input.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 01:21:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I must say I like "Faithful are the wounds of a friend". As Daniel starts to hint, there is a metonymy here, at least in the English. The one who is literally faithful is the friend, and it is only by metonymy that the wounds he or she inflicts can be called faithful.

I wonder if there is a similar metonymy in the Hebrew, or if it was normal to use this word of wounds. Actually I can answer this with the help of BDB: the word here, ne'eman which is actually the niphal participle of 'aman, is used regularly in the Hebrew Bible of inanimate objects in senses like "made firm, sure, everlasting, confirmed, established, verified", but nowhere else of wounds. So perhaps in Hebrew we have less a metonymy, more an unusual sense of a word.

Nevertheless, I think the metonymy works well in English, at least for a reasonably well educated target audience.

 
At Fri Apr 25, 02:10:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Peter,
Your use of "metonymy" as descriptive of what Daniel's hinting at helps me very much.

Dru,
We've talked pass you all day. Sorry! And welcome to the conversation. You said "I'm not sure about 'faithful wounds', but on balance I don't think it is quite picturesque or clear enough to make the grade." In light of how the discussions gone along, would you now say more?

 
At Fri Apr 25, 03:06:00 PM, Blogger Daniel Olson said...

Dru said:

And very often, a translation that is good for one Testament is bad for the other... Of modern translations, I find the REB is particularly good for the OT, and the GNB is particularly good on the epistles.

This is a helpul observation. I am accustomed to evaluate a translation based on how it is overall and not more specifically how it does with the different genres of the bible. This allows me to have a different favorite translation for the law, the wisdom books, the prophets, etc.

 
At Sat Apr 26, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

I've been out all day and so have only been able to reply now.

Going back to the original question, I regret I prefer the rhythm of the original AV

"Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful"

to

"Faithful wounding is from your friend; entreatful kissing is from your enemy."

I don't think the issue though is with the rhythm; it's whether 'faithful' and 'wounds' go clearly enough together as meaning, or where the threshold is between a disjunction that is exciting and one that is just obscure.

A proverb should sound both memorable and pithy. Many of them do, which is why it's one of my favorite books. It's also why spoken language, particularly in more traditional speech communities, has so many of these phrases.

Some are obvious ' a stitch in time etc'. Others are more challenging. 'If you can't be straight, you can't be crooked'. We know what that means, even if looking at the words, it's not clear why.

If "Faithful are the wounds of a friend" transposes from Hebrew into English and retains that quality, then the translation should keep it. If it doesn't retain that quality, then one has to choose a more dynamic translation. But as it's part of a dyadic phrase, the other half has to be written with the same sort of rhythm.

thus, the REB,
"the blows..........a friend gives..........are.......... well meant.
but
the kisses..........of an enemy............are.......... perfidious."

The AV follows this principle and so does J K Gayle's suggestion.

Sometimes it may even be difficulties translating the second half of the phrase that forces a change on the way one translates the first.

I suppose what I'm getting at, is that for a translation to be 'faithful', in my view it is not enough for it to convey the actual meaning of the words. Most of the translations I prefer, at least make a serious attempt and are partially successful in capturing something of the register of the original.

But I still think most of them are better at some parts of the Bible than others. I think this is because they have an overall register that matches some parts better than others. The original NEB was always criticised for sounding too much like a University Common Room or a broadsheet editorial.

Register looks more important with the parts where the original is using the language in a less strictly utilitarian way. Yet I think it is equally confusing where a translation with a more literary register retains it for the parts where the original is less literary.


As a digression, but a relevant one, we assume that the writers of the Old Testament were first language speakers, whereas some at least of the writers of the New Testament were not. It's a great pity that none of us really know what Proverbs, Psalms, Prophets actually sounded or felt like to those who were hearing them in their own language. This is how we hear modern writers. We can still get quite a lot of this with Shakespeare, but Chaucer is too far away from English as she is spoke for us really to hear him as poetry.

I'd better stop there for the time being!

Dru

 
At Sun Apr 27, 02:34:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

We know what that means, even if looking at the words, it's not clear why.

That's one of the clearest statements in the conversation, Dru. Thanks for continuing it.

Your analysis is compelling as are your opinions here, especially about what you name as register. And I love your digression too.

Wayne, Would you agree with Dru?

 
At Sun Apr 27, 07:28:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk asked:

Wayne, Would you agree with Dru?

I would have to know what the meaning of "mean" is in the context in which Dru originally wrote it. (And my name is not Bill!)

 
At Mon Apr 28, 08:02:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne said:
"I would have to know what the meaning of 'mean' is in the context in which Dru originally wrote it."

So I wonder whether Wayne cares to ask Dru what Dru means. Or to examine the context. In most contexts, "Wounds of a friend can be trusted" says the TNIV. Funny, Wayne!

(One named Bill did say: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the—if he—if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing." His context was the trap of an unfriendly grand jury prosecutor or something?)

 
At Mon Apr 28, 09:27:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

What 'mean' means is if anything, more difficult than what 'faithful' means (see above). In the context, though, the sentence as a whole has an overall meaning which is different from the sum of the individual words.

It would depend both on ones skill as a translator and the idiom of the receiving language, whether if one translated the individual words into the receiving language, they would still carry the pithy message of the original or were just verbal nonsense.

Going back to the actual topic, I agree that 'the wounds of a friend can be trusted' is at least as odd as 'faithful are the wounds of a friend'. I also suspect that the REB's "well meant" is a bit polite, not strong enough.

Incidentally, Brenton's translation of the Septuagint adds extra 'grammar' which clarifies and by going for a different rhythm, still retains something of a proverbial quality.

"The wounds ..................of a friend
..................................are more to be trusted
..................................than
the spontaneous kisses...of an enemy."

The New Jerusalem Bible is
"Trustworthy..are...blows.........from a friend,
Deceitful.......are...kisses.........from a foe."

Which gives a nice alliteration of two froms, friend and foe.

Dru

 
At Mon Apr 28, 01:36:00 PM, Blogger solarblogger said...

I think that perhaps the wounds can be faithful in the same way that Old Faithful is faithful, by the measure of time. That is, the wounds of the friend come at the right time. They tell us something accurate. We've truly messed up. The kisses of a foe don't come at the right time to tell us anything worth knowing. We haven't done well. The foe wants something from us.

This may still fit with the metonymy idea. The friend is the one who is faithful here, in a more ordinary sense. But the wounds allow an accurate reading as well. (I like to think that the blows are verbal!)

 
At Tue Apr 29, 11:44:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

I can't help chuckling slightly about the idea of a friend who is commended because he or she can be guaranteed to hit you every 90 minutes.

But I think solarblogger is right that it isn't actually the wounds that are faithful, but the friend. This transposition of adjectives is normal idiomatic usage. In the other half of the line, it is really the enemy who is deceitful, rather than the kisses.

One can imagine a very pedestrian dynamic translation that wrote this out of their translation, but I think the point is that the wounds and the kisses transmit faithfulness and deceit respectively, despite the fact they ought to be doing the opposite.

Dru

 
At Wed Apr 30, 04:22:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

>Solarblogger,
Your comparison point with Old Faithful makes sense.

>Dru,
You contrastive points make sense too: "the wounds and the kisses transmit faithfulness and deceit respectively, despite the fact they ought to be doing the opposite."

This conversation reminds me of one not too long ago about the possible translations of ὑπώπια (hypOpia). Sometimes, we give too much agency, I think, "to the text" and not enough to our readerly positions and perspectives. Isn't it important to say (to ourselves) whether we're coming or going, whether we're reading sarcasm or irony or comparison or contrast? Does that mean we're doing violence to the text? Or might we be doing violence to the text if we mean to look at it with pretended cold objectivity and tell everybody else what one thing (or another) IT surely must mean?

 
At Wed Apr 30, 06:01:00 AM, Blogger Daniel Olson said...

I think Dru's conclusion is right when he said:
I think the point is that the wounds and the kisses transmit faithfulness and deceit respectively, despite the fact they ought to be doing the opposite.

But I'm not sure about these statements:
...it isn't actually the wounds that are faithful, but the friend... it is really the enemy who is deceitful, rather than the kisses.

The enemy is deceitful, but aren't the kisses themselves also deceitful? The friend is faithful, but isn't the act of wounding also faithful? It doesn't seem right to me to draw too sharp of a distinction between the enemy and the kisses; the friend and the wounds.

 

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