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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Don't try to preserve verbal links in translation!

A poster on a private mailing list about Bible translation put forward an argument which was essentially that Bibles should be translated literally and concordantly in order to preserve the verbal links and word plays between different books, even between the Testaments. This is what I wrote in reply:

This reminds me of a talk I heard from an Islamic scholar arguing that the Qur'an is untranslatable, because of all the complex verbal links which cannot be preserved in translation. The complex links in Bible translation cannot all be preserved, and so if that is your standard we have to conclude that the Bible is untranslatable.

But as a counter-argument to that we see that the apostles used a Bible translation which didn't preserve the Hebrew verbal links, and Jesus' words are preserved for us in translation, with many verbal links doubtless lost and others speculatively reconstructed. So I think what this is teaching us is that these verbal links are of secondary importance.

Indeed I might provocatively suggest that they have been deliberately obscured in the process of God inspiring the New Testament to stop Christians getting involved in "disputing about words ... stupid, senseless controversies" (2 Timothy 2:14,23).


At Wed Jul 23, 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

Peter - I think we agree. Words cannot bear the concordant approach to meaning. Nevertheless, some structural elements are revealing - disputes aside. So don't try to preserve is too strong - better to say preserve if useful or 'significant' i.e. bearing a pointer to a centre or the like.

At Wed Jul 23, 01:06:00 PM, Blogger flute4jc said...

I agree. People who take the position that everything must be 100% word-for-word clearly have little or no literary understanding. Do they not realize that there are words in Spanish and French that are untranslatable? (i.e., "se" and "pas") It's inevitable: *something* is going to be lost in translation. There needs to be an understanding of Hebrew & Greek idioms, something the KJV translators failed at in certain obvious locations.

At Wed Jul 23, 02:16:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Bob, I agree with you. My post title is deliberately brief and slightly provocative. A more nuanced way to put it would be "Don't preserve verbal links in translation when doing so would make the translation otherwise unclear, unnatural or inaccurate". Preserving verbal links, when possible, is not a bad thing, but should be a distant fourth to the basic principles that a translation must be clear, accurate and natural.

At Thu Jul 24, 10:31:00 AM, Blogger solarblogger said...

The better argument I've seen on this topic was not about verbal links between different books or the Testaments, but within a book. Robert Alter's argument uses the Joseph story as an example. I would hope that a translator wouldn't set out to deliberately break the links within a story.

Talk of what a translation should do also depends on some assumptions that may differ from project to project. Is this the first translation into another language? Is it likely to be the only one? Or is the one in a long line of translations, with the intention of bringing out certain kinds of details? I would credit a translation for certain decisions in the latter case that I would condemn in the former ones.

I would also think that someone setting out to translate a stand-alone Psalter would have a different translation philosophy from a team translating the whole Bible.

At Thu Jul 24, 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Solarblogger, I agree with you and Alter that verbal links within a book or a particular story should be preserved where possible, especially when these are real thematic links as part of the semantic structure of the discourse, rather than possibly accidental use of the same word in different senses. The issue I had in mind was verbal links between unrelated books, and especially between the two Testaments, in which often the same word is used in rather different senses with no clear allusions.

Yes, of course the detailed translation philosophy depends on the audience. But I would not preserve all verbal links for any audience, except perhaps a scholarly one which should really be using the original language texts.

At Fri Jul 25, 09:43:00 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

well said


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