Saturday, September 08, 2012

Translation Theory Blog Post

Given that Bible translations are back in the news, I've given some thought to a blog post offering some introductory thoughts on translation differences and their importance.

1. We should give deep thanks to God for the translation of the Bible into English.

We are very blessed to have the Word of God in our language. Other languages do not (yet!) have this gift, and we must not take it for granted. 473 years ago William Tyndale was strangled then burned to death by the authorities for seeking to produce a vernacular Bible. Our disagreements over Bible translations should not obscure our gratitude for the gift of what we have. As John Piper notes:
I would rather have people read any translation of the Bible—no matter how weak—than to read no translation of the Bible. If there could be only one translation in English, I would rather it be my least favorite than that there be none. God uses every version to bless people and save people.
2. We should give deep thanks to God for those who have labored to translate the Bible into English.

We rarely stop to ponder the countless hours that scholars have labored to study the original languages and then worked in committee in order to produce the translations that we have today. We may disagree with their decisions here or there, or disagree across the board with the translation philosophy employed, but we must recognize that these men and women are seeking to glorify God and to serve Bible readers by aiming to reflect the original meaning and to connect with people today.

3. When viewing "translation continuum" charts, it is helpful to be aware of the how the issue is being framed and the philosophies defined.

It is instructive to notice what publishers are doing when they seek to present their understanding of how translations differ. If you're ever looking at a chart, you can discern almost instantly which publisher is behind it: their translation is always right in the middle, occupying the "golden mean," "the balanced, mediating position." This is not a criticism, but an observation that helps us see some of the subtle differences in understanding and presentation.

For example, the following diagram is from Zondervan's website (publisher of the NIV and the TNIV):

On the left-hand side you have "word for word" translations, represented on the extreme side by interlinears. On the right hand side you have "thought for thought" translations, represented by The Message. Right smack in the middle you have the NIV and TNIV, in that order. Note that the NLT is solidly on the "thought for thought" side of the continuum.

But Tyndale, the publisher of the NLT, has a somewhat similar continuum.

The difference is that the "thought for thought" category has moved to the center (golden mean; balanced, mediating position) and the extreme on the right (still The Message) is now labeled "paraphrase."

Another thing to notice is that the labels are apparently being defined differently. For Zondervan, the prototypical "word for word translation" is an interlinear, while for Tyndale it is the NASB. For Zondervan, the archetypal "thought for thought translation" is The Message, whereas Tyndale places the NLT in that category and puts The Message into the "paraphrase" category.

We should be cautious in how we use the word "literal."

I know many will disagree with me on this, but I think we should have a moratorium on the word "literal." It may have its place, but I think the word is fraught with potential misunderstanding. It is extremely commonplace for a preacher to say that term X is "literally" A. What we are seeking in interpretation is an author's communicative intention in using particular words in particular ways in particular contexts. A good lexicon provides readers with a range of words in the receptor language that correspond with, or denote, the term in the source language. But merely looking up term X in the lexicon and seeing the verbal equivalent A does not mean we should say that "X is literally A."

One fruitful way to understand the differences in translation is to identify the degree to which they seek to provide clarification.

Translation from one language to another requires a linguistic change: the grammatical form of the source language must be reworked and decoded into the receptor language.

The difference in translation philosophy and practice comes about, in part, based upon the degree to which the translators seek to go beyond this linguistic requirement in order to provide further clarification.

Remembering that we are speaking in terms of levels, not black-and-white absolutes, translation approaches differ on the following issues (and more):
  • the degree to which interpretive decisions are made for the reader, or left for the reader to decide
  • the degree to which ambiguities are resolved for the reader, or left for the reader to resolve
  • the degree to which implicit information is made explicit for the reader, or left implicit for the reader to discover
  • the degree to which images and figures are decoded for the reader, or left for the reader to interpret
  • the degree to which important repetitions of words are removed, or retained
  • the degree to which form and meaning are separated, or seen as essentially inseparable
  • the degree to which immediate intelligibility is seen as a high priority, or seen as less important than other matters
What is an essentially literal, or transparent, translation?

An “essential literal” or “transparent” translation seeks to minimize such clarifications as much as possible.

In 2001 Raymond Van Leeuwen, Professor of Biblical Studies Eastern College and one of the NLT translators, wrote an essay for Christianity Today arguing that “We Really Do Need Another Translation.” He advocated a "transparent translation":
A transparent translation conveys as much as possible of what was said, and how it was said, in as near word-for-word form as the target audience allows, though inevitably with some difference and imperfectly.

For serious study, readers need a translation that is more transparent to the "otherness" of Scripture. We need a translation that allows the Bible to say what it says, even if that seems strange and odd to readers at first glance.

. . . As a member of Christ's body and a Bible teacher, I am pleading for a type of translation that is more consistently transparent, so that the original shines through it to the extent permitted by the target language.

One example of this approach is seen in the translation of the image in 1 Kings 2:10, where David is said to be sleeping with his fathers (1 Kings 2:10). Alan Jacobs (Professor of English at Wheaton College and a prolific essayist and cultural critic) discussed this in his essay, “A Bible for Everyone (First Things, December 2003). He explained why it is crucial to know the difference between an idiom and a metaphor.
It is a distinction both simple and vital. It is highly unlikely that a Jew of David’s time, or at any time in Israel’s history, would have found a family member’s dead body and run to tell everyone that grandpa was now sleeping with his fathers. Hebrew has words to express quite directly that someone has died; the chronicler of Kings chooses here to eschew them in favor of a particularly hieratic and formal way of describing the death of David. When (in 2 Samuel 1) a man comes from the camp of Israel’s army to report to David, he says simply that Saul (along with his son Jonathan) has died. The deaths of Saul and Jonathan are given no cultural or political meaning, because by the time this history was written the people of Israel no longer identified Saul as having special importance for their national identity. David, by contrast, is for the Israelites their first true King, the head of a proper dynastic line; therefore he does not merely die, he “sleeps with his fathers” in Jerusalem, the “city of David.” The phrase is not an idiom—a common phrase lacking an evident literal meaning—instead, it is a carefully chosen image of David’s place in the culture of Israel.
By translating it “sleep with his fathers,” an essential literal or transparent translation recognizes that the form of the original is essential to communicate accurate meaning.

Dr. Van Leeuwen explains why it is important to let metaphors remain their “otherness” rather than turning than seeking to clarify the cognitive content in the translation:
Metaphors grab us and work on us and in us. . . . [I]t is the foreignness of metaphors that is their virtue. Metaphors make us stop and think, Now what does that mean? It is not clear to me that replacing metaphors with abstractions makes it easier for readers. . . . Metaphors are multifaceted and function to invoke active thought on the part of the receiver. Receivers must think and feel their way through a metaphor, and it is this very process that gives the metaphor its power to take hold of receivers as they take hold of it.
So Which Translation Approach Is Best?

Jack Collins, Professor of Old Testament and Department Chairman at Covenant Theological Seminary, served as the OT Editor for the ESV Translation. In his essay, “What the Reader Wants and the Translation Can Give: First John as a Test Case,” he writes:
We cannot answer the simple question, which is the best approach to translation? We must instead qualify it: best for what purpose? I have argued that the essentially literal translation, carefully defined, is the kind of translation that best suits the requirements for an ecclesiastical translation, and for family reading and study. This is because it allows the reader to listen in on the original act of communication, but refrains from “clarifying” based on what we think we know of the shared world and the illocutionary force; it also aims to provide a translation that preserves the full exegetical potential of the original, especially as it convey such things as text genre, style, and register, along with figurative language, interpretive ambiguities, and important repetitions. (p. 105)
I believe that Christian brothers and sister—whether professors, pastors, or people in the pew—can have good faith disagreements regarding translation philosophy. My intention here is not to denigrate other translations, but rather to provide further explanation for the translation approach behind the ESV.