Tuesday, April 19, 2005

On Bible Translations

Tonight, I happen to be blogging because a child has kept me up, so you get the short version now. Maybe I'll develop this later. In his book The Word of God in English, Leland Ryken makes a compelling case for "essentially literal" translations of the Bible. One point (among many) is his argument that translation and interpretation are two different activities which need to be kept distinct. Therefore, he argues that dynamic equivalent versions of the Bible are harmful because they add interpretive elements to the text. He agrees that interpretation needs to happen, but he asserts that this is the job of an expositor (like, say, a pastor), not a translator. This sparked a thought. Exposition and interpretation of the Scriptures happens in a communal context, as the saints of God work together to understand the text that they have been given. Could the rise of dynamic equivalent translations be, in part, a result of the decline of the interpretive community of the Church? If I'm all alone as a Christian (either in reality or de facto), then how can I understand the Bible? Maybe I can pay Zondervan to do it for me.... It's a half-formed thought, I know, but it's late, so that's what you get. So there.


Blogger james3v1 said...

HEY! Next time you link to a PDF instead of an HTML document give us some warning, ok? :0)

4/19/2005 04:20:00 PM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

Oh, by the way, everyone, that link is to a PDF.

4/19/2005 07:46:00 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hi! It's Ben, from the Forge.

I'm really not sure whether or not I should post this.

Interpretation can be done without translation, but I'm highly skeptical of the idea that translation can be done without interpretation. Languages are fundamentally different from each other. One may have a word which is ambiguous in another, and grammar and sentence structures allow you to convey a meaning which is fundamentally unreachable in another language.

An example:

青, spelt qing in Latin characters, is a Chinese color word. It means the color qing, which is often translated blue-green. But some shades that we would call definitely blue are also qing, and some shades that we would call definitely green are also qing. Further, not all shades that we would call blue, green, or blue-green are qing. Further, sometimes it is used for shades that we would call white or black. Chinese also has words for "blue" and "green," mind you, and the distinction to a native speaker between these and qing is clear as day.

Now, one can learn the language, and this word, and develop an instinct for what is colored qing. But it is not possible to render into English without making some sort of interpretation about what English color-word it should correspond to in this case. Sometimes, it is obvious (a qing sky is probably blue in English) but other times it is not (a qing dress could be described as blue, green, blue-green, white, or black. Which would it have been originally? How can we say?)

If you take any two languages, and take upon yourself the task of translation from one to the other, there will be words and grammars and sentences structures that simply do not correspond. The majority of language will, of course, be overlapping, because people's lives are pretty similar throughout the world. But there are still these lacunas, and translators have no other options but to interpret around them.

(Tone is, of course, a whole nother matter. One of the old Chinese words for "wife" is 妻子, qizi, the first character of which implies a domestic servant. So modern Chinese prefer to use other terms, like 爱人,beloved. Translating this directly into English makes them sound really stilted, which is not the case in the original language.)

Now, one could ask that translators attempt to interpret as little as possible. And that would be fair, but interpretation is still going on.

There are also, of course, special cases involving the Bible.

One could argue that God authored the text strictly in terms of human universals, so that all the people of the Earth could understand His word. This doesn't seem to me to be a reasonable case -- it is clear that certain concepts in the Bible simply have not translated well, like the "horn of the unicorn" mistake, which was "horn of the ox" in Hebrew.

One could also argue that, with divine inspiration, a biblical translator could get directly at the intent of God's message in whatever language the translator was moving the work into -- consulting the original author, essentially. This is certainly a possibility, but it is still essentially interpretation -- divinely inspired interpretation -- but interpretation nonetheless.

So, essentially, I disagree with the concept of a "direct" translation except between the closest of languages (like between French and Italian.)

Your actual point, that understanding is best done in the context of a community of the faithful, is really interesting...


P.S. What I would really like to see in terms of translation, especially translations of spiritual texts, is work which shows you all the different possible ways of saying the translated text in English. Because it really does say one thing, but sometimes that cannot be expressed in our language. Seeing all the different statements and realizing that they are, in some way, equivalent, would be I think a gateway to understanding at a greater-than-language level, something more spiritual and intuitive and true.

6/03/2005 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

Hey, Ben. Welcome to my blog!

When you say "Now, one could ask that translators attempt to interpret as little as possible. And that would be fair, but interpretation is still going on." I actually agree, and so would Ryken. I've read completely literal translations of portions of the Bible, and while they are interesting to get a feel for the rhythm of the thoughts of the original language, they do not read well in English as English.

However, Ryken's concern is that interpretation needs to be kept to a minimum, and then only to attempt to render the original meaning as close as is possible in English. To use your example, the translator should do his best to figure out if "qing" in this context is blue, green, or some other shade. What he should *not* do is decide that the author's original concern in writing "qing" is irrelevant and choose a rendering that is close to the meaning, like saying that the sky was a "pleasant color". That has stepped beyond translating (with its necessary interpretations) into the realm of full-blown interpretation.

I will immediately concede that the line can sometimes be fuzzy.

Also, you mention that you do not think that the Bible was written in human universals, and I agree. The Bible was written at particular times in the language of the time. In fact, this is a specific principle of Biblical hermeneutics (the "grammatical-historical principle") which is perilous to ignore.

Now, I find it interesting that you'd like to see a translation which shows all the different possible renderings. There is such a beast, called the Amplified Bible. However, I would disagree that there is a need to transcend language. God has chosen to reveal Himself through language. The language isn't the barrier; it is the conduit. This is why Christianity holds the Bible in such high esteem.

At the same time, we deny that we can come to know God through unaided mind power. Something spiritual is needed. Thus Christianity teaches that God the Spirit is the Teacher of all the faithful, the One Who enlightens the hearts of those who believe. Without the Spirit, could there be any way to know the God Who transcends all time and space? Certainly not.

Now, I'm curious what you found interesting about my comments about the interpretive community of the faithful. Care to enlighten me?

Oh, and thanks for posting!

(Also, while I'm thinking about it, I'd be interested in seeing a copy of Polaris. Email me at greatwolf at gmail dot com.)

6/03/2005 04:07:00 PM  

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