The Challenges of Bible Translation: Part 2 of 2
Announcer:The last century has seen a drastic increase in number and style of Bible translations resulting in considerable debate over the benefits of literal versus non-literal translations. Thanks for joining us as we discuss the unique challenges facing Bible translators as they wrestle with the task of transferring words and ideas from one language to another. Part 2.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So what's the difference between formal and dynamic and what are you trying to decide. Audience is one factor. What else?
Dr. Robert Chisholm:Well to me, audience is everything. The purpose of translation is to communicate God's word to people who are unable to read Greek, Hebrew and a little bit of Aramaic and so we want them to be able to read God's word and understand it as it was intended to be understood so to me, audience is the key factor. Then you have to decide well, what age level are we shooting for?
I remember when I was in journalism school they told us to assume in writing news articles that the average reader out there is not at that high a level of understanding and so I think you have to make a conscious decision what age level are we shooting for and I would think junior high. I would like someone to be able to understand the translation if they are in seventh or eighth grade. I would like them to be able to understand clearly what the Bible is saying and not be confused and so that is one of the reasons why we do translations and I think it is impossible to do a purely formal or literal translation and I can illustrate that.
Darrell:We'll come back to that in a second because I think that's an interesting point. So that means then when you come to do your translation, you face the choice of the audience. The second choice that you face is, is this formal dynamic difference between am I going to stay, if I can say it this way, stay as close to the expression of the original language as I can which is formal equivalence or am I really going to try and put it in the most natural sense, in the target language and bring out the meaning, the ambiguities of the text, what the text really means which pushes us more in the direction of dynamic equivalence. So you really have got, to think of a grid, you've got your audience concern here, you have got your formal and dynamic equivalence level here, so when you actually go to choose a word in a particular passage, you've got to decide is that word too complex for my audience? Is that word a good reflection of the original or is there a better word that actually brings out the sense of the passage. All those things happen in any single choice. It makes translation work very difficult, doesn't it?
Robert:Yes and you are not dealing just with words, that's not the way language words, words in isolation. A lot of those who promote formal or very wooden, I say literal translations, they are just dealing with language at a word-for-word level end with really if you do that you will end up with an inner linear, something of that nature. You are not dealing with words. You are dealing with phrases, sentences, discourse structures. English is different than Hebrew.
Robert: And so I am looking at Hebrew and I'm trying to figure out what these words mean, what these phrases mean in their context.
Robert:Idioms and then trying to figure out what is the best way to say that in my target language to my target audience which in my way of thinking would probably be junior high level.
Darrell:Now you've suggested this already but let's press it a little bit. No one is a complete formalist in translation. Is that a fair statement?
Robert: No way. Would you like me to illustrate what a pure formal translation would look like?
Darrell: You look so you are so ready to do this so if I delay it any longer we might have problems so I don't want any issues.
Robert: I am going to give you a purely formal word-for-word translation of Psalm 16:3 in the Hebrew text.
Robert:"To the holy ones who are in the land they and the mighty ones of all my desire in them" and that's an especially difficult passage in Psalm 16 but there are others like it. Psalm 73:9 and 10, this is an interesting one and when you read the translations of these texts in any translation, it's going to look like it is understandable. That's because the translator has made many, many decisions in order to bring some kind of sense out of it, but when you look at what actually is there in the text. Here is Psalm 73 nine and 10 in the Hebrew text, "They set in the heavens their mouth and their tongue walks in the earth." We've got walking tongues here.
Robert: Verse 10.
Therefore, he will return or he will bring back [there's ancient Jewish scribal variation there) his people here and waters of fullness will be sucked up by them." Okay.
As a translator I have to really get into all the words and phrases find out what idioms will be involved and I might even have to go with some textual decisions where I will go with some alternate readings that are represented in the Septuigiant. In difficult poetic passages in the Old Testament sometimes I need to reconstruct what the original meaning may have looked like so it's a very difficult task especially in poetry but even in prose you can't go according to a purely format word-for-word type of translation. Here is Ruth 4:11 and 12 literal, wooden, formal, "and they said all the people who were in the gate and the elders witnesses may the Lord give the women the one coming to your house like Rachel and like Leah who built the two of them the house of Israel and do strength in Ephrathah and call a name in Bethlehem and may your house be like the house of Perez whom she bore Tamar to Judah from the seed which he will give the Lord to you from a young woman the this."
I'm simply trying to illustrate the Hebrew idiom, word order all of these things are different and so we have to figure out okay what's happening lexically, syntactically, what's going on here in the target text and then bring it over to the target language in a way that it is understandable so that everyone engages in interpretation at some level in order to be able to translate.
Darrell:Even after you've done that, once you decide what all the pieces are to make the thing fit together in that sense then you have got the choice within the English language of which particular words you are going to render and it makes all the difference in the world whether you are talking about trying to do a Bible for an under 12 audience or a regular translation because you are going to have multiple synonyms which you can choose from potentially in the target language and you have to ask yourself which one of these does the best job of telling us what the passage is really saying.
Mark Yarbrough:And from one language to another, you are talking about basic issues of verbs and nouns and the placement of those because as you are reading those and you are listening to a very static rendering of the text, as you relay that into English, it slaughters the English language.
Robert: Yes I always tell my students the NASB and I am not picking on it.
Mark: Sure. Sure.
Robert:That really does not reflect English the way anyone speaks English. It is an attempt to be rather wooden. No one speaks that way. There is a lot of jargon, religious jargon that comes in, in translations, but we struggle with some basic issues and the English language changes so quickly and there are other issues that come up. Very often, when someone wants to champion a literal translation what that often means is they are taking the primary meaning of the word that is listed in the dictionary and they are insisting on translating that word that way, every time.
A good example is Genesis 4:13 where Cain, after the Lord told him what his punishment would be he said "My sin is too great for me to bear." He uses the Hebrew word "avon" the primary meaning of which is sin in equity. But, when you go to a dictionary and you study the use of that Hebrew word, you discover that that word can sometimes mean guilt. There is a clear connection there. We can it metonymy. There is a substitution. Sin produces guilt. So, sometimes when they really mean guilt, our concept of guilt, they'll still use that word, "avon", for sin. The word can also mean punishment.
So, if you sin, that makes you guilty. While if you're guilty, sometimes you get punished. And, so that word can have any of those nuances depending on the context. So, sometimes, someone who is proposing a literal translation, would say, well, I think it should be translated "My sin is too much for me to bear." What does that mean? Think about what is sin? Is sin some kind of a burden that you are carrying? It is too heavy for you to bear? The statement doesn't really mean anything.
If you look at in context, he is using the word "avon" in the sense of punishment. The Lord has just dished out his punishment, and he doesn't like it. He thinks it is too severe. So why not translate it in a way that communicates that? My punishment is too much for me to bear.
You get into the same problem with metaphors. For the Psalmist, he might say "The Lord is my shield." No problem. We are familiar with shields. We know what a shield's function is, to protect one. But what about when he says, "The Lord is my rock." He uses the Hebrew word "tsur". The Lord is my rock. Ok. What does that mean? The Lord is like something I can pick up and throw at somebody? The Lord is like a boulder who is in my way. What does that mean? What idea does it convey?
Well, if you study the use of the term in the Old Testament, I think what the Psalmist is saying is "The Lord is my rock cliff." Well, for an English reader, that would maybe suggest that He is something I have to climb. He is inaccessible. Or what does that mean? Dangerous. I don't want to be on a rocky cliff. What it is reflecting, He is a rock cliff in the sense that He is a place where you can go to get away from your enemies. You'll be relatively safe. You'll be up high and inaccessible.
So, to just translate "The Lord is my rock" and not interpret the metaphor, I think is not going to communicate to an English reader. Because there is a potential for all kinds of misunderstandings of rock means. So, at that point as a translator, I think you almost have to interpret the metaphor and just say "The Lord is my protector." Or something like that, unless you have a study bible with a lot of notes where you can translate the metaphor "The Lord is my rocky cliff." Then, in the note explain what that means.
Darrell:And so, what you've done is to defend why we have slightly more dynamic kinds of translations which are really bringing out the force of the expression. As opposed to the literal, let's say it this way, lexical term that you might more naturally translate a particular word as being.
Dr. Hall Harris:But, there is an underlying issue here that we ought to underscore for the benefit of people who don't work in translation. Anybody who knows a second language, any modern language as a second language, realizes that when you go from one language to another, you are always making these kinds of decisions. It is not a one for one substitution, where this word gets substituted for this word in the other language. And so the idea that you can simply take a Hebrew or Greek word and look it up in a Hebrew-English or Greek-English dictionary and perform a substitution with an English word is really a misunderstanding of the process of translation. Because even if you going to say my goal is to produce a literal or word for word translation, you might run into the problem, and in fact will all over the place, that this Hebrew word when you look it up in the Hebrew-English dictionary, has three or four or 10 or 15 different English equivalents. So, which one of those are you going to pick? That is where it becomes really difficult.
To give another example, the Greek word, "logos," which is one of the more well-known Greek words in The New Testament, which is often translated "word." As in John's Gospel, which opens, "In the beginning was the logos." "In the beginning was the word." If you look that up in the unabridged Greek-English lexicon, Liddel Scott, Jones McKenzie, you will find that there are over 50 English equivalents for that one Greek word. Message, report, thing, matter, situation, word, speech. You know, I could go on and on. That is the problem. So, even saying I am going to do a very literal translation doesn't get you out of the woods. You actually still have all these issues you have to contend with.
Mark:You have an issue also of the types of languages. When I taught Greek, I use to use this one just as a model, and say, you have languages that are built on inflection. In one word in English, you have to use two words because person is implied in the verb. And, you would use that and so you can't do word for word because you would totally miss what is being used there.
Let me ask you another question about this issue of a literal interpretation. In defense of many folks who constantly throw that type of terminology around. There are philosophy issues at stake here. And I'm not being totally stereotypical here, I don't think. But what is often at stake when someone is wanting to defend a literal interpretation, I think there is something more that is going on here. We would all, sitting at this table here, want to defend the truth of the Word of God. And, that The Word of God does not change. Is that a little bit of what is going on with some folks that would talk about a literal interpretation. Is that an issue that they are trying to defend?
Darrell:And along side that, I think I would ask, what is the value of the more formal equivalent? I mean, part of what we are talking about here is a spectrum. You have a spectrum for reason. So what is the value of a more formal equivalent interpretation?
Robert:Well, I think in the communication process, people are afraid of the human interpretive factor. Translators have to interpret, and I think some feel they need to limit that interpretive element as much as possible to stay closer to what God really said. But, I think fundamentally, that's a misunderstanding of how communication works, and what God intends to accomplish through communication. If you just try to translate, I wouldn't even call it translation, the Greek or Hebrew text at a very wooden or literal level, then there is not any interpretation involved in that.
So, in other words, people are going to read an interpretation and leave the interpretation up to the preacher or the commentary writer or someone like that. Just give me the Word of God, pure and simple. But, I think that is what they are afraid of.
Hall:But that goes back to my earlier comment about the problem you have even at that level is that when you look up a Hebrew or Greek word in a dictionary and you find you have to pick between two, three, four, five, or 50 different English equivalents. There is interpretation going on even at that level.
Mark: So, by the very definition of communication, interpretation is implied.
Hall: It's implied in the process.
Robert:You can't run from it. The receiver the receptor is always going to have to interpret what someone else says. It is the nature of communication.
Hall:And, I want to throw out, Darrell, you asked the question a moment ago. What good is there in the more formal translations? There are a few things in their favor. Not to make it sound as if it's one sided. One of the things is, traditionally, these things are viewed as more helpful for study bibles. You have a little bit better chance of tracing through a topic or a concept if you are staying a little bit closer to the word-for-word rendering than if you're being a little bit more paraphrastic. Because those similarities may be completely obscured. That is what some people will say about the advantage of this more.
The other advantage, if it is an advantage, and I happen to think that what we are striving for here is a balance to be truthful. If you go all the way to the other end of the scale and do a dynamic equivalent or paraphrase, you end up with a translation that sounds as if everybody in the Bible from Adam to Moses to Abraham to Isaiah to Jesus to Paul-they all speak the same language. It's as if they are all speaking contemporary English. And so you kind of smooth over some of the individual style of the individual biblical authors.
You even everything out on the same playing field and you also lose this sense of what I guess I will call for lack of a better term, because there is no technical term for this, a sense of "otherness" or "foreignness" that I am dealing with a foreign language. I am dealing with a foreign culture. This culture is not the same, this 21st century Western culture and so, I personally feel to hit that balance, you need to have a little bit of the individual author's style and unique expression and a little bit of the "otherness" but not so much that you can't understand clearly what's going on.
Now a few years back, I was on a translation panel in Toronto, Canada, that discussed several of these options and ranges and I made a famous illustration which I am going to repeat here and that is the character Yoda from Star Wars.
"Understand Yoda perfectly well you can even if natural English speak he does not." [laughter] Now didn't all of you understand what I said? But that's not standard normal English.
Hall:That's not the way you or I would speak English to one other. We can understand it because there is a little bit of shifting going on. They moved the subjects and verbs and direct objects around. It's a word order thing and the human mind some languages work like that. Greek has different word order. Hebrew has different. German and French have different word order than English. The human mind can process all of it. So, you've got a little bit of otherness and foreignness in there just to remind you this is not 21st century American culture I am dealing with but not so much that it becomes a hindrance to the average reader understanding what's going on. I will tell you in all the experience that I have that is an extremely difficult and hard task to get that balance right and that is one of the reasons why I think we have this huge range of English translations because there are different takes on this by lots of other people and they are aiming at lots of different audiences and all other sorts of things..
Mark: Whoever would have thought that Yoda would have brought such clarity.
Darrell:I think another way to think about this as you think about translations they really are a benefit to a person who is more technically trained to deal with the ambiguities that a translation produces, if you render it more formally. For example, your idioms, your rock example is a good one. Okay, this translates and if you were giving a quiz on how to translate, you say God is a rock you wouldn't flunk the student for translating it that way.
It would be a perfectly good translation. But if you are asking what does it mean, then the next step is to go through the interpretive process of determining what does "rock" mean when it is used in this kind of a context. You took us through that process. Dynamic equivalence will render it in such a way that, that ambiguity is lost and a choice is made and the danger that can sometimes happen in that is if the translators have not made the right choice, you've lost the ability to determine what the text is really saying and a lot of debates about I think dynamic equivalence are really complaints about the choices that the translator at the dynamic equivalent level has made.
Hall:I agree completely the more dynamic you get, the more paraphrased you get, the more decisions you are letting the translate make and you are raising that level for some people of ambiguity and the fact that the translator may or may not have gotten it right in this particular instance.
Darrell:So a dynamic equivalence will be of some help to someone who-"just tell me what it means. I just want to know what it means." But in that process you have obscured more decisions that have been made by the translator and so the benefit on the one hand is to the person who may not have a lot of background. I think this explains why The Living Bible was so popular when it first came out. People could understand it. I can understand the Bible now. I know what it says. It left the impression that you knew what it was saying, with that the danger in the move it might not actually be saying that.
Whereas, the problem with the formal equivalence is you might be getting an acceptable translation but people were reading it and going I still don't know what it means so you are hung. So by getting a balance, the translator takes on the burden of rendering the text but trying to remove enough ambiguity so that the target reader in the target language, the target audience is able to really appreciate what the word of God is saying. I think that is the ultimate goal of translation.
Hall:Let me add an important note here for the benefit of people who are listening who are trained in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and are reading the originals. "What do I make of all of this and how do I deal with it," I think there are a couple of things that can be said. There are basically a couple of approaches. One, don't lock yourself into one translation. Read several different English translations and at least you are getting the spectrum or range of some of these decisions the translators are making for you. The other way to handle it is to have a Bible that as extensive notes that explain to you it takes one translation in some cases perhaps more formal and in other cases perhaps more paraphrased or dynamic but it give you in the notes the range of options that are actually out there and shows you the process by which the translators made their choices and decisions. Now that's the tact the NET Bible has taken is to have an understandable, readable translation but include in the extensive notes, the other alternatives and options so that you are not locked into only one.
Mark: Wouldn't you say that is the feature of the Net Bible?
Mark:Not just the accuracy of the translation itself but to walk through the mind as best as possible of the translator and many of the decisions that were in the backdrop of why those decisions are made.
Hall:It's like you are able to look over the translators shoulder as he or she is working on the text and see what is going through their mind as they make those decisions.
Mark:In most English translations you might have a couple of options may have a box saying, "may also be translated," and you look at that and you see it, "Okay." In the NET Bible you are saying with the extensive notes you are seeing some of that backdrop.
Hall:Yes, for many of the difficult passages, you are laying out actual different alternatives that are effected by all sorts of decisions, including the grammar, the context and other issues and looking at what led the translators and editors to make their choices the way they did. So those are two ways of handling it. I think they both are effective. You can read one of these parallel column translations or you can look at the NET Bible or look at the notes and see.
Darrell:This is helpful because I think we have generated a lot of discussion. I am talking about the Church community at large on these issues and to actually get into the guts if I can say it that way of what translation work evolves I hope leaves an impression with people of how complex translation work is. This is paraphrase of the saying I think I heard it somewhere that every translator is both a liar and a truth teller and that's dealing with the ambiguities that a translator is always having to dealing with and the judgments they are having to make.
I thank you all for being with us today and for taking the time to do this and Mark why don't you close us.
Mark:Lord, thank you so much for today and we thank you for your great cause. Thank you for you word that is transforming our lives through the power of your Son, Jesus. It's a great privilege to be students of your words and to be recipients of that and to take it to those that need to hear your word faithfully. We ask that you would help us to do that. Again, we just thank you for this time together and ask that it will benefit many in the midst of a wonderful discussion. We thank you for this in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
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