God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Luck, Omens, and Other Bipolar Words

“Luck” is an interesting word in English, because people can have “good luck” or “bad luck,” but if they are “lucky” it only means “good luck.” That is, the word “luck” can refer to positive or negative things, but in order to mean something negative, it has to be qualified, either explicitly or by context.

“Omen” works pretty much the same way, except in the opposite direction, at least in my dialect. An “omen” is ominous and foreboding by default, but there are “good omens” as well as “bad omens.”

We learn at least two lessons from these observations.

First, it’s not hard to imagine a language that has words for “luck” and “omen” but whose default meanings are reversed. For convenience, we can call such a language English-B, and call the words luck-B and omen-B. The English-B phrase “good luck-B” should (probably) be translated “good luck” into English, and the English-B phrase “bad luck-B” should (again, probably) be “bad luck,” but what should be done with “luck-B”? Remember, in English-B it means “bad luck,” but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “bad luck-B.”

Secondly, we see more generally that words can have default meanings that can be overridden overtly or covertly by context.


October 5, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Formal Equivalence and Dynamic Equivalence: A False Dichotomy

The terms “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence” mask the fact that at least two distinct theoretical issues separate most translations:

1. what counts as “the same” in translation; and

2. how much text should be translated at a time.

Even though the two issues are not the same, they are related, and we find the following two general patterns:

By and large, “formal equivalence” translators work on the assumptions that: (1) “The same” means “the same meaning;” and (2) the realm of translation is the word. Accordingly, formal-equivalence translators try to find English words that mean the same thing as the original Hebrew or Greek ones.

“Dynamic equivalence” translators assume that: (1) “The same” means “the same affect;” and (2) the realm of translation is the phrase. So they try to find English phrases that produce the same affect as the original Hebrew or Greek.

For example, the Hebrew word ner meant “oil lamp” when the Bible was written. (We know it didn’t mean wax candle or electric lamp because they hadn’t been invented yet.) The formal equivalent of ner might therefore be “oil lamp,” while the dynamic equivalent might be “candle” or just “lamp.”

Similarly, the Hebrew words tarum karno (Psalm 89:24 and, in reverse order, Psalm 112:9) mean “will be high” and “his horn,” respectively. A word-for-word translation might be “his horn will be exalted” while a phrase-for-phrase translation might be “he will be triumphant.”

I think we would do well to stop using “dynamic equivalence” as the opposite of both “formal equivalence” and “word for word.”

October 5, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments