God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Is a Book Report a Translation?

I recently criticized The Message for adding “all you see, all you don’t see” to its rendering of Genesis 1:1. Dannii responded:

If you think the Hebrew refers to the totally of God’s creative work, both the earth, the heaven(s), the underworld, the physical, the metaphysical, the spiritual, the holy and the demonic, then The Message conveys that quite well.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t make The Message a good translation. It makes it a nice elucidation (perhaps), or a nice commentary (perhaps), but I don’t think that explaining what the text refers to is the job of the translation.

This is not the only case of disagreement about how to use the word “translation.”

There’s a movement underfoot to create a “conservative translation” of the Bible. (The program has been widely mocked, but it’s for real, and a lot of serious people are involved.)

Similarly, a common theme among Bible translators is to decide a priori how complex the English should be. In the same thread in which I mentioned The Message, Dannii noted (correctly in my opinion) that that version is “is written in a low, conversational register” which “obscures the differences in genre and register between books and passages,” to which Peter Kirk added (also correctly in my opinion) that “most other English Bible translations are written in a consistently formal and high level register, marked all the more by the presence of obsolescent words and syntax,” so they do the same.

At issue, I think, is two different ways people use the word “translation.” When I use it, I mean an English rendition that as closely as possible captures the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic of the original.

Some people use the same word “translation” to mean any English publication that is based (closely enough?) on the original. So I would say that The Message is a paraphrase, not a translation, while they would say that it is translation that’s a paraphrase. Similarly, a conservatized or simplified or archaicized volume that means sort of what the Bible does might be, for them, a “translation.”

It’s not up to me to tell people how to use words, so they are free to keep using “translation” however they like. But I think it’s important to keep the difference clear.

I also wonder how close the English has to be to be called a “translation” even under the broader use of the word.

Can a book report be a translation?

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November 12, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. I think The Message should just be called Peterson’s Paraphrase. That would be more accurate and then people could enjoy its loose style under the heading of paraphrase without having to worry about translation accuracy.

    Comment by Cameron | November 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. I would say that work that claims to be based on a work in another language is a translation. If it is a bad or inaccurate translation, it is just that: a translation which is bad or inaccurate.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | November 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. I don’t think we should use either “paraphrase” or “translation” to comment on a text’s quality or virtues. They have technical meanings, and I’d prefer we left the words alone to keep those meanings.

    There are a whole lot of other good words we can use to describe texts less ambiguously.

    “but I don’t think that explaining what the text refers to is the job of the translation.”

    I agree, but I don’t agree that the Message is explaining the text in Gen 1:1 (though it might well do so in other places, one disadvantage of a single author being inconsistency, ironically. Or perhaps it’s the editing process.) I think a good translation is one that is as semantically equivalent as possible. The semantics of individual words matters, but the semantics of phrases matters more. If a phrase means more than the sum of its parts, translating the parts individually would be a mistake.

    Even if you did a book report on a foreign language book it generally wouldn’t be a translation, as your intention is not to bring the text to a new language, but to give your subjective opinion on it, possibility without discussing any of the text explicitly. However subject (and creative) translations are possible too, where the commentary is thoroughly interspersed with the text, like the feministic translations JK studies, and that “conservative” one too. While they have their place in their niche audiences, unashamedly subjective translation isn’t a good strategy for a general purpose Bible translation.

    Comment by Dannii | November 13, 2009 | Reply

  4. I don’t think we should use either “paraphrase” or “translation” to comment on a text’s quality or virtues. They have technical meanings, and I’d prefer we left the words alone to keep those meanings.

    I agree. I think there are both good and bad translations, as well as good and bad paraphrases. The Message is among the better paraphrases, in my opinion, but not among the better translations.

    As many people use the words, though, The Message’s is a good transltion because it is a good paraphrase. At this point, it’s hard to know if we’re agreeing with different words or disagreeing.

    I think a good translation is one that is as semantically equivalent as possible. The semantics of individual words matters, but the semantics of phrases matters more. If a phrase means more than the sum of its parts, translating the parts individually would be a mistake.

    I generally agree, but:

    I don’t agree that the Message is explaining the text in Gen 1:1 (though it might well do so in other places, one disadvantage of a single author being inconsistency, ironically. Or perhaps it’s the editing process.)

    here I disagree. My understanding of the Hebrew doesn’t support the additions in The Message, here in Gen 1:1, or, mostly, elsewhere.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 13, 2009 | Reply

    • “I agree. I think there are both good and bad translations, as well as good and bad paraphrases. The Message is among the better paraphrases, in my opinion, but not among the better translations.

      As many people use the words, though, The Message’s is a good transltion because it is a good paraphrase. At this point, it’s hard to know if we’re agreeing with different words or disagreeing.”

      We’re probably disagreeing. I refuse to call The Message a paraphrase because its source text is not English.

      Comment by Dannii | November 14, 2009 | Reply

  5. Joel, do you deny that the Hebrew words translated “the heavens and the earth” refer to everything in the universe? Or do you deny that the words in The Message “all you see, all you don’t see” have the same referent? If not, if the original and the translation (or paraphrase) have the same referent, I don’t see how you can insist that this is inaccurate translation. It may be an unnecessary addition, if every English speaker understands “the heavens and the earth” as referring to everything in the universe, but that doesn’t make it a distortion of the meaning of the text. On the other hand, if English speakers do NOT understand “the heavens and the earth” as referring to everything in the universe, it is that traditional rendering which is inaccurate and not a good translation.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | November 13, 2009 | Reply

  6. Peter,

    I think that “heaven and earth” has approximately the same referent as “all you see, all you don’t see,” but the same is true of the pair (well known from Greek philosophy) “human” and “featherless biped,” yet I don’t think the two phrases are equally felicitous as translation; where one is appropriate, the other is not.

    More generally, I think (and I think that you agree) that reference isn’t the only criterion of successful translation.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 13, 2009 | Reply

  7. Joel, the question we are discussing is not whether The Message is a felicitous or successful translation but whether it is one at all.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | November 13, 2009 | Reply

    • It sounds like this could mean one of two things.

      The first is whether the author intended for it to be a translation. I have no informed idea, and in the end I don’t think it matters much for what we’re trying to do.

      The second is whether it actually is a translation. And I’m not sure how you might distinguish between a really bad translation and a non-translation. Wouldn’t they both apply to the same thing?

      Going back to the notion of paraphrase, let’s suppose I’m right that shamayim va’aretz doesn’t mean “all you see, all you don’t see.” In that case The Message is both a paraphrase (as I use the word) and a bad translation (as I use the words). I think “paraphrase” is a kind of “bad translation,” one that happens to have other redeeming merits.

      Couldn’t any non-translation also be a bad translation?

      Comment by Joel H. | November 15, 2009 | Reply


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