God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

It’s often pointed out that actually knowing more than one language is helpful for intuiting how translation works. But I think many of the same intuitions can come from thinking about just one language. Here are two examples from English:

1. Jim West recently wrote that “Bob Cargill has penned” something. What role does “pen” play in that phrase? In a language that can’t make nouns into verbs the way English does, should the translation be the equivalent of “wrote with a pen” or just “wrote”? What about “dialed [a phone]”? What about “top of the hour” for a society that has no physical clocks (or just digital ones!)?

Jim qualified his opening line: “Bob Cargill has penned (I know, it’s an anachronism since he typed and didn’t pen at all)….” In that broader context, is “pen” a crucial element of the phrase that needs to be translated?

2. “Sofa” and “couch” mean almost exactly the same thing. But a “couch potato” isn’t a “sofa potato.” (For non-English speakers: A “couch potato” is someone who’s lazy, especially someone who lazes on a couch or sofa, and especially someone who does so to watch television.) What goes wrong if “sofa” and “couch” get mixed up? How can we know when the two words are interchangeable and when they’re not?

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November 15, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , ,

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