God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating and Improving the Bible

Joel Berkowitz (in Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage) writes of the hubris of Yiddish theaters that promoted Yiddish productions of Shakespeare that were “translated and improved.”*

Though we mock it now, I often think I see the same thing in Bible translations, in two related ways:

1. “Translators” want to make the general flavor of the text into something it never was, frequently either overly formal (NKJV, for example) or overly informal (GNB / TEV).

2. “Translators” want to explain not just what the text says, but what it “means.” Sometimes this takes the flavor of theological interpretation. Other times it comes from a desire to make an opaque text simple.

The second issue came up recently in a comment by Peter Kirk, who correctly points out that expanding on bara in Genesis 1:1 to specify details of creation that are absent from the original text “go[es] beyond what is necessary for translation […] into theological speculation.”

One criticism of translating sarx as “sinful nature” is that is, too, is a “translation and an improvement” in that it fills in details on which the original text is silent. (Another criticism is that it’s not what the text meant. But my point here is that even if it is what the text meant, it might not be the right translation.)

Similarly, it seems to me that “translators” who take gender-specific texts and make them generic are “translating and improving.” For that matter, taking a generic text and making it gendered is a mistake, though I think this reverse pattern usually happens by error — because the translators don’t understand gender in the original language as well as they think they do — not by design.

A case in point is “ancestors.” Let’s assume I’m right that the Hebrew avot means “ancestors.” How, then, should we translate “to your avot, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 1:9)? Even though the ancestors listed are all male, and even if the biblical culture was such that only the men counted (I don’t think it was — but let’s assume), I still don’t think “ancestors” should be changed to “fathers.”

A more radical case makes the reasoning clearer. If patir refers to God, I think it should still be translated as either “father” or “parent,” not as “God.”

The reason I put scare quotes around “translators” so many times here is that in my opinion translation is incompatible with deciding a priori what the content or style of the translation should be. You can (try to) improve the text, or you can translate it, but you can’t do both.

(*) By the way, though the “translated and improved” slogan is widely cited, I’ve been unable to confirm it. If you have a photo of the original, I’ll be most grateful to see it.

November 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On Translations for Poor Readers

Not long ago, I asked about the merit of tailoring translations to children. When I starting reading about the new CEB translation, and in particular that “[t]he new Bible translation would be pitched at 7th-8th grade reading level (compare 11th-12th grade reading level for the NRSV),” I started thinking about what children’s translations and poor-readers’ translations have in common.

Clearly some of the issues are different: Unlike children, adults with poor reading skills may still be able to understand the adult topics of the Bible. (Barrenness was one example I gave regarding children.) Reading skills may or may not correlate with aural comprehension. And so forth.

But in many ways the two questions are alike. Should poor readers be given the impression that it doesn’t take much to understand the Bible? Is there merit to teaching people that they will understand the Bible better if they learn to read better? Can the messages of the Bible be accurately conveyed in 7th-grade-level writing?

Does the Bible have an inherent reading level? (I think it must — though I think it varies from passage to passage.) And if so, isn’t the reading level of an accurate translation already determined by the original text?

November 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Translating Terms of Art

The English phrase “term of art” is nicely self-referential, because it is one. A “term of art” is a term — a word or a phrase — that is used technically in a narrow context. It usually has nothing to do with “art,” except in the now antiquated sense in which “law,” “science,” etc. are all “arts.”

In addition to their specific meanings, terms of art are generally frozen phrases. So, for example, “art term” doesn’t mean at all what “term of art” means (even though “art work” is a lot like “work of art”).

Terms of art create a double translation challenge (as, really, does everything that is to be translated). They have to be identified and understood, let’s say in Greek, and then rendered accurately in translation, say, in English.

As is frequently the case, an example from modern languages may help demonstrate the point. (I’ll use American English and Israeli Hebrew only because I happen to speak those two languages.) In English we have a phrase “third party,” as in, for example, “third party liability insurance.” In Hebrew, that’s called tzad gimel, literally, “side gimel,” (gimel is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet.)

(The “third party” is someone injured by the insured who is not a party to the insurance contract. The insured is the “first party” and the insurer is the “second party.”)

Translating tzad gimel into American English requires knowing something about the insurance industries in Israel and the U.S., in addition to a familiarity with the terms of art in the two languages.

These facts also mean that the Hebrew tzad should usually be translated “side,” but in certain narrow contexts, the only right translation is “party.”

In fact, tzad gimel is an easy case because English has a matching term of art.

What happens when the target language doesn’t have anything that matches the original?

I think that sarx and simeion are two good examples.

November 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory, Uncategorized | , , , , | 4 Comments