The Power of the Footnote
T. C. Robinson reminds us how important footnotes are.
Footnotes are generally used for three purposes:
1. To offer additional information, such as a source the text might be quoting, or a similar passage.
2. To let the reader know that the translator is not sure what the original means.
3. To let the reader know that even though the original meaning is clear, the translator is not sure how to express that meaning in English.
Footnotes like (1) seem helpful, but only in some contexts. Sometimes too much information can detract from the power of a passage, and I can understand why some readers might not want these extra-information footnotes.
I think that a careful translator will let the reader know how much faith to have in a particular rendering, so footnotes like (2) can be very important. If the Greek or Hebrew really is inscrutable, I think the translator has an obligation to let the reader know. Still, sometimes the footnotes offer alternative meanings without giving the reader any further guidance. (I have a particularly egregious example here.) I’m not sure how helpful these are, particularly as some lay readers may want to make do with the experts’ best guess.
But I think a translation without footnotes like (3) is deceptive. If the translator knows what the original means, and knows that there’s no way to express it fully in English, why wouldn’t the translator use a footnote to make the full meaning clear?
Robinson suggests in a response to a comment that, “Some translations are so committed to a particular rendering that they don’t even want to consider an alternative rendering.” That would reduce the need for category (2) footnotes, but not category (3). Surely every translator must encounter Hebrew and Greek that can’t be nicely coerced into English.
What do you think? Is there a situation when you’d prefer not to have any footnotes?