God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Translation and Explanation

In a recent discussion here, Paula asks about where the line is drawn between “translation” and what I called “explanation.” It’s a really important question.

I don’t think I have an answer in terms of definitions, but I have a few examples, starting with just English. (It’s helpful to look at English to English “translations” and related “explanations” because this takes some of the uncertainty out of the data and helps us focus on the theory.)

The English “sofa” and “couch” are so close in meaning that “sofa” seams like a reasonable “translation” for “couch.” By this I mean that if we had a word in a foreign language that meant “couch,” and we translated it into English as “sofa,” we’d be doing pretty well.

By contrast, “piece of furniture with that seats two to three people” is a fairly accurate description, or explanation, of “couch,” but it’s certainly not a translation. If we had a foreign-language word “couch,” my long phrase here doesn’t seem like it would be the right translation.

Similarly: “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.” Certainly part of the line’s charm is the rhyme and meter. I can’t think of another way of saying that in English that demonstrates the same rhyme and iambic tetrameter, so I can’t think of an English-to-English translation.

What are we to make of the following? “In my opinion, the asthetic beauty of nature is greater than that of human artifacts, and I choose to present my opinion in rhyming iambic tetrameter.” Surely that’s not a translation, but rather an explanation.

Moving away from just English and toward real translation, we might look at a discussion here about Matthew 12:10-12. The T-NIV translates anthropos in Matthew 12:10 as “man,” but in 12:12 as “person,” because the point of 12:12 is “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” However, that seems like an explanation in part, not a translation. The original text (“how much more valuable is a man…!”) specifically refers back to the man in need of healing in Matthew 12:10. The Message goes even further away from translation toward explanation: “Surely kindness to people is as legal as kindness to animals!”

In other words, Matthew 12:10-12 uses a parable that involves a man and a sheep to demonstrate a point (ultimately about the Sabbath, not about the value of people, as it happens). I think a translation should do the same thing: make the same overall and ancillary points using the same techniques. Anything else is explanation.

As a third and final example, we might consider the lyric beauty of almost any passage in Isaiah. Let’s take Isaiah 60:1. The Hebrew starts off with two verbs, kumi, from the root for “stand,” and ori, from the root for “light.” So most English translations begin, “Arise, shine….” So far, so good. But then we have a repetition of a word from the root for “light,” namely oreich, “your light.” Here English translations, however, substitute a new word (usually, “light”) rather than repeat “shine.” So where there is a repetition in Hebrew (“stand” … “light” … “light”), we find the poetry destroyed (“arise” … “shine” … “light”) in English.

This kind of error also strikes me as “explanation” instead of “translation.”


September 14, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments